Fly in My Ointment: One that I Respect but Reject

From: The York-New Times

Recently, James McWilliams penned a piece in The Atlantic about the psychology of raising animals (especially cattle) for food.

Being The Atlantic it approached the subject from the left and used the terminology of animal rights activists, though McWilliams did not give the impression he was a PETA type.

His assertion is that in modern agriculture, farmers (who he refers to as “factory farmers”) are able to remain happy after raising thousands of animals for the purpose of having them killed and eaten, because they are completely detached from the animals.

No emotional bond develops, so it’s no big deal to have the animals killed for food.

In order for McWilliams’ theory to be correct, the opposite must be true.

If someone raising thousands of cattle can only be happy because they remain emotionally detached from the animals, then someone raising just a few will be emotionally attached to their animals and therefore unable to have them harvested, or they must be unhappy.

As one of thousands of 4-H families in Nebraska and across the nation who raise just a few livestock animals each year, ours like the others, is living proof that his theory is incorrect.

I know many farmers who raise large numbers of cattle who also disprove his theory.

This year our family raised two steers, three heifers, and two lambs.

Our 4-H animals were washed and brushed, well fed, groomed for the fair, taken for walks, talked to, even read to, and had musical instruments played for them (though being exposed to the machinations of pre-teens learning the saxophone and drums might be considered animal cruelty).

Each animal had a name.  Our family worked with them every day, and an emotional attachment did develop to the animals, as it does each year, especially for the kids.

Some of the animals are continuing the cycle of life in cow or sheep herds now, and some are feeding Nebraska families, including ours.  And here’s where the fly lands in McWilliams’ ointment.

We know what our role in life is and we know what purpose the animals serve.

Our family, including my children, understands that each of the animals was put on the Earth for a purpose, and that our charge is to care for them the very best we can while or until that purpose is served.

Being emotionally and worldly aware, aware of life and death, where our food comes from, and of the charge God gave us as people, is what makes us happy.

Emotional attachment or not, whether 5 or 500, because we know our role and the role animals play, we don’t have to “deal” with the psychology of harvesting and eating what we raised.  It’s not an issue.

Our family and so many others disprove his theory.  As do all the farmers who feed all of us.

They care strongly for their animals because they understand it’s their charge to do so and it’s the right thing to do.

They have countless stories of pouring their hearts into an injured cow or sick calf beyond the point of financial loss and emotional grief.

And in the end, whether they raise 50 or 50,000, they don’t avoid dealing with the psychology of killing because they’re emotionally detached as McWilliams suggests.

They don’t have to deal with it because they too understand their role in life and the purpose of the animals they care for.  Emotional attachment or not, it’s not an issue to have to worry over or deal with.

They aren’t happy because they’re detached.  Quite the opposite is true.  They know exactly what’s going on, are quite self-aware, and grasp the concepts of life and death better than most people.

Perhaps McWilliams should have explored the possibility that they’re happy because they are so aware and because they live with the satisfaction of knowing they feed a hungry world.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

One Response to Fly in My Ointment: One that I Respect but Reject

  1. Mariann says:

    Belief systems have frequently allowed otherwise good people to do terrible things with a completely clear conscience, even a sense of pride. That’s one reason why food policy work is so important. The belief on which the killing of animals is justified, i.e., that it is necessary to “feed the world,” is obviously wrong. The consumption of animal food is damaging to humans, not beneficial. But people will hold on to that belief tenaciously in order to justify their past behavior and allow them to continue it.

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