It Depends on the Cheeseburger

David’s post on the morality of food choices is generating an important debate. What spurred the discussion was David’s assertion that “[a]s a matter of intellectual consistency, it makes no more sense to decry animal cruelty while eating a cafeteria cheeseburger than to condemn racism while attending a lynching”.

I also find it problematic to condemn animal cruelty while feasting on a Big Mac. The problem is one of hypocrisy. It reminds me of Larry Craig and Ted Haggard arguing against gay rights while simultaneously engaging in homosexual behavior. If expressions of moral condemnation are going to carry weight, they ought to not only be uttered but also lived by. Thus, people who truly believe that factory farming is morally unjustifiable should  stop eating factory farmed products. Otherwise, they’re complicit in the very behavior they’re condemning. This is both morally objectionable and strategically ineffective.

On the other hand, whether it’s objectionable to decry animal cruelty while eating a cheeseburger may very well depend on the cheeseburger. Many animal advocates believe that it’s possible to be a responsible omnivore. It’s unclear, for example, whether eating non-factory farmed meat that was humanely raised is morally objectionable. Thus, I’m not ready to state that David’s hypothetical cheeseburger eating animal advocate is being hypocritical if the meat he was eating was humanely raised.

This is not a minor quibble. If I’m right, a person may justifiably decry the horrors of factory farming while simultaneously arguing that his willingness to eat a (humanely raised) cheeseburger should not be dismissed as mere hipocrisy. One must not forget that that although there seems to be a growing consensus regarding the wrongfulness of factory farming, there is no such consensus with regard to the wrongfulness of eating humanely raised meat (putting aside, of course, the thorny problem of defining what counts as “humanely raised meat”).

– Luis Chiesa

4 Responses

  1. I largely agree with Professor Chiesa. But as with Professor Cassuto’s earlier post I have a logic problem with the example he provides. A person who engages in homosexual relations while denouncing others who do, or the practice, is a hypocrite albeit often a psychologically complicated and even tortured one. A more realistic example might be one who denounces factory produced meat as morally wrong while knowingly consuming those products.

    But if we seek support in any cause from a wide cohort, we have to remember that few will embrace the degree of activism of leaders. I am not an animal welfare attorney but I have decades of First Amendment experience and I’ve often said, in court or in diverse fora, that the First Amendment wasn’t designed to just protect “the Tom Paines.” To get maximum support for Free Speech causes a broad range of folks must be approached and recruited. That’s hard enough with fundamental constitutional rights. When it comes to the reality that most people want meat, poultry and fish and will not or can not avoid mass produced table fare the individual activist’s personal moral choice is either to opt for narrow inclusiveness or the proverbial Big Tent.

  2. Unless activism seeks widespread embrace of the concept that the consumption of meat, dairy and eggs (to which some, like Professor Chiesa, might accept an exception for products that they deem “humane”) constitutes morally culpable animal cruelty, there is not much point in activism. Convincing people that animal cruelty is wrong but failing to inform them that they are paying to support it, or reassuring them that it is ok to support it as long as they give lip service to the concept, would appear to be a colossal waste of time.

    The “reality that most people want meat, poultry and fish and will not or can not avoid mass produced table fare” is the very “reality” that the activist seeks to change since, unless it is changed, cruelty on an unimaginable scale will simply continue. Yes, it’s a daunting, herculean task. Animal activism is not for the easily discouraged. But there is no hope of changing that reality if activists are so afraid of offending that they will not even state that reality out loud. And virtually every activist has the comforting awareness that that change occurred in their own life — usually because someone they know spoke the truth to them — so why should it not occur in others’?

    BTW, I agree that the homosexual analogy does not quite work. A person who decries homosexuality but indulges in it, in my mind, is certainly a hypocrite, but his or her moral wrong lies in his or her hypocritical denouncement of the activity, not the activity itself. A person who eats meat but decries animal cruelty has committed a moral wrong by the act itself.

  3. I agree with Mariann’s response to Prof. Stein’s comment. For the purpose of this particular point, it is okay that most people want their animal dependent dinners. The ignorant consumer, though part of the problem, is not actively responsible for the sources of her food; many areas lack alternatives to industrial food. But we would be poor campaigners for change if we did not seek to educate people about the sources of their food.

    Once a person acknowledges the problems with industrial agriculture and sees the suffering, and yet still chooses to eat the cheeseburger, then we are dealing with a different kind of person entirely. There is a point at which some people from the “wide cohort” must be excluded, or will exclude themselves, or else your activism isn’t really saying anything. Where that point is, I am not sure, but certainly the best way to reach the producers of a faulty product, in any industry, is to boycott the product.

  4. Boycott a product is a time honored and often effective tactic in bringing about change. For example, the issue of migrant workers and grape production in California led to widespread but hardly universal rejection of CA grapes and movement towards ameliorating the condition of migrant workers.

    I merely suggest that targeting a specific product (or manufacturer or whatever) is very different than seeking to reduce or eliminate animal cruelty by exhorting the great majority of people to significantly change their diets.

    Of course every person has the right to take whatever lawful action his/her conception of a moral issue happens to be. With regard to animal cruelty I question the effectiveness of some approaches, not the sincerity and commitment of those who proffer them.

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