Archive for the ‘Animal Sentience’ Category
The outpouring of intelligent thoughtfulness in response to yesterday’s oyster post has my wheels spinning more than ever, even if I’m not yet convinced that, from any animal rights perspective, it’s wrong to eat an oyster. But here’s something to chew on: maybe being convinced is overrated.
Creatively speaking, I found myself wandering into some strange new territory as a result of the collective commentary. Some background: the responses that I found most insightful were the ones that sought to reconcile a concern for animal rights with an imminently rational lever of action. In other words, I appear to be instinctively drawn to arguments that blend morality and rationality as a foundation for change. I doubt that I’m alone here. These explanations, although in this case not fully convincing on the oyster question, were consistent with how my mind attempts to justify human behavior.
The creative part comes in my (less instinctual) contemplation of the power of irrationality. I think it’s safe to say that the human approach to eating is more irrational than rational. The vast majority of what we place into our mouths, unless it’s done with utter thoughtlessness, is justified on grounds that do not hold up to reason. The inherent irrationality of eating is, in part, a legacy of commercial choice and the marketing culture that purposely confuses it. It’s also the result of culture in general, religions, and traditions—much of which makes little sense as well. We are convinced to eat the way we eat by forces we hardly understand and most assuredly cannot fully explain. In this case, eating is very much like sex.
That said, rather than seeking to imbue our eating habits with pure rationality—probably a fool’s errand that goes against the grain of human nature—I wonder if it makes more strategic sense to promote the abstinence of eating animals even if that abstinence does not always qualify as rational. What I mean to say here is that there might be great value—at least when it comes to reducing animal suffering— in attempting to stigmatize the consumption of animals on logically flimsy grounds, especially when we find ourselves dealing with the marginal cases, such as the invasive wild boars or lionfish mentioned by John T. Maher.
Or oysters. I wrote yesterday that I choose to err on the side of caution when it comes to oysters. The implication was that this was perfectly rational, a personal expression of the precautionary principle. Maybe it is. But in another sense, as I explore my deeper motivation for keeping oysters on the “no eat list,” I’m realizing that, on some level, my aim is simply to stigmatize the act of eating animals. What matters to me first and foremost is the cultural process of stigmatization. Justifications can follow. And whether they follow convincingly is really not of much concern to me. And that’s not rational.
In any case, I appreciate the thought-provoking comments. Whether you are aware of it or not, this blog has come in for a bit of criticism by some activists for being over intellectualized and under actualized. In other words: too much thinking and not enough doing. All I can say is that every movement in history that has mattered has successfully braided thought and action into a coherent whole. Beyond that, commentary like yesterday’s obviates any need for a defense of what we do. Onwards.
I’ll admit that oysters give me a case of the fits. When I ate them, I liked them. A lot. I don’t eat them anymore, but when people ask me why I forgo the oyster I have a harder time justifying my choice than I do for pigs, cows, chickens, and other obviously sentient animals. The literature on oyster sentience—in so far as I’ve broached it—seems ambiguous at best on the question of oyster sentience and, given that I rely so heavily on the clear non-sentience of plants as my justification for eating plants, I do find the oyster dilemma to be a real one. The best I can say right now is that I prefer to err on the side of caution, awaiting evidence that definitively proved oyster non-sentience, evidence that I doubt will ever come. That said, “fruit of the sea” does not have a totally implausible ring to me.
This topic comes up a lot, I know. In one of the more intriguing cases, it came up a few years ago on Rhys Southan’s incisive blog Let Them Eat Meat. Check it out here. You will be annoyed by it, I imagine, and for good reason—Southan is extremely thoughtful and methodical in his argument that oysters pose a challenge to veganism. Notably, the responses that came into his post to counter his position did little to unravel his points, a failure that Southan himself summarizes with aplomb.
Sadly, it’s not enough in the instance of oysters to simply say that “I’m a vegan and therefore I don’t eat animals.” We need more a more qualitative justification than that. Nor is it really enough to say, as I do, that oysters might be sentient and therefore should be avoided. Insects might be sentient, too, but all vegans kill them on a daily basis in ways that, in many cases, could be avoided. In any case, I’m not trying to be a pain in the ass by granting some legitimacy to the oyster dilemma. I’m only writing out of sheer curiosity and intellectual honesty.
It goes without saying that I’m looking to readers for answers—ones that I will send to Southan to see if he’d like to respond. Rest assured, there will be no oyster slurping for me. But I’d like to have a better justification for my abstinence.
It’s Easter and, in honor of some strange mash-up of religion and commercial culture, millions of eggs will be treated as the moral equivalent of trash. Calls for plastic eggs will go unheeded under the impression that they’re “inauthentic,” as if belief in a bunny delivering chicken eggs is somehow an example of authenticity. Anyway, not my favorite holiday, Easter.
The industrial egg complex promotes eggs as if they were as essential to human life as air and water. Easter becomes an opportunity to illuminate the healthful impacts of our ova-obession, one too often, in the industry’s eyes, threatened by dubious references to the nastiest word in the egg industry’s language: cholesterol. Even those who should know better routinely succumb to the industry’s rhetorical project. Last summer, a writer at Atlantic.com explained, “The dangers of cholesterol are over-hyped, and we can’t underestimate the value of unprocessed, high-mineral foods.” (So, the production of an egg is not a “process”?)
What’s not overhyped—what’s really ignored—are the welfare atrocities obscured by the elegant simplicity of an egg. Even the most educated consumers eat eggs under the assumption that no blood was spilled to produce the yellow goo on their toast. They know nothing about the fact that, at the hatcheries that provide egg-layers, male chicks are tossed alive into grinders or gassed to death. Or that their bodies are recycled into value-added organic fertilizer or feed. Every egg yolk runs with the blood of a terrified male chick.
Life for the female survivors is marked by systematic exploitation. The birds are debeaked, jammed into crates so tight they cannot spread their wings, and are molted (underfed) to pump out eggs at a rate conducive to market demand. These birds develop osteoporosis, uterine prolapse, and lung disorders from the toxic ammonia wafting around them. Thus life goes on for about 10 months until, typically, production drops. Then it’s the hen’s turn to be killed. When that day comes the hens are tossed into trucks—animal welfare laws do not apply to chickens so they usually arrive at the slaughterhouse with broken bones—and sent to death so school kids can eat chicken strips and grow obese.
Consumers who choose free-range or pastured eggs (or even backyard eggs) are equally complicit in the systemic exploitation endemic to the chicken industry. Conditions might (sometimes) be improved for chickens in non-industrial settings, but consumers are still affirming the cultural practice of eating the unfertilized eggs of an owned animal and, by doing so, they implicitly empower the industrial producers to work even harder to churn out more eggs for more people (and industries) who are always going to seek the cheapest omelette. Can you imagine Americans sourcing all Easter eggs from “humane” farms? Of course not. And the reason is obvious: at the end of the day the egg is an object, and homo economicus will always behave as predictably as gravity.
But the problems with non-industrial egg production go beyond this abstract criticism. The hard reality is that all the feel-good descriptions—free range, pastured, pampered, etc.—are, in practice, less humane than they appear to be. Whenever humans handle animals for profit—be it cultural or commercial profit—the results will be a less than appetizing example of exploitation cynically characterized as benevolence. Consider this account of a family-owned, organic, free-range chicken farm (excerpt is from Jewel Johnson’s Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary):
Looking past the hens at the gate I saw endless chaos. The sound of screaming birds was never ending, and the building was so long I couldn’t see anywhere near to the end. There was no straw, and there was no wood to perch on. There was nothing natural in that building other than death and suffering.
None of these details would make it to the label. The author’s general impression of suffering was soon manifested in an individual chicken:
I looked down before taking a step to find a sick bird hunched down with her face on the floor. Her neck was dangling down as if she was in sorrow. I scooped her up and head out of the building. I looked around for anyone to let them know they had a sick bird, to find no one. I took her to my certified avian veterinarian to see what we could do for her. She was severely dehydrated and emaciated. Her beak was clipped short and it looked raw, leading me to believe she was just unable to eat due to the mutilation of beak clipping from the hatchery she came from. I begged my vet to do anything to help her.
That’s what happens on a farm where animals are treated comparatively well. I do not want to suggest that there aren’t farms that are more attentive to the welfare of hens. There are. I do, however, want to reiterate that any example of humane-treatment will always be the exception that proves the rule: when hens are owned by humans to produce a good for human use, they will never be treated with the dignity that they deserve. More to the point, they will almost always be stripped of all dignity so we can waste their bodily by-products on a holiday ritual that asks us to take a bunny hiding eggs seriously enough to kill untold numbers of real chickens.
Time to pick on Mother Jones again. Recently, the magazine’s food and agriculture blogger, a dogged journalist with an inveterate hatred of factory farming, posted a piece about a class of pesticides that are evidently killing birds as well as bees. “The Threat to Birds That No One Is Talking About,” the headline reads, and, to be sure, very few people are in fact discussing the impact of neonicotinoids on wildlife other than honey bees. In any case, since we all agree that unnecessarily killing birds is wrong, this is a story we should be grateful that the Mother brought to our attention.
But wait! It turns out we really don’t all agree that unnecessarily killing birds is wrong. In fact, the very same blogger who brought the bird threat to our attention has suggested, in many other articles, that we kill birds. Chickens, in particular. A lot them. Of course, they must be humanely raised and lovingly pastured and organically fed, but if we can meet those prerequisites it is, in contrast to wild birds, perfectly okay to kill them. In fact, this blogger has put his beliefs into action by raising animals in bucolic bliss on a North Carolina farm and selling their flesh to local consumers.
The writer is Tom Philpott, and his investigations into the many abuses of factory farming, as noted, are first-rate. However, Philpott, in his kill-or-not-to kill dilemma, reflects a common blind-spot shared by many leading critics of the industrial food system. In their world view, spraying a pesticide that kills birds that have lived naturally in the wild is clearly worth our outrage while slicing the neck of bird raised in captivity is, by contrast, just fine.
What allows this blind spot to persist, I would argue, is a palate-serving distortion of environmentalism. In the pesticide case, there’s the sense that it’s unnatural to interfere with nature by dousing the landscape with pesticides so powerful that they kill birds. The death of birds is, in the Mother Jones framework, considered a tragedy not because birds are sentient creatures with intrinsic worth, but because their harm is a manifestation of an arrogant human intervention into natural processes. Killing birds with synthetic substances is, in essence, an environmental foul. Seems fair enough.
But in the pastured chickens case, there’s a competing sense that killing them with our own hands is fine. Indeed, raising animals under “natural” conditions is said to honor the basic tenets of environmentalism–especially in contrast to industrial farming–and, as a result, offers a justifiable reason to slaughter birds. In this instance, the dead birds are a manifestation of a noble environmental intention (and our desire to fulfill some foodie fantasy). It’s as if the nod to nature by placing birds on pasture deems the method “environmental.” But does this add up?
Honor both wild and domesticated birds as deserving complete (rather than partial) moral consideration, and you’ll quickly see that it doesn’t. Not in the least. There’s no meaningful difference, ethically or environmentally, in spraying a pesticide that kills birds and killing the birds yourselves. Likewise, there’s no real difference between the human intervention required to make a pesticide and build a small-scale animal farm. To shroud the contradiction in skewed notions of environmentalism and “all natural” is to ensure that we’ll never achieve the goals that I share with Tom Philpott.
Animal advocates routinely highlight the contradiction of eating some animals but not others. The intention behind this comparison is basic enough: once thoughtful individuals recognize that they would never cook their cat, they’ll be more inclined to stop eating other animals, ones they don’t know. I’ve always assumed—and still do—that this leap is a reasonable one to encourage people to make.
Lately, however, I’ve begun to notice a cultural trend that challenges my faith in this assumption: omnivores are getting unusually aggressive in their speciesism. I’m not saying that people are necessarily drooling over the prospect of eating dogs, but I am saying that a new lust for exotic flesh and adventure eating is on the rise. It’s ugly to see, shows no sign of abating, and reinforces the sense of superiority that we’re working so hard to diminish.
I attribute this rise to multiple sources. For one, there’s Anthony Bourdain, a chef-cum-writer whose book Kitchen Confidential is a deserved classic. Since achieving stardom with his book, Bourdain has fashioned a career of traveling around the world, finding the most unconventional flesh imaginable, and shoving it down his gullet for the purposes, I suppose, of entertainment. People are impressed. There’s also the environmental argument that responsible omnivores should eat the food chain’s overflow species—an ethic that manifests itself in earnest calls to eat “strange” animals such squid and insects, horses and, yes, dogs. Finally, and this is just a pet hypothesis, but as humans feel less and less in control of our lives—something endemic to the post-modern condition—we seek greater control over other species.
Anyway, this widening scope of tolerance for eating animals once deemed unacceptably inedible only obscures the carnism that the dog/cow juxtaposition is intended to unveil. Would you eat your cat? Your horse? Your dog? Advocates ask these questions hoping people will go “Bleh! Yuck! Hell no!!” before conceding the contradictory nature of their behavior. Increasingly, what’s instead happening is that consumers are beating us to the punch and, ever wary of being caught in a logical contradiction, are saying “sure I’d eat that.”
A recent Fox News poll asked viewers if they’d eat horse meat. Only 32 percent said no. When BBC news asked listeners if they’d eat dog meat, many commenters said “no problem.” Example: “Why not? If it’s not a stray dog, but one grown specificaly [SIC] for food, I’d at least give it a try.” Another: “When I was a child, we had livestock that we kept for a while and then ate. Believe me, chickens and goats and cows are friend[s] too. They have unique personalities and it is very hard to part with them. I think of them as no different from my cat today. The fact is we kill to eat!” A third: “Food is food. If you discount culture, what gives energy is considered food. For plants it is sunlight and soil and water, humans cant live on what plants do alone. I have a very objective opinion because i have seen many cultures. I think you will find those who are closed to dogs being food haven’t experienced a lot of other cultures.” A final case: “I think it is ridiculous for the Chinese to remove dog from the menu for the Olympics.”
Sigh. As these comments suggest, we are deeply confused when it comes to our ability to think with moral clarity about animals. Increasingly, that confusion is providing the justification for shameless meat eaters to confront the omnivore’s contradiction with a willingness to eat more kinds of flesh rather than giving it up on the basis of an inconsistency.
At the risk of becoming tiresome: another column on insects. Over the last week a watered down version of the “drawing the line” question had emerged here at Eating Plants. Is it less morally egregious to harm or kill a mosquito than a cow?
Trust me, I would like to avoid this question, but—given than I have no problem eliminating mosquitoes to reduce malaria in Africa and that if I find a black widow spider (not an insect, I know) in my bathroom I’ll kill her—I cannot avoid the question and, at the same time, feel intellectually honest.
I’m realizing that, in confronting a question of such difficulty, a lot has to be torn down before I can start building up an answer—which I hope to do in the form of a long academic type article. (This is what is so satisfying to me about the Eating Plants experience: I know with lighting bolt clarity when it’s time to write a real article.)
What I want to tear down here is the claim that because “we’re doing the best we can” to reduce animal exploitation by not eating animals, there’s no need to get overly worked up about swatting mosquitoes or initiating a June bug holocaust by driving down an East Texas highway in July.
My sense is that we resort to this “best we can” rationale to avoid admitting that a) we are intentionally causing suffering that could be avoided or reduced (by, say, not driving); or, b) it’s not as morally problematic to kill insects as it is to kill a cow. Both options are difficult for the ethical vegan to accept, but such is life when you engage it authentically.
My sense at this point is that we have to tear down “a” in order to build up “b.” We certainly could stop driving in order to radically reduce insect suffering. Driving is, after all, intentional. However, as I want to argue (in a longer article), we do not have to stop driving in order to reduce insect suffering—nor do we have to stop farming to eat vegetables. Why? Because insect suffering is qualitatively different than the suffering experienced by farmed animals.
I’m making this claim at this point without elaboration. But answering it effectively is critical to effective activism. Failure to draw a moral distinction between pigs and mosquitoes—a distinction that warrants different levels of moral consideration from humans—means vegans have accepted a standard that can never even be practically achieved. It is, in essence, to ensure our ultimate insignificance as a result of our self-imposed implausibility.
Am I shamelessly molding morality to meet reality? Perhaps. But I don’t think so. I believe that a convincing case can be made to distinguish our respective behavior towards insects and farm animals. In making it, I also think ethical vegans dramatically improve their chances of convincing people to stop eating animals. “A cow deserves moral consideration” is a much easier case to make than “a mosquito deserves moral consideration.” It might also have the benefit of being true.
Tomorrow: a report on my NYU talk.
PS: Thank you for all the wonderful comments to yesterday’s post.
Loyal readers of Eating Plants: we face a challenge. It’s one that, I think, ethical vegans dismiss at our ultimate peril. Here’s what the last two blog posts—in addition to the essential/incredible commentary—have demanded that we do: we must explain why it’s morally unacceptable to exploit a farm animal but morally excusable to exploit insects.
We eat. We eat plants (or at least most of us here do). As a result, we kill insects. Anyone who thinks that organic agriculture spares insects needs to accept the fact that organic growers spray with an arsenal of insecticides. They just happen to be “natural” insecticides, a designation that makes consumers feel “safer.” Likewise, anyone who thinks we can consume food by foraging needs to choose about 5 billion humans who get to die first.
We eat plants. Therefore we support agriculture. Therefore we support the wholesale and unfathomable destruction of insects (among other “lesser” animals). Significantly (and obviously), we do not accept this destruction for cows, pigs, chickens, or other farm animals. But we do for insects.
Why? It’s not enough to say “we’re doing the best we can to reduce animal exploitation.” Even if it’s true—which it is for so many of us—the relativity inherent in such a claim requires grounding in order to make our case convincing. “The best we can do” tacitly consents to insect devastation but in no way tolerates the exploitation of farm and fur animals. As a said, we face a challenge: why?
Let me get to what I think does NOT need to happen: we do not need to draw a precise species line between morally unacceptable and excusable. That’s not possible to do with any degree of accuracy. We do, however, have to explain the question I opened with: why is it worse to kill a cow than an ant? I don’t like this question one bit, but I’m also tired of hiding from it.
Ultimately, this is going to require that take the concept of “sentience”—a word thrown around a lot on this blog (mostly by me)—and give it more nuance, greater gradation. The first thing I’m going to do when I get back from my Spring Break (and closer to my library) is go back to Gary Francione and Tom Regan (and others), re-examine what they have to say about sentience, and then start facing up to this challenge.
There’s no denying that this project will be a human-centered project. And there is no denying that the gradation of sentience that we devise to answer our cow/ant dilemma will ipso facto be a human designation. But until you can get an ant or a goat undertake the task for us, I see no other option. Onwards.
Yesterday’s post purposely obscured an irony that should, if treated with honesty, give the ethical vegan fits. I argued that it was inherently compassionate for a scientist to bring his lab ants home rather than dispose of them as used objects. “Charming,” I called it. Left undiscussed is why he needed to be raising ants to study in captivity in the first place.
The answer to that question is that he was raising ants in captivity to confirm a level of consciousness that very well might warrant our moral consideration. This level of consciousness is arguably a quality that, without the scientist’s work on ants, we would have never fully recognized. Studying ants in captivity (not in the wild, as can often be done with birds), in essence, was a necessary precondition to confirming their sentience. Hence our first dilemma: to determine that an animal deserves moral consideration might require exploiting that animal without the consent that the animal cannot give.
This dilemma, in turn, poses its own dilemma. Assuming that there’s a sound moral justification for holding ants in captivity, does the scientist merely extend the exploitation by transferring their colonies to his garage and letting them develop in shoe boxes when their lab years are over? I honestly don’t know enough about ants to effectively answer this question, but even if I did I think there’s going to be a troublesome reality at the center of it. Do we know how ants bred in captivity will do in the wild? My guess is that they would be the proverbial fish in a barrel and that, therefore, they are better off in the garage. Again, some level of exploitation might be, under the circumstances, in the animals’ best interest.
These kinds of questions are annoying to the ethical vegan. They’re annoying because, despite our claims that our ethics are so basic and easy to comprehend, they aren’t. It is also important to confront these issues on as a sophisticated level as we can, drawing on science and philosophy to do so. Sometimes it’s not enough to say “we must live in a way that reduces animal suffering as much as possible” and leave matters at that. It’s not enough because, hard as it is to admit, we don’t know how our decisions will bear on such a noble goal.
If you read enough animal ethology (the study of animal behavior), you will find yourself not only amazed at the complexity of animal thought and emotion, but you will be equally amazed at how utterly (absurdly?) cautious scientists can be about calling animals thinking and feeling beings.
In the face of what most of us would consider incontrovertible evidence of conscious and situational decision making—a consciousness inseparable from feelings—scientists have learned, as one woman put in Virginia Morell’s book Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures (2013), ”to be careful.” Acknowledging those thoughts and emotions can land an ambitious scientist in professional hot water. Many of them, legitimately concerned about their reputations as non-sentimental and “objective” researchers, have practically given themselves double hernias to stress to their colleagues that what they are finding could still be the result of preprogrammed instinct. Can’t be too sure, you know?
Some, thankfully, place intellectual integrity ahead of peer approval and professional advancement. Some are so convinced that what they are witnessing when they study animals is evidence of emotive cognition that they refer to their subjects as “persons.” The most compelling example of professional convention-breaking comes from the English scientist Nigel R. Franks. What makes Franks’ convictions about his subjects’ status as thinking and feeling creatures noteworthy is that he’s not studying chimps or dogs or parrots—animals most commonly associated with the possibility of advanced cognition–but ants. Little brown ants. As Franks sees it, the ants he has spent decades studying possess more than just sentience (which is enough to warrant moral consideration), but they use it to teach other ants how to behave. When Franks published this claim in a leading journal, the famous zoologist E. O. Wilson condescendingly called it “a charming metaphor.”
If you have read Marc Bekoff, Jonathan Balcombe, or Marian Stamp Dawkins—or even Steven Wise or Bernard Rollin— there’s not much in Animal Wise that will strike you as original. The book’s value, however, is in Morell’s reportage of scientists at work. Through this boots-on-the-ground approach, we discover that Franks, instead of killing his ants (which can live for five years) when their work in the lab is finished, takes them home and keeps them in his garage. Morell writes that Franks and his wife “safely truck the ants in their petri dishes into shoeboxes and take them home. They store the colonies in their garage and care for them, replenishing their supplies of food and water. Their garage now holds so many shoebox ant-condos that Franks said, blushing, ‘We certainly can’t get the car in anymore. But I like it that the ants come home with us.’”
Now that’s charming.
Tomorrow: the hidden dilemma in Nigel Franks’ work with ants.
It’s a perennial irony, one cited as a matter of course by animal rights people, that, to paraphrase Melanie Joy, we love dogs but eat pigs. This irony not only reflects a glaring case of selective moral consideration—we spend billions a year to pamper canines and just about that much to kill and eat swine–but it also, less obviously, represents a huge if unacknowledged fissure in the foundation of human civilization. How can any society hope to become more just and compassionate when it’s built on a bedrock of hidden and avoidable violence?
It’s perfectly natural and understandable for ethical vegans—those who have internalized the inequity of this irony—to condemn the meat-eating masses for loving dogs and eating pigs. It’s so obvious, we think. Why can’t people simply open their eyes and recognize the injustice that’s right in front of us? Wake up! It’s our collective failure to do so that leads so many vegan activists, I would venture, to become nihilistic ranters about the impending fall of humanity.
Two recent books, if read the right way, help illuminate the core of this irony as well as the complaisance with which we accept it. John Homans’ What’s a Dog For: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend and Jill Abramson’s The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout remind us in varying ways (sometimes unintentionally) of a critical point that bears directly on our contemporary speciesist behavior.
More than anything else, these books drive home the important reminder that ideologies—including ideologies of oppression—have their roots in material realities. When those roots and realities run 130,000 years into the past, as does the human relationship with dogs, they can, to say the least, be tenacious enough to suppress rational thought and moral consistency in the present. Our failure to treat species with equal moral consideration derives as much, if not more, from past behavior than present-day realities.
Several aspects of the human-canine relationship—aspects that are unique to dogs and dogs alone—help explain why Westerners in particular won’t eat them. Heaping irony upon irony, the first aspect is that dogs, more than any other species, have elicited from humans a habit of compassion possibly more intense than that evoked by our fellow humans.
As Sue Halpern recently pointed out in an excellent New York Review of Books essay, neoteny—the retention of cute baby-like features into adulthood—has enabled dogs in particular to trigger “ human’s innate caretaking impulse.” In eliciting love from our hearts, dogs have taught us to spare them while slaughtering other species that are just as capable of suffering. Smart animals.
A second aspect of the human-dog relationship forged in the crucible of time is the unique ability of dogs to reflect and embody human aspirations. A well-trained and well-bred dog could serve powerful aspirational functions in any status-driven culture. In this respect, as Homan’s writes (and Halpern quotes), “Dogs in the Victorian Age . . . were stand ins for humans, replicating their master’s inner excellence and class pride.” Pigs, for a wide range of reasons, didn’t accomplish this goal quite as effectively.
A third factor among many others is that dogs have proven to be, again in the words of Homans, “instantly customizable.” The physiological range of today’s canine, in addition to the species’ relative docility and neoteny, has thus appealed to the inherent human desire to shape the world around him. One should never underestimate the intoxicating nature of this power.
Humans have essentially stretched the grey wolf into a spectrum ranging from the dachshund to the Doberman and, in so doing have with god-like arrogance invested each breed with specific functions and meanings. Because dogs have so dutifully fulfilled those functions and meanings, all the while looking terribly cute, dominant human cultures have kept them off our plates.
None of these historical factors are in any way meant to downplay the horrors that flow from our contemporary carnistic hypocrisies. We are right to hammer away at the contradiction of eating pigs while loving dogs. It’s just to acknowledge what I am coming realize vegan activists too often overlook: the power of the past. It’s a power that’s as genuine as it is distorting, invisible as it is conspicuous, and, however unintentionally, intent on excusing our daily refusal to be better people than we are.
Should you downplay this power I would draw your attention to the scene in Abramson’s book—a book attentive to the issues raised here–when, to spoil her dog, she cooks him a piece of chicken.
Tomorrow: more good news for vegans and the environment