Tag Archives: food ethics

Epic Meal Time: the personal and the political

 I’m reluctant to post this, for a number of reasons: first, I don’t want to give them money or traffic; second, I don’t want to be “unpardonably lacking in humor“; third, the gendering going on here is so in your face that it’s farcical; and fourth, bacon fetishism really bothers me. But I can’t help it: one of my students posted this last class, and I’ve been mulling on it.

One of my first thoughts was that this would be a good exercise for implementing Walzer’s communitarian complex egalitarianism: just as money shouldn’t be able to buy unlimited political power, nor should one have license to waste so much for so little reason (whatever your friendly industry shills over at CCF might tell you). Another thought: this is among the strongest arguments I’ve seen that we need an ethic of care, and that our gender stereotypes are killing us (and, literally, killing others) with structural violence.

But many of my students didn’t see it this way–it was “just fun”, in a way that issues concerning, say, universal suffrage or child labor wouldn’t be (pace Gingrich). Or maybe food is different? Or maybe the norms I’m discussing are in cascade, and haven’t yet been internalized.

I don’t know, but I did almost hurl when watching this in class.


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

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


Labels and diet

(No, not that kind of food labels…) Next week’s human-animal relations class will be on diet and food choices, and I’m interested to see how my students engage with the topic. As a semi-vegetarian (on mostly utilitarian grounds) who has thought about the issue of food choices more thoroughly, it appears, than Andrew Sullivan (above), I still feel there’s always room for discussion. To borrow from Levi-Strauss: food, like animals, is ‘good to think’.

There have been some interesting discussions on food ethics in the blogs I follow recently. A post on the ethical distinctions between eating dogs and pigs in Talking Philosophy (engaging, but not really attuned, in my reading, to some of the moral arguments at play). A piece in the Smithsonian “food and think” blog on the interstitial relationship between vegetarianism and social activism (most recently at OWS). A ridiculous clump of caricatures about vegetarianism in the Guardian.

But what most caught my attention is a story that lit up the vegan blogosphere on how the Happy Herbivore author Lindsay Nixon “left” veganism after being repeatedly badgered by the ‘vegan police‘, who accused her of not really being a vegan. Some sympathetic vegan bloggers chimed in.

My initial response is no diet can be cruelty free, and that the best any of us can hope for is to be cruelty as-light-as-possible. Theoretically, someone living completely off the grid using only veganic methods of agricultural production could satisfy their caloric and nutritional needs with minimal harm to sentient animal life. But the moment you start eating crops produced from anything resembling an intensive system of agricultural production, animals are going to die, sometimes in quite large numbers, and sometimes quite brutally (being ground up in a thresher does not sound pleasant).

This is emphatically not to reject the ethical force of veganism. I think it’s a powerful statement that, on balance, is trophic-and-ecological-levels of magnitude better than the world-consuming Western diet. But the social politics of in-group identification–and the accompanying dangers of groupthink and comfirmation bias–are some of the main reasons I’m reluctant to label myself.

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!

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.

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.

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 Vegan.com, 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.