Eating animals and personal guilt: the individualization of responsibility for factory farming

by Grace Boey

Lisa_the_vegetarian.png?w=768&h=498Last year, I decided to stop eating animal products and meat, apart from some seafood. I’d felt uncomfortable about the facts of factory farming for quite some time, and finally resolved to take the plunge. Having enjoyed meat, eggs and dairy for all my life, it was initially a challenge adjusting to my new diet – while cutting meat was surprisingly easy, I mourned the loss of scrambled eggs for breakfast for at least a month. I still sometimes find it hard to resist certain desserts made with made with eggs, butter and milk. It helps, though, that I carry pictures like these around with me on my phone. The bright yellow hue of a lemon tart that comes from egg yolks doesn’t seem so appealing anymore after I call up pictures of filthy hens squished together in cages. I slip up sometimes, but on the whole, I’ve been pretty good about sticking to my diet.

The tougher challenge for me was, and still is, talking to others about my abstention. Ideally, I’d proudly announce my decision, and freely share my reasons for making it. But in reality, I avoid talking about it as much as possible. I almost never proactively tell anyone about my diet, and I don’t mention it unless circumstances make it necessary. There are few things that make me more physically uncomfortable than having my personal business suddenly put on the spot. I’m also hopeless at expressing myself verbally. And bringing up animal abstention tends to open up a conversational can of worms of the most squirmish kind. Okay, so I’m making my abstention public here – but it’s not too often I get to kick off a conversation by explaining myself in a couple thousand words, in my medium of choice, before the other party gets to respond.

Before I began abstaining from animals, I’d heard about the legendary amount of snark and hostility experienced by others who did. I’ve since gotten my fair share of this ugliness, which usually goes like this: someone will wrangle information about my diet out of me, and then proceed, entirely unsolicited, to say something f!#@ing rude about it. I’ve gradually learned to let idiotic comments like – for every steak you don’t eat, I’m going to eat three – slide. I’m still wondering how to respond to those who make a show of delightedly biting into chicken wings, right after I sincerely express my sadness over animals being tortured in factory farms.

Such crassness is tiresome, but what genuinely troubles me more are remarks like – I know I should do it, but it tastes so good – or – I know it’s wrong, but what difference are you making by stopping? Is it just something that helps you sleep better at night? To me, they represent a bunch of concerns that I myself have mixed feelings about. And the fact that people feel the need to proactively justify themselves says this – that they, in some way, perceive that I’m judging them. Once, as I was munching on vegan cookies in the subway, my boyfriend confessed he sometimes worried I thought he was a bad person for eating meat.

The truth is: judgment doesn’t even enter my mind until others bring it up themselves. I know how hard it is to give up food you’ve grown up eating all your life. I also know how pointless it seems, in the grand scheme of things, for one person out of billions to abstain from meat, milk and eggs. I also get how hard it is not to eat the stuff, when it's everywhere in innocent-looking forms. I know that we’re rarely physically confronted with the reality of how it’s all produced. I may be a philosophy grad student, but I'm also, y'know, a human being who was still eating meat not too long ago. I’m wholly capable of stepping outside my little box of moral reasoning to identify with the phenomenology driving human behaviour.

Unfortunately, I’ve yet to figure out how to verbally communicate this in a way that doesn’t make me sound like a condescending prick (for some reason, I suspect “I don’t judge you, because I’m stepping outside my philosophical box of moral reasoning to empathize with humanity” just doesn’t cut it). It also begs the question: why exactly am I abstaining, and why the hell do I carry pictures of battery cages on my phone? For the moment, let’s put that question on hold; I’ll answer it later. I’m interested in first examining this troubling phenomenon of guilt, pointlessness and self-conscious indifference that so many of us have experienced at least once in our lives. How many of us have been traumatized after watching Earthlings or a PETA video, and resolved to go vegetarian … only to give in to a cheeseburger one day later? We know there’s something terribly wrong about the way we treat and eat animals, but for various reasons it seems too hard and too pointless to give it up. How has it come to this, and how should we view abstinence in light of it?

Problems with individualizing responsibility

It’s helpful to first take a brief step back from the issue of animal rights, and look to a parallel discussion in another field: environmental degradation. Earth’s resources are quickly depleting, and we as citizens of the planet are constantly told that we can save the environment with our individual choices. We should recycle, ‘buy green’, eat organic, and ride bikes or walk instead of driving. Singapore, my home country, isn’t too big on recycling. But since I’ve shifted to New York, where recycling is mandatory, I’ve become fairly dutiful about sorting out my trash. I felt bad last week when I accidentally condemned a glass jar of pasta sauce to the landfill – every little bit counts, and this little bit could have been recycled or re-used (to store my homemade vegan lemon curd, perhaps).

In an influential 2001 paper Individualization. Plant a Tree, Ride a Bike, Save the World?, Michael Maniates, Professor of Political Science and Environmental Science, refers to this mindset as the “individualization of responsibility”:

[The individualization of responsibility] understands environmental degradation as the product of individual shortcomings … best countered by action that is staunchly individual and typically consumer-based … It embraces the notion that knotty issues of consumption, consumerism, power and responsibility can be resolved neatly and cleanly through enlightened, uncoordinated consumer choice … Call this response the individualization of responsibility.

The problem with this kind of thinking, though, is that it diverts our attention from the major structural and institutional factors at play:

When responsibility for environmental problems is individualized, there is little room to ponder institutions, the nature and exercise of political power, or ways of collectively changing the distribution of power and influence in society – to, in other words, “think institutionally.” … Individualization, by implying that any action beyond the private and the consumptive is irrelevant, insulates people from the empowering experiences and political lessons of collective struggle for social change and reinforces corrosive myths about the difficulties of public life. By legitimating notions of consumer sovereignty and a self-balancing and autonomous market, it also diverts attention from political arenas that matter.

Individualization, ironically, affects the individual in a way that is ultimately disempowering:

In the end, individualizing responsibility does not work – you can’t plant a tree to save the world – and as citizens and consumers slowly come to discover this fact their cynicism about social change will only grow: “you mean after fifteen years of washing out these crummy jars and recycling them, environmental problems are still getting worse – geesh, what’s the use?”

Well, I don’t feel so bad about trashing that glass jar now.

Why doesn’t individualizing responsibility work well to curb environmental degradation? There are several reasons for this. First, as Maniates argues, the very structure of society makes it difficult – if not impossible – for the individual to make any real choice; anything we do against the backdrop of this industrial, consumerist society is going to have some kind of deleterious effect on the environment. Second, given the billions of people on Earth, any change that any one individual makes is simply going to be negligible in the grand scheme of things. Third, the fragmentation of agency involved in pollution and resource depletion leads to the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma. Stephen Gardner, philosophy professor at University of Washington, sums this up:

Suppose that a number of distinct agents are trying to decide whether or not to engage in a polluting activity, and that their situation is characterized by the following two claims:

(PD1) It is collectively rational to cooperate and restrict overall pollution: each agent prefers the outcome produced by everyone restricting their individual pollution over the outcome produced by no one doing so.

(PD2) It is individually rational not to restrict one’s own pollution: when each agent has the power to decide whether or not she will restrict her pollution, each (rationally) prefers not to do so, whatever the others do.

Agents in such a situation find themselves in a paradoxical position. On the one hand, given (PD1), they understand that it would be better for everyone if every agent cooperated; but, on the other hand, given (PD2), they also know that they should all choose to defect.

The three reasons above make it hard, pointless and even irrational (!) for individuals to try and save the environment by changing their personal patterns of consumption. It’s no wonder, then, that the problem of environmental degradation looms bigger than ever.

It’s easy to see how some of this relates to animal rights and dietary abstinence. We are often told that if we want horrific animal suffering to stop, it is our responsibility to vote with our dollars and simply stop consuming what the factory farms produce. As consumers, we are responsible for generating the demand for the products we buy. This boycott is the primary course of action that Peter Singer advocates in his animal rights classic, Animal Liberation:

Becoming a vegetarian is a highly practical and effective step one can take toward ending both the killing of nonhuman animals and the infliction of suffering upon them. … So long as people are prepared to buy the products of intensive farming, the usual forms of protest and political action will never bring about a major reform. … The people who profit by exploiting large numbers of animals do not need our approval. They need our money. The purchase of the corpses of the animals they rear is the main support the factory farmers ask from the public. … This is not to say that the normal channels of protest and political action are useless and should be abandoned. On the contrary, they are a necessary part of the overall struggle for effective change in the treatment of animals. But in themselves, these methods are not enough.

Animal Liberation will always have a spot on my bookshelf; the facts and arguments it presents were instrumental in getting me to care more about animal welfare. But I cannot help but think that, in advocating individualistic boycott as the primary course of remedy to his readers, Singer is being much too naïve.

Assume, like Singer does as a utilitarian, that what we’re concerned with is reducing or eliminating the total amount of animal suffering in factory farms. If this is the case, then the last two out of the three of reasons why individualization fails for environmental degradation apply here as well. To recap: given the billions of people on Earth, any change that any one individual makes is going to be negligible in the grand scheme of things; and, the fragmentation of agency involved leads to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. From our individualistic and utilitarian perspective, it seems pointless and even irrational for any one person to start abstaining from animals, given that they like eating meat.

There are those who will challenge the legitimacy of applying the negligibility premise to animal abstention. Surely the individual can make some impact, however small. Again, here is Singer:

I believe we do achieve something by our individual acts, even if the boycott as a whole should not succeed. George Bernard Shaw once said that he would be followed to his grave by numerous sheep, cattle, pigs, chickens, and a whole shoal of fish, all grateful at having been spared from slaughter because of his vegetarian diet. Although we cannot identify any individual animals whom we have benefitted by becoming a vegetarian, we can assume that our diet, together with that of the many others who are already avoiding meat, will have some impact on the number of animals raised in factory farms and slaughtered for food. This assumption is reasonable because the number of animals raised and slaughtered depends on the profitability of this process, and this profit depends in part on the demand for the product. The smaller the demand, the lower the price and the lower the profit. The lower the profit, the fewer the animals that will be raised and slaughtered.

There are some problems with Singer’s attempt at persuasion here. For sure, I think that sparing the suffering of just one animal is something worth doing. But, realistically, it’s doubtful that even this could be achieved by one person acting within the system – the food market is simply too enormous to sense the choice of one single consumer. Sadly, we as individuals actually can’t assume that our diet will have any impact at all on the number of animals raised in factory farms. In all likelihood, the massive number of animals processed by factory farms over the course of my lifetime will remain exactly the same, whether I boycott or not. Singer appeals to the impact of an aggregate of boycotts, but what he hasn’t done is to give a very convincing reason for any individual reader to give up meat independently of anyone else. For one person looking to make a real difference, abstinence still seems hopeless. Maybe a group of one hundred is enough to send a minute signal to the market, but one person is probably not. Independent abstinence would also be more compelling for the individual utilitarian if we, and not the market, were directly responsible for rearing and killing our own meat; unfortunately, this doesn’t go through against the backdrop of factory farms.

I’ve argued so far that, for any one person concerned about reducing the amount of animal suffering in factory farms, abstaining from animals understandably seems pointless and even irrational. This assumes, however, that the individual will keep on eating meat as much as possible – regardless of its source – as long as she doesn’t see much practical, utilitarian point in stopping. This is getting us closer to one of the reasons why I chose to stop eating meat. But before I directly address that, I want to raise the question: what gives us this intense desire to consume meat? Why is it so hard to stop? How is it that we can watch gross PETA videos but go back to eating hamburgers within the hour? What gives rise to the sentiment – I know I should stop eating meat, but I just can't – that I’ve heard from at least two thirds of my friends?

I’ve gotten flak from a lot of vegans for saying this, but I will stick to my guns: I think there is some legitimacy to this excuse. Sure, we should definitely feel awful about our food when we are confronted with the reality of how it’s farmed; I would judge someone who denied that there was any problem at all with this. But the reality is, the system acts in a way that aggressively shields us from the facts of farming and simultaneously stokes our desire for animal products at every turn. Meat and animal products, in their final form, are everywhere. From infanthood, we are raised eating meat, eggs and milk; we are taken to McDonalds as a treat, and normalized to the sight of raw, red beef in supermarkets. Meat, milk and eggs are everywhere. Ice cream is everywhere. Burgers are everywhere. But what goes on inside factory farms is not. Factory farms don’t have glass walls, and those who run them are doing everything they can to keep us out. I don’t even know where the one nearest to my house is. For most people, there is a deep psychological disconnect between the meat they see in supermarkets, and the live animals they see in pictures and documentaries. Whether or not this is a theoretically legitimate moral excuse, in reality, this makes it very, very hard for most to bridge the gap between morals and actions.

Whose fault is this? I’m not really sure how to answer this question, nor am I sure that it’s a terribly productive one to ask. I think it’s safe to say that no one wants billions of animals to live and die in such suffering, and almost everyone thinks it’s morally reprehensible. Just try taking a poll of people right after watching a documentary that accurately depicts factory farm conditions. Animal consumption didn’t historically start out that way; it’s just that industrialization and capitalism eventually gave rise to a system where producing the most food for cheapest depends on doing so. Judge all you want, but in some sense, consumers and producers (and middlemen too) are stuck in a deadlock, where it's both incredibly difficult and not in our interests to step back from a system we nonetheless know to be inherently based on dirty fundamentals. No wonder we’ve become so cynical.

I think it’s clear by now that the only way out of this is reform on an institutional and legal level. The way out of the Prisonner’s Dilemma is to change the rules of the game, such that collectively rational action converges with individually rational action. And the way out of systemic blindness is to push for constant education and exposure – even mandate it. It's going to be hard, but nothing's going to change until this happens. One possible path out of society’s indifference towards what goes on in factory farms is to require graphic and factual information about our food wherever it is bought and consumed; although this is a controversial method, I myself am all for it. We must ensure that the walls of these farms remain effectively transparent, to everyone, for good. Once this is done, people will no longer be able to ignore the facts of intensive farming. I believe it will then be clear to everyone that what goes on in there cannot be allowed to continue. And the natural way out of exploiting the welfare of animals for the sake of cost and efficiency is to pass and enforce laws that make it unattractive or ideally illegal for producers to do so. By this I mean laws that really matter – not like the current ridiculous cage-free labelling farce that does nothing but make dirty money off well-intentioned customers. At least guarantee farm animals the same legal rights we already accord to pets. That's right – in many jurisdictions, including the USA, anti-cruelty laws that cover “companion animals” don't apply to farm animals. If this drives up prices or even collapses the market, so be it; this will only motivate society to seriously search for other ways to feed everyone cheaply and nutritiously.

Peter Singer may be pessimistic about the institutional tactic for eliminating animal suffering, but I am even more pessimistic about the prospects of persuading individual consumers to give up animals. It is not realistic to think we will achieve an overhaul of tastes this way: all this will do is saddle society with a massive guilt trip, while achieving little else towards our collective cause. The current context means that it is not at all productive, nor entirely fair, to charge individual consumers with the suffering of animals. Stop calling people monsters for eating steak. I think we can do better. Understand the forces that push them to participate in the system, and work strategically from there.

Individual abstinence and integrity

Now it’s time for me to fulfill my promise, and answer this question: why did I stop eating most animals? This may put a big, ethical crosshair on my forehead, but I’m actually not entirely certain that I’m morally required to stop eating factory-farmed meat as a small cog in a large wheel. Though I'm pretty certain, I believe there’s still a small chance I’m acting beyond what moral duty calls for. I’m just being intellectually honest here, and I’ve yet to work the uncertainty out. I'm also thinking of cutting the seafood, and pondering over my boyfriend's offer to carefully shoot a duck for me in the wild and roast it. I haven't made up my mind, and all these things make for a whole bunch of other questions.

So while moral reasoning (and hedging) brought me to my decision, what gave me the final push was really this: I just felt sad every time I looked down at my plate. The reason why I started feeling so sad was because work had seen me meticulously poring through animal rights books and academic papers for months; so much of this information had seeped into my brain that I could no longer live with eating the stuff I knew to be produced in this way. That’s why giving up meat was so easy for me: where I used to see a pork chop on a plate, I now see a tail-less, crusty-eyed, psychotic sow. And it’s important to me that I keep this aversion going: I have no wish to remain in a system I don’t believe in, even if it should make no utilitarian impact.

For me, this is what animal abstinence in a broken system boils down to: integrity. Emotion and some cognition may have been the spark, but the desire for integrity is what really keeps this flame going. And this is why I keep pictures of battery cages in my phone, even though I don’t spontaneously visualize miserable hens when peeking into patisseries. When I opt out, I act in accordance with my own values about how the world should be – which is, free of the system. Whether or not the 'virtue' of such integrity makes for a strict moral requirement, it’s certainly important to my own project of self-integration and identity that I pursue it.

Abstention from the system is a legitimate and desirable reflection of my own values, and it is largely for this reason that I would encourage others to join me. It's none of my business if they don't, but I’m happy for those who do: I think it helps them achieve a more cohesive identity, helps them live better with themselves, and helps them break out of their indifference in general to animal welfare. For me, abstention is something that keeps me motivated towards my goal of being in a position to influence this cause in a substantial way. Perhaps there’s nothing theoretically incoherent about someone who lobbies against the system, while continuing to eat factory-farmed meat. Good for anyone who can do that, I suppose. But I can't, and I suspect the same is true of most others. In reality, continuing to participate in a system we disapprove of in our heads tends to push it further towards the back of our minds.