Friday, February 6, 2009

Animal welfare and the power of self-delusion

In a recent article in the London Times, a long-time vegetarian wrote that she has now gone back to eating meat.  The reason?  Animals are raised more humanely now.  I had an email exchange with a friend about the article.  At one point he wrote, "to say I think eating meat is okay implies I'm indifferent to animal suffering.  That isn't true.  I do believe animals shouldn't suffer and die to satisfy human desires.  I eat meat because I am a hypocrite.  I'm violating my beliefs."

But is that his belief just because he says it is, even though his behavior contradicts him?  What constitutes a belief?  If I say I believe in helping the homeless and then I kick the first homeless person I see in the head, have I just violated my belief or was I maybe deluded when I claimed it as a belief?  That may sound like semantics but it's not.  People who think they believe in the rights of animals cling stubbornly to this belief.  They don't want to give it up.  They like that part of themselves.  I know "animal lover, animal advocate" makes up a big part of my friend's self-image.  If he were forced to abandon that belief, he wouldn't like the person who remained.

But he can only call himself a hypocrite for so long.  Eventually, he'll have to make a choice.  He either believes animals have the right not to suffer and die for our pleasure or he doesn't.  Either he supports the horrors of what happens to these animals or he rejects it.  Not so fast, say the "animal welfare" proselytizers.  You don't have to choose.  You don't have to abandon your cherished self-image.  There's a middle ground between the horrors of factory farms and giving up the consumption of the animal products you love so much and the middle ground is this:  you can support our campaign to improve the lives of these animals before they're slaughtered.  We'll push for bigger cages for laying hens.  We'll demand more space for hogs to roam around in.  We'll confront the big fast food companies.  We'll demand more humane treatment for all farm animals.

So now people like my friend are able to grasp hold of that middle ground, that purgatory, and it allows them to keep their self-image intact.  I really do care about the well-being of animals.  I  am doing my part to reduce their suffering.  I don't have to give up eating meat and dairy after all.  Phew.

This is the problem with animal welfare campaigns.