Meat eating and ignorance

2008-01-20

in Politics, The environment

Sails at Canada Place

Here is an ethical argument I have been pondering recently:

  1. Most people, if forced to witness the entire process through which a piece of meat is produced, would choose not to eat the meat.
  2. Some people are never put off by this because it never occurs to them to think about, or they have a notion of where meat comes from that is quite at odds with reality.
  3. Some people are aware of where most of our meat really comes from, but choose to ignore this because they want to eat meat anyhow.
  4. Therefore, meat eating in our society is usually the product of true ignorance or wilful ignorance.

I can only see two responses to this argument: questioning the first point or saying that the conclusion is true but unimportant. You could argue that we find the way in which animals are raised and slaughtered unappealing simply because we aren’t used to it. We don’t generally visit factory farms or abattoirs. We rarely even go to butchers with recognizable animals on display. Arguably, we are simply queasy at an unfamiliar sight, rather than genuinely morally repulsed.

That counter-argument has strength, to a degree. I think it can be applied pretty effectively in the case of a meat production chain that doesn’t require large amount of animal suffering and isn’t worrisomely unhygenic. As I have argued before, however, the industrial meat system is both. I maintain that most people forced to sit in a jury on the question – presented with evidence and arguments on both sides – would conclude that considerable animal suffering occurs in the production of the meat people eat, and that factory farming is profoundly unhygienic from the perspective of the animals, those who eat their meat, and the environment as a whole.

So what about the argument that meat eating is ignorant, but that this doesn’t matter? Perhaps it isn’t wrong to act on the basis of ignorance. While true ignorance seems more defensible than the wilful sort, we cannot automatically assume that it is wrong to act on the basis of misinformation, or even intentionally suppress information we feel will inhibit our actions. Alternatively, a utilitarian might say that the net utility of meat eating is greater than that of vegetarianism or veganism – though that becomes a lot harder to argue if the utility of the animals is considered as well. People dead-set upon arguing the appropriateness of eating meat will be able to find a detour around this argument that suits them well enough for them to dismiss it. For those a bit more open-minded from the outset, I think it creates relatively profound problems.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

tristan January 20, 2008 at 1:46 pm

The problem with this argument is that it can be applied to almost anything. If you show people how electricity is produced, if you show them how any of the goods sold in Chinatown are produced, and most goods sold in expensive stores aswell. If you show them that globalization largely means flooding poor countries with the subsidized food from first world countries.

The point is, the world is awash with structures that we participate in everyday which are insane, and you are right to say there are two, or three options. You can be ignorant, you can be willfully ignorant (Leonard Cohen thinks no one is the first kind – that “everybody knows”), or you can choose to withdraw.

Withdrawal is more problematic than you think. For example, if everyone stopped flying and purchasing goods which are the product of obviously immoral structures, we would be in a recession faster than the national post can ridicule the NDP for ignoring “Pure economic theory”. This would be, in general, a painful and maybe “evil” thing – lots of people would lose their jobs (for example, everyone in the airline industry, everyone with a home business selling imported goods in Chinatown. Definitely everyone who works at the stupid “night market” in Richmond).

Why do you think it was so important that after 9/11 all the news anchors showed off that they had been shopping?

For meat production, I don’t see how it is different. You have to consume so other people can have jobs. Now of course you don’t have don’t have to consume everything, you don’t have to buy the national post for example (and you shouldn’t because its just drivel about how great it is to ship raw logs across the border), and the economy probably won’t collapse.

But, I’m just trying to make the case that if ethical claims are meant to be universal, and I don’t think they make sense any other way, it becomes very problematic to say people have a duty not to be willfully ignorant of the horrors of meat production. Because if people did as they ought in this case and in others, it will have seemed like they oughtn’t have done that, because it caused economic collapse.

So, all I’m saying is that there are conflicts between duties, and no duties apply absolutely because they all cross over and interfere with others, at least some of the time.

Milan January 20, 2008 at 1:52 pm

Withdrawal is more problematic than you think. For example, if everyone stopped flying and purchasing goods which are the product of obviously immoral structures, we would be in a recession faster than the national post can ridicule the NDP for ignoring “Pure economic theory”.

A recession of GDP, yes, but GDP is just a very rough proxy for utility. Getting rid of externalities can create utility gains at the same time as it reduces nominal GDP. In the end, it’s not the size of our economy that matters, it’s the degree to which our preferences are satisfied.

Rob January 21, 2008 at 8:23 am

This is a really bad argument, as Tristan points out. For one thing, it conflates the subjectively unpleasant and the immoral. There are plenty of things I do not want to see or know about which I do not think are immoral or in some way wrong. There is nothing wrong with and probably much good about my wilful ignorance of my parents’ sex life, of which I am the result. Further, I am not required to ensure that all processes which I willingly participate in are morally perfect or even do not involve rights-violations. That’s just too costly to demand of people. And don’t even get me started on the thought that preference satisfaction is what matters. I currently have a preference that anyone who thinks preference satisfaction matters should be soundly boxed round the ears until they come to their senses. I trust you don’t think it’s morally significant that gets satisfied.

Milan January 21, 2008 at 12:32 pm

Rob,

This is a really bad argument, as Tristan points out.

I don’t think Tristan points out anything of the kind. He argues that similar arguments could be applied to other issues – hardly a form of disproof. The fact that not eating meat might cost some people their jobs doesn’t have a great deal of moral relevance. While their interests count in the utilitarian reckoning, a desire to maintain the present composition of the workforce, through the continuation of admittedly immoral things, seems secondary in importance to addressing the wrongs themselves.

You are right that the unpleasant and the immoral are different, and we may be justified in treating some unpleasant things with a policy of intentional ignorance (parental sex lives are a good example of this). That said, I maintain that many people – presented with the reality of industrial meat production – would find aspects of it morally unacceptable. For those people, the choice to keep eating meat is the product of ignorance.

Anon January 21, 2008 at 12:38 pm

The numbered elements of the argument above make no direct moral claims at all, they just suggest (pretty convincingly) that most people eat meat out of ignorance. The question of whether or not it is moral to do so is independent and disputed.

Mica Prazak January 21, 2008 at 5:37 pm

“Therefore, meat eating in our society is usually the product of true ignorance or wilful ignorance. ”

Milan, I agree with the others. This is a really poor argument. It is also an unfair one. As you know, most of my life, I have enjoyed meat. But as you also know, I have gone for very long periods of time being a complete vegetarian, even Vegan at a point. I choose to do those out of interest, not for the sake of animal rights.

Mankind would have never survived in its infancy, without the meat of animals. Scientists I interact with at UBC, claim that early men would not have evolved into Homo Sapiens without the assistance of animal meat. And I am certain our ancient ancestors did not consider the animals well being while the animal was being slaughtered. They must have been ignorant too.

To say we are ignorant to eat meat is silly. I’m a vegetarian, and I think anyone is entitled to eat meat.

“The problem with this argument is that it can be applied to almost anything.” (Tristan also makes a good point.)

Milan January 21, 2008 at 9:35 pm

Mankind would have never survived in its infancy, without the meat of animals.

I make no claims with respect to this. It suffices to say that we can survive perfectly well without eating animals now.

And I am certain our ancient ancestors did not consider the animals well being while the animal was being slaughtered. They must have been ignorant too.

This, again, I claim no special knowledge about. That said, it seems plausible that our ancestors had greater respect for the animals dying on their behalf. They certainly had lesser means for raising and killing so many in degrading conditions.

They must have been ignorant too.

In many senses, our ancestors were extremely ignorant. This does pertain to our evaluation of their conduct as moral or immoral, but it hardly allows us to do what they did without making our own judgements.

To say we are ignorant to eat meat is silly. I’m a vegetarian, and I think anyone is entitled to eat meat.

I didn’t say that people aren’t entitled to eat meat. I said that most do so in ignorance of where their meat comes from and, if they knew that better, most would think twice about their actions.

Regarding Tristan’s point, I don’t see how one goes from saying “We are ignorant about the consequences of many of our actions” to saying “Therefore, we should not care about any of them.” I agree with him that there are other aspects of our behaviour and society that bear consideration, I do not agree that this exempts meat eating from such consideration.

. January 23, 2008 at 10:32 am

Care about the environment? Eat less meat

Then there are the dreaded V-words: vegetarian and vegan. Few politicians or environmentalists want to face the jokes, media backlash and libertarian “consumer freedom” zealots who will accuse them of forcing Canadians to eat only salad and lentils. The same sort of people who fought against mandatory seatbelts and restrictions on tobacco would shift their public relations and spin machines into high gear.

Yet all the IPCC is asking for is a reduction in meat consumption. A recent study in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet called for a 10-per-cent cut in meat consumption, which it said would slow global warming considerably. It would also slow the growth of factory farming, which is alarming animal welfarists around the world. Global demand for meat is projected to double between 2001 and 2050, meaning billions more animals will be raised in intensive, inhumane conditions. While many animal activists are “abolitionists” and want a meat-free world, others would welcome anything that would put the brakes on a trend that is resulting in animal suffering on a mind-boggling scale. For example, the international farm-animal welfare organization Compassion in World Farming is calling for meat consumption and production in developed countries to be cut by a third by 2020. This would mean someone who eats meat every day would cut back to eating meat five days a week — not exactly a hardship.

Encouraging the public to cut back on meat would also have major health benefits. The World Cancer Research Fund recently urged consumers to limit consumption of red meat to 500 grams per week and to avoid processed meats completely. (Vegetarians and vegans figured out the health advantages of a meatless diet long ago. That’s why they have lower rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, hypertension and other diseases.)

DS January 28, 2008 at 9:47 pm

For the record, I’m con bestiality (and very much pro cunnilingus). I think fucking dogs is wrong, wrong, wrong. But I had pork and beef and chicken at dinner last night—all 100 percent factory-farmed meat, derived from animals that were cruelly tortured every second of their brief and miserable existence—and my particular strain of Tourette’s syndrome commands me to say this: If I were an animal, I’d much rather be screwed than stewed. We murder animals for their flesh, skins, fur, and just for the fuck of it. Those of us that eat meat; wear fur; run around in leather pants, jackets, shoes, restraints, etc.; and kill animals for sport don’t have much moral authority when it comes time to lecture those of you who wanna smooch the pooch.

. January 31, 2008 at 1:32 pm

Meat Company Fires 2 Over Cruelty to Livestock

California-based slaughterhouse Hallmark Meat Packing fired two employees yesterday following revelations that the facility used inhumane and what seem to be illegal methods to get sick cows to pass federal inspection.

The slaughterhouse and its owner, owned by Westland Meat Co., are major suppliers of beef to the Agriculture Department’s school lunch program.

Video footage released yesterday shows workers at the slaughterhouse repeatedly violating anti-cruelty and food safety rules by electrically shocking cows too sick or weak to stand on their own, using forklifts to roll cows on the ground in an effort to get them to stand up, and shooting high-intensity water sprays up their noses.

The footage was taken by an undercover investigator for the Humane Society of the United States and is evidence the USDA inspection and enforcement of the rules need enhancement, officials with the group said

. February 11, 2008 at 5:05 pm
Anonymous February 13, 2008 at 12:53 pm

Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans … are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit.

. February 13, 2008 at 12:54 pm

I Love You, but You Love Meat

SOME relationships run aground on the perilous shoals of money, sex or religion. When Shauna James’s new romance hit the rocks, the culprit was wheat.

“I went out with one guy who said I seemed really great but he liked bread too much to date me,” said Ms. James, 41, a writer in Seattle who cannot eat gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.

Sharing meals has always been an important courtship ritual and a metaphor for love. But in an age when many people define themselves by what they will eat and what they won’t, dietary differences can put a strain on a romantic relationship. The culinary camps have become so balkanized that some factions consider interdietary dating taboo.

. April 7, 2008 at 12:23 pm

Hezbollah Tofu
A Bourdain-Veganizing Collective

Charlie April 8, 2008 at 11:45 pm
. May 9, 2008 at 1:45 pm

Meatless Like MeI may be a vegetarian, but I still love the smell of bacon
By Taylor Clark
Posted Wednesday, May 7, 2008, at 11:51 AM ET

I tell this story not to win your pity but to illustrate a point: I’ve been vegetarian for a decade, and when it comes up, I still get a look of confused horror that says, “But you seemed so … normal.” The U.S. boasts more than 10 million herbivores today, yet most Americans assume that every last one is a loopy, self-satisfied health fanatic, hellbent on draining all the joy out of life. Those of us who want to avoid the social nightmare have to hide our vegetarianism like an Oxycontin addiction, because admit it, omnivores: You know nothing about us. Do we eat fish? Will we panic if confronted with a hamburger? Are we dying of malnutrition? You have no clue. So read on, my flesh-eating friends—I believe it’s high time we cleared a few things up.

tristan August 6, 2008 at 1:05 pm

“A recession of GDP, yes, but GDP is just a very rough proxy for utility. Getting rid of externalities can create utility gains at the same time as it reduces nominal GDP. In the end, it’s not the size of our economy that matters, it’s the degree to which our preferences are satisfied.”

This is a very true claim. However, the basic requirements for utility (food, shelter) are included in nominal GDP, so a drastic blow to it would conceivably inhibit both measured and unmeasured utility.

. October 14, 2008 at 12:56 pm

The F.D.A. should require that every packaged-food product include a second calorie count, indicating how many calories of fossil fuel went into its production. Oil is one of the most important ingredients in our food, and people ought to know just how much of it they’re eating. The government should also throw its support behind putting a second bar code on all food products that, when scanned either in the store or at home (or with a cellphone), brings up on a screen the whole story and pictures of how that product was produced: in the case of crops, images of the farm and lists of agrochemicals used in its production; in the case of meat and dairy, descriptions of the animals’ diet and drug regimen, as well as live video feeds of the CAFO where they live and, yes, the slaughterhouse where they die. The very length and complexity of the modern food chain breeds a culture of ignorance and indifference among eaters. Shortening the food chain is one way to create more conscious consumers, but deploying technology to pierce the veil is another.

. June 22, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Factory farms get the ultimate handout

Posted 1:17 PM on 19 Jun 2009
by Meredith Niles

Since the beginning of climate change legislation this session in Congress it has been clear that big agriculture would not be a part of a cap and trade program. Yet, while the Waxman Markey bill has been making its way through Congress, the EPA has also been pushing forward its own agenda of climate related regulations, including the mandatory reporting of GHG emissions from factory farms. Yet, yesterday the House Appropriations Committee undermined this progressive proposed regulation by passing the 2010 Interior and Environment spending bill. An amendment in the bill will prevent the EPA from requiring factory farms to report their GHG emissions—a move that represents a blatant handout to large factory farms.

While climate legislation stalls through Congress, the EPA proposed rule aims to establish at least the basis for regulating GHG emissions- knowing how many we produce and where they come from. Two weeks ago the comment period ended for the Proposed Mandatory GHG Reporting Rule, which would require American industries to report their GHG emissions, over a threshold of 25,000 tons. Among the highlights of the proposed rule was the requirement that manure management be considered a reporting category. As such, large scale concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) more commonly known as factory farms, would be required to report their emissions if they reached the 25,000 ton threshold. According to the EPA the number of CAFOs in the U.S. that reached this amount was only around 50 of the largest, most intensive facilities in the country.

. October 17, 2009 at 2:56 pm
. November 9, 2010 at 4:24 pm

Factory farmers in Israel stumped by animal rights activists’ well-hidden webcam

A group of animal rights activists seeking to draw awareness to the cruelty of battery hen farming operations have hidden a webcam in a factory farm in Israel. The result: a live webstream that shows these animals confined in conditions that would widely be regarded as inhumane, and gross. The factory farm managers haven’t been able to locate the cam.

. January 25, 2012 at 12:19 pm

Back to the chickens. What about the fact that we simply don’t treat them very nicely, even when we’re not turning them into feathered gladiators? All it takes is one viewing of “Food, Inc.” or a similar documentary to see that most male chicks are chucked into a shredder before they can see the light of day, and that the majority of hens are bred to be so fat they can’t walk. Companies like Tyson and Perdue have a stranglehold on the chicken industry, mandating that farmers keep their poultry in smelly, dark houses so packed with animals that many are crushed to death by the weight of their own kind. Even the lucky 1 percent, free range chickens, are headed for our dinner tables. What’s so bad about raising a rooster to fight to the death, especially when the ones found still alive at busted cockfights are often euthanized anyway?

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