Photo: Stephen Lewis/Art + Commerce

In the vast and ever-growing phylum of vegetarianism (freegans, vegans, flexitarians, fruititarians), I represent a particularly annoying subspecies: the sentimentalist. My eating habits shifted very suddenly, seven years ago, because of the transcendent cuteness of my wienerdog—his sweet breath and soft fur and perfectly symmetrical ears; his expressive little huffs and grunts; his determination to keep me warm whenever I took a nap. Eventually, my love for him grew so powerful that it spread, like a tidal wave of snuggles, to cover the entire animal kingdom. This forced me to confront some difficult questions. If I lived in close daily contact with, say, a pig, would I be able to kill and eat it? (Probably not.) Would I come to admire its bristles and moist snout as much as the tender cascading wrinkle-folds that run down my wienerdog’s neck? (Almost definitely.) Was it fair, then, to punish every animal in the world for the historical accident of not being my pet? (It was not.) I had just moved to New York, where it was possible to live well without eating meat, so I decided to make the leap, or at least to make a decent-size hop. I gave up pork, beef, and chicken, but continued to eat dairy, eggs, and—a little guiltily—fish. (Technically, I’m not a vegetarian but a lacto-ovo-pescatarian.)

The dog-inspired lifestyle shift, I later discovered, is not unique to me—in fact, it predates the birth of my wienerdog by several hundred years. The historian Keith Thomas, in his classic Man and the Natural World, argues that the rise of middle-class pet-keeping in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England laid the emotional groundwork for the spread of vegetarianism. In fact, since that time—although the conditions surrounding animal farming have changed quite a lot (especially its scale and environmental impact)—the way we argue about eating animals has hardly changed at all. Our basic stances and talking points have been in place roughly since Descartes dismissed animals as unfeeling automata. Twenty generations of carnivores have argued that animals don’t feel pain (or experience it in such an alien way it probably shouldn’t count as pain); that animals’ lives on the farm are better than they would be in the wild; and that meat eating is an inevitable part of some grand unchallengeable scheme, whether biblical (dominion) or natural (the law of the jungle) or cultural (Thanksgiving).

And twenty generations of vegetarians have answered that animals clearly suffer; that a precarious life in the wild is better than a miserable one in captivity; that humans are designed (based on their jaws, teeth, and digestive tracts) to eat mostly plants; that meat-based agriculture is wasteful; and that ethical humans in advanced civilizations have the power to rationally overrule any alleged “laws of nature.”

Over the last decade, we’ve seen an explosion of books about the ethics and methods of eating animals—most influentially Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma—nearly all of which hammer away at these familiar points. Although there hasn’t been a major shift in the argument for 300 years, one thing seems to have changed: Industrial animal agriculture, as it stands now, is so inarguably terrible that almost everyone who knows about it is against it. Horror at factory farming seems to be the default popular position, and this year has seen another flurry of books that condemn the system: The Face on Your Plate, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson; Animals Make Us Human, by Temple Grandin; The Kind Diet, a vegan cookbook and lifestyle guide by Alicia Silverstone; and now, perhaps most visibly, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals.

Eating Animals is a personal journey that follows, roughly, the Divine Comedy template. Halfway along life’s path, Foer finds himself lost in a dark wood: With fatherhood approaching, he feels compelled to make a final decision about the ethics of eating meat. Like Dante, Foer is an allegorical figure: he stands in for educated meat-conscious American citizens, those of us who’ve been troubled by PETA fliers but remain trapped, as he was, in diets of “conscientious inconsistency.” So he goes on a journey of discovery. First he descends into hell: An activist helps him sneak into an industrial turkey farm in the middle of the night, where he witnesses unimaginable suffering. (His guide slits the throat of a sick baby turkey who’s been left to die.) Next he explores the purgatory of indecision: Is it okay to reject meat as a sacred bond of social cohesion (e.g., his grandmother’s magical chicken and carrots)? Finally, he ascends to a kind of heaven: a tour of an heirloom turkey farm run by a heroic artisanal farmer.

Foer’s book is sometimes noble and powerful and brave—but it’s also deeply irritating, even to a fellow irritating vegetarian. Its polemic force is blunted by the signature JSF aesthetic: chapters tagged with cutesy titles (“All or Nothing or Something Else”), formal play to no obvious end (one section is written as a faux dictionary), and serious thought replaced by clumsy rhetorical jazz-hands (“When we lift our forks, we hang our hats somewhere”). Whenever Foer approaches a controversial point, he retreats behind a wall of 3,000 rhetorical questions. In the end, he settles on the safest possible non-conclusion: Vegetarianism is probably the best option, but eating humanely raised meat—if you can find it—maybe isn’t so bad, possibly. This may be admirably levelheaded and realistic, but it’s also numbingly predictable; part of me yearns for the ethical strength of an actual position. It’s telling that, although Foer invokes a small army of authorities, he never grapples directly with the most forceful of them: Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, the classic bulletproof case against “speciesism,” which compares our subjugation of nonhuman animals to slavery.

As in Dante, Eating Animals’s most powerful moments come in hell: Foer’s depiction of the factory-farming system is brutal and thorough—strong enough, I imagine, to win some converts. He describes genetically freakish animals, some of whom can’t walk or mate, living in tiny cages in windowless sheds, suffering ritual mutilation and sloppy slaughtering (many of them end up getting boiled or skinned alive). Unprofitable babies are immediately disposed of: electrocuted, thrown into a chipper, bashed headfirst into a concrete floor, or (in the case of irrelevant male dairy calves) sold to veal farmers. Slaughterhouse workers go crazy with sadism; toxic lakes of manure poison the environment. None of this is new, but, as Foer puts it, “we have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness.” The sheer brutality of the system seems to have pushed our centuries-long stalemate to a tipping point: Factory farming has become its own most powerful counterargument. And that transcends all cutesiness. As Foer’s guide at the turkey farm tells him, “The truth is so powerful in this case it doesn’t even matter what your angle is.”

Eating Animals
By Jonathan Safran Foer.
Little, Brown and Company.