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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.
Why is it that institutions with the power to initiate genuine beneficial change diminish their own effectiveness? I’ve railed in the past against mainstream environmental groups for refusing to promote veganic agriculture as a critical component of ecological amelioration. The evidence is simply overwhelming and undeniable: removing animals from agriculture would almost totally resolve the defining environmental (not to mention ethical) problems of global food production.
In the face of that evidence, though, leading environmental groups peddle the snake oil of untested or ridiculously utopian “solutions”—such as rotational grazing and urban animal agriculture—and insist that we can have our meat and eat it too. It’s a terrible shame, almost as if the cure for a fatal disease were sitting on an upper shelf but we decided it was too much effort to get off our ass and reach for it.
And it’s not as if these organizations aren’t willing to pursue extreme measures to advance their agendas. Bill McKibben’s 350.org has focussed like an attack dog on the XL Pipeline. Forget that abolishing this pipeline would ensure that oil and gas would move across the nation through less safe means [see this], the point here is that 350.org has boldly chosen to use the transcontinental pipeline as a symbol of the organization’s desire to end the consumption of fossil fuels altogether and replace them with alternative sources of energy. Doesn’t that strike you as more radical than pursuing a meatless agenda? Once again, there’s something about meat, and meat alone, that prevents making any suggestion that, for all its problems, we give it up. (Oh, right, it tastes good).
What’s particularly distressing about this cowardice, this craven refusal to call for the kind of change that demands sacrifice (yes, I know, veganism is not a sacrifice, but most people think of eschewing meat in that way) is the fact that even organizations explicitly committed to animals and the environment refuse to insist that veganism is the answer to our agricultural ills. In fact, with HSUS leading the charge, they support the small and “humane” alternatives as acceptable stepping stones to a stable alternative they refuse to explicitly define, much less place on a billboard: a plant-based diet.
To provide a more concrete sense of this cowardice, note what a representative from a notable organization concerned with animal welfare wrote in response to a request that the organization do an undercover investigation of a so-called “humane” farm:
If we expose “higher welfare” farms as being cruel too, then the majority of people who would have otherwise reduced their consumption or chosen higher welfare standards think it is useless to even try and stop eating factory farmed animal products. So, instead of moving people closer to the goal of veganism, it would have the effect of moving people further away. (I think it’s similar to citizens who feel politically alienated and powerless. Sometimes these individuals believe their vote doesn’t count and so don’t they vote at all.)
My thoughts are many in response to this rationalization. But first and foremost among them is this: if these organizations don’t believe in their own mission, why should we?
A central chapter in the “man was meant to eat meat” narrative insists that animal domestication reflected the natural human quest for flesh. That is to say, that the biological impulse to eat animals was so persuasive that it led humans to isolate chosen members of a wild species, coax them into genetic tractability, and then exploit them for food. On the surface, this claim seems sensible enough—if not beyond question.
But there’s a much more interesting (and historically accurate) way of thinking about the origins of animal domestication. In his excellent book Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers, Richard Bulliet argues that animal domestication was almost certainly not a conscious strategy driven by an explicit desire to eat penned or pastured animals. Eating domesticated animals, according to Bulliet, was likely an afterthought, an unintended consequence of a lurching process that happened so gradually, and over so many generations, that humans didn’t even know it was taking place. “It is unimaginable,” he writes, “that the humans who ultimately reaped the benefits of domestication had any clear recollection of how their domestic stock originated.”
This line of investigation is necessarily speculative, but Bulliet keeps it real with thrilling hypotheses and convincing results. Painstakingly, he makes the case that animals might very well have been passively domesticated and maintained in an increasingly tractable state in order to control for trash (pigs), play roles in rituals (cows), provide amulets (bull’s penis as “a sign of power”), serve as status symbols, pull/carry things (horses), protect humans (wolves/dogs), and even provide immediate aesthetic gratification (birds). Nothing in his analysis prevents us from rightfully thinking that humans may even have wanted animals closer to them because we were curious, intrigued, and even overwhelmed by their beauty. All these motivations likely interacted and overlapped, all the while preceding the decision to domesticate animals for the primary purpose of eating them.
I think this is a truly important possibility to consider. Complicating the conventional domestication hypothesis is critical to countering the essentialist nature of the dominant carnivorous narrative, one that fails to question the primacy and centrality of meat consumption in human history. The whole debate about “were humans meant to eat meat” quite simply bores me. It bores me because it doesn’t matter what we were meant to eat. We eat it—and that is that. But what is relevant is the fact that today we control billions of animals to consume and this behavior seems perfectly normal—if not worthy of celebration—to most people, even people who think about these sort of issues. But it may not be “normal” in any true sense of the word.
Humans have been around in our current anatomical form for around 200,000 years or so. It is only in the last 6,000 or so that we have started to systematically consume the flesh of domesticated beasts. The fact they we have only been doing so for about 3 percent of human history should be enough to give us pause of the place of this behavior in the human condition. The possibility that we only were at it as secondary or tertiary endeavor should convince us to stop elevating the act of eating animals to the status of sleeping and breathing.
The long duration of human history creates a slow burn effect on repetitive human behavior, habituating our thoughts and actions in ways we easily underestimate or forget. When I recently highlighted one bittersweet manifestation of this slow burn—the hard won and long-tested omnivorous knowledge about what was or wasn’t safe to eat—several readers countered that the weight of the past was in fact easily shucked off because, to paraphrase, “I did it with no problem.” But here’s the thing: when you talk about the history of human history, you don’t matter. We’re talking large patterns not small blips in time, such as your existence.
Other readers didn’t necessarily contend with my argument so much as wonder why I would offer ammunition to “the carnivores.” I need to be clear on this: I don’t think that way. I don’t see animal advocacy in such dichotomized terms. It’s not a zero-sum game, one in which information is deployed to save souls from carnivorous damnation. Instead, I think in terms of broader trends, trends that shape human mentalities and moralities, integrating ethics into culture in a subtle and effective ways. I’m all for protesting a Chipotle or marching in the streets for animal liberation. But I see the impact of those actions in the framework of how they shape broader cultural mentalities. If you write about the love of your pet, that’s lovely. But I’m only concerned with how it shapes our transcendent understanding of the human-animal relationship.
This perspective can lead to some counterintuitive ideas. For example, I’m much less concerned with whether or not an individual is vegan than with how the ideological substrate that supports basic human behavior is shifting. So, the reason why I bring up issues such as our million years of inherited meat-eating choices is that they comprise the substrate that I want to see changed. We need to grasp that reality before we work to change it. It is also for this reason that my veganism inadvertently slips, I don’t lose a moment of stress. Just as it’s not about you, it’s not about me. If I hid in a closet and and choked down a burger, it wouldn’t matter in the least.
Change will take time. Not another million years—revolutions in communications have changed the game. But we’re unlikely to see systemic changes with respect to eating animals in the course of our lifetimes (or at least mine). I make this claim not to extinguish our activist fire, but to acknowledge how deeply the act of eating animals has shaped human identity, one that’s as pre-programmed as it is adaptable. Rage on, people. But know the depth of the history we confront.
Here is what an orca whale eats, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: “a wide range of prey, including fish, seals, and big whales such as blue whales.” They also consume herring, cod, squid, and octopus. They are actually the largest known marine mammals to kill and eat other mammals, consuming 375-500 pounds of food a day.
In no way bound to the ethical standards of humans, they are, nonetheless, massive destroyers of sentient life. They have to be in order to live. But they don’t, as it turns out, eat humans. Not because they take pity on us. But because we’re too bony and don’t smell right. Plus, they never see us in the wild. We generally don’t swim in their waters.
I mention these details not as a lead-in into yet another story on SeaWorld, but as an attempt to make sense of Jeffrey Mousaieff Masson’s truly bizarre recent claim that, “I would rather have been born an orca.” Evidently he’s serious. “No kidding,” he writes, “I really would.”
Why would he want to be an orca? Humans, so quick to the pull the trigger on each other, have dismayed Masson so thoroughly—we killed 200 million of our own in the 2oth century–that he wants to join the orca clan because orcas have “killed exactly zero of their kind.” In this respect—the fact that they spare their own—he adores their “gentle lives.” Intended to be a plea for compassion, Masson’s gambit is really an expression of self-preservation and moral exoneration.
First the self-preservation. Masson’s main problem with humans, at least as he articulates it in the article, is that we kill other humans. This intra-species violence is why he wants to jump ship from humanity and join the “gentle” orca community, a species that shreds to death some of the smartest creatures alive and eats their children. Note that Masson doesn’t condemn humans for killing other species, as orcas do (and he would get to do as an orca), but only for killing each other. So the claim, although hardly his intention, ultimately suggests that Masson wants to leave the human world and join the orcas because he’d be safer and maybe live longer.
Being an orca would also let Masson off the ethical hook, allowing him to become a guiltless shredder of ocean animals while garnering respect from Masson-types as peace-lovers for not killing their own (or humans). In his tirade against his own, Masson writes, “There may be no orca heroes, but nor are there orca psychopaths . . .” What Masson fails to acknowledge is that, because there are no orca psychopaths, there are also no orca animal rights activists. There are no orcas who will stand up and say, “stop the slaughter of our octopi brethren!”
So, if Masson were an orca he would a) destroy blue whales while b) bearing none of the ethical responsibility for doing so. As a human, though, he admirably has assumed the burden of responsibility (writing wonderful books on animals), a burden that he would, if his wish came true, toss off as casually as he did this silly article.
If you care about honeybees, you probably know about colony collapse disorder (CCD). The disappearance of the world’s greatest living pollinators evokes an especially uneasy kind of ecological discomfort. After all, honeybee pollination brings us much of our food.
It would therefore seem especially critical—if only in a self-interested way— to understand the causes of honeybee collapse. And quickly. A wide range and combination of circumstances have been proposed over the years as factors contributing to the disorder. So diverse are the causal possibilities that the complexity of this problem has become legion to entomologists worldwide. It’s therefore not at all surprising that what’s missing from the CCD debate is a smoking gun. THE answer.
But if you read Mother Jones (May 23), you’d be forgiven for thinking that the ever elusive smoking gun was, at long last, discovered.”Did Scientists Just Solve the Bee Collapse Mystery,?” ran the headline. It’s a thoroughly Mother Jones-ish tactic. Strongly suggests a clear answer to a multifaceted problem—that smoking gun—but stay aware that the issue is really a lot more complex than the article will make it seem. Then add a question mark to cover everyone’s ass while still allowing the reader to feel the satisfaction of a clear and singular answer, not to mention righteous outrage at the dastardly menaces behind this ecological tragedy.
This is good guys/bad guys journalism.
The MJ article breezily relies on a single study, one that happens to have a Harvard imprimatur on it (along with that of a beekeeping association) to argue that the “key driver” of colony collapse disorder has once and for all been identified: a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. The study identifying neonicontinoids as the cause of CCD is praised by MJ for its clarity (The experiment couldn’t have been simpler”), it’s brilliance (“What makes the new Harvard study remarkable . . .”), and it’s conclusiveness (“the CCD mystery has been solved.”) The author of the MJ article, Tom Philpott, effectively blames CCD on Bayer, the manufacturer of the pesticides in question.
But then, as always happens with MJ’s coverage of agriculture—coverage driven first and foremost by an inveterate hatred of industrial structures (Bayer in this case)—the other shoe drops with a thud. It happens a lot at MJ. I’ve noted as much in the past with respect to GMOs and an eventually retracted French study on rats. In the CCD case, the backlash against the “Harvard study” fingering neoniotinoids was unusually swift. The more you learn about the study used to play the role of the smoking gun, the harder it is to believe that it was given so much weight in a major magazine to explain one of the most mysterious ecological phenomenon on earth.
The best critique of the “Harvard study” that MJ placed on a pedestal is here. Suspicions begin with the journal in which the paper was published—an obscure Italian publication called The Bulletin of Insectology. Critics note that the study’s author Chensheng Lu, “ has had trouble getting his work on honeybees past peer review in many US journals.” The study’s sample included only 18 honeybee colonies, all located in central Massachusetts. The researcher “had exposed his bees to an unrealistically high dose of pesticides,” a level that bayer itself agrees would be lethal for bees. ”This study is a total distraction,” said an entomologist at the University of Maryland. “It’s not surprising that those bees died — those doses weren’t field realistic. The only surprise was that the bees didn’t all die right away.”
But a distraction is what Philpott and MJ are all about. They will shamelessly deploy the flimsiest science to bash industrial agriculture. Which is sad because industrial agriculture is so thoroughly flawed on its own terms, and its flaws are so readily obvious, that nobody should have to rely on questionable science to expose those problems. I’m all for sticking it to Big Ag—which is why I advocate for veganism—but let’s not resort to deception to do it. Follow the money, for sure. But follow the science as well.
*Please note: I’m thinking out loud more than usual here, and I really look forward to all your thoughts. Also, please check out this related piece of mine in Pacific Standard.
I want to delve further into the benefits of eating animals who have died natural or accidental deaths—and the larger ecological implications that might ensue.
The most notable benefit that would emerge from a scavenger-carnivore ethic is the sense that sentient animals truly value their sentience. The ethic builds on this recognition. Eschewing the purposeful death of sentient creatures would, from the human perspective, honor their consciousness on an individual level without denying ourselves the ethical option of eating animal bodies.
As such, it would draw a much clearer line between acceptable/unacceptable meat options than the industrial/humane distinction that we now rely upon with utterly disastrous consequences. And it would do so based on the explicit recognition that animals have as much a fundamental right to their bodies—specifically, for them not to suffer—as we do to ours. Widespread acceptance of this premise, in conjunction with an ethic of eating that does not categorically reject animal flesh, would exonerate reformers from charges of extremism, open the door to those who stubbornly believe that humans need to eat animals, and ensure that our consumption of animals was dramatically minimized.
It would also shift the way we think about human bodies. To be consistent, and avoid dietary speciesism, this ethic would have to entertain the moral option of humans eating human corpses as well. Did you just cringe? Yeah, me too. The source of this disgust may or may not be relevant. It may or may not reflect a visceral moral reaction that’s easy to experience but hard to articulate. That said, while it’s easy to make a cultural case against cannibalism, it’s hard to make a solid ethical case against it. Cannibalism may strike us as disgusting, and there may be solid cultural reasons for that view, but that does not mean that, morally speaking, it’s necessarily wrong.
Note where this premise leads. Not a sane person on the face of God’s green earth would argue that, because cannibalism is possibly excusable, it’s okay to raise and slaughter humans for consumption. Hence—in this scavenger-carnivore ethic I’m playing around with—there’s a rough consistency between how we treat animal bodies and how we treat human bodies—even if we have no plans to start devouring human corpses (which is fine with me). That consistency, I think, only enhances the worth of this ethic.
A scavenger-carnivore ethic, in its primary attention to and evaluation of bodies, also creates room for humans to understand their body parts and functions as integral to ecological cycles, much as we do the bodies of non-human animals. One immediate benefit to come from a scavenger-carnivore ethic would be the mass production of humanure— human waste as compost to grow food. What prevents us from currently doing this is a failure to imagine our bodies as essentially animalian, a failure that constitutes a largely unrecognized and wasted (yeah, yeah) environmental opportunity.
In a similar vein (please excuse all bodily metaphors here), we could start sharing more of our bodies with non-humans when it comes to medical research and technologies. Would you give your kidney to your dog if such a transfer was possible? There are humans today walking around with pig tissue in their heart valves. A Scavenger-carnivore ethic would encourage and even reward such a cross-species transfer of flesh. I’ll deal with bestiality in another post, but it’s relevant here.
Backing up a bit, consider the how the human-plant relationship would be altered if we embraced a scavenger-carnivore ethic. Eating animals that have died natural or non-human predatory deaths would motivate humans to preserve more wilderness, and to respect our place in it. Rather than follow the bogus ideals of holistic managing domesticated animals, humans would seek to create space for animals to be animals on their own terms, feeding and breeding as the see fit. Rather than dive into the woods and hunt, we would tour the woods for the deceased. We might even learn the difference between a birch and an oak tree along the way. Plant life would flourish and humans would be more active. And we could stop reading boring but important op-eds in the Times about why humans are fat.
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