Posts Tagged ‘animal liberation’
Here are two stories that, taken together, are kind of thought provoking. First: The other day, while running, a friend told me that he was recently at dinner with a colleague whose daughter is vegan. When the topic of her veganism came up, the colleague said, “the problem now is that I know I shouldn’t eat meat and so, when I do, I feel really badly about it.” This awareness, in it’s way, kind of annoyed her. She now knew too much. Which can be very inconvenient.
Second: Last night, I got an e-mail from another friend with a Psychology Today blog post attached. The post was written by Hal Herzog, author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, and the topic was “why are there so few vegetarians?” The article quotes the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, on why so many humans find it difficult to forgo animal products. After reading Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, Haidt’s consciousness was raised. But note his reaction: “Since that day, I have been morally opposed to all forms of factory farming. Morally opposed but not behaviorally opposed. I love the taste of meat, and the only thing that changed the after reading Singer is that I thought about my hypocrisy each time I ordered a hamburger.”
As vegan advocates and activists, our initial inclination to such a confession might be to castigate it as confirmation of weak character. Morally opposed but not behaviorally opposed? I mean, come on. Lame, pitiful, cowardly, etc, etc. A more generous and productive tact, however, might be to first acknowledge that even the dimmest awareness that the act of eating animals carries moral implications is, albeit regrettably, a sign of moral progress and, next, to bore into why a man as intelligent and morally cognizant as Haidt could say what he said and not be guillotined by the logic police. Ditto for the woman—a professor—who feels bad about eating animals but still continues to dig in. What’s really going on here?
My very strong sense is that neither of the two reluctant meat-eaters noted here would apply their moral/behavioral dichotomy to other situations involving animals. If an organization of psychopaths who derived genuine euphoric pleasure from tossing kittens into the dryer declared that they were morally but not behaviorally opposed to the gratuitous torture of kittens because, you know, it made them laugh hard and feel really good, I seriously doubt Haidt and the professor would grant their approval. So then, why is the moral-but-not-behavioral opposition culturally acceptable when it comes to doing something arguably much worse—like, say, killing and eating animals? It is, I think, a critical question, one we overlook by simply castigating the people who say such things.
I’ve used the term “tyranny of taste” in other contexts. Well, I think we’re seeing it here as well. In fact, I think we’re seeing an especially virulent strain of it. When it comes to our treatment of animals, there’s something different and fundamental about the basic act of putting an edible substance in your mouth (or not, I guess) and declaring pleasure from it. In an odd but understandable way, it becomes less an animal rights issue than right to my body issue, veering perilously into the pro-choice politics and the abortion debate lane. Don’t tell me what I can and cannot do to my body. That’s my business. Keep your laws off my mouth, vegan! [Please note that I am not agreeing with this perilous lane weaving. I'm just bringing it up, reluctantly, since, the last time I did, I was nearly dragged to another guillotine.]
If I’m at all correct in the claim that humans are arbitrarily quick to subsume animal rights to a false sense of a basic right to taste whatever we please, perhaps even as a right to body issue, it is worth highlighting that we do not sanction the arbitrary satisfaction of other desires, such as, most notably, sexual ones. We cannot go out and engage in sexual acts wherever and whenever and whomever we want to because it feels so good to do so. But still, the right-to-the-taste-my-mouth belief strikes me as very real and perhaps helps explain Haidt’s position. It also highlights a philosophical issue that we must bring into the public sphere.
The other thought I had is that we are, as a culture of meat eaters, working from a basic misunderstanding of pleasure. Of taste. I hear it over and over again, even from people I love and respect, that meat just tastes too good to give up. This is said, again, with a nascent awareness that there are moral implications to the act of eating animals, which only makes the assertion of the culinary euphoria of flesh that much more convincing. But I must ask: does meat per se really taste good? I’m not entirely sure we can even answer questions about something as subjective as taste with objective information, but given the work being done on sugar, salt, and fat—and our physiological response to these substances—I think it’s possible.
I’m sure there’s a lot of research out there on the physiological logistics of deriving pleasure from meat. Or not. But from what I remember, it was never the flesh of a burger that I liked so much as the texture of the bun, the condiments, the creaminess of the cheese, the smokiness of the grill, and, maybe more than anything else, the cultural message that eating a burger satisfied something deep and primordial. But even back then, in the prehistoric pre-vegan days, the idea of chomping down a naked burger was not appetizing.
I do wonder, then, whether we really do enjoy the taste of meat or, instead, have merely been sold a bill of goods wrapped in a good story and stamped with approval from those immoral and behaviorally decrepit cretins who profit from the sale of animals. But I wonder about a lot of things.
Management intensive rotational grazing (MIRG) is a big deal these days, especially with so called sustainable farmers trying to capture emerging “conscientious carnivore” markets. Those who write about the art of rotating small herds of animals (usually cows) from one pasture to another portray the practice as an ecologically beneficial and more natural alternative to the cold input/output logic of industrial farming. But here’s what I’m learning: those who practice the art of moving small herds of cows from one pasture to another portray it to each other as an endeavor that can be worthwhile economically but, in reality, is beset with problems that the rhetorical champions of rotational grazing always fail to mention. This difference is worth exploring a bit.
Inspired as I so often am by Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, I’ve been seeking to expose the flaws of my target (in this case MIRGers) with evidence generated by the target itself. Singer perfected this technique when it came to exposing factory farms. I want to do it with small farms. This approach strikes me as much better than relying on, say, research done by HSUS (which, don’t get me wrong, is accurate and often done in tremendous depth), Humane Myth (ditto), or any organization with a clear (and noble) interest in promoting a skeptical view of animal agriculture. It just seems that one’s argument is made more powerful when evidence comes from the targeted party itself. Of course, this cannot be done in all cases, but we should turn the industry’s words back on itself whenever the opportunity presents itself.
It was in this spirit that I began, many months ago, trolling several “homesteader” websites (this research is for my book The Modern Savage). After digesting several hundred entries from rotational grazers themselves, I’ve reached the conclusion that what people such as Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin have to say about MIRG is in fact a carefully sanitized version of a much messier reality.
Perhaps what stands out the most is how small farmers, just like factory farmers, view their operation, and their animals, as existing first and foremost for profit. This point, I realize, may seem obvious. So often, though, MIRG is presented as an altruistic endeavor designed to show love for animals and the environment we share with them. One farmer, for example, explained to another: “I am confident that I can net more profit from the large tract with the large herd than you are now realizing with the 3 herds. We can cull and get the “right size” cows. We can get the pastures in top condition and carry more cows than you are carrying in the largest herd.” (emphasis added) Another agreed, adding, “We’re open to culling out some of our bigger breeds to head in the rotational direction.”
In addition to culling (read:killing) cows when they aren’t the “right” size for achieving maximum stocking density on available pasture, farmers who know that consumers are demanding exclusively grass-fed cows are keeping animals on grass to their detriment. One wrote, “Some of the animals are passing loose manure due to the richness of the forage even this late into the non growing season. Breeding stock of both sexes that are accustomed to grain feed will not hold the bloom exhibited when placed on grass alone nor will heavy milkers.” Moderate milk production is what MIRG people seek in their cattle. One wrote of the ideal cow, ”You do not want her to give a lot of milk. She only needs to give enough milk to provide for the calf adequately until it can start grazing.” And in case you think these farmers are any less vigilant than factory farmers about controlling reproduction, note this: ”The brood cow needs to maintain her condition so that she will breed back within 60 days of giving birth. We want heifers that will heat cycle early and produce a calf on her 2nd birthday.” Is this instrumental take on cows any different that that of a factory farmer?
Finally, and in many ways, most surprising to me, farmers are generally grazing their cattle on grass called fescue. Fescue, it turns out, isn’t so great for cows. But it grows easily and prevalently and it’s good for quick fattening and thus the bottom line. The reason for this is that most fescue is infected with a fungus called endophyte. Endophyte infested fescue is fine for the grass but not for the cow. Here is what one team of agronomists has to say about endophyte infected fescue, the most popular grass that MIRG cows munch:
Studies with animals consuming endophyte-infected fescue have shown the following responses in comparison to animals grazing non-infected fescue: (1) lower feed intake; (2) lower weight gains; (3) lower milk production; (4) higher respiration rates; (5) higher body temperatures; (6) rough hair coats; (7) more time spent in water; (8) more time spent in the shade; (9) less time spent grazing; (10) excessive salvation; (11) reduced blood serum prolactin levels; and (12) reduced reproductive performance. Some or all of these responses have been observed in numerous studies in dairy cattle, beef cattle, and sheep consuming endophyte-infected pasture, green chop, hay and/or seed.
Scientists recommend that MIRGers switch over to fescue free of endophytes. According my farmers, though, this would be a terrible idea. One explained, ”To date, the fescues that I know of that are endophyte free are not hardy.” My sense is that the endophyte infected fescue is like junk food for cows. They eat it eagerly, gobble it up, and then suffer the detrimental consequences listed above. All of which leaves me to wonder: how does any of this reality jibe with all the MIRG rhetoric about cows thriving on grass, reveling in their cowness, and regenerating tired ecosystems? I don’t get it. Why not just not have a cow?
Ethical vegans are often criticized for not supporting the non-industrial alternatives to factory farming. My response is typically to say, as a sort of mantra, that as long as we produce animal products the factory farms will always dominate. I add that while one system is arguably more ethical than another, the alternative still suffers from a fundamental ethical flaw, one I could never support. The problem with saying these things over and over is that it’s easy to lose sight of the underlying justifications for them. It is thus in the spirit of (perhaps plodding) explication that I’ve written the following thoughts. It’s refreshing, every now and then, to subject your own ideas to your own analysis.
The moral standard we apply to animals in factory farms goes something like this: animals have feelings; they are not objects; their welfare matters, thus they deserve, as a matter of basic moral consideration, to be liberated from the abusive confines of factory farms, where they suffer excessively and unnecessarily.
Note that the identified problem, as opponents of factory farming frame it, comes down to the way animals are raised. No mention is made of slaughter, which is assumed to be equally abusive. Also note that this articulation assumes that animals, by virtue of their ability to experience suffering as a result of being raised inhumanely, are considered to have emotional lives and, in turn, moral relevance.
This means that animals’ capacity to suffer, while different in degree from our own, is nonetheless meaningful and familiar enough to demand that these animals remain free from the abuses endemic to industrial animal agriculture. The fact that we believe these animals should not suffer in confinement affirms our moral consideration of them. There’s very little to dispute at this point. Vegans and non-vegans alike can happily agree on this consistent application of moral consideration to farm animals raised on factory farms.
It is when we apply our moral consideration to non-industrial farms that a serious problem emerges. The moral standard applied to non-industrial farms is the same as that applied factory farms. The core premises still hold: animals have feelings; they are not objects; their welfare matters; thus they deserve, as a matter of basic moral consideration, to live lives conducive to their welfare. Matters undergo an abrupt change, however, when we extend the question of moral consideration beyond the matter of how animals are raised to a much more morally complex matter: their death.
It is, in fact, at this crucial moment in a farm animal’s life–the human choice to slaughter–that the staunch moral consideration that we once applied to factory farming falters. Recall that in our application of moral consideration to factory farming, the animal’s death is never mentioned–it doesn’t have to be. The entire cycle of life on a factory farm is so abhorrent as to be dismissed outright as a morally corrosive apparatus, so there’s no reason to ever draw a distinction between how an animal is raised and the reality of his slaughter in this setting. Every aspect of life within an industrialized system of animal agriculture is, ipso facto, a moral abomination. The bathwater is tossed and nothing of worth goes with it. The question of death is rendered moot by our broad dismissal of factory farms on clear moral grounds.
Recall, the primary reason concerned consumers believe farm animals should be raised in non-industrial settings is because they assume correctly that animals otherwise suffer in factory farms. A pasture-based agricultural system is thus favored as a system that restores to animals a chance to live lives more-or-less free of human-imposed suffering. I’m not convinced of this claim, but for now let’s assume that our desire for farm animals to be treated well is adequately fulfilled on a humanely managed, non-industrial farm. Animals that have space to roam, can choose what to eat, and even have the option of reproductive freedom are almost certainly suffering less than animals confined in a feed lot or farrowing crate.
This reduction of suffering is obviously consistent with our moral consideration of farm animals, the same moral consideration that has led us to thoroughly condemn factory farms and support their non-industrial alternatives. The moral benefit of a non-industrial farm, after all, is that it grants to animals the pleasure-inducing freedoms denied to them by factory farms. Hard to argue with this as far as it goes.
However, we have to also apply our moral consideration to the entire life-cycle of the “humane” alternative as well. Doing so reveals that, on non-industrial farms–just as in factory farms–farmers, more often than not using an industrial slaughterhouse, eventually kill and commodify the animals they are raising. It is at this exact point that our moral consideration hits a brick wall.
The decision to end a sentient animal’s life–in essence, to objectify it–before it reaches even the prime of her life is not only similar to the most essential practice of factory farming, it’s radically inconsistent with the moral consideration we once applied to animals in factory farms and to living animals on non-industrial farms. We say we care about animals enough to urge a radical transition away from factory farming to systems that promote their welfare. Great. But then we kill the animals enjoying that new and improved system.
This death, no matter how “humane,” no matter how respectfully administered, ultimately undermines the moral consideration that drove us to condemn factory farms and support non-industrial farms in the first place. You can’t care about an animal and kill it for no vital reason. Doing so is morally and logically inconsistent.
Sometimes I think the human-animal relationship would be much better off if humans didn’t think so damn much. At the same time, I think the human-animal relationship would be much better off if we were just a bit more thoughtful. Either way, it’s amazing how easily the forces of denial and willful ignorance are deployed to justify the pleasures of the palate and powers of exploitation.
For those willing to confront the ethics of eating animals, what often happens is this: our super-charged, overpowered, hyperactive brains enable us to think ourselves out of making the right choice (just read the recent finalists in the NY Times Magazine ethics of eating meat contest). A classic example of this regrettable ability to intellectually evade the truth about animals involves the way many people respond to the question of animal emotions. When we observe what appear to be genuine expressions of animal emotion, many of us actively and almost instinctively rationalize them away. It’s a preprogrammed response, we say. We’ve no way of really knowing what another species is feeling, we say. There’s no hard data, we say. We say these things, I suppose, because we’re complicit. We don’t want to stop benefitting from exploitation, but I imagine we can think away that fact as well. The human mind is a fickle little machine.
These ideas and standards of truth aren’t the yammering of wingnuts. They’re routinely promoted by professional philosophers and animal scientists. Nevertheless, lacking such authority, I feel safe in saying that to deny animal emotion is patently absurd. It ignores the situational ingenuity that we’ve seen all kinds of animals repeatedly demonstrate. It succumbs to a speciesist interpretation of thought and feeling, thereby confirming the human predilection for prejudice. Put simply, to deny animal emotion is to ignore the obvious. So many aspects of life are so maddeningly complicated. But not this issue. This one is simple. So simple.
I recently read a story about a mother dairy cow who gave birth to twins in a pasture. It was her fifth birth as a result of being repeatedly artificially inseminated. This time, with twins, the mother cow saw a chance to rebel. She hid one of the twins in the pasture, led the other to the barn (as she’d done with her five previous children), and saved her milk for her hidden calf out in the field. Is it in any way viable to say that this mother lacked recognizable emotions? I don’t need an expert to answer this question.
Sad thing is, most people, often very smart people, don’t think about the implications of this story at all. I’m constantly rattling on to colleagues, friends, family about these stark examples of animal emotionalism. The general reaction is to say “wow” or “how sweet” and then willfully fail to connect the dots. How is it that direct and quite powerful evidence of animal emotion can exist so independently of our everyday behavior? I’d argue it’s because we’re so deeply trapped in customary habits–habits that conform perfectly with the most basic cultural assumptions–that the grotesque barriers preventing connections seem to be as normal as the air we breath and the water we drink. Admittedly, it’s jarring to realize, as a thinking and caring person, that–when it comes to something as fundamental as our connection to non-human life–we’ve had it all wrong. Or worse, that we’ve been blissfully complicit in massive suffering.
More astute critics argue that, in order to tear down these contemporary barriers, we have to “strike at their roots.” We have to confront nothing less than the origins of hierarchy and exploitation in order to rebuild a cultural context that makes animal liberation a no-brainer. Tomorrow, I’ll be putting up a guest post by Carolyn Zaikowski, who is working to do exactly this. Her thoughts on striking at the roots are some of the smartest and best articulated I’ve read in a long time.
Stay tuned. Subscribe. Go Vegan.
I think most ethical vegans would agree that undue frustration comes from the fact that the simplicity of our message belies the popular resistance to it.This unfortunate paradox came to mind as I was reading Peter Singer’s Ethics into Action, an inspiring analysis of Henry Spira, the great animal rights activist.
Two aspects of this book drove me to articulate yet another reason to go vegan. The first is the purity of Spira’s passion. He’d never thought much about how we treat animals until he reached his 50′s, acquired a cat, and read Peter Singer’s 1973 “Animal Liberation” essay in the New York Review of Books. The cat totally seduced him, as did the power of Singer’s arguments. He dedicated his life to helping non-human animals, the most vulnerable creatures among us.
The second aspect was a quote included in the book from Animal Liberation:
A liberation movement demands an expansion of our moral horizons, so that practices that were previously regarded as natural and inevitable are now seen as intolerable.
And hence, a third reason to go vegan:
Violence and suffering are bad. Humans should choose to avoid violence and suffering whenever possible. Killing an animal for food and clothing–no matter how that animal was raised– causes violence and suffering. Humans not only do not need animals for food and clothing, we are often better off–at least with food–without them. Thus when we eat and wear animals we are (no matter what kind of hopeful story comes with our food and clothing) causing undue suffering and violence. That is bad.
To fail to embrace such a simple and obvious message, indeed, strikes me, as it did Henry Spira, as “intolerable.”