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

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


The strength of symbols

Richard Adams’ Watership Down was one of the first books I remember reading–it’s also one of the few books where the film rivals the original for artistic merit. The film also probably traumatized its fair share of kids…it’s got lots of violence and adult themes, and I think I saw it when I was around 10.

But some of the core messages–about agency, coping with death, political identity, and the scope of the moral community–have stuck with me. This book doesn’t engage with animal ethics nearly as directly as The Plague Dogs, but its oblique approach is all the more powerful for its subtlety, especially when compared to the banality of Disney’s anthropomorphic sidekicks.

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.

Food fight: free to choose?

This picture was featured in an ad purchased by the Washington Legal Foundation in today’s print NYT. Fat taxes are causing a stir. Junk food marketing is coming under fire. It’s getting easier to track our food, at least in theory. So what does the industry shill formerly known as a Phillip Morris front do? Attack “platernalistic plaintiffs’ lawyers, government officials, and professional activists [who] are pecking away at consumers’ freedom of choice. They think we can’t manage our own lives, and through lawsuits, regulations, and taxes, they want to make our food choices for us.” There’s actually something to this argument from personal responsibility, but real choice would require much less imperfect information and an absence of manipulation verging on coercion…I don’t see the WLF pushing that level of deliberative democracy anytime soon. To paraphrase Nader: when all you’ve got to choose from is the evil of two lessers, you don’t have much of a choice.

In other news – I just got back from a trip to DC, where I ran a workshop on agriculture and animal welfare at the Public Philosophy Network’s conference on publicly engaged philosophy. It was great fun: after the opening talk by E.J. Dionne, Bill Galston, Hanna Rosen , and others, I participated in a workshop on social media ethics that helped clarify some things for me (about this blog, about my wikis, about FB and school, etc.), and there were some fascinating paper presentations on topics ranging from farm animals to climate change to bioethics to public policy. If anyone’s interested in getting involved, I’d recommend requesting access to the PPN wiki.

“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.

What counts as a “food dialogue”?

The US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance has decided to shift tactics from bunker mode to PR blitz, probably because they know Bittman and others are shifting the discourse, much as other front groups might try to intervene. The resulting Food Dialogues are trying to harness social media and to fight back against Meatless Mondays and other gradualist flexitarian programs. (If ever I’ve seen a sign that things like Meatless Mondays – or even meatless weekdays, for the more committed – are powerful policy tools, this kind of backlash would be it.)

The image above is from a study conducted by the USFRA, and I think this post by Civil Eats does a good job deconstructing it. Especially this: “While I believe the majority of our nation’s ranchers and farmers are respectful stewards of the land with the public’s best interest at heart—they’re working hard to reduce their environmental impact and address pesticide, artificial hormone, and antibiotics overuse—the USFRA clearly is not representing them. Instead, a look at the Alliance affiliates reveals that it is made up of, and funded by, the biggest players in the food industry, including those who profit most from toxic agricultural chemicals, polluting farming and food processing practices, and concerning animal welfare policies. No wonder, then, that that limiting protections from toxic pesticides and pushing back against antibiotic regulation are just two of the current policy priorities of USFRA affiliates.”

This response from La Vida Locavore is slightly more activist, but this passage gets at a core problem here: “Farmers, no matter how they actually farm, say they CARE about the environment and animal welfare. Which adds up to roughly nothing in reality, since the question does not ask what the farmers actually DO on their farms. But the last question is a loaded question.” Since environmental stewardship and good animal treatment are perceived as unmitigated goods by the public at large, only an idiot would say otherwise. Calling the Congo a “democratic republic” comes to mind — everyone wants the cachet of democracy, so they use the keywords and void them of meaning in the process.

All of which is unfortunate, because a real food dialogue would be a wonderful thing. Yes, Pollan et al can be disconnected from the concerns of the average producer and/or consumer, but to turn around and say that Monsanto has the answer? This Habermasian says thanks, but no.

(It should also be a red flag that this ‘dialogue’ is funded mostly by the checkoff programs, a.k.a. the people who try to figure out how put more cheese on pizza. Thanks to the schizophrenic mandate of the USDA, this is a program where following image, from the Onion‘s “World’s Fattest Town Makes, Consumes World’s Largest Mozzarella Stick”, would be right at home.)

Material girl

So apparently the Humane Society International (HSI) has appointed Ke$ha as its first global ambassador. One blogger writes that “her music is seen to have an underlying message of acceptance of all living creatures” – funny, I must have missed that part.

I’ve thought a lot about whether the identification of animal protection as a ‘hollywood issue’ is a net benefit or liability. On the one hand, we live in a culture of celebrity fetishization – when in Rome, and all that. On the other hand, this allows almost everyone else to dismiss animal advocacy as frivolous moral fluff.

This isn’t to say that a lot of celebrities don’t do very helpful work protecting animals. I just don’t know why capitalist-marketing-behemoth-engineered-sex-and-drug-youth-brainnumbing-blathering-machine Ke$ha’s advocacy would do more good than Pam Anderson’s boobs in reducing the commodification and objectification of sentient living beings.

(I was going to write about Contagion, regulatory policy, and the reach of the state – but I didn’t.)

Paths to caring

This image is from an ongoing Daily Dish thread about the role of government in regulating the presence of dogs and/or kids in restaurants. Some would use the image as a demonstration of the retrenchment hypothesis (nonhumans should take a back seat to humans, as long as human suffering exists), others would see instead an affirmation of the extension hypothesis (to paraphrase Mary Midgley – ‘caring is not a scarce resource’).

Speaking of caring: this recent Dot Earth piece argues that fishing can be an important path to caring about fish. As the author notes, this is controversial. I’ve had a lot of interesting discussions with my students about hunting and its role in connecting to nature. And, as usual, I’m polyvalent on the issue. (On the one hand, alternatives like hiking don’t usually involve sitting quietly in one place for a long time — nature photography is the closest activity I can think of. On the other hand, well duh.)

More generally, what Louv calls ‘nature-deficiency disorder’ is a serious issue. So many kids are being raised as urban environmentalists (etc.) who care in an abstract, sometimes even programmed, sense. But an abstract road to empathy can only take you so far. I’m not saying that we need to hunt or fish to appreciate animals. I think that even catch-and-release fishing teaches some very harmful lessons about human-animal relations. But it’s definitely a dilemma.

(And because everyone‘s been posting about Chipotle‘s new Willie Nelson video, I may as well do the same: yes, Chipotle’s taking advantage of its humane meat marketing blitz, which may be less than meets the eye – but it’s a start, for sure. In any case, it’s a neat video and a pretty song)

A rose by any other name

There have been lots of interesting pieces recently on humanism, morality, and the more-than-human world. My first response to Joel Marks’ supposed rejection of morality is to side with Andrew Sullivan, who has been covering a lot of relevant issues recently. My second was to realize that these issues are bound up with our discussions of secular humanism and its discontents. I agree that something like ‘secular humanism 2.0’ would be an improvement over the current anthropocentric and self-defeating myopia, and I don’t think we need to agree on the primacy of one moral vocabulary to get there.

To briefly recap Joel Mark’s “Confessions of an Ex-Moralist” from last week’s NYT Stone piece: Marks transitions from being a deontologist  who fought for the inherent rights on (especially) food animals to a pragmatic/utilitarian person who, less sure of the external moral validity of their core deontological beliefs, “now focus[es] on conveying information” about the conditions on industrial animal ag facilities. I don’t always agree with Coyne, but in this case I do: this looks to me like a distinction without a difference. But that’s also because I’ve come to terms with the fact that most of us exist along a multidimensional plane balancing the poles of the above chart. The best we can do, in my view, is to maintain equilibrium — if it has shown us anything, history teaches us that single-moral-foundation graspings at utopia always tend towards dystopia instead.

As for humanism and its discount tent, well, that’s a big one. As I noted a few posts ago, the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes film is acting like a confirmation bias-y Rorshach test. To take two examples: this post from Salon argues that the human-nonhuman divide remains very large, while Sue Savage-Rumbaugh’s responses to the film (as recorded in this episode of On Point) mistakes CGI ape intelligence for the considerably less dazzling real thing. My position is somewhere  between these poles, but I’m making the connection here just to point out that our position on the role of homo sapiens in a “post-Darwin” world is very likely to dictate, or at least inform, our morals–or our ethics, if you’d rather call them that.

Elitism and food

I’m late to this party, but I’ve been on vacation for a few days. Anthony Bourdain and Paula Deen are in a tiff, and the NYT’s former food critic Frank Bruni weighs in. Basically, Bourdain says Deen is destroying our health, and Deen says the expensive-ass foie gras eating foodie elitist isn’t one to talk.

I agree with Jane Black that Bourdain is really not one to talk, although he is of course free to do so. (I also agree that “values, priorities, and taste” may dictate more than “access and affordability” when it comes to our food habits) The CSM also has a reasonably balanced take here. Feministe, aggressive and race/class/gender-y as usual, makes some important points. And as usual, Nestle’s analysis about social movement and elitism-speak is spot on.

But the essence of this piece is that people can’t afford to spend more on healthy food, and in most cases I think think that’s just wrong. But it’s still used as a argument killing catch-all, and it will be until we address the shameful rates of food insecurity in this country.

The foodie-elitist conflation goes way back, and there’s been a lot of interesting pieces on politics and elitism recently. But what really bothers me is the unapologetic know-nothingness of a lot of these claims. They’re usually from the right, and they’re often openly anti-science. But the important point is that these kinds of arguments never get much beyond the base of Paul Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement. (below)

This is no surprise, really. These tactics function as discussion stoppers — essentially the rhetorical equivalent of just telling somebody to shut up. I show this graph to my students every semester, in an effort to get them to argue higher up this curve. If it’s easier said than done in my college classroom, I can see we’re going to have trouble parsing Palin’s “real America” in the 24/7 soundbite culture.

Yes, cost matters. And yes, culture matters. But Nestle, quoting Schlosser, is right: “social movements have to begin somewhere and several began with elites but ended up helping the poor and disenfranchised—the civil rights, environmental and women’s movements, for example.” Addressing these issues will require all manner of solutions, from all manner of perspectives. Branching AmeriCorps off into a FoodCorps, for example, is one small and recent step. But it’s a start.

Hunting, violence, and masculinity

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an article with this spectacularly unsubtle title: “Special Ops, Pig Patrol: Commando Wannabes Stalk Porky”. It’s a story about the Texan escapades of Tactical Hog Patrol, with gleeful violence masquerading as pest control. Remind me not to Google hunting-related things – this is depressing.

“Whenever I see a photograph of some sportsman grinning over his kill, I am always impressed by the striking moral and esthetic superiority of the dead animal to the live one.”
Edward Abbey, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

(None of this is intended to be categorically against hunting, an issue I don’t discuss much, and about which I’m ambivalent, or polyvalent. Still, Teddy Roosevelt argued that hunting acts as a corrective to the feminizing influence of civilization. But if this is the cure, I say bring on the feminization.)

Obligatory Planet of the Apes post

I just taught a class on biotechnology and animals, and am now being pummeled by a flurry of Planet of the Apes-related posts. As usual, such posts are a Rorshach-like template for the blogger’s political leanings, so I figured I may as well do the same. I haven’t seen the movie, and, thanks to our separation-anxiety doggie, probably won’t until it’s on Netflix, but I do have some thoughts, and I’ll channel them through this interesting piece on “Creating Non-Human People” from Oxford’s Practical Ethics blog. The trope of “super-intelligent, violent, most likely malicious animals taking over the world” is Hollywood Summer entertainment, but the interesting issues here actually concern the ethics of enhancement, personhood, and species integrity.

A lot of one’s views of biotechnology will be influenced by your views on science and whether you think the critique of ‘playing God’ is a useful one. (I don’t, for various reasons, but mostly because we’ve been playing God in the dark for 10,000 years, and the double helix let us turn the lights on. One’s view on this issue will also color a range of related issues–hence, for example, environmentalism’s uneasy relationship with science.)

That said, I think there are a lot of good reasons to proceed with a lot of caution. The ethics of animal cloning, and genetic manipulation more generally, raise a number of significant welfare concerns. The irony is that the lay bioethical position has turned a blind eye to all manner of grotesque nonhuman animal genetic manipulation, but anything resembling human chimerism is verboten. In other words, the ethical problem of creating cognitively ‘enhanced’ nonhuman animals is that they would then be more likely to qualify for personhood, and, as such, increased moral protection. Ironic because, as Rollin notes, this kind of Cartesianism is its own undoing–if it’s wrong to test on species that are sufficiently ‘like us’, but the reason we do the testing in the first place is because they’re like us.

Tax all the things?

Or ban all the things. You get the picture. Seriously, though, I’m on the fence about the long-term policy effectiveness of restrictive measures as a means of approaching various iterations of food justice. It makes me feel like an equivocating schlub, a sophist even, but I really think both sides have some good arguments here. On the one hand, Bittman is right that the food industry isn’t going to market healthy food on their own. But his proposed solution of giving with one hand (subsidies for veg) and taking away with the other (taxes for sodas) seems iffy to me. On the other, I’m not convinced by Vegansaurus’ response; it’s disingenuous verging on naive to underplay the myriad obstacles at-risk demographics face when trying to eat healthily, so color me a nanny stater: I do believe that the government has a responsibility to protect its citizens from the food advertising run rampant in the private sector, at least by providing complementary information.

But the glib acceptance of confiscating fat kids goes to far in this direction–even though I actually agree with the recommendations of the study in question, such radical interference in the parent-child relationship should never be taken lightly. On the question of regulatory policy more broadly, however, the ag industry seems woefully ill-equipped to regulate themselves for food safety, let alone such ‘negative externalities’ as animal welfare…whatever their pr departments may claim. On the other end of the spectrum–the option of using carrots rather than sticks–Matt Ridley’s proposed ‘healthy living credits’ deserve consideration, but would need some serious parsing, on many levels.

Parsing rights and captivity: the problem with dignity and autonomy

(This video is only tangentially related to my post – but Tyson’s cautionary tale about nonhuman animal communication informs most of the following discussion on autonomy and dignity.)

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why I seem to be approaching animal studies from a different angle than most of the (largely abolitionist) animal-related blogs I follow. It’s probably mostly because I’m a stubborn contrarian who runs like hell from anything resembling groupthink. But I’m also a pragmatist who is loath to apply rights claims willy-nilly without thinking about implementation; a secularist who is skeptical of the idea that rights claims, whether human or nonhuman, are ever inherent rather than instrumental; a reformed Kantian who thinks, with some caveats, that Enlightenment reason has been unfairly pummeled by critical theory, but that ‘humanism’ is perniciously anthropocentric; and a Rawls-leaning semi-egalitarian who is reluctant to throw the capitalist baby out with the bathwater of inequality.

All of which is to say: the language of domination and liberation is not my preferred vocabulary, and nor is the language of inherent rights. So This essay by Anat Biletzki from the NYT Opinionator’s the Stone column (Boghossian’s “The Maze of Moral Relativism” has also been getting a lot of attention) caught my eye. A previous post, by Lori Gruen on the ethics of captivity, from the National Humanities Center’s ‘On the Human’ project, is also worth a read. I’d like to address an issue raised indirectly by Biletzky and directly by Gruen–the centrality of one’s view of ‘dignity’ and autonomy as it relates to rights claims for both human and nonhuman animals.

I haven’t done much research on the ‘dignity and rights’ subfield, but my impression is that dignity, when used in the human context, is too often a catch-all term that rapidly becomes void of specific meaning. I guess this is the consequentialist in me coming out, but I think it’s more useful to refer to the specific harms caused to an individual when its dignity is violated, and, where no such harms can be tallied, to look at what we’re really talking about when we talk about dignity (to re-paraphrase Raymond Carver). In some cases, I can see the point of dignity-speak (to take Gruen’s example: the assaults on dignity suffered by humans who have been incarcerated can be tallied using other language, but some of the less tangible psychological harms may be difficult to quantify), but it too often degrades into things like defending the dignity of a collection of cells in an embryo, which, to be blunt, makes very little sense to me. Bernie Rollin’s view on telos, which is closer to Nussbaum’s virtue ethical capabilities approach referenced by Gruen, strikes me as a better approach.

On autonomy, Gruen rightly points out that the term means different things to a neo-Kantian contractarian and to those who, like Gruen, adopt a broader definition that encompasses various forms of preference satsifaction. (This also gets us into Dennett/Frey/Cohen territory, all of whom deny, to various degrees and on various grounds, that it’s really “like” anything to be a bat–to use Nagel’s famous case–but I’m not going there right now). She also distinguishes between autonomy’s instrumental and inherent values:

Freedom or liberty is sometimes thought to entail acting autonomously and making our own choices and being in a condition in which there is an absence of arbitrary interference. Depriving someone of her freedom is also thought to be one of the things that can make a life go badly for that individual. There are two ways that denying individuals their liberty may negatively impact the quality of their lives. If we understand liberty to be an instrumental value then respecting an individual’s liberty is important because it is conducive to other things that are valuable, like pleasure and well-being. Doing what one wants, being free to make choices and to act on them, following the desires one wants to satisfy, and not being interfered with in the pursuit of one’s desires are all freedoms that are important, because they contribute to making an individual’s life go better by allowing that individual to satisfy her desires. Individuals who are confined, restrained, or subordinated cannot act freely upon their desires and live their lives as they want. But liberty can also be thought of as an intrinsic value, a value that in itself, regardless of anything else, is constitutive of living a good life.

Setting aside for a moment my view that what we call inherent values can just as easily be formulated as meta-instrumental values using a rule utilitarian metric, I think this paragraph both captures the nuance of Gruen’s piece (after all, all she’s arguing is that “Denying [captives] the freedom to exercise their autonomy by keeping them under captive control is…ethically problematic.” This seems to me unarguable.) and what I perceive to be one of its key shortcomings.

In the case of nonhuman animal captivity, the distinction between quality-of-life and autonomy is often very different from the same distinction in the case of human captivity. (Again, how one views this distinction will depend on one’s view concerning the scope of autonomy.) (One of) the reason(s) autonomy is perceived as inherently valuable in human society is precisely because it forms the backbone of the system of rights and property from which so many of our institutions emanate. In the case of, say, a farm animal, I think there’s a reasonably strong argument to be made, following Rollin on telos, that the animal in question has a different set of relevant parameters in determining its quality of life. A broiler chicken would not thrive in the forests of its genetic ancestors. Again, Gruen acknowledges this distinction when she says that we have to live with the structural legacy of nonhuman animal captivity–hence my guardianship of our research veteran beagle, Rodney…

Autophagy and alienation

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

Oppression-speak and myopic “clarity”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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’.

Symbolism redux and posthumanism(s)

“Why does Hollywood make animals act like humans? As The Atlantic’s James Parker has pointed out, the answers lie in philosophy. The French film critic André Bazin wrote of our relationship to onscreen animals as an “ontological otherness”—a connection with an outside world that reminds us of ourselves—or what’s also been called the “human gaze” by animal ethicist Randy Malamud. We’ve become accustomed to seeing “animals doing silly things for the audience’s amusement—things they don’t usually do, and have no reason to do,” Malamud argues. When we see Free Willy’s whale flip through the sky, it’s not for his entertainment so much as ours. The same is true of a cute YouTube video of a hamster eating broccoli or a LOLcat pleading for a cheeseburger, an amusingly discomfiting image. It’s also funny to see Zookeeper’s animals talking on a cell phone—or, at least, it’s supposed to be.” (from this article, on Zookeeper, Project Nim, and animal symbolism)

John Berger pointed out in “Why Look At Animals” that the pervasiveness of nonhuman animal symbolism inversely correlates to the presence of actual nonhuman animals in our lives. I haven’t seen Zookeeper, and, given the controversy surrounding the treatment of its captive animals and the mediocre-at-best Kevin James, I don’t really plan to. (Project Nim, on the other hand, I look forward to.) But this caustic article posted on Minding the Campus (a generally conservative counterpoint to the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s Brainstorm — or at least that’s how I parse it) got me to thinking.

Mary Grabar’s “Literature Professors Discover Animals” ranges from Foucault to the Institute for Critical Animal Studies (ICAS) to Steve Best to posthumanism (as against transhumanism – see this post at IEET for the distinction). The audience, apparently, is supposed to know why such studies are “ominous”, because she never explains her position. She is also lumping together two related but distinct things–posthumanism and critical animal studies–about which I have two different opinions.

As this muddled and contested Wikipedia page indicates, the term posthumanism (like the field of animal studies) means different things to different people. I’m ambivalent about the term, but I still can’t accept the bald anthropocentrism of humanism, much of which I otherwise agree with.

Critical animal studies, on the other hand, tends to specifically embrace the post-Marx continental philosophy in which all of reality can be viewed as a hierarchical power struggle of otherness, alterity, exploitation, and domination. This is, of course, an oversimplification, but I’ve been to both CAS conferences and to the HSUS’ TAFA, and the two are very different in scope and sensibility. One is broadly welfarist, the other abolitionist. At this stage in the social movement for animals, I think we need both movements, just as we need both PETA and the ASPCA, ADI and IFAW. The two are, indeed, distinct, sometimes even mutually hostile (which is unfortunate, but not surprising).

My reaction to Grabar’s piece, then, is threefold: 1) she lumps a range of different material under the same header, leading the reader to assume that all academic work in animal studies is Foucauldian, etc.; 2) she presumes her argument to be so obvious that it doesn’t need mentioning (why, exactly, is this an ‘ominous’ development, and what’s so great about the existing Judeo-Xian ethic?), which it isn’t, and it does; and 3) the result is that this ends up resembling an ‘ivory tower hit job’ in which posthumanism becomes anti-human, which it needn’t be, and where animal studies becomes, falsely, nothing more than CAS.

The paradox of happy meat?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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”…