What makes animals and autistics especially alike, Grandin claims, is a tendency to view the world in details instead of as a whole. Like cows, who will dig in their heels at the sight of a shiny chain or a yellow raincoat, she grew up focusing on "high contrast" objects, ones that stand out sharply from their surroundings. By sharing her insights with the meat industry, for which she acts as a paid consultant, Grandin has apparently helped eliminate some frightening aspects of the chutes and passages through which millions of livestock are forced every day. This in turn has effected a reduction in the use of electric prods—no small feat. But Grandin does injustice to more than mere grammar when she writes twangily of her clients, "They're handling the cattle nice." Factory farms naturally adopt the few humane measures that improve the bottom line, and just as naturally ignore the rest. Unfortunately, Grandin seems to share their priorities. She has nothing to say about veal crates, and she shrugs off the painful practice of clipping chickens' beaks by asserting that the birds would otherwise "get in horrible fights." We would get in fights too if we were crammed together like that, but nowhere does Grandin call for a reform of confinement conditions. On the contrary, factory-farm owners are referred to as "ranchers," as if broiler hens and veal calves spent their days roaming the plains. By the time Grandin asserts that those millions of chicken beaks are merely "trimmed" off—and by "the vet," no less—it has become obvious that she isn't always so detail-oriented after all.
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.