The consciousness, ceremony, and respect they deserve

Michael Pollan moves on from his vegetarian experiment to discuss slaughterhouse conditions. He concludes this discussion by writing,

Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do. Tail docking and sow crates and beak clipping would disappear overnight, and the days of slaughtering four hundred head of cattle an hour would promptly come to an end — for who could stand the sight? Yes, meat would get more expensive. We’d probably eat a lot less of it, too, but maybe when we did eat animals we’d eat them with the consciousness, ceremony, and respect they deserve. (333)

Much as I appreciate Pollan’s support for removing some of the cruelest practices from animal agriculture, that last sentence leaves me scratching my head. What exactly does it mean to eat an animal with respect?

It seems to me that eating an animal is necessarily disrespectful in some sense. Even if one decides that eating an animal is consistent with one’s values, it’s based on an implicit statement that one’s own interest in eating the animal is more important than the animal itself. That statement is inherently disrespectful.

Instead of giving food animals the “respect they deserve,” perhaps the goal of the conscientious omnivore should be one of less disrespect. This, in turn, would almost certainly entail not pretending that eating the animal was a respectful gesture.

Consciousness and ceremony can both be good things. Greater consciousness might lead people to care more about the treatment of the animals they’re eating. The right kind of ceremony might make people think more carefully about where their meat came from, and the consequences of that probably aren’t so bad. However, I can’t get behind Pollan’s statement that animals deserve these things.

What’s important here is that consciousness and ceremony are really about us. To food animals, they can be only a means to an end. An animal that suffers is no better off if its eaters know of its suffering. A ceremonial roasting over a fire makes no difference to a pig that has already been slaughtered. To say that the animals deserve these things is, at best, incomplete. If we must say they deserve something in the course of being eaten (and I’m not sold on that), perhaps it should be the better life that might result from these things.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] Also prominent in the hunting trips is the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset. Pollan introduces Ortega y Gasset as an author of the kind of “hunter porn” that he says “never failed to roll my eyes” because of its “straight-faced reveling in primitivism, the barely concealed bloodlust, the whole macho conceit that the most authentic encounter with nature is the one that comes through the sight of a gun and ends with a large mammal dead on the ground — a killing that we are given to believe constitutes a gesture of respect” (336). (It is surprising that Pollan should object to the idea that killing an animal might be a gesture of respect just three pages after he tells us that we should eat animals with respect.) […]

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