If Pigs Could Swim

Why our farm animals would be better off on the other side of the Atlantic

Livestock are treated better in Europe because Europeans want them treated better. They are treated worse here because we hardly think of them at all. It's as simple as that. About once a year our attention is drawn to some outrage, as it was last summer, when workers at Pilgrim's Pride, a KFC supplier in West Virginia, were videotaped throwing live chickens against a wall. But our concern usually lasts only as long as it takes for an industry hack to express his. When prosecutors announced in January that those chicken-farm workers would not be charged, few people were still paying attention. As for the Ward Egg Ranch scandal, which involved workers' tossing thousands of live chickens into a wood-chipper, that was 2003—already ancient history.

Perhaps Posner has an explanation for our relative indifference when he contends, evidently with the aim of demoralizing the animal-rights camp, that Americans have traditionally resisted ethical argument. (Elsewhere he reminds us that we needed a war to give up slavery, which the British, for all their economic stake in it, had abandoned much earlier without a shot.) Startlingly enough, though, he goes on to write,

Indeed I believe that ethical argument is and should be powerless against tenacious moral instincts … I do not claim that our preferring human beings to other animals is "justified" in some rational sense—only that it is a fact deeply rooted in our current thinking and feeling. It is because we are humans that we put humans first … Reason doesn't enter.

The editors arranged to have the ethicist Peter Singer rebut Posner's piece. When he came across that reckless "and should be," he must have felt like a homecoming queen spotting a squirrel. Noting the cruelty that people around the world inflict on one another without moral qualms, Singer makes the obvious point that this is not how things ought to be.

There is another flaw in Posner's argument. "Americans have less feeling for the pains and pleasures of foreigners than of other Americans," he writes, "and even less for most of the nonhuman animals with which we share the world." Even the first half of that sentence is debatable. So far, we have shown more concern for the Asian tsunami survivors than for the Americans routinely made homeless by floods and hurricanes, whom we like to scold for living too close to the water. As for the second point, our livestock could be forgiven for agreeing with it, but is the problem really one of feelings? Media reports of abused animals, such as the dog thrown into traffic in a recent road-rage incident, routinely elicit more public outrage than reports of abused children. It is also worth noting that although our newspapers showed us numerous photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, they thought it necessary to spare us pictures of the Graner gang blowing up a cow and shooting a cat's head. (Nor were these antics mentioned in all those stories about GIs rescuing dogs from mean Islamic streets.) Make Americans choose between watching a countryman deal with shampoo stinging his eyes and watching "researchers" rub shampoo into the eyes of a rabbit, and the majority, regardless of their views on vivisection, will undoubtedly opt for the former. This is not a matter of mere squeamishness; the choice could be expanded to include the possibility of watching a human being undergo eye surgery, and the rabbit would still be the least-watched option. The one thing turns our stomachs, the other thing turns our stomachs and makes us feel bad. What is behind this feeling, if not a moral instinct? Reason, to use Posner's words, doesn't enter.

Notwithstanding the size of our "hunting" contingent, in other words, some degree of compassion for animals is probably shared by as high a proportion of Americans as of Europeans. For every Dick Cheney gleefully shooting seventy tame pheasants in one of his pacemaker-friendly outings, there must be at least two cat ladies staying out all night to rescue strays—and I'll wager that the majority of Americans would consider the cat ladies better people. To be fair, Posner seems to concede that we generally treat dogs and cats well. But if our compassion did not extend to farm animals, the meat industry would not be so careful to keep its battery cages and slaughterhouses out of the public eye.

If we do less than the Europeans to protect our livestock, then, it is not because we are callous but because we believe that the average factory-farm owner—and most of us are indeed likely to imagine a "rancher" instead—will not cause the animals in his care more suffering than is necessary. Even Posner seems to think that the worst kind of humans the average animal is likely to encounter are those who put their fellow humans first. This complacency, which is encouraged by the meat industry's PR machine, reflects one of our most cherished national myths. Throughout our history we have been inclined to assume that all but a negligible (and by definition un-American) portion of our countrymen are decent folk. The few nasty ones, we like to believe, can be either screened out of positions of authority or somehow induced to behave decently. Neither the right nor the left will accept that our bullies are always with us. Rush Limbaugh dismissed the Abu Ghraib scandal in terms of frat-boy pranks, thus calling to mind the English critic Ian Robinson's remark that some forms of stupidity are indistinguishable from malevolence. But it was no cleverer for Susan Sontag to attribute the atrocities in Iraq to the influence of pornography and violent video games. European intellectuals tend to react differently to their own countrymen's outrages, because they harbor fewer illusions to begin with. One need only think of the essayist William Hazlitt expressing his aversion to Britain's rural folk; the novelist Henry de Montherlant attributing the worst possible instincts to the French; or the social reformer Alexander Herzen lamenting the ruthless element in the Russian soul. Even today Britons see hooliganism as the dark side of Englishness, and educated Germans rarely say the words "das ist typisch deutsch" except in a tone of despair. One can debate whether this sort of thinking is just an inverted form of nationalism, but it is undoubtedly one reason why Europeans are less likely to assume that their factory farms are treating animals "nice."

It's time we realized that for all the kindness of most Americans, we have enough thugs to warrant talk of a brutal streak in our own national character. Though limited to no region or ethnic group, our nasty pieces of work are similar in ways that distinguish them from their foreign counterparts. Unlike the British yob, for example, the American thug tends to be more dangerous when bored than when angry or drunk. The root cause of the horrors at both Pilgrim's Pride and the Baghdad prison was, we are told, the need to liven up a dull job. And unlike the radical Hindu thuggees who gave us the word in the first place, the American thug considers all living creatures fair game. A reporter asking around Lynddie England's home town for reactions to her unit's transgressions was told, "Every season here you're hunting something. Over there, they're hunting Iraqis." The quarry in question was shackled at the time, mind you; if Webster's ever needs an example of the true contemporary sense of the verb "to hunt," there it is.

But enough of the pathology. The important thing is that we cannot hope to keep such people out of positions of authority. Like the Europeans, we have to understand that when our fellow citizens are given absolute power, the worst types will assert themselves, and terrible things will happen. (Usually we won't hear about those things; it is no coincidence that thug is Sanskrit for "to conceal.") Our reluctance to grasp this banal fact has in the past made us slower than this or that part of Europe to step between the bully and the bullied: slower to abolish slavery, slower to reform mental institutions and prisons, slower to bring about female suffrage and civil rights. So it is that we now lag behind even the Spanish in animal welfare; and when the Turks get into the EU, we will lag behind a Muslim nation as well. Whether or not we simply "carry on"—as an amused supervisor told those Pilgrim's Pride workers to do when he walked in on the fun—will depend on a choice that faces us in other areas as well. Do we again try to be a model for others to follow? Or do we go on contenting ourselves, like the "patriots" who shrugged off Abu Ghraib by invoking 9/11, with not being the most barbaric people on earth? At the very least we must acknowledge that America is no place to be born an animal. And these things do matter.

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B. R. Myers is a contributing editor of The Atlantic.

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