Book Review #1 – Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

In many ways, there is little more to be said about this book than the eight word review on the front cover from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall – “Everyone who eats flesh should read this book”. With all due respect to Hugh, though, that doesn’t make for an exciting post, so I’ll try to drag it out a little further. I will briefly talk about my own feelings and why I read the book, then how I found the content and style, and I’ll finish up by sinking into some meaty philosophy (a pun which, it may transpire, is in bad taste).

It is hardly a point to be argued, that on a clear Spring morning, ambling around a book shop is one of the finer ways it can be spent. I had to make do with a Waterstones – my least favourite bookshop, simply because as a philosopher I have a penchant for dusty old books that nobody else reads – which, on this occasion, turned out to be particularly fruitful. I find it difficult to locate the philosophy in Waterstones, it’s usually somewhere between “Spirituality” and “Smart thinking”, (and while it’s nice to stand underneath a sign, scratching my chin and looking thoughtful, that is so precocious I may as well be screaming “I… AM AN INTELLECTUAL!”, I’d rather just have a “Philosophy” section), so I often stray into nearby shelving and uncover some other hidden gems. I digress. My point is this: I don’t know if this book was in the philosophy section, it’s not, strictly speaking, what one might call a philosophical text, but it tapped into an ethical dilemma I’ve been struggling with for a while, so I bought it… for half the price, on Amazon, when I got home.

Since taking a class in moral philosophy and writing a paper on the ethics of conservation hunting, I’ve been on the cusp of becoming a vegetarian. The dilemma is that my greedy, gutty, selfish human self really enjoys eating meat of various kinds, but my more rational, conscientious philosopher self knows that there are many reasons not to. Essentially, I am on the cusp because I cannot/don’t want to sacrifice tasty bacon and Taco Bell, to be safe in the knowledge that I am not contributing to the suffering and death of animals. I’m not proud of it, but I feel there are many others like me, so it’s okay[1]. So when I saw the book Eating Animals, and read the blurb, which promised an investigation into the “economic, social and environmental effects” of meat production, it was a no brainer. I needed something to push me over the edge. I knew that the horrible, harsh, uncensored reality would disgust me, and hopefully compel me to stop eating meat. These are my feelings, and this is why I read the book.

I’ll start by discussing the style of the book because, honestly, it’s not my strong point and I don’t have much to say. I like it. The structure is good. Jonathan Safran Foer (JSF) starts by giving us a background to his and his family’s relationship with food in a chapter called “Storytelling”; specifically, his grandmother, his struggle with vegetarianism, and how the birth of his son forced him to find out more about eating animals. We then head straight into it, and JSF makes “a case for eating dogs” (p.24), a remarkably shocking way of grabbing the reader by the shoulders, shaking, and waking him up to the sheer stupidity of humankind’s arbitrary delineation between species. For me, at least, this was enough to get me hooked, to make me realise that this is serious, and to pay attention. My partner loves dogs, my mum has just got one too, and we’ve bonded, and to consider killing and eating it made me sit up and take notice (when BBQ dog is the butt of a joke in the Peep Show, it’s hilarious, but the poignancy of the start of this book leaves no room for humour).

Blah blah blah, lots of book in the middle. Then it finishes with a final chapter called “Storytelling”. We return to JSF’s family home, this time in the present, the future, but not the past. He recaps some anecdotes of animal cruelty and suggests that from now on, a Turkey at the centre of the table at Thanksgiving might not be mandatory, which seems a relief after learning so much since Chapter 1. Thankfully, there is nothing dogmatic or “preachy” about this book, or it’s finale. JSF remains as open as possible about his potential biases and doesn’t finish by telling the reader that they should become vegetarian, but he does make the reader think. Should we accept the factory farming system? “Does what we consume make sense?” (p.266).

The book comes full circle, like a dinner plate, from Storytelling to Storytelling. In between, there is a vague sense of the growth of a human life; the “All or Nothing [or Something Else]” (C2) of making it through birth alive, the “Words / Meaning” (C3) of the development of speech and semantics, the “Hiding / Seeking” (C4) of childhood games, right through to marriage and back to the start of a new life – his son. Like I said, the structure is good – this is a well thought out book. But it’s the content that’ll shock you.

It’s almost difficult to know where to start with the content of this book. There are stories, facts, stats and various other forms of evidence that will shock and abhor – too many to name. What I found least appealing, though, were the guest writers. Because of the somewhat neutral position of JSF, it is strange to have it interspersed with pages of text from somebody who clearly falls on a particular side of the argument. Others may find this persuasive, or helpful, but for me it was only ever refreshing to get back to JSF and the “narrative” of the book (I use the term loosely). I like the Dictionary-esque content of the “Words / Meaning” chapter which, although it doesn’t sound particularly exciting, really is. The incredible variety of sea dwelling animals that suffer as ‘Bycatch’ is staggering, the audacity of CFEs (Common Farming Exemptions) in the USA is unbelievable (Google it if you don’t know what it is. Un-bloodly-believable), and the tragedy of a ‘Downer’ hits you right where it hurts. What really choked me, though, was the following passage:

What happens to the male offspring of layers? If man hasn’t designed them for meat, and nature clearly hasn’t designed them to lay eggs, what function do they serve? They serve no function. Which is why all male layers – half of all the layer chickens born in the United States, more than 250 million chicks a year – are destroyed (p.48).

There are two types of chicken – layers and broilers. Half of all broilers are destroyed? What does that mean? Surely not… just killing all of them? It’s exactly that. JSF then mentions the way some of the chicks are destroyed. There are no words for it. Out of context, I appreciate this isn’t particularly emotional, but when one is engrossed in the text, it really does make for difficult reading. The horror and suffering that are inflicted on all our favourite foods is appalling. I won’t list any more stats and stories. Instead, I urge you to read the book.  It suffices to say that the content of Eating Animals is nothing short of horrifying; whether this is testament to JSF’s writing prowess, or the reality of the situation, is difficult to know, although I suspect it is a large amount of both.

So where does the philosophy fit into this?

I read the book with just two normative ethical systems in mind, deontology and utilitarianism, because I have absolutely no time for virtue ethics and so, rightly or wrongly (probably wrongly), tend to discount it from consideration[2]. Let us, firstly, consider utilitarianism – a system where maximising the good, or something thereabouts, is the crudest way of postulating the system – and what could be done to maximise the good. Does becoming a vegetarian really help to combat a multi-billion-dollar industry? As the old adage goes, faith moves mountains… but vegetarians probably don’t. In fact, my not eating meat would probably not even be noticed. Sure – if 100,000 of us stopped, in my hometown, then perhaps a local supermarket would eventually order less meat, so the factory farm (and who knows how many steps up the chain there are, from supermarket to factory farm?) would slaughter less animals that day/week. But if just little-old-me were to skip eating meat, does it really do any good at all? It sends out a statement, of course, if I discuss with others my reasons for doing so. Maybe I’d even encourage others to stop too. But I can’t help but feel that a utilitarian would require an awful lot more effort from me, in order to be satisfied. As I’ve already said though, I struggle with saying no to a bacon roll on a Saturday morning, I’m never going to chain myself up to the gates of parliament with will power weaker than a wet paper bag! Is that kind of action, protesting, a way to do the most good, though? I’m not sure it is. There is also the possibility that a utilitarian would think my becoming vegetarian, however insignificant, is contributing more good than my eating meat, and therefore, should be recommended. But if I’m going to go along with this kind of flimsy compromise then I’d much rather make haste to old faithful – my personal preference in ethics; deontology.

Ahhh, rule based ethics. That’s right. You know where you stand with deontology. The bastion of stability in a sea of conditions and contexts. You’re either doing right, or doing wrong. Unless there’s a murderer at the door asking for directions to a friend he wants to maim, in this case, it gets tricky, but let’s leave that for another day. Kant, who is deontology’s primary proponent, actually has some pretty interesting things to say about animals. He thinks we can use them as we see fit, kill them for food or protection if we need to, because we have dominion over the animals. He draws the line at killing for sport, though. Unnecessary killing or hunting is frowned upon by Kant. He did say all of this, however, centuries before we started breeding billions of animals exclusively to slaughter them after a number of days/weeks. It might take some work to understand exactly what position he would take on factory farming. I expect the work of Korsgaard would be a good place to start.

It’s almost ringing in my ears as I read the book – “Act only upon that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”. What I want to be a universal law, is for people not to eat factory farmed animals, and ultimately drive the industry out of business. Perhaps, then, that is the maxim I should act upon. I should act upon my principle, despite knowing that it will make little or no difference (In fact, I did the exact same thing in the UK General Election recently: I voted for a party that stood no chance in my constituency, because I aligned with their principles and manifesto – I acted upon the maxim that I would will to be a universal law, regardless of consequences). It seems, then, that I might have my answer. As an adherent to deontology, I should stop eating factory farmed animals because I would will that everybody else would too. I should stop, also, because I have a duty to treat animals better than to eat them (this statement also requires some work, and I have written extensively on it… Just, trust me for now; I do, we all do).

There is much more philosophy to be done in this domain, I feel. It is likely that I will return to the ethics of animal life. It is a personal interest of mine, along with climate change, and the ethics involved with other natural phenomena. For now, though, we should wrap up. Eating Animals is a phenomenal book; it is vivid, illuminating, tragic, desperate and disgusting in all the right places. Who doesn’t want to know what they put into their body? Why would you be wilfully ignorant of that? As a human, even if you don’t care for non-human animals, surely you care for your own health? If yes, it follows that you should want to know about what you are putting into it. I tackled Eating Animals in just a few days, because it is a compelling read. Am I a vegetarian now? No. Do I feel a pang of guilt every time I think about whether or not I should be? You bet.

Be warned, Eating Animals will make you think twice about eating animals.


[1] I am aware that this reasoning is littered with fallacies; argumentum ad populum and appeal to tasty bacon, as far as I’m aware. The point is that despite my awareness of my flawed logic, I struggle to stop eating meat.

[2] I intend to consider ethical theories, and what I think is wrong with virtue ethics, at some length, sometime soon.

Recommended Reading:

Safran Foer, J. (2009). Eating Animals. London: Penguin Books.


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