At the slaughterhouse

by Pascale Hugues

The better America (Issue IV/2020)

At the slaughterhouse -

Photo: Christopher Simpson/ Gallerystock

Corine Pelluchon is a visionary. As a philosopher, she pondered animal and environmental protection, long before Covid-19 upended our lives. She is a leading voice on in these issues in France and in times of coronavirus, her observations have gained fresh urgency. Pelluchon has long denounced the violence that agriculture inflicts on animals: the appalling living conditions and terrible deaths, as well as highlighting the working conditions of livestock farmers and slaughterhouse employees. She argues that we should change our consumption habits as the economy modernises and not everything should be subordinated to maximising profit.

Pelluchon's book “Les Nourritures. Philosophie du corps politique” is available in English, German, and other translations (In English: “Nourishment: A Philosophy of the Political Body”) and her current book “Réparons le monde. Humains, animaux, nature” came out recently in France - a timely publication. Of late, the corona outbreak in the abattoirs of the Europe's largest meat producers Tönnies Group once again shone a spotlight on the dire conditions behind cheap meat production. Problems were revealed regarding the appalling treatment of animals killed in the name of quick profit, as well as the underpaid Eastern European workers, who live and work in miserable, often unhygienic, conditions.

The public outcry is limited. It is as if we are paralysed

Pelluchon, a professor of philosophy at the Gustave-Eiffel University near Paris and a member of the scientific Advisory Board of the Foundation for Nature and Mankind, prefers the term “economism” over the ideologically charged word “capitalism”. She condemns the economically driven world order, which ranks profit above all else. Her observation was proved astute by the Tönnies affair as well as multiple meat industry scandals that have shocked and alarmed us for decades. We all have all seen unbearable videos of thousands of chickens crammed into in factory farms, of stuffing geese, blood-drenched bulls at bullfights, captive circus lions - and yet the public outcry is limited. It is as if we are paralysed.

Against this backdrop, Corine Pelluchon asks herself why the regular and unsparing revelations of such scandals are not enough to make us to change our attitudes and our lifestyles. Why not do without meat? Why do so few fight for a more respectful treatment of animals? These questions are scrutinised by Pelluchon. They lie at the core of her approach and inform her statement that our cruelty to animals holds a mirror to our collective shame. According to the political philosopher we have learned to look away. Only this enables us to tacitly support these modern form of barbarism. For her, respect is again the key to renewing our attitudes towards other living beings. She argues forcefully that she is not alone in the world, separated from the outside world - but rather forms part of the world which welcomed her when she was born and which will outlive her. For Pelluchon, this basic attitude is the starting point for all personal and political steps in the right direction.

In “Nourishment: A Philosophy of the Political Body” Pelluchon pleads for a new definition of our concept of democracy, including a new social contract which takes into account both animal welfare and ecology. According to Pelluchon, society can only fully function when we think about what enables us to live and what connects us with others. For her “nourishment” fulfils both of these purposes: it is what keeps us alive, i.e. our food, but at the same time it is part of our cultural heritage and pleasure. In this way the philosopher distances herself from existentialism and various philosophies of freedom which often focus on a duality of nature and culture. Biosphere, co-existence, environment and food all belong together, according to Pelluchon. For this, and other reasons, she stresses that our policies must not only focus on personal freedom, national security or fighting inequality, but should also deal with relations with future generations, nature and the improvement of animals’ living conditions.

But how we move forward? Pelluchon asks. How can you get people to rethink their actions without resorting to apparently useless calculations of utilitarianism and moralistic lessons? In “Réparons le Monde” she writes: “In order to change their consumer habits and put pressure on companies and governments, individuals need to change from the inside and be able to feel their closeness to other living beings.” You have to “re-sensitise” them. To create a less hierarchical relationship with others we also need to improve our relationship with animals, according to Pelluchon. This is done above all by becoming aware of our own “vulnerability” and recognising the legitimate limits of our existence, i.e. the limits of our consumption of plants and animals.

Animals, like us, are sentient beings. They have rights too. That leads Pelluchon to consider a “rehabilitation of sensitivity”, which can help change our behaviour, whether it be our treatment of animals, nature or those weaker than ourselves. This informs the philosopher’s decision to dedicate an entire chapter of the book to how we deal with old people, in particular vulnerability, tiredness, pain and death. These are topics that we humans like to hide from “because they are too far removed from familial and professional obligations and because people are afraid to face the trauma that the confrontation with them entails. To enable themselves to function, they lower a veil over topics which hurt.”

Now it is up to individuals to make a choice, to reconsider their ideas of right and wrong, especially on the issue of food

This is one of the reasons why, according to Pelluchon, animals can become our “teachers of otherness” in the future. Dealing with them offers us the chance to create a new humanism, a new vision for a more cohesive society which the philosopher’s books seek to provide a “conceptual framework” for. This project is both ambitious and modest. Because “repairing the world,” as the Kabbalah says, does not only mean limiting the extent of the destruction, but also to explore averting chaos in the future without simply resorting to long-established ways of acting.

“Liberty consists of doing anything which does not harm others,” states Article 4 of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, a remarkable text dating from the year 1789. Given that 7.5 billion people reside on a planet which is threatened by global warming, this sentence sounds almost like a warning. Now it is up to individuals to make a choice, to reconsider their ideas of right and wrong, especially on the issue of food. Our freedom ends where the other's begins. This is still true today - with the addition that “the other” is not necessarily a human being, but could just as well be an animal or nature. In this way Corine Pelluchon’s thoughts are an attempt to apply the lessons of the Enlightenment to the 21st century context, meanwhile placing one last piece into the puzzle of establishing our moral code.

Réparons le monde. Humains, animaux, nature. By Corine Pelluchon. Rivages, Paris, 2020.
Translated by Caroline Härdter and Jess Smee

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