Moral Consumption

During this course, I’ve debated bringing my personal beliefs about consumption into the class discourse regarding our texts. However, The History of Mary Prince was so brutal and disturbing that I don’t think that I would be able to distance myself enough to create a purely academic analysis.  To be honest, this book touched me on a very personal level.  And since my reaction relates both to the text and to consumption, I thought it seemed appropriate to describe it here.  Basically, I believe that when suffering becomes institutionalized, individuals experience cognitive dissonance and react in specific ways.  I see similar reactions both in supporters of the slave industry, which uses people as consumables on a large scale, and with participants in the meat industry, which turns animals into consumables on a very large scale.  I believe that these are common human reactions to large-scale suffering that, when examined, may offer a unique perspective on our texts.

I. Cognitive Dissonance

Bridget did a great job of illustrating the many ways that Prince compares the treatment of slaves to the treatment of animals intended for slaughter.  I think that there is a significant psychological reason for this.   It seems that if a person is going to cause suffering, fear, and/or death of another in order to promote one’s own comfort or convenience, it’s necessary to create emotional distance and moral justification.

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term which refers to a person holding two conflicting beliefs, or when a person’s actions conflict with their internalized beliefs.  People will go to great lengths to resolve cognitive dissonance because it is very stressful to cope with internal inconsistency.  There are some common ways that people attempt to resolve dissonance.  They may deny that there is any inconsistency in their action, becoming defensive or upset when the issue is brought to their attention.  Alternately, a person may often find reasons to justify their actions, in retrospect.  The greater the dissonance, the more difficult it is to accept that we have acted against our own beliefs, and the more extreme our attempts become to reconcile the conflict within ourselves.

II. The Coping Mechanisms of Slave Owners and Consumers of Animals

When I’ve read about pre-Civil War America, I found some common justifications among those who endorsed slavery.  It’s important to remember that support of slavery was the majority opinion in several states.  These people were not unusual or fundamentally different from us.  They were people living within an established institution and making sense of the world around them.  These are the main pro-slavery arguments I have found, from that era:

1) It is natural.

2) Slaves are not as intelligent or capable as slave owners, thus slave owners have a right of dominion.

3) Slaves are better off in slavery than in “the jungle.”

4) Slavery is necessary for human welfare.

I believe that these are justifications created to reduce cognitive dissonance.  The reason I believe that these were not honest, well-considered explanations is because I have read very few arguments in favor of slavery that seriously address dissenting opinions. If a person approaches an issue with an open-mind, they consider information from both sides before coming to a conclusion.  However, when seeking justification in retrospect, often only one side is considered. The exception, in regards to slavery, seems to be when people have written about the economic necessity of slavery to human welfare.  This may seem like a ridiculous claim today (since the welfare of the slave is obviously part of “human welfare”), but the economy of the Southern states was so dependent on slavery, at the time, that it was feared that abolishing slavery would destabilize the entire economy, resulting in poverty and famine.  I don’t at all believe that this was a valid justification for slavery, but it was at least more thoughtful than the other common reasons.

So, at that time, it was normal for humans to “consume” other humans through slavery, as we have discussed in class.  I see strong parallels between this consumption and our literal consumption of animals today.  When I have speak with people who support animal consumption (as most do), I find similar arguments:

1) It is natural.

2) Animals are less intelligent than us, so we have dominion over them.

3) Animals bred for food are better off than they would be in “the wild.”

4) Animal consumption is necessary for human welfare.

I won’t discuss my perspectives on the first three reasons, simply because this post is already much longer than is reasonable.  However, I believe that these are normal attempts to reduce cognitive dissonance rather than well-researched beliefs for the same reason as above – these arguments generally do not seriously address their opposition.  I am interested to hear perspectives different than my own, but when discussing consumption, I find that those who have decided against animal consumption are generally more knowledgeable about the oppositional rationale than vice versa.  I think that if a person has a sincere interest in making an ethical choice, they will research both sides of an issue thoroughly before coming to a conclusion.  As for the final reason, I think that it is more rational and complex, just as the similar argument was when made in favor of slavery.  I have heard that animal consumption is necessary for human welfare because it is necessary for health.  There is data to back this up.  However, if you are looking for peer-reviewed, scientific data… I have found many more studies that disprove this assumption than support it.  I have also heard that animal consumption is necessary for human welfare because it is such a huge part of our economic system that removing it would cause destabilization resulting in human suffering.  Yet I do not find that a compelling reason to continue this system indefinitely.

In conclusion, I believe that the common supporter of slavery had reasoning similar to the common arguments I have heard in favor of animal consumption.  For the reasons I have mentioned, I believe that these opinions are often created to resolve dissonance rather than being beliefs chosen solely on ethical merit.

I would like to note that the arguments made by most supporters of slavery were generally NOT the voices of the slave ship owners, salt plantation owners, and others who were involved with the greatest brutalities towards slaves.  I believe that the trauma involved in inflicting this sort of suffering creates a different sort of mental state, which I will describe next.  I think that the majority of people who supported slavery were not exposed to its most horrific aspects, just as those who eat animals today are generally not exposed to worst of the suffering created by this institution.

II. The Common Coping Mechanisms of Slave Owners and Slaughterhouse Workers

In coming to my current perspective, I’ve read a lot of books about slaughterhouses, dairies, and chicken farms of all different types and by all different sorts of authors (both vegans and omnivores).  The one thing I’ve found in common is that employees of these places experience cognitive dissonance.  How can you look someone in the eye, see that they are afraid, and hurt them over and over until they die, then move on to the next face, the next body?  And then, can you still value compassion, respect life, and care about the feelings of others?  It becomes clear that these animals are not killed quickly or painlessly – there is a great deal of suffering involved in turning an animal into a product.  Workers must inflict this suffering, as it is a necessary side effect of the industry.  There seem to be two main ways that workers deal with this conflict.

1) They learn to turn off their emotions.

One worker explained his conflict to author Jonathan Safran Foer in the following way:

The worst thing, worse than the physical danger, is the emotional toll.  If you work in the stick pit for any period of time, you develop an attitude that lets you kill things but doesn’t let you care.  You may look a hog in the eye that’s walking around in the blood pit with you and think, “God, that really isn’t a bad-looking animal.”  You may want to pet it.  Pigs down on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a puppy.  Two minutes later I had to kill them.”

Foer describes slaughterhouse workers as “good people, smart and honest people doing their best in an impossible situation.”  Killing quickly, often messily and with far from 100% accuracy, is necessary to create very inexpensive meat on a very large scale.  Slave ship captains and plantation owners were also charged with running the day-to-day of an economic system that created cheap goods on a very large scale.  Suffering was inherent to the system, and many of the workers learned to shut off their emotions.  They sold mothers away from their children.  They force-fed or whipped slaves.  They did the same things to slaves that we do to animals.  And then, as now, it required a minority of people to look the victim in the eye and understand what is involved, in order to support all the others who benefited from that system.

But there is another side effect of inflicting that level of suffering.  It is difficult to be physically aggressive without feeling anger.  We just aren’t wired that way.  In terms of slaughterhouse workers, I’ve heard many, many stories (from both vegans and animal consumers) of workers feeling angry at the animals.  I think this is natural because anger and aggression are linked.  Another worker told Foer, “You get an attitude that if a hog kicks at me, I’m going to get even.  You’re already going to kill the hog, but that’s not enough.  It has to suffer…”  This causes a great deal of horrendous suffering and acts of brutality that are too violent to mention here, but they are common and easy to find on the internet.  Some states have actually passed laws specifically prohibiting the public from seeing videos taken inside of slaughterhouses, due to their disturbing nature and the impact on the industry.  But the abuse of these animals is often not the result of sadism.  It may be tempting to attribute the tortures inflicted on slaves to pure sadism or evil on the part of the slave owners.  Yet this would be a dismissive explanation that attributes evil to people fundamentally different from the average person of today.  I think that slave owners and slave ship crews were responding to the inherent link between aggression and anger.  They treated slaves with aggression in order to get them to conform to their position within the slave industry.  They force fed them to keep them alive.  They whipped them to keep them from running away, refusing to work, or attempting to drown themselves.  But then a line is crossed.  The aggression, performed day after day on countless individuals, results in anger.  Anger leads to even more aggression.  The cognitive dissonance within the perpetrator is drowned out by more aggression and anger.  This is a way of coping with inflicting ongoing violence towards a helpless population.  The meat industry necessitates lethal violence on an ongoing, mass scale.  Those who are charged with inflicting this violence are just as vulnerable to the link between violence and anger.  Aggression leads to anger which leads to further aggression.  In class, we pondered why slave owners would treat their slaves so violently that it worked against the slave owner’s own economic interest.  I believe this is the reason.  I believe this is also the reason that excessive violence and suffering is inherent in large-scale animal commodification.  It harms the worker as well as the animal, just as slavery harmed the society as well as the slave.

By stating this argument, I don’t wish to minimize the suffering of slaves or the importance of compassion towards humans.  I only wish to make two points.  The first is that if we attribute evil actions to only those who are not like us, we risk overlooking the evil that we are all capable of.  My second point is that horrendous suffering, when institutionalized, appears normal and reasonable to most of the people within the institution.  Fortunately, we have made recent strides in human rights.  However, there is real, institutionalized suffering within our society that we all take part in.  It is damaging not only the animals but the workers involved as well as the openness of our society.

When a life-loving being with emotions is turned into a commodity, suffering is always the result.  Slaves were described in the same terms as food animals because there are strong parallels between these institutions that speak to the injustices of both.

“Which is worse – killing with hate or killing without hate?”  – Elie Wiesel


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