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Farming As a Serious Moral Problem

In his 1954 essay, "The Question concerning Technology," the philosopher and unrepentant Nazi Martin Heidegger wrote: "Agriculture is now a mechanized food industry, in essence the same as the manufacture of corpses in the gas chambers and death camps."

The former rector of Freiburg has by now been (almost) universally denounced for his equation of Auschwitz and agribusiness, notwithstanding a few academic disciples who remain convinced that their master could do or say no wrong. ...
Yet there is one respect in which the comparison of modern farming methods to the mass killing of humans cannot but strike one as fair. To wit, 10 billion cows, pigs, lambs, chickens (and scattered other creatures) are slaughtered per year in the United States alone, bringing a painful end to their short, miserable, lives in squalid and stinking crates.

The term "animal holocaust" has been making the rounds, in reference to the mass slaughter of animals in factory farming. Is this an impious mockery, worthy of Heidegger, of an event that was without parallel in history? Or is it, on the contrary, a true and simple description of what is happening? Surely we may agree with Norman Finkelstein that to insist upon the uniqueness of the Holocaust to the point of outlawing all comparison would be unscientific, and irresponsible. Nothing human beings do is completely unlike other things they do. We might then begin by noting that factory farming is not carnivorism-as-usual in much the same way that the Holocaust was not war as usual. We might also note that both systems of mass killing can be traced back to assembly-line techniques initially developed by Henry Ford and others not for the destruction of living creatures, but for the production of machines.
The present system of meat production is perceived as acceptable by most not due to any widespread consensus that animals are not the sort of creatures that have rights, and thus that whatever happens to them behind the gates of a factory farm is morally irrelevant. It is perceived as acceptable only because it is not, for the most part, perceived. What is perceived is the finished commodity, wrapped in cellophane, physically and conceptually remote from the creature that gave it. This system enables people to participate in and perpetuate a practice that many would not be able to condone, or even stomach, if they were required to draw a bit closer to the stench of blood and feces, to the incalculable suffering, that goes into the production of their meals. This system is capitalism perfected, the same smooth exploitation of false consumer consciousness that makes sweatshop-produced sporting gear and fuel-inefficient SUV's possible, yet, with respect to the suffering involved (if I may be permitted to make such a comparison), vastly worse.

To insist on waiting until all human problems are taken care of before we get around to animal suffering is nothing but an evasion. For the sort of society that can accommodate mass slaughter and torture of animals is one so skilled at positioning its blinders that these may just as easily be deployed to block out any inconvenient human suffering as well. In other words, if facing up to the suffering of animals is put off on the grounds that human suffering is more important, then it will be put off forever.

Justin E. H. Smith is a professor of philosophy at Concordia University and a frequent contributor to various publications. A partial archive of his writing may be found at:

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