The Ethics of Consuming Animals and Animals Products

[We’d like to share some thoughts on the ethics of consuming animals and animal products in recognition of yesterday’s World Animal Day. Some of the editors of the recently published The Broadview Anthology of Expository Prose 3/e are vegan, while others consume animal products; all are agreed that the issue of how animals are treated in industrial farming operations is a very important one—and for that reason they included within the anthology pieces on this issue both by Jonathan Safran Foer (against meat eating) and Nathanael Johnson (in favor). The passage below is an excerpt from a commentary by Don LePan that’s provided on the anthology’s Instructor’s Website as background material to the readings.]

“[After many years of being aware of the cruelties of factory farming but doing nothing], starting in the late 1990s I finally began to behave differently in one or two ways. I would look for free-range eggs and free-range poultry, and be prepared to pay more for meat and eggs that had been produced with less cruelty. Within a few years I would only eat meat or eggs if they were free-range, and milk and cheese if I was assured they came from happy cows. A few years more and I had stopped eating meat; a few years beyond that and one by one my partner and I found that we had stopped eating fish, eggs, and dairy products as well. We had become vegan. We’re lucky; neither of us misses any of the things we have “given up.” Not only do we eat more healthily than we ever had before, but we enjoy our food more. We take Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D supplements, we’ve never been as healthy—and it’s great to be able to say every breakfast, lunch, and dinner, ‘No animals were harmed in the making of this meal.’

For some, of course, it’s not so easy to go vegetarian or vegan—even very, very gradually. Some find they really do miss the taste of cheese and animal fat, and a very few have real health issues that make it problematic for them to go vegetarian or vegan. No one should feel badly about themselves on that account. But nor should those who feel the force of the arguments that Singer and others have put forward feel that they have no choice other than the binary of either remaining just as they are or going vegan. Johnson is quite right about that. Where he’s wrong is in the way he broadens the choice. Instead of two choices he offers three: 1) going vegan; 2) doing nothing and not caring about the cruelties of industrial agriculture; and 3) doing nothing while feeling some sympathy for the animals one is causing to be cruelly treated, and while being vaguely supportive of efforts to improve conditions for those animals. In practice there are literally hundreds of possibilities. If you choose to eat animals, any step in choosing animal products that involve less cruelty than what you have been eating is a good step. Any step you take to push for better treatment of animals—be it as small as signing a petition or posting a comment online—is a good step.

Much as I sympathize with Johnson’s starting point, I also cannot help but feel that it reflects badly on human animals that there seem to be so many of us spending time as he is (and as I was for many years) trying to rationalize to ourselves the continuation of cruelty—and so few of us truly making an effort to reduce the cruelty we have been causing, and to improve the lives of other animals.”

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