Category Archives: Boundaries and Marginal Cases

Pigs and sharks: from the private ethic to the public ethic, but how far, and how fast?

This image is from this Month’s Foreign Policy, which focuses on global food policy. Lester Brown’s article is a good intro for the uninformed, this compilation of “FB food Mad Libs” is unsurprisingly technocratic, and Joshua Keating’s piece is an engaging–if oddly eclectic-hodgepodge of global food trivia. The fact that China now literally has a strategic pork reserve caught my attention, as did Keating’s phrasing that “China is a porcine superpower as well as a human one.”

As talk of pigs and pork often does, this got me to thinking about how removed advertising of pork products (think Denny’s recent ‘baconalia’ binge, or this National Pork Board campaign) are from pigs, whereas images of free ranging cows are all over a lot of beef and dairy ads. It must be hard to market authenticity when what you’re selling is a product of compounded alienation.

And, in related news, the mayor of San Francisco is opposing a ban on shark fins because “we don’t have to be anticultural to get to an enlightened method” of shark finning (which would presumably not entail slicing off a live shark’s fin then throwing in back in the ocean to die). And he happens to like shark fin soup.

Various food products are becoming subject to what Bernie Rollin described for animal ethics more generally: they are undergoing a gradual transition from the private ethic to the public ethic. Veal and foie gras are on one end of the spectrum, the ubiquity of HFCS and subsidies commodity calories on the other. Food movement bigwigs have pointed out that private food choices have very public effects (Pollan’s “Big Food v. Big Insurance” comes to mind, as does Fast Food Nation), but nobody can quite agree on how to regulate them. Some, like Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, endorse a middle-of-the-road policy of ‘libertarian paternalist’ nudges. Others run the gamut.

(Putting aside, for the moment, the question of extraterritoriality and the ongoing debate between the global north and the global south over environmental justice) the dominant cultural model is that we should seek to persuade consumers–whether a member of the global middle class in rapidly urbanizing China or a midwestern American who eats animal products three times a day, seven times a week–without actually restricting their choices. Meatless Mondays (or weekdays) are a good example. In principle, this is all well and good; blanket bans would in some cases do more harm than good, if the majority of the consumer base isn’t on board. In practice, though, the global diet is Westernizing fast, and demographics are going to put a big hurt on the world’s oceans, biogeochemical systems, and ecosystems more generally. This is one of the reasons why ‘can the world support 9 billion people’ is a dumb question. (People with what diet? Mode of transportation? Sociopolitical system?) And, while I think the rural Indian peasant deserves, on principle, as much as the Manhattanite, I do often wonder whether all the people calling for a paradigm shift in the way the West eats rely too heavily on consumer/citizen education (two distinct things) without fully accounting for how capitalism undermines such efforts…or maybe I’m just caught in preparing for tomorrow’s class on Anarchism.

A city like San Francisco, which has both a progressive aura and a large Asian population, is admittedly in an odd spot. But it does strike me that a practice as ecologically repugnant as shark finning (just as veal crating was and is morally repugnant, although for a different set of reasons) is a good place to start shifting away from ‘gustatory relativism‘ toward and understanding that the ocean doesn’t care one whit for delicate palates.

Animal Ethics 101

My sister told me it would be a good idea to do an ‘introducing animal ethics’ post, preferably at something like a fifth grade level. Here goes, probably sans the fifth grader part.

The image above is from the core sourcebook I use for the two sessions of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare I’ve taught at UML (which I wanted to simply call Animal Ethics, but the Philosophy department would have none of it). I think it’s a great anthology, as it presents both Regan and Cohen, Dennett and (Marian) Dawkins, DeGrazia and the Animal Ag Alliance. I’m going to focus here on the first section of this book, which deals with animals as ethical subjects, and I should preface this by saying both that the second section–on animal cognition and capacities–necessarily informs the insights of the first, and that the following is only an introduction to normative ethics, and not to any other framework of what constitutes moral reality.

There are five (sometimes overlapping) schools of ethical thought that are applicable to the way we engage nonhuman animals: utilitarianism, deontology, contractarianism, virtue ethics, and the feminist ethic of care. Of these, the ‘big two’ are utilitarianism and deontology. Very few people, however, belong entirely in any one of these camps–for most of us, it’s more a matter of whether we tend towards one or the other of these positions.

The difference between utilitarianism and deontology can best be explained by the role consequentialism plays in each. To oversimplify a bit, utilitarianism is consequentialist because only the consequences of any given action matter, morally. In other words, the end literally justifies the means; for a true consequentialist, nothing else can! Under deontology, or rules-based thought, certain actions are “just wrong” because they violate a given principle. The phrase Fiat Justicia ruat caelum (“do justice though the heavens may fall”) comes to mind; this would make sense to a true deontologist, but a utilitarian would respond that letting the heavens fall probably can’t count as doing justice. To provide some caricatures: Jack Bauer is a utilitarian, and pro-life activists are deontologists. The fact that many pro-lifers may be ‘hard-on-terrorism’ in the Jack Bauer sense could take us on a number of interesting tangents…

In addition to being consequentialist, utilitarianism is generally interests-based while deontology is generally rights-based. I say ‘generally’ because of the distinction between act and rule utilitarianism, and because deontology, rooted in Kant’s categorical imperative, is technically duty-based rather than rights-based, but the terms are sometimes used interchangably in common parlance.

What sets utilitarianism apart from other consequentialist interests-based views, like egoism, is that utilitarianism seems to produce, in Jeremy Bentham’s famous words, “the greatest good for the greatest number.” For modern deontologists like Robert Nozick, on the other hand, rights are “side constraints on actions,” and are inviolable regardless of how many people might benefit. To put it in a current context: Obama is being a utilitarian on the budget (the interests of the rich, who are few, matter less than the interests of everyone else, who are many), while Ryan is being a deontologist (it’s their money, and it violates their rights to take it away).

Coming to animals, it’s important to understand that both utilitarians and deontologists can, for our purposes, be divided into two camps: the speciesist/anthropocentric (or, to use a more generous framing, the ‘human exceptionalist‘) and the anti-speciesist. For example, most welfare economists and trade liberalizers are utilitarians, but they only sum the utility and disutility of human agents in their moral calculus. In the case of deontology, the rise of the human rights culture in the wake of the Holocaust has been explicitly “humanist” in the sense that includes even marginal human cases like acephalous humans, while still excluding nonhumans from moral consideration to varying degrees. Thus did Kant argue that yes, animal cruelty is wrong, but it’s only wrong because it increases the likelihood of later human-on-human cruelty.

A utilitarian anti-speciesist like Peter Singer, on the other hand, combines Bentham’s greatest good principle with the equal consideration of interests. If the species boundary, like race and gender, is not a morally relevant category of itself, the acephalous human (or the human in a permanent vegetative state, the difficulties of understanding ‘what’s going on in there’ nothwithstanding) has fewer clearly recognizable interests than the adult dolphin, chimp, or probably even mouse (the ‘probably’ is where research on human and animal cognition becomes crucial…). Utilitarians are often classified as animal welfarists, while deontologists are rightists, but looking seriously at the equal consideration of interests may require something closer what is often considered a rights position. Many other utilitarians accept that nonhuman animals have interests, but they may discount those interests on a sliding scale. Precisely how this scale is rigged becomes problematic, but the dominant view isn’t even one of the five schools I’m looking at, although it is closely related to both the contractarian and feminist views on animals: it’s the relational view under which different animals have differing moral status based on their relation to us. (Hence what Gary Francione calls the moral schizophrenia of treating your dog one way and your steak another.) This view is clearly incompatible with Singer’s brand of utilitarianism, where the core moral doctrine is the principle of utility. From the perspective of aggregate utility–and setting aside my own utility–it simply doesn’t matter whether it’s ‘my’ dog or a stray.

Many actions that could be justified by a utilitarian animal advocate like Singer, however, would be off-limits for a deontologist like Tom Regan, who bases his view instead on the idea that animals are subjects-of-a-life, and as such we don’t have the moral right to exploit them except when it accords with the least harm principle. This is closer to the foundation of most abolitionist animal advocacy, which views all forms of human-animal interaction as necessarily exploitative and therefore unjustifiable. Many actions that would be viewed as permissible or even beneficial to utilitarians and welfarists, such as pet keeping and animal husbandry, would be viewed as suspect by a lot of deontologists who extend rights beyond the species line (precisely how far rights are extended raises difficult questions about drawing the line).

If both of these camps seem unnecessarily divided from each other, that’s partially because most of us live our lives sometimes as utilitarians and sometimes as deontologists, but it’s also where the virtue ethical response comes in. Building originally on Aristotele’s teleological ethics and philia (in which every thing has a telos, or purpose, and the way to find happiness, or eudamonia, is to live in accordance with that purpose by according to the doctrine of the mean) and drawing more recently on moral psychology and Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach, virtue ethics says that the language of virtue and vice is richer than the language of interests or duties, and that it makes more sense to live virtuously according to the mean–to be courageous but not foolhardy or cowardly, to be self-assured but not hubristic or self-negating, and so on–than to spend one’s live constantly doing cost-benefit analyses to figure out which utilitarian calculus is preferable (=act utilitarianism) or constantly running up against situations in which adhering to rights (the ‘Indian killing’ scenario comes to mind) becomes self-defeating. This is the sense in which virtue ethics is described as a ‘middle way’ between utilitarianism and deontology, insofar as it seeks to avoid the brittleness and inflexibility of deontology while avoiding the boundary problems and indifference to potentially useful social taboos of utilitarianism. Applying this to animal ethics, then, a virtue ethicist would simply say “be compassionate, and everything else will fall into line.”

A utilitarian would respond that this is precisely the function of the rule utilitarianism as fleshed out by J.S. Mill. We can use rules of thumb–such as rules in favor of free speech or rules against killing–even without redoing our utility calculus in between every action we make, because we’ve determined that such rules provide net utility and prevent mental paralysis. The difference between rule utilitarianism and true rights-based views, though, would be that a utilitarian would acknowledge that the rule should be broken if the circumstances require it. The deontologist would then retort: then what the heck was the purpose of having a rule? This back and forth could go on for a while…

Whereas utilitarianism and deontology are premised on abstract principles arrived at by reasoned thought, contractarianism and, especially, the feminist ethic of care, point out that we exist in a network of social relations, and abstract theorizing without attending to the rights, obligations, and relations of those networks is to miss the trees for the forest. Contractarians draw on the social contract tradition in Western political thought that draws most heavily on Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. As with deontologists and utilitarians, contractarians can be either for or against taking animals seriously, depending on how the contract is structured.

The ‘standard’ formulation is a rehashing of Diodotus’ speech (from Thucydides), in which he says “we are not at law with [you], and so have no need to speak of justice.” Similarly, many contractarians would say that rights only exist where there are correlative duties, so we can’t speak of owing rights to animals when they (arguably) can’t join into contracts of reciprocal obligation with us. (The caricature one often hears of “giving rights to animals” is relevant here.) Others, like Bernie Rollin, would respond that we have obligations to animals whether we like it or not, precisely because we’ve accepted a contract with them when we become their guardians (etc.). This is also a tie-in to the religious Stewardship/Dominion view of animal ethics outlined in Genesis, which is championed both by conservative speechwriter Matthew Scully and, more recently, E.O. Wilson’s Creation.

Another formulation of contractarianism as applied to animal ethics, however, would be to adapt John Rawl’s veil of ignorance under the hypothetical original position beyond the species line. I don’t have the time or inclination to do justice to Rawls’ original position in a few short sentences, but here’s the short version: in an effort to minimize the effects of arbitrary luck on one’s place along the social hierarchy of a given society, assume for a moment that you didn’t know anything about what kind of person you would be in a society. This would include attributes that you probably take for granted, like your level of intelligence (however calculated), your charisma, your physical fitness, as well as characteristics like the traditional triumvirate of race, class, and gender. Using what he calls the difference principle and a number of other devices, Rawls concludes that people in such an original position under the veil of ignorance would choose to live in a liberal (read: regulated capitalist democracy) society, because they would have the best chance of not being as bad off as the worst off in a laissez faire capitalist society, but would also have the opportunity to be better off than in a society of forced egalitarianism. (And let’s set aside the recent work on relative versus absolute in equality in books like The Spirit Level…). Bringing animal ethics back in: one could imagine an original position that includes nonhuman animals, such that those in the original position would be more inclined to pick a society that treats sentient animals well, whether due to a stewardship mentality or a rights-based ethos.

Finally, the feminist ethic of care would have us supplement our existing conceptions of justice (for Plato: harmony; for Nozick: non-violation of rights; for Rawls: fairness) with a conception of justice as care, and to acknowledge how pervasively we undervalue the role of caring in our society and how broadly we construct dualities and dichotomies–key among them the self/other divide–and how this Manichean dualism perpetuates existing hierarchies of oppression and domination. In other words, to supplement an awareness of androcentrism with an awareness of anthropocentrism. Having just taught a session on feminism, I am again reminded that there is no one feminism, but whether we’re talking about equality or difference feminism, a common theme is that we need to acknowledge caring, nurturing, and empathy-fostering work as work.

Okay, I think that’s about all I can handle for now. I didn’t actually get to how these schools relate to animal ethics specifically as much as I wanted, but it’s important to realize that you’re standing in a building before you go poking about in the different rooms. Hmm…I wonder if that was an androcentric metaphor.

Shooting an elephant: the inequality of moral equivalence

Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting
of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and
could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad
elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control
it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was
right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for
killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn
Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been
killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient
pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the
others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.

-George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”


Orwell’s ‘elephant’ is really a metaphor for the decaying British empire, even if he did actually kill an elephant when he was stationed in Burma. More recently, another actual elephant killing is taking on additional symbolic dimensions. The recent fracas over GoDaddy CEO Bob Parson’s elephant-killing video highlights a fault line in animal advocacy. On one side, you have Francione and co., repeating his ‘we are all Michael Vick’ line that a single elephant and a single chicken have equal moral value. On the other, you have 12 of this year’s Top Chef All Stars partnering with HSUS to boycott Canadian seafood to protest the seal hunt. Both of these positions are problematic.

To start with moral equivalence: a chicken is not an elephant. Yes, they are both sentient, feeling beings that experience pleasure and pain, satisfaction and (at least a certain kind of) loss. And yes, I see what Francione is doing, tactically, by attempting to point out what he perceives to be yet another case of hypocritical moral schizophrenia. A passage from Doris Lin highlights a key issue:

…as Parsons correctly points out, “Those elephants are not on the brink of extinction.” But extinction is not the issue. While some are offended because African elephants are theatened, some people are angry because they believe that elephants are special. Words like, “noble,” “sensitive,” “intelligent” or “majestic” are frequently used to describe them. But from an animal rights perspective, it doesn’t matter how noble, intelligent or special people think they are. The issue is that they sentient and they suffer, and neither an elephant nor a cow wants to become somebody’s dinner or trophy.

I think this is one of the key problems I have with rights approaches generally, whether we’re talking about animals or humans. Taking this view seriously might oblige us to initiate staggered large-scale carnivore elimination, as Jeff McMahan suggested in last year’s NYT. Ecologically, this would be a nightmare, and I think this is a good example of where Rorty’s ironist can step in and keep us from taking the final vocabularies of competing doctrines to their dystopian extremes. Big game hunting permits do pay for a lot of useful conservation work, and it would be disingenuous to say that they don’t, just as people often claim that ecotourism can solve all of the world’s development-and-conservation conundrums, when this is an overstatement at best.

My next post will be an ‘animal ethics 101‘ summary, introducing deontology, utilitarianism, virtue ethics and the capabilities approach, contractarian ethics, and feminist ethics as they relate to nonhuman animals. In the meantime, I’ll just say that I’m mostly in the utilitarian camp, with some concessions to each of the other ‘final vocabularies’ on an as-needed basis. As such, the life of an elephant is, cognitively, quite different from the life of a chicken, even from an anti-speciesist perspective. This is not to denigrate chickens–indeed, I would still mostly stand by ‘drawing the line’ at vertebrates and cephalopods when it comes to serious moral consideration–but just to say that total equivalence is not really a useful policy perspective, in my view.

On the seal hunt…I’ll have to come back to this later, as I need to go apply for some jobs. Suffice it to say that I think the seal issue is used strategically as a fundraising machine for groups like the HSUS in ways that are all out of proportion to the activity in question, when it’s compared to meat sourced from intensive agriculture, which pretty much all of the chefs in question end up using regularly. (And I say this as a reluctant but devoted fan of the show–reluctant because of its problematic food ethics. It’s pretty much the only ‘reality show’ I watch.) I’m not really pleased with some of the content in this post–I don’t think I structured my arguments very well–but I guess that’s blogging for you.

Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting
of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and
could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad
elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control
it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was
right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for
killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn
Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been
killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient
pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the
others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.

Animals, plants, and interests

This week’s NYT Science Times is devoted to animals (and it ran this image as a near-full-page cover). In addition to some stories about the human-animal bond and what it means to be both a human and a primate, they ran a piece by Carol Kaesuk Yoon called “No Face, but Plants Like Life Too.” Unsurprisingly, Erik Marcus and Gary Francione weren’t big fans, and with good reason: the argument that plants “like life” and should therefore be afforded interest consideration is beyond weak.

This is not to deny the normative coherence of deep ecological frameworks. Instead, this kind of argument relies on the utilitarian ‘equal consideration of interests’ model, extending the concept of interests beyond its useful limits. I generally eschew Francione’s moral absolutism (I’m not even wholly vegetarian…), but he’s right to point out that plants are not sentient in the way that many (but not necessarily all) animals are.

I think the crux of the ambiguity here concerns what count as “interests”. Francione flatly says that “plants do not have interests”, but this can only be accepted if our definition of interests excludes some key characteristics. In a strictly Darwinian sense, all living organisms have interests (see, for example, Pollan’s argument in Botany of Desire that tulips, marijuana, and apples colonized us, and not the other way around). This is how descent with variation by natural selection works, and it works whether you’re an animal or a plant.

In the other sense that we intend when we say “interests”, however, plants do not–indeed, cannot–have interests. It’s not ‘just’ that we tend to think of the cute cow’s eyes and anthropomorphize its suffering; the underlying capacity for suffering is built into the animal’s nervous system and brain wiring in a way that’s simply absent from plants. One can get into Dennett-like critiques that most nonhuman animals don’t have a complex enough sense of self to distinguish their ‘mere pain’ from morally significant suffering, but it’s important to separate this point from Yoon’s argument, which is really reducible to a facile truism: that living organisms seek to go on living. This applies as much to the single-celled organism, even to the virus, as it does to the tulip, the chimp, or the human.