Archive for the ‘Anthropomorphism’ Category

Humans and Non-Humans: An Inelegant Tango

» December 13th, 2012

There’s a belief embraced by many ethical vegans that humans should avoid all unnecessary contact with animals, allowing them to live life on their own terms, without the all-too-frequent disruption of human interference. I certainly see the appeal of this idea, not to mention the logic of it, but I question not only whether it’s possible to achieve, but also if it’s philosophically consistent with our effort to overcome speciesism.

Practically speaking, our lives are necessarily intertwined with the lives of non-human animals. Worms aerate the dirt that nourishes the crops that we eat. That sort of thing. It goes without saying that we should seek to extricate ourselves from intentionally exploitative relationships with animals—be they farm animals, animals used gratuitously for medical research, and certainly animals exploited for entertainment purposes. Should we, however, strive to remove ourselves from relationships with animals that aren’t marked by overt dominance? Should we cultivate such relationships?

The obvious focus here would be companion animals. Breeding animals for companionship is never justifiable, primarily because there are millions upon millions of unwanted animals who stand to benefit fundamentally from human companionship. This companionship, as many studies have shown, also has beneficial, even life-saving, impacts on humans. To some extent, there is, in a healthy human-non-human relationship, a genuine form of mutualism at work. I suppose there are ethical perspectives that would see this mutualism as inherently exploitative, something to be tolerated only as a necessary evil. But I want to question that characterization and wonder aloud: why can’t our relationship with non-human animals be considered a positive good, one we should seek to nurture and celebrate?

I maintain close relationships with companion animals and I would never characterize those relationships as necessary evils. The animals with whom I live are, as best as I can tell, happy and healthy animals who give me as much attention and love as I give them. We interact daily and that interaction is certainly marked by temporary and necessary dominance (I walk my dogs with leashes and, when they are off leash in the park, they force me to run after them and clean up their poop). But it is also mutually pleasurable. We all leave the park in a better mood than when we arrived, even if I was the one who made the decision for us to go there in the first place . (Note that the entire park scenario applies to my children as well—whose diapers I once changed and whose bodies I once strapped into strollers and forced to the park.)

Does this make me a benevolent dictator of another species (or, in the case of children, my own?) Maybe. I know for a fact that some critics will condemn my relationship with my dogs as necessarily one-sided, necessarily marked by dominance, and thus, again, a necessary evil. But this brings me to another question: doesn’t this idea—that we should leave animals alone—violate the basic assumption of anti-speciesism? Those who strive to overcome speciesism work to treat humans and non-human animals with equal moral consideration. Within the human species, extending moral consideration, I would submit, requires relational interaction. We are inherently social beings whose moral structure is built through relationships. So why should we deny non-human animals the same interactions we nurture and value with our fellow humans? Wouldn’t to do so be speciesist?

I’m going freestyle here and, I imagine, there are critical ethical points that I’m overlooking. But I become impatient when I hear how humans should do everything in our power to live our lives separate from those of non-human animals. And I feel this way because, in the simplest terms, I have complex, mutually beneficial, and deeply satisfying relationships with non-human animals whom I love. Yes, I make this claim from my own selfish little perspective. And yes, It is a human perspective. But wouldn’t you know it: I happen to be human; I happen to have interests; and I just so happen to have feelings that make me happy to act upon.

Repost of Melanie Joy Article

» October 31st, 2012


When I originally ran this article of Dr. Melanie Joy’s, an editor at the on-line publication that first published the piece gave Eating Plants a hard time about posting it, even though I provided the original source. When I excerpted the piece, as the editor requested, I still got a hard time (because, I suppose, I excerpted too much). Eventually, I just took down the post because the whole back and forth with editor thing was getting on my nerves.  In any case, a month has passed so I’m reposting the article, which I think is superb. Joy is the author of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows. Enjoy.   -jm


By Melanie Joy

For years I have remained silent on the “welfare-abolition debate,” believing that my limited time and energy as an activist were best directed elsewhere. But recent events have compelled me to witness the profound anger, confusion, guilt, weariness, and despair this issue triggers in vegans – vegans whose commitment and compassion never cease to astound and inspire me. So I could not, in good conscience, avoid contemplating this issue and sharing my reflections.

Much has been written about the content of the issue – the specific ideas and arguments that comprise each position. In fact, virtually all that has been discussed in regard to the “debate” is content-based, and one would be hard-pressed to find new content to add to a “debate” that has been at a stalemate since its inception. So I am not going to argue for a position here, but, rather, suggest a different way of thinking about this issue – a reframe that I hope will help free up some energy that’s been spent in a gridlock, so that our lives are more peaceful and our activism is more effective.

What I suggest is that we turn our attention from the content to the process of the issue. The process is the how, rather than the what; it is how we engage with the content, the way we communicate (e.g., we can be argumentative or cooperative). And our process is informed by our consciousness. Our consciousness is our mentality; it is the intentions, principles, and state of mind that drive our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and determine how we relate to ourselves, others, and our world. Our consciousness and process can mirror the speciesist-carnist culture we are working to transform, thus reinforcing, for instance, ideological rigidity, black-and-white thinking, defensiveness, bullying, self-righteousness, and hostility. Or it can reflect the core principles of veganism – principles such as compassion, reciprocity, justice, and humility – the essence of a “liberatory” consciousness (and process), a way of being (and relating) that is fundamentally liberating and that I believe can significantly empower the important strategic conversations we need to continue to engage in.

Equating Difference with Deficiency: Framing Healthy Disagreements as Divisive Debates

There are many ways in which we, as individuals and as a movement, embody a liberatory consciousness. I have had the privilege of meeting thousands of vegans around the world, and of witnessing the courage and conviction they carry through their lives. They hold firm to their values despite the daily hostility and discrimination they must contend with, the isolation they experience, the frustration they feel when perceiving the blatant irrationality in others’ attitudes and behaviors toward nonhuman animals, and the pain and sorrow and exasperation they feel at the ubiquitous reminders of brutality and injustice that surround them. And I have also had the opportunity to witness the global unfolding and burgeoning of the vegan movement. Given the depth and breadth of the atrocity we are up against, we have much to be proud of.

And given the depth and breadth of the atrocity we are up against, we also have much work to do.

Although we have been able to bring a liberatory consciousness to many areas of our activism and our movement – in particular, to our areas of commonality – we often bring a non-liberatory consciousness to our areas of difference. Given that our diversity is our strength – the more ideas and experiences we bring to our movement, the richer and more multidimensional it becomes – when we equate difference with deficiency, when we believe that differences are obstacles rather than opportunities, then we relate to our differences in a way that weakens rather than strengthens ourselves and our movement. Our disagreements become framed as divisive debates rather than constructive conversations.

The core problem is not our differences; it is the way we relate to them. In other words, although there may well be differences in terms of how effective various strategies are for ending animal exploitation – some strategies may even be counterproductive – we cannot determine which approaches to focus our efforts on if we are unable to discuss such differences openly. We must approach our areas of difference in such a way that cultivates the kind of productive dialogue that enables us to fully explore the most expedient methods by which to stop the tide of horrific brutality toward nonhuman beings that does not pause while we argue with each other.

Debate versus Dialogue: Radically Different Processes

The debate model, though widely accepted in academia and beyond, has also been criticized by a number of intellectuals, ranging at least as far back as Socrates. In general, when we debate, we seek to “win” an “argument,” to “defend” our position, to demonstrate that our position is “right.” Thus, our goal is inevitably to make the other(s) “lose” and demonstrate that their position is “wrong.” The goal of debate is typically not to learn, to develop to a broader and deeper understanding of an issue, but to further our own existing view against an “opponent” who is equally invested in furthering her or his view. Debate is based on and encourages dualistic, either/or thinking: we are often forced to choose between two (opposing) views and can therefore fail to see the many alternative views that may exist. We can also fail to appreciate the nuances of the issue, or that there may be multiple and equally valid interpretations of the same situation.

The goal of dialogue, on the other hand, is to share ideas and to become aware of multiple perspectives. It is to understand and be understood by the other to garner broader awareness. Through dialogue we are encouraged to examine our own assumptions, consider the limitations of our perspective, and contemplate alternative explanations or courses of action to the issue we are exploring. The dialogue model is much more reflective of a liberatory consciousness, as it requires curiosity, empathy, and compassion, and its objective is mutual understanding and collective empowerment rather than creating “winners” and “losers.”

Apart from the consciousness engendered by each model, if we consider the sheer practical value of these approaches to ending animal exploitation, we can appreciate how debate can pose a serious obstacle to this goal: Achieving our objective of animal liberation depends on developing a comprehensive, complex, sophisticated, and flexible strategic approach to targeting a comprehensive, complex, sophisticated, and ever-changing form of institutionalized oppression. It is unlikely that the reductive, black-and-white rhetoric of debate can ever produce such nuance and analytical richness. Our differences are our strengths.

The Debate Stalemate: Strategy in the Guise of Ideology

Given the problematic nature of debate, why do we continue to apply this model to dealing with our differences? One reason is because we have conflated ideology with strategy, believing that our differences are ideological rather than strategic. Ideology is morally loaded, often engendering a “right/wrong” mentality, and it is subjectively interpreted, which can lead to endless deliberation and ultimately stalemate.

While ideological differences among vegans do of course exist, for many vegans there is often a lack of clarity around when and how ideology and strategy overlap. For instance, when we debate whether it is more effective to campaign for institutional reform than to conduct vegan outreach (assuming these are mutually exclusive approaches, which they are not) the assumption is often that the disagreement is purely ideological, that one is either “abolitionist” or “welfarist.” However, most vegans do in fact share the goal of the abolition of animal exploitation and when we untangle ideology from strategy we can redirect the conversation to how best to bring about this end without getting sidetracked by moral argumentation.

When we wrap ideology around strategy we lose the objectivity necessary to develop a sound strategic analysis. For instance, we treat theory as though it were fact, vehemently arguing for an approach based on no empirical evidence whatsoever. Historical examples of other abolition movements, such as the movement to end African slavery, are useful references but they in no way approximate the hard data necessary to demonstrate the efficacy of a strategic approach to abolishing contemporary animal exploitation. Nor do we have any reliable data proving that welfare reforms will ultimately bring about abolition and do not actually undermine efforts toward that end. And we also treat fact as though it were theory, dismissing, for instance, the plethora of research examining motivational and behavioral factors influencing individual and social change: It is truly astonishing how Nick Cooney’s Change of Heart, a 220-page compilation of psychosocial studies, has at times been treated as though it were mere conjecture.

Strategic analysis is one of the – if not the – most important efforts we can engage in as vegans. Questioning how to most effectively and expediently bring about change for nonhuman animals is vital to our mission. It makes sense to ask whether, for instance, welfare reforms that raise awareness about farmed animal exploitation yet provide another justification for such exploitation are more beneficial than consequential. These are valid questions that require ongoing dialogue. The debate model, however, is not useful when discussing strategy; our investment in being right can prevent us from being effective.

The Myth of the Great Debate: “Welfarism versus Abolitionism”

Another reason vegans employ the counterproductive debate model is because many of us believe that there is a fundamental “welfare-abolition debate” dividing our movement and that we are therefore automatically on one side or the other. In other words, we have bought into The Myth of the Great Debate.

However, while there are those who do seek to debate this issue, the debate itself is largely a construct. A debate, in general, assumes there are (at least) two “opposing” sides, each which is equally invested in promoting its position as right. And to be invested in promoting one’s position, one must generally beidentified with that position. A debate is like a soccer match: there have to be two groups, identified as teams, which are both committed to “winning” the game.

If we examine the history of the “welfare-abolition debate,” however, we see that the vast majority of vegans do not see themselves on a “side” of the “debate” because they are not identified with a particular position – they have not labeled themselves or their position and they have not constructed an identity around it. They simply see themselves as “vegans.” Often they will only consider their position in the “debate” when they are confronted with “choosing” a “side,” but generally they don’t feel any identification with their supposed “side,” nor do they perceive those on the other “side” as in opposition to them and their efforts. Identification with a position has largely been the province of a small group of vegans who have constructed an identity around their strategic-ideological approach and who have constructed labels for both themselves and the other “side.” In our soccer analogy, it’s as if there is only one team trying to win the game; the rest of the individuals don’t even think of themselves as a team and are simply moving across the field, only kicking the ball when it gets in their way.

To be fair, just because only a minority of vegans have a “team” identity, this does not mean that the majority play no role in constructing the debate. It is entirely possible that the small, vocal minority have developed a cohesive group identity because they have felt that their valid and pressing concerns have not been taken seriously by the broader vegan culture. Both “sides” must work to defuse the Myth of the Great Debate.

The Myth of the Great Divide: United and Divided We Stand

One of the dangers of buying into the Myth of the Great Debate is that it can lead us to believe in the Myth of the Great Divide – that there is a deep rift in our movement which is crippling our efforts and undermining our activism. And while it is true that “the debate” is divisive and poses an obstacle to our growth, a cursory analysis of the evolution of the movement over recent years demonstrates without a doubt that we are growing exponentially in size and strength. The rift is not a chasm.

We may also believe in the Myth of the Great Divide because, as ideological minorities, we are often portrayed by the dominant culture as a one-dimensional, homogeneous group. And, like other non-dominant groups, we can feel pressured to present a unified front in order to obtain social power. So it is important for us to remember that we are no less diverse than non-vegans, and we don’t have to – nor should we – share all the same values and beliefs and approaches. When we look at ourselves through the lens of the dominant culture we can fear that if we are not united, we are divided, and act this out in a self-fulfilling prophecy. But we can be, and are, both similar and different.

Divisive Labeling

Our perception of ourselves as fundamentally divided is reinforced at least in part through the construction and appropriation of labels for vegans. While linguistic analysis and accuracy are essential to the continued growth of any social movement, when labels are created and applied unilaterally – when those on the receiving end have been neither participants in the process nor consenting recipients of the labels ascribed to them – the result is confusion, frustration, and a profound undermining of personal dignity and group solidarity.

Nowhere is this dynamic more apparent than through the use of the labels “abolitionist” and “welfarist.” Many vegans find these labels offensive because they are involuntarily either ascribed or denied such labels – they are told they are not who they perceive themselves to be or that they are who they perceive themselves not to be. For instance, the technical definition of “abolitionist” is one who favors the abolition of a practice or institution; in the case of veganism, it would mean anyone whose end goal is the abolition of animal exploitation. And while the majority of vegans arguably perceive themselves to be abolitionists, this term has been redefined to apply to a small group of those who favor a particular ideology and strategic approach to bringing about that end. Thus, anyone whose approach differs, even if their goal is the abolition of animal exploitation, is labeled “welfarist,” which suggests that they simply seek to alleviate, rather than eliminate, such exploitation. While there are certainly animal protection advocates – and greenwashing agribusiness executives – who do not seek abolition, the vast majority of vegans do and are thus rightly offended when they are denied the right to self-identification.

A simple way to address the problem of divisive labeling is to choose terms that are more inclusive and accurate. Indeed, it is likely that such terms were originally constructed to foster greater accuracy and that exclusion has been an unintended consequence. However, the process by which such labeling has been implemented is of even greater concern than the labels themselves. Imposing on others unsolicited labels that are incongruent with their own self-concept is defining their reality. It is denying others the right to their own philosophical orientation. When we define another’s reality, we essentially state that we know better than they do what their core motivations and goals are. Defining another’s reality is a fundamentally disempowering (non-liberatory) process. Whenever we appoint ourselves the expert on another’s experience, we strip the other of their subjectivity, rendering them objects of our projections. We erase their being, projecting onto them our own assumptions about their internal world. This kind of consciousness is antithetical to all we stand for as vegans. Think about it: our advocacy is predicated on preventing humans from defining the reality of other animals, from dismissing or minimizing other beings’ sentience and suffering. We strive to understand the subjective experience of other animals and to encourage others to do the same. Thiswitnessing of other beings, validating rather than defining their reality, is the basis of a vegan consciousness – a liberatory consciousness.

A Vegan Consciousness of Liberation: Beyond the Debate and Across the Divide

Veganism is founded on the principles that inform a liberatory consciousness, and the essence of vegan philosophy is respecting the intrinsic worth of allbeings, humans included. There is no way we will create the kind of world that mirrors our principles if we practice our philosophy selectively rather than holistically. We must commit to bringing a liberatory consciousness to our minute-to-minute lives, to our closest relationships as well as our interactions with strangers, to those with whom we may vehemently disagree as well as those we call comrades. In such a way, we model for non-vegans the principles we are asking them to espouse, we cultivate more fulfilling and sustainable lives as vegans and as activists, and we create a more unified and empowered movement.

A liberatory consciousness reflects curiosity – an open mind – rather than ideological or intellectual rigidity and defensiveness. The goal is to seek truth, to learn and understand, rather than to be “right.” If we value curiosity as a core principle of a liberatory consciousness then we value, rather than disparage, those whose truth-seeking may engender ideas we disagree with. For instance,James McWilliams has come under harsh criticism for changing his stance on certain issues after examining them more fully. Yet, regardless as to whether we agree with his ideas, McWilliams’ openness to information that challenges his existing views and his commitment to seeking (and speaking) truth over being “right” reflects true intellectual integrity.

A liberatory consciousness reflects compassion – an open heart – rather than judgment, shaming, and bullying. The goal is to connect, to empathize with the other, and to empower her or him. Judgment is always shaming, as it reflects an attitude of superiority and causes the other to feel inferior, “less-than.” And bullying is the use of aggression to intimidate another into doing (or believing) what one wants. We may champion a belief system of total liberation, but if our actions are judgmental, shaming, or bullying, we are oppressing rather than liberating. Moreover, when we practice compassion we defuse our anger, and anger is a serious obstacle to productive dialogue. Anger is a normal, appropriate response to injustice, but when we fail to examine and process our anger, it can grow and become chronic. And when we communicate from aplace of anger, we inevitably project hostility. Our words – spoken or written – are pregnant with vitriol, righteously indignant. Anger is a profoundly disconnecting emotion; it creates defensive walls in ourselves and in those with whom we are communicating. If our goal is to be heard, we need the other to be open to us, to feel a connection with us – to sense our compassion.

And a liberatory consciousness reflects the courage to practice curiosity and compassion in our interactions, and our lives. Any interaction that does not reflect curiosity and compassion is inherently non-liberatory.

As vegans, we are asking of the world something that has never been asked of it before. We are seeking radical social transformation, a true revolution of consciousness. Our movement, our voice, is critical to talking the world off the ledge on which it stands. And although we are making our voice heard over the din, just imagine how much our louder our message would be if we stopped yelling at each other. And just imagine the kind of world we could create if we committed to speaking the language of liberation.

The Psychopathy of Illiteracy

» October 28th, 2012

This a completely anecdotal observation but, as far as I can tell, it has to be: people over 40 seem to be more attuned to the ethical implications of eating animals. I’ve pondered this observation for some time. Is it because, by forty, we’ve learned to slow down and think about life in less self-centered terms? Is it because at this point in life many of us have either children or elderly parents or both to care for–people, in other words, who require us to see the world from a different perspective? Is it because, by forty, we’ve maybe worked some of the more destructive hedonist tendencies out our system and come to the realization than limitations can be as seductive as freedom? I’ve no clue.

But this report in the Chronicle of Higher Education really got my neurons firing. It features Bob Hare, a very young scotch-quaffing psychologist who, in addition to being sort of cool, argues that younger people are becoming not just remarkably more self-centered, but more psychopathic! He explains, “I mean, there’s stuff going on nowadays that we wouldn’t have seen 20, even 10 years ago. Kids are becoming anesthetized to normal sexual behavior by early exposure to pornography on the Internet. Rent-a-friend sites are getting more popular on the Web, because folks are either too busy or too techy to make real ones. … The recent hike in female criminality is particularly revealing. And don’t even get me started on Wall Street.” The guy’s 28.

Hare seems to be an eccentric nugget, but his research melds seamlessly with related recent studies, including those by Sara Konrath. According to the Chronicle piece:

Sara Konrath and her team at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research has found that college students’ self-reported empathy levels (as measured by the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, a standardized questionnaire containing such items as “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” and “I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision”) have been in steady decline over the past three decades—since the inauguration of the scale, in fact, back in 1979. A particularly pronounced slump has been observed over the past 10 years. “College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago,” Konrath reports. (Um, Green Mountain College, anyone?)

Konrath concludes that the current generation of self-aborbed post-teens might be “one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident, and individualistic in recent history.”Ouch.

But why? What I found especially compelling about the report was a hypothesized reason for this new failure to empathize: the lack of fiction reading. When I started my section “Fumarole,” I did so because, as I wrote:

This mental/emotional exercise [reading fiction] strikes me as not a bad quality for sowing crucial seeds of animal liberation. Veganism must–not all at once and not immediately–but it must boil down at some point to a deep sense that animals have intrinsic worth and, in turn, certain inalienable rights. This belief requires empathy.  You can say means are separate from the end.  You can say that if we all go vegan just to improve our cholesterol than it doesn’t matter if we lack a sense of empathy for animals. But I disagree. We have to feel for animals, empathize, see the world through their eyes as best we can, emote as we think they might emote. Not to do so while pursuing veganism would be like saying you’re opposed to murder for the sole reason that you might get blood on your clothes. . . .So, novels.

It was thus gratifying to read in the Chronicle that:

Imagining, it would seem, really does make it so. Whenever we read a story, our level of engagement is such that we “mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative,” according to one of the researchers, Nicole Speer. Our brains then interweave these newly encountered situations with knowledge and experience gleaned from our own lives to create an organic mosaic of dynamic mental syntheses. Reading a book carves brand-new neural pathways into the ancient cortical bedrock of our brains. It transforms the way we see the world—makes us, as Nicholas Carr puts it in his recent essay, “The Dreams of Readers,” “more alert to the inner lives of others.” We become vampires without being bitten—in other words, more empathic. Books make us see in a way that casual immersion in the Internet, and the quicksilver virtual world it offers, doesn’t.

Readers whom I adore: don’t neglect Fumarole. :)

Mango the Bird: RIP

» October 22nd, 2012


It is with deep sadness that I say farewell to my longtime friend Mango. She tweeted long before there were tweets, and loved like I never knew a bird could love. The house is very quiet without her. My daughter said, ” I wish she wasn’t dead. I wish she was sleeping.” Me, too.

Howl, Moan, Whimper

» September 1st, 2012


Yesterday Willie the hound dog got to hop in the car for the kids’ school drop-off. As we turned off our street, Willie spotted her friend Boy Cat about 30 yards away, relaxing as only a cat can do on the neighbor’s front porch. Willie said hello (note the intonation shifts in her voice):

Memo-12 1

Five minutes later, at a stoplight (you’ll hear the blinker going like a metronome), she was still missing her friend, and the longing is apparent, again, in the tone:


I appreciate these moments— headaches though they can be—because they are vivid reminders that the creatures with whom we share our lives, like us, are emotional beings. They too can become so overwhelmed with feeling that there’s nothing left to do except let it out. Nothing to do but howl, moan, and whimper. They are beautiful sounds.








Did Animals Make Us Human?

» June 1st, 2012


Did animals make us human? The question has long occupied the field of paleoanthropology. A recent study published in the journal Science, described by the American Scientist as “stunning,” strongly suggests that modern humans indeed dramatically outpaced Neanderthals about 40,000 years ago as a result of domesticating dogs. Exploiting these animals to assist in hunting and hauling food, newly emerged “modern” humans evidently gained an edge over their Neanderthal cohorts. “If Neanderthals did not have domestic dogs and anatomically modern humans did,” writes the American Scientist, these hunting companions would have made all the difference in the modern human-Neanderthal competition.”  (See “Of Interest” to find the story.)

I’ve mentioned the topic of early animal domestication in recent posts to stress my belief that dominance and hierarchy are, for better or worse, necessary aspects of the human-animal relationship. This isn’t to endorse dominance and hierarchy per se; it’s simply to acknowledge a biological reality. The key for us, as I see it, is to make these relationships as fair and non-exploitative as possible. While I have complete respect for animal advocates who aim to eliminate all vestiges of animal domination (a prospect that’s theoretically compelling), I think any idea of an egalitarian and isolated relationship between humans and animals violates the most basic principles underscoring biological life on earth.  We can change culture, and we will.  But I’m not so sure we can alter the fundamental rudiments of biological interaction–of which mutualism is inherent–without moving to another planet and starting the game of life from scratch.

But I don’t want to get hung up on this argument (“the narcissism of small differences . . .”) Instead, I want to draw upon early animal domestication to highlight a different point, one that I’ve been exploring a bit for my book, The Modern Savage. It’s an interpretation of domestication, moreover, that stresses a positive outcome while debunking a common argument made by behavioral omnivores. It is, in essence, pragmatic.

What did it require for humans to domesticate animals? For one, humans had to work to understand animal behavior. Studying animal behavior, in turn, required the assumption that animals had recognizable emotions. You’d have to be braindead not to see, as you worked with animals, that they had recognizable feelings. This 40,000 year history of humans working to comprehend animal thought, feeling, and behavior was endemic to the experience of domestication. It created a bond. And that bond– whether we acknowledge it or not– bears directly on a self-serving claim made by omnivores today.

Here’s how. It’s common to hear advocates of eating animals insist that their choice is justifiable because humans have always done it. Well, la-dee-da, that’s true–humans have always eaten animals!  What this justification fails to note, however, is that the humans have “always done it” argument has a critical context, one spawned only by domestication: while humans were always eating animals, we were also working hard to understand them. Hence the hidden benefit of domestication. Had we never domesticated animals, we might very well have gone about murdering them in the dark woods without any sense that these creatures had meaningful inner lives. They would, from the human perspective, have remained alien objects–soulless, incapable of suffering, and as mechanistic as plant life. You have to live with a being to know what she’s really like. You have to bring her under your roof.

I’m well aware that, throughout this long history, we were trying to discern animal emotions to serve human needs. But this was done at a time when animal exploitation was arguably required for human survival.  Nonetheless, the critical quest to grasp the animal mind never went away: as the earliest modern humans exploited animals, they worked to know them by seeking to understand their emotional lives. This was something they simply assumed they could do. And did. And it worked.  What thus emerged was a fundamental belief that, despite Descartes’ effort to philosophize it out of existence, defined the human-animal relationship: animal feelings were not fundamentally distinct from our own. As Darwin put it, the difference between animal and human emotion is one of degree, not kind.

Times do change. Today we live in a world–industrialized, agriculturally advanced, hyper-connected–that has the ability to grow and feed billions of humans an exclusively plant-based diet. Why would we ever want to do that? Because animals deserve moral consideration. Why do they deserve our moral consideration? Because they have emotional lives. How do we know they have emotional lives? We domesticated them. This is one reason why I do not reject domestication (at least as it played out 40,000 years ago) as inherently wrong. Domestication is ultimately how enlightened humans–when the opportunity was made available to them–came to the conclusion that we should liberate animals from the shackles in which we have long constrained them.

The Downside of Animal Liberation

» May 28th, 2012

So here’s how I envision the earliest animal domestication by pre-humans. Cave-dwelling hominins noticed that when wolves were nearby larger and more dangerous predators stayed away. To encourage the presence of wolves, hominins left scraps of food lying outside the cave. Wolves lingered longer. Dangerous animals kept their distance.

This win-win situation, through a seemingly infinite progression of small steps, eventually culminated in the domestication of dogs. Throughout the process, both hominins (and eventually humans) and animals improved their chances for survival and, if the research on oxytocin release is accurate, improved their levels of happiness and sense of well being.  Of course, one can only imagine how this influenced the saber toothed felines who wanted to eat those boney hominins, but for the wolves and hominins, the relationship worked.

The above scenario could, of course, be entirely wrong. But let’s assume for now that there’s some truth to it. What does this plausible case of evolutionary mutualism say about our contemporary quest for animal liberation? How does it impact the call to eliminate hierarchical relationships with animals?

As my readers know, I’m no advocate of using past events to evaluate the moral legitimacy of present behavior. Nonetheless, the aforementioned example of mutualism suggests that there are perfectly logical and justifiable scenarios for forming relationships with animals that clearly compromise their complete liberation.  There are times when the benefits of dependency seem to outweigh the benefits of total freedom.

Last week I posted a story that highlighted love for companion animals. Anyone who lives with an animal knows the power and purity of such love. But that love, at least to some extent, necessarily derives from systematic domestication, a considerable denial of freedom, and a relationship in which only the human can make the ultimate (if excusable) call of when it’s an appropriate time for a companion to die (if an animal becomes very ill).  We love our companion animals, and our companion animals love us. But nobody can really call the relationship equal. Liberation isn’t possible in this scenario.

So I wonder: Is this a contradiction that advocates of animal rights have to accept as an inescapable reality of sharing the planet with non-human animals?  Are we willing to accept partial liberation and partial dependency? And if so, where do we draw that line? What’s partial?

The human relationship with animals is, I imagine, far more complex that we’ll ever know. The same could be said with the human relationship with humans. But the point that I’ve been fixating on lately is that the call for perfect liberation may rely an on imperfect–or at least unrealistic or poorly defined– understanding of liberation.  (Or, of course, I could just be creating a straw man here in order to justify this post!).

But here’s what I mean: Humans and humans, as well as humans and non-humans, experience life through an interlocking series of emotional, physical, and economic dependencies. Theoretically speaking, every dependency lessens our individual freedom, our quest for perfect liberation, our desire for autonomy. At the same time, though, these relationships can also be the source of inexplicable happiness. Liberation in and of itself–for humans and animals–could be, I would think, a miserable way to live life.

We must make distinctions. Certain relationships are obviously abusive and cannot be tolerated. We should never intentionally exploit an animal to make money or fulfill a desire for luxuries. But are other relationships–ones that might very well compromise the animal’s freedom more than the human’s–allowed? Or do we aim to rule out all conventional and customary human-animal relationships because, more often than not, humans are the ones who play a larger rule in defining the terms of that otherwise mutually beneficial relationship?

Do we seek isolation and autonomy and perfect liberation or do we seek integration and sensible mutualism and relatively fair dependencies? In any case, these are my questions on Memorial Day 2012.



Making the Leap

» May 25th, 2012

I once had a friend tell me, after the death of his dog, that he couldn’t do it again. He couldn’t adopt another animal. “Too fucking painful,” he explained. “You fall in love with them, get to know their habits and quirks, experience the purest joy with them, and then they die.” Plus, he went on, the longer time you live with your companion, the more it hurts when they pass. “No more!,” he vowed. Two months later came home from the animal shelter with a newly rescued dog.  A mutt named Jake.

Everyone who lives with companion animals can empathize with these animal-driven vicissitudes. When Molly, the first dog I was ever privileged to live with as an adult, died, I was overcome. A decade’s worth of emotion poured out of me. It’s common for humans to seek therapy when a companion animal dies. Many of us seem better prepared emotionally for the death of a human we love. We invest ourselves in animals in unique ways. It’s risky–and it’s a risk we can avoid. Still, we keep risking.

None of this is in the least bit irrational. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Animal emotionality is so pure, so unmitigated by artifice, that it lures the human heart unlike few other forces in life are able to do. Molly was a such a beautiful and loving creature. She wanted to please, and every ounce of her being seemed geared to connect meaningfully with the humans she got to know.

My fondest memory with her: she once helped me save a small puppy that had been washed into an overflowing creek after a Texas storm. It’s the only heroic thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s as if I trusted my instincts the way she did and acted. I took the leap. She leaped with me. Unhesitatingly. Loyally.

I raise the memory of Molly because I’m trying to untangle the paradox of how people who love animals can brutally exploit them. More specifically, I’m trying to understand how people who know better–who know that if dogs live with such distilled emotion that the animals they eat do as well–prevent themselves from confronting that contradiction.

Typically, those of us who explore these questions note how every aspect of commercial society is designed to keep us from looking into the face on our plate. True, but what I’m after here goes beyond a Horkheimer and Adorno cultural interpretation. It takes us to Freud, or at least into the realm of our deepest psychological tactics and defenses.

Consider my friend’s initial reaction to the death of his animal companion. He was admitting that we make ourselves vulnerable when we open our heart to the love an animal offers. We expose ourselves. Humans drop their defenses when they choose to love animals and, in so doing, they open themselves to the prospect not only of emotional pleasure, but intense pain. It’s scary, and thus many of us rely heavily on denial and suppression when questions about animals cut too close to the emotional bone.  Our pain prevents us giving moral consideration to theirs.

All of this is a longish prelude to a snippet of a hypothesis. Could it be that we refuse to make the connection that our companion animals are instructing us to make because we’re afraid of intensifying our vulnerability? Could we be terrified, as a species, of coming to terms with and explaining what we’ve done? Are we fearful of losing control?  As a result of the repressed mental shuffling that defines the human mind, have we decided, perhaps without even knowing it, that it just makes more psychic sense to leave well enough alone?

In this tragically paradoxical way, might it be that the human heart, so easily touched by the companion animals we love, has contacted the human mind, so capable of distracting us from the truth, and instructed it to not to make the leap? I’ve no answers. Just this hypothesis.

But I do know this: if Molly was alive, she would be lying next to me right now. She did that. She never left my feet when I wrote. It never made me feel powerful, just humbled. And vulnerable. Every day, she made the leap. It’s been six years. I miss her.


Food Movements and Food Courts: A Thought from Sioux Falls

» April 14th, 2012

The Food Movement wants to reform our broken food system. This is an admirable goal that I fully support. Where I differ from the Food Movement is that I want it to engage an essential question: how do we ethically justify commodifying, exploiting, and killing sentient animals for food we don’t need?

This is a discussion that’s long overdue. It’s happening–but only among philosophers, some theologians and legal scholars, and animal rights advocates. The leaders of the Food Movement won’t go near it. And the longer the movement avoids the issue the more its chances of achieving meaningful  change diminish. I’m inspired and in full agreement with the movement when its leaders call for food justice, fair access, living wages, improved welfare, and the end of corporate abuse and unfair subsidies.  But . . .

What confuses me is why, in light of these concerns, the movement fails to justify its implicit promotion of unneeded suffering. Raising an animal to kill and eat, or raising an animal to purloin is milk and eggs, causes suffering. We don’t need meat, dairy, and eggs–in fact, most humans would be much healthier without these products. So, I genuinely wonder: why is it okay to produce these goods?  To say we’ve always done it, or that these products taste good, or that its “natural,” or that the animals were raised with respect, or that I killed the animal myself–these aren’t legitimate answers. They’re evasions.  They beg the question.

I just walked through a Food Court at a mall in Sioux Falls, SD (the town where I’m giving a talk this evening). My experience reminded me that not only am I glad I’m not a teenager, but that Americans are killing themselves with junk food that’s overwhelmingly based on processed animal products. My mind wanders in these settings. I think to myself: will currently unthinking consumers ever be willing to radically reduce the amount of animals they eat? I’m deeply skeptical that that will ever happen.

Then I wonder something else:  how many of these consumers gorging on animal products live with a companion animal for whom they deeply care?  And I wonder how many of them would think differently of eating animals if they knew that the animals they were eating shared so many qualities with the animals waiting for them to come home. And I wonder if, based on this connection, they could break the speciesist barrier and stop eating animals. And, for a moment, however naively, I feel a spark of hope.

Monkey Business: The Dubious Role of Animal Experiments

» April 3rd, 2012

Relatively recent reports confirm that the National Institute of Health (NIH) spent almost four million dollars over the last ten years funding research into how monkeys react to methamphetamine, heroin, PCP, and cocaine. This particular study placed special emphasis on how addiction to these narcotics influenced primate menstruation. When CNSNews  caught wind of this choice federal expenditure they awarded it a “What Were They Smoking?” award. What rationale, it wondered, could justify “sponsoring an outrageous government spending program that sends taxpayer dollars up in smoke”?


No doubt, the study was a colossal waste of money. But the fact that taxpayer dollars went up in smoke strikes me as insignificant compared to the fact that monkeys were transformed by scientists into toxic dump sites. Not only are monkeys sentient, self-referential beings capable of feeling empathy and experiencing autonomy, but they also, as has been recently confirmed, exhibit a clear sense of altruism, morality, and fairness. As Frans de Waal, a professor of psychology at Emory and author of the recent study documenting these primate qualities, explained, “There is enough evidence  . . .  to agree that some of the stepping stones towards human morality can be found in other animals.”

Regrettably, most people aren’t ready go there. Indeed, a common defense of animal-based research–and animal objectification in general–instinctively falls back on a rigid conception of the species barrier to justify denigrating sentient non-humans. We are human, they are not, end of story. This line of defense is not only simplistic, but it’s deeply rooted in, among other traditions, a fundamentalist Christian belief that morality is granted by God exclusively to humans in order to distinguish us from non-human animals, to whom we’re evidently superior and, as a result, in a position to own, control, and exploit.

But there’s a more scientific way to critique the common practice of ending compassion and morality at the species barrier. Instead of issuing a fundamental distinction between the human and non-human animal world, basic evolutionary biology conceptualizes all animals on a finely-grained continuum of anatomical and cognitive differentiation. Forgive the following block quotations, but in explicating this continuum, the following scientists cast the federally funded drug monkeys in a new light, one that makes it much harder to justify their exploitation on the basis of their non-human status.

Donald Griffin, the father of cognitive ethology–the science of animal thought–writes:

 The central nervous system of multi-cellular animals all operate by means of the same basic processes regardless of the species or even the phylum in which they are found. Because we know that at least one species does indulge in conscious thinking, and take it for granted that conscious and unconscious thinking result from activities of the central nervous system, we have no solid basis for excluding a priori the possibility that conscious thinking takes place in any animal with a reasonably well-organized central nervous system.  

Bernard E. Rollin, a leading authority on veterinary ethics, echoes this theme of continuity in his book Animal Rights and Human Morality:

 For Darwin himself, and for the nineteenth-century biologists (at least in England and America) who carried forth his ideas, thought and feeling in animals was an inevitable consequence of phylogenic continuity. If morphological and physiological traits are evolutionarily continuous, so, too, are psychological ones.” Rollin deems this idea central to “the foundational theory of modern biology.

No less a thinker than the late Stephen Jay Gould has similarly complicated the human/non-human barrier by highlighting the problem of excluding humans from the family Pondigae (the family which includes the great apes). He writes in The Dinosaur in the Haystack:

Humans arise within the Pondigae, and cannot represent a separate family, lest we commit the genealogical absurdity of uniting two more distant forms (chimps and gorillas) in the same family and excluding a third creature (humans) more closely related to one of those two united species. I surely cannot claim to be more closely related to my uncle than to my brother, but we make exactly such a statement when we argue that chimps are closer to gorillas than to humans.

If Griffin, Rollin, and Gould are right–that is, if the deepest principles of evolutionary biology prevent us from limiting the scope of moral concern to humans–then the act of pumping heroin into an ape, even for the noble purposes of research, becomes profoundly troubling. It must be acknowledged that the act of using non-humans as research subjects is based on an unspoken paradox: scientists use non-human because they are not like us and, at the same time, they use them because they are like us.