The NYU Experience
Last night I spoke to an Animal Rights Law class at NYU. I more or less gave an overview of my book-in-progress, The Modern Savage, which takes a critical look at non-industrial animal agriculture. It was a small class, but one comprised of fiercely smart students who were more than happy to challenge my arguments, or at least bring more nuance to them. Lawyers. I never know now to evaluate how these kind of meetings go, but I figure if I leave with more to think about than I came in with, it went well. That happened.
One guy seized upon my grudging willingness to balance ethical purity and pragmatic reality in my activism—by, for example, not blowing a gasket over “meatless Mondays” while holding the line that exploitation of sentient beings is always wrong. So, he wondered, wasn’t the small-scale system of animal production just another case of society taking a bold step in the right direction? Why was I getting all worked up over one and not the other? (Lawyers.)
Honestly, probably because I’ve been centered so laser-like on tearing this small-scale model to shreds, I never thought about it in such terms. Small-scale animal agriculture has always struck me as more of a greenwashed sham than a positive step toward ending animal exploitation. But that’s largely an impression. My answer was thus to concede that, from the consumer’s perspective, this guy was onto something, despite my observation that many consumers of “humane and sustainable” animal products simply want no more than to enjoy a tasty hunk of flesh without guilt.
That said, the sustainable alternative, I reminded him (and myself), may actually be worse in some ways for the producer who, in working so closely with his animals, suffers the psychological fallout of not only slaughtering a sentient being, but slaughtering a sentient being who he raised and knew well. What benefit was there, I wondered, in claiming to care for the welfare of an animal and then killing that animal ? The moral schizophrenia (to paraphrase Francione) that results could only reverberate negatively throughout the food system, much less the society that aims to reform it.
Another woman asked a question that led us into the ethics of a painless killing. The animal is raised well and is killed without warning or pain. What’s the problem here? Lawyers. My answer drew upon an idea that takes me beyond Peter Singer, who essentially accepted such a scenario. It also took me into philosophically thorny terrain. Basically, I mumbled my way through why the enjoyment of life is not only about the past and the present. It’s about the future as well. To slaughter a being who enjoys the experience of life, has some level of memory, and a rudimentary sense of the future is thus to arbitrarily deny a future of experience—some or maybe a lot of it imbued with happiness. Who grants us this right?
A third issue involved meat substitutes. What did I think? On the whole I’m all for them, I explained, because they represent a great technological opportunity to dramatically reduce the consumption of animals. That said, I think that eating animal substitutes tacitly endorses the legitimacy of eating animals–sort of like that those bubble gum cigarettes they used to sell implicitly endorsed smoking. In any case, the question was soon settled when we all walked over to Blossom and ordered a seitan dish that looked like chicken cutlet. Delicious food. No slaughter required.
All in all, it was a mood-boosting, mind-stimulating pleasure to spend an evening with so many thoughtful and inquisitive people.
Tomorrow: why raising horses for meat will never work in the US