Anat Pick — Fleshing out the Morality of Meat: Thoughts on the New York Times’s contest “Calling All Carnivores"

Anat  PickThe following is the first half of a post by Anat Pick, author of Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film.

Pick is, in part, responding to Calling All Carnivores, a contest from The Ethicist, a feature in the New York Times Magazine. The judges for the contest—Peter Singer, Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer and Andrew Light—will select the best essay on why it is ethical to eat meat.

At the end of the day, eating meat, or not eating it, are both moral choices we are required to make. The difference is that eating meat, the default position, has until recently in the West been largely morally invisible. Meat eaters fall into three categories: the “defaulters” who take what is and what ought to be as one and the same; the “new moralists,” Michael Pollan among them, who portray the consumption of animal flesh as an enlightened and conscientious choice, sensitive to both the lives of animals and to the higher value of human culinary discernment; and “bravado eaters” who insist on meat eating as an expression of manly superiority. The last two categories are defensive; the first is ostensibly neutral and relies on what the novelist J. M. Coetzee calls “willful ignorance.” None of the three can claim the moral high ground, though one—the middle one—has tried and, to some extent, succeeded to occupy the ethical discourse around food. The proof? The New York Times’s much talked about Calling All Carnivores: Tell Us Why It’s Ethical to Eat Meat . For what is the competition itself if not the product of the new moralist discourse promoted by foodies and gourmands?

This is not a reply to the new moralist position. Writers and activists like B. R. Myers, James McWilliams, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, Mariann Sullivan and Jasmin Singer of the multimedia hive Our Hen House (who launched the counter-contest Calling All Herbivores: Tell Us Why It’s Unethical to Eat Meat) have already covered all the main angles. I am interested instead in what the New York Times’s initiative means in a culture with changing consumer, rhetorical, and visual codes governing violent practices from animal slaughter to human imprisonment. I considered writing into the contest but realized I’d rather write about it.

I wonder whether someone submitted an essay on the ethics of eating people, human people, I mean, since this is, at bottom, what is at stake. The Times, after all, was not specific with regard to the species of meat whose consumption is deemed ethical. Then I remembered the original essay on the ethics of meat eating: A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift, a piece that lays out in meticulous detail the moral case for eating people, beating the Times to it by, oh, three centuries. Swift’s Proposal prescribes eating the children of the Irish poor as a viable and humane solution to the overpopulation and exploitation of Dublin’s impoverished. To resolve the problem of factory-farmed human multitudes, Swift proposes consuming their young, for their own sake and for the sake of the refined palate. Here are a few lines from Swift’s 1729 pamphlet:

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

I am not sure whether the Times would have accepted posthumously Swift’s well-argued defense. I waited to see whether anyone thought to update the text for the twenty-first century, an age in which what Peter Sloterdijk called “cynical reason” produces such heartfelt dilemmas as Pollan’s, laced with sentiment, praising the killing of animals for the bittersweet exploits of the human gut, but killing them softly, respectfully, in the name of culture.

Pollan and his followers should read Swift carefully, since their justifications are found, and thoroughly mocked, in Swift’s piece. Moreover, Swift’s ironies make it impossible to fix the butt of the satire. Swift is unsympathetic to the poor, yet those he truly despises are the philanthropic do-gooders, tearful with self-love. I think I can guess Swift’s reaction to contemporary foodism in the new moralist vein. Swift was ironic. The new moralists are dead serious. Death is indeed a serious matter, at least as serious as gastronomy. Let no one suggest that Pollan, et al. take animals lightly or belittle their lives. They murder with reverence, replacing ancient communions with culinary refinements, making slow-food and localism into quasi-religious endeavors. These Orwellian turns should not pass without comment. It’s easy, apparently, to be fooled by the fragrant, succulent rhetoric that dresses up killing as a show of appreciation for the bounties of this world. Ours is perhaps uniquely the time in which egregious acts of violence are recast as the woeful but necessary sprees of a super-civilized mob.

4 Responses

  1. Brilliantly done: “killing them softly, respectfully, in the name of culture.” That hits the nail on the head. Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver, among others, are to me worse than the Rush Limbaugh types who can’t even comprehend the critique of factory farming, because unlike the macho right-wingers they have carefully looked into the matter, have realized that eating animals is in fact unnecessary and violent, and yet have nonetheless forcefully taken a prominent national role in legitimating that violence to the bourgeois intelligentsia. (See the joint letter which I and 64 other academics signed condemning the New York Times essay.)

  2. Yes, beautifully argued … and putting the animals in factory, renders them homeless in the deepest sense,robbing them of their creaturely selves.

    See my novel In the Disappearing Water (2009 Plain View Press, which explores some of this. (and, Anat, begins with a quote from Coetzee’s book, The Lives of Animals). I am glad to come across your work for the first time and look forward to reading Creaturely Poetics.

    Caroline Sulzer

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