By: Nathan Davis
Dear reader, let’s start from what I hope we share: a sense of compassion and a concomitant desire to mitigate the suffering with which our mortal coil is suffused. If you feel neither, then I’m afraid our conversation ends there. If, however, you feel both (that is, if you are not a psychopath), then let’s treat such feelings as first principles and see where they lead us.
What is “suffering”? Perhaps we can agree that it is difficult to define but that, at least in the case of physical suffering, we know it when we see it. We can see when a human is in pain, and if we choose to cultivate compassion, we can train ourselves to see pain with better and clearer eyes. What about nonhuman animals? Anyone who has spent any time at all around dogs, cats, or other mammals has seen them become injured, sick, or neglected and knows that they can and do suffer. Indeed, animal cruelty laws are a codified acknowledgment of this suffering. And, as with human suffering, if you take the practice of compassion seriously, you can develop within yourself a better sense of the myriad ways in which nonhuman animals are made to suffer in our world.
Among the most severe and extended varieties of agony to be endured is that of factory farms, in which beings capable of suffering are confined, mutilated, and deprived of any semblance of physical comfort for the purpose of producing cheap food. Leaving aside even the question of whether it is ethically appropriate for humans to cause the deaths of nonhuman animals, I ask: Is it ethically appropriate to cause nonhuman animals to suffer in this manner? The answer to this question, I think, hinges on another question: Is it within our individual or collective capacity to mitigate such suffering without inflicting similar or worse harm upon ourselves?
Let’s explore the harm that would result to us as individuals and as a civilization if we were to make a commitment to not participate in factory farming. One approach to such a commitment is to go vegetarian (as I have done). Another approach is forswearing the consumption of any animal products produced in a manner that causes unnecessary suffering to the objects of our consumption. This latter approach could be accomplished by knowing your farmer directly (one of the primary aims of food sovereignty, which I strongly support), or else by only doing business with those farms which have publicly and verifiably committed to treating their animals well. This means paying more for food, but it also means eating healthier and participating in a more localized economy that is better for the people around you. It means declining to eat meat in a restaurant that cannot verify its supply chain. It also probably means, in the final analysis, eating less meat.
What harm would result from eating less meat? Aside from those relatively few people whose health prevents them from doing so, the answer is: the harm of the absence of the sensory pleasure associated with eating lots of meat. How does this harm weigh against the experience of a sow whose life is spent in cycles of forced pregnancy confined in a tiny pen of metal bars and concrete floors? I think there is only one honest answer to that question.
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Issue 42, Page 1
Issue 42, Page 2