Objects and Animals

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J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he studies literature and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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  1. Avatar Rufus F.
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    the problem lies in the treatment of their source—cattle or poultry—as industrial products or fodder themselves, rather than as animals/creatures—hovering somewhere clearly below “you” but at least slightly above a simple “it.”

    That’s a fantastic way of describing it. I think I stopped eating meat just because I couldn’t figure out how to characterize our cat. I don’t know if I’d call it a soul in her or us. But she has some sort of selfhood that is not directly comparable to our own, but is not an absense of self either. She is unique and unrepeatable, which is actually a decent basis for ethical behavior among humans too without resorting to metaphysics. Anyway, we have some friends with a farm and it didn’t seem like it’s much different with their cows than it is with our cat.Report

  2. Avatar stillwater
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    says:

    A while ago I spent quite a bit of time looking at animal rights arguments – from Singers’ Animal Liberation (a purely utilitarian argument against animal abuse) on thru conceptions of what properties are necessary/sufficient for the attribution rights to non-human beings (deontological). In my view, there is not a more persuasive set of arguments in all of philosophy than the view that animals are rights bearers and deserve inclusion in the moral community, that they are an end in themselves prior to having instrumental value to humans.Report

  3. Avatar DensityDuck
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    says:

    You’re right that it’s necessary to consider food animals as non-beings for us to countenance killing and eating them.

    Fortunately, humans have always been good at “othering”.Report

  4. The greatest remedy to the de-objectifying of animals in our food supply is to do two things: A) encourage more people to hunt and fish and B) take American kids on regular tours through meat processing plants.Report

  5. Avatar Tim Kowal
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    says:

    Nice post. I am also troubled by how industrialization insulates us from recognizing and appreciating our true relationship with creation and nature. Everything that comes out the other end of the factory is just an undifferentiated “it,” stripped of its original, natural, God-given qualities. (Incidentally, I do take the transcendental origins of creation as being important, but that’s getting pretty deep in the weeds for this discussion.)Report

    • Avatar tom van dyke in reply to Tim Kowal
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      says:

      I’ve always found the treatment of animals an obstacle to libertarian thought if not “modern” thought [materialism, utilitarianism, etc.]. These animals are property, no more or less. Yet something bugs us about treating them the way we treat rocks, an admission there’s something beyond what we see in the material world.

      You can’t legislate morality, we’re told. Sure, we can. Do it all the time.Report

  6. Avatar Sam M
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    says:

    “We do not create animals. We may rear them, feed them, slaughter them, but they have never been our creation.”

    Isn’t this also true of plants? I know plants and animals are different. But if the analysis rests on, “but these are not our creation,” the consumption of plants would seem to be equally problematic.

    “the problem lies in the treatment of their source—cattle or poultry—as industrial products or fodder themselves”

    Is this the problem? If so, what is the solution? How do you go about treating the eventual Tyson nugget in a non-fodder way? Is it as simple as demanding free-range chickens? Wal-Mart has shown that you can take a corporate approach to organic farming. I don’t see why they couldn’t do something similar with free range birds. That is, even if you treat them better, you can still be viewing them as industrial inputs. Seems to me that the bigger issue is their treatment-treatment.

    I stuggle with these questions as well. So I am not criticizing your analysis. Just trying to think it through.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Sam M
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      says:

      Depending on where you live, you might be able to find a farm that will sell you meat directly. Here, there are farms where they not only will sell you the meat, but allow you a good idea of how the animal is being cared for prior to being butchered. It might be the same with kosher or halal butchers and often smaller local grocery stores will get all their meat from one or two local farms. So that might help.Report

      • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to Rufus F.
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        says:

        I don’t know how it is with halal butchers, but this is very much not the case with kosher butchers — in fact, the problem is that there AREN’T local kosher butchers, except maybe in New York City. It’s all run through a handful of industrial meat processors… but this is the subject of a rant for another time/space. (Suffice it to say that small/local shochets are non-existent for non-economic reasons, too.)Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to Sam M
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      says:

      Re: plants — Part of not addressing this was wanting to keep the focus narrow, on how we think about animals. I’ve got rather strong opinions about where my vegetables come from, too, though there are myriad dilemmas involved in that, too. Another part has to do with a distinction, in my mind at least, between creature and creation: plants aren’t creatures/don’t possess creatureliness — though you are right; they aren’t our creations either; our treatment of them as pure industrial input is also dangerous. But this was a distinction I didn’t want to parse above for reasons of focus, avoiding the spiritualization of the discussion, and simply not wanting to block-quote Wendell Berry.

      And your second question — I don’t know. It’s a good question and deserves some more thought before I say anything…Report

      • Avatar Sam M in reply to J.L. Wall
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        says:

        Thanks. I am trying to think it through as well. The Wal-Mart approach to organic really seems instructive to me. Agriculture has inputs. For Wal-Mart, a consideration for “green” concerns just happens to have become a lucrative selling point for them. So what we ended up getting was not anti-corporate small-scale farming, but corporate, large-scale organic farming. And what the public got was cover for their own anxieties. See? I buy organic. I am good. Well… maybe. And I mean that sincerely. Maybe it IS better that people are buying organic food from Wal-Mart.

        But I suspect that this was cultural jujitsu. People who hate large-scale farming (a other things) found that “organic” was a good stand-in for “local” or “small-scale.” Because until Wal-Mart figured out how to make it work at a corporate level, “organic” really was another way of saying small-scale.

        I suspect something similar will happen when Wal-Mart realizes it can make a bundle by adding other corporate inputs like “free-range” and/or some version of “butchered in a nice, friendly manner.”

        So I will no longer be buying nameless, faceless chicken from Wal-Mart. I will be buying nameless, faceless chicken and some salve for my shame. And I will gladly pay extra.

        Will this be better for the chickens and the cows that got to roam free? Sure. But depending on how you define “the problem,” this might not solve it.Report

  7. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, the movie Temple Grandin covers this subject beautifully. Her life’s work has been dedicated to the notion that we can treat animals humanely up to the moment they become food.Report

  8. Avatar BlaiseP
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    says:

    To exist is to suffer, the Buddhists tell us. Anyone who’s watched a predator at work knows the prey animal suffers, often for extended periods of time. Parasites have their own hideous life cycles. The billions of insects that torment the reindeer on the taiga, where is their place in all this?

    Bittman can’t have it both ways. In point of fact, there are plenty of laws about the abuse of livestock and more are coming. The factory farm has no interest in abusing the animals: it’s bad for business. The old-style unsanitary feedlot of yore has led to huge recalls. Cruelty to a pet is no different than cruelty to a farm animal: people put down their pets all the time.

    And speaking of bad for business, I’ve been planning to open an organic farm near Abbeville, Louisiana when I retire in two years. I can mark up a dozen free-range chicken eggs by 60%. People will pay more for organic, ethically-raised animal products.Report

  9. Avatar Jon Rowe
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    says:

    I don’t think I could ever give up animal meat, but I’ve thought about, to be consistent, giving up eating mammals.

    I think of my dog that I love so much. They eat dogs in Vietnam and other Asian nations. I’ve tried to morally distinguish why it may be wrong to eat a dog but not a, say, cow (don’t tell the Hindus). Dogs are smarter and more loving towards humans. Cows are dumb. But, I’ve heard (and please, correct me if I am wrong) pigs are every bit as intelligent and emotionally sensitive towards humans as are dogs (cats seem smart, but don’t seem to care as much about humans).

    Non-mammals like fish, fowl and reptiles are at least, from a evolutionary-biological perspective, less related to us.Report

  10. Avatar BSK
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    says:

    Many people argue implicitly or explicitly that there are different levels among creatures. Eating cows is okay, dogs less okay, and monkeys not okay at all. I’ve seen this justified on various grounds, the most common one being that animals that are closer in evolution to us or that have attained a certain sentience or intellectual capacity are less or not at all acceptable to eat.

    My question is: if an alien race came to Earth, one so far beyond our own intellectual and evolutionary development that it would be apt to say us:them::cows:us, could we object to them eating us on moral grounds? Is there some sort of baseline level of species achievement that renders one non-food? Or is it all relative? What if the gap was further, such that us:them::microbes:us? Then could we object? Obviously, we wouldn’t need to willingly submit to being eaten. But could we make an argument on the grounds of our “rights”? I know this might seem snarky, but I’m generally curious about it.

    For me, I recognize that any favorable disposition I have towards certain animals is entirely subjective and arbitrary and is meaningless with regards to the level of treatment they are entitled to. In general, I agree with the line of reasoning put forth here, largely that animals deserve a certain base level of treatment.Report

    • Avatar Jon Rowe in reply to BSK
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      says:

      Well those aliens that might exist subject human beings to experiments without our consent. They may use the argument, we are less evolved and consequently less deserving of “rights.” Who knows, maybe they seeded the life that evolved on Earth to begin with and we are their experiments. “How dare you tell us what to do with our experiments?”Report

  11. Avatar MR Bill
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    says:

    Mostly lurker here.
    I grew up on a farm (in WNC) where we raised and slaughtered chickens, hogs, and occasionally cattle. It is a nasty business, and the worst was when the whole family got recruited to help in the annual hog killing.
    It put me off meat for short times, but I always returned to being a carnivore. (At the time, I scorned the dry cured hams my granddad had hanging in the smokehouse, now I realize it would be legitimately considered gourmet food..)
    The time I was icked out the worst was once when, with several hogs penned near the killing area, one had been shot in the head, and then strung up and it’s throat slit to bleed it, the other hogs rushed up to drink the blood of their fellow.
    And chickens are, well, foul. The director Fassbinder is supposed to have said “you know evil is stupidity when you look into the eyes of a chicken.” I’m persuaded by the theories that TRex and the dinosaurs evolved into modern birds, as a giant rooster would be a terrible tyrant indeed.
    Chickens and hogs would gladly eat you, if they get the chance. (Cows, not so much, though they might kill you, in self defense..)
    And I live in a National Forest area where the deer population has exploded to unhealthy levels. They are a species whose ecology depends on predation. Lacking many red wolves in the Southern Appalachians, we depend on (a decreasing number of) hunters to cull the herd.
    My daughter is a vegan, and I’m trying to eat less meat. But I am washed in the blood of the hog.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to MR Bill
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      says:

      Excellent comment. Plenty to chew on. No pun intended.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to MR Bill
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      says:

      Ugh. Sounds like something straight out of Faulkner.

      Now here’s how sane people butcher hogs. Cull one out of the pen, lead him into a chute, trying not to get him all worked up. You stun him with cable jumpers connected to a running vehicle, shoving one lead into his ear and the other right between his eyes. He drops without a sound. You immediately lasso him off by the hind leg, hoist him up onto a gantry over a clean cement floor, cut his throat and bleed him out clean into a bucket. He becomes an ex-pig and didn’t squeal once.

      Washed in the blood of the hog. Gotta love it.Report

      • Avatar MR Bill in reply to BlaiseP
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        says:

        This is Appalachia. We were sane enough, just making do with what we had. And I’m just relating my experience. But I bow to your superior whatever.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to MR Bill
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          says:

          I’m sure you did the best you could under the circumstances. But as you noted, hogs are cannibals, anyone who’s been around them knows this. A sow will eat her piglets and yeah, they have a real taste for blood.

          For many years, the only meat we ate we raised and killed ourselves, including chickens, hogs and rabbits. My old man gave up on rabbits, said they screamed like human children when they were butchered.

          Humane farming is a big concern of mine, as you may see upstream. And I’m not superior to anyone. I’ve just seen an awful lot, the only advantage of old age.Report

      • Avatar Mike at The Big Stick in reply to BlaiseP
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        says:

        When we did it here in the K-Y the hog to be killed was separated into a different pen which was also on an incline. One .22 round between the eyes and then he was rolled out of the pen. A quick slice from a fillet knife and he bled out within 30 seconds. Not pretty but I don’t think he felt anything after the bullet.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to MR Bill
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      says:

      The director Fassbinder is supposed to have said “you know evil is stupidity when you look into the eyes of a chicken.”

      Not that this matters in any sense, but I’m thinking that was probably Werner Herzog who said that- he has a legendary fear and loathing of chickens that was probably best captured in the last shot of Strozek:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUcTvhyof8I
      Also, having grown up with chickens, I know exactly what you mean about them being foul.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Rufus F.
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        says:

        Also, having grown up with chickens, I know exactly what you mean about them being foul.

        That was awful.Report

      • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Rufus F.
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        says:

        Werner has a serious loathing of the animal kingdom, iffn’ you ask me 😉Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Rufus F.
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        says:

        My old man had a way of raising chickens in Africa, got the plans from USDA. They never touched the ground: they walked on hex wire fencing up in their coops, about four feet off the ground. Droppings fell onto concrete where they could be shoveled and swept away into the compost pit. Coffee cans and pie tins were made into water dispensers. The eggs rolled out the back, down a little trough to a collection point.

        He had chickens down to a science and wouldn’t tolerate filth. When one chicken gets sick, they all get sick and usually they all die.Report

    • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to MR Bill
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      says:

      I worked in a slaughterhouse one summer during college (home of Farmer John bacon and the Dodger Dog).

      9 out of 10 days I worked in the freezer, bucking boxes onto pallets. The 10th day, I was a floater; worked in the offal room, the sausage room, at the lard machine, you name it.

      Blaise pretty much describes exactly how they slaughter hogs at that particular place where I worked.Report

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