Recently, the meat industry has undergone increased criticism and examination from the public. The question about whether it is right or wrong to eat meat is often raised, and while many people are now informed about the deplorable conditions of factory farms—which has sparked a spread of vegetarianism—it seems that no substantial reforms have occurred within the meat industry. Yes, an amplified demand for “humanely raised,” “organic,” and “free-range” meat has likely initiated an increase in the amount of farms that adhere to the American Humane Certified program’s guidelines. I am not denying the fact that some good has come from the public’s newfound concern with the meat industry’s practices. However, it is apparent that the meat industry has no real intention of changing its methods; for example, legislation was passed semi-recently banning all recording equipment inside of slaughterhouses. Doesn’t that send up red flags immediately? It is no better than a public announcement in flashing neon lights stating, “We have something to hide! Look away. Ignorance is bliss.”
The real question is— Do we have a moral obligation not to eat meat because of the principle that it is wrong to kill and/or cause suffering to an animal (a utilitarian view that is greatly supported by Singer)? Or is it morally permissible to eat meat because of the Collective Action Problem? The Collective Action Problem indicates that, if you stopped eating meat, there would be no change because it would have such a small impact. Even if you accept the premise that it is wrong to inflict suffering in order to have gustatory pleasure, you could argue that you are absolved because you yourself are not directly causing the suffering. You are not wielding the butcher’s knife, and you alone cannot stop those who do. As we discussed in class, initiating real social or economic change requires two powerful entities that are at odds with one another. One will defeat the other. However, in the case of Vegetarianism vs. Carnism, there is only one significant player: the meat industry. It is true that another player (i.e. the health care system) may rise up with extreme opposition, but currently the only opponents are organizations like PETA and Greenpeace, individuals like you and me, and perhaps some smaller cooperatives of humane farms. Alone, we are but mere nuisances, and the power and ways of the meat industry are stable. Does our individual lack of influence make us ultimately powerless in reforming the meat industry? Can we simply throw in the towel and accept the agonizing fate of the many animals being prepared for the slaughter? Does this make carnism acceptable on an ethical level? If we spend our money on meat, are we actively both supporting and condoning the practices of the meat industry and factory farming? Some may argue that we only bear a moral obligation to go vegetarian if it will actually make a difference. Until everyone decides not to eat meat, the morality of the issue at hand should not matter to an individual because the individual’s actions will make no difference in the big scheme of things.
However, I would argue that any purchase of meat makes a large difference. It may just be a speck on the chart of meat sales, but perhaps that’s just the issue. Perhaps more people should examine their true moral feelings on the issue of eating meat and follow what their intuitions tell them—if this happened, imagine how many specks would be removed from the grid. The argument that you are not responsible for indirectly inflicting suffering by eating a juicy burger or a savory salmon breast is flawed because you are basically just providing compensation (money) for the people who actually did the dirty work. The animal suffered a painful death, and you literally paid for the yields of their suffering.
So, in short, yes, we are accountable. Stating that it is okay to eat meat “because everybody’s doing it” and because “I can’t really make a difference” seem like cop-out answers that do not get to the root of the problem. No, you may not be able to save every last cow, pig, fish, or chicken. Nevertheless, compromising your morals in the name of helplessness never seems acceptable… If nothing else, it is a betrayal to yourself.