This post by Megan McArdle makes a connection that very much deserves exploring. Michael Vick’s conviction of running a dog-fighting ring has inspired a remarkable amount of popular outrage, much of it deserved. But the outcry against dog-fighting exists alongside our unspoken acceptance of an industrial farming system that is, by the sheer number of animals affected, much worse. Megan uses the example of veal, which is just an extreme case of the systemic cruelty done to most of the animals that we eat. Yet animal-rights activists are routinely derided with as much passion as Vick has been, especially when they get in the way of a good hamburger.
I’m not a vegetarian, and I certainly don’t believe that eating animals is inherently wrong. I usually try to only eat animals that I know were treated humanely during their lives, though I admit I could do much better. But those who defend meat-eating on the basis that humans are naturally omnivores rarely take into account the quite unnatural industry that is supplying our meat. Are we only capable of mustering outrage for animals we keep as pets?
Megan is looking for a rational moral principle on which to base our attitudes towards animals, but I think that is only half the story. We don’t give better protection to cattle because we haven’t included them in our empathetic world; whatever reason might say, it takes an emotional response to change the status quo. No matter how “good” we are as people, we will always be people of our time; for example, the otherwise brilliant and forward-looking men who founded the United States, yet could not envision equality for women and people of other races.
It’s a good bet that at least some of today’s common sense beliefs will be deemed by our descendants as monstrous. If society evolves in a way that expands our empathy rather than restricts it (which is by no means certain), then I suspect factory farming will be judged as one of the first sins of our time.
I’m not saying that many hardcore animal rights activists aren’t obnoxious. They are. They judge us by a different standard than we like to judge ourselves, which is irritating and uncomfortable. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be vindicated by history.