1. The Steakhouse Dialogues. Pollan first reads the work of Peter Singer, the world’s leading philosopher of animal rights, as he’s dining at a steakhouse. He has done this deliberately in order to address the cognitive dissonance between his enjoyment of meat and the ethical problems raised by the killing of animals. At the moment, he writes, human society has “an unusual amount of cultural confusion” on the issue of whether or not it is acceptable to eat animals, with the rise of vegetarianism and animal rights groups like PETA. People now suffer from a kind of “schizophrenia” in how they think about animals, lavishing love and attention on dogs and brutalizing pigs (animals easily as intelligent as dogs) in meat factories. Pollan attributes this to people’s increasing lack of contact and communication with the animals that become their food.
It may be “natural” for humans to eat animals, but Pollan points out that human culture treats certain animals very differently than others. For example, cats and dogs are regarded as pets and lavished with love and attention, while pigs are brutalized in meat factories. These inconsistencies are a product of culture, not nature. For Pollan, such cultural schizophrenia is only possible in a culture in which people have less and less meaningful contact with the animals that will become their food. Most people do not regard a pig as they would a dog because they simply do not interact with pigs on a daily basis.
Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation argues that, if “equality is a moral idea” and everyone has the right to equal treatment, regardless of intelligence or ability, it is impossible to justify the killing of animals based on the idea that they are less intelligent. Singer readily agrees that pigs are less intelligent than human children, but since humans and pigs have a common interest in avoiding pain, it is not ethical to inflict pain on animals. This is what moral philosophers call the “argument from marginal cases” (AMC). For example, there are some humans (with certain mental disabilities) whose intelligence does not rise to the level of the chimpanzee, but we still treat them with more “moral consideration” than the chimpanzee. For Singer, this is discrimination on the basis of species—a human is treated better than a chimpanzee simply because he or she is a human being.
Singer argues that the world’s species are interconnected in that they share a common interest in avoiding pain. This is not to say that all species are equal in intelligence and ability, since this is clearly not the case. A human is more intelligent than a pig, for instance. But for Singer, all species should have equal rights. Pigs do not deserve to be violently tortured and slaughtered simply because they are not human, he argues. In other words, people’s current treatment of animals discriminates against all non-human species.
Pollan thinks that Singer makes powerful arguments in response to possible objections to his philosophy. For example, when some argue that domesticated animals couldn’t survive in the wild and have never known any other life than the factory farm, Singer retorts that defenders of slavery often made a similar point, and that “the life of freedom is preferred.” Besides, even an animal who has never had the freedom to exercise and stretch their limbs will still feel a natural desire and instinct for those freedoms.
Singer believes animals have natural impulses that are being stifled by human intervention. Even if an animal has never known life in the wild, there are certain natural desires—like longing for the freedom to run outside, for instance—that he argues are integral to animal happiness.
For Pollan, the question comes down to whether people owe “moral consideration” to animals that can feel pain. For him, the answer is yes—and so he finds it difficult to justify killing and eating animals. He comes to the reluctant conclusion that he has to at least try being a vegetarian, since Singer points out that meat-eaters have a strong interest in convincing themselves that eating animals is ethically justifiable.
Pollan is ultimately persuaded by Singer’s arguments for vegetarianism because he sees the point that animals are, if not equal to humans in ability, then at least equal to humans in their moral rights. He sees Singer’s point that all living things have the right to freedom from pain.
2. The Vegetarian’s Dilemma. Pollan struggles with his new-found vegetarianism, which he feels alienates him from other people and makes it awkward when he goes to dinner parties and has to ask the host to make him a special dish. He points out that many cultural traditions and ritual meals center on meat, like the Thanksgiving turkey. He disagrees with the animal rights activists that meat-eating is a mere dietary preference; instead, there is something about meat-eating that he thinks is fundamental to human identity. Although foregoing meat might lift people out of the “brutal, amoral world” of predator and prey, he thinks it also involves a compromise and sacrifice of “our own animality.”
Thousands of years of human evolution have conditioned people to eat meat, Pollan points out. In this sense, vegetarianism is entirely an artificial human construct, a product of culture and human intervention rather than nature. Indeed, there is no other carnivorous animal that would purposefully forego eating other animal flesh. Paradoxically, vegetarianism and moral consideration for animals seems to require humans to suppress or forget their own animalistic nature.
3. Animal Suffering. Pollan points out that it is “impossible to know what goes on in the mind” of a pig, cow, or ape, and thus whether an animal is able to suffer. Some philosophers have drawn a line between “pain” (which is a sensory experience) and “suffering” (which involves not only pain but also other, typically human emotions like shame, humiliation, and fear). For example, castration is painful to animals, but doesn’t seem to devastate animals in the way it would a human. A steer about to be slaughtered won’t dread his approaching death, as a human would.
Pollan questions how much humans and animals really do share the same experiences of suffering. Certainly almost all species are connected by their ability to experience pain as a sensation. But he argues that, for humans, the psychological dimension of pain transforms the experience into a mental as well as a physical state of being. In this sense, there might be limits to animals’ ability to experience suffering.
In a CAFO, however, Pollan thinks many of these distinctions between pain and suffering turn to dust. In an egg-producing operation, for instance, American laying hens are confined in tiny cages for their entire lives, where they cannibalize their cage mates and often die from the harsh conditions. This is the result of a system that treats animals as “production machines” incapable of feeling pain, Pollan writes. In order to maximize efficiency and produce eggs that can be sold for 79 cents a dozen, factories have lost all “moral restraint” and treat animals simply as tools in their capitalist enterprise.
Despite his skepticism on the philosophical question of animal suffering, Pollan feels that the constant drive to increase efficiency in CAFOs does indeed unequivocally lead to pain and suffering for the animals that live in those factories. Animals suffer because they are treated as if they have no capacity for suffering at all—instead, factories see them merely as machines that produce a saleable product.
4. Animal Happiness. Although Pollan is horrified by the conditions for animals in CAFOs, he also thinks of the happiness of the animals he met at Polyface Farm. Pollan defines happiness as an animal’s “opportunity to express its creaturely character”—like pigs rooting around in the dirt or chickens pecking for insects in the cowpat. Animal domestication should be a “symbiotic” relationship in which humans provide food and protection in exchange for animal products. In this sense, the “crucial moral difference” between a CAFO and a good farm is that CAFOs deprive animals of their characteristic way of life, whereas a good farm will allow animals to live in harmony with humans according to their natural impulses.
It is difficult to define animal suffering, but it can also be difficult to recognize animal happiness. However, Pollan thinks that he has seen a prime example of animal happiness at Polyface Farm. A chicken raised in a CAFO will never have the chance to spread her wings, whereas at Polyface, that chicken is free to roam outside. He decides that, for animals, happiness consists of the ability to express their natural impulses without undue constraints placed on them by humans.
Animal domestication has benefited those animals, Pollan points out; chickens have thrived, but wild wolves have largely died out. Predation is the natural order of things in the wild, and perhaps domesticated animals have simply exchanged wolves for humans as their predators. Pollan suggests that animal rights activists often want to deny “nature” itself—the fact that every ecosystem contains predator and prey.
Pollan doesn’t think it’s fair to regard all animal domestication as oppression. In fact, some species have greatly benefited from human intervention. Without the protection and cultivation of humans, many species would have died out over time.
Animal rights philosophers tend to regard animals as individuals, not as a species. So although they might acknowledge that domestication has helped chickens as a species, they focus more on the suffering of the individual chicken. But Pollan argues that it is difficult to apply an individual rights-based idea of morality to the animal world. For example, on Santa Cruz Island, a team of habitat restorers are killing off pigs imported by ranchers in the 1980s, hoping to rebuild the local ecosystem and save an endangered fox species. The killing of the pigs has drawn protest from animal rights groups, but Pollan points out that the habitat restoration project is also a larger-scale animal rights project to save the endangered foxes.
The Santa Cruz Island case suggests that there is a tension between the rights of animals as individuals and as a species. Ideally, animal rights should be a compromise between the two: the rights of animals as individuals should be balanced with the interests of the entire species. Pollan thinks that, in some cases, the animal rights activists’ zeal to protect individual animals leads to a blinkered and uncompromising perspective that prevents them from seeing the larger picture.
5. The Vegan Utopia. Pollan thinks that “killing animals is probably unavoidable,” even in a vegan utopia. Field mice die in grain harvests; in order to grow more crops, animal pastures and rangeland must be destroyed. Entire regions, like New England, would be unable to feed themselves, since their local food economy relies on grazing. This, in turn, would necessitate an even greater reliance on a national industrialized food chain, which entails greater consumption of fossil fuels that undermine the health of the planet. In this sense, eating animals might paradoxically sometimes be “the most ethical thing to do” when it comes to creating a sustainable agricultural system.
The uncompromising view that all meat-eating is unethical also might turn out to have serious consequences for the environment. Like any other dietary choice, even veganism or vegetarianism exacts a toll on the land—sometimes even a greater one than traditional agriculture. In this sense, the decision regarding whether or not to eat animals is not just a moral calculation about the rights of animals—it is also connected to larger questions about the health of the planet.
Pollan has an email exchange with Singer in which he asks what Singer thinks of a good farm like Polyface, in which the animals seem to lead happy lives. Singer agrees that it is better to purchase meat from such farms, but is skeptical that they could operate on a large scale—and since ethical meat is more expensive, it is usually only accessible to the well-to-do. For Pollan, this suggests that what’s wrong with eating animals is “the practice, not the principle.” In this sense, people who eat meat should be focusing on animal “welfare,” rather than “rights.”
Even Singer, who is adamantly opposed to eating animals, agrees that the animals on Polyface Farm seem to lead happy lives. In this sense, Pollan begins to feel that it might be better to focus on making animal lives happier, rather than abstaining from eating meat entirely. In other words, people should be trying to ensure that animals live happy lives and die humanely.
6. A Clean Kill. As Pollan flies over Kansas, where steer number 534 is being slaughtered, he wonders what sort of death this steer will experience. He relies on the account of Temple Grandin, an animal handling expert, who explains that 534 will be put on a conveyor belt and “stunned” with a machine that should kill the animal on first shot. In theory, it should all be done humanely—but some animals don’t die from the stunner (there is about a 5% error rate) and later have their throats slit. Pollan isn’t sure how he feels about this system, since the meat processing company didn’t allow him in the room. This is what is so powerful about Joel Salatin’s open-air processing system, he thinks; anyone is free to watch how their food is being slaughtered.
Pollan wants to believe that the slaughterhouse operation where steer number 534 will die is run on ethical principles. However, he admits that it is impossible to prove this for sure, because the meat industry is notoriously secretive and un-transparent to the public. By contrast, Joel’s farm offers a model of a slaughterhouse that is entirely open about its methods. It does not obscure the connections between meat and the animal that died to produce that meat; instead, the death of that animal is as scrupulously handled as its life.
Pollan muses that human cultures have dealt with the ethical problems of killing animals for thousands of years. Cultural rituals like saying grace and sacrificing an animal to the gods helped people contend with their feelings of shame and guilt. The loss of these rituals in the modern age means that people find themselves “unable to look” at the slaughter rather than confronting it head-on. Pollan thinks that the antidote to this willful blindness is more transparency. He thinks that a truly ethical meat-processing industry would wall their slaughterhouses with glass, giving people the “right to look.” Such scrutiny would shine a light on brutal practices and allow people to eat animals consciously and deliberately, with the respect they deserve.
Pollan marvels at just how far human culture has come from the original practices of hunting and gathering. Instead of established cultural rituals around the deliberate and conscious killing of animals, people today eat meat mindlessly, without thinking about the origins of their food at all. He thinks that the answer is not to stop eating meat, but to eat meat more consciously and conscientiously, acknowledging people’s gratitude to the animal that has sacrificed to make a meal.