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James McWilliam's book, The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals, is a welcomed addition to the literature on the ethics of eating animals. At first glance, the book appears to be another appeal to not eat animals or to, at minimum, not eat animals who are forced to be raised in factory-like settings and eat those who have experienced some semblance of a good life. McWilliams certainly does make the appeal we should not be eating animals and acknowledges that it is better to eat animals from non-factory settings, but he is not content with "better" (p. 221). Instead, he argues that those who choose to eat free range, organic, and grass fed animals, because the animals are better off than their factory raised compatriots, are committing what he calls the "omnivore's contradiction" (p. 48).
This is an important and challenging book. Similar to Peter Singer's efforts in Animal Liberation efforts to reveal the travesties of factory farming, McWilimans reveals the dilemma facing those who choose to consume meat eaten from non-factory settings. In addition to an introduction and conclusion, seven chapters make up the book: 1. Getting Emotional; 2. The Omnivore's Contradiction; 3. Humane Slaughter; 4. Backyard Butchery; 5. Humane Chicken; 6. Utopian Beef; and 7. Painful Pork.
The first chapter acknowledges the rhetorical and potentially hyperbolic approach to the topic of consuming meat, eggs, and dairy. Although the book has philosophical implications, McWilliams acknowledges that his argument is not merely a philosophical one. Instead, the focus is on adopting a Kantian strategy of importing "data of experience" to reach a tipping point to sway ethically inclined consumers away from contributing to non-factory farming practices (p. 226). McWilliams' assumption is that ethically inclined consumers will not be swayed by reason, but by appeals to emotion. This assumption is somewhat plausible given that most people who are unwilling to eat meat from factory farms do so as a result of compassion and concern for the well-being of the animals. As much as we'd like them to be, genuine compassion and concern are not usually the result of rational and academic thinking—instead they are often the result of emotional and psychological attitudes. For this reason, McWilliams' approach to the subject of consuming animals is a refreshing one when compared to more traditional academic approaches.
One of the ways that McWilliams recommends that we become more compassionate about the animals we choose to have on our plates is to begin anthropomorphizing them in a similar way to how we think about our pets (p. 15). In particular, by seeing animals that are raised for food as having the capacity to experience desires, pains, and pleasures in a similar way to our pets and us, we begin developing a stronger bond with those animals. For example, he encourages the reader to consider how a sow feels not being able to exhibit natural behaviors such as rutting or how a cow feels not being able to nuzzle its newborn calf (p. 16). By considering how we feel when we can't play or be with our newborn children we can begin taking into account the emotional attitudes of animals. Some might say that such attitudes should not be given to nonhuman animals, but McWilliams' is not targeting these skeptics—his audience is comprised of those who already acknowledge that animals have such feelings and should not be placed on factory farms as a result.
I would include myself as someone who McWilliams is addressing. My own reasons for not eating factory-raised meat, yet still eating humanely raised animals, eggs, and dairy products, have been economically motivated. My thoughts were as follows: It is wrong to eat animals, but it is worse to eat animals from factory farms than farms that concern themselves with the well-being of the animal; people are not going to stop eating meat; therefore I should purchase non-factory farm meat to create more of a demand on non-factory farmed meats. Yet, this line of thinking resulted in an unsettling outcome. It was strange to think that something that had a good life is something that should be or deserved to be food.
The unsettling outcome that I've been grappling with for the past years is one that McWilliams makes explicit in the second chapter, in which he addresses the omnivore's contradiction. The omnivore's contradiction can be summarized as involving two steps (pp. 48-9). The first step is the condemnation of factory farms: Animals are sentient, conscious, social, intelligent and self-aware; animals exhibit symptoms of depression and pain resulting from cruel and inhuman treatment on factory farms; therefore, standard factory farm methods of raising animals for foods are morally reprehensible. The second step is the selective moral consideration adopted in still choosing to eat animals. The resulting omnivore's contradiction is we care about animals and we kill them. McWilliams identifies the omnivore's contradiction being committed from notable figures such as Pollan, Bittman, and Foer, each of whom has made substantive contradictions to how the general public understands its food. McWilliams challenges these notable food commentators to stop eating animals altogether (p. 49). Whereas he agrees with them that eating animals from small farms is preferable to eating from factory farms (p. 68), that if our concern is really the welfare of the animals being eaten, then better does not mean right and that "better is not good enough" (p. 69).
In considering the plight of animals raised on small farms, McWilliams considers some potentially counterintuitive findings. For example, the majority of animals raised on small farms are still killed at the same commercial slaughterhouses as factory farm animals (p. 85). So, the humane treatment these animals may have received comes to an end. I must admit that McWilliams' descriptive writing becomes more difficult and makes the text emotionally challenging. In particular, his descriptions of the different forms of slaughter that these animals must succumb to had me putting the book down periodically. Among these animals include pigs, cows, rabbits, and chickens (which are not included in the Humane Slaughter Act, Animal Welfare Act, and Twenty-Eight Hour Law). While McWilliams does acknowledge that it is preferable to have animals not suffer while living, he states "when this respect and dignity is violated by the ultimate and final suffering—an intentional and unnecessary death—the celebration somehow comes to an end" (p. 98), which leads him to conclude that the suffering involved in killing animals is not needed (p. 99).
After having discussed the ways in which the small farm industries commit many of the same harms that they aim to avoid, McWilliams evaluates attempts to slaughter animals without having to outsource the killing. The chapter is filled with detailed failed attempts and emotional burdens that the killers self-report having experienced on various blogs. The backyard, do-it-yourself butcher is characterized as being inexperienced and using the killing as a sense of accomplishment, as something that she should do. These reports include commentaries on why the animal should die; reflections on emotional states of preparing for the killing; the process of the (botched) killing itself; a post-rationalization of the act; and congratulatory notes for having accomplished the task (pp. 103-5). The testimonies are interesting, but obviously selected to further advance McWilliams' aim to show that backyard butchery should not be romanticized as many are wont to do. I would be curious to read some testimonies by those who are proficient in killing animals instead of only reading reports by those who are engaged in their first attempts.
The book then goes into detail regarding the raising of chicken, beef, and pork to illustrate that those who thought that small farming practices are not to be congratulated. Instead, he reveals a picture of animals that are forced to experience conditions similar to factory farm settings. For example, chickens are often given feed filled with medication (p. 151) and chicken owners have difficulties protecting their chickens from predators (p. 149). In large part, these challenges to chicken owners result from chickens being raised in environments that are at odds with their natural surroundings, which, to my surprise, are wooded areas—not pastures. Grass-fed beef are not able to be sustained on grass their entire lives due to water constraints, especially in drought susceptible areas (p. 186). Pigs are prevented from performing natural rutting behaviors and, without the use of farrowing crates, piglets on small farms have an incredibly high mortality rate resulting from "piglet overlay" (p. 213). In each of these chapters, McWilliams provides direct testimonies of the anguish farmers experience in their efforts to care for their animals, which have become like pets, and the psychological distress they experience the days leading up to and after the killing day. While I appreciate McWilliams' thorough discussion of these issues and a substantive chapter given to each animal, I found myself becoming numb to the graphic details. In some ways, I feel that a single section dedicated to each animal would have been more effective than an entire chapter.
In this book, McWilliams has offered a powerful exposé of the travesties befalling the small farm industry. I suspect that many readers will find themselves reflecting on their own dietary practices, as I have certainly done. This book, however, is not meant to be an academic exploration of the theoretical issues underlying the practice of eating animals. Instead, McWilliams' stance offers an emotional call to arms for the ethically concerned consumer. The take away being that while we may be doing something better, that is not always good enough.
© 2016 Andrew M. Winters
Andrew M. Winters, Department of Philosophy, Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania