Though I understand that a lot of folks don’t take well to hearing such talk about meat — they speak as if we all had some solemn duty to eat the stuff — the needlessness of it all is empirical fact. At a certain point we have to choose between cruelly made products and our integrity. And it becomes perverse after a while to try dressing up these unnecessary evils as somehow essential to life’s enjoyment or even as morally vital — a feature of “human thriving,” as one apologist for the industry likes to put it — especially if you presume at the same time to fault others for their weak “sentimentality” about animals. There is no Larger Meaning to meat, nothing high and noble behind all the suffering and slaughter. Arguments to that effect seek to confer dignity, not on human beings, but on unbridled human appetite. And sentimentality, so soft and self-directed, doesn’t get weaker than that. The grander the rationale for meat and other products of cruelty, the more distinctly one hears the roving chef’s cry of “pleasure, for God’s sake, man, pleasure!”
The way I look at it, however one works out the finer points of philosophy, most of us, including me, have enough sins of selfishness and indifference to answer for without adding one more to the account — in the case of complicity in cruelty, an error so readily avoided, if at times with a little hassle. You can’t get much closer to the dictionary definition of human selfishness than the attitude, courtesy of Anthony Bourdain, that life is “not worth living” unless it involves forcing truly
unlivable lives on countless creatures who pose us no threat and have done us no harm. I want no part of it. Steering clear of meat and all the rest just seems the right and gracious thing to do, whether or not I have
to do it. And I like to think I’d make the same choice even if I didn’t feel a particular concern for animals.
It doesn’t matter, after all, whether one feels the offense acutely, or feels much concern at all for other creatures, any more than one has to be fond of babies to place their interests above material concerns of convenience, economic advantage, or whatever else. To buy and consume animal products, knowing the suffering that lies behind them, is a compromise that leaves you, well, compromised. It’s a choice that can also cloud objective judgment about other forms of abuse to animals, because few are as bad as the one that the indifferent consumer has excused in his or her own conduct. Turning back to fellow pro-lifers, moreover, a resistance to cruelty-free alternatives — and, all the more, a disdain for them — doesn’t exactly enhance anyone’s moral credibility.
Citing the lesser gravity of cruelty to animals, as compared with the taking of a human life, only invites the question of why that lower offense cannot be avoided, that easier duty of kindness not fulfilled. If we shrug off so simple an obligation as not to live off the mistreatment of animals, buying into materialistic and utilitarian arguments — perhaps even leaving, as Screwtape perceived, charity and justice at the mercy of appetite — that undercuts one’s standing to comment on the much harder dilemmas of other people. A single harsh choice, made in panic or despair in a true crisis of conscience, is more understandable than a lifetime of ruthless choices casually made, with nothing more to tip the moral scale than a pork chop, bucket of chicken, or higher margin of profit. “Informed consent” is a test worth trying on ourselves, reluctant as so many are to learn how their food is made because they’re afraid that if they “know too much” it will force a change of heart and habit. In a society where every day so many people still choose to give money and support to companies that are guilty of the horrendous abuse of billions of fellow creatures, without a moment’s thought, “Who are you to judge?” is a fair question for pro-choicers to ask.
“STAND WITH WENDY!” OR “HERE FOR TRIG”?
You can take all of this and double it, if you consider yourself a conservative. On every count, a harsh domination over animals runs against the principles and spirit of the creed, above all our usual alertness to abuses of power and failures of personal responsibility. The idea of animal protection as a cause of the Left is wildly overstated, put about by livestock interests and other animal-use industries to scare mainstream America away, just as NARAL et al. want us to think of protecting the rights of the unborn as the crazy obsession of the Right. Some conservatives, usually affiliated with those industries, invoke our devotion to “personal liberty” in defense of modern “intensive farming” and other such practices. That’s the last principle I’d try using in their position. Who would venture to justify the bitter confinement of billions of fellow creatures? No one who truly appreciates a life of freedom.
And all of this works in reverse, of course. A good many people who take up the cause of animals would do well to question their own inconsistencies. One cannot credibly advance the claims of animal life while disregarding the claims of innocent human life. Though quite a few friends of mine involved in the welfare cause are also pro-life, it’s probably true that most men and women who champion animals, and witness for a better way by becoming vegetarian or vegan, count themselves proudly pro-choice. The problem is just as glaring, if not more dramatically so. Why on earth not extend your compassion to the unborn child?
I got a large helping of our vegan, animal-rights brand of sanctimony five years ago after my speechwriting collaboration with Sarah Palin. How could I, having written a book on the theme of animal protection, have anything to do with the wolf huntress of Alaska? For how many pieces of Koch Brothers silver had I sold out my animal friends? Such rank hypocrisy even the cock would be too disgusted to crow of my betrayal. It was a subject of indignant commentary here and there, and it was the rare detractor who could even imagine that the reason might have something to do with a shared belief in the rights of the unborn.