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.