Facepalm

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

Eating, ethics, and regulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Food and the paradox of choice

 

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

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

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

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

The new animal machines

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

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

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

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

Anthropomorphisms

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Brainstorming a Spring 2012 lit and politics course

(Image source) In addition to my Intro to Political Thought class at UMass Lowell, I’ll be teaching two new courses next semester: Intro to International Relations (also at UML) and Perspectives on Human-Animal Relations (at Tufts’ Experimental College). In the Spring, I’ve already approved a Global Food Politics course (my draft syllabus is Here) at UML, and am of thinking of submitting a similar proposal at the Excollege. After tearing through China Miéville’s The City and the City, though, I’m trying to craft a “politics and literature” course that would be sufficiently interdisciplinary to count as ‘experimental’ (i.e., not a ‘regular’ English department class). Here’s my hypothetical course description and book list; any book suggestions or thoughts on how I could proceed with this would be much appreciated!

Overlong potential title: “New Speculative Fiction and Political Philosophy: Stephenson, Le Guin, and Miéville on Anarchy and the State.”

Key Books: Snow Crash, The Lathe of Heaven, The Dispossessed, The City and the City. (To be interspersed with key works in modern political philosophy? I’d add four or five other books to this list, either from the list below or elsewhere.)

Other possible books or authors: Ubik (PKD), other words by Stephenson, The Windup Girl (Bacigalupi), The Left Hand of Darkness, Nick Sagan, Neil Gaiman, Dan Simmons, P.D. James/Anthony Burgess (Children of Men or The Wanting Seed), Alan Moore. (And, if I were to cut out the “new” part, lots of people/works come to mind: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppes, Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, Melville’s Bartleby, Kafka, Orwell, Gogol, Asimov, Sturgeon…although some of these are political but not speculative.)

I’m not necessarily married to the idea of focusing on anarchy and the state, but I thought both Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and Miéville’s The City and the City did exactly what speculative political fiction is supposed to do: to allow us to see how our conception of human nature is structured at least in part by our surroundings, and what that means for the way we construct our political systems. I haven’t yet read anything else by Miéville, but I’m about to start either Perdido Street Station (or Cloud Atlas). Any suggestions for other topics, books, or authors that would fit in this category?

Edit (mostly for my reference): Facebook brainstorm comments here.

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.

Digesting the USDA food plate

So the food plate is replacing the useless food pyramid version 2.0, and everyone is having their say. The consensus opinion seems to be that it’s a definite improvement over previous iterations, most of which showed the stamp of the animal ag lobby. (For a visual example of food lobbyists at work: the CSPI’s work often needs grain-of-salting, but this video is an excellent example of the murkiness of the science-policy interface. Oh, and the embedded video above is…about vegetables.)

A brief overview of the impressions I’ve come across. Some bemoan the absence of exercise, which was visually represented in the otherwise baffling food pyramid. Some see it as a small but much needed step towards reclaiming government authority over food leadership in a Beck/Palin age of ‘hands off my food’. Some questioned whether the USDA, a federal body with the promotion of American agriculture as its core mandate, is really competent to chair this discussion. Others, mostly in the comments sections, tooted their low-carb horns. Vegan dieticians questioned the inclusion of the dairy satellite on grounds of redundancy. The use of a plate rather than a pyramid was generally hailed as a common sense transition. There was, of course, varying degrees of snarky skepticism over the role of government as food nanny. (I’m setting aside, for now, Reason‘s derisive use of the term ‘nanny’, which until its libertarian appropriation was unequivocally positive in tone–Martha Nussbaum addresses this issue in the film Examined Life here). And, as usual, the Atlantic Wire has a pretty good overview of various other positions.

Marion Nestle’s first impressions are worth reading. She is generally supportive of the change, although she acknowledges that these are small steps, and that US ag policy under Vilsack needs to be brought into line with these recommendations. Her main quibble: “Protein.  I’m a nutritionist.  Protein is a nutrient, not a food.  Protein is not exactly lacking in American diets.  The average American consumes twice the protein needed.  Grains and dairy, each with its own sector, are important sources of protein in American diets.

I see her point, but this is a case where a one-plate-fits-all food is problematic, and ‘protein’ may be the best middle ground available. Vegan.com’s Erik Marcus approved of the protein moniker because it’s sufficiently broad as to allow for non-animal as well as animal proteins, and because it takes up less of the plate than the fruit and veg portions. On the other hand, the nutrient protein is present in three of the four foods listed (vegetables, grains, and dairy), making it possibly redundant–especially considering that most Americans get way too much protein, but are too macho and meat-addicted to take this seriously.

Edit: Nestle has a follow-up barrage of links here.

Ethics and the fact/value dichotomy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fraught necessity of speaking for the animal other

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

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

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

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

A buffet of food debates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The moral landscape – Bentham through the back door

 

It seemed appropriate to follow up a post introducing moral philosophy with my thoughts on Sam Harris, science, and morality. Harris’ new book, The Moral Landscape, has been getting a lot of attention from various camps, with some of the most cogent reviews, in my view, here and here. In lieu of having the actual book on hand to critique, this interview with Julian Baggini provides a handy overview of Harris’ position that I hope is generally representative. Briefly put, it looks like Harris is trying to ride roughshod over debates in moral philosophy by saying utilitarianism won but calling it science.

A lot of the research I’ve done over the last few years involved competing definitions of what it means to be “science-based” in the domain of farm animal welfare, so Harris’ work immediately caught my attention when I saw the above TED video last year (which I’ve played bits of for my Intro to Political Thought students). An engaging Facebook back-and-forth with an aspiring cognitivist I met in Canada also got me to thinking.

With some caveats, I’m on board with Harris’ critique of religious normativity, although he and his New Atheist brethren could use a primer or three in diplomacy. (The caveats are from reading people like Huston Smith and Karen Armstrong.) Not surprisingly, I have a problem with his other attack, on Hume’s ought/is distinction in particular and, apparently, on moral philosophy in general. The irony here is that what he is espousing is essentially an empowered utilitarianism in which moral values have been upgraded to moral facts–incommensurability and indeterminacy notwithstanding.

Kennan Malik writes in The New Humanist that “the issue is not so much that wellbeing is a fuzzy category as that it can, in specific cases, be well-defined but in a number of different ways that are often conflicting in a manner that science cannot resolve.” I think this is right, and we needn’t look beyond moral philosophy to see it. Plato, Nozick, Rawls, and Tronto will give you fundamentally different but internally coherent visions of moral reality. I need to read more of Harris’ work to get a clearer view of how he supposes we can overcome these differences–but I fear he just dismisses them out of hand as being irrelevant.

My core problem here returns to Berlin’s idea (filtered through Sandel) that we live in a “tragically configured moral universe”. If this is the case, and I think one can make an argument based primarily on the second law of thermodynamics that it is, science itself isn’t going to tell us which preferences and which values deserve prioritization over which others. Especially once we acknowledge that “well-being” extends beyond the species line to all conscious entities (which Harris does), how do we go about making the inter-species valuation of preferences that will distinguish between right and wrong courses of action? I’m not saying that this isn’t desirable as an endpoint–indeed, It’s one of my core goals–I just don’t see how merely revealing preferences will let us figure out policies that balance them equitably.

I was especially struck by the hubris of this closing assertion from Harris’ interview with Baggini: “I view philosophy as essentially the womb of the sciences. Whenever a question is not experimentally tractable, not quantifiable, then it’s squarely in the domain of philosophy. The frontier between philosophy and science is never clear. But the moment you start actually talking about data and neurophysiology it would seem you’re playing more the language game of neuroscience than philosophy.”

As someone who’s spent a lot of time at the disciplinary intersection between the social sciences and the humanities, a few things leap out here: the ‘womb’ analogy–and Harris’ central assertion–presume that quantification is both possible and desirable in all cases. While it is theoretically possible to quantify all the possible mental states of all the possibly conscious inhabitants of a given ecosystem, the difficulties of performing this kind of moral calculus dwarf even the more common criticisms of utilitarian aggregation. More problematic still is the power and influence this would grant to “experts” at the expense of everyone else, including other experts.

Again, I haven’t read Harris’ book yet, but I suspect he may underplay the extent to which science is enormously political in practice–from the fight for grant money to the funding of research by pharma giants to the positioning of Monsanto and co. in the fight over IPR–and to just categorically preference quantitative over qualitative knowledge runs the very serious risk of turning a democracy into a technocracy.

Then again, the impression I get is that Harris using a relatively fast-and-loose definition of “science” that accords more closely with the Enlightenment project in general, so maybe Harris’ work has more in common with the likes of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History than it does with Dennett’s take-down of consciousness or Dawkins’ FSMism.

Animal Ethics 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shooting an elephant: the inequality of moral equivalence

Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting
of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and
could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad
elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control
it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was
right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for
killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn
Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been
killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient
pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the
others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.

-George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”


Orwell’s ‘elephant’ is really a metaphor for the decaying British empire, even if he did actually kill an elephant when he was stationed in Burma. More recently, another actual elephant killing is taking on additional symbolic dimensions. The recent fracas over GoDaddy CEO Bob Parson’s elephant-killing video highlights a fault line in animal advocacy. On one side, you have Francione and co., repeating his ‘we are all Michael Vick’ line that a single elephant and a single chicken have equal moral value. On the other, you have 12 of this year’s Top Chef All Stars partnering with HSUS to boycott Canadian seafood to protest the seal hunt. Both of these positions are problematic.

To start with moral equivalence: a chicken is not an elephant. Yes, they are both sentient, feeling beings that experience pleasure and pain, satisfaction and (at least a certain kind of) loss. And yes, I see what Francione is doing, tactically, by attempting to point out what he perceives to be yet another case of hypocritical moral schizophrenia. A passage from Doris Lin highlights a key issue:

…as Parsons correctly points out, “Those elephants are not on the brink of extinction.” But extinction is not the issue. While some are offended because African elephants are theatened, some people are angry because they believe that elephants are special. Words like, “noble,” “sensitive,” “intelligent” or “majestic” are frequently used to describe them. But from an animal rights perspective, it doesn’t matter how noble, intelligent or special people think they are. The issue is that they sentient and they suffer, and neither an elephant nor a cow wants to become somebody’s dinner or trophy.

I think this is one of the key problems I have with rights approaches generally, whether we’re talking about animals or humans. Taking this view seriously might oblige us to initiate staggered large-scale carnivore elimination, as Jeff McMahan suggested in last year’s NYT. Ecologically, this would be a nightmare, and I think this is a good example of where Rorty’s ironist can step in and keep us from taking the final vocabularies of competing doctrines to their dystopian extremes. Big game hunting permits do pay for a lot of useful conservation work, and it would be disingenuous to say that they don’t, just as people often claim that ecotourism can solve all of the world’s development-and-conservation conundrums, when this is an overstatement at best.

My next post will be an ‘animal ethics 101‘ summary, introducing deontology, utilitarianism, virtue ethics and the capabilities approach, contractarian ethics, and feminist ethics as they relate to nonhuman animals. In the meantime, I’ll just say that I’m mostly in the utilitarian camp, with some concessions to each of the other ‘final vocabularies’ on an as-needed basis. As such, the life of an elephant is, cognitively, quite different from the life of a chicken, even from an anti-speciesist perspective. This is not to denigrate chickens–indeed, I would still mostly stand by ‘drawing the line’ at vertebrates and cephalopods when it comes to serious moral consideration–but just to say that total equivalence is not really a useful policy perspective, in my view.

On the seal hunt…I’ll have to come back to this later, as I need to go apply for some jobs. Suffice it to say that I think the seal issue is used strategically as a fundraising machine for groups like the HSUS in ways that are all out of proportion to the activity in question, when it’s compared to meat sourced from intensive agriculture, which pretty much all of the chefs in question end up using regularly. (And I say this as a reluctant but devoted fan of the show–reluctant because of its problematic food ethics. It’s pretty much the only ‘reality show’ I watch.) I’m not really pleased with some of the content in this post–I don’t think I structured my arguments very well–but I guess that’s blogging for you.

Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting
of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and
could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad
elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control
it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was
right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for
killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn
Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been
killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient
pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the
others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.

‘Nonviolence’, systemic violence, and nonhuman animals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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