After eating a nice veggie burger with extra pickles (for the low price of $2.26; thank you Burger King) I feel moved to address the posts by Matt, Tia, Scott, and Matt again about how we should respond to the cruelty of factory farming. Says Tia, addressing the response to Michael Vick's crimes:
I, too, find silly the spectacle of someone who is not in any discernible way opposed to factory farming practices fulminating about dogfighting, and there's just as much a cultural diversity argument against a prohibition of dogfighting as there is against a prohibition of any kind of law against animal cruelty. It's much easier to justify encroachments on someone else's cultural practices if they're based on some kind of gesture towards a coherent ethical scheme; "factory farmed meat for me, but no dogfighting for thee" strikes me as the most baseless sort of imperialism.
As a statement about the badness of the practices involved, that seems right. And as Tia says, the mere fact that we have entrenched social practices of treating different animals differently doesn't make any moral difference -- entrenched social practices of treating different races or genders differently, for example, don't justify themselves. There's some difference in the way we should regard the agents, though. One has to be quite cruel to make a leisure activity out of watching animals suffer terribly. By contrast, the distance between a diner and the sow that spent her entire life squeezed into a gestation crate is large enough that one can understand how kind-hearted people ignore the suffering and order the pork chops.
Matt and Scott concede the wrongness of factory farming, despite continuing to enjoy its fleshy fruits. And so do many people, including, I'm sure, many readers of this blog. I often think that animals would be better off if people were comfortable with taking smaller steps to reduce their meat consumption. Avoiding factory-farmed meat need not be all-or-nothing -- it's something that's fully half as good if done halfway.
And there are a bunch of ways to do it halfway. You can avoid factory-farmed meat for the meals where you least enjoy the meat portion of your diet. If you're concerned about messing up other people's plans when you go to eat their cooking, you can have a policy of never choosing factory-farmed meat, but eating it when it's placed in front of you without your requesting it. Or if you're the sort of person who likes action more than abstention, you can make a project of exploring the various interesting foods that the veggie world has to offer. When you find something you like, eat it more often, and let it displace some of your meat intake. There's plenty of different ways to go about this, and if there's some meat or egg dish (the situation of egg-laying hens is pretty terrible) that you're absolutely unwilling to give up, don't let that stop you from giving up a lot of things that you like less.
If you only go halfway, there may still be something deeply inconsistent about your practices. You understand the badness of factory farming, but aren't willing to move as fully against it as you know you ought to. But it's far better to be inconsistently kind than consistently unkind, and being a vegetarian with exceptions is far better than causing great animal suffering. All of us fall short of doing everything we could to make the world a better place, but we're worse for doing less, and better for doing more.
My own practices regarding meat are often seen as amusing, and you can read about them here. I enjoy meat as much as most people do, and in a city like Austin I've been pretty successful in finding ways to satisfy myself while not contributing to factory farming. (The Chipotle across the street with its excellent free-range pork plays a big role.) And I've found plenty of yummy things to eat that I might not have tried if my refusal to eat Normal Meat hadn't steered me to them. May you be so fortunate.