This is the first in a series of posts by students in Fordham University’s Master of Arts in Ethics and Society program.
By: Christopher Kovel
I recently had the opportunity to attend a debate on moral perspectives between famed philosopher Peter Singer, and theologian (and Fordham’s own) Charles Camosy at the idyllic campus of Princeton University. Singer, who is a secular utilitarian, balances his ethical stances on a pain vs. pleasure scale. Reducible to the method of pleasure maximization, Singer uses this calculus to identify rectitude. Camosy, in turn, is a Catholic ethicist, who begins at God and His fundamental goodness. Amid the clash of these disparate mindsets, the two professors tended to find commonality about the gross mistreatment of animals. They both, I learned, abstain from the consumption of animal products because they find the choice morally bankrupt. As I was leaving Princeton, I remembered a recent dinner out with the family:
I was running late, the last to arrive, and when I finally sat, I could tell the waiter was antsy to take the table’s order. I scooped the plastic menu and had to improvise. Not being particularly famished, I decided on just a soup and salad. Upon learning the extent of my order, the rest of the table, mainly consisting of graying aunts and uncles, were up in arms. “That’s all you want, Chris?” “No, no, get whatever you want, the veal is excellent.” I even heard, “that offends me!” from the aunt picking up the tab.
Why, after the debate, did this moment suddenly strike my mind? There seems, I concluded, to be a disconnect between what we are eating and why we are eating it, and I began to see a dark shadow form behind America’s culinary culture.
During the debate, Camosy pointed out that there are currently 10 Billion animals manacled in large, profiteering factory farms. Big Farm is like Big Business: both bow to the almighty bottom line. Yet the difference, due to the lesser moral status of animals, is that Big Farm can subjugate sentient species sans political backlash. Documentarians and animal rights activists have made, and continue to make, this point, but Singer’s 1975 book, Animal Liberation, is seen as the movement’s vanguard articulation. In the book, Singer attacks Big Farm squarely with accusations of undue animal anguish. Cramped and sordid living conditions, sloppy slaughtering techniques—the inhumanity is rampant. These unavoidable truths are major factors why Singer and Camosy agree that meat eating—read: supporting Big Farm—cannot be justified. To most though, flesh is cheap and it tastes good, and it couldn’t be more convenient: it’s in most cooks’ kitchens and on nearly every chef’s menu. There are vegan and vegetarian restaurants and movements, but they tiptoe the fringe. PETA has assumed the role of perennial butt-of-the-joke. Our culinary culture remains saturated with animals. Take, for example, meat and the traditional American dinner party. The host makes sure to serve it and the guest is expected to eat it. You would be upset—as a carnivore—if you came upon food platters devoid of any butcher’s handiwork, and may even accuse the head of household of stinginess.
If you agree that animals, just like humans, can “feel” pain, then justifying the practices of Big Farm becomes more than just challenging. But what about the welfare of humans, you ask? How about the food chain? What about little Timmy growing up to be big and strong? These arguments would be sounder if they were to exclude the major modern change that happened in the way we shop and eat: the spread of supermarkets and their cornucopia of dietary choice.
In 2012, according to the U.S. Census, 81% of Americans were urbanites, getting their meat almost exclusively from secondary sources. And, it should be said, good portions of the rural 19% aren’t milking cattle and slaughtering pigs. Before the supermarket, everyone had to buy “local,” but when people flooded into cites and after shipping speed hastened, the supermarket, and Big Farm, were born. So why did people continue to eat animal produce after the supermarket gave them other choices? It’s because we have inherited an antiquated diet from our forefathers. Bequeathed through the generations, vestiges of our dated culinary customs remain in our diet today. Vintage recipes and classical cooking methods, which are still widespread today, were invented before the supermarket gave us choices; when chicken stock was the only way to add liquid flavor to your consommé, when mutton was the only protein-rich food in your hamlet. We are eating like we are living in the time before Big Farm.
Something must be said, also, about the culture we have scripted for ourselves, making it odd for a person to order a lighter alternative—like it was the night of my family dinner. Diet, clearly, is as learned as the fashion we wear and the manners we use. Today, we have a faux-culture in terms of diet. A culture of outrage over small portions, and a culture where, for a staggering number of people, a meal is not a meal without the accompaniment of a large hunk of meat.
Until we break American culture’s stranglehold on our diet, Big Farm’s transgressions will remain unfettered. It’s clear that eating from the bounty of things that walk, swim, crawl, and soar around this world is not morally reprehensible in of itself. The story switches when compared against the myriad of choice the consumer is now exposed to. This choice makes the atrocities happening inside abattoirs abjectly unwarranted. When in the supermarket, it’s hard not to see the plain fact that each time I buy chuck sirloin I support the detrimental treatment of beings with the capacity to feel when, knowingly, the can of beans is only feet away.
It may be funny to think of the secular Singer as a “convertor,” but, in this case, he may just be that.
Christopher Kovel is currently completing his M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.