This triangulated exchange is fleeting and subtle, and the outcome is always the same. Defenders of animal rights come off as naive to the ways of the world. It's as if, living in some sort of protective bubble (or, in my case, ivory tower), we simply don't grasp the harsh realities of farming, nature, or life. But sustainable farmers with animal blood on their hands somehow become hardworking servants to a noble cause, rugged stewards dedicated to the humanitarian and environmental demands of the elite palate. I'm never sure exactly how it happens, but the upshot of this exchange blindsides me every time: killing the animal is transformed from an avoidable tragedy into a badge of honor.
It's difficult to imagine any other issue where such a basic sense of right and wrong is so thoroughly perverted. But when it comes to slaughtering animals, even animals raised under the strictest welfare standards, a twisted ethical logic prevails. Killing a sentient being becomes a common good celebrated by food writers and environmentalists in glossy and well-respected publications. But trying to prevent that killing, something vegans and animal rights activists throughout the world do every day (with minimal recognition), is deemed a violation of nature and consumer choice, if not just an all-out massive bummer.
Contradiction on this issue is breezily, almost comically, tolerated. For example, as I recently learned on a panel in New York, it's possible for a small pig farm to "finish" over 600 pigs a year while assuring consumers willing to spend big bucks on pork chops that "we will not allow an animal to suffer needlessly." Huh?
Is there a viable explanation for this carnival of ethics?
One might begin by examining the powerful appeal that "nature" has for so many conscientious consumers. Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are rightly understood to be a cruel distortion of nature, a blunt interruption of organic ecological processes undertaken to satisfy human greed for cheap flesh. Because CAFOs are now accurately understood to be the essence of evil (due to the passionate work of writers such as Michael Pollan and Tom Philpott), farmers who raise animals under free-range conditions are automatically seen to offer a fundamentally different option. Indeed, in loosening the reigns of confinement, free-range farmers come off as embracing the virtues of nature while rejecting the cold efficiency of industrialization.
For consumers willing to pay more for pastured meat, this is a guilt-absolving distinction. We've imbued "natural food" with such virtuous connotations that meat supposedly raised according to the law of nature is, ipso facto, thought to be an ethically worthwhile choice. It's on this basis, I believe, that many morally concerned meat eaters justify purchasing meat from small, free-range animal farms. If it's raised naturally, so it goes, what's the problem? Not incidentally, the marketing imagery that often accompanies free-range meat is hardcore agricultural pornography, snapshots of agrarian glory that titillate, inspire, and suppress judgment.