Archive for the ‘Animal Sentience’ Category
Every now and then you read a piece and think “ah, finally.” That’s how I felt—well, in addition to tremendous joy—while reading the piece below (which ran in Sunday’s Times). I imagine readers will find much to quibble with—such as using dogs for experimental purposes in the first place!—but this specific use of neuro-imaging to highlight the similarity between human and dog brains—”functional homology”—certainly does, as the author Gregory Berns writes, suggest “a rethinking of how we treat dogs.” They, too, may be people. Now, what about cows, pigs, chickens, fish . . .insects?
By Gregory Berns
FOR the past two years, my colleagues and I have been training dogs to go in an M.R.I. scanner — completely awake and unrestrained. Our goal has been to determine how dogs’ brains work and, even more important, what they think of us humans.
Now, after training and scanning a dozen dogs, my one inescapable conclusion is this: dogs are people, too.
Because dogs can’t speak, scientists have relied on behavioral observations to infer what dogs are thinking. It is a tricky business. You can’t ask a dog why he does something. And you certainly can’t ask him how he feels. The prospect of ferreting out animal emotions scares many scientists. After all, animal research is big business. It has been easy to sidestep the difficult questions about animal sentience and emotions because they have been unanswerable.
By looking directly at their brains and bypassing the constraints of behaviorism, M.R.I.’s can tell us about dogs’ internal states. M.R.I.’s are conducted in loud, confined spaces. People don’t like them, and you have to hold absolutely still during the procedure. Conventional veterinary practice says you have to anesthetize animals so they don’t move during a scan. But you can’t study brain function in an anesthetized animal. At least not anything interesting like perception or emotion.
From the beginning, we treated the dogs as persons. We had a consent form, which was modeled after a child’s consent form but signed by the dog’s owner. We emphasized that participation was voluntary, and that the dog had the right to quit the study. We used only positive training methods. No sedation. No restraints. If the dogs didn’t want to be in the M.R.I. scanner, they could leave. Same as any human volunteer.
My dog Callie was the first. Rescued from a shelter, Callie was a skinny black terrier mix, what is called a feist in the southern Appalachians, from where she came. True to her roots, she preferred hunting squirrels and rabbits in the backyard to curling up in my lap. She had a natural inquisitiveness, which probably landed her in the shelter in the first place, but also made training a breeze.
With the help of my friend Mark Spivak, a dog trainer, we started teaching Callie to go into an M.R.I. simulator that I built in my living room. She learned to walk up steps into a tube, place her head in a custom-fitted chin rest, and hold rock-still for periods of up to 30 seconds. Oh, and she had to learn to wear earmuffs to protect her sensitive hearing from the 95 decibels of noise the scanner makes.
After months of training and some trial-and-error at the real M.R.I. scanner, we were rewarded with the first maps of brain activity. For our first tests, we measured Callie’s brain response to two hand signals in the scanner. In later experiments, not yet published, we determined which parts of her brain distinguished the scents of familiar and unfamiliar dogs and humans.
Soon, the local dog community learned of our quest to determine what dogs are thinking. Within a year, we had assembled a team of a dozen dogs who were all “M.R.I.-certified.”
Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus.
Rich in dopamine receptors, the caudate sits between the brainstem and the cortex. In humans, the caudate plays a key role in the anticipation of things we enjoy, like food, love and money. But can we flip this association around and infer what a person is thinking just by measuring caudate activity? Because of the overwhelming complexity of how different parts of the brain are connected to one another, it is not usually possible to pin a single cognitive function or emotion to a single brain region.
But the caudate may be an exception. Specific parts of the caudate stand out for their consistent activation to many things that humans enjoy. Caudate activation is so consistent that under the right circumstances, it can predict our preferences for food, music and even beauty.
In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.
The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.
DOGS have long been considered property. Though the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 and state laws raised the bar for the treatment of animals, they solidified the view that animals are things — objects that can be disposed of as long as reasonable care is taken to minimize their suffering.
But now, by using the M.R.I. to push away the limitations of behaviorism, we can no longer hide from the evidence. Dogs, and probably many other animals (especially our closest primate relatives), seem to have emotions just like us. And this means we must reconsider their treatment as property.
One alternative is a sort of limited personhood for animals that show neurobiological evidence of positive emotions. Many rescue groups already use the label of “guardian” to describe human caregivers, binding the human to his ward with an implicit responsibility to care for her. Failure to act as a good guardian runs the risk of having the dog placed elsewhere. But there are no laws that cover animals as wards, so the patchwork of rescue groups that operate under a guardianship model have little legal foundation to protect the animals’ interest.
If we went a step further and granted dogs rights of personhood, they would be afforded additional protection against exploitation. Puppy mills, laboratory dogs and dog racing would be banned for violating the basic right of self-determination of a person.
I suspect that society is many years away from considering dogs as persons. However, recent rulings by the Supreme Court have included neuroscientific findings that open the door to such a possibility. In two cases, the court ruled that juvenile offenders could not be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. As part of the rulings, the court cited brain-imaging evidence that the human brain was not mature in adolescence. Although this case has nothing to do with dog sentience, the justices opened the door for neuroscience in the courtroom.
Perhaps someday we may see a case arguing for a dog’s rights based on brain-imaging findings.
Gregory Berns is a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University and the author of “How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain.”
For all the discussion that goes on about the comparative ethical implications of raising animals in industrial and non-industrialized settings, the easily overlooked point is that both systems, and for that matter any system that raises animals to kill them, engages in the troublesome behavior of ending an animal’s life unnecessarily and, in so doing, denying that animal a future of potential pleasure. Supporters of the “death is just one day” or “everything dies” approach to rationalizing the “humane slaughter” of animals fail to consider the point that life is a phenomenon that’s given meaning not in the moment alone but by what has yet to happen as well.
In many ways our essential quality of life is contingent on the expectation of future happiness. The nit and grit of every moment—the here and now—is linked to the future in ways we rarely appreciate. About ten minutes ago my dogs misinterpreted my movements to think we were heading out for a walk. They began to huff with excitement and run back in forth in anticipation. They were thinking of the future and the happiness they would experience later. Every act, in this sense, depends on having access to the future. Awareness of that access strikes me as critical to evaluating the argument that “death is just one day.”
We plan. And so much of what we do in the moment is intended to lay a foundation for future behavior. This is likely as true for sentient animals as it is for humans. It’s also an idea that might help us draw some distinctions between between animals that deserve equal moral consideration and those who do not. It seems unlikely that insects, to cite a controversial example, have conscious awareness of the future in the same way that farm animals do. Perhaps this could be one reason we might deny insects the same level of moral standing we grant to pigs, cows, and chickens.
Do note: behaving in a way that’s relevant for future activity and behaving in a way that self-consciously anticipates the future are not the same thing. Bees and ants and probably every insect acts in a way that’s relevant for the future, but they are not self-sconsciosly aware of it. Heading to the other margin, even mentally incapacitated humans are aware of a future, one that might very well bring a modicum of pleasure.
This idea of the future being embedded in the present, as well as the implications it has for our assessments of moral consideration, has been percolating with me for a few years. I’d like to pursue it more systematically, so I look forward to all thoughts and references you might have.
Michael Marder has a new book out called Plant Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. I’ve yet to read it but that’s why we have long-form reviews, which the LA Times recently ran. I’m on the fence about the whole post-humanism fad.
Intellectually speaking, I find the idea of humans conceptualizing existence from a non-human angle to be a deeply engaging, if un-winnable, mind game. I say un-winnable because what some want to impugn as the narcissism of human perspective I see as the inevitable and inescapable platform–the human psyche–from which we behold the world and our place in it. Barring death, the mind cannot escape itself. That said, I’m not dismissing post-humanism. As anyone who follows John Maher’s wonderful comments on this blog knows quite well, the post-humanist project is nothing if not compelling, and maybe even right, whatever that means. I take it seriously.
But then what do I do? My deeper concern with post-humanism is with its use in the larger project of reducing and eliminating the consumption of animals–my ultimate concern as an activist. Once we start recognizing vegetal agency, after all, we necessarily raise questions about the human decision to eat plants. And once we do that we creep towards the conclusion that the only way we can behave in an ethically consistent manner vis-a-vis our fellow animal, vegetable, and even mineral agents is to commit suicide. I, for one, ain’t drinking that Kool-Aid. There’s too much about humanism that I find too sweet to forego, like listening to the blues (the real kind) and admiring sycamores.
So if we’re not going to pull off a big Jim Jones, who, if not human-centric human beings, are going to marshal the compassion required to make taboo the act of slaughtering and eating animals? Trust me, I know we seem totally incapable of such a task, but something tells me we’re better positioned to undertake the project than the live oak in my front yard. Given the extent to which humans—yes, in our often but not always unthinking arrogance—have collectively transformed and rendered the environment dependent on human-driven preservation, whatever agency they once had is now indistinguishable with that of humans. Humans can consciously share information about ecological harmony. We can cajole, inspire, blog. Plants cannot.
Anyway, time for a second cup of coffee, a marvelous little plant that I am going to totally dominate by grinding into ash and subjecting to a stream of hot water.
There’s this all too common game we play in the trenches of ethical-enviro discourse. The game doesn’t have an official name, nor do most people who play it know that they’re even playing it, but it essentially involves throwing studies at each other as if they were stones. It’s an understandable but ultimately pointless game because when you are throwing stones you are only trying to hit or avoid being hit. You’ll never stop to do what really needs to be done. Because you’ll get hit.
Let me back up. Yesterday I published a piece on fish sentience, arguing that fish feel pain. To buttress my claim, I cited peer reviewed research. What followed was the productive and welcome excavation of studies that ran counter to the studies that I cited. All well and good. What then followed that was a productive and welcome refutation of the studies that countered the studies that I cited to argue that fish don’t like having a hook in their cheek. Okay. Of course, if we wanted to keep this cycle spinning we could, and maybe we should, keep unearthing studies. But I wonder how productive and welcome things would then seem.
The more and more I think about complicated issues, issues without easy answers, the more I’m made aware that studies only go so far. Worse, in their empirical loyalty and exposure to bias they take us in a weird Biblical direction, allowing us to either pick and choose what we want or accept it all and end up stymied by the forces of ambivalence. So I’m learning to make cases based on thoughtful observation, flash judgment, instinct, a blink. Maybe I’ll use the studies as window dressing. These approaches suit me just fine when it comes to wondering if a fish who has bitten on a hook and is writhing on the deck of a boat is unhappy about that experience.
Who needs science when you can trust your gut?
A version of this piece appears in the latest issue of Laika, a beautiful and gutsy magazine to which I urge you to subscribe.
Do a quick search for “New York Times” and “fish” and, aside from a precious little roasted bass and fennel recipe, you’ll be swamped in a tidal wave of pretty foul news. Recent reports indicate that fish are mislabeled, on the verge of extinction, imbued with toxins, banned from being caught in certain regions, genetically modified, trapped with dragnets, infected with lice, flowing with mercury, and labeled as “sustainably” caught when, alas, they’re not. What you will not find, however, is perhaps the most important recent discovery we’ve made about fish in our long history of observing them: they’re smart.
Potential vegans or vegetarians—anyone, really, who thinks seriously about eating animals—often tend to think of fish as swimming aimlessly in an ethical grey area. Land-based creatures, most conscientious consumers will acknowledge, feel pain, suffer, and do it all with some level of intentionality and individual consciousness. Based on these qualities, many of us have decided that they warrant enough moral consideration to at least not be raised and rendered into a sausage link.
But not fish. Partly because they literally lurk beneath the surface of our observation, fish have yet to enter this privileged category of compassion. Pescetarians—those who eschew eating all animals with the notable exception of fish—are commonly viewed as having fashioned diets that are more ethically focused than opportunistic omnivores. But could it be that the distinction they draw between, say, fish and pigs is as capricious as the one omnivores draw between dogs and pigs? In other words, might fish matter as much as the land animals to whom we grant moral consideration?
Considerable evidence reveals that they do. What initially got me thinking seriously about fish sentience were comments I kept reading from scientists who study fish—that is, intelligent and qualified people who work to understand and explore the behavior of fish rather than catch and fry them at festivals. You figure that if anyone can, on the basis of systematic observation, speak to the deeper reality of fish intelligence, it would be the people who spend their professional lives swimming with them, or at least watching them swim.
What these experts reveal about fish should send a Friday-fish-eating Catholic to the nearest confessional. The oceanographer Sylvia Earle says, “I wouldn’t deliberately eat a grouper any more than I’d eat a cocker spaniel.” Fish, she explains, “are sensitive, they have personalities; they hurt when they’re wounded.” The German neuroscientist Stefan Shuster agrees, saying that, “people don’t expect much from fish but that’s where they’re wrong.” “Fish,” he claims, “are capable of much more than people think.” The renowned fish biologist Victoria Braithwaite told a reporter, “We’re concerned about the welfare of chickens, pigs, and cows on farms. Why not fish?” Her recent book, Do Fish Feels Pain? answers that question with clear implications for those who think eating fish doesn’t come with ethical baggage.
Research on fish sentience is relatively new. In 1993, the first article on fish identity was published. Since then, a welter of evidence has emerged to demonstrate that (to cite only a few findings) fish teach each other tricks, are savvy social learners, make situational (rather than just instinctive) decisions, and, somewhat remarkably, can adopt the perspective of other fish—something serious enough to be deemed a “theory of mind” by professional philosophers. They might not wag or call out our name when they see us, but these animals swim the seas without dunce caps for good reason.
It’s important to note that scientists who study animal cognition are professionally wary about attributing consciousness to the animals they study. It can be seen as a mark of sentimental anthropomorphism and, regrettably, have dire consequences for one’s career. It’s thus that much more significant that, writing in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, a prestigious peer reviewed journal, a team of animal scientists surveyed the evidence up to 2004 and declared, “This review of the anatomy, physiology, and behaviour of fish suggests that they are more likely to be sentient than not.”
Don’t let the scholarly understatement fool you. The mere mention of even the remote possibility of fish sentience by a group of prominent scientists makes the point loud and clear. Fish think. They feel pain. They suffer.
And this matters.
Regrettably, too many of us, even animal lovers, fail to think so. Inversely related to the rapid rate of our discovery of fish intelligence is our willingness to accept the results. It’s hard for humans to entertain the prospect of fish sentience. Not only do fish hide under water, but when we do have a chance to encounter them, or maybe even interact with them, it’s usually while they flop on a deck with a hook in their mouths or do endless laps around a fish tank. Under these circumstances—well, under any circumstances actually—we lack the opportunity to do something essential for connecting empathetically with fish: look them in the eyes as assess their emotions.
Walleyed and lacking eyebrows, fish—who did not evolve in mutual interaction with humans—do not behave towards humans in ways that incline us to responsibly anthropomorphize them into creatures with recognizable feelings. This necessary failure to see eye-to-eye stands in sharp contrast to dogs, animals who anthropologists theorize may have evolved eyebrows for the sole purpose of making advantageous emotional connections to the humans who have generally nurtured them and, with rare exception, have decided not to eat them, in part, because of those sweet, expressive eyes. Fish “teddy bears,” you may have noticed, aren’t so popular
This isn’t to say that the gaze of compassion is completely absent from the human heart when it comes to fish. In 2009, a television reporter in Denmark, in an act of colossal stupidity, poured a small amount of shampoo into a fish tank to demonstrate its toxicity. The fish went belly up and the public wrath came slamming down. The reporter was sued for causing “unnecessary suffering” and the judge condemned her for “deliberately commit[ing] an act of cruelty to animals.” Ultimately she was exonerated because, as her lawyer noted, “”Fish are killed by suffocation in industrial fisheries and we throw live lobsters into boiling water, but we don’t press charges against fishermen or restaurant owners.” Not a bad point.
And as it suggests, the Denamrk anecdote is the exception that proves the rule: fish don’t measure up on our fickle moral scales. Making matters more difficult for the defender of fish sentience, those scales are tipped by entrenched cultural perceptions of fishing as an activity that promotes human bonding and relaxation. “Fishing,” explains Connecticut’s Deptartment of Energy and Environmental Protection, “is wholesome family fun.” Vacation packages often cater to “father-son fishing trips” and it’s a longtime practice for men in particular to escape the gruel of daily life and pound their chests while catching fish on a boat with a lot of beer on it. In Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, the anonymous narrator defines nothing short of his manhood vis-à-vis a marlin he aims to kill. The earliest picture of my dad and me shows me holding up a string of trout. It hangs in the hallway of my parents’ house on a wall of familial warmth.
That picture has meaning. Through dead fish it conveys human love. And thus I’m reminded that our culture of accommodating and celebrating fish exploitation cannot casually be brushed aside. The vegan advocate cannot simply declare “fish are sentient” and expect a previously unquestioned habit that imparts immense human pleasure to screech to a halt.
However, the reality of reality should not stop us from speaking truth to culture. What those who abhor the idea of causing unnecessary suffering must do is remind conscientious consumers, as often as we can, that fish do in fact suffer. Remind them that the world’s leading authority on fish pain, Victoria Braithwaite, has become so convinced that fish suffer that she’s concluded, somewhat reluctantly, that “we should extend welfare considerations to fish.” Remind them that 500,000,000,000 fish die a painful death every year to feed humans food we don’t need and that, no matter what the New York Times fails to say about the matter, that pain and suffering means as much to a fish as it does to an animal who can look us in the eyes and ask for compassion.
The science of animal thought and behavior is an inherently a murky field of inquiry. Unfortunately, that murkiness is often exploited by people who would rather not face the inconvenient ethical implications of how terribly we treat animals. The passive strategy of rationalizing exploitation, which is rarely made explicit, is to reason that because modern science has yet to establish an incontrovertible empirical basis for the emotional lives of certain animals, we have every right to eat, wear, and use those animals for the purposes of entertainment. It’s very convenient.
It’s also very irresponsible. The more upstanding approach would be to rely not on an unreasonably high burden of proof for animal emotionalism but on the results of thoughtful observation and responsible anthropomorphizing. Thoughtful observation—which could be called common sense— boils to down to a form of situational logic whereby what appears to be the case with animal feelings and behavior is (more or less) the case. It’s a more intuitive and less empirical tact, which many see as drawbacks. But, given that what we are demanding when it comes to “proof” for the emotional lives of animals is ultimately unachievable, we must, as a society that purports to care about animals, accept some level of ambiguity. Plus, when we’re talking about something as amorphous as emotion, how can intuition not play a role?
Recent media reports on animals confirm how quick we are to obscure the obvious emotional nature of animal experience in the lack scientific verification. In today’s New York Times there’s a story on the Bureau of Land Management’s bungled efforts to manage the population of wild horses on public lands (that’s a nice way of saying how to cull them, which is a nice way of saying how to kill them). In it, the reporter writes, “In its research, the National Academy of Sciences did not specifically address the issue of roundups, which involve helicopters corralling wild horses into traps and have become a rallying cry for critics who say they are dangerous and inhumane.”
The italics are mine. Note them. It’s the height of insensitivity, the complete denial of thoughtful observation, to report that it’s only “critics” of using helicopters to chase and corral wild horses who believe that this colossally cruel way to track down horses just might be terrifying and dangerous to them. Sure, the journalist does not have a scientific journal article in front of him verifying with loads upon loads of data that, lo and behold!!, horses don’t like having helicopters bear down upon them. But this lack of proof is no reason to shunt the idea over to a suggested handful of “critics.” Everyone thinks that it’s dangerous and inhumane. And if a person thinks otherwise, he’s a psychopath.
The other recent example came from Slate, a place that generally covers animal issues very well. The story is about a photo of a German Shepherd mourning the loss of his “master,” a police officer who was shot in the line of duty. It’s a deeply moving image, one that left the reporter admittedly affected.
The Slate article. does a great job of highlighting historical examples of dogs mourning their deceased owners. But it then proceeds to complicate the issue by exploring the possibility of the canine mourning being a coincidence or some sort of instinctual reaction. Again, this perspective, while maybe interesting as a thought experiment, strikes me as running entirely against the grain of common sense on a terrain that lacks verifiable evidence. “Will your dog mourn your death?,” the headline asks. “Or just hop into the next warm lap?”
I think anyone who has lived with a dog for any length of time can answer that question without a second of thought. No hard science required.
Yesterday’s discussion on eating insects was really thought provoking. I appreciate all the comments, and greatly admire their insightfulness. I want to stress a couple of things that were possibly obscured by my post. First, I’m not so much advocating eating insects (which sounds very promotional) so much as admitting that I’m reluctantly willing to accept eating insects as an option if and only if it helps reduce reliance on conventionally domesticated animals. Of course, like most readers, I’d rather just wave a wand and have the world eat plants. This is the diet I ultimately want to see adopted. But, as we all know, change happens gradually, and bridges are often required between points of progress. If insects can help divert global appetites away from cows, pigs, chicken, and fish, I refuse to rule out their consumption on moral grounds.
Related to the moral issue, there is also this to consider: I’m not sure vegans do ourselves any favors by explicitly granting insects the same moral consideration we grant to the farm animals central to the global diet. I say this because the choices we intentionally make—and could avoid if we were willing to make the sacrifice—lead to almost unfathomable insect destruction. It really doesn’t matter that you shoo flies out of the kitchen rather than swat them. The reality is that commonplace activities are murderous to insects. We know that. And we do those activities anyway. Which makes our slaughter of insects intentional. I’m no more pleased with this conundrum than you are, but I’m not terribly interested in granting full moral consideration to animals that we choose, however passively, to kill everyday. Finally, even in the most disciplined system of veganic agriculture there will be systematic insect death.
As I reflected on yesterday’s comments, I found myself thinking about the precise nature of the immediate change I seek. As grandly as I could articulate those goals, I’m finding myself increasingly focused on the elimination of raising farm animals for food to eat. I feel like that goal is achievable in the next century. This is not to say that I’m not as interested in fundamentally altering the human relationship with the non-human animal world in a way that stigmatizes speciesism and collapses hierarchies. It’s just that I can only dimly see that happening. Perhaps it is for this reason, in part, that I’m taking the stance I’m taking on insects.
Note: I’m “away from my desk” for the next several weeks and may not be able to post daily. I’ve yet to miss a day this year, and would like to keep it that way, but circumstances may intervene. In any case, a piece on food literacy in England coming tomorrow . . .
Politics of the Pasture, which came out last month, is my fifth book. If I’ve learned anything about the emotional nature of the publishing experience it’s to prepare myself for what a novelist friend of mine once called “the calm before the calm.” The idea behind this phrase is that you do your due diligence by writing as if in a fugue state, finish, wait for the book “to drop,” watch it drop, and then comes . . . . silence. Silence as calm as a placid lake on a windless day.
Trust me, I’m perfectly happy not to be getting an earful from Green Mountain College. They’ve been admirably disciplined about not drawing attention to the book. And I’m greatly appreciative to have an interview set up with ARZone on August 4th. But, otherwise the only other feedback I’ve gotten has been from an animal rights activist who took issue with my description of her in the book. I’d hoped for more. If it sounds like I’m whining, I am.
Here are the two reviews now up on Amazon:
1) I’ve read Politics of Pasture in less than 3 days. First, I have to note how well-written this book is. It’s a real thriller with fascinating characters. But beyond that, it’s the most up-to-date reflection I’ve read about our relationship to animals and the value of their life. Through Bill and Lou’s story, we come across the main arguments for small scale and sustainable farming only to realize it’s just a cute packaging of industrial farming built to reduce our cognitive dissonance and guilt when we eat meat. The current sustainable farming movement lacks one important thing : compassion. And through Bill and Lou’s story, every reader will come to realize the pleasure we have eating meat is a luxury that doesn’t worth the life of sentient beings. In this book, we also realize the vegan movement is not an extremist organisation. It’s just a group of people that have aligned their values – values shared by most of us – to their practice. 5-star
2) Full disclosure: I am a proud graduate of Green Mountain College. Like most folks I learned with and from at GMC, I am also passionate about animal welfare and the environment. I also happen to have standards. Like I did, I recommend downloading the sample before wasting your money on the whole thing. Like McWilliams’ blog, the writing found here is sub-par and reads mostly as a manifesto, rather than a well-researched thesis. For a book with a subtitle about a ‘national debate,’ he does an incredibly poor job of presenting the sides evenly (plenty of biased authors make their points while still giving their opposition’s voice a fair trial). His writing basically reads like freshman in his first philosophy class, which is fine if you’re actually in your first year of college. As for the actual content of the book, I give him one star for writing about something that so many people roll their eyes at. When so many people don’t care at all about the animals that die so they can have McNuggets, it can seem ridiculous to get caught up in an animal welfare vs. animal rights debate. But I would argue that it’s a valid discussion to have when both parties can remain civil and when both can also present coherent and logical arguments. However, McWilliams spends a lot of time talking down the students and faculty at GMC instead of talking about, ya know, the animals. Misleading or poorly understood statistics and random quotes taken out of context provided all of his information; one would think that he might have actually bothered to visit campus or something if he was going to write a book about us, but that, of course, never happened. He (and most of the actually quite small group of people) who mounted a campaign against us put cotton in their ears and became convinced that the whole world cared and us horrible GMC people were the only carnivorous, cold-hearted, satan-worshipping miscreants in the entire world who thought it would be okay to farm on a farm. In reality, the state’s department of agriculture, numerous other small farmers and farming organizations, animal welfare activists, and so on, all came out in support of GMC’s right to farm on their own farm. . . . 1-star
So, there it is: a one and a five. The best I can say is that it’s “a mild improvement on the average.” Normally, I would not come out and publicly mope, but this book is not about me or you or my publisher or the numerous people who helped me write it. There’s more at stake. It’s about two cows, one already dead the other whose life hangs in the balance. It’s about the decision to kill sentient animals under the guise of “sustainability” and fail abjectly to offer a justification. It’s about the future of eating ethically. So . . . please, please, please circulate this link, share it with your email lists, put it on Facebook, Tweet it, whatever. Forgive my begging, but this issue needs to be heard.
Cheetahs kill gazelles. Alligators kill egrets. Hawks kill mice. Lizards kill crickets. Sharks kill dolphins. It’s a wild kingdom out there. And it’s defined by the bloodthirsty quest for genetic preservation. Why, given the essential nature of these murderous acts, should humans not have the right to play a part in the wooly game of death, killing the animals who kill?
It’s an important question. If our lives, or the lives of loved ones, are threatened, I suppose it would be excusable to commit acts of violence in the name of direct self-defense. This is the same standard I’d apply to humans. But the condition of self-defense doesn’t bear on the “animals-kill-each-other” justification for humans killing animals. To say I can justifiably kill an animal because animals kill animals requires a separate defense, one that I think is very difficult to make.
Many animal rights supporters who oppose the “animals-kill-each-other” rationalization object to the kill-kill-kill portrayal of animal life, condemning in particular the Animal Planet-like tendency to focus on animal violence. With considerable evidence, they counter that animals also engage in systematically altruistic and cooperative behavior. The excellent work of Jonathan Balcombe has been central in promoting this perspective, and every week I get a little video from HSUS of a pig and a cat or some such cuddled up and what not. It’s usually very sweet.
Those who counter-attack through the lens of altruism, however, sometimes take the additional step of arguing that animals have what humans would recognize (if we looked) as moral standards. It is here that I pause. My feelings about this claim are ambivalent. As you’ll see, I think animals probably do have moral standards, but that doesn’t mean that morality necessarily matters when it comes to animal rights.
There is virtually no doubt that many animals are much more than instinctual agents responding with pre-programmed imperatives. They clearly make an impressive range of situational choices and are, as a result, weighing options when they act, be it altruistically or not. But to place this situational flexibility in the framework of morality comes with risks—risks we don’t have to take in order to justify an animal’s right to avoid unnecessary exploitation.
For one, we really cannot prove concretely the existence of animal morality with any scientific assurance. Now, typically I would say that the inability to prove the existence of a phenomenon should not preclude an acceptance of it based on thoughtful observation and common sense. However, provided that we do not need to grant animals a moral sensibility as a precondition to respecting their rights, I suggest we don’t try to do it. I make this case on the grounds that we should, in our attempt to make a case for animal rights, engage in as few speculations as possible.
Such speculation can lead into mucky territory. If we are going to grant that animals possess a moral sensibility that encompasses a basic sense of right and wrong, then what do we make of the fact that they are very often killing each other when they do not have to? Of course, humans who (for the most part) possess moral codes kill each other all the time. We hack each other with abandon in the streets on big cities. But: we rectify this behavior with systems of justice that explicitly acknowledge and reflect our articulated moral standards. We adjudicate.
Animals don’t do this. Which raises questions: does this lack of an “objective” system of justice grant us the right to bring justice to the animal world? When a fat greedy cat kills yet another blue jay, should we intervene and mete out justice on the assumption that morals are being violated? They did it in Medieval Europe. In any case, this is the kind of muck you end up in when you grant sentient animals a conscious moral system.
Why not skip all that difficult business and pragmatically propose what most people are already inclined to think: that humans are unique (not exceptional, just unique) in our ability to articulate, disseminate, and accept a relatively coherent system of basic morality that can be codified in custom and reified in law. Do this, and then promote the basic moral precept that, as morally aware humans, we should do everything in our power to reduce unnecessary suffering, and you have just laid the basis for respecting the rights of most of the animals we currently eat. Animals, in other words, don’t need to have a moral code to benefit from ours.
We just need to follow our own.
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.