Archive for the ‘Animal Sentience’ Category
As a writer who covers animal issues, I routinely get alerts from public relations firms seeking ink on the case du jour of animal abuse. These press releases typically detail horrific instances of decrepitude—piglets being flung to the ground and tossed into the trash and the like. Earlier this month, though, I was brought up short by an unexpected subject line in an email from one of these doomsday firms.
It read: “Did a Monkey Pick Coconuts for Your Coconut Water?”
The gist of the story is that macaques—nimble little monkeys—are evidently being bred and trained throughout Southeast Asia to scurry up trees, scamper across limbs, reach their tiny hands into clusters of leaves, pluck off bunches of coconuts, and deliver the goods to their human caretakers, who then manufacture and sell a variety of products, including coconut water, pulp, and milk.
As you’d expect, the monkeys excel at their job. Males typically retrieve upwards of 1,600 coconuts a day; females about 600. This is in sharp contrast to humans who, with our comparatively poor climbing skills, can harvest around 80. If the phrase “exponentially increased labor productivity” leaps to mind, you’re probably not alone. But my press release went dark. It called the arrangement “monkey slavery.”
Monkey slavery? Seems a bit extreme. . . . Read more here.
A recent study found that ants offer a better form of agricultural insect control than chemical insecticides. If indeed true, this finding would appear to be excellent news for the prospect of veganic farming. I therefore find the idea very exciting.
With predatory insects, farmers could grow plants for people to eat without exterminating other insects with toxic chemicals–something that’s routinely done today, even in organic agriculture. The only catch here is that we’d have to breed and deploy insects such as ants to do the dirty work that the chemicals once did. They’d have to, in essence, set one insect species up to slaughter another.
This drawback is only a drawback, of course, if we are inclined to grant insects status as sentient beings. If we do that, we are under a clear obligation to treat insects with the same moral consideration as pigs, cows, and chickens.
As such, we could not condone an arrangement whereby insects are, for all intents and purposes, domesticated in order to serve us as forced armies in the vegetable patch and fruit orchard. True, the slaughter would be sort of natural, but still, we’d be in the position of rigging slaughter to serve human interests, something that animal rights activists typically find anathema.
Fortunately, there’s little convincing evidence that insects are sentient. I thus see this recent finding as yet another reminder of why we should not grant insects sentient status. The prospect of doing so undermines the more achievable goals that animal advocates are trying to enact for animals we know for sure to be sentient and demanding of moral consideration.
Fact: driving a car kills animals.
This killing is not necessarily intentional. But, because we know that killing insects, squirrels, chipmunks, deer, birds, and so on is inevitable, the killing cannot be called completely unintentional either. Driving is the collateral damage of getting from point A to point B, a reluctant form of animal sacrifice we allow in order to take journeys that add immensely to the quality of human life.
I have noted elsewhere that driving presents the vegan with a conundrum, and this proposition has been met considerable resistance. So allow me to think out loud on this.
I believe driving presents a conundrum because vegans aim to avoid exploiting animals whenever they possibly can. The decisions to not eat them, wear them, or exploit them for research or entertainment offer the most obvious ways of fulfilling this larger mission. Vegans I know do these things admirably well and, without doubt, they are making the world a better place for animals.
But the avoidance of eating, wearing, or exploiting animals for research or entertainment is veganism’s low hanging fruit. It’s relatively easy, or at least something most of us can realistically do right now and right away. The fact that only about 1-3 percent of Americans do it is sort of distressing, but still, it can be done with little preparation or alteration to one’s way of life.
But driving? For obvious reasons, driving is much, much harder to avoid. But let’s face it: it can be avoided. Many people, in fact, radically alter their lives to avoid driving. I can sit here and assure you that I will not do this. But, fact is, I could. Fact is, my consideration of animal welfare does not extend far enough for me to make that sacrifice. Any vegan who drives must, I would venture, have to agree with this difficult admission.
The common response to this conundrum has been to stretch the definition of veganism to include the idea of doing what’s “pragmatically possible.” Not eating animals is pragmatically possible, it is said. To stop driving is not.
This move, however, doesn’t really work, if for no other reason than the fact that “pragmatic” introduces a big gray area hiding a slippery slope. Giving up driving might not be pragmatic for you, but for the next person, giving up the chicken soup that grandma makes every Christmas Eve isn’t pragmatic, either. Being ostracized from your family over not eating a meal that is going to be made either way is not pragmatic. Pragmatism, in essence, is inherently relative. Nobody can place limits on what it is.
To the extent that driving forces vegans into a reliance on pragmatism, it forces us to acknowledge that, in reality, a less clear distinction separates the vegan from the non-vegan than is popularly thought. For example, a vegan who does not eat meat but drives every day will kill more animals than the non-vegan who never drives but eats grandma’s chicken once a year to preserve familial harmony.
That’s a tough thing to acknowledge. But we must. So, perhaps instead of thinking about the world as comprised of vegan and non-vegans, we might consider thinking about the world as full of people who exist on a continuum of causing harm to animals. The closer we move toward not harming animals, the better. But the fact is, even those who aim to radically reduce their impact on animal suffering—by not eating, wearing, or exploiting animals for entertainment and research—still harm animals through decisions that they can avoid but don’t.
Trying to cover up that reality with the label “vegan” may do nothing to help the animals we harm.
The phrase “animal rights” gets tossed around a lot these days. More often than not it’s mentioned in the context of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. But it really shouldn’t be—and those who reflect on the ethics of meat eating should understand why. Singer’s case against eating animals, influential as it is, never grants animals rights. It only acknowledges that sentient animals have morally significant interests and that, as a result, we should make decisions whereby the greatest good is achieved for the greatest number.
As I pointed out in my last column, the utilitarian calculus has two implications for meat eating. One, it makes eating meat sourced from agriculture pretty much a moral impossibility—the pleasure of taste can never outweigh the suffering of slaughter. Two, in its denial of inherent rights to animals, utilitarianism creates space for other forms of ethical meat consumption—so long as overall goodness is maximized (which, I argue, it can be).
Because of this latter loophole, “ethical vegans”—vegans who believe it’s always morally wrong to eat animals—often ditch Singer’s utilitarianism in favor of a rights-based approach to animal ethics. The defining text for this position is Tom Regan’s the Case for Animal Rights, an admirably readable and persuasive argument underscored by a key premise: Animals who are “the subject of a life” have intrinsic moral worth. That intrinsic moral worth grants to animals valid claims against being harmed. This includes, for starters, being killed and eaten for dinner by hungry humans.
Read more here.
The Daily Pitchfork, which I hope you will consider subscribing to, is off to a fantastic start. Our most recent piece is an excellent article by Vickery Eckhoff on the sloppy reporting on wild horses in the American west. It is a careful and somewhat jaw dropping revelation of how extensively journalists twist messages to avoid upsetting the status quo. Enjoy. Subscribe!
Michael Moss’ powerful New York Times’ investigation into the United States Department of Agriculture’s Meat Animal Research Center (“U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer In Quest For Profit”) predictably outraged readers. The collective angst came not just because of the center’s ghoulish and inept experimentation; not just because the research animals suffered to boost profits in the livestock industry; but because the public learned that taxpayers had footed the bill — and had been doing so — for fifty years.
Compare that discovery to the recent media attention given to a very similar program, one involving even more animals, conducted to boost livestock industry profits, costing even more taxpayer dollars, and degrading millions of acres of public rangelands in the American West: The Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burros Program (WHB).
Read more here.
The following quote is from George Monbiot’s most recent Guardian column. It’s worth reading in full, but for now:
“[W]hile researching my book Feral, I came to see that our perception of free-range meat has also been sanitised. The hills of Britain have been sheepwrecked – stripped of their vegetation, emptied of wildlife, shorn of their capacity to hold water and carbon – all in the cause of minuscule productivity. It is hard to think of any other industry, except scallop dredging, with a higher ratio of destruction to production. As wasteful and destructive as feeding grain to livestock is, ranching could be even worse. Meat is bad news, in almost all circumstances.”
That’s good stuff. He continues:
“So why don’t we stop? Because we don’t know the facts, and because we find it difficult even if we do. A survey by the US Humane Research Council discovered that only 2% of Americans are vegetarians or vegans, and more than half give up within a year. Eventually, 84% lapse. One of the main reasons, the survey found, is that people want to fit in. We might know it’s wrong, but we block our ears and carry on.”
And he concludes:
“Rather than mindlessly consuming meat at every meal, we should think of it as an extraordinary gift: a privilege, not a right. We could reserve meat for a few special occasions, such as Christmas, and otherwise eat it no more than once a month.”
So here’s the question I’m left with: is it more achievable to attain complete abstinence or, as Monbiot suggests, to treat meat as a rare luxury, a once a month kind of indulgence? I realize the ethics of this choice are clear. But what about the pragmatics? I mean, that 84 percent number is fairly daunting.
My last post created quite a buzz among ethical vegans who categorically declare that it’s wrong to harm all animals unnecessarily—insects included. Trust me when I say that I understand how raising doubts about insect sentience makes vegans uncomfortable. Angry, even. Any line drawn through the animal world bearing on the extent of our moral consideration is a line that cuts right into vegan identity politics, complicating as it does the entire concept of veganism as an activist response to systemic injustice.
All that said, here we go. I want to suggest here that insects do not warrant our moral consideration because they do not feel pain, or at least anything qualitatively comparable to what farm animals experience when they suffer. Of course, I cannot make this case with airtight certainty (nobody can)—do note, though, that the same can be said for the plants we eat—but my reading of the evidence (an ongoing process that leaves me open to change) currently compels me to argue that insects are legitimately (ethically speaking) edible. We can, in essence, put them to good use in ways that reduce the harm we cause to animals who we know without a shadow of a doubt suffer. And if we can do that, we should. We are, in other words, not only justified in eating insects. We are obligated to do so.
Begin with anatomy, which is essential to pain. Pain is a sensation that goes beyond the stimulation of neurons. The stimulation of neurons might elicit a response that appears to be a reaction against pain. But, considering insects’ primitive anatomical state (compared to animals that clearly suffer), we cannot necessarily trust the external appearance of such a response, much less impose upon it a narration of pain.
As the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) explains, pain is an emotional and subjective experience, one that requires a higher ordered, much more complex nervous system. Insects lack this. They have nothing remotely close to it. Specifically, they do not have the nociceptors that transmit pain signals through our spinal cords and to our brains where the thalamus sends those signals into the limbic system for interpretation. Because insects lack the structures that foster this process—one that’s essential to feeling pain—they lack the ability to experience pain subjectively and emotionally.
Considered from an evolutionary perspective, the matter of insect pain is that much less plausible. It makes perfect sense for insects—given the biological niches they occupy, their existence as a social collective (most of the time), their relatively brief lifespans (a matter of days in some cases), and their sheer numbers—to lack a pain apparatus. We assume too easily that pain is essential for biological survival. This claim might hold true for an individual, survival-of-the-fittest view of life, which many animals require. But the collective survival of a species (such as insects) could conceivably benefit from the exact opposite: not feeling pain. Several insects propagate themselves through cannibalistic mating practices. Most famously, the female praying mantis will bite off the male’s head mid-coitus. Within the male’s head you do not find a brain, but rather a little enzyme package that protects the female if copulation is successful. From an evolutionary angle, pain would (to say the least!) inhibit this critical, if weird, symbiotic process.
Taking this logic even further, consider what pain accomplishes for the animals that experience it: it teaches them how to solve problems. This implies a life-span that accommodates a pain-driven learning process. Pain, after all, is integral to a trial-and-error process of negotiation with the external world. I would argue that one of the reasons that insects breed so effectively is to avoid trial-and-error—which can be resource wasteful—altogether. Problems, instead, are solved collectively through breeding efficiency, not through an individual insect drawing on pain to get it right the next time. In essence, insects have no evolutionary need for pain.
The default move here is to argue that we should err on the side of caution and assume they have a pain sensation. To do this, though would also require, given the research done on the behavioral responsiveness of plants, that we take the same precaution for plants. That we cannot do. Moreover, provided the pain that would be spared to obviously sentient animals if we transitioned to an insect-based diet, it would be irresponsible, or something close to it, for us to project the capacity for pain on animals that have no evident apparatus for experiencing it, much less an evolutionary reason for doing so.
Ironies abound in our treatment of animals. Melissa Cronin at The Dodo reported today that “The CEO of a catering giant will be stepping down after video footage revealed him kicking a doberman puppy in a Vancouver, Canada elevator. Des Hague was the CEO of Centerplate, a $6 million company with over 350 clients, many of them major sports stadiums.”
The public outrage dictating the resignation of a corporate giant–the guy’s full name is Desmond Hague– is a noteworthy display of justice for sentient creatures. One is inevitably put in the mind of Michael Vick and the remarkable public censure that enveloped him after he was busted for running a dog fighting ring in 2007. Although one should never underestimate the motivating power of simple self-righteous condemnation, I think it’s safe to say that the hammer of public opinion came down on this CEO-dog abuser for the basic reason that we know causing gratuitous suffering to an animal is whacked.
Recall, though, that this man was the CEO of a catering firm, one whose menu includes every kind of animal-based product you could ever want for your event. Here’s one of its menus. So, it seems only fair to ask: why wasn’t this man taken to the woodshed much earlier? He was, after all, profiting from the sale of animals who were not only abused, but slaughtered so his firm could rake in millions. What some nameless and faceless low-wage worker did to those animals in an abattoir doesn’t compare to this CEO’s crazed outburst against his poor dog.
The fact that the vast majority of people calling for the CEO’s head would have happily eaten from one of his catering menus confirms something disturbing. Not only is our moral consideration of animals arrestingly situational, but we lack the ability to disentangle context from principle. Place some salt and pepper besides a cloth napkin and fine silver, arrange the plates in a circle at a convention, bond with friends over the steak on your plate, and all is fine. Kick a dog in a lift and your a pile of shit.
There’s something about eating animals that we raise for food—perhaps the intuitive sense that we know it’s wrong to raise them for food—that leads meat eaters to engage in some far-fetched and ill-advised stunts. The most recent example involves a municipal proposal in Omaha, Nebraska that will allow consumers to walk into a feedlot, choose the animal they will see die, and witness the beast’s slaughter before eating the tortured creature’s flesh. The program is called “open meat market.”
There are several possible ways to interpret this proposal, which now sits before Omaha’s city council. One: it’s barbaric, doing little more than indulging our basest tendency to get off on absolute dominance over another sentient animal’s body. Two: it’s honest, bringing the carnivorous consumer closer to the bone of violence endemic to all animal products. Three: it’s logical, merely an extension of choosing our fish from a Chinese restaurant tank. Four: it’s a cheap shot, yet another slow food exhibitionist gambit engineered to nurture a blood-stained sense of “community.” I could go on.
Whatever the reason, none of them could possibly justify this flagrant, municipally sponsored, act of stupidity. Oppose it here. And take perverse solace in these sort of events as they emerge. To me, it means advocates of raising and killing animals are running scared, struggling to make what we’re increasingly realizing is sick seem normal, worthy of being treated like a game.
Like all games, this will end. It must.
I’m not sure where I’ve heard it but I know I heard it because it won’t leave my head: vegans are saying things such as “I don’t care what you eat so long as it’s not an animal product” or “being vegan means not having to say I’m sorry to what’s on your plate.” I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s the gist of what seems to be all over the vegan social media. Probably has been for a while, but I’m often slow on the uptake.
I do know this, though: vegans should avoid these kind of slogans. It wrongly indicates that because you, virtuous vegan, have made one ethical choice about how to eat—avoiding animals— that all other ethical matters bearing on food are irrelevant. Needless to say, eating animals is just one of many ethical concerns that accompany the production and consumption of food. Many consumers who eat animals approach their diets with as much ethical deliberation as vegans do (maybe more), but they do so by focusing on other concerns–very real concerns such as labor treatment, ecological impact, and public health.
In general—as the aforementioned slogans indicate—ethical vegans do a mediocre job at best integrating their concerns about animal rights into these (equally?) critical moral issues (to be fair, those focused on other concerns aren’t so cooperative either when it comes to animal rights). One reason for this reticence may be that incorporating other ethical concerns into our choice-making matrix blurs the ethical clarity that so many vegans take for granted. As much as we might like to think that eating ethically is simply about not eating animals, that’s only the start of things. In fact, by making the noble decision to bother about animals at all, you open up many other cans of worms—and things can get sort of messy real quick. From this perspective, you can see why so many intelligent people put their hands over their ears and say, “I don’t want to know!”
Consider this scenario: you have a choice between eating roadkill and eating a plate of vegetables harvested by child slaves. If the slogan “I don’t care what you eat so long as it’s not an animal product” holds, then you are forced by an overly rigid conceptualization of veganism to exploit child slaves rather than eat an animal that in no way was intentionally harmed for your consumption. You are, in other words, forced by your belief system to make an arguably immoral choice. That’s an extreme case, but one could easily see how, as you leave the margins, the decisions become veritable toss-ups. For example, what if the choice was between eating oysters (questionably sentient critters) or a bowl of rice grown with water diverted from a subsistence village suffering a drought? Anyway, you get the idea.
I’ve often criticized carnivorously-inclined sustainable food people for putting “soil ahead of sentience.” But I’m coming to realize that there can also be ethical problems with placing sentience ahead of soil. More to the point, I’m coming the difficult realization that eating ethically is not about drawing a line in the sand (soil?) between plants and animals and mouthing a bunch of slogans about your superior choice. It is, for sure, about not eating animals raised to be food, but it’s also about merging that choice with so many others that deserve our ethical attention.
If you’ve made the choice to go vegan, well done. But now the real work begins.