Thursday, August 7, 2014

"Animal Agriculture" – A Distributed Evil



How many of us would be willing to kill a non-human being whom we had raised ourselves if we had absolutely no need to eat this being?

A minority of us, I’m sure.

How many of us would be willing to pay other people to raise and kill a non-human being if we had no need to eat this being?

The answer, unfortunately, is the number of people who buy and eat flesh; that is, the vast majority of us.


In my experience, most people will admit that such an inconsistency is indefensible, and rightly so. After all, the ethical status of doing something does not depend on who carries out the action, but on what the action is — whether we kill somebody ourselves or pay someone else to do it, it is still wrong; for the victim, the result is the same: death by human hands. Yet the reality is, most unfortunately, that this inconsistency thrives untroubled and untouched by such simple observations. The reality is that we pay others, on a daily basis, to do what we could never do ourselves — to do an act that most of us would be horrified to carry out ourselves, and, in the case of many of us, even unable to ever forgive ourselves for having done. The inconsistency is striking, and more than that, it is nothing less than the source of the greatest atrocity committed by humanity today.

It is worth noting that the decisive difference between our unwillingness to kill another being and our willingness to buy the flesh from that same being does not seem to only lie in the fact that it is another person who is leading the knife, as it is probably still only a minority of us who would accept that someone else kills a non-human being if we have to watch it happen. For instance, if we stood in front of a non-human being, and someone then came to us and asked: “Will you pay me to kill this being and give you all her flesh?” I think very few of us would say yes. In fact, I think most people would be horrified and openly condemn it if they saw it happen right before them in real life. For instance, if someone in my local park killed a wild bird there, I am sure the other people in the park would object to this action and not be very moved by the assurance that the bird will be eaten. Yet the person who sits and eats a sandwich that contains the flesh from a chicken while he condemns this bird killer and shakes his head over incomprehensible human evil can claim no moral high ground whatsoever, as he has himself paid another person to do the very thing he is condemning: the killing of a bird whom we do not need to kill or eat, and that bird might well have suffered a death far more brutal than the death he has just witnessed and condemned (many chickens are for instance boiled alive at slaughterhouses because their throats are not cut fully).

So it seems that it is not merely because others do it that we are willing to support an act so brutal and evil that we would not want to do it ourselves, but because others do it so smoothly and without letting us know anything about it. We consume “animal products” because the entire “production process” happens so conveniently out of sight.
This should give us pause. The fact that the vast majority of us are supporting something that only a small minority of us would ever be able to do simply because it happens out of sight reveals that we are completely disconnected from what it is we consume and what the process behind it is — and knowingly so, because we know that we don’t know much about it. We are knowingly looking away, and by doing this we are not only betraying the non-human victims, but also ourselves and our own values.

This is the horror of a large, distributed system. By distributing the various acts of evil — the act of raising non-human beings only for them to be killed, the act of killing them, the act of distributing and selling them, and the act of buying and eating them — we have managed to construct a system that is as evil as only the most sadistic person could be on his own. After all, many people who raise non-human beings for them to be killed report that they cannot bear seeing them get killed, and that they feel terrible when they send them to slaughter. Yet by distributing the next evil act in this great circle of evil to another person who has not seen any of these beings grow up — not seen their personalities and charming quirks, but only seen another anonymous being enter the slaughterhouse — we manage to get the job done. Collectively, together, we can do it. And it is not the case that this person whose job it is to kill the beings is especially culpable in any way; it is simply a job that exists in response to a demand. Our demand. It all comes back to us, the consumers, who merrily buy and eat the non-human beings.


As a general matter, the evil that a large, distributed system can manage to perform by virtue of splitting up a large-scale atrocity into many small tasks, each undertaken by people who are mostly good and kind individuals, is something that we should all be extremely cognizant of, as we clearly are not well-equipped to recognize such evils. However, the fact that we have such a blind spot does not provide an excuse for our blindness in any way. All it takes to cure our blindness is simply that we open our eyes and stop looking away from the fact of our exploitation of other animals and the role that we as consumers play in it. Because we are all part of this clockwork — as active a part as any. In fact, we who consume the non-human beings have taken on the most fundamental task of all. We perform the climactic end step of this entire circle of evil, the step that powerfully reinforces the ideological foundation of the entire practice of exploiting non-human beings in an act of indulgent promulgation: Yes, non-human beings are mere things. They are just things we can consume for frivolous purposes.

Collectively we are doing what none of us could do alone. We have managed to create a collective practice that is far more evil than anything we could ever dream of doing individually. How have we managed to do this? How do we stop it? As I aim to argue in my next two essays, our final act of consuming “animal products” — what most people consider a relatively innocent act — is not only a crucial piece in the puzzle of our exploitation of non-human beings, and it is not only a powerful contributing factor to our moral confusion with regard to them; it is the very foundation of it all. It is the cardinal sin we commit against them. Only when we stop this will we stop our exploitation of non-human beings and all the horrors it inevitably carries with it.