by Andria Skornik
In a recent Episcopal Cafe post, readers were asked what they thought of the arguments presented by Nathanael Johnson in his article “Is there a moral case for meat?”
Honestly, I found the article dissatisfactory, if not a bit disturbing, not least because of his odd and seemingly self-serving beginning. He admits he’s looking for a philosophical defense for something he’s routinely convinced is morally wrong, which is that he likes to eat meat (and most people do too), so there must be a good reason for it being okay. But if that’s the basis for moral decision making, then we’re simply justifying our preferences with the word “ethics,” rather than holding ourselves up to a standard of what is right. If the upshot of his thought experiment is that we all should do better and that we should not judge one another en route to doing better, the downside is a readily available excuse to simply keep doing what we’ve always been doing, since no one’s totally perfect anyway.
Johnson asks if Christian virtue ethics could provide a model for an ethics of eating. But his emphasis is too much on what is unattainable (in his view) than the many measures available to us to end animal suffering now. In the case of Christian virtues, the ideal of perfect love may be impossible, but his concern over abstaining from meat – by far the most effective means of reducing animal suffering – is actually very doable for most people in first world western societies. One thing Christian virtue ethics definitely would not say is that if the person next to you is suffering, and you have the resources and capacity to end their suffering with a simple action, then to stand by and do nothing is ethically okay. The parable of The Good Samaritan is a good example of how we are morally obligated to alleviate particular instances of suffering when we see it. But even this parable is only partially sufficient, for when it comes to animal suffering we aren’t innocent bystanders making decisions about whether to attend to suffering or look the other way; when we buy and consume meat that has been resourced through unjust means, then we actively participate in the harm done.
Johnson is looking for a principle that can be applied to all people, in all places, and his examples of food choices in India and the (apparent) quality of life of caged hens certainly complicate efforts to arrive at such universals. But perhaps what is truly needed here is an ethic that takes into account the complexities of the individual experience and that guides us in ethical decision making in the everyday questions of what we eat.
If we assume that meat eating is inevitable in our society, as Johnson seems to, we can still spend more time asking how we can be more just in our practices rather than justifying what we already do. Examining factory farming – as he does to a limited extent – is a great place to start. Right now factory farming accounts for more than 99% of the meat we eat in America. These animals are subject to confinement, neglect, and abuse from workers who are themselves abused by an unjust system. Often these animals’ deaths are brutal and far from humane.
While this is how we procure meat in our country, it doesn’t seem to line-up with people’s values. As a society, we love animals. Ask people how they feel about their pets. Watch people feeding ducks. Consider the number of animal videos that go viral. We love animals and are fascinated by them. And studies show that the animals we eat have the same capacity for thinking and feeling as the animals with whom we share our homes. I recently visited a Farm Sanctuary where I got to hang out with pigs who love a belly scratch as much as any dog, and some of them found great pleasure in doing tricks for treats. There would be moral and public outrage if we knew the abuses of factory farming were inflicted upon dogs and cats; those fortunate animals we name, feed and mourn when they are gone. Most of us wouldn’t even be able to watch what happens at a factory farm. It’s time to bring our actions – what we eat and how we get it – in alignment with the value we already have for animal life.
What is most amazing is that we can all make a significant difference to minimize the cruelty of factory farming simply by what we put on our plate. We don’t have to write a check. We don’t have to volunteer. We just have to make better decisions, meal by meal. And as an added benefit, research is showing the overwhelmingly positive impact a plant-based diet can have on one’s health and the environment.
Gandhi once said, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” We need reform in the factory farming industry because the current practices are cruel, unnecessary and not morally justifiable on any account. As people of faith, however, it goes a step further. God has called us to care for God’s creatures, especially animals, as God cares for them. They are truly the most vulnerable among us. Caring for animals is the first thing that God asked humans to do in the creation account. It is fundamental to who we are and what we have been called to do. This is our ethical standard and we are more than capable of rising to this task.
The Rev. Andria Skornik is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Rockford, IL