The Anti-Meat Argument I Don’t Understand

There’s a very common argument floating around that says that if you wouldn’t personally feel comfortable slaughtering (or castrating, or debeaking, or fill-in-the-blank) an animal, then you shouldn’t pay for another person to do it. Sam Harris has even identified this as the linchpin of his vegetarianism—the argument that prevents him from eating those organic, free-range “happy cows.” While this is a compelling point for many, it ultimately puts the argument against meat on shaky ground.

Part of the reason people resort to this argument is that it evokes a visceral reaction. Who wouldn’t be squeamish about slitting a cow’s throat? The question is, does this make cow slaughter wrong—at least for the squeamish among us? The problem is, we pay people all the time to do work we’re too squeamish to do. Remember that show “Dirty Jobs” with Mike Rowe? I wouldn’t collect samples of bat guano, inspect raw sewage or recycle sludge, but I’m damn glad other people do it!

Maybe this argument isn’t so much about visceral squeamishness as much as it is about moral squeamishness. I might say that “X behavior isn’t always wrong, but I personally would feel wrong doing it. Therefore, I won’t support the practice by paying others to do my dirty work.” This is a far more sophisticated argument, but it still has at least one notable counter-example.

Plenty of pro-choice woman say they wouldn’t personally feel right getting an abortion—it would feel wrong to them as a matter of individual conscience—and yet they are glad that abortion is legal. Is it wrong for these women to donate to Planned Parenthood to keep abortion available? Or, more directly, would it be wrong for them to pay for a friend’s abortion? Intuitively, I think the answer is that it is not. It’s possible to make a distinction between personal and normative ethics.

This argument against meat sells itself short by basing its premise on any one individual’s disgust. Whether you are a psychopath who couldn’t care less about the suffering of animals or a weepy animal-loving sentimentalist, the core of this moral argument concerns the psychological toll that slaughterhouse workers face. The question isn’t “would you be comfortable working in a factory farm or a slaughterhouse?” The question is “can anyone possibly perform these jobs and be comfortable and psychologically healthy?” That may be a nuanced question, with different answers for different jobs, but it is common sense (with significant anecdotal evidence behind it) that this work leaves serious psychological scars. Slaughterhouse workers are practically required to deaden themselves to violence, gore and cruelty. No matter what your personal feelings, your taste buds cannot justify an industry that does this to its workers.

Addendum: I realize that Harris makes this point in a highly theoretical context. He intended to explain why he isn’t comfortable even eating a “happy cow.” I would only like to emphasize that the story of the “happy cow” is largely a myth, and is certainly not compatible with feeding large populations. Practical terms force us to confront grim realities.

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