In the second to last chapter of Eating Animals, Foer gets to the crux of his argument. After surveying the history of animal husbandry and investigating the recent emergence of factory farms, he concludes that support for the lesser of two evils is justified. According to his analysis, the practice of factory farming is so grotesque, and meat eating so entrenched in our culture, that support for traditional animal husbandry is, at least for now, a necessary compromise. While reiterating his commitment to vegetarianism, he finds no conflict in being “a vegetarian who supports the best of animal agriculture.” Many have taken issue with his position, most notably Gary Francione and other animal advocates who take the abolitionist approach. Francione accuses those who support animal welfare of ultimately perpetuating animal exploitation by making it more comfortable for people unwilling to give up eating meat.

While I sympathize with Francione’s idealism, it strikes me that his position is out of touch with reality. For example, there are cultures in which marrying and impregnating a girl at the age of 13 is considered acceptable. In the United States and much of the Western world this would be considered rape by definition. But if you were to parachute into the middle of that community, do you think your moral repugnance alone would shame them into reversing decades of traditional behavior?

What if there was a new practice emerging, where as soon as a girl turned 13 years old, she was bound, gagged, tied to a pole, force fed through a tube and raped at will by her captors? If there was a growing movement among the people of that country to oppose this treatment, would you support them? Or would you condemn them on the grounds that they were nearly as morally bankrupt as their opponents, such as an abolitionist might condemn Foer?

This example may sound rhetorical and extreme, but it’s an accurate description of what happens to factory-farmed animals. The difference between traditional animal husbandry and factory farming is like the difference between a man who sees a young girl as his wife and a man who sees a young girl as a thing that exists merely for his sensual pleasure. The first is certainly inappropriate by the standard of Western culture, but the second is heinous, by any standard.

Supporting the lesser of two evils is not simply motivated by a utilitarian desire to reduce suffering, as Francione argues. There is a positive goal to be achieved by supporting family farms at the expense of factory farms, and that is the maintenance of a connection, no matter how tenuous, between human beings and animals. The most dangerous threat posed by factory farming is not the inevitable suffering and death of animals. The most dangerous threat is that the relationship between human beings and animals would be irrevocably severed, so that we no longer see them as living creatures, but instead as strange, abstract and inconvenient things. As this happens, we lay the groundwork for an exploitation of animals so total in its cruelty that only machines, or human beings reduced to machines, could carry it out.

As long as the relationship between humans and animals remains, no matter how flawed and doomed to tragedy, there is still the possibility that a person might recognize the animal slated for slaughter as a friend. A farmer’s daughter might refuse to eat the flesh of the cow she raised (as happened to my aunt). A young girl might refuse to eat the flesh of a lamb she met that morning (as happened to the granddaughter of a friend.) I wonder if Francione underestimates the extent to which factory farms have decimated family farms in this country, and the consequences of their near-total extinction. If factory farming continues its steady march across the face of the globe, it won’t be a matter of how we see animals. We simply won’t see them, period.

This book is partly a narrative of Foer’s journey from ambivalence to certainty about his commitment to vegetarianism. While Francione insists on the need for a total commitment to animal rights, Foer recognizes that all commitments begin in ambivalence. In every interview he conducts with a farmer or slaughterhouse manager who personally raises, handles or kills animals, they express doubt about their profession. One cattle rancher admits, “It’s the most troubling moment for me, that moment when they are lined up at the slaughterhouse. I don’t know quite how to explain it. That’s the marriage of life and death. That’s when you realize, ‘God, do I really want to exercise dominion and transform this wonderful living creature into a commodity, into a food?”

When we regard someone struggling with their place in the world, with their relationship to other living creatures and to their environment, we either encourage that desire in them to know how best to live, or we judge them, saying, “not enough.” It’s frightening to simply state what we know and leave the other person to wrestle with their conscience. But this must be done. Conscience may not win every battle, but I believe it is our best and only ally in winning the war.