Thinking about the “Thinking About Animals” conference

My wife and I took a road trip to Ontario last weekend (a 16-hour round trip!) so I could check out the Thinking About Animals conference, put on by Brock University’s sociology department and the Institute for Critical Animal Studies. I felt a bit like a welfarist fish in an abolitionist pond, but it was great to see academic-level discussions on animal ethics and to meet lots of interesting people. Here are some of my impressions.

I had forgotten how different my last five years of graduate education and teaching are from the world of critical theory. Dan Drezner quipped jokingly that lightning should have struck me down for mentioning Foucault in a class I took on International Law and International Relations with him and Joel Trachtman, and my current gig teaching undergrads at UMass Lowell tends not to spend much time on the intricacies of Knowledge-Power, interlocking oppressions, essentialism, and the other. If anything, many of my students at UML tend towards libertarianism, and even objectivism.

I also realized that I had never taken any sociology courses, either as an undergrad or at my two Master’s programs. In hindsight, this is probably too bad, because I think a lot of what I want to do as a PhD student would fit nicely in a sociology department, but I’ll admit that I have trouble getting beyond the power/hierarchy/oppression language that so dominates the field. Haidt’s recent study on political bias in academia also makes a good deal more sense to me now, as do the dangers of groupthink he was pointing out.

That said, there was lots of engaging material to mull over. Here are some snippets from some of the talks I attended.

  • Jodey Castricano, “The Fifth Discontinuity: Animal Rights, Posthumanism & When ‘Thinking About Animals is Unthinkable”
    • On Derrida’s concern re. ‘extending rights to animals’: “rights discourse has a way of configuring hierarchies… [and] repeat[ing] the exclusionary logic of the cartesian subject” through “epistemological structures that reify the logic of domination”
  • Craig McFarlane, “Critical Animal Studies”
    • Espousing an “anti-speciesist, anti-anthropocentric, anti-humanist” ethic by critiquing Regan & Singer as “still focusing on the ethical priority of humans”.
  • Eric Jonas, “When Species Part”
    • Focused on Derrida’s concept of hospitality to the other (to paraphrase: letting the other be the other in its particularity and singularity, and not subsuming it onto categories)
    • “The alterity of the other is the indefinite nature of its identity”, so “each experience of hospitality must create a new language”
  • Valery Giroux, “Toward Animal Equality: The Impossibility of Morally Justifying the Exploitation of Nonhuman Animals”
    • Using Aristotle’s principle of equality (treat like things alike, and different things differently), a conception of rights as “thick barriers of protection”, and a blend of Isaiah berlin on Positive Liberty and Alasdair Cochrane on negative liberty.
    • “This charity [of companion animal guardianship] is not justice…It is the power that allows us to treat well…there can be no real justice as long as there are real inequalities between sentient nonhuman animals.”
  • Kristen A. Hardy, “Cows, Pigs, and Whales: Rhetoric of Fatphobia & Logics of Human Exceptionalism”
    • Critiquing the use of the word “dehumanizing in critical fat studies by looking at axes of inclusion and exclusion (social, cultural, religio-ethical, philosophical, political), and by questioning “blanket declarations that food choices are out of bounds”.
    • Methods: photos of “silenced, headless fatties”, person-absent rhetoric (‘the overweight’ and ‘the obese’), and fatness as excessively bound to physicality and animalistic desires.
  • Andrew Murray, “In Vitro Meat: A New Development in the Ongoing Industrialization of Animal Bodies.”
    • On the role of substitutionism and ethical biocapital in New Harvest’s ongoing in vitro meat project, which is a “technical rather than anthropological fix” to the problem of farm animal use.
    • On the role of “the Michael Pollan obstacle” (i.e., that this is food science, not real food) and overcoming “socionatural obstacles”.

In the comments to Murray’s talk, a few people mentioned their concern that in vitro meat would “further estrange and disconnect people from their foodways”, and I mentioned that this has the potential to be the ultimate disruptive technology to the Tysons and Smithfields of the world. This last talk brought together a lot of key animals, food and society issues for me. As with vertical farming, these industrializations of food production (continuous rather than batched) raise concerns of further alienation from our means of production as we live in ever-more urban settings, but in vitro meat’s potential benefits from reduced environmental externalities to bypassing CAFO suffering to addressing world protein demand with functional foods (i.e., loaded with Omega-3s, or whatever’s nutritionally ‘hot’) are enormous.

I also thought that piece on fatphobia was excellent, as it highlighted an issue I notice all too often–when one marginalized group accuses a dominant group of ‘dehumanizing’ them (usually rightly), only to thereby reinforce potentially unjustified forms of speciesist exceptionalism.

Of all the talks, I had the most trouble with Valery Giroux’s, although it was well structured and cogently argued. I don’t agree with the idea that all forms of human-nonhuman interaction are categorically exploitative and therefore morally unjustifiable. I think this is one of the key places where my welfarism comes into conflict with the anti-hierarchical bent of most sociology and pretty much all critical theory. I don’t see why the symbiosis need always be parasitic, when human-animal relations have historically demonstrated all kinds of mutualist (or, at the very least, commensalist) bonds. This is, of course, not to underplay the fact that humans do unjustifiably exploit nonhuman animals on a massive scale every day. We do. But this is different than calling for a complete abolition whereby all canids and other domesticates would eventually revert to wildness. And even if I didn’t have problems at the level of theory, I can’t help but feel that this credo of total non-interference would actually be a death sentence for much of the world’s wild animals, whose habitat is increasingly threatened by myriad factors (hence the depressing line from Dale Jamieson’s “Against Zoos” “If zoos are like [Noah’s ark], then rare animals are like passengers on a voyage of the damned.”)

All in all, it was a great opportunity to meet new people and hear interesting talks. And we got to see Niagara Falls.

The ethics of food choices: down the rabbit hole

Contemplating the omnivore's dilemma?

I told my sister I would write a layman’s post on “Animal Ethics 101” soon, and was planning to make that my next post, but as you can probably gather from the title of this post, I’m putting that off for a bit. Tonight’s dinner–gnocchi with tomato and broccoli sauce and a side of mussels–got me to thinking about food ethics and whether something like veganism is necessarily deontological rather than consequentialist in nature. I don’t imagine many vegans would eat mussels, even if they don’t technically ‘have a face’, but the ethics of food choices are way too multifaceted for me to be able to put them in a single, convenient moral compartment. Let me explain what that means to me.

To start from the top: the second law of thermodynamics and the nature of ecological pyramids essentially guarantees that no trophically high-up omnivores (I’m using this in the biological, not normative, sense here) can have a truly guilt-free diet. There are just too many factors involved, especially for the now-majority of the world’s population that’s urbanized and increasingly ‘alienated from the means of production’ (I was just teaching on Marx…). This is not to say that some diets will have bigger or smaller ecological footprints–a diet that eats lower down on a food chain/web (whether sardines or soy, etc., depending) will, ceteris paribus, have a smaller net impact on the world’s biogeochemical systems, which are coming under increasing pressure as the world’s consumption patterns balloon. Rather, it’s just to point out the obvious fact that livings things keep living by converting other living things into usable energy. This will remain true until humans develop the means to become autotrophs.

More concretely, I want to return to two points from my previous post on Rorty. 1) that we live in a tragically configured moral universe, and 2) that the aesthetic private impulse and moralizing public impulse may not ultimately be reconcilable. Rorty would have us coexist comfortably with this uncomfortable knowledge–indeed, this is the main challenge for the liberal ironist–but the reason I bring this up here is to point out the disconnect between the foodie vocabulary and the vegan vocabulary, to the extent that both can be pinned down. In its most civic-minded manifestations, the former tries to bridge aesthetic-moral divide by embracing both food-as-pleasure and a certain kind of food ethics, while the latter is more specifically concerned with food as morals.

Food activists of an animal abolitionist bent would respond that ‘mere gluttony’ is not a sufficient ethical justification for what they perceive to be animal slavery, but I think there’s a problem here–food choices are deeply embedded in our social and cultural lives, and to dismiss them as gluttonous, full stop, is to drastically simplify a complex picture.

To return to the first point–Isaiah Berlin’s claim that we live in a tragically configured moral universe–the ethics of food choices are as complex as we’re willing to track the positive and negative externalities down the food supply chain. In my environmental studies class, I just had my students hand in a life cycle analysis paper (the assignment was to track the environmental costs of a given product from resource extraction through manufacturing through distribution through consumption through disposal, imagining improvements along they way wherever feasible). I’m not implying here that food activists–whether vegan, locavore, or other–don’t understand the moral complexity of their food choices. Many do. I’m just pointing out that the least harm principle gets very confusing very quickly, and the moral high ground can fade frustratingly into the distance.

To combat this risk of paralysis, different people inevitably prioritize different things to care about in there lives, and I think this is one of the reasons that there’s a lot of blowback about the moralization of food choices, at least in Tea Party-era America. For us to take seriously the idea that all of our consumption choices have ecological and ethical as well as economic impacts (broadly, these are the ‘three pillars’ of sustainable development: social, environmental, and economic) is to radically reconfigure what for many is a Lockean vision of property in which all this talk of ‘negative externalities’ is just more unwanted government interference.

For a case in point: the first comment I read on this recent post from The Oil Drum, “Beyond Food Miles”, misses the point entirely by writing “so much for the food miles idea.” Instead of denigrating locally produced food, this article could as easily be seen as a call to reduce at-home food energy costs (also keeping in mind that the study is only focusing on food energy, and not on the Nitrogen, water, or various other footprints). Similarly, one could look at a vegan diet comprised of soy products and vegetables and decry the murder of field mice killed in threshing machines, the deforestation of Amazonian rainforest and the resultant loss of animal habitat, and the human rights abuses of migrant laborers doing stoop labor all day. This would, of course, be an unfair caricature–one could look at the same scenario and see instead a Brazilian economic miracle that’s lifting millions out of extreme poverty. But caricatures are easy to remember, so they persist.

Animal Symbols

I teach a class at UMass Lowell on animal ethics, and one of my favorite classes to prepare for is on John Berger‘s “Why Look at Animals”. His essay traces the process by which animals were marginalized in modernity, from mythic companion to Cartesian machine to Taylorist commodity. Just as “animals were the first symbols” when they were ever-present in our lives, “In the last two centuries, animals have gradually disappeared [, and] today we live without them. And in this new solitude, anthropomorphism makes us doubly uneasy.” (Berger 9) The irony, of course, is that animal imagery surrounds us, and this new symbolic anthropomorphism bestows animals with an unwelcome human nature: Berger traces the progression that begins with Grandville’s animals and “ends with the banality of Disney”:

DONALD: Man, what a day! What a perfect day for fishing, boating, dating or pcnicking — only I can’t do any of those things!
NEPHEW: Why not, Unca Donald? What’s holding you back?
DONALD: The Bread of Life boys! As usual, I’m broke and its eons till payday.
NEPHEW: You could take a walk Unca Donald — go bird-watching.
DONALD: (groan!) I may have to! But first, I’ll wait for the maiman. He may bring something good newswise!
NEPHEW: Like a cheque from an unknown relative in moneyville? (Berger 13-14)

Fast forward 50 years and we’ve taken the banality to a whole new level.  Think for a moment about this cartoon, where a collection of animals visit the zoo. Children grow up in a synthetic wilderness where animals are co-opted as family, as spectacle, and as simulacra, and adults escape the monotony of wage labor (Berger was a Marxian critical theorist, after all) by inventing a ‘language’ for cats. And I’m not  even getting in to Berger’s attack on zoos, other than to cite his view that they are “a monument to the impossibility of (genuine human-animal) encounters,” because “you are looking at something that has been rendered absolutely marginal.” (Berger 23-24)

The irony here is that such embedded symbolism might even play into scientism’s over-broad rejection of anthroporphism, leading to the claim that empathy for nonhuman suffering or identification with mammalian or other behavioral characteristics are merely anthropomorphic, when in biological fact they are much deeper.

Is there any way out of this maze? . Claude Lévi-Strauss famously (well, famously in animal studies circles, at least…) said that “animals are good to think.” The representations I’ve shown so far have been just the opposite: animals have been press-ganged into the human world, such that their ‘think value’ is lost. As Berger, dissecting Grandville’s animals, puts it: “The vulture as landlord is more dreadfully rapacious than he is as a bird. The crocodiles at dinner are greedier at the table than they are in the river.” (Berger 17)

But all it takes to look at the relationship anew is to look with a critical eye. Pieter Hugo has done fascinating work on the complex web of human-animal interdependence in his photoessay, “The Hyena and Other Men”.

Others invert our traditional childhood expectations, fostering a disruptive cognitive dissonance that may jar us out of anthropocentric complacency (okay, this may be a stretch). And many more representations are clearly and openly anthropomorphic, but not necessarily in as culturally harmful a way as Berger describes. And some arguably go beyond banal to shine a light on our species’ peculiar eccentricities. But then again, apparently lots of people still think it’s okay to tattoo live pigs (because hey, he’s a vegetarian!).

And finally, there’s this.

Science, ethics, and Rorty’s ‘liberal ironist’

To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civlized man from a barbarian.
-Joseph Schumpeter

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
-William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming


This post will eventually segue into animal studies and food politics, but bear with me for a bit. I’m about a third of the way through Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, and I’m surprised I hadn’t come across it earlier. His focus on the contingency of different ‘vocabularies’ of meaning, to use his jargon, is especially relevant now, when scientism is trying to claim a monopoly on the status of moral truthholder. Broadly, the book is a critique of ‘final vocabularies’ and a defense of what he calls the ‘liberal ironist’, a curious hybrid of Foucault  (an ironist but not a liberal) and Habermas (a liberal but not an ironist). Since my undergraduate years writing a neo-Kantian thesis, I’ve always been much more in the Habermasian liberal camp. But Rorty manages to convert me, at least in part.

Denis Dutton’s review of Rorty’s book closes with this well-phrased passage:

…to describe, say, the introduction of the germ theory of disease as just invoking a new vocabulary, a bit of novel jargon — as though it were all a fuss over “bacteria,” and had nothing to do with bacteria — seems to this reader ludicrous, Rorty’s subtle arguments to the contrary notwithstanding. From a Rortian perspective I am just another sod in thrall of Enlightenment mythology, but his interpretation of the history of science strikes me as one more lamentable exercise in philosophic hubris.

Hubris, however, could not be farther from a just characterization of the tenor of this book. Rorty’s tone is thoughtful and modest, even when his ideas are extravagant. While there is a feeling of settled positions, there is no hint of dogmatism, but rather a sense of opinions hard-won through years of argument and meditation. This book is consistently provocative, and every page excites philosophic thought.

Dutton highlights the danger of viewing scientific revolution as nothing more than one among many ‘final vocabularies’, but Rorty isn’t trying to tear down science so much as to establish that our truth claims are contingent and should be evaluated as such, and that some questions are more useful than others; this is where Rorty as neo-Deweyian pragmatist comes in: “The nature of truth” is an unprofitable topic, resembling in this respect “the nature of man” and “the nature of God,” and differing from “the nature of the positron,” and “the nature of Oedipal fixation.” (Rorty 8 )

The core of Rorty’s pragmatism is enormously useful, once we realize that we don’t have to choose between public morals and private aesthetics: “If we could bring ourselves to accept the fact that no theory about the nature of Man or Society or Rationality, or anything else, is going to synthesize Neitzsche with marx or Heidegger with Habermas, we could begin to think of the relation between writers on autonomy and writers on justice as being like the relation between two kinds of tools — as little in need of synthesis as are paintbrushes and crowbars.” (Rorty xiv) He goes on to explain, in lucid and compelling terms, the impact of Freud on ‘the contingency of selfhood’ (If I were writing this book, I would add a section on Darwin and the contingency of species here…), and, in chapter 3, on the contingency of community in a battle between Foucauldian and Habermasian ideals.

I used to have a problem with this kind of “nonteleological view of intellectual history” (Rorty 16), based for me on the foundationalist critique of relativism championed most cogently by Habermas, and here by Michael Sandel: “If one’s convictions are only relatively valid, why stand for them unflinchingly? In a tragically configured moral universe, such as (Isaiah) Berlin assumes, is the ideal of freedom any less subject than competing ideals to the ultimate incommensurability of values? If so, in what can its privilged status consist? And if freedom has no morally privilged status, if it is just one value among many, than what can be said for liberalism?” Rorty structures his defense around a critique of the vocabulary of Enlightenment rationalism, but I would suggest that J.S. Mill’s On Liberty provides a non-teleological defense of freedom (of speech, at least) as a ‘keystone value’. From Rorty’s pragmatic perspective, though, the moral foundations of the idea of freedom don’t really matter, and defending “the privileged status of freedom” ends up being somehow counterproductive.

I’ve only made it through the beginning of section two (on irony), and have yet to evaluate his arguments on defending liberalism as an aversion cruelty (he uses Nabokov and Orwell, both authors dear to me, as archetypal examples). His definition of the ‘ironist’, however, is key here: “(1) She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered; (2) she realizes that arguments phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts; (3) insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself. Ironists who are inclined to philosophize see the choice between vocabularies as made neither within a neutral and universal metavocabulary nor by an attempt to fight one’s way past appearances to the real, but simply by playing the new off against the old.” (Rorty 73) I agree with 1 and 2, and only disagree with 3 to the extent that I have arrived at my particular vocabulary–a tenuous blend of anti-speciesist utilitarianism and regulated market democracy–with a critical examination of competing vocabularies. I don’t harbor the believe that any of these vocabularies approach the ‘real’ in some more foundational way than Bentham’s original principle of utility, though (and I think this is where I reluctantly give up Habermas’ appealing but ultimately unconvincing story of “asymptotic approaches) to foci imaginarii” [Rorty 67]).

I want to return to two key themes to show how this discussion ties in to animal studies and food politics: the role of science as arbiter in the fact/value dichotomy and what Sandel called Berlin’s “tragically configured moral universe.”

On the role of science: in a passage from Daniel Dennett’s 2007 TED talk on teaching all religions to primary school students, he makes the claim that teachers should teach students about all of the world’s religions using “no values, just facts”, and that teachers and parents should be allowed to preference one religion over another only after having presented ‘the facts’.  As I laid out in a lecture I gave at a scientific conference in Havana, however, the problem here is that it’s very difficult to present only facts. This is true for many reasons, but a big one is what Rorty dissects in his chapter on Davidson’s contingent theory of language–before we even get beyond the structure of our words, so much of what we’re are saying is value-laden at the level of our syntax and metaphor.

This idea that science–and, by slippery extension, social science–presents privileged facts (as against questionable values) that deserve more moral consideration than ‘mere emotions’ is popping up a lot these days, and my response often depends on what is intended by ‘science’ in any particular context. In some sense, David Brooks’ new book, The Social Animal, appears to be tying together a range of work in neuroscience and other disciplines, to make a scientific argument that the economic assumptions about homo economicus are at best only partially valid.

This question of ownership of science is critically important both in discussions of food and animals. When researching on farm animal welfare, I found that all relevant parties I was interviewing–from animal advocacy organizations or livestock trade groups–tried to ‘own’ the relevant science, and to dismiss competing findings as unscientific. This did the USDA refer to stress hormone levels to justify confinement housing, while CIWF (Compassion in World Farming) cited ‘vote with your feet’ studies done by Marion Stamp Dawkins and others on the behavioral preferences of farm animals. Both of these are science. Science can give you all the data you want, but I’m still of the mind that you’re really looking for ‘strictly science-based standards’, you’re never going to make up your mind–that’s where politics and policy have to come in.

This gets us to Berlin’s “tragically configured moral universe.” (‘Tragic’ in the Aristotelean sense that a good person cannot behave ethically in the given situation because of conflicting moral circumstances. For example: Creon can either choose his allegiance to his family, Antigone, or his city-state, Athens, but not both.) My conception of the world as it exists today is similarly tragic, and I think the best we can do is to use something like Rorty’s liberal ironism to navigate between competing visions, and to use this pragmatic dialectic to get to an improved synthesis. The reason Rorty’s vision appeals to me above and beyond Habermas’ similar use of communicative reason is that he allows a more prominent role for the sympathetic education (what he calls the poetic, a distinct but overlapping idea) in priming our moral sensibilities to see the world as a home to myriad sentient beings with recognizable interests. The tragedy, though, is built into Darwinian natural selection–in a world of competition for scarce resources, not all beings can fulfill all of their interests. Something like liberal ironism lets us do the best we can with the tools we have.

Bittman tackles ‘moral schizophrenia’

Franz Mark, "The Yellow Cow"

With mixed results. On the one hand, Mark Bittman has a powerful bully pulpit and a legion of ex-Minimalistas who tend more towards DIY foodieism than animal advocacy, so raising issues of companion-versus-farm animal treatment might reach a newly receptive audience. On the other hand, Bittman goes about it all wrong: there’s no need to trivialize rodent welfare in order to bring attention to farm animal welfare.

Lynda Birke writes that we have ‘doubly othered’ rats and mice, and this process of othering–first as vermin, then as medical martyrs–probably flavors Bittman’s dismissal when he writes: “In light of the way most animals are treated in this country, I’m pretty sure that ASPCA agents don’t need to spend their time in Brooklyn defending rodents.” As a former pet rat owner/guardian, I’m unambiguously biased, but I don’t get why animal cops should overlook cruelty to rodents just because there’s a lot of cruelty to farm animals going on…isn’t this exactly the kind of reasoning Bittman is trying to argue against?

Otherwise, Bittman’s column is a solid read that’s getting attention from various circles, as is most of his follow-up on laws aiming to limit photos and videos taken at agricultural sites. Essentially, Bittman is arguing against what Francione terms ‘moral schizophrenia’, in which we treat one category of animals one way, and another another, based solely on our designation of their use or purpose. He doesn’t take it nearly as far as Francione does, though, and neither would I: to me, there are morally significant differences between my beagle Rodney and pig X, regardless of their comparative levels of sentience, just as there are morally significant differences, to me, between my wife and person X in generic foreign country Y. This is the kind of relational reasoning that keeps most people from being either strict utilitarians or strict deontologists, and this is why there are many tools in our moral toolbox.

Bittman also raises a critical question about the way society looks at food, consumption, and ethics when he says: “arguing for the freedom to eat as much meat as you want is equivalent to arguing for treating farm animals as if they could not feel pain.” We still live in a society where meat (over)consumption habits–with the exception of some recent taboos like veal and foie gras, and even those only in certain circles–are viewed as supererogatory goods (that is: things that are good to do, but not necessarily bad to not do). If Bittman is the bellwether he appears to be, people might start to realize that a cow, unlike Rand Paul’s toilet, is not an object, and that maybe hot dog eating competitions aren’t such a good idea.

Animals, plants, and interests

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

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

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

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

Framing milk

The recent ‘Baby Gaga’ ice cream furor raises an interesting mirror to our views about food, species, and taboo. We’ve framed the adjectival “cow’s” into the the Western consciousness’ idea of the word milk, and this human variant throws another spanner in the works.

This comment by a HuffPo writer is telling:

I am an adventurous eater (just last night I had pig cheek, blood sausage, and bone marrow), but I think I draw the line when it comes to human meat or milk. While I’m sure it can be argued that it’s healthier than bovine milk, or better tasting, or more humane, there’s something that curdles my stomach when I think about it.

The overwhelmingly negative response is due to what bioethicists have eloquently termed the “yuck factor”, which underpins many of our social taboos. Indeed, the ice cream on question is sold as taboo by a woman in Lady Gaga-ish attire – the atraction, for some, is clearly a form of willful social deviance. (And I’m trying to ignore Gaga’s “nausea-inducing” quote…when it comes to food ethics, it’s hard to take someone who wears meat dresses seriously.)

It’s interesting to separate the various arguments for and against consuming food made from human milk. Beyond the yuck factor and the potential ‘slippery slope’ danger of blurring species boundaries (this is only a negative if you’re a speciesist, of course), public health comes to mind, given the bioaccumulation of POPs and other toxins or pathogens in trophically high-up species like ours. Positively, I can imagine some animal abolitionists making a case for such products, on the grounds that the contributors did so voluntarily.

Other than that, though, the cost seems out of proportion to its nutritional or organoleptic value, reinforcing the idea that the taboo-breaking motivation is foremost. I’m a consequentalist in most things, so I don’t have any core deontological problem with ice cream from human milk, but in this particular case, the purpose seems more to shock–to violate social norms for the sole purpose of having violated social norms. Too bad, really, because there’s an interesting conversation to be had if you look beyond mere deviance.

Update (5/2/11) on human breast milk offering in NYC – based on the picture, it’s all about shock value.

Never-betters, better-nevers, and ever-wasers

Most of my posts will focus on animals, food, and environmental policy, but now and again I’m going to write about the media landscape. Unlike the other issues I’m writing about, this is a domain where I have zero academic expertise. Instead, I write as a Stumbler, a Google Reader addict, and as a teacher with a course wiki.

I recently finished reading Tim Wu’s The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. Wu’s book is an economic history of telephony, film, radio, television, and the internet. This recent review by Reason‘s Adam Thierer got me to thinking about the last fifty pages of Wu’s book, which is where the “open-versus-closed” information models, which cycle back and forth throughout history, take on what he argues is their present iteration: Google (open) v. Apple (closed). It’s no surprise, really, that a libertarian reviewer would take claim with Wu’s reading of history: that, as a nation, we’ve spent a lot of time worrying about the political concentration of power, but have been almost completely oblivious when it comes to the economic concentration of power, especially when it comes to information systems.

The Master Switch opens with a quote from Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love: “Every age thinks it’s the modern age, but this one really is.” Never mind that the quote is spoken in the late Victorian period; This is the kind of techno-utopianism that’s on full display in the embedded video above, and is best embodied by Clay Shirky, but which also includes various forms of transhumanism. Or, as Adam Gopnik puts it, you’re either a Never-Better, a Better-Never, or an Ever-Waser. Shirky, and many others like him, are clearly Never-Betters. Gladwell’s recent skepticism is Better-Neverish, as is Evgeny Morozov’s new book, and Gopnik’s Ever-Wasism is clear when he says that “It is odd and new to be living in the library; but there isn’t anything odd and new about the library.”

Much of the buildup of Wu’s book is trying to help us understand whether the internet really is different, and what this means for society. We’ve been hearing nonstop about the (much exaggerated) death of the traditional news media and the role of Twitter/Facebook on social movements, and the fact that everyone is now an active creator and disseminator of information. (This is the many-to-many model Shirky discusses, as opposed to the one-to-many broadcast model and many-to-one response model of network television and radio.)

But what does our fragmented media landscape say about the health of our polity? Even if you agree with P.J O’Rourke that our current levels of political polarization are nothing new, our new model of media fragmentation clearly is. Yes, American newspapers (like most newspapers) have historically been openly partisan. Yes, the Cronkite era of ‘non-partisan’ nightly news might have been a veil for the dominant paradigm. But many people now get their news only from the Daily Show, NY Times and Huffpo (etc.), or only from Glenn Beck, Fox News, and Drudge (etc.). And this isn’t even the real fragmentation, which happens when we combine what Jonathan Haidt calls our five moral universals with digital tribalism in the age of Seth Godin. I’ve talked with my students about pros and cons of the ‘many weak bonds’ model of social capital (as against the traditional ‘few strong bonds’ model), and it’s definitely a mixed bag.

Arguably, things weren’t all that different in the past (‘there isn’t necessarily anything odd and new about the library’), but people now have more and more ways to learn about the strengths of their chosen arguments without understanding that the other side(s) has a point too.

I’ll be teaching J.S. Mill’s On Liberty tomorrow (“he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that”), which brings me back to a ever-increasing concern of mine: our media habits tend more and more to sacrifice depth in favor of breadth. I’m happy I grew up when I did, for example, because it allowed me the childhood peace of mind (in the ’80s and ’90s) to engage deeply with complete written texts, but has since allowed me to surf the mediasphere at a rate of almost 1k Reader feeds a day.

I think everyone has a bit of the Never-Better, Better-Never, and Ever-Waser in them, and I may just be showing my Better-Never side here, but I worry that minds raised on information overload don’t have the necessary filters to process that information into cogent and useful mental building blocks. Why bother learning anything if it’s all at the touch of a fingertip? Without that steady, methodical evaluation of complex systems of thought, critical thinking inevitably loses out.

On the other hand, the potential for collaborative production in the internet age is enormous, as most of the above links (and billions of others!) demonstrate. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.


Life in the Anthropocene

The conservative bioethics blog Secondhand Smoke just ran a piece by Wesley Smith called “Human Beings a Mass Extinction Event! So What?”, making this claim:

If we do cause a mass extinction and we thrive anyway–so what? What difference does it make if we kill off species if they don’t do us any material good?  It just means more earth for us.

The author goes on to defend the Dominion-as-stewardship thesis (itself defended by people as diverse as Matthew Scully and E.O. Wilson), but the question itself got me thinking about tactics, framing, and environmental activism.

While at the Fletcher School studying international environmental policy, I was struck by how often multilateral treaties danced around the issue of nonhuman animal worth – issues concerning conservation and biodiversity preservation are almost always framed anthropocentrically: rainforests are a reservoir of potential bioprospecting resources, aesthetic human value, carbon sinks, etc. In other words, delegates were being ‘utilitarian conservationists’ (read: Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt) rather than ‘biocentric preservationists’ (read: John Muir).

(I suspect that many of the delegates to the Stockholm Declaration and the Rio Summit believed in the inherent – rather than merely instrumental – worth of other animals. But they knew that they had to sell their negotiated language to publics and to politicians.)

This question of how to frame nature is hotly debated, and recently headlines seem to show that quantification is winning out. I’ve struggled with the quantification of qualitative and otherwise incommensurable or indeterminate goods. Asking ‘how much money is a pig’s preference to root worth’ is a different question from ‘how much money would consumer x be willing to pay (WTP)’. The second can be answered, albeit with various statistical caveats; the first can only be answered in the same way that an average American citizen’s life is apparently worth seven million dollars.

Does the cause of conservation benefit from such quantification? When we say that ecosystem services provide enormous monetary benefit (which they undeniably do, in the form of air and water purification, flood protection, etc.), are we reshaping the public discourse to the detriment of the nonhuman animal world? Or are we merely acknowledging the dominance of public choice-type thinking in our policy paradigm? I don’t know, but I do know the anthropocene is hurtling us towards a future where most of the animals we’ll see in zoos might be extinct in the wild.

I don’t understand why these questions of worth have to be all or nothing. But then again, I tend much more towards utilitarianism than deontology, and am skeptical of the very concept of inherent value.

The expanding moral circle

Marginal Revolution just ran a post on “Globalization and the Expanding Moral Circle,” citing a passage by Irish historian William Lecky that is often quoted by animal advocates:

At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity…

MR guest-blogger Alex Tabarrok goes on to question whether or not globalization contributes to this effect (focusing on Apple and the Foxconn suicides), but what caught my attention was what should have come after the dot dot dot above:

At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world…

I can see why the author avoided this line of reasoning–it’s quite different from expanding the moral circle along purely speciesist lines, and the case for the benefits of economic globalization beyond species lines is much more difficult to make–but the casual slicing of the last line radically alters the original quote.

One of the commenters, seemingly drawing a page from Schopenhauer’s 38 Ways to Win An Argument, picks up on this obvious omission, albeit caustically:

If moral progress is “all about extending the moral circle”, then why don’t we treat rocks as moral agents and end the whole deal. Because it’s not that simple, idiot.

Argumention ad absurdem to the rescue (pace deep ecology). The idea that empathy skids to a halt at the species line is rejected not only by Sapolsky and Rifkin (as noted in my first post), but by anyone who plays a nonzero-sum game with their companion animals on a daily basis.

I’m teaching on Burke/Oakeshott tomorrow, and Bentham/Mill/Singer next week, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of moral boundaries. Burke and Oakeshott would reject what they perceive as the revolutionary/rationalist (animal abolitionist would fit here too) project under which “innovation is an activity which generates not only the ‘improvement’ sought, but a new and complex situation of which this is only one of the components. The total change is always more extensive than the change designed” (Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics). This is a far cry from Singer’s “equal consideration of interests”, speciesism or no. What’s curious to me is that welfare economists accept both utilitarianism and, usually, strict speciesism, without much of a justification of the latter.

In short, I can see why MR skirted the nonhuman animal wrench-in-the-works issue, but they should at least have the intellectual honesty to note the omission. Or, as Tyler Cowen recently put it, is the cow really just a silo of option value? one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity…

Vegans v. locavores ctd.

Ever since this piece came out a few weeks ago in the Atlantic, responses and counter-responses have been piling up in my Google Reader feed. Generally, many in the vegan crowd (as an aside: it deserves saying that Erik Marcus just happens to run, but he doesn’t speak for the range of vegan activists–indeed, I’ve read excoriating reviews, Francione-style, ‘accusing’ him of being a compromiser…usually not a good thing in the Manichaean world of  animal abolitionists) have, unsurprisingly, latched on to Myers’ broadside… unsurprisingly because Myers is himself vegan, a registered Green Party voter, and passing judgment from the curiously distant shores of South Korea. Locavores and compassionate carnivores like Nicollete Hahn Niman have, also unsurprisingly, taken up arms.

So who has the stronger argument? As with most such broadsides, I can’t help but feel that two vocal extremes are yelling past each other (or, as one of the comments put it, ‘one snobby elite attacking another snobby elite’), with everyone else sitting on the sidelines and scratching their heads. I think the generally angry responses to this piece interest me more than the piece itself, and partly I think it’s because Myers doesn’t clarify that his argument is essentially the same thing that Foer and Scully have said. And Scully actually said it better, if you can get past all the God talk:

Nobody likes being preached to, especially about meals and clothing. I sure don’t, and most of us who worry about animal welfare have learned to let the point [that people should dedicate their attention to ‘serious human causes’] go. But spare us the haughty airs. If moral seriousness is the standard, I for one would rather be standing between duck and knife than going to the mat in angry defense of a table treat…In fact, let us just call things what they are. When a man’s love of finery clouds his moral judgment, that is vanity. When he lets a demanding palate make his moral choices, that is gluttony. When he ascribes the divine will to his own whims, that is pride. And when he gets angry at being reminded of animal suffering that his own daily choices might help avoid, that is moral cowardice. (Dominion, 121)

This, to me, is pretty much what Myers is arguing; he’s doing it obliquely, though, and in the process he casts too wide a net, catching sustainability-minded locavores with unarguably good intentions and (somewhat more arguably, but still defensibly) good arguments along with the haute Paula Deen caricatures.

Hahn-Niman’s response closes with the following paragraph:

The odd set of bedfellows—from Palin to Myers—launching accusations of elitism at the food movement share at least one trait: they remain stubbornly, willfully clueless about the extraordinary efforts of ordinary people in every corner of the country who are reshaping America’s food system. Making nutritious, safe, and yes, delicious food available to all people inspires much of their passion. My husband and I have met these people in every region of the country. They are young people setting up diversified farms; chefs dedicated to local, sustainable sourcing; community members establishing farmers’ markets; mothers and fathers remaking public school lunch programs, and on and on. They come from all incomes and every ethnicity. Few have wealth or political power. This is the real food movement, and one Myers should come here to learn about.

This provides a fair defense of food activism’s positive social, ecological, and human health benefits. It doesn’t, however, fundamentally alter the fact that the socially conscious foodie-ism she describes can be most of the above and still be elitist. (And elitism can have its merits! But the resurgence of anti-elitist populism in its various forms is a topic for another day…) Pollan might be right when he says that we should pay $7 for a dozen eggs–I probably would, if I knew what kind of animal treatment I was shelling out for, but also because I buy eggs relatively infrequently–but abstract arguments about negative externalities and economies of scale usually can’t compete with budget constraints.

Locavore-on-vegan infighting aside, the response to Myers’ piece demonstrates that food choices are indeed migrating from the private ethic to the public ethic, pace populists and libertarians, but different actors have very different conceptions of what that ethic should be. And I didn’t even mention the techno-Panglossians or their trade liberalizing siblings.

On Robert Sapolsky’s “Are Humans Just Another Primate?”

I watched this video late last night, and loved almost every minute of it. Sapolsky treads a fine line between the ideological defenders of human exceptionalism and those whose anti-speciesist leanings may be tampering with their objectivity, as Dennett claims. Sapolsky distinguishes where we are like our primate cousins from where we are not, using the following categories: aggression, theory of mind, the golden rule, empathy, gratification/anticipation, and metaphor. He then closes with a (quite sudden, but not entirely unexpected) critique of Kierkegaardian leap-of-faith Christianity.

In each of the above categories, Sapolsky shows that the Western tradition’s millennia-long anthropocentric shibboleths are groundless, but from that shattered ground we build up a newly unique human identity. Since Darwin–well, since Galileo, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud, but especially since Darwin–the Thomist hierarchical view of man and Dominion have been under threat, but the past 30 years have accelerated the pace of the ‘assault’ on unthinking anthropocentrism.

Primatologists and others only had to look at the natural world (I could put many hotlinked youtube videos of Ravens, chimps, dolphins, etc. here, but am still new to this game…) to see that the old saw that ‘man is the tool-using animal’ doesn’t hold up. Not only that, but chimps engage in war (it doesn’t rise to the level of human destruction, but arguably that has more to do with their lack of technology, and its resultant destructive capacity, than anything else), cetaceans and others have varying degrees of a theory of mind, Sapolsky shows baboons empathizing, primates in behavioral research can delay gratification (the dopamine-related passages in Sapolsky’s talk, which include tangents on casino designers and ‘neuroeconomists’, are fascinating).

When we approach metaphor and the range of subjects with which humans can empathize and form complex networks of mutual knowledge, however, humans really are a species apart. Not only can we empathize with a picture of an injured dog, as Sapolsky demonstrates, but also with Picasso’s “Guernica” and abstractly visceral art.

In my political philosophy class at UMass Lowell, my students and I have been discussing the concept of human nature (as filtered, so far, through Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant). I was struck by how removed most of my students feel from the rest of the animal kingdom vis-a-vis humans (and they are by no means in the minority–Indeed, I’m pretty sure I am). There are animals (read: Lockean objects of property), and then there are people.

Descriptively, Sapolsky’s work help us to understand our primate natures. Normatively, we can use this knowledge to construct an increasingly empathic civilization in an age when, for a range of possible reasons, the young are less and less empathic.