Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category
The author—Carol Adams— of one of my favorite books written about animals and humans—The Sexual Politics of Meat—will be speaking this Monday at Texas State University in San Marcos. The event is at 11 am and it’s free. Details here. If you’re in the area, please come. Her evolving presentation is widely recognized as a signature statement at the intersection of feminism and animal rights.
At the risk of being a total bore, I have a few more thoughts to shake out on the proposition that vegans are morally obligated to eat insects. Some readers have suggested that insects might very well be sentient. The underlying fear, a legitimate (if unlikely) one, is that if we’re wrong in our assumption that insects don’t experience pain, we’d end up being complicit in the horrible infliction of mass suffering.
But would we be? Is that true? Consider this proposition: even if insects could suffer, they wouldn’t suffer while being raised. In fact, unlike farm animals, most insects thrive in densely packed conditions and tight spaces. They would eat a diet that was “all natural” by insect standards—agricultural and food waste—and they would in no way have to be manipulated to enhance breeding (they have that one covered). An insect farm could reliably replicate natural conditions. Whereas farm animals can never be themselves on even the most humane farms, this would not be true for insects. Insects could be insects.
As I imagine it, the only stage in the cycle of production when an insect would suffer would be during slaughter. But that’s not quite the right, either. Think about slaughter. Slaughter implies a process, one in which too many procedures could and do go awry. A multi-hundred pound beast never goes gently. By contrast, the death of an insect—a quick and massive and singular and decisive whack—would happen so quickly that the critter wouldn’t experience pain in any meaningful way. Little room to screw that up. The lights would go out, that would be that, and I’d have my non-supplemental B-12.
Relatedly, the lights would go out when the insect had lived almost the entirety of its life. Given the rate of insect predation in the wild, insects might actually even be better off on a farm being raised for human food than living “natural” conditions where they’d be prey to everything that so much as twitches (even plants!). Think about it: a life in an environment where even plants prey on you or a life of leisure where you are thwacked painlessly in your 11th hour? I know what I’d choose. I almost wish for it.
What follows are some blurbs that have come in for The Modern Savage. I’m deeply grateful for them and hope you will pass them on to people you think would benefit from reading my forthcoming book. Once again, preorders are very helpful. You can do that here.
“I think James McWilliams is far and away the single best writer the vegans have so far produced…One of the most intelligent books I have ever read. His is a powerful voice that will resonate far beyond those interested in animal rights.”
—Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Ph.D., bestselling author of Dogs Never Lie About Love
“McWilliams has issued a powerful challenge to the ‘compassionate omnivore’ movement. The Modern Savage is a book that everyone concerned about food, animals and the environment should read.”
—Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation and Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University
“James McWilliams ably demonstrates that we’ve often underestimated the mental lives of farm animals, and that we need to start taking their interests more seriously. He doesn’t skirt tough issues nor does he take positions based on what may be popular at the time. Such a moral accounting would lead to a revolution in both how we produce food and what food we eat.”
—Paul Shapiro, vice president, The Humane Society of the United States
“James McWilliams accomplishes something at once simple and profound. He explains in plain, accessible, and highly readable language what follows if we reject factory farming as morally reprehensible animal abuse, as most of us do. First, if animals matter morally, then killing them in any context is always wrong when we have a vegan alternative. Second, consumers of “humane” or “sustainable” animal-based foods will be surprised to learn that animal suffering routinely attends local and small-scale animal farming. McWilliams tells a riveting story while building an unassailable argument for veganism as the answer to our well-justified revulsion towards industrialized animal agriculture.”
—Sherry F. Colb, Professor of Law, Cornell University, and author of Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger and Other Questions People Ask Vegans on The Modern Savage
Unlike the farm animals that we slaughter by the millions, there’s no hard evidence that insects experience suffering. The most convincing scientific defenses of that possibility all concede this point. Of course, there’s also no hard evidence that insects don’t suffer. I appreciate the argument that we should, in light of this ambiguity, err on the side of caution and avoid intentionally harming them, and I equally appreciate readers reiterating that perspective. That said, I disagree. I’m still going to argue that we have an obligation to (possibly) harm insects.
By eating them.
I’m not going to lay out the physiological data at this point (I’m still gathering and interviewing), but there’s enough very strong evidence that insects do not suffer for me to consider the essential competing moral consideration: the untold number of rats, mice, bunnies, moles, voles, prairie dogs, wolves, deer, coyotes, snakes, and, yes, insects, that interfere with the crops grown for vegans to eat. Looking over my previous two posts, and the array of comments that followed, my sense is that this calculus was poorly explained.
So . . .
Let’s say insects do suffer. If we honored that suffering by not eating them we’d be lending the same moral consideration to their lives as we would to the obviously sentient animals we kill through pest control to protect plant crops. In other words, out of caution, we’d equate the possibility of suffering (insects) to the fact of suffering (bunnies, deer, etc). That’s a risky choice, riskier than readers have considered. But if, taking another risk, we assumed that insects do not suffer and ate them in an effort to offset the production of sentient-animal-destroying plant crops, we’d privilege the fact of suffering over the possibility of suffering. Granted this is not an ideal choice—prioritizing possibility and fact–but it happens to be the one that’s in front of us. In light of it, I conclude that we must, even if only in utilitarian terms, eat insects. Vegans too often act as if ethics is easy. It never is.
Let me make one more move here. Again, let’s assume insects do suffer. A number of scientists and ethicists who have examined this issue (such as Peter Singer) have conceded that, even if this is true, their suffering is not as consequential as that of higher order animals. Maybe suffering has gradations and maybe those gradations need to be considered. This proposition can be evaluated in concrete physical terms. To wit: do you think that a fly swatted with a magazine experiences/suffers the pain of death the same way a farm animal does? My sense is to say no. So, even if insects do suffer the experience of pain, the fleeting nature of that pain might very well justify the choice to eat them and, in so doing, offset the suffering of animals who we know suffer when they are shot and churned to death by harvesters to make us feel so incredibly great about eating plants.
My last post created quite a buzz among ethical vegans who categorically declare that it’s wrong to harm all animals unnecessarily—insects included. Trust me when I say that I understand how raising doubts about insect sentience makes vegans uncomfortable. Angry, even. Any line drawn through the animal world bearing on the extent of our moral consideration is a line that cuts right into vegan identity politics, complicating as it does the entire concept of veganism as an activist response to systemic injustice.
All that said, here we go. I want to suggest here that insects do not warrant our moral consideration because they do not feel pain, or at least anything qualitatively comparable to what farm animals experience when they suffer. Of course, I cannot make this case with airtight certainty (nobody can)—do note, though, that the same can be said for the plants we eat—but my reading of the evidence (an ongoing process that leaves me open to change) currently compels me to argue that insects are legitimately (ethically speaking) edible. We can, in essence, put them to good use in ways that reduce the harm we cause to animals who we know without a shadow of a doubt suffer. And if we can do that, we should. We are, in other words, not only justified in eating insects. We are obligated to do so.
Begin with anatomy, which is essential to pain. Pain is a sensation that goes beyond the stimulation of neurons. The stimulation of neurons might elicit a response that appears to be a reaction against pain. But, considering insects’ primitive anatomical state (compared to animals that clearly suffer), we cannot necessarily trust the external appearance of such a response, much less impose upon it a narration of pain.
As the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) explains, pain is an emotional and subjective experience, one that requires a higher ordered, much more complex nervous system. Insects lack this. They have nothing remotely close to it. Specifically, they do not have the nociceptors that transmit pain signals through our spinal cords and to our brains where the thalamus sends those signals into the limbic system for interpretation. Because insects lack the structures that foster this process—one that’s essential to feeling pain—they lack the ability to experience pain subjectively and emotionally.
Considered from an evolutionary perspective, the matter of insect pain is that much less plausible. It makes perfect sense for insects—given the biological niches they occupy, their existence as a social collective (most of the time), their relatively brief lifespans (a matter of days in some cases), and their sheer numbers—to lack a pain apparatus. We assume too easily that pain is essential for biological survival. This claim might hold true for an individual, survival-of-the-fittest view of life, which many animals require. But the collective survival of a species (such as insects) could conceivably benefit from the exact opposite: not feeling pain. Several insects propagate themselves through cannibalistic mating practices. Most famously, the female praying mantis will bite off the male’s head mid-coitus. Within the male’s head you do not find a brain, but rather a little enzyme package that protects the female if copulation is successful. From an evolutionary angle, pain would (to say the least!) inhibit this critical, if weird, symbiotic process.
Taking this logic even further, consider what pain accomplishes for the animals that experience it: it teaches them how to solve problems. This implies a life-span that accommodates a pain-driven learning process. Pain, after all, is integral to a trial-and-error process of negotiation with the external world. I would argue that one of the reasons that insects breed so effectively is to avoid trial-and-error—which can be resource wasteful—altogether. Problems, instead, are solved collectively through breeding efficiency, not through an individual insect drawing on pain to get it right the next time. In essence, insects have no evolutionary need for pain.
The default move here is to argue that we should err on the side of caution and assume they have a pain sensation. To do this, though would also require, given the research done on the behavioral responsiveness of plants, that we take the same precaution for plants. That we cannot do. Moreover, provided the pain that would be spared to obviously sentient animals if we transitioned to an insect-based diet, it would be irresponsible, or something close to it, for us to project the capacity for pain on animals that have no evident apparatus for experiencing it, much less an evolutionary reason for doing so.
Typically, vegans don’t care much for locavores. The gist of their discontent is a largely correct sense that locavores—who, you gotta agree, have invested themselves in what’s become little more than a marketing slogan—use food miles to obscure animal and environmental ethics. It’s as if “the local” launders taste onto selfish palates to spite the ecosystem, much less basic ethics.
I was reminded of this relationship after a reporter called (well, technically, I called him so he could record me) to discuss the pros and, more so, cons of making a fetish of the local. As I spoke, it occurred to me that, nine years after writing a book challenging the “go local” food ethic, I was never more vehement in my opposition to the local food movement. For a while, I’ll admit, I thought maybe I’d overreached with my initial argument. Now I wish I’d hit harder.
What fuels my fire is all the “I’m eating the head of a local pig so all is cool and awesome” attitude that pervades this remarkably thoughtless movement. Ink yourself into oblivion, grow your beard to a caveman chic density, rent in a gentrifying area, spout some Pollanesque anti-industrial bromide, move to Austin, and you, carnivore, are exonerated from taking the time to consider the severe ethical implications of killing an animal who, in Tom Regan’s terms, “is a subject of a life.” Probably more so than you are aware of your own subjectivity, you jerk.
So, yeah. I got fired up after the interview, recognizing as I did how casually we dismiss the interests of sentient creatures under the guise of our own self-declared noble choice. What needs to be acknowledged in this moral delusion is this: it does not matter where your animal’s ethically unjustified death happened. Your ethically unjustified animal death remains ethically unjustified if it happened half a world away or in your own backyard. It’s still unjustified. An animal does not care where it’s slaughtered. It cares about not being slaughtered.
So, to demand what I’ve been demanding of meat eaters for almost a decade: justify it.
If you read my work you are well aware that I believe that eating animals, in the vast majority of circumstances, is morally wrong. This position, which I can defend historically and philosophically—after nearly a decade of thinking and reading about the matter—is one I have centered my life around because so much verifiable (if invisible) suffering is at stake. My adherence to this position is not a “personal lifestyle choice” any more than a decision to walk outside and start hitting dogs with a tire iron is a personal lifestyle choice. It’s a choice based on thoughtful moral inquiry and grounded in an objective sense of right and wrong.
For this reason, I find exhibitionist displays of gluttonous meat eating to be objectionable. I live in the world. I live among and deeply love many meat eaters. And I could even justify eating meat in some circumstances—but almost never in terms of animal domestication. I think it’s fair to expect that anyone with even a remote awareness of what must happen to bring meat to the table has an obligation to treat eating animals with at least a perfunctory sense of gravitas. After all, killing animals that are emotional, self-aware beings, even if you have come to terms with that killing, should never confer bragging rights. Remember when George Bush (43) used to discuss the death of American soldiers in Iraq with that quirked smile on his face? That’s kind of how I see celebratory and gleeful writing about eating meat. Call me a crank, but I have my reasons.
This is a long way of introducing an article in Texas Monthly that made me sad. Not angry, not wanting to engage in ad hominem attacks, but just sad. I should note that I have written for Texas Monthly (about chicken fried steak, no less!), that it’s a first rate magazine, and that I know and look up to many writers there. But I should also note that the magazine used to do a lot of great capsule music reviews, got rid of them, and hired a full time BBQ editor, a decision that earned the magazine considerable national attention. It was an article by that very editor, which ran yesterday, that led me to respond. The piece is here.
I must confess to being put off by the fact that the author, Daniel Vaughn, invited readers to share concerns with his cholesterol level as an occupational hazard. I found this to be a particularly strange request given that his occupation requires the slaughter of sentient animals for food we do not need. That said, my initial response was a bit unfair. I tweeted:
“What marks life as full time BBQ editor? Blissful ignorance to animal suffering, evidently.”
This tweet implied that Vaughn was indeed ignorant of what his celebrated diet represented—that is, that he had not justified his decision to support unnecessary animal slaughter. Perhaps he has. Perhaps he could illuminate the matter for me (and I’m being serious here). He responded:
“why the comment about my ignorance? It’s as silly and myopic as me suggesting you’re ignorant to the tastiness of meat.”
Fine. So, I’m now wondering: what is that justification?
“Fair enough. So if you’ve justified your choice to eat animals raised for meat, where I can read/hear about it? I’m eager to learn.”
And, I’m happy to say, we have exchanged emails and plan to meet in the near future, a meeting during which we’ll discuss my recent American Scholar piece. I genuinely look forward to the discussion. Stay tuned.
My last piece generated some interesting comments. My intention was to float an idea while testing my hypothesis that most advocates, no matter how they see their interests as morally equivalent to sentient animals, place their arbitrary choices ahead of animals’ essential ones. I think it was successfully fulfilled.
Many readers said, more or less, “but I wouldn’t be happy doing that.” Fine. I get that. I agree. I do what I do—write about animal interests because it’s something I’m passionate about and something that I enjoy (most of the time, mind you). I’d hate being on Wall Street, or in a law firm, or running an oil company—but I’d likely be better able to help animals with the kind of wealth generated from such pursuits, all of which I’m theoretically able to do.
This exercise isn’t intended to condemn anyone or suggest activist ineffectiveness. It’s merely to note the humbling reality that we could all be more effective if we were altruistic millionaires rather than altruistic keepers of blogs, sanctuaries, and deeply help opinions about justice for animals. And to emphasize that the fact that we don’t has ethical implications. Sometimes, in other words, it’s important to be reminded that, for all our awareness of ourselves and animals, we’re hampered by an inherited cultural reality that renders us howlers in the wind.
Sometimes it’s also important to be reminded that your idea resonated and hit nerves. A couple of comments:
For those wondering whether what James and 80,000 hours are suggesting here is in fact possible and does in fact happen (in animal protection), the answer is *yes*. I highly encourage anyone who has the potential for high earning power (e.g., medicine, law, banking/high finance, consulting) to pursue the “earn to give” strategy.The longer version…I started pursuing the “earn to give” route after finishing school nearly a decade ago based on arguments of a fellow activist that I couldn’t logically rebut.At the time, many other activists I knew dismissed the idea, predicting I would either get corrupted / greedy and not donate the vast majority of money I earned, or get burnt out because the career I was pursuing wasn’t something I then had an inherent passion for. As I already knew before I started, the naysayers were wrong and I’m still at it today nearly $1M in donations later. I didn’t expect going this route to be fun, and for the most part it wasn’t. But fun wasn’t the point. There are other careers that I would have found more personally fulfilling (including working for an animal non-profit) but I couldn’t justify making a choice that would have yielded lower impact for animals. My only regret is not coming to the realization that this was the most effective (=obligatory) path sooner so that I could have engineered my education to pursue an even more lucrative career path.Thanks to James for bringing attention to this argument — provocative and perhaps counterintuitive — but more importantly: correct.
As a young animal rights activist who went through the unpaid internship and now works full-time at one of those underfunded organizations, I give this question a lot of thought. I’m fairly certain that I don’t have what it takes to succeed on Wall Street–if I did I would certainly go that route. To be honest, I don’t know how many young compassionate people there are in this movement–at its current state–who could actually become multi-millionaires or billionaires. Then again, it’d really only take one to make a difference! But even if we choose a career path that would put our earnings in the realm of 6 figures (not 7) instead of (a low) 5, we could pay the salaries of at least a few direct activists, essentially replacing ourselves and multiplying our impact. Of course, that’s assuming we wouldn’t increase our standard of living by much. To be honest, I’m afraid that if I had the money I’d be tempted to spend it on things like travel. The few people I know who “earn to give” are truly exceptional human beings who have a rare ability to live far, far below their means and make sacrifices that only the most driven people could. And there’s always the question of whether the skills and dedication we have are unique and valuable enough within this (still relatively small) movement to warrant staying in direct activism. Someone has to do that work — and do it really well. Another thought is that those of us in direct activism should perhaps consider dedicating more effort to earning the attention of the existing super-rich.
The British psychotherapist Adam Phillips writes movingly about the relationship between frustration and satisfaction. Frustrations are inevitable and they instinctively seek satisfaction. But not all our sought for satisfactions are equally healthy or effective.
In fact, the source of most human angst is that the vast majority of our chosen satisfactions are off the rails. Way off the rails. Most of them may in fact be preconditions for addiction. We become frustrated, we overshoot the satisfaction bullseye, seeking a solution in behaviors that feel good in the moment but leave us damaged in the long run.
We all have addictions, whether we are aware of them or not. Some addictions are low grade—such as watching too much TV, running too many miles, drinking too much coffee, playing too many video games, worrying too much, not worrying enough, Facebook. Others are debilitating–everyone with an uncle knows about those. Somewhere on this continuum of addictive behaviors lies the craving to eat animals.
This idea came to me this afternoon, while swimming. I was in a city pool, a fairly run down one, and I was swimming laps and feeling residual anxiety about having to change in the tiny “locker room” where a lot of underprivileged people shower, do drugs, and even have sex. As I was contemplating the admittedly minor frustration of my clothing change in a grungy changing area a huge waft of meat smoke from a nearby grill came over the pool.
And suddenly . . . . I felt better.
The smell overwhelmed me, evoking the safety of childhood and, I suppose, the satisfaction of a deeply comfortable flavor. On another level it may also have satisfied a less obvious desire to dominate another being, to manipulate the genetics of a critter to make my life more focused on satisfaction. As the “locker room” anxiety receded under the influence of a grilled animal flesh, the thought came to me that eating meat was an addiction—a culturally approved addiction. It seems perfectly safe to hypothesize that killing sentient beings when we don’t have to might very well be a pathology.
As I say, it’s only a thought. But it seems reasonable to interpret eating animals—which we once did for survival but (for most of us) no longer have to—as a particular kind of all-too-easy response to our very real sufferings and struggles. And, as indicated, there’s virtually no psychoanalytic check on this behavior, no cultural message that indicates how our response is out of whack with the anxiety it seeks to alleviate. As with so many of our pathologies, the impulse to pursue them may have once helped us survive. But we mature and outgrow them, once we recognize them for what they are. Addictions.
The following excerpt is from a much longer NYRB exchange with John Searle, a UC-Berkeley professor of philosophy and one of the smartest thinkers alive. Emphasis is added. -jm
Coming back to the question of rights, since every right requires a corresponding obligation, does it follow from your view that animals don’t have rights, since they have no obligations?
Searle: Most rights have to do with specific institutions. As a professor in Berkeley I have certain rights, and certain obligations. But the idea of universal rights—that you have certain rights just in virtue of being a human being—is a fantastic idea. And I think, Why not extend the idea of universal rights to conscious animals? Just in virtue of being a conscious animal, you have certain rights. The fact that animals cannot undertake obligations does not imply that they cannot have rights against us who do have obligations. Babies have rights even before they are able to undertake obligations.
Now I have to make a confession. I try not to think about animal rights because I fear I’d have to become a vegetarian if I worked it out consistently. But I think there is a very good case to be made for saying that if you grant the validity of universal human rights, then it looks like it would be some kind of special pleading if you said there’s no such thing as universal animal rights. I think there are animal rights.
Why does that mean they have rights?
Searle: For every right there’s an obligation. We’re under an obligation to treat animals as we arrogantly say, “humanely.” And I think that’s right. I think we are under an obligation to treat animals humanely. The sort of obligation is the sort that typically goes with rights. Animals have a right against us to be treated humanely. Now whether or not this gives us a right to slaughter animals for the sake of eating them, well, I’ve been eating them for so long that I’ve come to take it for granted. But I’m not sure that I could justify it if I was forced to. I once argued this with Bernard Williams. Bernard thought that it was absolutely preposterous for me to think that a consideration of animal rights would forbid carnivorous eating habits. I’m not so sure if Bernard was right about it.
NB: Thanks to Dave Wasser for the tip. For my attempt to work out the slaughter question consistently, see this.