Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

Happy Milk

» December 17th, 2014

A few days ago I wrote about the connection between the pharmaceutical industry and animal agriculture. The gist of the piece was that there’s so much animal flesh to keep healthy that eating animals is implicit support for an industry that already makes too much money over-medicating humans.

Since then, I’ve realized there’s another angle to this topic, one that’s more sinister, one that I missed. An article on The Cattle Site reveals that the pharmaceutical industry is interested in more than antibiotics and vaccines. It’s also using animal welfare as a pretext to market new drugs for farm animals.

Leading the charge to sell drugs that will create a calmer cow is Merck. Recently the company announced the launch of “Creating Connections.” According to The Cattle Site, it’s “a new program designed to help producers better understand cattle behavior and use that knowledge to employ strategies that can reduce stress, improve reproduction and foster stronger immune responses.”

In other words, Merck has found a way to exploit welfare washing for profit. The idea here is that you drug the beasts into a stupor so they don’t express feelings of distress and in turn—the real motive—cooperate with their executioners. This is a tactic that makes life easier for ranchers and meatpacking plant workers while making Merck look like it’s in league with the Humane Society as a steward of animals.

But it’s a bad joke. The piece explains, “Since calmer cattle are easier to examine, diagnose, treat and move, the techniques shared through Creating Connections will help make iteasier for producers to improve the health of their herds.”

As is to be expected, asinine blather has poured forth to justify these happy drugs.  “The behavior of cattle – how they interact with each other and with people – can be shaped by positive interactions with caregivers, and tell us a tremendous amount about how cattle are feeling,” said Tom Noffsinger, D.V.M., a consulting feedyard veterinarian well known for his work on low-stress cattle handling practices.

It’s not about lowering stress, but hiding it. You hook cows’ udders to milk pumping machines, send their babies to the meat counter as veal chops, and turn them into hamburger when production declines. But because you have drugged the cows into oblivion they don’t seem to mind, and so you can work more efficiency, not to mention less burdened by the suspicion that you’re doing something very wrong.

But come on.  If it’s welfare that we’re really concerned about, here’s something to consider: don’t bring these creatures into existence in the first place. There will be no suffering to medicate if you just use your resources to grow flora rather than fauna. Otherwise, spare us the welfare talk.

Nobody is really that stupid.





Consider the Turkey

» November 27th, 2014

Humans,” Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson has written, “seem to take a perverse pleasure in attributing stupidity to animals when it is almost entirely a question of human ignorance.” This dictum seems especially apt with Thanksgiving arriving tomorrow. No animal, after all, has been more actively dismissed for its purported stupidity than the turkey.

The old legend about turkeys turning their gullets upward and drowning during rainstorms is reliably rehashed every November, almost as if to assuage some repressed collective doubt we have over killing 45 million maligned fowl in order to honor a tradition that, at its inception, had nothing to do with turkey.

Turkeys are neither moronic nor prone to chronic downpour suicides. In their undomesticated state they are, as the naturalist Joe Hutto has written, remarkably attentive and intelligent creatures. Hutto carefully observed a flock of wild turkeys for many months, recounting his experiences in Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey. He became particularly attached to a bird he named Turkey Boy.

“Each time I joined him,” Hutto wrote, “he greeted me with his happy dance, a brief joyful display of ducking and dodging, with wings outstretched and a frisky shake of the head like a dog with water in his ears.” Hutto, a longtime turkey hunter, was charmed, even reformed. The bird, he explained, “would jump at me and touch me lightly with his feet.”

I’m well aware that most readers will deem Hutto’s account as shamelessly anthropomorphized, if not just plain silly. I’m frequently reminded of our reluctance to fundamentally rethink the way we eat and consider the possibility that animals deserve better. I recently sat at a communal table at a vegan restaurant and listened to a jovial conversation about killing chickens and deer.At a vegan restaurant (granted, in Texas). You learn, after a time, to develop a measure of perspective on such things.

But our perspective should never omit the fact that animal scientists have documented complex patterns of turkey behavior. This is especially true when it comes to memory and geography. Wild turkeys return to the exact location of a baiting station an entire year after feeding. They scratch and sniff and circle the exact spot for that unforgettable free lunch even though the trough has been moved. Animal behaviorists agree that this return is notable. The Humane Society rightly characterizes it as “evidence of hitherto unappreciated intelligence.”

Should you relegate this impressive example of turkey recollection to mere instinct, should you convincingly reduce it to a habitual “skill” that’s pre-programmed into the birds’ mindless genetic repertoire, think again. The emotional and social lives of turkeys (wild and domesticated) speak to an active and adaptive cognition.

Turkeys need each other, and in more than just a safety-in-numbers sort of way. Researchers have found that when an individual turkey is removed from his flock, even in domesticity, he’ll squawk in obvious protest until reunited with his posse. Turkeys have a refined “language” of yelps and cackles. They mourn the death of a flock member and so acutely anticipate pain that domestic breeds have had epidemical heart attacks after watching their feathered mates take that fatal step towards Thanksgiving dinner. They clearly feel and appear to understand pain.

There’s been a heated back-and-forth on this site lately over how to categorize animals with respect to our supposed right to eat them. Is a pig objectively smarter than a dog? Well then don’t kill it. Is a pig less acculturated to human companionship than a dog? Well then kill it. These exchanges have been more than a little thought-provoking. But ultimately they get bogged down in nuanced shades of distinction while missing the transcendent question: Are animals worthy enough creatures to deserve our ultimate respect, a respect that requires that we choose not to kill them for food we don’t need?

I’m the first to admit that I have no hard scientific evidence as to why I think the answer is yes. But as a historian I at least recognize that history is marked by a discordant combination of radical change and ceaseless continuity. Acculturated practices—practices that seem as normalized as breathing—eventually change. Not only do they change, but contemporary human societies look back on these once entrenched behaviors and wonder how we ever allowed them to happen. But what never changes, what will always be, is that humans are, no matter how hard we try to conquer the world’s complexities, ultimately humbled by its mysteries.

Turkeys, for those who have taken the time to look, are mysteries. All animals are. Do they anticipate and feel pain? Do they enjoy social relationships and feel the loss of companions? Do they think, remember, and conceptualize the future? We can debate these questions forever. But the fact that there’s even room for debate suggests that we should err on the side of humility. And we might begin by giving some thought to our unthinking decision to eat turkey on Thanksgiving.

The Scavenger-Carnivore Ethic

» May 16th, 2014


*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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Roadkill Ethics

» May 7th, 2014

“She told us that thirteen automobiles had passed there in the last two years, five in the last forty days; she had already lost two hens and would probably have to begin keeping everything penned up, even the hounds.”

–William Faulkner, The Reviers


Roadkill fascinates me. As the Faulkner quote suggests, it’s been around as long as cars, perhaps earlier. Of course, it’s sad. But not so sad that I stop and deal with the drama as if it were a human corpse splayed on the hardtop.  It’s also inevitable–at least as long as humans persist in propelling themselves rapidly through space.

Municipal governments, many of whom nobly construct wildlife passages to minimize roadkill, dispose of it in a weird variety of ways. They incinerate roadkill, feed it to zoo animals, bury it, and toss it in landfills. Some places just leave the animal on the ground to decompose or evolve into vulture fodder. Increasingly, though, some are asking an interesting question: why shouldn’t humans eat it?

“Roadkill cuisine” has a Wikipedia page. There are roadkill cookbooks. Some states—yes, it’s typically states that have the last word on the fate of roadkill—offer “roadkill lists” that people sign up for to receive fresh deliveries after the state has retrieved and butchered the animal. In other states, when drivers hit a deer they’re permitted to take home the carcass and eat the meat. There’s actually such a thing as “roadkill couture”—a fashion forged  in fur that’s supplied by animals accidentally run down in darkness or fog. Or by somebody texting.

Can vegans maintain their ethical position and still eat this unintended consequence of mechanized brute-force mobility? Don’t dismiss the question. I realize, of course, that eating roadkill would disqualify one, technically speaking, as a vegan. But definitions are overrated. So, in fact, I do think it’s legitimate to oppose raising animals for food (always) while, at the same time, eating a squirrel burger sourced from local asphalt. Would I eat roadkill? I would, if it’s safety could be guaranteed (and it was prepared in a palatable manner). But would I eat a human run over by a truck? No. Not unless I had to in order to survive.

I’ll admit that this refusal to eat one form of flesh and not the other potentially represents an ethical inconsistency, one that certainly carries more than a whiff of speciesism. I tend to trust my disgust meter as a fair indicator of what’s right and what’s wrong. But in this case it’s letting me down, or at least leaving me confused. Why does it go haywire over humans but not raccoons, given that I believe neither could be ethically raised to eat, but both could be ethically run down (accidentally) and processed into an edible object?


How Much Do You Cost?

» April 11th, 2014

An interesting piece in today’s Times’ business page, written by a Princeton economist, explores an idea that we rarely consider and may not want to: the fact that we routinely place monetary value on human life. The conventional default position is to get all righteous and say something like “all human life is sacred”; that all life is valuable in terms of intrinsic rather than monetary worth; that no dollar amount can represent it. But, as Uwe E. Reinhardt reminds us, commercial culture operates according to a less humane calculus.

Take insurance. He writes, “those who preside over private and public health insurance funds, Congress included, at some point have to ask themselves at what price they can afford to buy additional life years for people insured with those collectively financed funds, which are, after all, finite.”

And it’s not just in the realm of insurance that we seek to monetize human life. Every time we purchase a consumer good that has the potential to harm us we place ourselves on the right side of an equation calculated by strangers interested in hedging the cost of production at the expense of our welfare.

Tellingly, Reinhardt explains how the Ford Motor Company, in choosing to not move its Pinto’s gas tank to a safer spot at a cost of $11 per car, did so according to the economic rationale that every human life lost to the dangerously placed gas tank would be worth about $200,000. That’s not only a small fraction of what the CEO of Ford took in every year, but it places every Pinto driver who survived the experience in the infuriating position of having earned the company 200K for gambling with their lives (with pennies).

We might recoil at the fact that “some unknown person within Ford could blithely assume on behalf of all Pinto buyers that the value of avoiding a horrible death or injury from a burning Pinto was as low as the company had assumed,” but if you purchase or even use something as ubiquitous as a motor vehicle—or have a life insurance policy— you are participating in a system that decidedly does not see your life as sacred as your mother does.

It’s interesting to explore the implications of these unpleasant economic realities for animals. I’m perfectly comfortable arguing against the unnecessary consumption of animals on the grounds that it’s an easy way to avoid a lot of unnecessary suffering and, as a result, it’s a good idea not to eat them. To a very large extent, my gut reaction of disgust over what’s required to raise and kill and animals for food that could easily be replaced with plants undergirds my animal advocacy. That’s the simple part of it.

But when it comes to grappling with the more philosophical reasons for why this position is the epitome of truth and justice, matters become thornier. It would be lovely to say that all animals have intrinsic worth—worth that trumps any effort to place a monetary value on their lives—and leave it at that. It’s so lovely in fact that I have, on innumerable occasions, said it. But is it an idea that we can honestly live by where it all matters: in the ebb and flow of daily life?

Supporters of improved animal welfare believe we cannot. The Humane Society, the Slow Food Movement, the ASPCA, Joel Salatin and his zany acolytes—all of thee groups measure animal compassion by the dollar. Pressuring the producers of animal products to adopt more extensive and humane methods of production (and the two always go hand in hand), these influential organizations and individuals, consciously or not, reduce the lives of animals—as well as their treatment—to an economic calculus every bit as hard bitten as that used by the Ford Motor Company to keep the tank in explosive territory.

Now, I would love to consider myself above this kind of calculating logic. But, for one, I reluctantly support efforts to improve the lives of animals that will indeed become food. In doing so (as a means to make animal lives better as we push for an end to their consumption altogether), I also reluctantly support a reality that measures their happiness, and eventually their flesh, by the dollar and the pound. I’m not using a scale, but somebody is.

Even if I assumed a more extreme abolitionist position (which I once did), and fundamentally opposed any system of owning and commodifying animals, I’d still face a rash of challenges to my belief that animals cannot be reduced to an economic value. First, there would be the conundrum I’d confront of treating animals’ lives as having intrinsic, non-monetized worth while denying that same treatment to humans (as I have no inclination to drop out of commercial life).

Second, and more controversially, as the guardian/companion of several rescue animals I cannot say in good faith that I’d treat their medical problems with the same view of life’s worth as I would my children’s. At some point, I’d end up placing an economic value on my companion animal’s life. I would not, for example, liquidate all my assets to pay for medical treatment that would save the lives of Willie, George, Claus, Boy Cat, or Fluffy. I would, without a second thought, do that for the human members of my immediate family. By virtue of that admission, I do not believe that all animal life has intrinsic worth.

I feel a bit emotionally naked writing that last line, but there is, perhaps, no price to be placed  on honesty.



Pigs Suffer On Small Farms, Too

» March 29th, 2014

*A version of this piece was written for the Dodo which, if you’re not reading, I hope you will start doing do. 

In October 2013, the animal protection organization Mercy for Animals released hidden-camera footage taken on a big Minnesota pig farm that supplies cheap pork to Walmart. The video captured piglets being whacked to the ground headfirst, workers castrating pigs and docking their tails without anesthesia, and sows crammed into gestation crates so small they couldn’t turn around, among other atrocities. For consumers concerned about how animals are treated in contemporary agriculture, these macabre scenes offer further proof that it’s impossible to care about animal welfare and eat conventionally produced meat.

Revolting as these scenes were, the underground footage dished up old news. Exposes of animal abuse on factory farms have been invading the public’s comfort zone since the publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation in 1975. But, for all the rhetorical outrage that ensues, the collective response among conscientious consumers has not been a significant transition to veganism. Instead, consumers have generally chosen to continue eating animals.

The only difference is that, having rightly demonized factory farming, they now source their meat from small, non-industrial farms—operations promoted as more welfare oriented and ecologically viable. This imperative has become a motivating tenet of the emerging “foodie” movement, generating considerable enthusiasm among leading food writers while even enjoying an added dose of hipster cred.

The underlying motivation (or at least one underlying motivation) to make this switch is certainly a noble one—namely, an interest in improving living conditions for farm animals. But the decision to support nonindustrial alternatives is, for all its popularity, rooted in an unexamined assumption. That is, there’s an untested belief that if an operation is not a factory farm then, by virtue of that nonindustrial status, it offers a meaningful alternative to the industrialized status quo. But what if this basic assumption is wrong? What if small animal farms hide large problems? What if animal agriculture, by its nature, cannot be “humane” in a way that would honor the meaning of the word?

Before exploring these questions, it’s necessary to consider the moral implications involved when discussing the human-pig relationship. A sentient animal is a sentient animal. of course. Farm-dwelling critters experience and understand suffering and, as a result, are deserving of moral consideration. But I have a thing for pigs.

Porcine sentience is rooted in an exceptional level of nonhuman intelligence. This intelligence is reflected in pigs’ everyday behavior. “They get scared and then have trouble getting over it,” said the University of Bristol’s Susan Held, who studies the emotional lives of swine. “They can learn something on the first try and then it’s difficult for them to unlearn it,” she added. Her findings have bubbled into the mainstream media. “They are perhaps the smartest, cleanest domestic animals known,” NBC news recently said of pigs. All farm animals are somewhat cognizant of harm being done to them. But there’s a case to be made that pigs are especially sensitive to the emotional suffering they endure on the rough road to becoming bacon.

So, for those committed to knowing where their food comes from, for those who want an authentic “farm to fork” experience, it’s critical to understand exactly how the reality of life on a small pig farm can quickly run counter to the virtuous qualities we’ve naively entrusted it to embody.

It’s often noted that pigs raised on pasture don’t have their tails docked. This cruel practice pricked the conscience of Michael Pollan when he was researching “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Visiting a free-range farm where pigs were comfortably cavorting as pigs, Pollan admitted that he “couldn’t look at their tails (which were intact) . . . without thinking about the fate of pigtails in industrial hog production.” Nice sentiment. But Pollan failed to note something critical: on the free-range farms he so admired, a more consequential form of mutilation is commonplace. Pigs are affixed with septum rings.

The reason for ringing a pig’s nose is simple enough. Left to their own devices, pigs will shred the landscape. In Animal Husbandry Regained (2013), John F. Webster explained that “There is no doubt that sows . . . will reduce any pasture to the status of a badly ploughed field.” As a result, farmers who talk a big game about allowing pigs to be pigs interrupt the free-range fantasy with septum rings.

The welfare implications of this procedure shouldn’t be downplayed. Not only does nose ringing cause temporary pain; it condemns the pig to a lifetime of severe discomfort. Whenever she roots, which is constantly, her nose gets hit with a sharp sting. One farmer, writing on the Free Range Pork Farmer’s Association website, explained that, “a farmer will put (pierce) their snout with a copper ring . . . right in the tender end of their nose, so when they are tempted to root, they bump that ring- causing shooting pain.” Webster notes how “denial of foraging behavior is profoundly frustrating” for pigs. At least tail docking on factory farms only causes temporary pain.

If the idea of mutilating a pig’s snout creates a sense of discomfort, imagine castration without anesthesia. Joni Ernst has. Ernst, a Republican senatorial candidate from Iowa, currently appears on a television advertisement bragging about castrating hogs on the farm where she grew up. This prerequisite for political success, she claims, will enable her to “cut” budgets in DC. Never have the genitals of a farm animal been so politically persuasive.

Whatever the politics of Beau Ramsburg, owner of Rettland Farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he shares Ernst’s enthusiasm for hog emasculation. He explains, “castration is an absolute necessity for all male pigs, regardless of production system or philosophy.” The reason is due to “the overpowering muskiness” in boar meat—also known as “boar taint”—that results if boars remain intact. As for the option of using anesthesia, the American Veterinary Medical Association (which opposes un-anesthetized castration) explains, “On-farm use of anesthesia is rare due to a range of economic, logistical and safety issues, both for the pig and the herdsperson.” In other words, like nose ringing, castration without anesthesia is another business-as-usual practice that small, pasture-based pig farms almost never reveal to consumers paying a premium for “humanely raised” pork.

When forced to discuss the matter, pig farmers will downplay the traumatic impact of this procedure. Jennifer Small, co-owner of Flying Pigs Farm in upstate New York, insists that slicing open the piglet’s scrotum and yanking out his testicles doesn’t hurt all that much. She told the foodie blog Grub Street, “My husband castrates them and I have to admit I was very surprised that as soon as you put them down they’re running around like nothing happened.”

The AVMA, for its part, doesn’t quite see it that way. It writes, “Surgical castration involves cutting and manipulating innervated tissues and if anesthesia is not provided it will be painful as reflected by elevated blood cortisol concentrations,high-pitched squealing,and pain-indicative behaviors, such as trembling and lying alone. Some behavioral indicators of pain may persist for up to five days.” Farmers speaking off the record are inclined to agree with the AVMA. In a forum for pig farmers, one owner, discussing castration, advised: “make sure Mama Pig is secured in her stall while you’re castrating the piglets and wear ear defendors [sic].”

A final way that nonindustrial pig farming reflects rather than contradicts the hard reality of factory farming involves slaughter. Small-scale pig farmers who want to retail cuts of pork must join their factory farmer counterparts in slaughtering their pigs in one of the nation’s 616 USDA inspected hog slaughterhouses. Many of these slaughterhouses are industrial. Some are not. The ones that are not are much more attentive to pig welfare. Large slaughterhouses, though, can slaughter as many as 1,400 pigs an hour. The deathblow begins with an electrical stun gun (or “stunning wand,” which knocks the pig unconscious), followed by throat slitting, bleeding out, and scalding. Humane slaughter violations are routine, as the speed of slaughter makes consistently effective stunning-wand application and throat slitting especially difficult to achieve. Pigs are often bled out while regaining consciousness or even while fully conscious.

An extremely small percentage of pig farmers can avoid the horrors of the big slaughterhouse by slaughtering their animals on the premises. In the case of on-site slaughter, they sell the whole carcass—or a large section of it—to locavores with deep freezes. Under these circumstances, the most common way to render the pig unconscious for bleed out is a .22 rifle. Needless to say, precision in this situation can be equally, if not more, inconsistent than with the slaughterhouse’s stunning wand.

Interestingly, though, it’s the aftermath of these off-the-industrial-grid events that say the most about them. On CNN’s “Eatocracy” blog, managing editor Kat Kinsman recounted her experience witnessing an “ethical slaughter” of two pigs, Porky and Bess. Observing the two farmers right after the slaughter, Kinsman was moved by the fact that both men were crying. When one of them calmed down enough to speak about the kill, he was “still wiping them [the tears] away and was slightly choked in tone.” This was no anomaly. Farmers cry a lot over killing their pigs when, as one farmer put it, “you’ve kind of made pets of them.”

Considerable evidence thus suggests that pigs—and humans—experience undeniable suffering on nonindustrial farms, so much so that, should concerned consumers take this suffering seriously, it would surely influence their dietary choices. From the perspective of transparency, such suffering can be hard for even the most vigilant consumer to identify and appreciate. The visual trope of bucolic agrarian bliss has become a convincing mainstay of small-scale pork promotion. Strip it away, though, treat small farms with the same sober skepticism we apply to factory farms, and you might find yourself in agreement with the forthright nonindustrial pig farmer, Bob Comis, who runs Stony Brook farm in Schoharie, New York. “What I do is wrong,” he writes. “I know it in my bones, even if I can’t act on it.”

“Someday,” he concludes, “it must stop.”

Darwin and Meat

» March 20th, 2014

I published a version this piece almost three years ago in the but wanted to repost because a) I find myself even more wedded to its message now than then and, b) many recent readers of The Pitchfork may not have seen it. I’m hoping to have fresh content up tomorrow. 



“No age has ever been more solicitous to animals, more curious and caring,” writes Matthew Scully in Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. “Yet no age,” he continues, “has ever inflicted upon animals such massive punishments with such complete disregard.”

Scully highlights one of the more troubling paradoxes at the core of modern life. Humanity proves its love for animals on a daily basis. We lavish an abundance of affection on companion animals, work tirelessly to protect endangered species, and donate generously to shelters and welfare organizations.

At the same time, we treat animals with unfathomable disdain. We wear them, experiment upon them, hunt them, render them into cosmetics, and, most notably, eat them. Making matters even more disturbing, we rationalize all this behavior as perfectly normal. I

Humans are the only animals capable of untangling this paradox. To be sure, non-human animals possess innumerable skills that we lack, but—as far as we know—they don’t have the cognitive gifts to think abstractly about relationships among species. For us to ignore this challenge would be a grave failure. Unfortunately, the most influential voices in the so-called “food movement,” concerned as they are with both taste and sustainability, disagree, even though they are in a position to push this paradox to the center of public debate. They view the ethics of slaughter as an issue best to avoid, or to dismiss with pithy one-liners (“I didn’t rise to the top of the food chain to eat plants.”)

What, after all, is to be gained by questioning one of humanity’s most habitual acts? What benefit is there in alienating one’s loyal base of omnivore followers? Why muddy the waters when you can win friends and influence palates with the latest brisket rub? With few exceptions, popular explorations of meat production and consumption studiously skirt the essential concerns underscoring our ingrained habit of killing animals to satisfy our tastes.

Sure, food writers trip all over each other to express their righteous outrage over the many evils of factory farming. Wonderful. But not a single one has decided to take a shot at reconciling their outrage—an outrage that ipso facto acknowledges that an animal has inherent worth—with their promotion of heirloom birds, grass-fed beef, and fried pork bellies cut to perfection by “artisanal” butchers.

The fact is, what’s being butchered here is logic. Thinking, talking, and writing about meat almost necessarily evokes a wildly emotional response. But what’s required right now isn’t emotion, but reason. The food movement has taught us to doggedly investigate every facet of our food system. This noble imperative has led to an admirable increase in public awareness about the source and quality of everything we eat. But our collective effort to vet the food system of any and all abuse ironically slams on the brakes when reason get too close to the brink of animal rights.

Nonetheless, I wonder what we might discover if, somehow or other, we careened over the edge and seriously explored, in the popular press, the ethics of animal exploitation. What if we discussed the moral and legal rights of animals with the same level of detail we bring to discussion about where to find the best prosciutto? Perhaps the most intellectually jarring conclusion we might reach is that our current philosophical justification for dominating the non-human world is embarrassingly antiquated. In fact, it’s rooted in ancient ideas that ignore both Darwin and the science of genetics.

As Paul Waldau reminds us in Animal Rights: What Everyone Needs to Know, it was Aristotle who, more than 2,000 years ago, codified a rigid typology of life based on a fundamental distinction between humans and animals. His typology had roots in the book of Genesis. In the Aristotelian worldview, humans transcended an atomized sub-human world in which every species served a distinct role in the service of humankind. Under Aristotle and the Old Testament, using animals was more than okay; it was our cosmological duty. “Nature,” Aristotle wrote in Politics, “has made all animals for the sake of man.” For Christians, of course, that role belonged to God.

But Darwin and Mendel, with their theories of evolution and genetics, put an end to this self-serving fantasy of dominion. They did so not only by scientifically situating humans in the same category as non-humans (animals), but by undermining the assumption that humans, as Waldau puts it, are “the pinnacle of and reason for creation.” Today, enlightened neo-Darwinists embrace the idea that shared genetic heritage—and often profoundly similar genetic structure—between humans and non-human species confirms the interrelatedness and continuum of all animal life. And this, as I see it, changes everything.

 When humans and non-human animals are part of a continuum, rather than qualitatively distinct forms of life, human meat-eaters confront a serious quandary. It becomes incumbent upon us to forge a contemporary justification for carnivorous behavior. Aristotle and Genesis will no longer do. By undermining the long-held basis of inherent human superiority over non-human animals, the science of evolution obliterated the framework within which thoughtful carnivores long justified their behavior. As it now stands, human meat-eaters, unless they reject modern science, support the killing of non-human animals without the slightest intellectual or ethical grounding.

Embedded within this Darwinian turn is a closely related development. Whereas humans have historically assumed their superiority over non-human animals on the basis of our supposedly unique ability to think and feel, the field of cognitive ethology—the study of non-human animal minds—is making it virtually impossible to maintain this stance. As the evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff says in The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding our Compassion Footprint, we “consistently underestimate what animals know, do, think, and feel.”

Examples of animal intelligence, consciousness, and thoughtfulness abound. When cognitive ethologists discover that (to name only a few cases) Caledonian crows are better tool-makers than chimpanzees, or that monkeys teach their children to floss, or that magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror, we can no longer blithely dismiss animals as driven by “pure instinct.” To the contrary, we have an obligation to contemplate the fact that non-human animals (especially higher ones) make conscious choices, experience genuine emotion, and might even (as in the case of elephants) have the mental and emotional wherewithal to seek revenge. In short, they have interests. To reject these findings—findings that have been fully established with relatively little investigation—would be, as Terry Tempest Williams puts it, “the ultimate act of solipsism.” Humans would be the ones following instinct—the deep-down instinct that says we’re inherently superior.

Admittedly, a systemic analysis of animal rights can be an extremely disorientating experience. Questioning the basis of animal exploitation bears directly on virtually every aspect of our lives: what we wear, eat, apply to our skin and hair, and so on. To duck these issues—to steer clear of any confrontation with Darwin, Mendel, or the field of cognitive ethology—is not only intellectually disingenuous. It denies to the billions of animals we kill every year a fair assessment of why we treat them as we do.

Civilization Burdens All Animal Life

» February 17th, 2014

Civilization, to which agriculture is integral, is necessarily and systematically harmful to non-humans. This point was recently reiterated by Rhys Southan in a response to a post of mine arguing that omnivores have a added obligation to consider the ethical implications of eating animals.

The reason why his premise, which I did not originally acknowledge (but should have), should be taken seriously is that it raises a possible bind. After all, it has ethical vegans saying “don’t eat animals” while they continue to participate in the basic infrastructure of civilized life. And so the question emerges: can we say I don’t eat animals but I tacitly support developments that harm them in possibly more systematic ways?  

It’s an excellent quandary to highlight because it suggests the potential inconsistency behind the seemingly untouchable idea that a decision to avoid eating animals is a selfless and morally superior choice. As it turns out, I think that it’s possible to draw a real distinction between the personal choice to avoid eating animals and our unavoidable (well, barring suicide or dropping out in some survivalist kind of way) participation in that collective inheritance known as civilization. Much of this distinction hinges on the degrees of separation between action and intention, as well as the extent of the consequences that ensue from our respective choices.

One relevant distinction between my choice to avoid animal products and my choice to, say, eat almonds that came from a plantation whose owners eradicated squirrels as a form of pest control, involves the relationship between intention and action. When I forgo eating a pig it’s not unreasonable for me to think that I have, as a direct result of my choice, helped save a pig from slaughter and consumption. Even if this one-to-one correlation is a self-serving (if not altogether false) mental construct, it nonetheless does the work of perpetuating my benevolent belief that it’s morally wrong to eat animals, and that doing so is tragically selfish and should be ended. To the extent that this opinion enters the world and merges with like-minded opinions on the subject of eating animals, thus shaping cultural thought in general, my decision to forgo the pig quietly ripples beyond my singular choice to become a force making civilization less harmful. Or at least attempting to.

When I choose to eat almonds instead of pigs, it could be said that I affirm the selfishness that I righteously denounce in the case of  choosing to not eat the pig. In other words, that I, squirrel killer, behave inconsistently. But I can’t ultimately agree with that assessment. While one could argue that by choosing to forgo almonds I’d be choosing to spare the lives of squirrels, this position would miss the point that the primary intention of growing almonds (an integral act of being civilized) is not to harm squirrels. It’s to provide consumers with healthy plant food, ideally with as little suffering as possible.

Intentions direct future action. Almonds might now come at the expense of squirrel slaughter. But that’s just for now. Consumer support for almonds could easily become a force for positive change if consumers, perhaps inspired by the growing public disdain for the arbitrary but direct slaughter pf pigs, pushed farmers to pioneer growing methods that minimized and eventually eliminated the perceived need to kill squirrels. We’re innovative critters. Such a prospect seems a lot more reasonable than caring for and then killing an animal in a mini-system specifically designed to do only that: wreck the lives of animals.

There’s another way to distinguish between “eating animals is selfish and causes harm” and “living a civilized life is selfish and causes harm.” It has to do with the impact of these decisions on humans vis-a-vis non-humans. When you kill an animal for food we don’t need you necessarily focus suffering exclusively on non-humans in order to enhance the gustatory pleasures of the human (I realize this comment ignores the impact of slaughter on laborers . . .but most of them experience the pleasure of eating meat). The whole point of animal agriculture, whatever its form, is to exchange an animal’s death for human pleasure. Now, there are numerous aspects of civilization—conjure up any form of brute-force development—that devastate the non-human world, if only as an unintended consequence. But, as I’ll be the first to concede, human “civilization” per se is a bitch for non-humans. No doubt.

But—and here’s the critical point—it’s also a bitch for humans. The engine of civilization mows down the disenfranchised, be they human or non-human, with indiscriminate power. Consider driving, which is integral to being civilized (yeah, smug New Yorkers will disagree), and it becomes clear that when you drive a vehicle your chances of killing animals is quite high. But, with over 35,000– 40,000 Americans dying in car accidents every year, driving is no picnic for humans either. The unintended negative consequences of driving are experienced by humans and non-humans alike. There’s thus a parity of sorts in the dominant apparatuses of civilization.

Except when we explicitly jigger it to harm sentient non-humans in a way we’d never harm humans. That’s just uncivilized.


Loving Meat Too Much to Give It Up

» February 14th, 2014

I think anyone who eats animals—and thinks about eating animals—is at least somewhat cognizant that the choice to do so is, on some level, an ethical one. Of course thoughtful meat-eaters are not walking around with their noses buried in Bentham, but they do, by virtue of being thinking meat-eaters, at least entertain the idea that there’s a basic difference between eating a pork chop and a piece of toast. A moral difference, no less. Put simply, for anyone who is honest with himself about the decision to raise and kill animals for food we don’t need, there’s a vague idea that eating animals under certain circumstances might very well be morally wrong.

It all comes down to the realization that an animal, like us, has interests—the most basic of which is avoiding pain. Because we cannot, as decent people, go through life thinking that our interests matter more than other interests simply because they are ours, we thus tacitly grant to other humans and many non-humans—basically anyone with an interest in avoiding pain and seeking pleasure—what philosophers call equal moral consideration. We may not even be aware that we live our daily lives according to this standard but, in most cases, we do. We often just call it the Golden Rule or some such and get on with the business of being decent folk.

Adherence to this fundamental notion of fairness actually requires a lot of us—and it structures the workings of everyday life. Notably, it means that if we are going to inflict intentional pain on another sentient being, we need to justify that painful act with a competing moral consideration. For example, when I affix a leash to my dog before walking her down a busy street, I surely cause a nominal amount of suffering. She hates her leash and is much happier left untethered. But of course I justify my decision to leash my dog with the competing moral consideration that, without that little torture device, she would dart into traffic and suffer far more serious harm, if not death.

That’s a relatively easy case. Where this scenario causes many meat eaters problems is when it forces them to highlight the rather unfortunate fact that the only competing consideration against killing an animal for food we don’t need is lame: our taste for the texture and flavor of that flesh. And, by any moral standard, that won’t cut it.  After all, is it a standard you’d ever want applied to your own life? Or the society of humans you cohabit?

It’s for this reason that whenever I read contorted defenses for raising and killing animals I find myself thinking, “stop with the half-baked rationalizations and just admit you love meat too much to give it up.” I find this answer—I just can’t stop eating meat—to be far more refreshing than the pseudo-philosophical junk often brought in to justify the causation of terrible but unnecessary suffering.  ”I know I shouldn’t eat meat but . . . .” strikes a more honest chord than “we evolved to eat meat.” Not that I agree with the “I can’t help it” assessment, but at least it doesn’t cheapen the importance of equal consideration of interests, which is at the foundation of leading an ethical life.

The looming nature of this conundrum—how can something as arbitrary as taste ethically justify killing animals?—may also help explain why so many consumers react to eating meat with such visceral enthusiasm. I know people who, at the mere mention of eating bacon, will veritably growl and twitch and say “mmmm. . . bacon,” as if there was something primal stirring in their gut. Nobody acts that way about broccoli. But it could it be that what’s primal is the subconscious effort to excuse ourselves from the moral standard we know deep down, as thinking meat eaters, we fail every time we eat animals? Could that expressed inability to stop eating meat be a way to avoid the conclusion that, to live an ethical life, we must do just that?


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