Category Archives: animal ethics

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.

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’.


Why is the USDA helping to hype Perdue chicken indeed? “Always raised cage-free…we’re trying to make a better chicken.” A few thoughts: first, this is a form of greenwashing similar to Shaving cream, etc. cans advertising that they’re “CFC-free” —  it’s completely irrelevant. In the case of CFCs and other ODSs, it would be illegal for a company to use them, so all its advertising is compliance with the law. In the case of ‘cage-free’ meat chickens, broiler chickens are never kept in cages; this only applies to egg-laying hens. The real issues when it comes to broilers are stocking density and various forms of enrichment.

On the second point: it’s important to note that the guy in the video (a Perdue scientist, presumably) said “we’re trying to make a better chicken”, not “we’re trying to raise a better chicken.” This gets us into the important bioethical questions about biotechnology, animal genetics, and animal ethics. These aren’t your grandpappy’s backyard birds.

And they even managed to riff on the gendered ethic of care: “she talks to them more than I do”…

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!

Animalism and philosophy

(Images source) The recent piece “The animal you are” by UCL philosophy prof. Paul Snowdon was most striking to me for what it left out; for a piece on animality, there sure was a lot of focus on one particular animal. None of the arguments for or against “animalism” (the idea that the human animal is the same thing as the person, or self) even began to engage with nonhuman animal cognition, let alone the people calling for nonhuman animal person for great apes and/or cetaceans.

Setting aside whether ‘person’ is the right word for chimps and dolphins, who clearly have at least some level of self-consciousness and use of reason (these are the criteria listed by Locke and repeated by Snowdon), I think any discussion of mind/body dualism has to seriously engage with the similarities and differences between human and nonhuman animal minds (the Sapolsky video in my first blog post is a good example of this). Snowdon writes that “if we are prepared to allow there might be entities which merit being described as persons who are not human – say God, or angels, or Martians, or robots, – then animalism should not rule them out.” It’s disturbing to me that hypothetical and probably fictional characters are presented to play the role of potential nonhuman persons, when actual, existing animals aren’t even granted a mention in passing. (I’m reminded here of the common line in popular bioethics where human genetic chimeras are abomination–but hey, do whatever the heck you want with other animals–or of the fetishization so common in Japan and elsewhere of robot intelligence and of drafting declarations of the rights of robots, with the irony of cetacean slaughter of existing sentient life continuing unchecked.)

I enjoyed reading this piece, and my comments here aren’t getting into the merits of any of the substantive questions raised, but still: for a piece called ‘the animal you are’, I was expecting more animals. I need to learn more philosophy of mind, if only to unmask some anthropocentric shibboleths.

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.


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.

What animals want: animal emotion and animal happiness

I’ve been reading a lot about popular neuroscience and related fields recently, and I keep coming back to the question of ‘what animals want’. This question has many variations, each with their own ramifications. Two broad umbrella categories come to mind: 1) the neuro-hyphenators and 2) the animal advocates. These are, of course, overlapping caricatures, but the two approaches have important differences, and I think they both perform an essential role.

The proliferating neuro-hyphenated disciplines preface the question by focusing on what nonhuman animals can want. Studies of animal happiness focusing solely on stress hormones fit this mold. But there’s a problem with this approach, as this SciAm guest blogger identifies: neuro-reductionism in assessing nonhuman animals’ mental states is bound to paint a picture that incomplete at best, and, more likely, reactionary at worst. (An example here would be livestock industry-funded “welfare” studies that justify existing practices…how coincidental!) Whether applied to humans or nonhumans, the idea that our motivations and mental states are reducible to nothing more than the interaction of Oxytocin, dopamine (and so on) strikes me as unlikely to get to the root of the more-than-human condition as it is to get to the root of the human condition.

If nothing else, the above picture tells us that something more is going on. One of the reasons I chose my StumbleUpon handle, surlyotter, is that animal happiness may be as elusive as human happiness, but it’s no less real. This approach to revealing animals preferences–whether through Jonathan Balcombe’s recent Exultant Ark, Marc Bekoff’s Wild Justice, or Dale Peterson’s The Moral Lives of Animals–is of a different type than the neuro-schools. But as long as neuroscience can only paint a reductive picture of nonhuman animal life–that is, until we can, as last week’s New Scientist put it, learn to speak dolphin–such works play a crucial role in helping us understand the more-than-human world.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Animal Ethics 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Animals, plants, and interests

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

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

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

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