Shall we have veal for dinner, dear?

From a blog post on January 28th, 2014. The following two paragraphs in italics are a long quote from Ernest Becker’s 1975 book, Escape from Evil, which I used extensively when I was teaching college sociology courses. The language may be somewhat crass and shocking, but it gets the message across.

“Man is an animal…Whatever else he is, is built on this…The only certain thing we know about this planet is that it is a theater for crawling life, organismic life, and at least we know what organisms are and what they are trying to do.

At its most elemental level the human organism, like crawling life, has a mouth, digestive tract, and anus, a skin to keep it intact, and appendages with which to acquire food.  Existence, for all organismic life, is a constant struggle to feed – a struggle to incorporate whatever other organisms that can fit into their mouths and press down their gullets without choking.  Seen in these stark terms, life in this planet is a gory spectacle, a science-fiction nightmare in which digestive tracts fitted with teeth at one end are tearing away at whatever flesh they can reach, and at the other end are piling up the fuming waste excrement as they move along in search of more flesh. I think this is why the epoch of the dinosaurs exerts such a strong fascination on us: it is an epic food orgy with king-size actors who convey unmistakably what organisms are dedicated to.  Sensitive souls have reacted with shock to the elemental drama of life on this planet, and one of the reasons Darwin so shocked his time – and still bothers ours – is that he showed this bone-crushing, blood-drinking drama in all of its elementality and necessity: Life cannot go on without the mutual devouring of organisms.  If the living spectacle of all that he had organismically incorporated in order to stay alive, he might well feel horrified by the living energy he had ingested.  The horizon of a gourmet, or even the average person, would be taken up with hundreds of chickens, flocks of lambs and sheep, a small herd of steers, sties full of pigs, and rivers of fish.  The din alone would be deafening.  To paraphrase Elias Canetti, each organism raises it’s head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.”

I post this in light of an online petition I signed recently opposing the practices of the veal production industry to take newborn calfs, separate them from their mothers and isolate them in veal fattening pens. These are often dome like plastic structures hardly big enough for the calf to turn around. The idea, I presume, is to allow the calf as little physical activity as possible so as to fatten them up and keep their meat nice and tender. Many farmers who send calves off to the slaughterhouse to become veal are humane and treat their animals with a degree of kindness (I actually have no proof of this, only second hand reports). I think the way we treat the animals we intend to eat reflects our values and assumptions about their intelligence and even whether or not we think they feel pain.

I once saw a video of a ‘scientist’ claiming that animals don’t feel pain. In the video he was standing beside a row of beagles with wires implanted through their skulls and into their brains. The fact that the argument is ongoing astounds me. It’s clear from the scientific evidence that animals feel pain, and they have emotional lives. There is a lot of scientific evidence to support this claim yet there is still controversy over it. Carl Safina in a National Geographic article is quoted as saying:

It is incredible to me there is still a debate over whether animals are conscious and even a debate over whether human beings can know animals are conscious. If you watch mammals or even birds, you will see how they respond to the world. They play. They act frightened when there’s danger. They relax when things are good. It seems illogical for us to think that animals might not be having a conscious mental experience of play, sleep, fear or love. 

Safina goes on to say later in the article that:

Many people simply assume that animals act consciously and base their belief on their own domestic animals or pets. Other people do not want animals to be conscious because it makes it easier for us to do things to animals that would be hard to do if we knew they were unhappy and suffering.

Safina singles out lab scientists as a particular group in denial about animal suffering and pain. He is quoted as saying: “However, in laboratories the dogma persists: don’t assume that animals think and have emotions–and many scientists insist that they do not.”

I am going to assume for the rest of this blog post that many animals species feel pain and experience emotional lives. If that’s the case, we have to address how we feel about that and think hard about how we treat non-human animals, especially the ones destined for our dinner tables. More importantly, what can we make of Becker’s argument in the quotation above given what we know about animal pain and suffering?

The vast majority of us have never experienced what goes on in a slaughterhouse. Slaughterhouses are sites of killing on an industrial scale. I can’t imagine anyone working in the killing line of a slaughterhouse not having been effectively desensitized to animal fear, pain and suffering. Obviously, the terror (and I don’t use this word lightly) that a bull feels on entering a slaughterhouse is very temporary. Stunning and then killing takes moments. Does that justify the slaughter in the first place? Should we all be vegetarians or vegans and avoid eating animals at all thus putting all slaughterhouses out of business?

Some people have definitely accepted the argument that a vegetarian or vegan life is much more ethical than the carnivorous life. They don’t eat animal flesh although they may indulge in the consumption of animal products such as eggs and milk. But is the vegetarian or vegan life possible for the majority of humans? Are humans inherently omnivorous or can we give up our animal flesh diets?

In my next blog post I address more directly the issues presented by Becker’s quote above. Are we not carnivorous by nature? How valuable is life? How valuable is death?


2 thoughts on “Shall we have veal for dinner, dear?

  1. Roger: I do enjoy your blogs.

    You’ve raised some important, and no doubt disturbing to many, questions regarding our food consumption and treatment of animals. Mind you, I doubt that you’ve shied away from the distressing questions for most of your life and I commend you that you continue to raise them. I think everyone needs to consider food consumption, and I might add, even more particularly in cases where we are so far removed from food sources. Easy to take that package of chicken from the store or the fridge, but would I be eating chicken if I had to kill and clean it myself? I’d have to be looking after my children’s welfare, or really, really hungry I think.

    One small observation and my thoughts about it if I may without offending you.

    I haven’t read tons of your blurbs so my following observation may be unfair…however, I found it interesting that you used as many quotes from others in this blurb as you did. I do not say this as a criticism – I’m all for getting one’s point across in whichever way one can. Yet, the first thing that sprung to my mind was “I wonder if this is a difficult subject for Roger?” (Of course, I’d just seen your posts about veal on Facebook). And “Is this a way Roger is trying to distance himself from a disagreeable subject?”

    Now I sit and wonder if my questions have anything at all to do with you….because they are, obviously, MY observations and MY questions! And so I see I have given myself further “food” for thought.

    : ) Bette

    PS: If the argument is that food goes in the mouth and comes out the other end as excrement, then what does that say about “food for thought?” hmmmmm



    1. I’ve been told before that I overuse quotations. I’ve also been accused of using too many references. Mea culpa. It’s true. However, in my defence, the Becker quote is a classic. I’ve used it often for its visceral quality. It’s hyperbole, but I’m okay with that because I can then be moderate in my comments in response to it.
      If you peruse my archives you will see that I don’t shy away from this ‘difficult’ subject. My next blog addresses it head on. I expect though that many people are in full denial about where their food comes from. Better not think about it. I’m sure that most people would recoil at the thought of butchering and cleaning their own chicken for dinner. Butchering anything bigger would be completely out of the question. It’s interesting, though, that there is a movement among some millennials to go out hunting. Most aren’t successful but the intention is there. Now on to my next blog post. In some ways I wish I could get my posts out there a little more so I could get more dialogue going.


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