Many of us eat meat, but feel uneasy, or even ashamed, doing so. The most proper reason for this unease is not because of the killing itself. Whether or not we agree with The Smiths that meat is murder, the moment of slaughter isn’t what should concern us most. Rather, the pressing problem is that meat might sometimes be torture. The “livestock” may have no room to walk or move their limbs, sometimes suffer by being mutilated or branded, or are pumped full of antibiotics to prevent disease caused by cramped and inhumane conditions. Just as we find torture a higher crime than murder, among humans, so should it be when the victim is of another species. In fact, if anything, the divide is greater for the non-human animal victims: animals (we think) have no awareness of death, or at least an awareness of death less keen than ours, so their humane slaughter remains a real possibility. On the other hand, since the experience of torture only requires physical and mental anguish in the here-and-now, an animal’s experience of it may resemble very closely our own experience of it.
Most of the time we don’t witness this possible horror. Laws against filming it–so called ag-gag laws–may be evidence of how disgusting it might be. I qualify the claim that animals are tortured in industrialized agriculture because I am not sure how common or extreme the abuse of animals is in these systems. It’s important to hear the other side’s arguments out: it may also be the case that the laws in question exist, at least in part, because they suppress blatant propaganda by the activists, who, of course, have no interest in pictures of animals not suffering.
Nonetheless, the possibility of torture is enough to make us uneasy, and this possibility remains open, as long as we continue our trend of distancing ourselves from the realities of animal husbandry and slaughter.
The meat arrives neatly wrapped in cellophane in our supermarket’s fridge. Pure muscle: entrails and the faces are nowhere to be seen. As we stroll through the market, entranced by the “muzac” and the myriad, colorful, superficial possibilities our advanced economies provide, we can easily forget that the meat was once a feeling, perceiving creature. That animal had sense organs, internal organs, limbs similar to our own. This similarity suggests that her experience of the world must most likely resembles our own, as does our experience of animal behavior which we adore in our pets. So we can’t condone the torture of animals.
Many of us just live in some state of cognitive dissonance: we know that the way industrialized agriculture treats animals may be wrong, but we go on eating meat, happy that the suffering has been concealed from us.
One way of correcting the situation would be to eat only the meat of animals raised through traditional methods. We may have no reason to be ashamed of eating the “organic,” corn-fed, free-range chicken. Also, we might eat it in less quantities, which is probably good for our health and certainly good for the environment. Finally, we might close the gap between our perception of meat in the supermarket and the bloody reality of slaughter: it might be a good idea to go hunting, to slaughter an animal before eating it ourselves, so that we feel the solemnity involved in killing and consuming another sentient being. And maybe we should consider starting to “say grace” again, thanking the animals themselves, if we don’t believe in a higher power.
But these none of these strategies can solve the problem, I believe. Most of the world’s human population can’t afford that free-range chicken, are concerned with their own well-being and have little motivation to cut back on meat, have no easy access to hunting (natural habitats are always shrinking, anyway). In general, we don’t wish to face our own cognitive dissonance.
For years, maybe decades or centuries to come, there will be demand for the meat at the cheapest price possible, whether the price is minimized despite following the law, in secret violation of it, or by “manufacturing” it in a country with less respect for animal welfare. If we only buy the kind we find ethically acceptable, this is such a small percentage of the meat on the market that it hardly lowers the demand for that. On the contrary–I believe–eating the expensive meat might increase the demand for meat in general. If the well-off dine on free-range chickens, then they are contributing to a general culture of carnivorous feeding, and spurring the desire among the less well-off to consume meat in great quantities, too. The earth, facing an increasing population and already overcrowded, will never have enough pastures or corn to provide pleasant lives for all those chickens, not to mention cattle.
The most ideal solution I see is that we all, as a culture, stop eating meat. There are technological advances which will facilitate this process, such as “cultured meat.” This kind–grown in the lab without the creation of a new organism–actually takes the lie out of the bowdlerization of meat production as it is witnessed by as, seen mostly in the supermarkets: now, we can make meat which is pure muscle and which has never been attached to a central nervous system or sensory organs or bowels. Cultured meat thus corrects the commercial deception in the meat aisle.
But rather than discuss the technological aspects of a prospective turn to mass vegetarianism, let’s ask ourselves how such a cultural shift could happen. For we have undergone such a change in the past, though it happened so long ago we know about it mostly through myth, dimly since the relationship to myth and the real prehistoric past is so unclear: it’s the end of human sacrifice, along with the related acts of cannibalism.
The Myths of Human Sacrifice
Let’s start with where we are now: it may be hard for us to fathom that, not too deep in the abyss of the past, humans killed each other to appease the Gods, and also ate each other. Currently, the taboo lies in cannibalism, though maybe it shouldn’t. We consider a murderer exceptionally devious when he consumes his victim(s). But what sense doe this make? One of the tenets of ethical hunting–or ethical meat-eating, in general–is that if you’re going to kill a living creature, you better consume its flesh! Rather than killing for the sake of killing and letting that flesh rot, we make up for the death, express our gratitude, and use up every bit of what we have killed. But the analogous situation is unthinkable. Imagine a judge reducing a murderer’s sentence for the extenuating circumstance that he at least ate his victim. This reasoning is unthinkable, but reasoning indeed.
That consumption of human flesh is no worse than amoral ought to be an accepted point of view in a humanism which doesn’t see any connection between a dead body and the mind it once caused or contained. But though secular/materialistic worldviews have become dominant among the intellectual class, and keep spreading, the taboo forbidding cannibalism continues to thrive. We can dismiss human sacrifice as a completely outdated superstition, but the taboo against cannibalism remains mysterious. It’s this irrationality which makes the situation enigmatic, gives it an opacity we might never see through. If we do so, it will be by considering that distant past, or those distant cultures, in which it did not exist.
The examples of human sacrifice in myth which come to my mind are few, but telling. There’s the story, in Greek Mythology, of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia. It goes like this:
Agamemnon’s fleet is headed to Troy. They gather in Aulis to prepare for the war. There, Agamemnon kills a deer sacred to the Goddess Artemis. As a punishment for this deed, Artemis directs the winds to make sailing to Troy impossible. The seer Calchas foretells that Agamemnon must sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia, if he wants to appease Artemis and sail on to fight in his war. He initially refuses, but other commanders in his flee–in some versions Menelaus–convince him to agree to the plan. Iphigenia is brought to Aulis, under the pretext of marriage to Achilles. But she will face another act at the altar: her sacrifice at the hands of her father.
Here we have three main levels in the chain of beings, the Gods, human beings, and animals. There is a sense that the chain has fallen into chaos: the killing of the deer, normally a permitted act, as humans are placed a rung above the animals, is as an exception forbidden. The story is designed to make its audience weep, and to maximize this sense of an order temporarily broken. Despite our cultural distance from the mythology of ancient Greece, we know very well how much pain the need to sacrifice one’s daughter would cause. This is universal, as caring for one’s children is one of the most imperative desires, from a biological point of view.
There are variants to the story in which the sacrifice doesn’t take place. In Ovid, a hind substitutes the girl before the moment of her death. The killing of the dear is amended by the killing of another dear, a more proper form of retribution.
The substitution recalls most directly a related myth, one perhaps more familiar to my readers: it’s the story of Abraham, who is told, to prove his obedience to the God of the Old Testament, that he must sacrifice his son Isaac. At the last moment, Isaac is replaced with a ram. I don’t know if there are any studies proposing that the two stories, from different cultures, relate genealogically, have some common ancestor, an even earlier myth. But, even without the replacement which occurs only in some versions of the Greek myth, they seem typologically related. And they both refer to a point in the evolution of human belief: the point at which the practice of human sacrifice ceases. Now, we see this practice as particularly barbaric; it is illumined by the perception that we are now civilized, that the order in the Great Chain of Being has been restored, that God or the Gods now align their interest with that of human flourishing.
There is no cannibalism in either of these myths, but the forbidding of human sacrifice relates very closely to the forbidding of the consumption of human flesh, since it illustrates a perceived categorical difference between animals–which we may slaughter and/or consume–and humans–which we may not. I don’t know how we got there, exactly, but we might be thankful for the ethical progress entailed.
And Onwards Towards a Vegetarian Future
So there was some prehistoric moment in which killing and eating humans become forbidden, retold in myths in very different cultures. It seems clear to me that an analogous moment may arise in the future of our modern times: we will eventually make the distinction between the civilized vegetarian and the barbaric omnivore. Eating meat will become taboo, something which we permit our dogs to do–or not, since we see them as persons too–but which would undermine our status as human should we consume meat ourselves. And just as cannibalism once became taboo–despite human sacrifice being the real horror on a secular level–the consumption of meat should become taboo precisely to stop the possibility of large scale torture of animals. The mass adoption of vegetarianism may later evolve further into veganism, or reach an intermediary stage in which we consume fish but no mammals our fowl.
It’s not clear how this can happen since we live, apparently, in a godless time beyond myth, in which, as Dostoevsky said, everything is theoretically permitted. The written word and the original oral traditions in which the myths of Abraham and Agamemnon are told were not mere fictions. This is a modern distinction, perhaps present in Ovid, but he writes much later than the original story’s source. So now, if we wish to promote such a change–to encourage culture to make the consumption of meat taboo–then we must rely on literature and empirical evidence. That is to say, we must continue to violate possibly immoral “ag-gag” laws to make films which remind us that animals are thinking, feeling subjects, and show us the unhappy lives they live under industrialized agriculture; as long as this is the true situation. What we should not do is create propaganda which makes harmless aspects of the system appear harmful. These media face a great challenge, since they may never carry the weight or real myth, of stories in which the Gods evolve morally to forbid what was once permitted.
There is little doubt that the move to mass vegetarianism, as a cultural shift, would be a very good thing. It would not only promote animal welfare, but also aide human health, and the environment, since it is much more efficient to eat crops directly than to feed livestock as an intermediary product, and the “pollution” caused directly by industrialized animal husbandry, in the production of methane gas, would be reduced.
The optimist in me says that we have a chance, even if we can never rely on the transcendent power of myth, to make this change. Living in Berlin, now, the consumption of meat seems to be becoming less common and less widely accepted. There are new vegetarian-only and vegan-only restaurants opening throughout our neighborhoods. You are likely to have vegetarian colleagues at work, or friends, who–though they may remain silent on the matter–might view their meat-consuming neighbors as less enlightened, if not generally immoral. You may sense this in just the slightest expression of disgust, when you raise your fork to your mouth and consume a piece of dead animal. That morsel may signal suffering of unknown depth.