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In Defense of Eating Dogs

photograph of strays dog on street

In Western societies, dogs are regarded as our companions. As such, the idea that one might ever eat a dog would strike us as abhorrent. This view stands in stark contrast to that of many Asian countries, in which the consumption of dog meat is a regular part of their culture. However, attitudes appear to be shifting. As younger generations increasingly regard the practice as taboo, the president of South Korea has recently suggested that the time has come for the practice to be prohibited.

But should it be? I suspect that many people would regard the consumption of dogs as not only taboo, but morally wrong. However, this attitude seems to be inconsistent with our attitudes towards other animals.

I want to suggest that if there is nothing wrong with eating cows, chickens, and pigs, then there is nothing wrong with eating dogs. Conversely, if it is wrong to eat dogs, then it is also wrong to eat cows, chickens, and pigs. Regardless of what direction one goes with the reasoning, my point is that there is an inconsistency in how most people view dogs, cows, chickens, and pigs.

Can We Draw a Line?

Why might it be wrong to eat a dog? One answer is that dogs are companion animals. They are honorary members of our family, so to speak. Indeed, some dog owners refer to themselves as “dog moms” or “dog dads.” As such, it would be wrong to eat a dog because of the special status that we have given them.

The problem is that this association is contingent. Perhaps you might view your dog as part of your family, but that doesn’t mean everyone else views dogs in that way. Indeed, that is not how they are viewed by people who consume them as food and in societies where this practice is prevalent. If dogs only have significant value because we give it to them, then they don’t have it inherently. If that’s the case, then while eating dogs might be revolting or disgusting, it isn’t wrong. And just because something is offensive to one’s own tastes doesn’t mean it should be legally banned for everyone.

Another answer might be that dogs are what animal rights philosopher Tom Regan called “subjects of a life.” Dogs are conscious: they can experience pain, pleasure, and other aspects of consciousness. These qualities generate moral value which makes it wrong to kill them purely for the sake of consumption. While this argument shows that dogs have inherent value, it also applies equally to cows, chickens, and pigs — animals that we commonly consume. After all, all of these animals can feel pain and other aspects of consciousness. So why wouldn’t it be wrong to eat them? It seems that any property we think of is going to be a property that these other animals have.

As such, someone who accepts this line of reasoning must also be committed to stopping the consumption of these other animals. But that’s a tough bullet to bite, as many people who are opposed to dog consumption engage in other forms of meat consumption.

The point is that it’s arbitrary to draw a moral line at dogs but not for, say, cows. Consistency demands that we either embrace the permissibility of eating cows, chickens, and pigs — and therefore the permissibility of eating dogs, or we embrace the wrongness of eating dogs — and therefore the wrongness of eating other animals.

Which Direction Should Consistency Take Us?

There are arguments to be made for either.  I have argued that since it is not wrong to eat cows, chickens, and the like, that it is not wrong to eat dogs. On the other side, Alastair Norcross has argued that since it’s wrong to eat dogs, most other kinds of meat consumption are therefore also wrong.

It’s worth taking a deep dive into the literature to build an informed view, but let’s table these arguments for a second. Most people lack the expertise, time, or willpower to confidently explore the academic literature. Indeed, unless you’re a professional philosopher you likely haven’t taken deep dives on many of the beliefs you have. In the absence of that, the next best thing is to work from our background knowledge and engage in critical and reflective deliberation on our beliefs. How might we do that in this case?

Suppose that you’re opposed to eating dogs. Ask yourself this: which is stronger – your intuition that it’s morally permissible to eat chicken, cows, and pigs, or your intuition that there is something wrong with eating dogs? I suspect that most people would answer the former — after all, even those who are opposed to eating dogs are generally OK with eating other kinds of meat. So if that intuition is stronger, perhaps consistency should weigh in favor of that intuition.

That is to say, if we are faced with a dilemma where both horns are counterintuitive (in this case, either we say that eating dogs is morally permissible, or we say that most meat consumption is morally impermissible), then we should go with the horn that preserves our strongest intuition. Our moral common sense is generally reliable, so if we are going to deviate from it, the smaller the deviation the better. In other words, if we are going to bite a bullet, we should bite the smaller bullet. Based on that rule of thumb, we should go with the view that it is morally permissible to eat dogs.

Of course, this isn’t the final say. We are just weighing intuitions, and intuitions and heuristics are defeasible. There are other factors we might need to consider. One might give an independent argument against meat consumption that is strong enough to override intuitions in favor of meat-eating that were not formed reflectively. On the other hand, one might enhance these intuitions by giving independent arguments to shore them up.

Note that I am not saying that someone who thinks it is OK to eat cows, chickens, and pigs must also be OK with personally eating a dog. There is no inconsistency in being willing to eat a cow but refusing to eat a dog, so long as the different attitude is not justified by an appeal to different moral status. The point is one about intellectual consistency.

Under Discussion: Animal Dignity and Cultured Meat

photograph of raw lamb cutlet surrounded by vegetables

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: In Vitro Meat.

As cultured or lab-grown meat arrives for the first time on consumers’ plates, the ethical arguments surrounding this product will undoubtedly take on new urgency. Some of these arguments revolve around the supposed environmental benefits of cultured meat, or the fact that it is still produced using materials derived from dead animals. However, there is a more radical argument favored by some ethical vegans that I will assess in this column: namely, the claim that cultured meat harms animal dignity.

There is a live controversy in philosophical circles over whether animals can be said to have dignity, but for the sake of argument I will concede that they do. To say that animals have dignity is to say that in virtue of possessing some property — sentience perhaps, or the capacity for flourishing — animals have intrinsic moral worth and a kind of moral status that demands respect and care. Respect and care require taking animals’ interests into account when deliberating about what to do. Perhaps more controversially, taking their interests into account may require assigning weights to those interests equal to the same interests of human beings. For example, Peter Singer argues that to the extent that the pain of an animal and that of a human are of equal intensity and duration, there are reasons of equal weight to relieve the pain of the animal and the human for those who are able to do so.

The argument against cultured meat from animal dignity begins with the empirical claim that the marketing and consumption of cultured meat will tend to promote, or at least preserve, the idea that animals are edible. But, it is claimed, this idea is inconsistent with the acknowledgement of animal dignity. To see this, consider the ethical implications of the widespread consumption of lab-grown human meat. Although kill-free, we might still object to this practice on the grounds that it would cause people to start viewing people as edible, which — much like viewing human beings as commodities — is contrary to their dignity. Similarly, if we grant that animals have dignity, and that their dignity entitles them to equal consideration, then it is contrary to their dignity to view them as edible. And although lab-grown meat does not require the slaughter of animals on a scale approaching traditionally harvested meat, it is still marketed and consumed as a simulacrum of flesh from slaughtered animals. Thus, it is alleged that the resemblance between cultured meat and flesh from slaughtered animals will help perpetuate the notion that animals are edible.

So, the argument against cultured meat from animal dignity looks like this:

  1. The belief that animals are edible is incompatible with the acknowledgement of their dignity.
  2. The marketing and consumption of cultured meat encourages people to view animals as edible.
  3. Therefore, the marketing and consumption of cultured meat undermines or prevents the acknowledgement of animal dignity.
As David Chauvet points out, this argument seems to trade on an ambiguity in the meaning of “edibility.” The dictionary defines “edible” as “suitable or fit for consumption.” On the one hand, for something to be edible means that it can be eaten; inedible things on this definition include things like rocks, nails, and shards of glass. Call this sense of edibility “physical edibility.” But to say that something is edible can also mean that it is to be eaten, or that it ought or to be eaten. On this definition, inedible things might include certain animals or other human beings. Call this sense of edibility “ethical edibility.”

Now, it seems plausible that cultured meat will perpetuate the idea that animals are physically edible. Everyone will know that cultured meat ultimately comes from animals via their stem cells, and that cultured meat resembles and is a substitute for “real” meat. But if this is the sense of “edibility” at play in the second premise of the argument, then for the argument to be valid, it must be the operative sense of “edibility” in the first premise — that it is contrary to animal dignity to see them as edible. However, this claim just seems false. We know that animals are physically edible, so how could this truth possibly undermine our acknowledgement of their dignity? Again, compare this to the case of lab-grown human meat. If lab-grown human meat merely encouraged the belief that humans are physically edible, it is implausible that this belief — which most adult human beings already share, at least tacitly — would undermine our acknowledgement of human dignity.

So, if the sense of “edible” in the second premise of the argument is physical edibility, then that must be the sense of “edible” operative in its first premise, if the argument is valid. But with this sense, that premise is quite probably false, and the argument as a whole unsound.

On the other hand, if cultured meat encouraged the belief that animals are ethically edible, this would constitute grounds for concern for those who believe in animal dignity, since the belief that animals ought to be eaten or are permissibly eaten is arguably incompatible with equal respect for their interests. By the same token, if lab-grown human meat encouraged the belief that humans are ethically edible, this would arguably undermine human dignity. On this reading of “edible,” then, the first premise of the argument is likely true.

However, it is doubtful whether the consumption and marketing of cultured meat really encourages the belief that animals are ethically edible. Cultured meat is often touted by industry spokespeople and the press as the ethical alternative to traditionally harvested meat. This serves to underscore the ethical divide between cultured meat and the traditional variety. Moreover, this marketing strategy would only be compelling to those who are already disposed to believe that animals are not ethically edible, at least under contemporary factory farming conditions. Thus, the vast majority of cultured meat consumers, particularly in the early adopter phase, will be people who reject the ethical edibility of traditionally harvested meat.

So, if the sense of “edible” in the first premise of the argument is ethical edibility, then that must be the sense of “edible” operative in its second premise, if the argument is valid. But with this sense, that premise is quite probably false, and the argument as a whole unsound.

Finally, as Chauvet points out, even if the argument is sound and cultured meat does prevent the acknowledgement of animal dignity, it does not necessarily follow that we should reject cultured meat. The acknowledgement of animal dignity would require a radical transformation of most people’s attitudes towards animals. Very probably such a transformation can only take place in a series of gradual steps, rather than all at once. If cultured meat can make good on its promised benefits to animals and humans alike, it can still serve as a transitional step even if it does not take us very much closer to recognizing animal dignity.

Under Discussion: Aristotelian Temperance and Cultured Meat

photograph of raw steak arranged on butcher block with cleaver and greenery

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: In Vitro Meat.

On the 19th of December, so-called “cultured meat” was listed for the first time on a restaurant menu when the Singaporean eatery 1880 began offering lab-grown chicken from the American company Eat Just. Unlike its standard counterpart, an ingredient like cultured meat (also sometimes called “in vitro” meat) is not harvested from the dead body of an animal raised for slaughter, but is literally grown in a cultured solution much like a petri dish (hence the name “cultured”). While meat-substitutes of various types have become increasingly popular in recent years, this newly-approved product goes one step further: rather than simply aiming to mimic the flavor and texture of meat with plant-based ingredients, cultured meat is biologically (and, by most reports, experientially) identical to “meat” as typically conceived — it is simply not meat grown in the normal way.

For many, cultured meat offers one of the most economical and practical methods for potentially dismantling the ethical scourge that is the industrial factory farming system (responsible as it is for the annual torture and death of billions of chickens, cows, pigs, and more). If cultured meat can be produced economically at a scale sufficient to satisfy popular demands for meat products, then consumers might well be able to stubbornly maintain their meat-eating habits without requiring the suffering and death of so many creatures each year. From a utilitarian perspective, the moral calculation is clear: to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, we seemingly must pull the switch and convert our societal habits from eating meat to eating cultured meat.

But, this leaves open alternative questions about the ethics of eating cultured meat. For example, even if it’s true that cultured meat could offer a viable method for satisfying culinary desires for meat in a way that requires comparably little animal death, that does little to address the problem of having those desires in the first place.

In a recent article, Raja Halwani argues that the Aristotelian virtue of temperance gives us two ways of thinking about how to consider our meat-eating desires: as a matter of desiring the wrong object or as a matter of desiring the right object in the wrong way. As Aristotle himself explains in the Nicomachean Ethics, the temperate person:

“neither enjoys the things that the self-indulgent man enjoys most—but rather dislikes them—nor in general the things that he should not, nor anything of this sort to excess, nor does he feel pain or craving when they are absent, or does so only to a moderate degree, and not more than he should, nor when he should not, and so on” (emphasis added).

While temperance is often considered primarily as a matter of the latter practice — that is, as a restraint on the uncontrolled pursuit of our desires of taste (as exemplified perhaps most infamously in the American Temperance movement) — Aristotle also points out that the temperate person will lack a taste for things that should not be desired.

That is to say, it is one thing to desire something inappropriate while consciously restraining yourself from acting on that desire, while it is quite another to simply not desire the inappropriate thing at all. Imagine, for example, that Moe is a person who (for some reason) desires to murder a series of innocent people in some horrifically gruesome manner. Although he imagines that he would feel great pleasure at committing murder (and, indeed, takes pleasure simply in his imagination of doing so), Moe knows that acting on those murderous desires would be wrong, so he works hard to suppress them and (thankfully) never actually kills anyone. Calvin, in contrast, lacks the desire to murder anyone and, therefore, never commits murder. While it is true that, on one level, Moe and Calvin are the same — neither of them is a murderer — it is also the case that we could say that Calvin is better than Moe in at least some way.

To Aristotle, Moe’s case evidences a kind of continence insofar as Moe has mastered control of his improper desires (because he desires the wrong thing — namely, murder); as Aristotle says, the continent person “knowing that his appetites are bad, refuses on account of his rational principle to follow them.” This means that Moe also demonstrates a lack of what Nicolas Bommarito has described as a kind of “inner virtue” insofar as Moe’s tendency to feel pleasure at even just imaginary murder manifests “morally important cares or concerns” — in this case, they are “morally important” precisely because they are unethical. So, while it is true that we should also recognize Moe’s conscious restraint as proof of separate moral virtues (assuming that his restraint is borne from more than simple self-preservation or a desire to avoid punishment), it is still the case that Moe’s murderous desires are vicious.

What, then, do we make of cultured meat?

Although Halwani does not specifically discuss in vitro meat, he mentions briefly that it “might even be that the temperate person would not desire fake meat processed to look and taste like common forms of meat, such as the Impossible Burger, given that they imitate the kind of meat produced through a cruel history of suffering and death.” Or, like Rossi argued here at the Prindle Post, if cultured meat continues to encourage popular attitudes or perspectives of animals as “edible,” then it might well be serving to perpetuate a less-than-ideal set of desires, even if there are few direct problems with a tasty meal of ethically-produced in vitro meat. Like Halwani points out, temperate individuals might well be morally required to forego various aesthetic pleasures “when they come at the expense of immoral actions,” but the point is that the truly temperate person would not suffer from desires for immoral objects in the first place.

In effect, cultured meat could be promoting a structural sort of continence for our diets that recognizes the moral harms of our current food production methods and so acts to restrain them without doing anything to dissipate the original problematic desires themselves.

Admittedly, I’m taking for granted here that the currently standard system of raising creatures in captivity and subjecting them to immense pain simply for the purpose of consuming their flesh is a moral abomination, regardless of how tasty that flesh might be. If cultured meat offers the most realistic opportunity to prevent widespread nonhuman animal suffering, then that alone is sufficient reason to explore its viability. But the implications of our diet for our character (and what we care about) is also important to consider, even once creaturely suffering is diminished.

In short: cultured meat might indeed do well to prevent future bloodshed, but it cannot, on its own, establish a robustly virtuous culture that lacks the desire for the products of bloodshed.

COVID-19 and Food Justice

photograph of meat-packing workers crowded around conveyor belt

Despite the widespread effects of COVID-19 in the food industry and the centrality of that industry to everyone’s existence food and agriculture systems have not made their way to the forefront of the public conversation about the virus. Yet, the pandemic and the federal government’s bungled response to it reveals starkly how broken our food system is, and how standard responses to the virus threaten simply to maintain the status quo in the food system. The situation illuminates the inflexibility of a consolidated, industrialized food sector dominated by monopolistic companies, and the unethical consequences of such a system, whether under pandemic conditions or not. It highlights even more strikingly the untenable situation in which we find ourselves when it comes to industrialized animal agriculture.

Even as food waste has proliferated, for instance, with unpicked produce rotting in fields and eggs and milk deliberately destroyed, food banks struggled to keep up with the demand for their services. Food supplies have not been systematically redirected to meet the needs of the growing number of people experiencing food insecurity, but neither was production reduced or redirected. This issue is especially troubling with respect to animal agriculture, as farmers are forced to “depopulate” (i.e., cull) animals they cannot bring to slaughter, often using grisly methods. These disturbing problems are not merely the result of the pandemic, however, but are the natural consequence of conventional methods of raising, growing, producing, and distributing food. Closing or reducing the capacity of slaughterhouses threw off the chain of production because of the mechanical, systematic way animal products are produced: animals are continuously reproduced, bred to grow rapidly on a predictable, shortened schedule to maximize output, and raised in crowded confinement.

Our dependence on animals for food is also a direct contributor to the spread of the virus. Like bird flu, H1NI, SARS, MERS, West Nile Fever, Zika, Yellow Fever, and Ebola, which all have proven or suspected transmission via domesticated animals, SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is a zoonotic disease that moves between humans and nonhuman animals. Although some of these diseases did not originate in domesticated animals, their spread is often amplified, in various ways, through humans’ close contact with them. In a recent report on preventing pandemics, the UN Environment Programme explained that, “The frequency of pathogenic microorganisms jumping from other animals to people is increasing due to unsustainable human activities. Pandemics such as the COVID-19 outbreak are a predictable and predicted outcome of how people source and grow food, trade animals, and alter environments.” Among the worrisome trends that the report addresses are increasing human demand for animal protein and unsustainable agricultural intensification, including factory farming. The UNEP recommends shifting from “short-term political responses to long-term political commitments to secure human, animal and environment health” as a way to reduce the risk of zoonoses.

A prime example of such a misguided and short-term political response to the pandemic’s effect on our food system is the Trump administration’s decision in April to invoke the Defense Production Act to force meat processing plants to remain open to “ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans.” Meat-processing plants rank among the top hotspots for COVID-19 and, to date, over 16,200 meatpacking workers have been infected with the virus and at least 86 have died. Not only is social distancing impossible given production speeds in such plants, but experts also hypothesize that normal working conditions in the plants encourage the spread of the virus. Despite continued assurances that workers’ lives and health are valued, this use of the DPA highlights the overall disregard for working-class, migrant, immigrant, and refugee workers that is a persistent feature of the food industry. Following this order, and receiving much less publicity, the USDHS removed limitations on the H-2B Visa program, making it easier for meat companies to hire guest workers. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union criticized both decisions as “a betrayal of America’s meatpacking workers, giving companies free pass to ignore safety.” The safety guidelines delineated by OSHA are voluntary and not enforceable, and companies are defying the state and local authority and law that could be used to protect workers, claiming that the federal mandate takes precedence. In addition, most people doing this work do not have the financial freedom not to return to work; the DPA order means that they can no longer utilize unemployment compensation, so they must choose to put their lives (and those of their families and members of their communities) at risk to make ends meet.

Designating meat-processing facilities as “critical infrastructure” through the DPA is a destructive decision, but is also a logical conclusion of the existing, exploitative system of agriculture and food production in the US, which involves farming so intensively as to deplete the soil, pollute the water, bolster antibiotic resistance, and harm the health of people in surrounding communities. Animals are treated as mere raw materials. Workers are devalued as replaceable and disposable, especially as the burden of farmwork shifted onto migrant laborers, people of color, and disempowered contract farmers. These kinds of exploitative relationships are at the heart of the system of industrialized, intensive agriculture because profit and efficiency, narrowly understood, are valued above all else. Through our food system, we have cultivated dependency on exploited labor, tortured animals, and powerful and monopolistic corporations, all in exchange for cheap, plentiful, and readily available food. The proliferation of COVID-19 outbreaks in meat-processing facilities is consistent with those values, revealing yet again that companies like Tyson are “… worried more about getting chicken on the shelves than the people who put the chicken on the shelf,” as one worker noted. While food corporations are adjusting to the new normal, they aim to go about business as usual by implementing testing regimes, which may foster the perception of safety in lieu of actually creating safe working conditions. But testing is not failsafe since it only identifies but does not prevent infection, and lag times as well as gaps between the administration of tests mean that workers could unknowingly be exposed to the virus before anyone realizes there’s a problem. Invoking the DPA to keep meat-processing facilities open thus clearly exposes the perverse logic of the dominant way of producing and consuming food.

Another looming global crisis, climate change, indicates how shortsighted and counterproductive it is to preserve the status quo with respect to food production and animal agriculture in particular. According to the UNFAO, animal agriculture is a significant driver of global climate change, contributing at least 18% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. By promoting the increased production and consumption of meat, the U.S. continues to ignore both the dangerous and intensifying consequences of climate change as well as the clear connections between animal husbandry and the spread of zoonoses. In fact, the frequency and transmission of zoonotic diseases are worsened by climate change: many disease vectors and the pathogens themselves tend to thrive in warmer, wetter climates, and in places where biological diversity is threatened. Thus, the more we depend on intensive animal agriculture for food, the more we commit ourselves to dangerous climate change, and, in light of both, the more likely we are to catalyze the outbreak of another deadly zoonotic disease like COVID-19. This risk is increased by both close and unnatural contact with animals as well as the changing environmental conditions brought on by climate instability. Yet, the approach of food companies and the federal government, along with many state governments, has been to uphold the status quo in our food system at all costs and, so, to declare that meat is so important that we will sacrifice human lives and climate stability to secure it.

The pandemic should be an occasion to call for changes to our food systems that genuinely bolster food security and protect human health by reducing reliance on a fragile, harmful, and overly centralized system of production. Yet, loosening the hold of industrialized animal agriculture on our system of food production is challenging because of the belief that meat is essential to both diet and the economy. It is unquestionable, however, that meat is not necessary, that there are various different sources of protein, and that alternative agricultural and food production enterprises could sustain the economy.

Still, we struggle to detach ourselves from the pervasive cultural narrative that we need meat. The standard American diet is synonymous with huge portions of meat, and many Americans consider a meal without it un-thinkable. This perception is unsurprising given that the USDA dietary guidelines do more to promote corporate interests than human health, and messaging campaigns funded by the government via check-off programs have been wildly successful in convincing Americans to increase consumption of animal products. Perhaps there’s no stronger evidence of the success of these efforts than the aforementioned use of the DPA, which fortifies the myth of the necessity of animal protein into law.

The pandemic has revealed our food and agricultural system to be cumbersome, unadaptable, unsafe, and unethical. The responses to the impact of COVID-19 on that system have been mere mitigation measures, simply shoring up the existing state of affairs. The current crisis, however, presents us with the opportunity to rethink how we relate to, produce, and consume food, and then to transform our food system radically. Such an examination should start with redefining what is truly “essential” regarding food and taking stock of all the costs of intensively raising animals for food. Meat, especially in the vast quantities produced in the US, is not essential. What is essential is a resilient, sustainable, and democratic food system that provides healthful food, offers safe and meaningful work, treats animals as sentient beings, and involves agricultural practices that conserve and sustain natural resources. The forms that such a system can take are myriad and no one agricultural model is a cure-all.

Likewise, in the face of global climate change, we must acknowledge that our real needs are radically different from how we have been accustomed to think of them. We need food systems that are flexible and responsive, that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, that foster human health, that cultivate ecological, biological, and socio-cultural diversity, and that restore environmental integrity, especially in anticipation of climate instability and the resultant serious environmental problems. The work of organizations like Soul Fire Farm, which not only farms in ecological regenerative ways that sequester carbon but also prioritizes racial justice through mentorship and care for the local community, is a model. Policy changes are also necessary to address structural injustice and support the work of such organizations. One key move is to redirect agricultural subsidies from agribusiness, especially commodity crops and animal agriculture, to farmers using carbon neutral and carbon negative practices.

The global pandemic has highlighted all the ways in which our current food system is failing: instead of pouring more resources into a harmful food system and bolstering the profits of big agribusiness, we need a food system that serves the interests of the people from farm and factory to the table.

Stories of Vulnerability: COVID-19 in Slaughterhouses

photograph of conveyor line at meat-packing plant

Cases of famous people who have contracted COVID-19 have made headlines. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson tested positive and later recovered. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson wound up in intensive care. Many professional athletes have contracted the disease. More often than not, however, when we zoom in on coronavirus hotspots, we find that stories about vulnerability come into focus. Many of these stories go unheard unless they cause hardship or inconvenience for groups with more power.

One such case has to do with the production and slaughter of animals that people consume for food. Across the country, there are meat shortages caused by coronavirus. For example, nearly 1 in 5 Wendy’s restaurants has run out of beef, and at many locations other meat products such as pork and chicken are unavailable as well. Supermarkets are also facing shortages. The reason is that the conditions in slaughterhouses are particularly conducive to the spread of coronavirus. Hot spots are popping up at many such sites. 700 employees at a Tyson factory in Perry, Iowa tested positive. At a Tyson plant in Indiana, 900 employees tested positive. According to a CDC report, across 19 states there have been 4,913 cases of coronavirus among slaughterhouse employees. So far, there have been 20 deaths.

Slaughterhouses, also known as meat packing plants, are the next stop for most farm animals after their time in factory farms. When mammals like pigs and chickens arrive, they are put on conveyor belts, stunned, then killed. Their bodies are then sent to a series of “stations” where people carve them up for packaging and, later, consumption.

Work in a slaughterhouse is both physically and psychologically strenuous. Carving flesh and bone requires real effort, and many employees sweat profusely while doing it. The sheer volume of animals that need to be carved up to satisfy the American appetite for meat ensures that employees work together, standing shoulder to shoulder, in spaces that are often poorly ventilated.

This kind of work is not highly sought after for obvious reasons. It is unpleasant. As is so often the case in the United States, unpleasant work is done by those who struggle to find employment—often undocumented immigrants and people living in low-income communities. This complicates the problems with coronavirus spread in several ways. First, employees often do not speak English fluently, so conveying critical information about the virus is difficult. Second, it is common for members of these communities to live in large families or groups. Third, low-income communities are frequently places that are densely populated. All of these factors contribute to more rapid spread of the virus.

In response to the meat shortage, President Trump signed an executive order declaring that meat processing plants are critical infrastructure in the United States. There is disagreement among legal experts about what this means. Some argue that the president doesn’t have the authority to require that slaughterhouses remain open when their continued operation puts employees’ health in jeopardy. One interpretation is that the order simply exempts slaughterhouses from shutdown orders issued by governors. Despite the executive order, plenty of slaughterhouses have closed because they simply don’t have the healthy staff required to carry on.

Those who are supportive of the order are pleased that it provides support to companies that sell meat. Many Americans also approve because it appears that they can continue to put meat on their plates to feed their families and to satisfy their own gustatory preferences. Others approve of the order because they are concerned about the well-being of animal agriculture more broadly. Factory farms raise astonishing numbers of animals every year. The owners of these facilities are not breeding and raising them because they love animals and want thousands of pigs for pets. In these facilities, animals are treated as products to be bought and sold. During the pandemic, new animals are being born and there is no place to put them. The response, in many cases, has been to kill the older animals en masse. For example, Iowa politicians sent a letter to the Trump administration asking for assistance with the disposal of the 700,000 pigs that must now be euthanized each week across the country. The same problem exists for all species of farm animals. People are concerned that this might mean devastation for animal agriculture.

On the other side, many say “good riddance!” Animal agriculture is a cruel and inhumane industry. The pandemic has few silver linings, but one of them is that it brings injustices that might previously have been hidden into the public eye. Our system of animal agriculture could not exist without exploitation of the most vulnerable members of our communities. Slaughterhouses employ vulnerable workers in unsafe working conditions. Factory farms and slaughterhouses abuse and kill animals that cannot defend themselves. Maybe it is finally time for all of this cruelty and suffering to end. In his executive order, President Trump identified slaughterhouses as critical infrastructure. This means that such places are essential, necessary for the proper functioning of our communities. Since consuming the bodies of slaughtered animals is not necessary for human survival, this designation doesn’t seem appropriate.

What’s more, the conditions present in factory farms are exactly the kind that lead to the spread of zoonotic diseases. It appears that the coronavirus jumped from pangolin to human in a wet market in Wuhan. On other occasions, however, diseases spread in factory farms and slaughterhouses—diseases like the swine flu and mad cow disease. Other flus, like the avian flu, are believed to have originated in wet markets in China, but involved animals, chickens and ducks, that we regularly farm for food in the United States. One way that we can help to prevent the transmission and spread of zoonotic diseases is to stop consuming meat.

For those that love the taste of meat, there are alternatives. Beyond Meat and Impossible, plant based products that are engineered to strongly resemble meat in taste, texture, and appearance, are thriving in general, but are doing exceedingly well during the pandemic in particular. In vitro meat, a cellular cultured product that is produced by taking a biopsy of an animal, is a product that is produced in laboratory conditions rather than slaughterhouse conditions and is, therefore, likely to be much safer.

The pandemic shines a light on some of the ways in which our systems of food production exploit the vulnerable—both employees at risk for disease and the animals people put on their plates. Rather than issuing executive orders protecting this industry, perhaps it’s time to dismantle it altogether.

On Meat Eating: Cats, Dogs, and Carnism

Photograph of a person's hands holding a knife and fork with a piece of raw meat on a plate beneath the utensils

This September, the US House of Representatives passed the Dog and Cat Meat Trade Prohibition Act of 2018, a bipartisan piece of legislation targeted to “prohibit the slaughter of dogs and cats for human consumption, and for other purposes” by specifically making it a felony to slaughter, buy, or sell a cat or dog with the intent to eat it. Although Jeff Denham, a Republican from California who sponsored the bill, admitted that rates of dog and cat meat consumption in the US are not high, “Adopting this policy…demonstrates our unity with other nations that have banned dog and cat meat, and it bolsters existing international efforts to crack down on the practice worldwide.”

On one hand, it’s unsurprising that a country where nearly 184 million cats and dogs make their homes as companion animals to humans would place a priority on preserving the lives of these creatures. But, on the other, the behemoth of American agribusiness and the record-setting diet of the average American consumer predicted to eat over 220 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2018 might also lead one to ask: what is so special about these two particular animals? Why are we happy to eat pigs, cows, and chickens, but – if this new Act is eventually signed into law – may face federal penalties for eating comparably similar nonhuman creatures?

This is the question Melanie Joy takes up in her 2010 book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism. Joy argues that it is is simply a matter of cultural perspective which leads people in the US to view some animals as food and others as friends; empowered by a violent ideology labeled carnism, Joy explains how a variety of social and historical facts have developed over time into a system that conditions the majority of US citizens to simply take for granted that different species of animals are categorized in various arbitrary ways. It’s not the case that most meat-eaters have consciously chosen to eat some animals and not others; it is instead the case that, because carnism operates invisibly, most carnists have simply never actually considered the question of what they are actually eating.

Roughly twenty years ago, my family sat down to dinner in the home of a Saudi-Arabian national; as a normal part of the meal, a goat had been killed, prepared, and served on a large platter as a main course. Two decades later, my mother still tells the story of how uncomfortable she felt when the platter was placed directly in front of her, forcing her to face the empty eye sockets of her dinner’s skull for the duration of her meal.

The presence of the goat’s head on that dinner table remains memorable because it violated a key principle of carnism: invisibility. Normally in the West, animal slaughtering practices are removed from the public eye, allowing carnism to promote what Joy calls ‘psychic numbing’ as eaters mentally disconnect the animality of meat from its role as food. Trying to have a polite meal with a reminder of one’s dinner’s pre-mortem life as a centerpiece unavoidably grates against that invisibility.

So, because cats and dogs are less invisible to most Westerners, the thought of betraying our species-level relationship with them by treating them like food sounds reprehensible; doing so to other animals is contingently easier because they are socially removed from our general experience. Joy argues that such a disparity is ultimately inconsistent; pigs and dogs, for example, are far too similar in emotional, intellectual, and physical capacities to justify being treated so differently. However, raising the awareness of the current carnist state’s arbitrary conclusions will take time.

For now, the potential ban on cat and dog consumption still has several legislative steps ahead of it before it becomes a law, but with support from the Humane Society of America, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and cosponsorship from congresspersons representing eight different US states, animal rights advocates are celebrating this incremental step towards protecting vulnerable creatures. Whether or not similar legislation protecting other defenseless animals will eventually make its way to the floor of Congress seems unlikely given the strong ideology of carnism, but, as Shakespeare’s Richmond says in Richard III, “True hope is swift and flies with swallow’s wings.”

Insider Talk: Challenging Food Choices

Photograph of a table set for six people

When a company wants to go green, are there limits on what it can ask of its employees? This question came to the fore due to WeWork’s recent announcement: the company will no longer serve or reimburse for meat, citing the environmental costs of animal protein and, to a lesser extent, worries about animal welfare. The reaction was swift and negative: it’s just virtue signaling, it’s an ideological crusade, it’s tribalism, it’s bull. The North American Meat Institute, a lobbying group for the industry — has even launched IChooseMeat.com, a response to the threat of “your office dictating your food choices,” and which aims to “fight meat denial.”

Here, though, I don’t want to get lost in the criticisms of WeWork’s policy, both because they seem like overreactions, and because they seem misguided in an era that expects moral leadership in business. They are overreactions because such policies don’t force anyone to do anything. You want to eat meat? Go for it. Just don’t expect your company to subsidize it. Was it any worse for companies to remove cigarette machines from their offices in the 80s, when smoking was still commonplace? And they are misguided because this sort of disagreement is the price of something that’s genuinely good: namely, having companies care about more than profits. We have long wanted businesses to be more socially conscious, but of course we disagree about what being “socially conscious” involves. These conflicts aren’t bugs in the new order: they’re features, and ones to which we should acclimate ourselves.

So let’s set those issues aside. Instead, let’s focus on the general puzzle here. Why do we bristle when people challenge our meat consumption? And is our bristling justified?

There are, of course, those who don’t like the challenge because they’re climate change skeptics, or they don’t think it matters at all whether animals suffer, or what have you. But if one of those factors explains the negative reaction, then the disagreement is probably too deep to resolve, and we should simply move on.

There are a slew of other uninteresting possibilities. For instance, we don’t like being made to feel guilty about food. (But who likes it in other contexts?) And you sometimes hear people say that change is hard. (Not much defense: we can always play that card.) Ultimately, though, I think we need a more interpersonal story. We don’t seem to think that people have the right to criticize what we eat. And why would that be? What norm are they violating?

A few possibilities come to mind. The first is that this is somehow a violation of privacy. But if that’s what’s bothering us, it won’t go far as a justification. It’s one thing to claim that a matter is private when it has no public consequences. But our diets do, and so they seem subject to public scrutiny.

A second option is a “local knowledge” objection. Maybe no one knows a person’s situation well enough to decide what he or she ought to eat. Only you know whether you need some chicken to flourish, or if you can make it just fine on garbanzo beans. But again, this seems implausible as a defense. I don’t know much at all about what my body needs; I just know what makes me feel good. And feeling good is as much about habit and history as it is about biology: I feel a certain way in response to whether I’m getting what I want (cake), not whether I’m fueling in the optimal way (spinach and lentils).

A third story is that we’re not open to moralizing about food, as we care too much about it. This is a bit like the way that having children is awful for the environment, but we don’t stop having them for that reason. The environment matters to us, but not that much. However, the parallel isn’t great. The impulse to have children runs deep, and for many people, their kids make their lives meaningful. Of course, food is also tied to living meaningfully: table fellowship is among life’s basic pleasures, and can forge deep bonds. However, you can savor time with family without eating turkey. This requires flexibility, but not the rejection of one of our deepest longings.

A final possibility — and the one I find most plausible — is that food talk is insider talk. Debates about what we eat, like debates about sex and child rearing, are ones we have with those who aren’t in our tribe — with non-Christians or non-liberals or non-crunchy moms — but we generally don’t change our minds as a result. By contrast, if a fellow liberal expresses worries about prostitution, or if your pastor gives you an argument against spanking your kids, you might well see things differently. You trust insiders to see the world in roughly the way you do, and as a result, their reasoning gets extra weight in your own deliberations.

If this is what’s going on, it’s both understandable and unfortunate. The former, because ethics is hard, disagreement is everywhere, and we need some strategy for deciding how to allocate our limited time and attention. After all, moral conversation isn’t the whole of life; at some point, you have to do the dishes and the laundry.

It’s unfortunate, though, because of what it implies about the way people insulate ourselves from moral criticism. There are things for which it’s worth circling the wagons. But food? In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius observed that “all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust,” we should strive to see them clearly, “stripping away the legend that encrusts them.” Food is full of legends, but it’s ultimately just sustenance. It’s a mean to many ends — nutritionally, socially, politically — though ones that can usually be achieved in other ways. It isn’t sacrosanct, and change, though difficult, is possible.

So should everyone become a strict vegetarian? Maybe, maybe not. But the conversation is worth having.