Tag Archives: critical theory

Oppression-speak and myopic “clarity”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The paradox of happy meat?

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

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

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

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

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

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