Jonathan Safran Foer on the Morality of Vegetarianism

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Jonathan Safran Foer's new book, "Eating Animals," is an eloquent exploration of something most sentient humans think about at some point in their lives: Just what exactly am I eating? Or more to the point, "Just who exactly am I eating?" Foer has written an excellent, serious and earnest book, and I spoke to him about his conclusions recently. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

Jeffrey Goldberg:  It seems, from reading "Eating Animals," that you want people to adopt vegetarianism, but you don't actually say, "I've presented you with evidence that makes it morally impossible for you to eat meat." Why don't you go all the way?

Jonathan Safran Foer: I don't know that I would put it quite like you just did. I was really moved, I have to say, by some of the small farms that I went to. I would say that the goodness of good farmers might have surprised me more than the badness of bad farmers. Maybe that's just because I had more exposure to what factory farming was. But I went to farms where animals were treated better than I treat my dog, and it would just be impossible to try to honestly argue that they don't have good lives. So of course, they're killed in the end, but our lives are destined for death also. We're not getting killed, but there are slaughterhouses that kill these animals in ways that they don't anticipate death or feel it. So to argue against such farms, you have to get into a sort of philosophical terrain that I don't get into into.  I don't know what my own feelings about it are. 

JG: So are you a vegetarian because, at this point in the history of farming, it's safer, morally, to be a vegetarian? In other words, if you absolutely knew that all the meat or eggs and milk that were produced by X farm were produced according to your standards, would you go back to eating meat?

JF: You mean assuming that that farm existed in the context of this world?

JG: Yes, assuming that there was a farm somewhere where the animals, from birth to  painless, unknowing death, where everything was as humane and gentle and kind as possible, would you then eat that animal?

JF: I wouldn't, for two reasons. One, because endorsing the exception is to endorse the rule. People would see me as another person eating meat. You know, it's like what happened with farmed fish. Salmon farming was originally created to take pressure off of wild salmon populations, because it's been clear for a long time that they're going to run out. But what happened was, when more supply was created, there was more demand for wild salmon, because our eating habits are contagious. There was more salmon on the menu suddenly, and you see your friends eating salmon, and so you eat salmon - that has more power than does conscientious eating.

There's also the fact that the kind of farming you're talking about can't be scaled. There's enough humane chicken now raised in America to feed Staten Island, at the rate we're eating chicken. You can use child labor as an analogy. It's easily conceivable that there are many situations in which giving a six-year-old a job would improve that six-year-old's life and, on a case-by-case basis, would be a good thing. But we don't create systems for the exceptions, we create them for the rule.

JG: Isn't it terribly boring to be a vegetarian? Go to this question of whether we are naturally omnivores, or is that just a cop-out? 

JF: Well that's like asking, are women naturally subservient to men? If we look at history, one might have reason to think so. I mean, we certainly treated women as second-class citizens, almost always until quite recently. That doesn't mean it's right, that doesn't mean life is boring if we suddenly treat them as equals. Is a diet less rich without meat? Yes, it is. Is a diet less rich with chimpanzee? Yes, it is. I don't find it boring. Maybe I've just been a vegetarian for long enough.

JG: Maybe you're a good cook.

JF: Maybe I'm a good cook. I don't look at other things on menus and long for them anymore. Of course, I was in a restaurant the other day and this guy sitting next to me got this amazing-looking steak, and my mouth watered and I thought, 'Oh God, I'm having something that is probably going to not be as good as that.'  There are a lot of things that we crave, there are a lot of things that would make us perhaps more fulfilled in a sensory way that we just say no to.

JG: When I was a vegetarian, the first thing I would cut out was mammals, because I figured that mammals are the closest species to me. Birds are more distant and fish are still more distant, but you argue very strongly that beef is actually the most humane thing to eat. Do you differentiate at all, on a moral scale, between eating mammals and eating birds and eating fish?

JF: Another way to think about this is how different does an animal have to be for us to simply regard it as a living thing. And I think this kind of dichotomous way of framing this - it does a real disservice to the conversation. Even the word 'vegetarian.' You were talking about cutting things out of your diet, instead of cutting down. There are an awful lot of people who care about this stuff and for reasons good or bad, just can't envision becoming vegetarian. So what do we do with that? Do we throw our hands up in air and say that since I'm not going to be perfect about this I'm completely off the hook. They will say, `I was a vegetarian for six years and I found myself at an airport and I was shaking from hunger so I ate some McNuggets and that was the end of my vegetarianism. It's just such a bizarre way of thinking about it.

I care about the environment, I try to buy good appliances, I certainly turn the lights off when I leave rooms, and so on and so forth, and yet I also fly. So should my getting off the plane say 'Okay, I know that was bad, so I'm now bad, I'm going to leave lights on, I'm going to let my car idle.' It's nuts. I wish people would talk about food in a way that was more similar to how we talk about the environment. The question of 'Are you an environmentalist or not?' is nonsense. It just doesn't make any sense.

JG: Something is better than nothing.

JF: There's a really broad consensus that exists in this country now on the question of factory farming. Any person in America who is not on the fringe of society, who is exposed to a factory farm firsthand, it's not to say that they would automatically say 'I'm never eating this again.' They'd say, 'This isn't right, this isn't who I am, I don't want to give my money to make more of these, it's not what I choose, it's antithetical to the lessons I teach my kids and that my parents taught me.' Maybe one day the world will change, that we'll be in a luxurious position of being able to debate whether or not it's inherently wrong to eat animals, but the question doesn't matter right now. 

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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