Category Archives: food ethics

In-vitro meat as ideological barometer

My food politics class has been discussing food, science, and the influence of ideology on food policy choices (hence Zizek’s RSA Animate – I generally disagree with his conclusions, but he’s right to point out what’s wrong with a certain kind of ethical consumerism, and his critique of environmentalism-as-ideology is apposite). Specifically, we just finished reading Robert Paarlberg’s Food Politics, which I assigned to counterbalance pretty much everything else in the course (Patel, Nestle, Pollan, Foer, Visser, Estabrook). My main problem with food technology isn’t so much the technology itself, but its near-exclusive dominance by a few powerful actors with ‘special’ rather than ‘public’ interests. That said, I share the technologists’ skepticism of the idea that nature provides a useful normative template.

In this vein, the media flurry around in-vitro meat provides an excellent case study. It’s no surprise that this is getting a lot of attention, because it sits at the intersection of academic and public discourses about: authenticity, alienation, disgust, sustainability, animal ethics, food safety, and the role of technology in society. And as Haidt and Bailey note, traditional conservative-liberal divides can break down when discussing food, technology, and purity.

I’m curious to track this potential fracturing of the food movement, with Pollan et al‘s ‘eat whole foods’ on the one side and the likes of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) on the other. In some respects, these debates also apply to the ‘fake’ meats made from textured soy protein, which many people would probably regard as far less yuck-inducing.

In an era of increasing alienation from the means of production, the back-to-the-roots food movement provides an avenue for empathic priming and hands-on learning. But the reality is that we’re eventually going to embrace ever-increasing levels of technological manipulation of the living environment. The relevant questions for me are when this biotech revolution will really take off, and how it’ll be regulated at the national and international levels. But maybe I read too much speculative fiction.

On food safety, people also tend to forget that inaction is a form of action – and this is what inaction looks like. This is also a domain where the Zizekian challenge of environmentalism-as-ideology comes into play: many environmentalists in the Global North have a knee-jerk opposition to artificial as opposed to natural systems, with the result that rich-world environmental elites sometimes transpose their own circumstances and agendas on the Global South. (This whole Green Revolution for Africa debate is complex and contested, but surely such personal biases should be challenged, or at least examined?) A lot of the science here seems to be looking for predetermined answers, whether it’s the agroecological or organic approach trying to prove that GMOs are dangerous, or the Gates Foundation doing the opposite. This is bad science, probably on both sides. But neutrality may be out of reach in such contested terrain.

So do vegetarians really have ‘a moral obligation to eat in-vitro meat’? I wouldn’t go that far, but the topic is definitely ‘good to think’, to borrow from Levi-Strauss. They’ve got a ways to go, in any case.

Deengate and twinkie pie

First, the good news: Americans are eating less meat, even if it’s still contingent on geography; in some places, this Onion bit may still be indistinguishable from reality. And depending upon your schadenfreude-ometer, Hostess’ bankruptcy and even Paula Deen’s diabeetus might be cause for celebration. Whatever else it is, though, it’s definitely some kind of teachable moment, and you know you’re in trouble when even the Fox News op-ed feed is berating you.

Deen, creator of the twinkie pie and the donut-encased bacon-egg-cheeseduckenburger, recently announced that she has type 2 diabetes, and the internets have not been kind. Jane Black sees a big missed opportunity in Deen’s decision to forego a transition to a saner and kinder diet–instead, she’s partnering with a costly drug endorsement, and preventive medicine be damned.

And this should all segue nicely into the upcoming Intelligence Squared debate, which will focus on whether the obesity crisis is an issue of personal responsibility or market manipulation. As always, it’s both, but here’s to hoping that the reigning queen of food porn can lead by example, even if the example in this case is a cautionary tale of a lesson not learned.

Horse slaughter

A number of my animal studies students have written interesting research papers on the law, policy, and ethics of horse slaughter. I’ve found the issue to be an excellent case study for various key animal politics issues: determining the boundaries of the moral community; understanding whose voice counts, and why; and parsing the the national and international political economy and trade law issues under consideration. The image featured above is from a campaign for electoral reform–“We Need More Party Animals”–but most of the things I came up with when I image searched ‘horse slaughter’ were too nasty. (And speaking of political animals and animal lovers, here’s one)

I actually changed my views quite substantially on this issue over the last few years. Originally, my approach was mostly utilitarian and anti-speciesist, and I couldn’t help but think that if some of the millions of people who called their congresspeople about horse slaughter-related issues (it’s the number one thing anyone in Congress gets called about..) would chime in instead about the billions of other animals sent to slaughter, it would have a better net effect.

But the more I learned about some key issues–the difference between slaughter and euthanasia; the welfare problems inherent in shipping and slaughtering skittish animals whose skulls are not an easy target for captive bolt guns; and, yes, the relational issues that arise from killing animals who traditionally have a strong human-animal bond–the more my views on the issue started to shift closer to a capabilities approach.

Here are some recent pieces on the topic, both of which I felt were lacking, but in different degrees and for different reasons: Josh Ozersky (Time food writer), “The Case for Eating Horse Meat“; and philosopher Mike LaBossiere, “They Eat Horses, Don’t They“.

And here‘s a piece on the growth of the animal studies field in today’s NYT: onward and upward!

Epic Meal Time: the personal and the political

 I’m reluctant to post this, for a number of reasons: first, I don’t want to give them money or traffic; second, I don’t want to be “unpardonably lacking in humor“; third, the gendering going on here is so in your face that it’s farcical; and fourth, bacon fetishism really bothers me. But I can’t help it: one of my students posted this last class, and I’ve been mulling on it.

One of my first thoughts was that this would be a good exercise for implementing Walzer’s communitarian complex egalitarianism: just as money shouldn’t be able to buy unlimited political power, nor should one have license to waste so much for so little reason (whatever your friendly industry shills over at CCF might tell you). Another thought: this is among the strongest arguments I’ve seen that we need an ethic of care, and that our gender stereotypes are killing us (and, literally, killing others) with structural violence.

But many of my students didn’t see it this way–it was “just fun”, in a way that issues concerning, say, universal suffrage or child labor wouldn’t be (pace Gingrich). Or maybe food is different? Or maybe the norms I’m discussing are in cascade, and haven’t yet been internalized.

I don’t know, but I did almost hurl when watching this in class.

“Foodies”

I have mixed feelings about this Onion clip. On the one hand, yes, many foodie pursuits are hedonic at best and elitist/wasteful/violent to animals and nature at worst. On the other, I know a lot of foodies for whom these issues are not effete bullshit, but are, to varying degrees, central to their pursuit of satisfaction in the world. To dismiss all gustatory preferences as ‘merely hedonic and therefore morally insignificant’, as I’ve known a lot of people–especially animal advocate friends of mine–to do, is to misconstrue the complex relationship people have with food. (As an aside, I also wonder whether many of the people who make these claims have less developed palates, for any of a number of reasons?)

None of the above is meant to imply that we can’t judge or evaluate the ethics of food choices–of course we can, should, and must. It’s just problematic when we dismiss certain pursuits as morally irrelevant relative to others…this can take is in some unsavory directions.

 

Labels and diet

(No, not that kind of food labels…) Next week’s human-animal relations class will be on diet and food choices, and I’m interested to see how my students engage with the topic. As a semi-vegetarian (on mostly utilitarian grounds) who has thought about the issue of food choices more thoroughly, it appears, than Andrew Sullivan (above), I still feel there’s always room for discussion. To borrow from Levi-Strauss: food, like animals, is ‘good to think’.

There have been some interesting discussions on food ethics in the blogs I follow recently. A post on the ethical distinctions between eating dogs and pigs in Talking Philosophy (engaging, but not really attuned, in my reading, to some of the moral arguments at play). A piece in the Smithsonian “food and think” blog on the interstitial relationship between vegetarianism and social activism (most recently at OWS). A ridiculous clump of caricatures about vegetarianism in the Guardian.

But what most caught my attention is a story that lit up the vegan blogosphere on how the Happy Herbivore author Lindsay Nixon “left” veganism after being repeatedly badgered by the ‘vegan police‘, who accused her of not really being a vegan. Some sympathetic vegan bloggers chimed in.

My initial response is no diet can be cruelty free, and that the best any of us can hope for is to be cruelty as-light-as-possible. Theoretically, someone living completely off the grid using only veganic methods of agricultural production could satisfy their caloric and nutritional needs with minimal harm to sentient animal life. But the moment you start eating crops produced from anything resembling an intensive system of agricultural production, animals are going to die, sometimes in quite large numbers, and sometimes quite brutally (being ground up in a thresher does not sound pleasant).

This is emphatically not to reject the ethical force of veganism. I think it’s a powerful statement that, on balance, is trophic-and-ecological-levels of magnitude better than the world-consuming Western diet. But the social politics of in-group identification–and the accompanying dangers of groupthink and comfirmation bias–are some of the main reasons I’m reluctant to label myself.

Autophagy and alienation

Justin E.H. Smith has a good new post on the advertising history of animals eating themselves. There’s even a whole blog dedicated to this macabre-fest: Suicide Food. So where does alienation enter in? I broached the topic of in vitro meat to my students last week, and while we were parsing the pros (health, environment, animal pain) and cons (feasibility, disgust), one of the bigger shortcomings seemed to be that such a food production transition would be yet another step in our alienation from the forces of production (in this case: the food we eat). Either way, the phenomenon of food offering itself up for our consumption is all kinds of messed up. ‘Yuck factor’ indeed.

Oppression-speak and myopic “clarity”

This interview with UChicago’s Robert Pippin got me to thinking about the effects of seeing the world through oppression-tinted lenses, especially after rereading (for class) Jeff McMahan’s recent piece (from which the image above is lifted) on the desirability of mass predator eradication. Setting aside the fascinating discussions on Hegel, art, and modernity, I want to narrow in on how Marx famously ‘turned Hegel on his head’, and the effects of viewing the world through zero-sum oppressionscopes. Viewed in such a light, various complex symbioses can immediately be reduced to hierarchical power differentials of oppressors and oppressed. But is this accurate, and would ‘liberation’ lead to a better world? I’m going to have to equivocate: sometimes symbiosis is indeed mere parasitism, but sometimes it’s commensalism and sometimes it’s mutualism. We want to shoot for mutualism. (Duh.)

(Full disclosure: I’m a graduate of Wesleyan University, and although my major–the ‘dead white men’ College of Letters–set me on its own course, the PCU-ness of many of my classes left an undeniable mark. Personally, I loved being able to study a core of ‘great books’ while being challenged by a range of broadly ‘left’ disciplines in my coursework. While my gripe at the time was more with what I perceived as the nihilist tendencies of postmodernism (we’ve since come to terms, albeit cautiously), the idea that hierarchy and inequality were categorically unjust seemed an unquestioned axiom of many of my peers.)

I’ll start by saying that some forms of human-animal relations are, indeed, pretty overtly zero-sum in this respect. Battery cage egg production comes to mind, as this blog post rejecting incrementalism points out, but this is as much because of the economics of “commodity” production in an age of economic globalization as because of anything inherently wrong with animal husbandry. (There’s a whole literature rejecting ‘humane livestock’ and what Francione terms ‘new welfarism’, and others neocarnism, that would reject animal agriculture as inherent parasitical. I don’t want to get in to that argument right now, other than to say that I think it’s logically coherent–indeed, with the exception of some nutritionally vulnerable groups, we’re not obligate omnivores–but ignorant of “the way the world actually is”. In other words, yes, I’m an incrementalist.)

Maybe it’s because I’m a Rortyan pragmatist who cringes when I hear single-premise constructs about ethics and policy (hence the contradictory ‘myopic clarity’ schtick). Especially in the case of food politics, I don’t see the other 98% of the world agreeing with the vegan ethic’s principle of harm avoidance overriding all of our other distinct moral premises anytime soon.

Maybe I’m cynical, but I’m cynical in the sense that nobody, not even the most dedicated vegan, is truly “cruelty-free”, especially those of us urbanites who live under what Marx accurately termed alienation from the means of production. This even follows from the second law of thermodynamics and the nature of ecological pyramids: in order for us to live, other living matter must die. This is true for any organism that is not an autotroph…so until we start figuring out how to photosynthesize or chemosynthesize, we have to remove energy from the world to live. So yes, we should all endeavor to eat and live lower down on the resource/food web. But these kinds of ethical concerns are distinct from harm/care/suffering, and they need to be balanced against each other.

And I don’t say this as a cheap rhetorical tactic (to merely prop up counterarguments as if they somehow changed the reality in question: see the Dawkins elevatorgate (just Google it) for a primer on how not to say “your issue is unimportant because other important issues exist.” Which often descends into the caricature: “Why care about animals? Kids are starving in Africa!”)

I guess all I’m saying is that I think we live in a tragically configured moral universe (as Sandel said of Isaiah Berlin’s views), and while I’m not a conservative, I have a lot of respect for the Burkean idea that social engineering projects don’t take you where you think you want to go (cue the ecological nightmare that would be mass predator eradication). Then again, if I see compelling evidence that we can restructure the global food system–or global predator-prey interactions–to bring about a broadly sustainable vegan future, I’m down. I mean, if the Vulcans do it…But large-scale veganic agriculture without massive synthetic fertilizer use (and resultant dead zones) and backbreaking stoop labor is not on the near-term horizon. (This also gets us into a whole other debate: the Vandana Shiva small-scale future versus the Economist techno-sustainable large-scale future. Again, I don’t want to go there right now.)

That said, I think the rich world needs to start eating about 90% less meat and dairy, and I think serious policy efforts need to be made to keep the rapidly developing world–especially China–from following in our dietary footsteps. But things aren’t looking good. But just looking at all animal husbandry as equally illegitimate is to paint with a comically wide brush. But I guess that’s why I’m a welfarist. (It’s also because I don’t believe that rights–whether human or animal–are anything other than a(n enormously useful) social construct)…but that’s a topic for another post.)

It’s a stretch to say that the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity, but, sadly, Yeats was on to something.

The paradox of happy meat?

So the big news this week is the HSUS-UEP deal over egg-laying hen wefare. I’ve been putting off writing about it, because I just started my Summer Animal Rights & Animal Welfare class, which runs intensively and keeps me pretty busy. It’s also hard to write about these issues, when the welfarist middle ground is openly scorned from both sides. Now that the dust has settled a bit, I want to use this case a springboard to talk about some fundamental differences between welfarists and abolitionists.

I played some of this video of Francione on moral schizophrenia in class yesterday, and the core idea, reiterated in Francione’s take on the HSUS/UEP deal complements James McWilliams’ new piece in the Atlantic arguing against ‘humane meat’ (indeed, he seems to be arguing the same thing there, over and over). To say that people consume animal products merely because they “want to”, or because “they taste good”, is at the core of McWilliams’ and Francione’s arguments. Indeed, they are arguing pretty much the same thing, I think, but McWilliams is probably trying to reach a different audience. But this is a problematic argument: it reduces our social and evolutionary history to a mere gustatory preference. For Francione to say, as he often does, that he can persuade anyone to be vegan in 15 minutes if they accept the premise that unnecessary suffering is morally wrong, demonstrates both hubris and myopia. (In my Rortyan opinion, of course; I have no doubt that others would view this very differently, but the ‘final vocabulary’ of “minimize harm” has to be balanced against various other vocabularies. The problems of fertilizer, runoff, and global veganic agriculture, for one…not that this is an insurmountable problem–actually, I don’t know the answer to this–but it’s a demonstration of how looking at these issues through one lens only shows you the elephant’s tail, so to speak.)

I’m not saying that ethical veganism doesn’t have powerful arguments in its defense. It does. But to trivialize all non-vegan diets as being “merely for pleasure” is, in my view, to frame the premises of your argument dishonestly. (It also opens up the whole Puritanical critique of aestheticism-as-luxury-and-therefore-morally-corrupt argument, which can be powerful but often runs the risk of collapsing into anti-consumption extremes.) This is also the logical conclusion of looking at the world through critical theory-tinted glasses that reflect only power relationships of oppression and inequality (Marxian rather than otherwise left-Hegelian). Viewed in this perspective, bigger cages aren’t the answer, and they never can be.

On to the matter at hand: the reactions were as varied as one might expect, and they read like a Rorschach test of political persuasions. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition presents a reasonably editorial-free overview. The Oregonian raised the scare flag of 8$ eggs. Humane Watch is as amusingly shrill and shill-y as usual, as is their industry-driven front, the Center for Consumer Freedom. Vegan Soapbox (from which I lifted the picture above) presents what I think is a balanced and honest overview that maintains a vegan ethic while acknowledging that this really is a big deal. I can’t find any specific commentary from the AVMA, although I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re playing their hand close to their chest, given their less-than-progressive record on farm animal welfare.

My view is that this is a big deal, and, pace this reasonable counterargument over at Grist, that it’s an example of effective policy pluralism at work (I just taught a class on public policy and five of the main schools of thought: pluralism, policy science, policy specialism, public choice, and critical theory). This is a case where interest group competition (the two lobbyists in question, the HSUS and the UEP, represent very different minipublics. Obviously.) overcame private interests to serve something resembling a public interest that takes nonhuman animal interests into account. I think this case will make for an important case study of interest group bargaining in the domain of farm animal welfare, just as the back-and-forth between PETA and McDonald’s accelerated the process of hen welfare standardization in the last decade.

Looking at the two images above, I don’t agree with Francione that they’re both clearly being ‘tortured’. Yes, implementation will clearly take a very long time. And yes, the fact is that enriched cages on the level of production market demand ‘requires’ will still likely involve large-scale animal suffering. But that doesn’t mean that two wrongs, to paraphrase Asimov, are equally wrong.

Facepalm

As if on cue, this 777-pound behemoth regains the ‘biggest burger’ title for America, fast on the heels of the “Meatful Monday” and the Coney Island eating contest. The interwebs are abuzz with fascinated Kobayashi profiles and light-hearted statistical analyses. Never mind the myriad human, animal, and environmental harms involved; this is America, goddamit. Sigh.

Eating, ethics, and regulation

What do competitive eating competitions, in vitro meat, and banning the sale of kosher/halal slaughter all have in common? One’s position on each of these issues will probably correspond to one’s location on the food ethics spectrum. The popular position in the US, for example, is that eating competitions are silly but fun, in vitro meat is icky and taboo, and banning kosher/halal slaughter practices goes too far in infringing on religious freedoms. I disagree on all three counts – let me explain why.

Competitive eating, to me, is morally repulsive rather than just frivolous. I feel the same way about many of the ludicrously wasteful lengths people go to for a shot at Guinness records (biggest burger, etc.). When we contemplate the multi-system damage done to the environment, humans, and animals by the world food system, such exercises in wanton profligacy are just, well, dumb. Similarly dumb is the president’s need to appeal to the average Joe by showing that he can eat all manner of junk food, Michelle be damned. So thanks, Onion, for articles like this.

Regarding in vitro meat and its fecal cognates…I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but never got around to it. Let me focus here on in vitro rather than “poop” meat, although the latter raises most of the same questions, if with a substantially larger “ick barrier” (And Colbert’s “schmeat” schtick is already blurring the line here…) The fact is that in vitro meat has enormous potential in a world of skyrocketing demand for meat and limited arable land for pasture and/or crops. It would also effectively address most of the current arguments in favor of ethical veganism. On the other hand, the Marxian critique–that this is just one further step in our alienation from the forces of production–is problematic. This is definitely an issue to keep an eye on, even if the current state of the New Harvest facility is quite modest relative to all the hype.

The case of banning undesirable practices is another troubling one. On the one hand, I can see the libertarian argument that bans are the wrong way to go about public policy, but in some cases I think they can send a powerful and useful message (I also disagree with the idea that a “nanny state” is necessarily pejorative; I mean, aren’t nannies nurturing and supportive?). In practice, the Dutch ban on religious slaughter exemptions is turning into a mess of ugly anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. This is unfortunate, but the fact remains that such slaughter practices were humane only by the millennia-old standards of desert nomads. We can do better now, and the limits of religious freedom don’t extend to treatment of other sentient beings.

The recent proposed ban of pets in ban-happy San Francisco is another case in point. On the one hand, they’re on the vanguard of social policy, and such actions could foreshadow similar moves elsewhere. (You see a similar logic at work with HSUS’s ballot initiative against sow crates in Florida as a preface to Prop 2 in California – it builds momentum by starting in a place that doesn’t really have the relevant industry in-state…a deceptive, even undemocratic, but effective tactic.) On the other hand, you run the risk of blowback; the double-edged sword of celebrity endorsements for the likes of PETA (i.e., it’s a “frivolous Hollywood cause”) is apposite here.

So should competitive eating be banned? In principle I want to say yes, but I know that this is just too out of whack with the American zeitgeist right now. Hopefully our stomachs for compassion will grow faster than our stomachs for, you know, eating. Happy 4th!

Consider the Lobster

I just read David Foster Wallace’s 2004 piece “Consider the Lobster”, and it definitely makes me want to read more DFW. Most people wouldn’t have been able to discuss, in detail, the ethics of eating and killing animals, the complexity and ambiguity of others’ pain, and the nuance of preference satisfaction in a piece about the Maine Lobster Festival for Gourmet magazine. He pulls it off, but I can’t help but think that the folks at Gourmet got more than they bargained for.

There’s an honest inquiry at play here that both the gourmand and the ‘animal-rights activist’ are often too ideologically blindered to equal: “at the Festival, standing by the bubbling tanks outside the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, watching the fresh-caught lobsters pile over one another, wave their hobbled claws impotently, huddle in the rear corners, or scrabble frantically back from the glass as you approach, it is difficult not to sense that they’re unhappy, or frightened, even if it’s some rudimentary version of these feelings …and, again, why does rudimentariness even enter into it? Why is a primitive, inarticulate form of suffering less urgent or uncomfortable for the person who’s helping to inflict it by paying for the food it results in? I’m not trying to give you a PETA-like screed here—at least I don’t think so. I’m trying, rather, to work out and articulate some of the troubling questions that arise amid all the laughter and saltation and community pride of the Maine Lobster Festival. The truth is that if you, the Festival attendee, permit yourself to think that lobsters can suffer and would rather not, the MLF can begin to take on aspects of something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest….Does that comparison seem a bit much? If so, exactly why? Or what about this one: Is it not possible that future generations will regard our own present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way we now view Nero’s entertainments or Aztec sacrifices? My own immediate reaction is that such a comparison is hysterical, extreme—and yet the reason it seems extreme to me appears to be that I believe animals are less morally important than human beings; and when it comes to defending such a belief, even to myself, I have to acknowledge that (a) I have an obvious selfish interest in this belief, since I like to eat certain kinds of animals and want to be able to keep doing it, and (b) I have not succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient.”

This defense of the indefensibility of speciesism is more honest than most would be willing to admit to, and many readers will probably not see the point: “I am…concerned not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I really am is confused.” In an age when any article I read online that even vaguely hints at the possibility of animal suffering sets off a firestorm of defensively absurd “ANIMALS ARE SO DELICIOUS – THE ONLY GOOD PIG IS BACON”, this kind of kind, honest inquiry is refreshing and much-needed.

And instead of discussing the relative merits of different killing/cooking methods, which he goes into in detail, I’ve posted a video of someone eating a live lobster — food fetishism at its worst.

 

Food and the paradox of choice

 

As most of my students have probably figured out by now, I love the RSA Animate series (and the RSA lectures more generally – this recent talk on ethics and public policy by Jonathan Wolff is a good overview of the importance of nuance, and how almost nobody is 100% in favor of any given position), And it makes sense that I would like them: they’re deliciously tangential and chock full of seemingly disparate facts. The most recent one (above), Renata Salecl’s talk on “choice”, is a good springboard to revisit food choices.

I didn’t know who Salecl was, so I Wikipedia’d her, and am entirely un-shocked to learn that she’s Zizek’s ex-wife. And, as an aside, I’m also wondering when post-Marxixts will stop referring to “late capitalism”. . . it’s been late for over a century now, so I’m not sure if historical materialism is going to show up for dinner.

It’s not coincidental that many of the anxiety-inducing choices portrayed in the video are food choices (setting aside, for now, the happily anthropomorphic cow), and this plays into the larger point: that the capitalist system of production emphasizes a cultural model in which choice (a la Friedman’s Free to Choose) reigns supreme. The result, though, is that we get lost in a sea of choice. Salecl goes to far as to say that “the ideology of is actually not…optimistic and it prevents social change.” On the face of it, this seems counterintuitive, but it plays into a rich literature on the role of media and political alienation in the modern world (panem et circenses for the 21st century). Hence the paradox: more choice equals less control.

So what does this have to do with food choices? Lots. Lewis Lapham’s recent piece does a characteristically lucid job of tracing the rise of the new food culture. He doesn’t phrase it in these terms, but much of the battle lines between ‘hands off my burger’ libertarians and the more ‘hands on’ left-liberal and (broadly) environmentalist approach is captured by this response to a WSJ piece on the AMA’s call for competitive eaters to put down their dogs. “They also say that the resources could be better served feeding the hungry. Does anyone have a problem with NASCAR as they burn up thousands of gallons of fossil fuels every weekend? What a bunch of dolts.” Yes, “BIG Eater”, I do have a problem with that.

A buffet of food debates

(While I’ve been grading nonstop,) there have been a number of interesting debates and forums on food policy over the last few weeks: the Washington Post‘s Future of Food Summit, the NY Times online debate on farm animal cruelty, and, from a rather different corner, the Animal Ag Alliance’s 10th annual stakeholder summit. So I thought it would be a good time to talk about some recent food issues. Specifically, Forks Over Knives, weekday vegetarianism, and the debate over tilapia. Oh, and the above video is mostly unrelated, although I do think it obliquely speaks to our throwaway food culture.

I look forward to seeing Forks Over Knives, but was especially interested in Ebert’s review: “You are addicted to fat, salt, sugar and corn syrup. Your body has established a narcotic-like dependence on them, and you’re comfortable with that, just like smokers know why they keep on smoking…The bottom line: I am convinced this message is true. A plant-based whole foods diet is healthy. Animal protein is not necessary, or should be used sparingly as Asians did, as a flavoring and not a main course.” This is spot-on, and I hope Ebert’s thumb up will do a good deal in spreading the word.

I also think that things like meatless Mondays and weekday vegetarianism provide a more realistic approach to reducing meat and dairy consumption than alternatives like Francione’s Vegan 1-2-3 (although different approaches will of course work for different people). From the perspective of net benefit, of course, it doesn’t matter if someone’s a weekday vegetarian or a Wednesday-through-Tuesday vegetarian, but it does have the benefit of being heuristically catchy and allowing for special occasions.

On tilapia (I’ll be setting aside the issue of fish pain and sentience, here – but not because it’s not important): a recent NY Times broadside god a lot of attention in the food policy blogoverse, and with good reason — the authors questioned the green credentials of a fish that’s often lauded for having a high growth rate, omnivorous diet, and stocking density (and it has no planktonic phase). The article points out, though that there are other, more negative, reasons it has the name ‘aquatic chicken’: concerns about pollution and nutritional quality. Large-scale tilapia operations in China wreak havoc on local ecosystems, and the fish has far fewer of the sought after Omega-3s than the fattier fish that are generally less palatable to Americans. (Although I have no idea why…I think sardines and mackerel are delicious, which is good, because I try to eat fish that are trophically low on the ecological food pyramid. This is also why tilapia’s omnivorousness is an environmental bonus over farmed carnivorous fish, that have to eat fishmeal which is often trawled from wild catch operations.)

In light of all this, I read Helene York’s qualified defense of tilapia with great interest. Especially when looking at global seafood demand projects from the FAO, large-scale aquaculture seems like a necessary evil, at least until we can guide more and more people towards a plant-based diet–and this article raises a lot of the usual questions about scalability and whether this is a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good. To be honest, I don’t know enough about the topic to be able to make a definitive judgment. In the meantime, however, it looks like I’ll be laying off the frozen tilapia fillets.

In semi-related news, this Atlantic Wire breakdown of the French response to Foer’s Eating Animals is, well, so very French.

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.

Thinking about the “Thinking About Animals” conference

My wife and I took a road trip to Ontario last weekend (a 16-hour round trip!) so I could check out the Thinking About Animals conference, put on by Brock University’s sociology department and the Institute for Critical Animal Studies. I felt a bit like a welfarist fish in an abolitionist pond, but it was great to see academic-level discussions on animal ethics and to meet lots of interesting people. Here are some of my impressions.

I had forgotten how different my last five years of graduate education and teaching are from the world of critical theory. Dan Drezner quipped jokingly that lightning should have struck me down for mentioning Foucault in a class I took on International Law and International Relations with him and Joel Trachtman, and my current gig teaching undergrads at UMass Lowell tends not to spend much time on the intricacies of Knowledge-Power, interlocking oppressions, essentialism, and the other. If anything, many of my students at UML tend towards libertarianism, and even objectivism.

I also realized that I had never taken any sociology courses, either as an undergrad or at my two Master’s programs. In hindsight, this is probably too bad, because I think a lot of what I want to do as a PhD student would fit nicely in a sociology department, but I’ll admit that I have trouble getting beyond the power/hierarchy/oppression language that so dominates the field. Haidt’s recent study on political bias in academia also makes a good deal more sense to me now, as do the dangers of groupthink he was pointing out.

That said, there was lots of engaging material to mull over. Here are some snippets from some of the talks I attended.

  • Jodey Castricano, “The Fifth Discontinuity: Animal Rights, Posthumanism & When ‘Thinking About Animals is Unthinkable”
    • On Derrida’s concern re. ‘extending rights to animals’: “rights discourse has a way of configuring hierarchies… [and] repeat[ing] the exclusionary logic of the cartesian subject” through “epistemological structures that reify the logic of domination”
  • Craig McFarlane, “Critical Animal Studies”
    • Espousing an “anti-speciesist, anti-anthropocentric, anti-humanist” ethic by critiquing Regan & Singer as “still focusing on the ethical priority of humans”.
  • Eric Jonas, “When Species Part”
    • Focused on Derrida’s concept of hospitality to the other (to paraphrase: letting the other be the other in its particularity and singularity, and not subsuming it onto categories)
    • “The alterity of the other is the indefinite nature of its identity”, so “each experience of hospitality must create a new language”
  • Valery Giroux, “Toward Animal Equality: The Impossibility of Morally Justifying the Exploitation of Nonhuman Animals”
    • Using Aristotle’s principle of equality (treat like things alike, and different things differently), a conception of rights as “thick barriers of protection”, and a blend of Isaiah berlin on Positive Liberty and Alasdair Cochrane on negative liberty.
    • “This charity [of companion animal guardianship] is not justice…It is the power that allows us to treat well…there can be no real justice as long as there are real inequalities between sentient nonhuman animals.”
  • Kristen A. Hardy, “Cows, Pigs, and Whales: Rhetoric of Fatphobia & Logics of Human Exceptionalism”
    • Critiquing the use of the word “dehumanizing in critical fat studies by looking at axes of inclusion and exclusion (social, cultural, religio-ethical, philosophical, political), and by questioning “blanket declarations that food choices are out of bounds”.
    • Methods: photos of “silenced, headless fatties”, person-absent rhetoric (‘the overweight’ and ‘the obese’), and fatness as excessively bound to physicality and animalistic desires.
  • Andrew Murray, “In Vitro Meat: A New Development in the Ongoing Industrialization of Animal Bodies.”
    • On the role of substitutionism and ethical biocapital in New Harvest’s ongoing in vitro meat project, which is a “technical rather than anthropological fix” to the problem of farm animal use.
    • On the role of “the Michael Pollan obstacle” (i.e., that this is food science, not real food) and overcoming “socionatural obstacles”.

In the comments to Murray’s talk, a few people mentioned their concern that in vitro meat would “further estrange and disconnect people from their foodways”, and I mentioned that this has the potential to be the ultimate disruptive technology to the Tysons and Smithfields of the world. This last talk brought together a lot of key animals, food and society issues for me. As with vertical farming, these industrializations of food production (continuous rather than batched) raise concerns of further alienation from our means of production as we live in ever-more urban settings, but in vitro meat’s potential benefits from reduced environmental externalities to bypassing CAFO suffering to addressing world protein demand with functional foods (i.e., loaded with Omega-3s, or whatever’s nutritionally ‘hot’) are enormous.

I also thought that piece on fatphobia was excellent, as it highlighted an issue I notice all too often–when one marginalized group accuses a dominant group of ‘dehumanizing’ them (usually rightly), only to thereby reinforce potentially unjustified forms of speciesist exceptionalism.

Of all the talks, I had the most trouble with Valery Giroux’s, although it was well structured and cogently argued. I don’t agree with the idea that all forms of human-nonhuman interaction are categorically exploitative and therefore morally unjustifiable. I think this is one of the key places where my welfarism comes into conflict with the anti-hierarchical bent of most sociology and pretty much all critical theory. I don’t see why the symbiosis need always be parasitic, when human-animal relations have historically demonstrated all kinds of mutualist (or, at the very least, commensalist) bonds. This is, of course, not to underplay the fact that humans do unjustifiably exploit nonhuman animals on a massive scale every day. We do. But this is different than calling for a complete abolition whereby all canids and other domesticates would eventually revert to wildness. And even if I didn’t have problems at the level of theory, I can’t help but feel that this credo of total non-interference would actually be a death sentence for much of the world’s wild animals, whose habitat is increasingly threatened by myriad factors (hence the depressing line from Dale Jamieson’s “Against Zoos” “If zoos are like [Noah’s ark], then rare animals are like passengers on a voyage of the damned.”)

All in all, it was a great opportunity to meet new people and hear interesting talks. And we got to see Niagara Falls.

The ethics of food choices: down the rabbit hole

Contemplating the omnivore's dilemma?

I told my sister I would write a layman’s post on “Animal Ethics 101” soon, and was planning to make that my next post, but as you can probably gather from the title of this post, I’m putting that off for a bit. Tonight’s dinner–gnocchi with tomato and broccoli sauce and a side of mussels–got me to thinking about food ethics and whether something like veganism is necessarily deontological rather than consequentialist in nature. I don’t imagine many vegans would eat mussels, even if they don’t technically ‘have a face’, but the ethics of food choices are way too multifaceted for me to be able to put them in a single, convenient moral compartment. Let me explain what that means to me.

To start from the top: the second law of thermodynamics and the nature of ecological pyramids essentially guarantees that no trophically high-up omnivores (I’m using this in the biological, not normative, sense here) can have a truly guilt-free diet. There are just too many factors involved, especially for the now-majority of the world’s population that’s urbanized and increasingly ‘alienated from the means of production’ (I was just teaching on Marx…). This is not to say that some diets will have bigger or smaller ecological footprints–a diet that eats lower down on a food chain/web (whether sardines or soy, etc., depending) will, ceteris paribus, have a smaller net impact on the world’s biogeochemical systems, which are coming under increasing pressure as the world’s consumption patterns balloon. Rather, it’s just to point out the obvious fact that livings things keep living by converting other living things into usable energy. This will remain true until humans develop the means to become autotrophs.

More concretely, I want to return to two points from my previous post on Rorty. 1) that we live in a tragically configured moral universe, and 2) that the aesthetic private impulse and moralizing public impulse may not ultimately be reconcilable. Rorty would have us coexist comfortably with this uncomfortable knowledge–indeed, this is the main challenge for the liberal ironist–but the reason I bring this up here is to point out the disconnect between the foodie vocabulary and the vegan vocabulary, to the extent that both can be pinned down. In its most civic-minded manifestations, the former tries to bridge aesthetic-moral divide by embracing both food-as-pleasure and a certain kind of food ethics, while the latter is more specifically concerned with food as morals.

Food activists of an animal abolitionist bent would respond that ‘mere gluttony’ is not a sufficient ethical justification for what they perceive to be animal slavery, but I think there’s a problem here–food choices are deeply embedded in our social and cultural lives, and to dismiss them as gluttonous, full stop, is to drastically simplify a complex picture.

To return to the first point–Isaiah Berlin’s claim that we live in a tragically configured moral universe–the ethics of food choices are as complex as we’re willing to track the positive and negative externalities down the food supply chain. In my environmental studies class, I just had my students hand in a life cycle analysis paper (the assignment was to track the environmental costs of a given product from resource extraction through manufacturing through distribution through consumption through disposal, imagining improvements along they way wherever feasible). I’m not implying here that food activists–whether vegan, locavore, or other–don’t understand the moral complexity of their food choices. Many do. I’m just pointing out that the least harm principle gets very confusing very quickly, and the moral high ground can fade frustratingly into the distance.

To combat this risk of paralysis, different people inevitably prioritize different things to care about in there lives, and I think this is one of the reasons that there’s a lot of blowback about the moralization of food choices, at least in Tea Party-era America. For us to take seriously the idea that all of our consumption choices have ecological and ethical as well as economic impacts (broadly, these are the ‘three pillars’ of sustainable development: social, environmental, and economic) is to radically reconfigure what for many is a Lockean vision of property in which all this talk of ‘negative externalities’ is just more unwanted government interference.

For a case in point: the first comment I read on this recent post from The Oil Drum, “Beyond Food Miles”, misses the point entirely by writing “so much for the food miles idea.” Instead of denigrating locally produced food, this article could as easily be seen as a call to reduce at-home food energy costs (also keeping in mind that the study is only focusing on food energy, and not on the Nitrogen, water, or various other footprints). Similarly, one could look at a vegan diet comprised of soy products and vegetables and decry the murder of field mice killed in threshing machines, the deforestation of Amazonian rainforest and the resultant loss of animal habitat, and the human rights abuses of migrant laborers doing stoop labor all day. This would, of course, be an unfair caricature–one could look at the same scenario and see instead a Brazilian economic miracle that’s lifting millions out of extreme poverty. But caricatures are easy to remember, so they persist.

Science, ethics, and Rorty’s ‘liberal ironist’

To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civlized man from a barbarian.
-Joseph Schumpeter

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
-William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming

 

This post will eventually segue into animal studies and food politics, but bear with me for a bit. I’m about a third of the way through Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, and I’m surprised I hadn’t come across it earlier. His focus on the contingency of different ‘vocabularies’ of meaning, to use his jargon, is especially relevant now, when scientism is trying to claim a monopoly on the status of moral truthholder. Broadly, the book is a critique of ‘final vocabularies’ and a defense of what he calls the ‘liberal ironist’, a curious hybrid of Foucault  (an ironist but not a liberal) and Habermas (a liberal but not an ironist). Since my undergraduate years writing a neo-Kantian thesis, I’ve always been much more in the Habermasian liberal camp. But Rorty manages to convert me, at least in part.

Denis Dutton’s review of Rorty’s book closes with this well-phrased passage:

…to describe, say, the introduction of the germ theory of disease as just invoking a new vocabulary, a bit of novel jargon — as though it were all a fuss over “bacteria,” and had nothing to do with bacteria — seems to this reader ludicrous, Rorty’s subtle arguments to the contrary notwithstanding. From a Rortian perspective I am just another sod in thrall of Enlightenment mythology, but his interpretation of the history of science strikes me as one more lamentable exercise in philosophic hubris.

Hubris, however, could not be farther from a just characterization of the tenor of this book. Rorty’s tone is thoughtful and modest, even when his ideas are extravagant. While there is a feeling of settled positions, there is no hint of dogmatism, but rather a sense of opinions hard-won through years of argument and meditation. This book is consistently provocative, and every page excites philosophic thought.

Dutton highlights the danger of viewing scientific revolution as nothing more than one among many ‘final vocabularies’, but Rorty isn’t trying to tear down science so much as to establish that our truth claims are contingent and should be evaluated as such, and that some questions are more useful than others; this is where Rorty as neo-Deweyian pragmatist comes in: “The nature of truth” is an unprofitable topic, resembling in this respect “the nature of man” and “the nature of God,” and differing from “the nature of the positron,” and “the nature of Oedipal fixation.” (Rorty 8 )

The core of Rorty’s pragmatism is enormously useful, once we realize that we don’t have to choose between public morals and private aesthetics: “If we could bring ourselves to accept the fact that no theory about the nature of Man or Society or Rationality, or anything else, is going to synthesize Neitzsche with marx or Heidegger with Habermas, we could begin to think of the relation between writers on autonomy and writers on justice as being like the relation between two kinds of tools — as little in need of synthesis as are paintbrushes and crowbars.” (Rorty xiv) He goes on to explain, in lucid and compelling terms, the impact of Freud on ‘the contingency of selfhood’ (If I were writing this book, I would add a section on Darwin and the contingency of species here…), and, in chapter 3, on the contingency of community in a battle between Foucauldian and Habermasian ideals.

I used to have a problem with this kind of “nonteleological view of intellectual history” (Rorty 16), based for me on the foundationalist critique of relativism championed most cogently by Habermas, and here by Michael Sandel: “If one’s convictions are only relatively valid, why stand for them unflinchingly? In a tragically configured moral universe, such as (Isaiah) Berlin assumes, is the ideal of freedom any less subject than competing ideals to the ultimate incommensurability of values? If so, in what can its privilged status consist? And if freedom has no morally privilged status, if it is just one value among many, than what can be said for liberalism?” Rorty structures his defense around a critique of the vocabulary of Enlightenment rationalism, but I would suggest that J.S. Mill’s On Liberty provides a non-teleological defense of freedom (of speech, at least) as a ‘keystone value’. From Rorty’s pragmatic perspective, though, the moral foundations of the idea of freedom don’t really matter, and defending “the privileged status of freedom” ends up being somehow counterproductive.

I’ve only made it through the beginning of section two (on irony), and have yet to evaluate his arguments on defending liberalism as an aversion cruelty (he uses Nabokov and Orwell, both authors dear to me, as archetypal examples). His definition of the ‘ironist’, however, is key here: “(1) She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered; (2) she realizes that arguments phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts; (3) insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself. Ironists who are inclined to philosophize see the choice between vocabularies as made neither within a neutral and universal metavocabulary nor by an attempt to fight one’s way past appearances to the real, but simply by playing the new off against the old.” (Rorty 73) I agree with 1 and 2, and only disagree with 3 to the extent that I have arrived at my particular vocabulary–a tenuous blend of anti-speciesist utilitarianism and regulated market democracy–with a critical examination of competing vocabularies. I don’t harbor the believe that any of these vocabularies approach the ‘real’ in some more foundational way than Bentham’s original principle of utility, though (and I think this is where I reluctantly give up Habermas’ appealing but ultimately unconvincing story of “asymptotic approaches) to foci imaginarii” [Rorty 67]).

I want to return to two key themes to show how this discussion ties in to animal studies and food politics: the role of science as arbiter in the fact/value dichotomy and what Sandel called Berlin’s “tragically configured moral universe.”

On the role of science: in a passage from Daniel Dennett’s 2007 TED talk on teaching all religions to primary school students, he makes the claim that teachers should teach students about all of the world’s religions using “no values, just facts”, and that teachers and parents should be allowed to preference one religion over another only after having presented ‘the facts’.  As I laid out in a lecture I gave at a scientific conference in Havana, however, the problem here is that it’s very difficult to present only facts. This is true for many reasons, but a big one is what Rorty dissects in his chapter on Davidson’s contingent theory of language–before we even get beyond the structure of our words, so much of what we’re are saying is value-laden at the level of our syntax and metaphor.

This idea that science–and, by slippery extension, social science–presents privileged facts (as against questionable values) that deserve more moral consideration than ‘mere emotions’ is popping up a lot these days, and my response often depends on what is intended by ‘science’ in any particular context. In some sense, David Brooks’ new book, The Social Animal, appears to be tying together a range of work in neuroscience and other disciplines, to make a scientific argument that the economic assumptions about homo economicus are at best only partially valid.

This question of ownership of science is critically important both in discussions of food and animals. When researching on farm animal welfare, I found that all relevant parties I was interviewing–from animal advocacy organizations or livestock trade groups–tried to ‘own’ the relevant science, and to dismiss competing findings as unscientific. This did the USDA refer to stress hormone levels to justify confinement housing, while CIWF (Compassion in World Farming) cited ‘vote with your feet’ studies done by Marion Stamp Dawkins and others on the behavioral preferences of farm animals. Both of these are science. Science can give you all the data you want, but I’m still of the mind that you’re really looking for ‘strictly science-based standards’, you’re never going to make up your mind–that’s where politics and policy have to come in.

This gets us to Berlin’s “tragically configured moral universe.” (‘Tragic’ in the Aristotelean sense that a good person cannot behave ethically in the given situation because of conflicting moral circumstances. For example: Creon can either choose his allegiance to his family, Antigone, or his city-state, Athens, but not both.) My conception of the world as it exists today is similarly tragic, and I think the best we can do is to use something like Rorty’s liberal ironism to navigate between competing visions, and to use this pragmatic dialectic to get to an improved synthesis. The reason Rorty’s vision appeals to me above and beyond Habermas’ similar use of communicative reason is that he allows a more prominent role for the sympathetic education (what he calls the poetic, a distinct but overlapping idea) in priming our moral sensibilities to see the world as a home to myriad sentient beings with recognizable interests. The tragedy, though, is built into Darwinian natural selection–in a world of competition for scarce resources, not all beings can fulfill all of their interests. Something like liberal ironism lets us do the best we can with the tools we have.

Bittman tackles ‘moral schizophrenia’

Franz Mark, "The Yellow Cow"

With mixed results. On the one hand, Mark Bittman has a powerful bully pulpit and a legion of ex-Minimalistas who tend more towards DIY foodieism than animal advocacy, so raising issues of companion-versus-farm animal treatment might reach a newly receptive audience. On the other hand, Bittman goes about it all wrong: there’s no need to trivialize rodent welfare in order to bring attention to farm animal welfare.

Lynda Birke writes that we have ‘doubly othered’ rats and mice, and this process of othering–first as vermin, then as medical martyrs–probably flavors Bittman’s dismissal when he writes: “In light of the way most animals are treated in this country, I’m pretty sure that ASPCA agents don’t need to spend their time in Brooklyn defending rodents.” As a former pet rat owner/guardian, I’m unambiguously biased, but I don’t get why animal cops should overlook cruelty to rodents just because there’s a lot of cruelty to farm animals going on…isn’t this exactly the kind of reasoning Bittman is trying to argue against?

Otherwise, Bittman’s column is a solid read that’s getting attention from various circles, as is most of his follow-up on laws aiming to limit photos and videos taken at agricultural sites. Essentially, Bittman is arguing against what Francione terms ‘moral schizophrenia’, in which we treat one category of animals one way, and another another, based solely on our designation of their use or purpose. He doesn’t take it nearly as far as Francione does, though, and neither would I: to me, there are morally significant differences between my beagle Rodney and pig X, regardless of their comparative levels of sentience, just as there are morally significant differences, to me, between my wife and person X in generic foreign country Y. This is the kind of relational reasoning that keeps most people from being either strict utilitarians or strict deontologists, and this is why there are many tools in our moral toolbox.

Bittman also raises a critical question about the way society looks at food, consumption, and ethics when he says: “arguing for the freedom to eat as much meat as you want is equivalent to arguing for treating farm animals as if they could not feel pain.” We still live in a society where meat (over)consumption habits–with the exception of some recent taboos like veal and foie gras, and even those only in certain circles–are viewed as supererogatory goods (that is: things that are good to do, but not necessarily bad to not do). If Bittman is the bellwether he appears to be, people might start to realize that a cow, unlike Rand Paul’s toilet, is not an object, and that maybe hot dog eating competitions aren’t such a good idea.

Framing milk

The recent ‘Baby Gaga’ ice cream furor raises an interesting mirror to our views about food, species, and taboo. We’ve framed the adjectival “cow’s” into the the Western consciousness’ idea of the word milk, and this human variant throws another spanner in the works.

This comment by a HuffPo writer is telling:

I am an adventurous eater (just last night I had pig cheek, blood sausage, and bone marrow), but I think I draw the line when it comes to human meat or milk. While I’m sure it can be argued that it’s healthier than bovine milk, or better tasting, or more humane, there’s something that curdles my stomach when I think about it.

The overwhelmingly negative response is due to what bioethicists have eloquently termed the “yuck factor”, which underpins many of our social taboos. Indeed, the ice cream on question is sold as taboo by a woman in Lady Gaga-ish attire – the atraction, for some, is clearly a form of willful social deviance. (And I’m trying to ignore Gaga’s “nausea-inducing” quote…when it comes to food ethics, it’s hard to take someone who wears meat dresses seriously.)

It’s interesting to separate the various arguments for and against consuming food made from human milk. Beyond the yuck factor and the potential ‘slippery slope’ danger of blurring species boundaries (this is only a negative if you’re a speciesist, of course), public health comes to mind, given the bioaccumulation of POPs and other toxins or pathogens in trophically high-up species like ours. Positively, I can imagine some animal abolitionists making a case for such products, on the grounds that the contributors did so voluntarily.

Other than that, though, the cost seems out of proportion to its nutritional or organoleptic value, reinforcing the idea that the taboo-breaking motivation is foremost. I’m a consequentalist in most things, so I don’t have any core deontological problem with ice cream from human milk, but in this particular case, the purpose seems more to shock–to violate social norms for the sole purpose of having violated social norms. Too bad, really, because there’s an interesting conversation to be had if you look beyond mere deviance.

Update (5/2/11) on human breast milk offering in NYC – based on the picture, it’s all about shock value.