What does compassion have to do with what we eat? Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything is Illuminated, makes the argument that the answer to this question does matter. At least he’s betting on it as compassion becomes the driving, emotionally-charged, life-changing force in his new book Eating Animals. Foer’s book is a moral quest. He’s about to become a father and, as all fathers’ want, he wants what’s best for his son. But all similarities stop here, for Foer’s quest is about whether his family eats meat, unlike what many other fathers desire for their children: spending more time together, financial security, professional success, and more happiness.
Foer expatiates on his flirtation with vegetarianism so much so that the rest of us vegetarian wannabes, who can’t resist the “sirenous” taste of meat, can guiltily commiserate with the author’s struggle. And I do mean “sirenous” as in those enticers, seducers and tempters of bold Odysseus. He, too, couldn’t resist listening to the song just as us meat eaters can’t resist eating flesh, despite endless warnings about modern “factory farming" animal husbandry’s cost to the environment, public health, colon cancer, heart attacks … well you get the picture. Of course, there are always the hold-outs, those few die-hards who find vegetarian wannabes wimps. But die-hards beware! Foer’s forceful argument for letting compassion speak loudly for what we eat just might pierce your certain brutishness and incite vegetarian wannabe cravings even in you. But if it doesn’t, you can always soothingly remind yourself, compassion be damned, that even a mass murderer such as Adolf Hitler was vegetarian.
It is here, in such variance, that the argument for compassion and what we eat becomes wantonly complex; and, unfortunately, where Foer’s jeremiad against factory farming subtlety distracts from the ontological complexity surrounding modern man’s embarrassing propensity to be omnivorous. Admittedly, the case against factory farming does leave its moral mark. Who could possibly in good conscience support factory farming? It is cruel, inhumane, and brutally barbaric. And, ironically, where else but in Foer’s book and a world of factory farms extinguishing traditional animal husbandry would you find a vegan building humane slaughterhouses?
We all want to think we have evolved beyond such violence. Instead we find the spirit of Vlad the Impaler caged within the clandestine walls of today’s abattoir. For us city folk, and even most farm folk, too, it’s much easier to avoid thinking about all this; but Foer, and admirably so, opens up the abattoir’s door, so that we just begin to see the blood and guts, the cruelty, and the suffering of animals. Truly, it’s difficult to see what this horror could possibly have to do with a fat-marbled, medium-rare cooked rib-eye sharing places with steamed broccoli, carrots, and a baked potato, lavished with butter and sour cream, on our dinner plates.
Nevertheless, this is where we find ourselves. Unlike the lion’s maw, bloodied from his last meal, we have so constructed a new person: one who indulges in the friendship of one’s pets—an animal that in another time and place would have made a satisfying meal—and, even more importantly, one who’s so carefully insulated from death—it’s presence, stench, universality, and finality. Furthermore, we find ourselves possibly cursed by our empathic natures as ethologists continue to accumulate observation after observation of animal behaviors that are too hard to not anthropomorphize into human intelligence, emotions, and personalities. After all, once we have stopped and looked into the eyes of our food. It’s too late. Our food becomes an individual and in our hearts a spark of compassion kindles.
Finally, Foer’s jeremiad against factory farming is as charming and irresistible as a kitten, puppy or even a piglet nudging affectionately against our legs. Only a brute could possibly kick such an animal away. But even Foer admits in the end that there is only a qualitative moral difference between traditional animal husbandry and farm factories when the life of the animal ends in slaughter. Although throughout the book Foer is careful to avoid outright declaration of meat eating as immoral—he, carefully and somewhat fairly, shares the nuances of animal husbandry from the stories of animal rights activists to ranchers—still in the end he finds it impossible to resist suggesting that the choice to become vegetarian, not unlike the Apostle’s Paul choice to remain celibate, is a higher calling.