this essay, to try to keep in mind the big picture.
Have you ever been in so much pain that you thought you were going to die?
Have you ever suffered so much that you actually wanted to die?
Every year, hundreds of millions of individuals in the U.S. suffer to death.
Egg-laying hens packed in tiny wire cages, unable to move because of how crowded they are, can have their wings or necks stuck in the wires, keeping them from getting to food or water.
Pigs, transported in open trucks for hundreds and hundreds of miles in all weather without food or water – can freeze to death.
Chickens raised for meat, bred to grow so large so fast that their legs break under their own weight, leaving them incapacitated and unable to get food.
Words simply cannot convey the horrifying conditions that bring about these slow, agonizing deaths – how the animals are bred, how they “live” (so to speak) on factory farms, and, for those who survive this inherently brutal system, how they are butchered in industrial slaughterhouses. No verbal or even video description can begin to capture it; even visiting these confinement warehouses and slaughterhouses can’t begin to convey what it is like to live one’s entire life there, and then to be callously slaughtered.
It is enough to know that modern agribusiness is so inherently brutal that it will kill off, even before the slaughterhouse, hundreds of millions of animals through slow, agonizing means, simply as a cost of doing business. This is a system of cruelty so vast, so intense, that it really is beyond comprehension. As Michael Pollan wrote in the New York Times:
More than any other institution, the American industrial animal farm offers a nightmarish glimpse of what capitalism can look like in the absence of moral or regulatory constraint. Here in these places, life itself is redefined – as protein production – and with it suffering. That venerable word becomes “stress,” an economic problem in search of a cost-effective solution, like tail-docking or beak-clipping.… Our own worst nightmare such a place may well be; it is also real life for the billions of animals unlucky enough to have been born beneath these grim steel roofs, into the brief, pitiless life of a “production unit.…”
This is the system we support and endorse every time we purchase its products. Consuming flesh foods from modern agribusiness not only pays others to exploit and butcher our fellow feeling beings; it not only affirms the view that animals are simply cogs in the machine of profit; but our purchases are what give agribusiness the resources needed to breed and brutalize more of our fellows.
This is enough to compel me to be a vegetarian, to make a daily, public statement against the breathtaking viciousness behind meat, eggs, and dairy.
For me, being a vegetarian is not the conclusion of an impartial set of utilitarian calculations, nor the endorsement of a certain formal philosophy like “animal rights.” Rather, being a vegetarian is an irresistible statement about the person I choose to be. I simply could not live with myself if I were to be a part of such unwatchable cruelty to animals. The phrase is: How could I look at myself in the mirror? And that is literally how it happened for me – looking in the mirror and realizing I couldn’t consider myself a “good person” if I continued to pay others to brutalize animals so I could eat them.
In the end, it really is simple: what kind of person will we choose to be? Do we make our own decisions or do we rationalize what we’re used to doing? Do we oppose cruelty or do we support slaughter?
I believe there are much more important things in life than accepting the status quo, following the norms of society, and taking the easiest path.
Furthermore, choosing the road less traveled does not mean denial and deprivation. We can make our lives a part of something larger –a part of bending the arc of history toward justice. Being a part of something larger than ourselves frees us from the constraints of the “norm,” expands our life’s narrative, enriches our existence, and allows for real meaning and lasting happiness. Choosing to be a vegetarian makes a public, powerful, ethical statement – a statement about more than the animals’ suffering, but about who we really are. (I discuss this in more detail in A Meaningful Life.)