Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category
Pasture proselytizers mouth the mantra all the time: they are allowing their animals to indulge their animalness. The pigness of the pig. The henness of the hen. The cowness of the cow. All that jazz. It’s a line that goes over well with consumers who, while perversely wanting the animals they eat to have been happy, are ultimately just interested in the meatness of their meat.
Beyond this disconnect, there are other problems with a pasture-based farmer thinking that the environment he’s fabricated for his animals will be experienced by his animals as natural. Call it the Joel Salatin impact. You provide space and let the animals loose, rotate the critters every now and then from one pasture to the next, take pictures on sunny days–and then call the arrangement natural and charge a premium. Write books. Cash in.
But what’s natural by human standards might not in the least be natural to the animals. For example, hens without access to low lying branches and dense foliage become stressed. Left out on a pasture without access to forests, their cortisol levels increase. They’re stressed. But that’s not what we see. We can’t see their fear. Most farmers don’t give a flying cluck–if they did they wouldn’t slaughter them. They just want the scene to look as it should: natural.
It’s normal for those who care enough about animals not to eat them to be chided for “anthropomorphizing.” But isn’t the decision to put animals on pasture, to uncage them, and let them roam under the assumption that “that’s what I would want” also due to a form of anthropomorphizing? If so, we need to defuse the anthropomorphizing charge by noting that anyone who thinks about animal welfare automatically anthropomorphizes. Moreover, after acknowledging that all welfare concerns come from an anthropomorphic instinct, we need to draw a distinction between thoughtful and selfish anthropomorphizing.
Thoughtful anthropomorphizing doesn’t require a Mensa membership. It simply requires recognizing that we would rather not be exploited and eaten while our caring killers profit from our death. And, in turn, neither would animals. Thoughtless anthropomorphizing, by contrast, is essentially shortsighted, self-serving, and, most of all, selective. And it’s driven by the fact that a farmer owns an animal for the ultimate purpose of profiting from her body. This interest in an animal’s body ensures selective and destructive anthropomorphizing.
The selectivity of pasture based anthropomorphizing is perhaps most evident when small farmers–who share their opinions extensively at backyardchickens.com and other similar forums–go to great lengths to anthropomorphically project a set of seemingly compassionate desires on their animals (they want space, warmth, companionship, etc) and then, at the same time, not only eventually kill those animals, but kill other animals that attempt to interfere with his anthropomorphic love.
It’s one of the most conspicuous cases of arbitrary moral thought you’ll find, but if you ever want to hear an fathomable depth of bloodthirsty hatred, listen to a pastured chicken owner express his feelings for raccoons, hawks, snakes, coyotes, and even dogs. What’s strange about this vituperation is the fact that one reason that animals are pastured is to approximate more natural experiences. Isn’t predation natural? And why should the anthropomorphic instinct not be extended to raccoons? What about the racoonness of the raccoon?
The upshot of these inconsistencies is pretty simple: a well managed pastured-based animal farm is a constructed environment every bit as complex as a factory farm. At what this means is that ethical vegans cannot be condemned for anthropomorphizing, but only praised for doing it with moral consistency.
Sensible people take climate change seriously. We do so because, in a vague way, we care about the planet and, in a less vague way, we’re troubled by the conspicuous ecological devastation that results from a world set on slow simmer.
One of the more troubling consequences we lament when we broadcast our concerns over climate change centers on the issue of species extinction. As a rule, reasonable people don’t like the idea of a species gasping its last breath under their watch, especially when the driving force appears to be anthropocentric. When polar bears come under threat from melting ice caps, we get upset.
This all seems mighty obvious and appropriate. What’s less obvious and appropriate is the self-serving distortion that happens when environmentalists inveigh against the anthropocentric demise of another species.
You frequently hear vegan activists argue that you can’t be a meat-eating environmentalist. This carbon-calculator critique holds water. But there may be a more fundamental way to confront the meat-eating environmentalist: challenge the way he conceptualizes animals. This must be done because, as matters now stand, the environmental movement rests its anti-global warming stance on a conveniently deceptive view of animals.
Many environmentalists indulge in a kind of eco-tourist environmentalism. Despite having no real appreciation of an ecosystem’s underlying complexity, they make an earnest fuss about the demise of elephants, orcas, lions, eagles, and other “majestic” animals one might encounter while traveling on an eco-venture or watching a nature show.
Concern for these animals—and concern for the potential of their extinction—is certainly a good thing. But it also allows us to root a superficial notion of environmental responsibility in shallow aesthetic ideals represented by a species that–due to no fault of its own–embody an overly stylized concept of “nature.”
According to this strategy, we “care” about these animals not as animals per se, but because of what they collectively represent to us: the ability to stoke our awe for the natural world. We “care” about these animals not as animals per se but for the conceptual purposes they serve as noble “species” clinging to existence in the age of global warming. This props them up for our righteous outrage. But not our compassion.
Again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with admiring these animals as a species. They are indeed majestic, awe-inspiring creatures who capture the imagination and, for many of us, bring us closer to the natural world. But it’s worth exploring the question that this admiration begs: if we love iconic animals as a species, why do we not also love them as individuals? After all, you can’t really do the latter without the former, or vice-versa.
Environmentalists will object to this charge. They will claim that they do love animals. But exactly how is this love manifested? After all, love rarely prevents environmentalists from shooting animals, eating animals, culling animals, domesticating animals, and wearing animals. As long as the beloved “species” is not unduly threatened by massive environmental exploitation, then the individuals within it seem fair game for exploitation. The implications of this inconsistency are rarely acknowledged.
But they’re worth exploring.
One could start with this question: Is there a problem with raging over the loss of polar bears’ habitat without raging over the loss of individual polar bears? The anger we feel over dying polar bears is an anger we couch in terms of “losing a species.” That’s safe, because it keeps the idea of a sentient being at a distance while allowing us to experience the guilty pleasure of high dudgeon. But is it the species that really tugs at our emotions? No.To lament the loss of a species is ultimately disingenuous. It’s to lament the loss of an impersonal collective phenomenon, sort of like lamenting the loss of an obscure language.
What’s really happening here is a process of abstraction that enables enviro types to publicly demonstrate their concern for global warming and its resultant species extinctions while continuing to exploit animals to meet our selfish little palate fetishes. It allows us to weep over the loss of a species while sharpening our knives to keep eating the chops and steaks that make our lives so happy and hypocritical.
“Now I know where my food comes from.”
This common pat-on-the-back typically marks the aftermath of either a do-it-yourself slaughter or the acquisition of animal products from an uber-local, off the grid source. The sustainable food movement, in its somewhat precious insistence that we dutifully investigate the source of every calorie we consume, has promoted this quest as a means of steering clear of the agribusiness-industrial complex and the processed crap it churns into the American food system.
In and of itself, that isn’t such a bad thing. But when our obsessive intimacy with how food is produced becomes the sole justification for slaughtering animals without exploring the ethical explanations, potentially serious ideas are reduced to paradoxical slogans that obscure more than they reveal. The original idea—know where your food comes from!—is thus cheapened to the point of meaninglessness. Well, at least for those who think about it.
You raise an animal. You kill an animal. You eat an animal. But no matter what your stance may be on these practices, these decisions are fraught with ethical tension. However, instead of exploring the moral implications of these acts, we too often tell ourselves that, because we were intimately tied to the means of production, we’re exonerated from confronting the morality of slaughtering an animal to satisfy an arbitrary desire. Participation is ipso facto absolution. And that logic is just plain whacked.
To wit: take another group of people who know where their food comes from: slaughterhouse workers.These men and woman are as close as anyone could possibly get to the crude logistics of meat production. They’ve stared into the maw of slaughter and they know the deal. Does their proximity to the essence of meat production—i.e., death—entitle them to some sort of special exoneration? They know their food as well as any tatted-up hipster strangling his chicken like a frontiersman. So are the slaughterhouse workers, too, off the hook of food ignorance?
The sustainable foodie who sings the virtue of self-sufficiency would have to categorically object to such a proposition, if for no other reason than the setting is a commercial slaughterhouse, a place where the “fruit” of the worker’s labor enters an industrial labyrinth that will not bring it back around to his plate, a place where state and federal regulatory agencies make the rules and issue the fines.
This distinction matters. Notably, it reveals the underlying reason that the backyard slaughterer assumes a more virtuous mantle than the slaughterhouse worker. It’s not only about knowing your food. It’s also about independence. It’s about controlling the cycle of an animal’s life and death and consumption without the explicit interference or oversight of external authority. This observation brings us closer to the hidden and more complicated meaning of “know where food comes from.”
I’ve read hundreds of accounts from backyard slaughterers who valorize their work on the grounds of “I did it myself.” No help required. In that valorization, the virtue of independence shines so brightly that participants are not only blinded to the ethical question at the core of their work (which is a problem), they are wedded to libertarian values that would make a Tea Partier wiggle with excitement (which might be a problem–keep reading).
I’m not saying that there is anything necessarily wrong with libertarian values (he wrote, possibly to placate certain readers). What I am saying, though, is that the ideology that obscures the ethics of killing behind the untouchable veil of localism and liberty is an all encompassing mode of thought–one that typically rejects state run programs such as the Affordable Health Plan, Food Stamps, Unemployment Insurance, and other top-down programs.
The localism of food production provides an incentive for small scale food producers to opt out of state and federal regulatory apparatuses designed to deal with larger institutions. It’s a trend that, politically speaking, aims to replace state oversight with individual responsibility. Again, this strikes me as a perfectly legitimate position to take (although it’s not one that I fully support). At the same time, though, it aligns locavores and do-it-youselfers with a Tea Party-ish political persuasion that precludes locavores from embracing most liberal/progressive political initiatives.
Returning to animals, this potential inconsistency in the locavore creed highlights the subtle permutations some people make to obscure the ethics of slaughter. People who believe the government should play a role in promoting basic social justice through taxation, legislation, and regulation want the same government to keep its hands off our food. Are locavores ready to part ways with traditional progressive values to pursue a way of eating animals that absolves them of all ethical considerations for animals? Are they ready to jump on the Tea Party chuck wagon? Because I bet my senator,Ted Cruz, would be happy shut down the USDA on their behalf and join the hootenanny that would ensue.
In the December 23/30 edition of the New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin has a thoughtful “Talk of the Town” piece on the death penalty. In particular, he explores the weird circumstances currently surrounding the matter of how we kill death row inmates. The article ends with an arresting paragraph that, without in any way intending to, highlights the potentially illogical position taken by those who believe in the idea of “humane slaughter” for farm animals.
Toobin writes, “The oxymoronic quest for humane executions only accentuates the absurdity of allowing the death penalty in a civilized society. It’s understandable that Supreme Court Justices have tried to make the process a little more palatable; and there is a meagre kind of progress in moving from the chair to the gurney. But the essential fact about both is that they come with leather straps to restrain a human being so that the state can kill him. No technology can render that process any less grotesque.”
Toobin’s argument offers a remarkably uselful parallel to the ethical vegan’s argument that there’s no such thing as humane slaughter, no matter how “palatable” we try to make it. Indeed, that it’s an oxymoron. Similarly, Toobin effectively captures the idea that “humane” farming at least grants animals some measure of freedom before they’re offed–”a meager kind of progress.” Even so, there’s no denying that the end result–the unnecessary death of a sentient being–is “grotesque.” Thus, the question is raised: can you oppose the death penalty as “cruel and unusual” while supporting the “humane” slaughter of sentient animals?
I’m sitting here having a hard time seeing how you could identify a quality unique to humans that singularly justified their right to avoid the state sponsored killing of a human (no matter what the crime) while, at the same time, allowed for the humane-farmer killing of a sentient non-human. Perhaps I’m wrong in assuming that consumers who seek out happy meat are also people inclined to oppose the death penalty. But, if I’m right in assuming this rough correlation, I’d be eager to start a conversation about whether or not you can oppose the death penalty but support “humane slaughter” of animals.
Part of my opposition to treating animals well and then killing them is that it seems to constitute a fundamental betrayal. In essence, we are humoring animals and ourselves when we cuddle and kill them. Worse, we are treating them as a means to the end of reducing our own guilt for perpetuating an act we instinctually sense to be wrong.
I stand by this position even though the animal will never realize, at least for any length of time, the nature of that betrayal. That is, even if the killing is “efficient” and painless (perhaps never possible, but go with me. . ), there’s still something deeply problematic about cultivating the trust of a sentient and social critter and then slicing the animal’s throat and eating her. Something about this deception feels plain wrong. And, I imagine, it does so for a good reason.
Why this act is wrong even if the animal lives very well and has no idea what’s coming is not an easy question to answer logically. I mean, we can say “my gut tells me it’s wrong” and move on. But I feel like more of a grounded explanation is required on this one.
One answer seems obvious. I’ve indicated in past posts that a sentient animal has an interest in her future happiness—just as humans do. Think for a moment about the nature of pleasure. It’s not only something predicated on the moment, but it’s a phenomenon integral to the past and the future. Without the prospect of a future of potential happiness the entire meaning of living is diminished to the point of irrelevance (there are 4 “ofs” in that sentence, which is bad, but I’m too tired to correct it). So there’s that.
Another way to go about pinning down the problem of painless betrayal is to consider how we might treat a human under similar circumstances. Leave out the killing and consider a more benign scenario, say, inviting a person to the movies not because you enjoy that person’s company but because that person, who happens to be very needy for friendship, has a sibling you are romantically interested in. You could care less about this person, but he has no idea of that and actually has a great time at the movies.
Is there a problem here? It really depends on the position you take. A utilitarian would say happiness is maximized and be done with it. But many others might feel, in the spirit of Kant, that we should not use others as a means to an end because, in so doing, we diminish our character. I think I’m somewhere in this latter camp. When we raise and animal with love and kill an animal for food we don’t need we not only show the utmost disregard for animals, but to humans as well.
And if your response to this scenario is to say, well, humans are different, that won’t work either.
It’s called speciesism.
Imagine a situation in which a person was diagnosed with a malignant tumor but, instead of seeing a specialist, ignored the tumor, thinking that everything would be fine in the end. Crazy, right?
Well, that’s exactly what the sustainable food movement is currently doing with respect to the ethics of eating animals. The movement has made the accurate diagnoses that the meat industry is a cancer on the food system. Great. But instead of dealing with the problem in an ethically and philosophically consistent way, it has shrugged off the responsibility and mouthed mantras about happy meat and humane slaughter, thereby turning boutique animal suffering into some sort of elite fetish. (See yesterday’s post for an example.)
There are several reasons why this dereliction of duty is so sad. For one, it leaves the food system everyone seems so eager to reform in the lurch. I’ve said it over and over again: we’ll never reform the food system without a wholesale assault on the habit of eating animals. Second, it puts the movement in the position of mimicking industrial agriculture by doing the following: deploying euphemistic language (“harvesting” animals and then “processing” them), treating animals as objects to be commodified and eaten, and allowing our desire for animal flesh (and tradition) to serve as a baseless justification for eating it.
And this brings me to the third and final reason our failure to think ethically in a public way about animals is so tragic: it perpetuates the unthinking stupidity that has characterized the American way of eating. What an utter waste of time to identify the disease pulsing through the food system’s anatomy, and to rage against industrial animal agriculture, only then to distract ourselves with fictions such as happy meat and humane farming. All of this prevarication when we could be thinking seriously whether or not eating animals is an ethically justifiable act if you do not have to do it.
All I’m saying is that we should have the debate. Just move the topic to the center of the discourse. If the locavores and the slow foodies and the humane butchers (ha!) and the small animal farmers would just stop it with all the evasions and, for once, discuss animals in terms of various moral theories—utilitarianism, moral contract theory, Kantianism, the land ethic—perhaps we might make some headway to thinking more clearly and compassionately about the sentient animals we seem all too eager to keep fucking over.
“At Olive Hill Farms we believe that belly rubs and behind-the-ear scratches make better bacon.”
This is the maniacal sentence that pulled me into what turns out to be a mind-blowingly thoughtless and ultimately cruel website about a farm that claims to love pigs and then kills them. Check it out here.
“Happy pigs, scrumptious pork,” the farm promises. Note to farm owner (who claims with pride, “this girl brings bacon into the world”): you cannot have pork from a happy pig. Because the day you turn the pig into pork is the day you render all those belly rubs and ear scratches the act of either an Alzheimer’s patient or a psychopath, a psychopath bent on profiting from people who happen to be equally thoughtless and clueless.
Let me reiterate for the umpteenth time: you cannot have happy meat. There is no such thing. Sure, you can raise an animal and treat that animal well while she’s alive but when you kill the animal you kill the happiness, making all previous acts and intentions meaningless; when you eat the flesh of a sentient being you are eating the flesh of an animal whose interest in being happy was deemed less important than your salivating palate. And that’s sick. How hard is this point to understand? Evidently very much so.
In a way I have less animus toward mindless consumers who buy cheap factory meat at the Kroger, never once thinking that they are eating the flesh of a being who suffered (which describes the vast majority of meat eaters). It’s those lunatics who claim to care about the animals they kill, those who photograph their beasts in supposed bliss and use that pornography to sell the animal’s flesh, that turns my stomach and makes me sick.
As Steven Pinker notes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, we humans have inherited a deep evolutionary heritage of violence. Our natural predilection for dominance, predation, and revenge has not only served us remarkably well over the course of evolutionary time, but it manifests itself today in tangible expressions of inner inequity. The evidence is etched into every cranny and crevice of our brain. We have the capacity to wreak violent havoc. Read the news.
Does this macabre heritage imply that humans are inherently, irrepressibly evil? Of course not. It only means that we harbor in our neurological nutcase a hoary apparatus that, without proper re-purposing, could, with adequate propagation, send us—well, men mainly—into unchecked orgies of decapitation, disembowelment, lynching, and quartering. Followed by a celebratory banquet. If this assessment sounds hyperbolic, I advise you to consult recent history. We all have it in us to turn violent.
We’ve thus erected culture and civilization in part to mitigate these excesses and, ideally, obviate the need for quick-thinking resorts to force. But culture and civilization, for all their potential to diminish violence, can exist ahead of the evolutionary curve. One way to think of the peaceful-minded civilization we try to create is as a mansion that we live in but have yet to furnish. We’re wandering through this unfurnished edifice a little confused, grasping weaponry out of habit and preparing to indulge a mentality we no longer need. But, ray of hope, we also sense, because of the walls that protect us, that cooperation and empathy—which also have a deep evolutionary heritage—have the capacity to render our violent inclinations obsolete. Or at least some of us get that.
This realization is perhaps the most awe-inspiring aspect of humanity. We are a species that has reached the ability to eliminate all expressions of unnecessary violence. Consider that prospect. I have no idea how such a revolution would happen, but I know that, biologically and culturally and intellectually speaking, it could happen, or at least a surge in that direction could take place. That fact alone renders commonly sanctioned expressions of unnecessary violence—farming animals, hunting for sport, wearing leather clothing—residual habits of a lost age when violence was required more than it is today. Soon, I fantasize, these behaviors will become the stuff of mockery and shame, like whacking old ladies on the head and stealing their groceries.
Looked at from this perspective, the imperative to keep putting pressure on these normative violent behaviors becomes more intense. Advocates for a more peaceful world need to bang away at these behaviors not only because they are unnecessary forms of violence, but because they are quite simply on the wrong side of history, sloping downward toward an abyss. They can gather steam, slide in, and leave us standing on a pedestal of success, triumphant and proud of being human.
Note: please visit and share my latest Forbes piece on welfare ranchers here. Thanks!
Inevitably, you get hit with the question: if you had to eat meat what would it be? It’s not a stupid question. In fact it’s quite useful because it forces us to clarify the tenets that shape our ethics. It requires us to add nuance to the bland mantra that “eating animals is wrong” and explore the possibility that it’s more wrong in some cases than others.
Once you do that, once you let that slinky little cat out of the bag, you can start thinking about why it’s more wrong in some cases than in others. And before you know it you’re actually developing genuine insight into the foundation of your ethical choices rather than living according to a mouthpiece ideology.
Anyway, a friend recently popped the question: is there any meat that would be excusable? Not justifiable, but excusable. Roadkill, I answered. I really didn’t think much about it, but tied as I am to my own vehicle (a Mercedes I inherited and a Mercedes that has leather seats!), that’s what I blurted out while sipping an award winning beer at my favorite watering hole on earth, the Whip In. Roadkill.
My mouth does not burst into salivation at the prospect, mind you. But my mind does. Our highways are de facto slaughterhouses, ones in which the workers wield wheels rather than knives. Animals are not caught in the crosshairs of a rifle scope but the byways of a interstate. Killers are innocent and the meat is incidental to unintended vehicular propulsion. Counties and municipalities do a lot of ridiculous things with roadkill—incineration, feeding to zoo animals, and burying. A case could be made that turning these dead animals into sausage and underselling factory farms is a better option than all of these.
The danger, aside from health, is that the endorsement of eating roadkill is an endorsement for eating animals. And as long as there’s a cultural endorsement for eating animals there will always be an incentive to provide meat in lesser and lesser ethical ways. This criticism is not to be taken lightly. But given that we’re a million years away from eliminating the consumption of animals, how would you feel about meatless Mondays linking up with roadkill Tuesdays?
I might wave a white flag for that.
In a clever little contrarian article from 2003, Steven L. Davis, in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, argues that vegans seeking to cause the least harm to sentient animals would be better off eating large herbivores than plants.
His case hinges on the verifiable fact that industrial plant production, with its brute force machinery, systematically kills—as he calculates it—more sentient vermin than would be killed if we simply fattened ruminants on pasture and ate them instead. It’s the kind of argument that makes a vegan choke on his granola because, alas, if it’s correct, then our most sacred behavioral adaptation to compassionate living is, well, dead wrong.
But the ethical vegan need not worry too much over Davis’ hypothesis.
Let’s go ahead and grant that Davis’ calculations are correct (I seriously doubt they are, though, as mechanization in modern agriculture is heaviest when it comes to growing row crops that we feed to animals) and let’s go ahead and concede that, even if we grew only plants for people on a medium scale, we’d still kill untold numbers of innocent critters using current methods of agricultural production.
Ceding these points, an important fact remains: intention matters. In Davis’ plan we are intentionally structuring food production to kill sentient creatures. In the vegan’s utopia, the killing of sentient creatures is an unintended consequence of a system designed to not kill animals for food. Davis all too quickly dismisses this distinction. He writes, “it seems to be the harm done to the animal is the same–dead is dead.” In other words, intention is irrelevant.
It is here, in my opinion, where the argument crumbles. What he fails to enter into his calculation is that intentionality—even if the intentions are not borne out the way we might hope at this moment in time—is a critical moral guide to future behavior. The historian knows full well that agriculture is hardly a static endeavor. It’s marked by rapid and sometimes radical and sometimes greatly beneficial change. A calculation that denies intention altogether and relies on a back of the napkin sketch based on current agriculture practices alone myopically suggests that the evolution of agriculture is over. That’s illogical.
Tune in with what’s happening with veganic agriculture today and you’ll discover something critical at work: intentionality. Indeed, the intention to not kill animals for food is driving innovation, and that innovation is intended to reduce and perhaps one day even eliminate the unintentional critter killing that marks so much plant-based agriculture today. Take away the intention, as Davis does, cede to the seeming necessity of killing, as Davis also does, and you deny human progress rooted in moral consistency and compassion, qualities that will not only benefit animals in the long run, but humans as well.