Category Archives: speciesism


I have a number of collected links in my ‘blog fodder’ folder that haven’t made it into any posts recently, so here they are (starting with Belgian fast food ‘restaurant’ Quick’s ‘Darth Vader burger’, pictured above. This is real.):

Charles Barkley’s ‘White People Problems’ on SNL (and never mind that it’s effectively discussing class rather than race), implying that farm animal welfare doesn’t matter because human slavery existed. Huh.

And speaking of class: Mark Zuckerberg only eats (ate?) meat that he kills himself, and now the bison he shot is mounted in Facebook’s headquarters. Charming.

I just got my copy of Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson’s Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights, and I look forward to reading it stat, because I think Tyler Cowen’s dismissal of the concept of nonhuman animal citizenship deserves more serious consideration, in at least partially modified forms.

There are definitely some fascinating anthropological, literary, and cultural essays to be written on the emerging tradition of “Cooking Food Featured in Fantasy Novels”.

And I haven’t watched it yet, but this PBS video, “My Life as a Turkey,” looks really cool.

Finally, “The Narwhal Bacons at Midnight,” apparently. I’ll leave this last one up to you.


Science and politics, words and things

(From clusterflock, on rats and aggression) Sometimes I’m tempted to unsubscribe from Reason‘s feed–like when I read this piece from this month’s magazine: “Who’s More Anti-Science: Republicans or Democrats”. The basic premise is that both groups exhibit strong biases (Republicans on evolution and anthropogenic climate change, Democrats on animal research and biotechnology).

Which is fine, so far as it goes, but it’s the “anti-science” bit that bothers me. The rodent aggression research pictured above is eminently political as well as scientific, and to divorce to two is either naive or dishonest.

Questions about the scope and characteristics of things like personhood and mind can–and often must–be approached using the tools of science, but science alone will never tell us which policies best fit a given set of circumstances. With various caveats, I’m a cautious fan of plant biotechnology, but to just blanket the debate with the sledgehammer-simple dualism of pro- versus anti- science is, well, dumb.

And while I’m venting–Penn Jillette’s “10 Commandments for atheists” is philosophically illiterate, let alone uncritically anthropocentric. This would be more understandable in a Dominion-rooted religious perspective, but after Galileo and Darwin, this kind of hierarchical and teleological Thomism-cum-humanism needs justification, at the very least. In any case, at least Carlin’s is funny.

Dungeons and Animals

(Bear with me for a bit–this is about to get real nerdy.) This is a Thri-Kreen. They’re an insectoid race of sentient nonhumans from Dungeons & Dragons’ Dark Sun world. When I wasn’t playing a Mul psionicist, I liked to play Thri-Kreen warriors. Forget for a moment that I mostly like Thri-Kreens because they had double the usual number of hits per turn (notice the number of limbs), so I could game the system by souping up my character’s strength and fighting unarmed. Forget also that most of my friends who played D&D, Vampire, Mage, and Werewolf with me when we were growing up in high school have not subsequently engaged in any major way with animal studies. And bracket the question of how furries tie in to the question I’m about to ask–I don’t want to go there.

I suspect there’s a whole world of serious policy wonks out there who grew up playing D&D and other RPGs (here’s one, and here’s someone who’s probably transitioning between the two domains), but my question is this: does engaging with nonhuman sentient life broaden the horizons of our moral community in a way that works to deconstruct human exceptionalism and its corresponding anthropocentrism?

I can see various ways to answer this, depending on the person, so I’ll start with the person I know best: myself. I tell myself I’ve arrived at animal studies after a long and rigorous philosophical journey through an undergraduate monster of a thesis on Kant and the concept of progress, a subsequent affinity for anti-speciesist utilitarian consequentialism, and a realization that nonhuman animal interests were too often dismissed by otherwise caring, rational, and reasonable academics. But the fact is that I might care so much about animals because I was raised with dogs and rats, and I loved them. A third possibility is that my lifelong love of imaginative and speculative fiction has primed my empathy receptors in ever-broader ways. And the fourth possibility, which I hadn’t previously put into specific terms, is that RPGS in various forms–whether around the table with character sheets or on the computer)–can perform many of the same functions.

A possible counterfactual here is that I don’t actually have much of a gut sympathy for insect sentience, although I’m open to see more research. (And Mage was actually my favorite of the games we played, mostly for its open-endedness; there was a sense in which the boundaries of the potential was bounded only by imagination, creativity, and wit.) But like Ta-Nehisi Coates, I remember browsing various Monstrous Manuals, with an endless fascination for the diversity of sentient life. I just wonder how many gamers exclude all (actually existing) terrestrial nonhumans from the domain of the sentient…because they shouldn’t.


The human, the subhuman, the nonhuman

This piece  by Art Spiegelman in the NYRB (which features both of these images) is a handy locus for the discussion of symbolic representations of the human and nonhuman. As Berger and others have described, since modernity we’ve increasingly lived without animals, so we find ways to reintegrate them as family and as spectacle. But the result can often be quite curious. The ‘cheezburger empire’ actually says quite a lot about modernity, alienation, and the longing for meaningful relationships between species, but I’d like to focus here on the role of human-nonhuman animal comparisons and what they say about the state of humanism and its discontents.

The most obvious recent incident here would be PETA’s suing SeaWorld for the constitutional protection of Orcas’ 13th Amendment rights. There’s an interesting institutional backstory here–I think some of PETA’s tactics have to do with keeping the Tilikum incident in the public memory, and capitalizing on that crisis–but many would respond with a kneejerk anthropocentrism. (And this controversy goes back to Marjorie Spiegel’s The Dreaded Comparison and beyond…) But the symbolism in question hinges on how human persons perceive nonhuman persons.

As the images above attest, symbolic representation can serve multiple purposes–in both cases, the human is being depicted as a less-than-human, inferior animal. This narrative works only when the dominant discourse is unflinchingly anthropocentric, as it arguably still is; this is one domain where the potential for speculative fiction to shift our discourse is ripe. I’ve been reading a lot of specfic recently–I’m currently on John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, which baldly anthropocentric, masculinist, even realist, but is otherwise a fun jaunt–and I think the works of people like China Mièville and Ursula le Guin can do a lot to reconceptualize our vision of what constitutes the human. Whether humanity 2.0 becomes transhuman, posthuman, or something else is another question.

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.

“Animal lovers” and the limits of (speciesist) empathy

[Picture, from boingboing, mostly unrelated…but for some reason it reminded me of this post.] I was talking to someone recently about what kinds of students my animal studies class draws, and I noticed that they had framed “animal lovers” as a distinct (and clearly preferable) category against “animal rights activists”. In light of David Brooks’ new column on the limits of empathy, this got me to thinking about ‘who counts’ and the impact of structural violence on nonhuman animals.

Broadly, the animal lovers/activists split could be said to correspond to the welfarist/abolitionist divide, but I think the comparison can only take us so far. I feel that ‘animal lovers’ implies supererogation, while ‘animal rights activists’ take the ethical debate into the uncomfortable terrain of basic rather than optional obligations. (This minefield is probably why many people I know call themselves ‘animal advocates’ instead…) And I think Brooks’ op-ed misses the point when it comes to nonhuman animals: empathy can help us move beyond a frame where animal interests are merely supererogatory goods.

Regarding empathy, we seem to be at a curious historical moment. On the one hand, academics are aflutter with empathy-related efforts (although Pinker’s vision, unlike Rifkin’s, has a heavy dollop of Hobbesian contractarianism). On the other hand, Tea Party America verges on the embrace of cruelty, not empathy (but hopefully debate outcries–regarding capital punishment, health care, and DADT–are the exception, not the norm).

The core of Brooks’ argument here is that focusing on empathy gets us “feeling good without doing good”. As far as this argument goes, it’s a reasonable one. But the argument for extending protections beyond the domain of the anomalous and universally egregious (which, arguably, is all the dominant anti-cruelty ethic protects against) is predicated upon our ability to empathize with other living, sentient beings.

But the argument that “empathy is a sideshow”–and that we should focus instead on moral codes–runs too great a risk of defining nonhumans out of the policy cycle at the definition stage. Yes, animal advocates are often particularly vulnerable to confirmation bias, and yes, over-reliance on empathy could muddle the rigor of animal ethicists’ arguments a la Dennett. But we need to guard against the dangers of an exclusivist and speciesist empathy that lock the doors behind the species wall, as some supererogatory ‘animal lovers’ arguably do.

An empathic and nonzero civilization. . .but for whom?

This video by Cambridge’s Simon Baron-Cohen does a good job introducing the relation between empathy, pathology, and social trust (and see here for a good RSA Animate on Jeremy Rifkin’s Empathic Civilization). Baron-Cohen’s done a lot of interesting work on empathy and the male/female brain and empathy and autism/asberger’s, and on measuring empathy. I was immediately struck, however, by the way he chose to define empathy: “the drive to identify (cognitive) and appropriately respond to (affective) another person’s feelings.” Further into the talk, some of the research he draws on implies that “persons” and “objects” are the only relevant categories under discussion. I guess this is what makes me an ‘animal rights activist’ (as Wikipedia’s definition of empathy puts it), because I think the natural extention of Baron-Cohen’s argument–that answers to questions about empathy have right and wrong answers, and one of the jobs of psychology is to figure out how to get more people to answer ‘correctly’–is far more radical than even he may acknowledge.

What distinguishes empathy from sympathy, compassion, and pity? This is a difficult question to answer concretely, but links like this have me thinking that the reason empathy might be so commonly perceived as ‘person-oriented’ rather than ‘sentient-or-semi-sentient-being-oriented’ is because of the distinction that empathy, unlike the other words, involves literally feeling the other’s mental state (this is where the much-hyped ‘mirror neurons’ come in). It could follow, I suppose, that this requires a certain level of similarity with the other’s mental state, such that this would work best with other members of our species. Keeping in mind that this might be a semantic quibble, I don’t buy this argument. I could as much “feel” my dog’s pain when he slipped a vertebra last year as I could my wife’s when she tore her ACL.

To return to the radical implications of a high-empathy society: I strongly believe that such a society would treat nonhuman animals in a fundamentally different way than we do today, and that such a shift would entail a range of social, political, and economic reforms with far-research consequences. While it’s easy to speak of expanding the domain of the nonzero (as against zero-sum)–and I’m all for this kind of policy…indeed, only a fool or an IR realist would be against it!–but introducing nonhuman animals into the moral calculus with anything less than a high discount rate will change the game in a basic way. And it should, because the level of structural violence that exists against nonhumans animals in the world today is only ignored because of a conditioned moral blindness that would wither in the face of an empathic civilization.

So how to go about this? There are many possible routes, but I think one of the strongest when it comes to empathizing with nonhuman animals is the priming of our moral sensibilities through art (sometimes called the sympathetic or aesthetic education) is marvelously fecund, as Nussbaum and others have argued. Others argue that fostering nonzero relationships tends to result in increased empathy, and this makes sense too, as long as the in-group/out-group distinction doesn’t stop at the species line. A range of other options exist, of course, all the way from the work in studying pathology by psychologists like Baron-Cohen to essentially sociobiological proposals that we engineer aggression out of our gene pool. The bioethics of the latter are troubling, obviously, but they do reflect a trend towards revived sociobiology in the guise of neuroscience. This takes many forms, though, and each needs to be addressed on its own merits.

If nothing else, Baron-Cohen’s research goes a long way in explaining why I was the only male in my Animals and Public Policy class. This needs to change, but it seems the change can only go so far if he is right about the ‘male brain’.

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.


The new animal machines

Imagine if this image, from a recent FT piece on a proposed Australian ‘camel cull’, included the average human footprint. Put aside for a moment that such an average would be all kinds of skewed because the bottom billion, the middle and top billions, and the uber-rich don’t inhabit anything resembling a normal curve (pace Hans Rosling). And never mind the Orwellian meaning of the word ‘cull’, which gives credence to the Journal of Animal Ethics‘ recent call for a more conscientious use of language, my qualms notwithstanding. Now imagine you could get carbon credits for eliminating human production units. Sounds creepy, right? It should. What’s being proposed with camels in Australia is similarly creepy, for similar reasons.

Our conceptions of other animals throughout history is complex and contested, but this plan represents the endpoint of the progression from Cartesian machine to anthropomorphized other to Taylorist production unit. You can see similar developments in the University of Guelph’s ‘enviropig’ project, which reimagines the pig as production unit. See also the New Scientist‘s recent piece arguing that companion animals’ (specifically, dogs. More specifically, big dogs.) ecological footprints rival those of Hummers.

None of which is to minimize the Anthropocene‘s threat on the planet’s biogeochemical and other systems, or to deny that animal and environmental interests can and do conflict. And such conflict is what a functioning, deliberating democracy on Dewey’s model of the fragmented public interest is meant to weigh and balance–whether such a balancing act is, in the age of Big Money, either realistic or sufficient, is another question, but I haven’t come across a robust vision of society that can replace liberal democracy (whether closer to socialism or capitalism in economic structure–both have their pros and cons).

Instead, we should caution against this kind of reductionist thinking whenever possible–my Honda Civic is pretty beat up, but it doesn’t care.



“To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.” (Frans de Waal)

Views on anthropomorphism run the gamut, and three recent pieces do a good job of highlighting the terrain of this discourse: 1) Barbara Ehrenreich’s review of recent human-animal studies books in the Los Angeles Review of Books, 2) Michael Sims’ piece on anthropomorphism and E.B. White in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and 3) Marlene Zuk’s analysis of ‘animal cams’ in the LA Times. (And see here for an orthogonal post on animal symbols, Pieter Hugo, and Beyonce.)

Sims’ article on E.B. White captures the tension at the core of the debate over anthropomorphism: “Paul Theroux complained in Smithsonian about White’s anthropomorphism. “White’s is not just a grumpy partiality toward animals,” he wrote; “rather, his frequent lapses into anthropomorphism produce a deficiency of observation. And this sets my teeth on edge, not for merely being cute in the tradition of children’s books, but (also in the tradition of children’s books) for being against nature.” White would probably be as surprised to find himself described as “against nature”…It’s true that “this boy,” as White wrote of himself in childhood, “felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people.” But after spending a couple of years immersed in his writing, I disagree that his anthropomorphism resulted in a deficiency of observation. I think that, contrary to Theroux’s indictment, for White personification was a form of empathy—his way of bridging the gap between self and other—that made him more aware of other creatures’ reality, not less.”

Zuk’s piece on animal cams raises a similar point to Theroux’s: that the eagles, etc. on live cams are “just like us” leads us to biased and thus erroneous views of animal behavior. Ehrenreich’s review is more broad-ranging, but her concluding paragraph is of particular value here: “Are we in danger, then, of a widespread, coordinated, animal revolt? Given the rate at which humans continue to exterminate, enslave and gobble up the habitats of other animals, the answer is probably no. Nor, I should reassure anxious readers, is there any evidence yet of cross-species coordination against human hegemony. But we should definitely relinquish two cherished human views of animals: both the Cartesian idea that they are simple biological automatons, devoid of consciousness, and the more recent animal-liberationist notion that they are gentle, innocent victims of human greed and cruelty. They are different from us — each species, perhaps each individual, alien in its own way. But they are capable of premeditation, reasoning and moral outrage. And, it should never be forgotten, some of them are our ancient antagonists, the carnivores who once ruled the world.”

Ehrenreich is right to caution us against both the Cartesian ‘animal machine’ model and the Liberationist-left ‘exploited and innocent victim’ model, but we should also keep in mind that these are both caricatures. In light of a quarter century-plus of work in neuroscience and ethology, the view that all forms of emotion are necessarily anthropomorphic (i.e., human) is absurd–some of our characteristics are indeed uniquely human, but many others are primate, mammalian, and so forth. To say that an otter plays or a chimp mourns isn’t anthropomorphic, it’s merely descriptive.

On the other side of this coin, we should be wary of painting the nonhuman animal world a Marxian red with the brush of hegemony, hierarchy, and oppression–in other words, of adopting the left-social scientific vocabulary in which all relationships are hierarchical and exploitative. To ascribe revolutionary consciousness to other animals clouds our vision of their realities.

To return for a bit to Sims’ and Zuk’s pieces, I think a middle ground can be found between Theroux/Zuk’s view of anthromorphism as subjective and thus problematic and Sims’ embrace of the power of empathy–using the vehicle of anthropomorphism–to reveal moral truths. To say that this is a difficult circle to square, though, is putting it mildly.


Bad humanism

This is what happens when you reject moral nuance. I don’t see why anyone not arguing from a natural law (i.e., religious) perspective would choose to think in such Manichaean terms. Although I agree that many animal advocates overplay the cognitive abilities of some nonhuman animals (a form of confirmation bias, essentially), this article is making all the wrong points, for all the wrong reasons. This shouldn’t surprise me, as she has apparently written posts with such titles as “Animals are useless, unless humans make use of them”. I’ll address at least the core problem here: whereas she argues that taking nonhuman animal interests seriously results in a denigration of what it means to be human, the opposite is in fact true: by engaging in such large-scale and thoughtless structural violence against the rest of the sentient world, we construct a world that can never know peace.

Granted, her argument is progressing along a different track–she mocks the foodie elitists and the celebrity activists, and spends a bunch of time talking about the near-nihilist John Gray’s excellent book Straw Dogs (this is the only ‘near-nihilist’ book that I would admit to calling excellent–it made me question some of my core Enlightenment principles, but I came away from it the stronger for having grappled with it.)

The argument that celebrity activism a la Pamela Anderson does more harm than good to the cause of serious animal advocacy is a reasonable one, and it’s one I’ve debated with various people. But Guldberg’s argument is sneakier: she progresses from ‘rich cause’ postmaterialist activism to a ‘humans are cancer’ anti-humanism. This legerdemain is unjustifiable. Some animal advocates may view the rapacity of the human primate with skepticism or even disdain, but this is nowhere near a consensus view. Just as her argument is predicated on an all-or-nothing dualism under which only humans can matter morally, most animal advocates I know acknowledge that caring doesn’t have to be zero-sum, and that we don’t necessarily have to harm people to help animals.

That she picks the case where harming nonhuman animals does have the chance of helping human animals–biomedical research–to champion her total dismissal of nonhuman animal interests is as unsurprising as it is intellectually dishonest. Yes, there are cases where harming one individual might help another (note that this moral hypothetical can and does apply within as well as between species), just as there are cases where treating one individual better might cause another individual some economic ‘harm’. (as with the case of humanely raised meat, which she anthropocentrically dismisses as a non-issue…and which makes me wonder how some people can be so cruel, frankly.)

But to then claim that nonhuman animal interests should be categorically disregarded (she paraphrases the old Kantian saw about how being cruel to animals is only bad because it fosters cruel behavior that might later hurt humans…) rather than merely discounted (a welfarist view, often based on cognitivist differences) is radical, indefensible, and unnecessary.

To return to my original claim: I forcefully disagree with the premise that taking nonhuman animal interests seriously is, in the long run, harmful to human interests. The opposite is true, and our moral sensibilities will never progress beyond a fractured anthropocentric schizophrenia until we realize this. This doesn’t necessarily mean worldwide veganism or abolitionism, mind you, but it definitely doesn’t mean exclusivist humanism either.

Ethics and the fact/value dichotomy

I went to the first day of this conference at Harvard on Tuesday. My main takeaway was a humbling one: I realized that I have a lot to learn about 20th century American philosophy, and that I dislike detailed discussions of ontology. Keeping in mind that I still have a lot to learn, it also reinforced my faith in neo-pragmatism and my skepticism of both analytic and continental philosophy.

I was only able to make it to the first day of this four-day tribute to the life and works of Hilary Putnam; my wife just got a job, our retired research beagle has separation anxiety, and one day of ‘camp’ was expensive enough. The day was divided into three sessions: one on ontology, one on ethics, and one on perception. The first and the third, while fascinating, flew right over my head.

The second session, on science and ethics, contained an interesting talk by Tim Scanlon on the fact-value dichotomy. This idea, originally from David Hume’s assertion that ‘you can’t get from an is to an ought’, has been getting a lot of play recently: Peter Singer’s embedded video agrees, and he argues that the biologically natural and the normative are two distinct spheres; Sam Harris’ recent work is on the other end of the spectrum, denying, at least partially, that the dichotomy even exists.

My main impression of both ethics talks (the other was by Mario de Caro, who provided less original work and more of an overview of Putnam’s positions) was that Aristotelian virtue ethics was much more important to most people in the room than were either consequentialism or deontology. Indeed, de Caro explicitly stated that Putnam rejected both positions in favor of moral particularism. De Caro distinguished between ontological realism, semantic realism, and ontological/semantic non-realism, placing Putnam in the semantic realist camp. I definitely hope to learn more about his views when I get back into grad school.

Scanlon’s talk addressed facts and values by setting up a the following 4 place relation: R (p, x, c, a). He distinguished between pure normative claims, pure non-normative claims, mixed normative claims, and the the impact of ‘thick’ concepts like cruelty and cowardice. His central point was that purely non-normative claims have nothing to say about pure normative claims, and the fact-value relationship only holds for mixed normative claims. This was also how he got around supervenience and covariance (the idea that normative facts are fixed by non-normative facts, and that normative facts depend on non-normative facts, respectively).

As the argument is constructed, this makes sense. And, indeed, Scanlon agreed in the Q&A that utilitarians are using the same moral vocabulary but have different ideas of what constitutes a pure normative claim. All that was really missing here was an accounting of what actually counts as a pure normative claim…but this wasn’t the point of this particular discussion, I guess. I gather than Scanlon’s conception of the domain of the moral is centrally concerned with rational agents rather than with a broader conception of sentience, so this explains where we would part ways. I would like to read more of his on the justification for different moral claims.

In the Q&A, someone asked Putnam “how can we prove that the Nazis were bad”, to which he responded “rigor can only go so far in ethics.” I agree both with this claim and with Scanlon’s configuration of the purely normative versus the non-normative and the mixed, but this necessary lack of rigor–and this is where something like Rorty’s ironism comes knocking–is problematic once we start tearing down anthropocentric barriers. Some would say it’s cruel to serve coffee with gallons of factory-farmed milk at a conference on ethics, for example. Just sayin’.

Putnam stated that he believed some societies were crueler than others (Sparta, Nazi Germany, and Stalinist Russia were examples), but I’m wondering what, if anything, either Putnam or Scanlon has written on the structural violence committed against nonhuman animals in the industrialized West. Putnam also professed his faith in the Enlightenment project, so his corresponding (speciesist) humanism makes sense in this context.

I really enjoyed the ethics Q&A. There was lots of engaging back-and-forth on the possibility of ‘objectivity without objects’, on Dewey, on ‘degrees of cruelty’ and the concept of moral progress. In fact, I wish it had gone on for eight hours, and that we could have skipped over the philosophy of perception and ontology. My general takeaway from this lecture was that I need to learn more philosophy, at the very least so I can understand what people are talking about when they talk about disquotation and mereology.

Oh, and Bittman’s Opinionator piece in today’s NYT, on how we’re dangerously addicted to meat, is excellent. As usual.

The fraught necessity of speaking for the animal other

This review of Jason Hribal’s Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance by ‘renegade historian’ Thaddeus Russell caught my attention–as any Reason piece about animals inevitably does. I haven’t read Hribal’s book, so am only going off Russell’s critique here. My first impression is that this article isn’t really about nonhuman animals at all; Russell is using Hribal’s politicized animal as an intentionally farcical springboard for his subaltern critique of the New Left’s tendency to speak for–and thus define and appropriate–marginalized groups.

Indeed, Hribal’s attribution of political consciousness to nonhuman animals is problematic, to put it mildly. But, unsurprisingly for a libertarian column, Russell’s critique overlooks the fundamental challenge of expanding the moral circle beyond the species line. By using the case of nonhumans to support his subaltern ‘history from below’, he draws an arbitrary speciesist line below which nonhuman animals can neither speak for themselves nor have another speak for them. Setting aside the equivocations from various camps about ‘what animals want’, this analysis may well work for humans–indeed, it’s drawing on many of the same arguments as William Easterly’s “white man’s burden” conceptions of humanitarian aid. But it doesn’t work at all for nonhuman animals. On the other hand, Hribal’s politicization of nonhuman animal agency is also problematic.

To me, the world is made up of beings with interests. Part of the work of humanities is to prime our empathy. Part of the work of the social sciences is to foster cooperative nonzero relationships both within and across species lines. And part of the work of science is to reveal the type and degree of human and nonhuman animal preferences. But as this recent SciAm blog post on why animals play points out, we don’t have all the answers.

So Russell is right to be skeptical of speaking for the other–but in the case of nonhuman animals, we have little choice but to try.

Naming, partiality and the moral sensibilities

I should preface this post by noting that I’m not a lingust, and by acknowledging that I’m a welfarist rather than an abolitionist when it comes to human-animal relations. What I am is interested in moving towards an anti-speciesist empathic civilization by cultivating the moral sensibilities, so the editors’ Terms of Discourse in the new Journal of Animal Ethics caught my attention. I’d also like to leave aside my defense of being both anti-speciesist and welfarist, which is mostly a different debate.

I only now realized the first issue is already out. This afternoon an article in the Telegraph got picked up by Newser and various other (often rabidly speciesist) sources. And I haven’t yet read the journal in its entirety…I have only read the first page of the Terms of Discourse–I’ll read the whole issue after I download it from the UML database next Monday–but I do have a number of immediate thoughts on this issue. (And it so happens I’m teaching on Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” in a few weeks.)

As usual, I’m drawn to the commentary like a moth to flame, and a number of thoughts come to mind, which, as usual, range from the knee-jerk reactionaries who use defensive and tautological arguments to justify their (often unexamined) prejudice to the thoughtful-but-immersed-in-the-dominant-anthropocentric-paradigm animal guardians / human carers. The latter tended to sidestep the issue by saying something like “its my dog and I’m its human”, and I think this response, while equivocal and ultimately unsatisfying, is pragmatically sensible. I agree with Bernie Rollin that a contract was formed when my wife and I adopted our retired research beagle, Rodney, and in most senses but the legal one my dog owns me just as much as I do it. I also have a problem with speaking six syllables when I know of a reasonable alternative that has only one–this is a purely lazy preference, I know, but I can’t help but admit it. The question, of course, is whether the alternative is ‘reasonable’. Whenever possible, I go with the commenters and sidestep the question, precisely because of the can of worms that I’m about to open by looking more closely.

Although specific words like “pet” are clearly bound up in the history of human-on-nonhuman domination and exploitation, the range of words, phrases, expressions, and idioms containing analogical and metaphorical uses of nonhuman animal symbols is historically vast and central to much of our cultural development as a species (as Berger forcefully argues. The idea that we can pick out partial from impartial language, as the editors assert, is problematic on at least three counts: 1) attaining impartiality in language is itself questionable, 2) even words that come with heavy baggage change in meaning over time, and 3) the use of animal symbolism is aesthetically, if not ethically, embedded in the way we learn to empathize: by tapping into our moral sympathies through, among other things, the power of imaginative fiction in all its forms.

There’s also a fourth issue, which I’ll mention but not address here: that pushing for impartial (or as-impartial-as-possible) language is not the right strategic move at this historic moment. This is less a critique on the merits, though, and the JAE is setting forth guidelines for submissions, not necessarily speaking to the general public. I’ll set this aside for now, as it’s also part of a different debate.

On the first issue: the idea that we can discriminate (irony intended) between partiality and impartiality underestimates how deeply we are embedded in the vocabularies we construct. I agree that the goal of striving towards impartiality is essential–it is the bedrock of two things I respect greatly: the Enlightenment project of rationality and progress (with serious caveats, but that’s also a different debate), and Habermasian deliberation. The claim that much of our existing language is deeply anthropocentric is strong as well–as is the claim that many (most?) languages are deeply androcentric.

But there is a problem. Accepting, with Rorty’s liberal ironist, the contingency of language throws a wrench in the quest for impartiality; there’s no view from nowhere, and often the best we can do is to lay our biases bare. In concluding lines of Homage to Catalonia, Orwell writes:

“I believe that on such an issue as this no one is or can be completely truthful. It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously everyone writes as a partisan. In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish war.”

Orwell’s role in the Spanish Civil War was uniquely partisan. Still, his criticism should be taken seriously, as should S.J. Gould’s broader point, when discussing Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid”, that “we all tend to spin universal theories from a limited domain of surrounding circumstances”. (Highlighting again that I’m not a linguist,) the idea that we can find an impartial metavocabulary is as problematic as denying that some words carry psychologically pathogenic significations (to put it as Garrett Hardin viewed the issue population control by moral suasion alone). Yes, our language can carry with it a legacy of structural violence, but what are the censors’ boundaries? Is there a statute of limitations? Do we throw out the word “wife” because it shares an Indo-European root with a word meaning “shame”? And, if we’re shooting for impartial language, why not?

I’m going to skip over the second point–that signifiers and signifieds changes over time–both because it’s been a decade since I last read Saussure and because I’m most interested in the third point: that animal symbols can’t be extricated from our cultural fabric without doing potentially serious damage to the aesthetic and ethical priming of our moral sensibilities.

From a high school fascination with mythical cosmogony to an undergraduate ‘great books’ education at Wesleyan’s College of Letters, I am the way I am at least in part because of the books I have read and the films I have seen. (Having companion animals–dogs and rats–since childhood and many other factors are also crucial.) And while I am sympathetic, in the moral sense under discussion, to the editors’ goals, the use of descriptive language and animal symbols is more than just misguided anthropomorphism, and even when it is anthropomorphic it’s not necessarily misguided, in its disciplinary context.

None of this is to say that we should not be careful about the language we use. We should. In the clearer cases–describing a pig as a production unit, say–the bias and its effect are painfully obvious. It seems equally clear that moths are indeed drawn to flame, as I stated above, and that this is descriptive rather than normative language. But where do we draw the line separating the normative wolf in the descriptive sheep’s clothing from the merely descriptive? Does describing conservative bioethicist’s blog, “Secondhand Smoke”, as “rabidly speciesiest” in its defense of human exceptionalism count? (I would think not, which is why I used it above. But a case could be made that ‘beastliness’ is only a descriptive step beyond being rabid.)

Anthropomorphism, for all its scientific shortcomings, is also one of the ways that humans can empathize with nonhumans. Taking a scalpel to our available vocabulary would limit the foundational vocabulary upon which our sympathetic education is built. Whether the insidious effects of language that fosters systemic violence outweigh the ethical priming of our moral sensibilities through imaginative fiction is an important question, but I’m not sure if it’s the kind of question that has a single answer.

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.

‘Nonviolence’, systemic violence, and nonhuman animals

(April fools) concept art by Art Lebedev, "The Dog Leash for Dog Haters"

I brought my political thought class to a talk by Ghanaian nonviolent peace activist and 2011 UML peace scholar Leyma Gbowee. She gave an excellent talk on the nature of systemic violence in Liberia, where she served as a truth and reconciliation commission member, and I look forward to hearing what my students thought. Having just returned from the Critical Animal Studies conference in Ontario, though, I couldn’t help but ask whether her definition of systemic violence extended to our treatment of nonhuman animals. I thought this was especially relevant given that she closed her talk with a line from Dr. King’s Nobel acceptance speech: “all life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

It was frustrating, albeit completely understandable, to find that her answer was mostly dismissive, with some conciliatory gestures towards environmentalism (she based her views on the prioritization argument–that hungry humans come first, in this case). The exchange reminded me of the critical feminist presenting at Brock who couldn’t understand why her colleagues didn’t see the link between human and nonhuman oppression (and of a similar argument, in this case in philosophy, laid out in James Rachels’ “The Basic Argument for Vegetarianism). I wasn’t expecting Gbowee to respond positively to my question–and I tried to phrase it tactfully and politely, so as not to derail the conversation, which until then had been purely anthropocentric–but it does strike me as problematic to try to address the roots of systemic violence without acknowledging the link between violence to nonhumans and violence to humans. The example she gave was actually telling: a congregation was unable to get aid funding because their pastor had, by coincidence, been videotaped shooing/kicking a stray dog. Gbowee dismissed such behavior as common–and, indeed, I don’t know the level of severity of the kick, so it may not have risen to the level of cruelty–but isn’t this categorically ‘violent’ behavior?

I fully appreciate that Gbowee was talking about a very different kind of systemic violence–and she did so passionately and persuasively. Specifically, she referenced the ex-slaves who ‘founded’ Liberia in 1822 and how they brought with them some heavy cultural baggage, to put it mildly. And I don’t necessarily expect people living in food insecurity to begin to moralize their food choices in anything resembling what is happening throughout the rich world. By the same token, I can see how some would call foul by comparing shooing a dog to the kind of atrocious sexual and other violence Gbowee documents. Even from a results-oriented perspective, though, nonviolence seems to me to require a systems perspective.

Gbowee, like Dr. King, is also clearly in the Christian religion tradition, and would likely be unreceptive to anti-speciesist arguments (as against Dominion/stewardship-based arguments). But I can’t help but be depressed that such ardent, intelligent, and vocal advocates aren’t (yet) inclined to broaden the scope of what counts as psychologically destructive violence.

Edit: link to the talk, with Q & A at the end, here.

2nd Edit (4/26): After an email back-and-forth with Dr. Andrew Linzey, I should qualify my statement about religion and stewardship – I need to read up on a theology based in service rather than one based in dominion, apparently, and hopefully will do so asap.

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.

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.