Against Factory Farms
by Andy Han (PO ‘23)
It’s kind of a common trope that everyone at the 5Cs is vegetarian or vegan. There are memes about it, there are jokes about it, and most importantly, the dining halls reflect this choice (in November 2019, Pitzer Student Senate passed a resolution calling on its dining hall to eliminate beef). In contrast with other school systems, where I’ve heard it’s hard to not eat meat, sometimes even a carnivore here can accidentally not bring any meat on their plate.
When you ask a vegetarian why they are vegetarian, they will respond with some version of “It’s wrong to eat meat:” that is, something like “Meat is bad for the environment, so it’s wrong to eat meat;” “Killing is wrong, so it’s wrong to eat meat;” “Hurting living beings is wrong, so it’s wrong to eat meat.” There are many more justifications, but they essentially boil down to two aspects of our meat habit: the environment and the suffering. Doing wrong by one or the other, vegetarians say, is morally impermissible, and eating meat really does do wrong by one or the other.
It seems to me that the most common justification for vegetarianism in Claremont is the environmental defense. The vegetarian makes a moral judgement. But this argument rests on a common-sense calculus for the survival of our species. If the world continues to produce and eat meat in the current way, eventually we’ll run out of resources and then there’s no more meat, much less other things.
I believe that animals deserve more respect than this. The environmental argument, while strong, does not necessarily give me, the committed carnivore, an individual mandate to stop eating meat. This problem, while not the most philosophically important, is I think pragmatically crucial.
The reason that the environmentalist vegetarian gives when I ask why I shouldn’t eat meat is this: if I don’t buy meat, then it’s that many fewer dollars in the pocket of meat manufacturers, and so that many fewer animals contributing to the destruction of the environment. This is true. But what is the impact of me cutting out my 47 chickens a year when Tyson by itself kills 37 million chickens a week? It’s easy to be motivated by the environment when you’re reading a book; it’s harder when you’re staring at the In-N-Out menu.
The alternative argument is one that comes from suffering — that individual animals’ pain is so morally objectionable that we shouldn’t eat them. I believe this argument is far more motivating to the individual human. Moreover, I believe that the Christian argument from suffering for vegetarianism is far more compelling than any other. The Christian perspective here is unique, because its foundation of absolute moral authority gives each of us a personal mandate — one that remains even in the face of limits on an individual’s capacity to cause actual change. Vegetarianism, sadly, isn’t remotely associated with Christians. I believe it should be, because I believe the Bible prohibits eating factory-farmed meat.
Perhaps the most famous justification of eating meat in the Bible comes from Saint Peter in the biblical book of Acts. Peter reports a vision he had where he “saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending… In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean. And the voice came to him again a second time, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’” Clearly this is a divine approval of eating meat — right? Not exactly. Looking at the commentary given by Biblical scholars, in this instance “God was overturning the old clean/unclean distinctions and dietary laws in general, along with all other ‘ceremonial’ laws in the Mosaic covenant. Peter was treating [non-Hebrews] as unclean, following later tradition rather than the Old Testament.” The Bible isn’t actually talking about meat, but simply using it as a symbol to discuss something deeper — in this case, the then-common practice of discriminatory application of the old law to marginalize the other.
This, and other verses I don’t have space for, mean that the Bible is silent on the question of eating meat qua meat. It only discusses eating meat as a symbol in other contexts, such as prohibitions against idolatry or cleanliness in the old law.
So where does this leave contemporary Christians?
As I said earlier, there are basically two arguments that you can make for vegetarianism: the first environmental, the second from suffering (which I’ll simply call the “suffering argument”). The environmental has been well-thought-out by leading non-Christian thinkers like Peter Singer. Singer dedicates a large portion of his book Animal Liberation (1975 — one of the first academic formulations of vegetarianism) to the environmental argument, and I need not summarize it here.
Where Christianity has special insight is the suffering argument, which I think becomes much stronger if you suppose the Christian’s bedrock of morality. If you believe in Christianity, morals are fairly simple: they’re what God commands. Many contemporary non-Christian philosophers also believe in moral facts (for different reasons) — that is, things that are categorically wrong, like murder, and things that are categorically right, like love. — because it’s hard to judge anything at all as good or bad without this foundation.
So a Christian morality is what God commands. It follows that to determine if I ought to eat meat, I have to figure out what God commands with respect to eating meat.
First, God commands humans to be merciful. God desires humans to be as close to Him as possible, through imitating his characteristics. God’s primary, most essential quality is an unlimited commitment to love; God loves without qualification and without boundary. And the corollary to love is mercy. This is so important that Jesus and his disciple Paul constantly refer to it in the New Testament, sometimes with reference to the Old Testament.
But what is mercy? The Bible doesn’t give an explicit definition of it, but we can see what it means to be merciful from the example of Jesus. There is a story in the book of Luke in the middle of Jesus’ ministry: “As [Jesus] entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.’ … And as they went they were cleansed [emphasis mine].”
So mercy involves, at the very least, releasing from suffering, sometimes even if that suffering was deserved. For Paul reminds us that “The wages of sin is death,” but God says in the book of Hebrews that he will no longer remember our sin and will in fact save us in spite of it. He releases us from an eternal state of damnation — suffering — out of mercy. In fact, the greatest example of what it means to be merciful in the Bible is precisely the event that predicates Christianity: in order to relieve us of suffering, even though we deserved it, God sacrificed his only beloved Son. The foundation of Christianity is this overarching, irrational, unreasonable, absurd quintessence of mercy.
While God commands us to be merciful, factory farms are decidedly not. Factory farms are the result of a massive consolidation of farmland under a handful of large corporations. It’s not even called farming anymore, it’s called “agribusiness.” These companies have spent millions and millions of dollars to keep the image of the idyllic Midwestern family farm in peoples’ minds when they think of “farm.” Look at the marketing on your milk and your cookies and your chicken — rolling green pastures, wooden red barns, and happily grazing farm animals. As an Ohioan, I can tell you that these still do exist — for wheat and corn farms. But where 99% of your meat comes from looks more like a military barracks, with rows and rows of squat steel buildings containing thousands and thousands of livestock. These buildings imprison chickens that “never see daylight, until the day they are taken out to be killed; nor do they breathe air which is not heavy with the ammonia from their own droppings.” They afflict pigs with “porcine stress syndrome,” a wretched and often fatal condition. They fatten cows until they transport them thousands of miles on roads paved with the corpses of cattle, frozen, exhausted, starved, and suffocated. They are factories in every sense of the word. They care about the health and well-being and suffering of their animals only insofar as it affects profit. (I lack the space to fully give an account of what goes on in factory farms. If you’d like to learn more, I recommend Animal Liberation (Peter Singer), Eating Animals (Jonathan Foer), and The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Michael Pollan), as well as the documentary “Food, Inc” (Robert Kenner).)
There are some who argue that animals can’t feel pain, or at least that they can’t feel it like humans can. These critics point to the inability of an animal to reason as evidence of its being unable to experience pain to the same degree as people. But it’s absurd to say that it’s necessary to be capable of an existential crisis in order to suffer. Do we hypostulate about the multivaried and maniplex causes of pain when we touch something hot? No. It just hurts. As Jeremy Bentham put it, “The question is not, can [animals] reason? nor, can they talk? but, can they suffer?”
We therefore have to determine whether factory farms are in accord with the examples of mercy in the Bible. After all, it could be the case that perhaps this concept of mercy only applies to humans, or that very little mercy is required by animals.
In Proverbs, it is written: “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.” This is an unequivocal, direct statement that mercy must extend to animals insofar as the righteous person “has regard” for his animal. This seems a rather low bar to meet. But factory farms still fail to meet this low bar. How can they, when their only regard is to profit?
I hope that it is abundantly clear: factory farms are not merciful. At all. It is therefore unacceptable to support them, not because abstaining from meat will hurt their bottom line. It certainly will, but then we run into the same individual motivation problem as the environmental argument. But it is unacceptable to eat meat because it affirms and takes part in their project: the cruel and unending campaign to transform the animal, God’s creation, into a simple machine for meat that humans can forever exploit. In a similar way that Communion affirms the Christian’s membership in the body of Christ, this dark communion of flesh affirms the eater’s membership in the support of factory farms.
I will now make explicit some boundaries on my argument. I have not said that eating meat is inherently bad, nor even that killing (when it’s necessary) is bad. For animal lives are important, but human lives are categorically more important. It is an obvious moral fact that given a choice between an animal life and a human one, or animal suffering and human suffering, I would opt for the human in the one case and the animal in the other. But factory farms are not so simple. It is not an impossible thing to give up meat, and it doesn’t cause that much human suffering. But it saves enormous animal suffering, which is enormously valuable.
And if killing an animal is necessary for survival — as it was in Judea, and as it still is in some places — by all means, kill and eat. If I am capable of killing an animal (I don’t know that I am), I would happily eat an animal that I have killed in the wild. I would also happily eat an animal that I know has been raised well. It’s true what the Christian carnivore says: God does allow for killing and eating. What he does not allow is torture and unmerciful treatment.
Vegetarianism ought to be more common among Christians. Historically, it was: some very committed Christians would become vegetarian for morality’s sake. Christians believe that God gave humanity his Creation to use, develop, and care for. As a Christian, it’s simply wrong to treat anything God created in the way that factory farms treat animals.
But animals don’t care about any of this. It’s simply suffering when you’re stuffed into a building and forced to breathe your own excrement. It’s simply suffering to have your beak or tail cut off. It is, emphatically, simple suffering that factory farms inflict on animals: it is mundane, routine, and casual pain; usual, impassive, and indifferent torture.
Fortunately, there’s a way out. There’s a way to deny this cruelty and to reject the power of humans to tyrannize God’s creation. This way is mercy, inspired by Jesus, informed by God, and in accord with morality. And precisely because humans have a terrifying capacity for brutality, we have a correspondingly great opportunity for mercy. It’s up to us to take it.