The Tragic Consequences of Ethical Evasion
An Animal Rights Article from


James McWilliams
December 2013

I’ve said it over and over again: we’ll never reform the food system without a wholesale assault on the habit of eating animals.

Imagine a situation in which a person was diagnosed with a malignant tumor but, instead of seeing a specialist, ignored the tumor, thinking that everything would be fine in the end. Crazy, right?

Well, that’s exactly what the sustainable food movement is currently doing with respect to the ethics of eating animals. The movement has made the accurate diagnoses that the meat industry is a cancer on the food system. Great. But instead of dealing with the problem in an ethically and philosophically consistent way, it has shrugged off the responsibility and mouthed mantras about happy meat and humane slaughter, thereby turning boutique animal suffering into some sort of elite fetish.

There are several reasons why this dereliction of duty is so sad. For one, it leaves the food system everyone seems so eager to reform in the lurch. I’ve said it over and over again: we’ll never reform the food system without a wholesale assault on the habit of eating animals. Second, it puts the movement in the position of mimicking industrial agriculture by doing the following: deploying euphemistic language (“harvesting” animals and then “processing” them), treating animals as objects to be commodified and eaten, and allowing our desire for animal flesh (and tradition) to serve as a baseless justification for eating it.

And this brings me to the third and final reason our failure to think ethically in a public way about animals is so tragic: it perpetuates the unthinking stupidity that has characterized the American way of eating. What an utter waste of time to identify the disease pulsing through the food system’s anatomy, and to rage against industrial animal agriculture, only then to distract ourselves with fictions such as happy meat and humane farming. All of this prevarication when we could be thinking seriously whether or not eating animals is an ethically justifiable act if you do not have to do it.

All I’m saying is that we should have the debate. Just move the topic to the center of the discourse. If the locavores and the slow foodies and the humane butchers (ha!) and the small animal farmers would just stop it with all the evasions and, for once, discuss animals in terms of various moral theories—utilitarianism, moral contract theory, Kantianism, the land ethic—perhaps we might make some headway to thinking more clearly and compassionately about the sentient animals we seem all too eager to keep fucking over.

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