Jonathan Safran Foer on the Morality of Vegetarianism

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.

JG: Go back to this question, because it's one of the many surprising things in your book: Why is eating beef, which comes from mammals, more humane than eating a chicken?

JF: There are two reasons. One is that it takes 220 chickens to make one cow, so just in terms of individual suffering from a utilitarian perspective, that's 220 lives versus one life. Also, cows are the only species that still get to live at least part of their lives and, in many cases, it's most of their lives, in habitats that make sense for them. All cattle in America now spend at least some time on pastures, except for dairies.

JG: Factory farming that produces milk - is it more inhumane than non-factory farming that produces beef?

JF: Dairy cows are, in fact, being used to death.

JG:  So does the dairy cow have a less pleasant cow-life than the beef cattle in the pasture?

JF: I would say that's certainly true.

JG: It upends the assumption that milk is cruelty-free. Turkey, by the way, from your book, sounds like the absolute worst.

JF: You wouldn't want to be a turkey.  Actually, analogous to the milk question, a free-range hen is the worst. If there's any farm animal you wouldn't want to be, that's what it is.

JG: What about cage-free, cruelty-free eggs?

JF: Well, cruelty-free means nothing. Free-range, when applied to hens, means zero. It is literally not defined and it is up to supplier testimonials whether or not to use it, so you should take as much comfort from 'free-range' as you should from 'starry and magical.' Cage-free does mean something: it means exactly what it sounds like it means, literally not in cages, which is not to say that much for the welfare of animals.

JG: That could mean a small building that has 3,000 of them crammed in.

JF: More like 30,000. You won't get buildings with 3,000 - it's 30,000, 50,000 or 60,000. That being said, there are people who actually quantify how much space cage-free hens have and I think it's something like 110 square inches as opposed to 67 for those in a cage, so that's a lot more space, but draw yourself a rectangle of 110 square inches - it's not what people have in mind when they spend more of their money to buy this product. Cage-free and free-range eggs are the fastest growing sector of the food industry right now, which says something so amazing about Americans.

JG: People want to feel good about the product they're buying.

JF: Yeah, they don't taste better, they're not better for us. People all across the country are spending more of this finite resource of money on something just because they think it's the right thing to do, and they are being taken advantage of, and that should make everybody very angry.

JG: Let's talk about Michiko Kakutani's review of your book, which showed, I think, that she's ideologically opposed to raising this issue as a serious issue. How do you respond to someone who would say, 'Jonathan, you say that KFC has caused more pain in the world than any other company, but try telling that to the people, not the animals, but the people of Bhopal.' 'Jonathan, you live in New York City where you have HIV and homelessness and schools that don't work. How could you devote your life to worrying about a chicken over a child?' It's an argument that I'm sure you've heard in other places.

JF: I actually haven't heard it anywhere else, which is a strange thing.

JG: This is the first time that you've seen that argument?

JF: I couldn't believe it got through the editors. I mean it's such a profoundly flamboyantly silly thing. Obviously I care more about kids than I care about chickens but that's not to say that I have to choose. It's not a zero-sum game. People who care about animals tend to care about people. They don't care about animals to the exclusion of people. Caring is not a finite resource and, even more than that, it's like a muscle: the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. This is what Tolstoy meant when he said famously that if there were no more slaughterhouses, there'd be no more battlefields.  It's a silly statement in its own right, but it gestures at something that's true.

The Times review was sloppy high school thought, and it comes in lots of different forms. It comes in the form of, 'If we care about this, we're not caring about something else.' Another form it sometimes takes is, 'If we care about this, we're going to have to care about that. If we care about that, next thing you know we're going to be walking on grass barefoot because of the ants that you're going to be torturing.' It's ridiculous.

JG: What do you think motivates her dismissal? That everybody is going to become a Jain or something?

JF: The question is, if we don't say no to this, what do we say no to? If we don't say no to something that systematically abuses 50 billion animals, if we don't say no to the number-one cause of global warming, and not by a little bit, but by a lot, if we don't say no to what the UN has said is one of the top two or three causes of every significant environmental problem in the world, locally and globally, if we don't say no to something that is clearly - not clear to me, but clear to the World Health Organization - a prime factor in the generation of Avian and Swine flus, if we don't say no to something that's making our antibiotics less effective and ineffective, if we don't say no to something that causes 76 million of food-borne illness every year, just what do we say no to? This is not a case where we need to go to war with another country or spend a trillion dollars or elect a new government. We just need to say no to it.

JG: Does meat-eating and the cruel treatment of animals make you feel worse about humans?

JF: Eighteen percent of college students are vegetarian now. There are more vegetarians in college than Catholics, there are more vegetarians than any major, except for business, and it's very close, by about 1%. That's something I feel very good about. How can you feel bad when people have been fed lies, literally from nursery school? I spoke at high schools all around the country and almost without fail, there'd be a poster in the gym from the Dairy Council, or from some sort of meat board, telling them why it's necessary for their health, why it's cool. The labeling is manipulative; it's impossible for people to see where the food comes from. Does that say something about consumers, that we're buying the wrong things? I really believe, and I think I'm right to believe, that if you were to poll 100 Americans from all over the country, take them to a factory farm, you'd have 95 of them saying 'I'm not going to eat that.'