1. IN 1999, as a writer for The American Prospect, I went into a slaughterhouse undercover, with the help of some rebellious employees. The floor was slick with the residue of blood and suet, and the air smelled like iron. A part of my brain spent the whole time trying to remember which of Dante’s circles this scene most resembled.
2. Today, under legislation being pushed by business interests, that bit of journalistic adventure could earn me a criminal conviction and land me on a registry of “animal and ecological terrorists.” So-called ag-gag laws, proposed or enacted in about a dozen states, make, or would make, criminals of animal-rights activists who take covert pictures and videos of conditions on industrial farms and slaughterhouses. Some would even classify the activists as terrorists.
3. The agriculture industry says the images are unfair. They seem to show cruelty and brutality, but the eye can be deceiving. The most humane way of slaughtering an animal, or dealing with a sick one, may look pretty horrible. But so does open-heart surgery. The problem with making moral arguments by appealing to revulsion is that some beneficial and indispensable acts can also be revolting. With gruesome shots of cadavers, a skilled amateur could make a strong emotional case against using them to teach anatomy in medical school.
4. Moreover, the industry says, the activists are trespassers, or, when they’re employees working undercover for an animal-rights group or news organization, they’re going beyond the terms of their employment. Slaughterhouses and confined-feeding operations can be dangerous places. Although the industry surely exaggerates the risk, guerrilla actions are not the safest or best way to spur reflection on how we treat animals.
5. Fairness and safety are real issues. So is transparency, and that is why we should require confined-feeding operations and slaughterhouses to install webcams at key stages of their operations. List the URL’s to the video on the packaging. There would be no need for human intrusion into dangerous sites. No tricky angles or scary edits by activists. Just the visual facts. If the operators felt their work misrepresented, they could add cameras to give an even fuller picture.
6. There are models for this kind of sunlight requirement. For a couple of decades, federal law has required chemical plants to release details of their toxic emissions to the public. Most scholars agree that embarrassment and public pressure have pushed down pollution as a result, without further regulation.
7. At first, transparency would mainly inform consumer choice. The pictures might persuade some people to stop eating meat, or to buy it from a more humane source. Of course, changes in personal attitudes often translate into expanded public debate. People who start out by changing how they eat might end up supporting laws for more humane treatment of farm animals.
8. Open-slaughterhouse laws would not have to go through state legislatures, where agricultural lobbies are strong. Successful ballot initiatives in a few states could change the information environment for everyone. If, say, California put slaughterhouse webcams in place, the public discourse everywhere might change.
9. Slaughterhouse cameras might seem unfair to the operators. The images might still appeal to emotion and prompt visceral revulsion. Fair enough. But we are not going to decide how we should treat animals through cold reason alone, and certainly not if their treatment is invisible.
10. Emotional response is part of moral reasoning, and in this case we need more information, not less. The images need to be supplemented by brain studies and other efforts to understand what animal suffering is like — for instance, whether mammals experience trauma when confined and exposed to slaughter. But the images would motivate us to ask the right questions.
11. Opponents might compare this proposal to bills that require women to view images of their fetuses before having an abortion. The resemblance is misleading. Those laws intrude on intimate, difficult decisions involving a constitutional right.
12. In contrast, open-slaughterhouse laws would not force anyone to look at anything. They would just increase our resources for thinking and arguing. A teenager debating her parents at the dinner table, or a parishioner discussing the ethics of eating meat with fellow church members, would be able to pull out a cellphone or laptop to support his or her arguments.
13. Ten years before sneaking into that slaughterhouse, I was helping to slaughter cattle on the small West Virginia farm where I grew up. I still don’t feel that I know what it means, morally, when an animal’s life ends in exchange for our sustenance, or simply because we love grass-fed hamburger. Supporters of ag-gag laws are right that our treatment of animals is a hard problem that is divisive — and often leaves us internally divided — and too often oversimplified. But if advocates of these laws are sincere about those concerns, they should agree to make slaughterhouse operations transparent.