Objects and Animals
Our fantasy is that until the industrial era domesticated animals were treated decently. Maybe that’s true, and maybe it isn’t; but certainly they weren’t turned out by the tens of thousands as if they were widgets. – Mark Bittman
I’m occasionally criticized by others and somewhat more frequently by myself for desiring humanity’s return to some idyllic past that never existed—but then again, I’m a vegetarian, FPR-sympathizing foodie, so I really do bring it on myself. Nevertheless, Bittman’s statement, tossed off in passing, gets to the core of objections to our industrial livestock industry, or at least the objections that I find most resonant.
Despite my abstinence from the consumption of meat, I don’t hold any belief about the equality or near-equality of animals and people (there is a necessary distinction there); nor do I believe that eating animals is inherently immoral. Unnecessary, perhaps; immoral, no. What I do insist upon is the distinction between animals and objects. A cow may be incapable of being genuinely addressed as a “you,” but it is an “it” in a way different than the computer on which I’m writing or you’re reading.
Just as there are distinctions between people and animals, or people and objects, there is a distinction between a creature and an object—and this is the distinction that is obliterated by our contemporary livestock industry. An object—a widget, for example—comes into being through our own manufacture; we stare at it as a creator stares at his or her creation. Fine: I, personally, did not make my coffee mug or my car, but with sufficient training, these are things that I could produce or assist in the production of.
An animal is a different case. We do not create animals. We may rear them, feed them, slaughter them, but they have never been our creation. When we go to eat them, it may have been with the understanding that the meal was a human creation—but the meat itself was something less replaceable than a widget or a new light bulb. We eat—or ought to eat—not as creator consuming creation, but as creature consuming creature.
I recognize the tint of my language here, but I don’t believe that there is anything inherently religious about this understanding: one can understand cattle to be creatures rather than mere objects because of a shared Creator or because there-but-for-the-grace-of-evolution-go-I. I don’t think it makes much difference.
A McDonald’s hamburger or a bag of Tyson’s frozen chicken are industrial products and I don’t mean to throw my objection at industrial food (at least not here): 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.” This, in turn, leads to a misunderstanding of our own nature. When we approach a steak as if the cow is a widget and we are its creator, we forget who we are. We approach with hubris, perhaps innocuous at first appearance, but never permanently so.