I haven’t paid much attention to the vegan community’s reaction to ex-vegan Alex Jamieson (who was Morgan Spurlock’s vegan girlfriend in Supersize Me), but I get the sense that it’s been predictably negative. However, vegan RD Jack Norris just posted his balanced, friendly and intelligent thoughts on what Jamieson’s deficiencies might have been and how she might have tried to correct them while staying vegan, and I highly recommend it. He’s even able to discuss “meat cravings” in a polite and helpful way, which is a near impossible feat for vegan RDs. This sure beats Ed Coffin’s rant in The Huffington Post!
I brought this point up in a larger entry I wrote last year, but maybe it’s worth repeating and updating because that entry was called “Animal Rights Philosophers on Animal Habitat, Part One: Tom Regan,” and I kind of suspect that no one read it. I wouldn’t have!
The basic point was this: one of the problems with saying that animals have rights is that doing so would create a massive class of beings whose rights we may potentially violate, but who cannot violate ours no matter what they do. This class already exists to a lesser extent with babies and other humans who are thought not to be responsible for their actions (and thus are potentially victims but can’t be criminals), but that’s not a major problem because there’s not typically a huge sacrifice involved in giving rights to humans who are incapable of returning the favor. But animal rights would surround us with beings who would suddenly have this asymmetrical advantage over us, this one-way obligation from us to them. Humans are held responsible for violating human rights, and vegans would hold humans responsible for violating animal rights, but animals cannot violate animal or human rights. As far as the rights argument is concerned, animals can hit each other, and they can hit us, but we can’t hit them.
Now, plenty of animal rights philosophers say we have a right to self defense and that we don’t have to be pure pacifists in our relations with other animals, but this only works if they’re putting the same ethical demands on other animals that they want to put on us. For a dispute between humans and other animals to be a dispute between ethical equals, we’d have to say that a lion eating an antelope (especially when the lion wasn’t about to die of starvation) is as much of a rights violation as a human doing the same. Few vegans want to say this because they recognize that other animals can’t be expected to understand our concept of rights. Fair enough, but the problem remains that humans overriding animal interests under any circumstances is always a rights violation, but animals doing the same to us is not. And if we are seeking to prevent rights violations, which is sort of the idea behind rights theory, animal rights would demand that we give animals the upper hand any time our interests come into conflict.
If we followed this consistently, and actually tried to give animals rights based on all their interests, this would straightjacket humans and give other animals free reign. That doesn’t sound too ominous if we’re imagining sheep unapologetically nudging against us. But in a potentially fatal confrontation between a truly rights-conscious human and a nonhuman animal — which I recognize is unlikely if you’re in New York City, London, Toronto, or Los Angeles — the death of the animal would signify a rights violation, but the death of the human would not. (The animal didn’t lose its right to life just because ours may have been in danger, and it doesn’t make ethical sense to punish an irresponsible being.) Therefore, the honest rights approach would say that if humans cannot run from such conflicts, the humans should honorably accept death.
That’s an obscure hypothetical concern for most people likely to read this, but the question of habitat dispute is not. If we were to consistently give animals rights based on their interests, we would have to give them a right to habitat. Habitat rights is something like property rights for animals (or right to sovereignty, as the authors of Zoopolis put it) and the fact that so many animal rights philosophers overlook it is a bit surprising, because habitat is vital for animals to be able to eat, mate and live — all things that appear to be very much in their interests. Doing anything to land that animals inhabit other than cautiously tip-toeing through it (and even that might be trespassing and infringing on animals’ privacy) is a violation of animals’ interests, and thus (according to animal rights theory) also their rights.
It would not, however, be a violation of our rights for animals to invade our settlements and homes. That’s because animals would have rights against us, but we would not have rights against them. What would our ethical basis for removing animals such as mice, rats and opossums from our basements and attics be? We can evict uninvited humans off our property because we say the trespassing humans have a mutual obligation to respect our rights, even though they have rights themselves. (Unless it’s a swarm of colonizing babies, in which case you’re screwed.) But our animal-rights-granting hands are tied if animals choose to make the same play, because they have no obligations to respect us. Human towns would become like a nation that opens its borders to every other citizen in the world, but whose own citizens are not accepted anywhere else in return.
It is not a violation of our rights to not usurp or otherwise use animal habitat to our own ends. Therefore, the rights-committed humanity would need to not do anything that would in any way damage land occupied by nonhumans, or anything else that would violate animal interests. Any time our rights conflicted with the rights of other animals, animals would have priority because we can violate their rights and they can’t violate ours. We would always need to sacrifice for them, and they would never need to sacrifice for us. All disputes would need to be resolved in their favor.
I don’t see how it would be possible for us to manage this and still survive, which would leave a vegan humanity (if professing a rights standard) having to admit that they weren’t actually out to abolish animal rights violations, but rather to reduce certain kinds of rights violations; this would reveal animal rights rhetoric as nothing but a mitigated utilitarianism in disguise. And the problem with utilitarianism — aka “suffering reduction” in the usual vegan interpretation — is that the best way to reduce suffering is to end all sentient life on the planet. You wouldn’t have to go that far with animal rights, though, because to reduce rights violations to nil, you’d only have to get rid of the rights violators: pretty much all humans. Only the very severely mentally impaired humans could stay.
I don’t know, maybe that’s a contradiction we could live with, because you could say the same of human rights — realistically, we’re never going to abolish all human rights violations, so the best we can hope to do is reduce them. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, right? But I think the problem runs deeper with animal rights because giving animals rights based on their interests isn’t even theoretically possible since (assuming we were consistent about it) it would force us to surrender and lose in any interest dispute with animals, whereas rights agreements between humans tend to work out as mutual obligations that are often at least somewhat mutually beneficial. Animal rights’ one-way obligation from humans to animals, which would be mostly detrimental to the humans respecting them (but could have beneficial side-effects, like to the environment), is either hopelessly impractical or suicidal.
If the way you’re phrasing your goal is impossible without human extinction, shouldn’t the goal be phrased another way?
Another way for vegans to phrase it could be to take away the middleman signifier of “rights” and just say “interests.” This way, we abolish the asymmetry of “rights” that gives animals so much more freedom than us; animals can’t violate our rights, but they can violate our interests, and making sacrifices for animals for their interests could go against our own. For instance, it doesn’t violate our rights to voluntarily refrain from doing anything that might destroy animal habitat or infringe on animal interests in any way, but such severe self-constraint could violate our interests. And if we’re allowed to care about our own interests again, we now don’t have to commit suicide every time nonhumans would be better off without us — which is most of the time.
But this plays right into meat eaters’ greedy hands. Since the ability of humans and nonhumans to cooperate is limited (especially in the case of wild nonhumans), saying that human and animal interests are all worth considering leaves us with no definitive standard of where to draw the line between our self-denial and egoism. Without rights, where do our interests end and our obligations to other animals begin?
Unless we’re going to cave into animal interests every time (as we would have to when phrased as “rights”), our weighing of animal interests versus our own can’t help but be arbitrary and self-serving. Does our interest in having highways, books and furniture trump the animals’ interests in the land those highways cut through and fragment? Most vegans seem to think so, or act like they think so, but why? Because it would suck to give up land transportation, books and furniture? But how is that different from meat eaters who think we can violate animals’ interests because it would suck to give up meat?
Oh, “because veganism is about intent and ending exploitation”? But why is veganism about those things when animals cannot distinguish between intentional harms and unintentional harms, or between exploitative harms and non-exploitative harms? And anyway, how is destroying animal habitat for our own desires despite knowing how much this will harm animals well intentioned and non-exploitative?
This is not to say that it’s impossible to argue against animal agriculture without demanding that humans become utterly self-sacrificing (and ideally nonexistent) pacifists. It’s just that there may not be any consistent set of principles that can explain what vegans want to allow and not allow. Animal rights appears to be one of vegans’ failed attempts to logically explain and justify what they want all of us to feel and to do.
— In the next entry, I’ll look at whether the book Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights resolves this problem with animal rights. I’d give you a hint, but I’m not done reading it yet.
The Onion posted an amusing article this week called “We Raise All Our Beef Humanely On Open Pasture And Then We Hang Them Upside Down And Slash Their Throats”. It’s written from the point of view of a (fake) farmer who dialectically contrasts his reassuring humane farming rhetoric with vivid depictions of gory industrialized slaughter. Though people who take Onion articles too seriously risk being mocked, some vegans are touting this Onion piece as potentially effective propaganda to illustrate why the idea of “humane slaughter” is inherently absurd.
Here are some reader comments from “Truth in Satire: The Onion Peels Back the Humane Myth,” which is James McWilliams’ take The Onion article:
“I was just preparing a document on the happy meat myth, and this is superb material.”
“While the imagery is certainly graphic and disturbing, I don’t think its exaggerated, and I’m sure a lot of readers will recognize that.”
“It says a lot about the sad state of this movement when a satirical essay is far more truthful and factual than some of the animal groups are these days.”
“I posted that article on Facebook yesterday, as did almost every vegan I know. I only got one response – from an omnivore who should know better – asking me if it was true. I assured her it was, and she seemed properly horrified.”
“I love satire and found this piece to be brilliant. I had to skip parts of it though as I get overly emotional, but I did share it on Facebook and it has a home in my bookmarks to whip out anytime someone asks me ‘What’s wrong with my ethically raised pasture fed beef?’”
And Ecorazzi says: “I commend whoever wrote this piece for [The Onion]. In many ways it does a better job of educating people on the horrors of slaughterhouses than some past animal rights campaigns.”
But there’s a problem with using this article semi-seriously as an educational tool. It ignores the first part of the industrial slaughter process — when the knocker puts a steel bolt through the cow’s brain — and assumes the cows are always “fully conscious” through most of the killing process. According to Hank T. Norman, The Onion’s fake farmer:
Our independently owned family farm is committed to one guiding principle: making sure that you, the customer, receive the best-tasting, highest quality beef from cows that are healthy, active, and eventually suspended fully conscious inside a facility thick with hot, blood-choked air and the frantic bellows of dangling, profoundly fearful animals. …
When we shackle a chain to a hind leg of each of our cows and hoist its terrified, quivering frame 12 feet up to the rafters, we can see firsthand just how tender, meaty, and well-marbled its entire body is…
[O]ur healthy, GMO-free cattle thrash about wildly in the air, very often tearing their own delicate flesh and shattering their leg bones in a hopeless attempt to flee to the nearby 100 percent organic grassland pastures where they were free to roam during their unnaturally truncated lives. …
And of course our award-winning beef is flayed and butchered fresh on the spot, allowing the animal’s dangling, inverted brethren to look on with dilated, terror-filled eyes as they slowly advance one-by-one toward an identical and incomprehensibly traumatic fate.
The animals being “fully conscious” and trying to escape while watching other cows die is a major part of what makes the slaughter as “Hank T. Norman” describes it so disturbing. But in Timothy Pachirat’s Every 12 Seconds, Pachirat explains how the animal killing is supposed to happen if everything follows protocol, and this involves the cows being unconscious before they are suspended:
After the cow has been shot, the knocker advances the conveyor, and the cow drops onto another conveyor, of wide green plastic, about five feet under the metal conveyor. Because the cow is unconscious at this point, it often falls forward onto its head, sometimes breaking its teeth or biting its tongue. Once the animal is on the plastic conveyor, the shackler wraps a metal hook around its left hind leg. The hook is suspended from a chain connected via a wheel to an overhead rail. The rail moves the wheel forward, lifting the cow into the air by its left hind leg until it is suspended vertically, head down. The cow’s right hind leg and front legs often begin to kick wildly at this point, creating the impression that the cow is still alive and conscious. Meat-industry publications state that these motions are purely reflexive and do not indicate consciousness; the key to establishing consciousness, they claim, lies in the tongue and the eyes. If it has not done so already, the cow will often vomit, depositing a rank greenish substance onto the floor that mixes with the blood flowing from its head wounds. …
The indexer also watches for any signs of consciousness among the cattle that have just been shot. These include attempts by the cow to right itself, reflexive blinking in response to stimuli, and a tongue that is not hanging limply from the mouth. If the indexer notices any of these, he takes a captive-bolt handgun powered by a bronze cap that looks like a .22 shell and fires into the head of the cow.
(Every Twelve Seconds, pp. 53-55)
It is only after this that the cows move on to the stickers: the ones tasked with cutting the cows’ throats. As Pachirat describes it, the process is gruesome and revolting to watch, but that is mostly from the viewpoint of those who are witnessing the slaughter –- it’s not the experience of the unconscious cows.
Of course that’s assuming that the slaughter goes as scripted. Pachirat writes that some cows do make it past the knocker conscious. One of the jobs of the indexer is to look for signs of consciousness and shoot seemingly conscious cows a second time, but sometimes a conscious cow will struggle her way to the kill floor. If this happens, the plant manager is alerted and shoots the cow with a rifle.
Another possibility is that the cow will remain shackled but conscious, and if the indexer doesn’t notice this and so fails to shoot her again, she will still be conscious as she arrives at the stickers. If a USDA inspector is in the vicinity when this happens, the stickers will stop the production line so that the indexer can shoot her again, making sure she is unconscious. But if there is no inspector watching, they will try to slash the cow’s throat while she is conscious. This is how The Onion article depicts the slaughter process, and it can be even worse if the cow remains conscious after having her throat cut (which is possible since it is much harder to effectively cut the throat of a conscious cow), as the next workers start trimming off her body parts.
So it is possible for a slaughter to happen close to how The Onion describes it, or even be worse, but those are botched slaughters at industrial slaughterhouses. A commenter to this entry wrote:
Honestly, what first came to mind as I read the description of the satire pieces was “why are these small-farm grass-fed cows going to an industrial slaughterhouse?” We took the cows I worked with at my last internship to a small slaughterhouse nearby in which the animals were slaughtered one at a time on a kill floor separate from the other cows. No sneaking past the inspector there. No mechanization. If that cow wasn’t unconscious by the time they suspended it, someone would probably get hurt. This type of slaughterhouse is hardly the exception; most small, progress-minded farmers can’t even meet the quotas to process at the industrialized plants.
If a small farmer were really bragging about how the animals he raised were slaughtered, it would be more like the Larry’s Custom Meats slaughterhouse featured in this video, where they generally kill four or five animals an hour, and the animals don’t see each other dying and are unconscious before the workers cut their throats.
“We Raise All Our Beef Humanely On Open Pasture And Then We Hang Them Upside Down And Slash Their Throats” suggests, however, that slaughters gone awry at industrial slaughterhouses are the normal and desired type of slaughter for humanely raised animals. That works for The Onion because it makes the contrast between the humane farming buzzwords and the slaughter process more stark and darkly funny. And the fact that these sorts of slaughters do happen is something that those of us who eat meat from industrialized slaughterhouses might want to keep in mind, or try to change.
But treating a worst case scenario industrial slaughter as the norm also means this article is not ideal for vegans who want a propaganda tool to demonstrate the innate paradox of “humane slaughter.” Because if humane slaughter is an inherently absurd notion, you should be able to convey that through the best of all possible slaughters, and not just the worst.
Some people think being pro-choice is blatantly at odds with being vegan. If you’re against killing, you should be against all killing, right? Well… no. That would mean that if you’re in favor of some killing then you have to be in favor of all killing. If we’re going to be such sticklers for consistency, someone who is okay with killing in self defense would have to be just as okay with blowing up the entire world.
So there isn’t necessarily a contradiction between being vegan and being pro-choice, but abortion can be an ideologically confusing issue for some vegans, and the reason for this is that not all vegans have identified their own premises. Some vegan rules are compatible with abortion, and some aren’t. The bad news for pro-choice vegans is that a pro-choice stance puts their objection to animal consumption on shiftier ground.
Much of vegan ethics comes down to the concepts of sentience and interests. Vegans say plants don’t need to be protected from humans because plants don’t feel pain and aren’t aware of nor attached to their lives, and so plants (though alive and structured for survival) don’t have an interest in remaining intact or continuing to live. Animals, however, do feel pain and are attached to their lives in some way, and so they do have an interest in not being manhandled or killed. The key difference vegans often point to is a central nervous system, which animals tend to have and which plants lack.
It might seem, then, that an easy out for pro-choice vegans would be to say something like, “Fetuses aren’t sentient until they have developed a central nervous system, so there’s nothing contradictory about killing fetuses before the third trimester and being against the intentional killing of sentient animals.”
However, this creates problems for some ways that vegans argue against killing animals for food. In fact, this creates problems for the ways that most people argue against whatever kinds of killings they don’t like. That’s because it’s possible to kill sentient beings in ways that mimic the criteria that makes vegans okay with killing non-sentient lifeforms. If vegans don’t want to kill sentient beings because they can experience pain and have some kind of awareness of life and their interest in living, then all we have to do is kill these beings in a painless way, while they are unaware of their interests — like by blowing their heads off while they are sleeping or temporarily unconscious. Sentient creatures who are killed like this are no more aware of pain or the violation of their interests and future potential than any plant or fetus that we kill.
All that is left for vegans to say against this kind of killing is that the sentient beings who are killed in this manner still have future potential to enjoy life even if they are not currently aware of it, and we selfishly destroy that potential when we kill them. The problem with this is that it means we can’t kill fetuses either since they have future potential to enjoy life (and thus have “interests” in the vegan definition), even if they are not currently aware of it. Just like someone who is under anesthetic and asleep, gestating humans don’t realize they have potential to enjoy the future, but they have that potential nevertheless, and we take it away by killing them.
In short: if we can’t kill sentient beings because sentient beings feel pain, then we could kill them under anesthetic, or kill them so quickly they don’t have a chance to feel pain; this could potentially allow killing animals for food. If we can’t kill sentient beings because sentient beings have interests that they are aware of, then we could kill sentient beings at moments when they are not aware of their interests, like when they are asleep or otherwise unconscious, or maybe even just drugged up or distracted. This too could allow killing animals for food. But if we can’t kill beings with future interests even if they are not currently aware of these interests because this deprives them of whatever life has in store for them in the future, then we can’t kill fetuses because they have future potential even if they aren’t aware of it yet.
This seems to put pro-choice vegans in a bind.
Pro-choice vegans could try saying that the difference between fetuses who are temporarily unaware of their interests and unconscious animals who are temporarily unaware of their interests is that the unconscious animals were previously aware of their interests (while they were awake) and the fetuses have never been aware of their interests. They could insist that the future potential of a fetus is less important than the future potential of someone who was aware of their interests just a few hours ago (even if they aren’t at this moment). But the question this raises is… why? Why does this previous awareness count so much? If someone is in an irreversible coma and will never be aware of their interest in living again, does it matter that they previously had an interest in living? Does this previous awareness of interests somehow count more than the fetuses’ future awareness of interests? It’s hard to see how it could since we move forward in time rather than backward.
Fetuses and temporarily unconscious humans or nonhuman animals all have potential to enjoy life in the future that they are currently unaware of. The difference is our own perception of that potential. In other words, the difference is self-centered. For the most part, we are more attached to those who are born and who we know personally because we have a better idea of what they are like, how they contribute to our lives and where their own lives are going. A fetus is an abstraction with nothing but potential; they aren’t as deeply intertwined in our lives as the already born, and we don’t really know what their specific goals and ambitions are going to be. Nonhuman animals who are already born are less of an abstraction to pro-choice vegans than fetuses are to them, so these vegans find it less disturbing to kill a fetus than to kill an animal in a way that causes the animal no more distress than fetuses feel as they die.
But vegans don’t want to leave the argument hanging like this, because that would mean that meat eating is okay as long as meat eaters see nonhuman animals as abstractions and don’t feel disturbed at their deaths, which is how most meat eaters actually do feel. There is, however, one last strategy for pro-choice vegans to employ: they can lump abortion in with self-defense.
Most vegans are okay with killing nonhuman animals when immediate human survival depends on it, even though they consider the animals to be “innocent”; pro-choice vegans can use similar arguments to defend abortion. This is a slam dunk when a woman’s life is definitely at stake, but most pro-choice vegans aren’t that strict. Vegans who are okay with abortion no matter how safe the pregnancy and delivery are expected to be can still make self-defense style arguments, but in doing so they’re stretching the definition of self-defense beyond immediate survival into quality of life terrain. And if you appeal to quality of life to defend the intentional killing of “innocent” fetuses when the mother’s life is not at risk, it becomes a lot harder to critique meat eaters who make quality of life appeals to defend killing “innocent” animals.
Pro-choice vegans can still claim that growing, delivering and raising a baby they don’t want — or even giving it up for adoption — causes mothers and their unwanted children more misery than a lifetime of veganism causes meat and cheese lovers. But there’s no way to actually test and measure which misery trumps which, so pro-choice vegans can’t completely dismiss meat eaters who say, “I love animal products and I’m not into most plant foods. Also, I feel better when I eat some animal fat and protein. I would be miserable if I had to live a lifetime as a vegan, so I’m okay with killing animals.” Pro-choice vegans would still want to say that the misery of unwanted pregnancy is nontrivial and the misery of a life without animal products is trivial, but how could they ever prove that?
It becomes a murkier debate this way because pro-choice vegans are admitting that they are willing to intentionally end the lives of others in order to benefit their own lives, just like meat eaters do. The difference between pro-choice vegans and meat eaters is not about selfishness vs. selflessness, but rather about how much value each of us places on certain advantages for ourselves (not having children if we don’t want them, getting to eat animal products if we enjoy them) and whose lives and future potentials we are willing to sacrifice for these personal advantages.
Vegans (and plenty of non-vegans) tend to be against the breeding of domesticated animals for pets. They give two main reasons for this.
1. Some vegans say breeding animals for companionship isn’t much better than breeding them for food, since domesticated animals are inevitably dependent on humans and slave-like — and so live lives not worth living no matter how well we treat them. That may especially be true with particular dog and cat breeds that are plagued with severe congenital disorders, but this argument comes up even without those health issues. Author Gary Francione takes this stance when he writes:
What if we abolished the property status of animals and required that we treat dogs and cats similar to the way we treat human children? What if humans who lived with dogs could no longer treat them instrumentally (e.g., as guard dogs, “show” dogs or cats, etc.) but had to treat them as family members? What if humans could not kill nonhuman companions except in instances in which at least some of us regard it as acceptable to allow assisted suicide in the human context (e.g., when the human is incurably ill and in great pain, etc.). Would it be acceptable to continue to breed nonhumans to be our companions then?
The answer is no. …
[T]his position neglects to recognize that domestication itself raises serious moral issues irrespective of how the nonhumans involved are treated.
Domestic animals are dependent on us for when and whether they eat, whether they have water, where and when they relieve themselves, when they sleep, whether they get any exercise, etc. Unlike human children, who, except in unusual cases, will become independent and functioning members of human society, domestic animals are neither part of the nonhuman world nor fully part of our world. They remain forever in a netherworld of vulnerability, dependent on us for everything that is of relevance to them. …
This is more or less true of all domesticated nonhumans. They are perpetually dependent on us. We control their lives forever. They truly are “animal slaves.” We may be benevolent “masters,” but we really aren’t anything more than that. And that cannot be right.
2. The more standard argument against pet breeding is that there are already plenty of dogs and cats without human homes to shelter them, so why bring more into the world when we can improve the lives of the ones who are already here? James McWilliams uses this latter rationale against pet breeding in his latest entry when he says:
Breeding animals for companionship is never justifiable, primarily because there are millions upon millions of unwanted animals who stand to benefit fundamentally from human companionship.
Vegans like to look at the consequences that meat eater logic would have if applied to humans instead of other animals, and I like to do the same with vegan logic. As with a lot of vegan arguments, being against the breeding of dogs and cats raises the question of whether humans should breed with each other.
Going back to the first argument against pet breeding, Francione complains that, “Domestic animals are dependent on us for when and whether they eat, whether they have water, where and when they relieve themselves, when they sleep, whether they get any exercise, etc.”
This also happens to be true of most human children, who get their food and water from their parents, have bedtimes, are potty trained so that they don’t relieve themselves on the carpet or the sidewalk (and often have to ask permission to go to the toilet), and have their schedules tightly controlled at school, in extracurricular activities and at home.
Then again, human childhood is just a phase. Francione wrote, “Unlike human children, who, except in unusual cases, will become independent and functioning members of human society, domestic animals are neither part of the nonhuman world nor fully part of our world.”
But this glosses over just how much time humans spend as dependents, even if they are not one of the “unusual cases.” Humans are often not considered “functioning member of human society” until after they leave school. By Francione’s definition, then, most humans are dependents until they graduate high school, or at least drop out and get a job. This isn’t an entirely unreasonable definition, since child protective services and group foster homes deal with kids up to 18 years of age, but it would mean that human dependency arguably lasts longer than the life expectancies of dogs and cats. Even with a stricter definition of human dependence that ended before puberty, human dependency would still last as long or longer than the lives of most animals that humans treat as pets.
It’s true that this blatant direct dependence is temporary with most humans, since humans typically go on to become relatively independent adults in the sense that they can help others as much as others help them, but this direct dependence is also temporary in cats and dogs… since cats and dogs die.
Francione is incorrect when he says of domesticated animals that “They remain forever in a netherworld of vulnerability, dependent on us for everything that is of relevance to them” and “We control their lives forever,” because dogs and cats do not live forever — they live about as long as Francione implies that human dependency lasts. If young humans are often still dependent on adult humans for food and shelter in preadolescence or later, and if dogs and cats tend to die around that age anyway, why is it so much worse to breed dependent dogs and cats than it is to breed humans who are dependent for just as long? Human dependence ends when humans mature (or are forced by circumstance) into what we define as independent, and dog and cat dependence ends when dogs or cats die (or go feral, which is a different issue). In both instances, the dependence — and whatever downsides come with dependence — is temporary.
So why is a decade of dependence impossible to justify in regards to cat or dog lives that we might breed into being, but acceptable when it comes to human lives we might breed into being? Are the 10 years or more of being a dependent pet that much worse than the 10 years or more of being a human child? If so, why? Does the dependency somehow feel longer for the pets than it does for dependent humans? Are the pets suffering even more from their dependency because they’re lamenting that they’ll never get to grow up, move out and support themselves?
McWilliams offers a more standard argument against pet breeding when he says that there are already lots of dogs and cats in the world without loving human homes. The main counterpoint to this view is that some pet owners have a selfish desire for particular breeds of dogs or cats that they can’t find at a local shelter. Maybe they feel a “special connection” with Shih Tzus, or just like the way that they look.
Even if we’re putting aside the issues of puppy mills and pet breeds linked to serious health problems, opponents to pet breeding who agree with McWilliams would say that someone’s desire for a particular sort of animal is no excuse for breeding more pets into existence when there are so many needy dogs and cats already. But how could anyone who agrees with this ever justify having their own kids when there are plenty of needy children who are already born? Many adults have a selfish desire for a kid with more of their own genes, perhaps because they think they’ll have a “special connection” with them or like the way they look, and so they breed children into existence even though there are plenty of children who exist already who don’t have parents to take care of them. Shouldn’t opponents of pet breeding say “that’s no excuse” to those selfish desires too?
Vegans don’t eat eggs because eggs come from birds and are thus animal products, and vegans don’t eat animal products. However, there’s more to this egg prohibition than vegans wanting to adhere consistently to the definition of veganism.
Some vegans have a strong belief in property rights and think it’s immoral to take an egg from a hen without her consent, since it’s her property and so egg snatching is theft. (Well, “strong belief” is probably an exaggeration. Giving nonhuman animals a right to their bodies and what comes out of their bodies is about as far as most vegans are willing to go when it comes to protecting animal property rights. Few vegans actually want to give animals a right to their nests, burrows or other dwellings or habitats, since that would mean humans could never build anything where animals are living, or really alter the natural environment in any significant way.)
Mostly, though, vegans don’t like breeding animals for human use because the animals we prod into existence are going to experience suffering and generally have non-ideal lives in regimented conditions — especially if they are raised on factory farms — and will eventually be slaughtered for food instead of dying of old age.
One of the things vegans hate about the production of eggs in particular is that because roosters can’t lay eggs, male chicks are discarded at birth and either ground alive, suffocated, electrocuted, gassed or have their necks broken. These early violent deaths on a massive scale appall vegans, but I think they sound worse to us than they are for the chicks to experience, except possibly the suffocation, which is the form of chick killing that the American Veterinary Medical Association deemed inhumane. This video is titled “Hatchery Horrors” and is supposed to be an exposé of the tragedy of shredding chicks to death, but to me it makes unexpected death by grinder look like one of the best of all possible deaths. (Of couse this is assuming the grinder is big and powerful enough to instantly macerate whatever type of being you are. It would suck to be a llama caught in a chick grinder.)
Despite the ominous narration in this video, the grinder chick deaths in it appear instantaneous and painless. Going into one of these grinders the week you’re born is about as close to never being born as any living being can hope to be. Vegans are perfectly fine with not breeding chickens into existence — in fact, they prefer it — so if nonexistence is preferable, what’s so bad about zapping roosters back into nonexistence within the week? Yes, their deaths may seem gory, sad or disturbing to us as observers, but how bad could they be to experience firsthand?
It’s not like the lives of male chicks leading up to the day of maceration seem all that terrible. Yes, the chicks get moved around in cramped boxes, but that hardly seems worse than caging cats to take them to the vet, and it’s probably kind of nice to spend most of your life cuddled against other cheeping fluffy chicks. The video mentions beak trimming, which would be gratuitous to put the males through since they’re about to die anyway, but it appears that the procedure doesn’t cause baby chicks pain, and that the chronic pain some chickens experience after beak trimming is only an issue when the procedure is done on older hens, which makes this video’s reference to chronic pain a misleading one. The chicks are tossed around on their way to the conveyer belt (“roughly dumped”), but they’re light and so probably aren’t banging against anything with a lot of force. The conveyer belt itself looks fun, and then they’re gone before they’re really aware of their surroundings or what the hell is going on.
Being a male chick who is gassed, electrocuted or ground alive is probably a more pleasant way to go than SIDS, or just about any other way that a young or adult human dies, including old age. So vegans, what’s so objectionable about it?
For some people concerned about the ethics of eating, Michael Pollan is considered the figurehead of the local food and conscientious omnivore movement, a way of thinking about and consuming food that represents an alternative to the vegan ideal of abstaining from animal products. Pollan had a major impact on me when a chapter in The Omnivore’s Dilemma helped me feel better about quitting veganism by making what I thought was a good ethical case for eating animals. But that was before Adam Merberg started illuminating the errors in Pollan’s writings on his blog Say what, Michael Pollan?. As Merberg has effectively shown in entries like his review of In Defense of Food, his review of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and “The free lunch,” Pollan is an excellent story teller who isn’t nearly as polished with his facts and logic.
Merberg became vegetarian at the age of 12 and vegan a decade later. He grew up in New England and moved to Berkeley, CA four years ago to start working on a Ph.D. in mathematics. Once there, he became a three-term (unpaid) board member of the Berkeley Student Food Collective, where he has served one year as Finance Officer, and is now serving his second year as IT Coordinator. He doesn’t represent the organization in his writings online, and in fact, he offered to resign early in the course of his involvement with the organization because of his criticism of Pollan, but his fellow board members thought this offer was ridiculous.
Merberg’s most recent blog post, “The Proposition 37 campaign’s collateral damage,” is his take on the problems with mandating that GMO foods be labeled as such and is typical of his evenhanded and non-dogmatic approach, an approach that he maintains even while analyzing contentious issues like locavore-style omnivorism and veganism.
Your blog has a very specific purpose: to pick apart the claims and arguments of “locavorism” advocate Michael Pollan. What inspired your interest in Pollan, and why hone in so exclusively on him?
Since you identify Pollan as a “‘locavorism’ advocate,” I do want to make it clear that I don’t think I’ve written much that challenges the goals of the broader locavore movement. Most of my criticisms of Pollan’s In Defense of Food, for instance, related to Pollan’s distortions of science, none of which are essential to a locavore argument. While I don’t find that Michael Pollan offers a credible case for locavorism, I’m open to the possibility that somebody else might make a better argument.
To be honest, I’ve often regretted focusing my blogging efforts exclusively on Pollan. It’s not that I think he’s undeserving of the criticism I’ve directed at him. However, I also have opinions on some other issues, and I’ve sometimes wished I had a place to blog about those. In fact, I’m planning to start another more general blog in the not-too-distant future. “Say what, Michael Pollan?” will probably see a few more posts, but I feel like my work there is more or less done. I’ve completed fairly close readings of both The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, but I don’t think I’ll bother with Food Rules.
However, I did maintain the blog for more than two years, and that fact deserves some explanation. I first read The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2008, and I was annoyed by his distortions of science and his shallow treatment of animal-related issues. I didn’t start the blog until May of 2010, when Pollan published a piece in The New York Review of Books, which was ostensibly a review of five different books on food politics. I objected to this piece because Pollan accused Jonathan Safran Foer of “pick[ing] fights with sustainable meat producers” in Eating Animals, a charge that I thought was wholly unsupported by the text of Foer’s book. Given that this was the only mention of Foer’s book, I surmised that Pollan probably hadn’t bothered to read Foer’s book. I didn’t think that Pollan had to read every book on food politics, but I felt it was inexcusable to review a book without reading it.
At the same time, I was living in Berkeley (where Pollan has a sizable following) and I’d pass the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism (where Pollan teaches) on a daily basis. On top of that, I was a member of the board of directors of the Berkeley Student Food Collective, a non-profit organization which was in the process of opening a cooperatively-run grocery store selling local, organic, fair, and humane foods across the street from the UC Berkeley campus*. As you might guess, the organization’s members tended to be some of Pollan’s biggest fans.
With that established, I think I’d say that I started the blog because I found myself deeply embedded in a culture that revered Pollan in a way that the quality of his work, in my view, did not merit. In particular, it seemed that while Pollan was widely received as an expert and a scholar, he tended to play loose with the facts in a way that was more characteristic of a pundit. At the time I had some delusional hope that I might eventually encourage Pollan to higher standards. I gave up on that pretty quickly, so these days I content myself with offering another point-of-view to a handful of Pollan’s many readers.
--Tagged under: Veg Interviews--