In my review of A.L. Kennedy’s stellar On Bullfighting (click here) I mentioned a hypocrisy of so many meat-eating critics of bullfighting. Now, Jonathan Safran Foer published a well.written and, Nicole tells me, well-argued account of what Eating Animals actually means. But, like many that take positions as he does, he’s prey to his own inconsistencies and hypocrisies. In his review for the TLS, Mark Rowland explains, and it’s worth listening to his argument:
Safran Foer concludes that we should not raise and kill animals in the way we now do. This is a negative prescription – it says what we should not do, and this is compatible with there being more than one thing we should do. As a result of the three-year investigation that went into this book, Foer writes: “I’ve become a committed vegetarian . . . . I don’t want anything to do with the factory farm, and refraining from meat is the only realistic way for me to do that”. To be a vegetarian is to refrain from meat, but not other animal products. And Safran Foer accepts that he might be willing to revise even his vegetarianism if more humane manners of living and dying could be devised. “The vision of sustainable farms that give animals a good life (a life as good as we give our dogs or cats) and an easy death (as easy a death as we give our suffering and terminally ill companion animals) has moved me.” Indeed, one of the notable features of his book, and which separates it from a straightforward case for vegetarianism, is the time and careful analysis he gives to these methods of farming. We might call this position “contingent vegetarianism”.
Contingent vegetarianism is a respectable position in the sense that it is almost certainly better for the animals whose products we use and better for the environment. This is largely due to the lesser numbers of the animals that would be involved if everyone were to be vegetarian: essentially, you get more cheese than meat from a single cow, so fewer animals have to live miserable lives and die ghastly deaths. But the contingent vegetarian still has to face some inconvenient facts. First, consider the flirtation with humanely produced meat. Here, the comparison with companion animals is distinctly misleading. A good life for a dog, for example, does not involve having its throat slit when it reaches four months of age. Even if painlessly euthanized at that age, the brevity of its life precludes that life from having been a good one (at best, it was “promising”). To make the comparison accurate, we would have to envisage farmed animals living long and fulfilled lives, and being painlessly euthanized only when terminally ill. Then, of course, sustainable farming becomes economically non-viable. Safran Foer claims that “The myth of consent is perhaps the story of meat, and much comes down to whether this story, when we are realistic, is plausible. It isn’t. Not anymore”. The myth of consent is the myth that the animals we eat would, if they could speak, agree to their treatment: they would agree to the way in which they live and die because of the security that comes with it. Safran Foer has made an utterly compelling case for the untenability of this myth. It is, however, so easy to merely exchange one myth for another. The myth that animals would consent to their lives and deaths in an economically viable humane farming industry is certainly not as egregious a myth; but I suspect it is nonetheless still myth.
Second, if we focus on Safran Foer’s vegetarianism, rather than his flirtation with a more humanely produced meat, we should remember that the fate Safran Foer skilfully and accurately described earlier is indifferent to whether the cow is beef or dairy. The same thing happens to dairy cattle after their “productive” lives are over – around four to five years of age. Also, to produce milk, they have to be kept pregnant. What happens to the calves? They are taken from their mothers, usually within twenty-four hours, and are destined for a short, miserable life, quite possibly in a veal crate, and a death whose general contours follow those described above. So, a vegetarian who drinks milk and eats cheese indirectly supports both the veal industry and a horrific form of slaughter.
Hm. Sounds not very well thought through. So whence all the praise? In his last paragraph, he implicitly tells us when he says
It is almost certainly one of the finest books ever written on the subject of eating animals.
Eh. There might be a reason for that, but I’m not going into it.