Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Reading Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals"

on animals


One might label Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals a book of psychology. The book explores the psychology (social and individual) of how and why humans eat what we do (and don't). Foer is interested in the stories we tell ourselves about the meaning of food and animals. Foer also examines the psychology of how we hide, deny, ignore, forget, or explain away what we are actually eating. And that takes us to the heart of the book: Foer examines and exposes the factory farm system and its consequences. His exploration of factory farming is visually descriptive, statistically informative, and rather idiosyncratic. It is also quite powerful.

Foer frequently addresses animals' intelligence and capacity to suffer. This is itself a powerful justification for vegetarianism, and was in fact the driving force of my own. Given our knowledge of animals' intelligence, emotions, social lives, and capacity to suffer, and given that it is unnecessary to eat them, I reached the conclusion that it is wrong to kill and eat them for the pleasure of their taste.

But while Foer has become a vegetarian, his stance seems based much more on repulsion of the factory farm system than on the morality of killing animals itself. This may be why his statement of commitment is vague if not incomprehensible: "Being a vegetarian is a flexible framework, and I've left mental state of constant personal decision making about eating animals (who could stay in such a place indefinitely?) for a steady commitment not to" (197). I teach freshman English, and this is still one of the most awful sentences I've had to re-read. It may also be why he can write that "For me to conclude firmly that I will not eat animals does not mean I oppose, or even have mixed feelings about, eating animals in general" (198). While Foer raises questions about the ethics of consuming animals at all (and allows other voices in: Bruce Friedrich, the narrator of "She Knows Better" [210-215], provides sharp, crisp, and clear arguments) and seems strongly to advocate a vegetarian diet, his book becomes primarily a scathing, damning critique of the factory farm system. This is good, but I don't think Foer takes animals' ability to think and feel to its full consequences.

I was most interested in Foer's discussions of "storytelling," of the way we eat and the ethical consequences of our eating. Like Foer, I am a new father, and many of his concerns about eating, ethics, and family are my concerns. The book does help reinforce and recommit me to a mostly vegan lifestyle, but also leads me to anxious despair of the future and may have enhanced my already burgeoning germaphobia.

The Importance
Many of the ideas Foer explores (or gives voice to) are not new, and he is not the first to expose the realities and consequences of industrial agriculture. But Foer's book is well-written and, I think, important. Jonathan Safran Foer is a well-known novelist, meaning some people may read his book about eating animals that otherwise wouldn't, that his book about eating animals will be reviewed in sources that otherwise wouldn't review such a book, and that he'll get to have interviews about eating animals at sources that otherwise wouldn't have interviews on the subject. We need writers with the insights and writing ability of Jonathan Safran Foer to explore and popularize this issue.

It is a very good book that I would like to recommend for anybody.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Realism, King, and Gandhi: Obama's Nobel Speech

on peace

Barack Obama's Nobel Lecture was, in many ways, outstanding. His reflection, thoughtfulness, and realism about war and peace in our world remind me why he inspires. But policies of warfare ordered by the contemplative Obama are no less dangerous than when they are ordered by George W. Bush. The serious reflections of Barack Obama do not negate the horrors perpetrated when he orders bombings that result in killing innocent civilians. And while Obama tacitly pays respect to the non-violence of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, in the end I think he dismisses their non-violent message in the same way war proponents typically dismiss advocates (and practitioners) of non-violence: by treating their view as unrealistic.

Obama says

"I know there's nothing weak – nothing passive – nothing na├»ve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King."

And yet immediate after he dismisses them:

"But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms."

Does Obama imply that King and Gandhi did not "face the world as it is"? Does he imply that they were not aware that "Evil does exist in the world"? I think, rather, King and Gandhi were acutely aware of the world as it is. Both men recognized the evil that exists in humankind--in fact, they faced it directly in their lives.

Later in the speech Obama seems to offer a back-handed compliment to King and Gandhi:

"The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached – their fundamental faith in human progress – that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey."

This tactic feels familiar: it is the "realist" war-proponent dismissing the advocates and practitioners of non-violence as idealistic. We should admire the "love" and "faith" that King and Gandhi preached, but we have to remember that their views were not "practical." King used non-violence to strive for justice and equality against virulent hatred and institutional violence. Gandhi used non-violence to change his nation and face down an Empire. But Obama would have us view them as the idealists, whose view of the world we should strive after even as we recognize that their methods are impracticable in the face of real-life evil.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Underlying Axioms

on peace and on animals (reposted and revised from June 2, 2009)

There is an axiom that underlies most human uses of animals: humans may use and kill animals for our own pleasure.* This axiom justifies most uses of animals that society sees as reasonable and moral, but it is this same axiom that also underlies human uses of animals that society deems as abusive and immoral. There are degrees, of course. Some treatments of animals are deemed acceptable and some treatments of animals are deemed unacceptable, but these treatments are usually based on the same underlying axiom: humans may use and kill animals for our own pleasure. What society deems as cruelty to animals, then, isn't a matter of crossing a line, but of following the existing line too far. When a society accept and acts on the axiom, there will be extremes and abuses.

Several times while the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal was prominent in the news, a public figure would compare dog fighting to deer hunting, suggesting the two activities aren't that different. This comparison usually elicited mainstream outrage, as hunters (and others) talked about how different the two activities are. But the same axiom underlies both activities: humans may use and kill animals for our own pleasure. Deer hunters can point out the differences between the acts (often focusing on the differing levels of suffering, pain, cruelty, and motive), but I'm stuck on the axiom. Once you accept the axiom that humans may use and kill animals for our own pleasure, if you separate deer hunting from dog fighting, you are arguing about degrees. And once you start acting on that axiom, you are also going to have excesses of degree following the same axiom.

The same problem is true for many types of violence. Once you accept the axiom that war is sometimes justified and necessary, what it takes for those in power to wage the war they want is to convince people that the particular war is justified and necessary. John Howard Yoder has pointed out that when other theologians speak generally negatively about warfare, there is a palpable sense of relief from the audience when the theologian acknowledges that sometimes, in very rare situations, because of exceptional circumstances, war is sometimes justified and necessary. Once you accept that premise, even if you try limit that justification/necessity with extremely specific rules, with a very narrow, specific, and limited application of Just War Theory, you're going to have people justifying war, and feeling they can do so within your own standards.

It's the underlying axioms themselves which must be exposed, examined, and critiqued.

*another axiom might be humans may use and kill animals for our own need. That is a different axiom that requires a different discussion/argument. It should be noted that it is the "pleasure" axiom at work for almost all uses of animals in the developed world (though some substitute the "need" axiom when actually arguing the "pleasure" axiom"), but I think it is worth recognizing two different axioms exist.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Evil and Violence

on peace

" evil cannot be resolved by violence. Whatever our theory of evil we know that in practice it lies in the heart of man. It is not something external to him which can be struck and smashed or carted away, or which can be destroyed by an atom bomb. The waging of war only aggravates and spreads the trouble, and the Christian must turn from this to the far more difficult and unpopular task of attacking evil at its root. The only way to end war is to cease to fight, for the devil cannot be driven out by Beelzebub."

-- from "Peace is the Will of God," by Historic Peace Churches and International Fellowship of Reconciliation Committee, Geneva, Switzerland, October 1953.

In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo, I believe, identifies the dual strains of Christianity. There is Javert, who believes in the essentialism of criminality. Once a person reveals himself/herself to be a criminal, then he/she is always a criminal, and so the focus is on sin, judgment, and punishment. And then there is Valjean, who shows a story of change, redemption, and human dignity. Javert's worldview is Manichean: there are the pure good and the pure evil, and it is the duty of the pure good to find and punish the pure evil. Valjean's story reflects more orthodox Christian belief: all humans beings are imbued with inherent dignity, are capable of spiritual redemption, and are worthy of forgiveness.

So when in "Obama's Christian Realism," David Brooks muses on the nature of evil in all humanity, I reach different conclusions than he does. I don't reach the conclusion that evil is out there in the world, making war "necessary." I reflect instead on the potential goodness of an enemy, and that war with the evil in a nation inevitably becomes a war against the goodness in that nation, too (civilian casualties, for example). I reflect on our own side's capacity for evil (something Brooks acknowledges without reaching the same conclusions), which makes me question our side's motives for war, our side's ability to wage it "justly," and our side's abilities to achieve the supposedly noble ends that undergird support for the war.

In the same column, Brooks simplifies, distorts, and straw-mans the views of liberal war opponents:

"But after Vietnam, most liberals moved on. It became unfashionable to talk about evil. Some liberals came to believe in the inherent goodness of man and the limitless possibilities of negotiation."

Far from trumpeting the "inherent goodness of man," many anti-war liberals cite our own side's capacity for evil, and reflect on the ethical and practical problem of using evil means to achieve what might otherwise be a noble end. And I know very few liberals who believe the possibilities of negotiation are "limitless;" rather, war opponents often believe the constructive possibilities and potential effectiveness of negotiation to be far preferable to the costly, destructive, deadly possibilities of war. This is a typical gloss/smear: the war proponent labels the war opponent as the naive idealist. I cite again John Howard Yoder, who in Nevertheless criticizes the "irrational leap of faith" required for the rhetoric that "by supporting a puppet government, we are enabling democracy to grow." Yoder goes on:

"There is no more utopian institution than an idealistic war. [...] War is utopian both in the promises it makes for the future and in the black-and-white way of thinking about the enemy, which it assumes."

Inherent to the argument of evil as a justification for American wars is this: America is good and the evil is out there, so America is justified in fighting the wars America chooses to fight. Evil exists, but America can never be evil, and so America may wage wars against that which America deems evil.

The very fact that "evil" exists is not itself justification for invading a country, for occupying a country, or for bombing a country. Given the death, destruction, and waste of war, including horrors inflicted on the innocent, I would say that war itself is evil.

The Onion and War

"U.S. Continues Quagmire-Building Effort in Afghanistan"

Reading and Ethics

on peace and on animals (adapted and expanded from material posted May 20, 2008, and February 8, 2009)

The power of literature is largely in imagination. Reading allows me to escape myself, to experience the world for someone, somewhere, somewhen else. The stories we read are largely imagined by the authors, and re-imagined by the readers. Reading takes us away from our own narrow experiences and into another experience.

But when I read, I do not set myself aside. When I read depictions of violence, I become hyper-aware: what is happening, why it is happening, how it is being represented, etc. I am still a pacifist while I read a book like Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and so the violence of his book reaches me in a particular way. My encounter with the book (what I bring to the book and what I take from the book) is greatly affected by my pre-existing pacifism.

In The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri describes the food characters prepare and eat quite frequently and in specific detail. No matter what I do, I cannot read such descriptions of food without thinking as a vegetarian. In my daily life, I must be consciously aware of all the food I ever eat, and this heightened awareness of food is hard to set aside when I turn to a book. When fictional, non-existent characters in a book eat meat, or kill animals, I become self-conscious, and I bring something different to the reading than a meat-eater does.

Embracing ethics of pacifism and vegetarianism are transformative. For me, they change not only the way I behave but the way I think. And these ethics also tranform my encounters with art. An anti-war poem must speak to me in a slightly different way than it speaks to a non-pacifist, and perhaps a painting of an animal speaks something different to me than to a meat-eater. This is not to say I approach art in an overly moralistic way, or that every encounter with art demands ethical reflection from me. I am merely saying that I am still me when I read, and that the ideas that change the way I live and think also change the way I read (if just slightly).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Onion and War

"New 'War'" Enables Mankind to Resolve Disagreements:"

"War has also been employed on occasion to resolve disagreements over peace and to ensure that the world remained a harmonious place untroubled by fear, hatred, or the threat of violence.


"'We've come a long way from hashing out our differences around a fire,' Levin said. 'With the long-range nuclear missile technology we possess today, I wouldn't be surprised if, in a few short years, war solves the problems of mankind once and for all.'"

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Co-opting Suffering

on peace and on animals (reposted and revised from June 28, 2007)

The emotional energy of Sylvia Plath's poem "Daddy" comes from her allusions to Nazis and the Holocaust to illustrate her own experience, feelings, and suffering. It is a raw, powerful poem--one of the best I've ever read.

Still, I can see something distasteful in using the industrial slaughter of 6,000,000 Jews to illustrate one's poor attitude toward one's father.

Alfred Hayes' "The Slaughter-House" begins with a description of animals suffering in a slaughterhouse. In the second half of the poem, however, the animal hanging upside down on its way to be butchered becomes a symbol for the poet's "private woe."

Again, I see something distasteful here: is Hayes' suffering, whether in a relationship or general existential suffering, comparable to a living creature hung upside down on its way to be slaughtered?

But then, poets look about their own worlds to illustrate their own feelings and ideas through poetry. Plath wrote "Daddy" shortly after Eichmann's trial. Hayes may have been at a slaughterhouse and felt it described his own sufferings. Poets find the image necessary to convey the idea--and it doesn't matter who finds it objectionable. It is in that sense that art is amoral, and in that sense art should be amoral.

Unpredictability of War

on peace (reposted and revised from April 12, 2009)

David Samuels' "Why Israel Will Bomb Iran: The rational argument for an attack" in Slate illustrates one of the problems of war. Samuels makes a lot of predictions about what would happen if Israel bombed Iran. Most of these results appear as positives. But almost any act of war can seem sensible when justifying it by predicted results (especially if the war proponent is the one predicting such results). But nearly every act of war brings about unforeseen, unpredictable results. It is the unpredicted results that are often longterm negative results of acts of war.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


on peace (reposted and revised from April 18, 2009)

If you walk around a mall, you'll find many, many, many different products featuring the Peace Sign. Many brands and many stores feature the Peace Sign.* I'm extremely doubtful any of these stores are actually interested in the political (potentially subversive) intent the Peace Sign may imply. They are capitalizing on a general mood (passive opposition to war) that contributes to a fashion trend.

So the Peace Sign has become a fashionable symbol in a consumeristic culture. And in some ways, this makes the fashionability of the Peace Sign representative for the American mood toward war. There are few "supporters" of the current wars--most are weary and skeptical about these wars. But most people are either not so opposed to these wars they're taking any action, or feel incapable of taking any positive action (it does often feel like a helpless situation, that opponents of war can't really do anything to stop it). Thus people are willing to passively express these (general, vague) negative feelings toward war with the passive means we're most familiar and comfortable with: consumerism.**

*In my experience, the overwhelming majority of Peace Sign products are for women, which calls for further--if obvious--comment. Just as "real men" are supposed to love eating meat (just ask Taco Bell--men shouldn't just want steak but they should want "triple steak," and the only way men can eat a salad is if it is "fully loaded" and the lettuce is buried beneath meat), men are not expected to embrace the cuddly, mushy, huggy Peace Sign (usually around pink, purple, and pastels)--that's for sensitive, softer women.

**I in no way exempt myself from this critique, as I myself wear many products featuring the Peace Sign.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Justifying War in "Richard III"

on peace (reposted and revised from December 15, 2008)

In Shakespeare's Richard III, we see the Tudor hero Richmond and the Tudor villain Richard inspire their troops with different justifications for war. Both are familiar.

Good Richmond buoys the troops by claiming they fight for God:

"God and our good cause fight upon our side" (V.iii.241)

"One that hath ever been God's enemy
Then if you fight against God's enemy,
God will in justice ward you as his soldiers" (V.iii.253-255)

"Then in the name of God and all these rights,
Advance your standards, draw your willing swords" (V.iii.263-265)

Written at a time when belief in the divine right of kings was a foundational principle for government, there is sincerity here. Still, Richmond is making a power play: he's waging a war to remove another king and place the crown on his own head. He claims, of course, that he fights on God's side, but he's certainly not an objective student of God's will ("God insists I wage a war to make myself King" is hardly convincing). But then, many killers and warmongers justify their murders and wars by claiming God is on their side. it is often that in a war, the religious on each side calls on God to justify its own cause.

Evil Richard calls for war by demonizing the enemy and by calling on fears of what will happen if they don't fight and win.

"A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and runaways,
A scum of Britains and base lackey peasants,
Whom their o'ercloyed country vomits forth
To desperate ventures and assured destruction.
You sleeping safe, they bring you unrest;
You having lands, and blest with beauteous wives
They would distrain the one, distain the other." (V.iii.317-323)

"Shall these enjoy our lands? Lie with our wives?
Ravish our daughters?" (V.iii.337-338)

Richard dehumanizes the enemy, and calls upon fears of what this monstrous enemy will do to the good people's peaceful homes. They, then, become just warriors: they are merely defending peace by waging war. Earlier, Richmond makes a similar claim:

"To reap the harvest of perpetual peace
by this one bloody trial of sharp war" (V.iii.15-16)

Of course, perpetual war can be justified by both of these claims.

A Very Brief Defense of Anthropomorphism

on animals (reposted from January 27, 2009)

Science has shown us that animals are intelligent beings (many species of animals experience emotions, have relationships and social structures, some studies even find animals displaying imagination and deceit).

But the specific intelligence of animals may be difficult to express to humans. So when childrens' books or movies give animals human characteristics, they are merely translating the animal's mental, emotional, and social worlds into human terms. Anthropomorphism can be seen as a translation of animal characteristics, not an artificial application of human characteristics onto animals.

Marc Bekoff makes a similar defense of anthropomorphism in Animals Matter. Responding to Wittgenstein's claim that "If a lion could talk, we would not understand him," Bekoff writes

"In order to talk about the world of animals, we have to use whatever language we speak. So, when we want to describe what an animal may be feeling, we tend to use the same words that we would choose to describe our own human feelings or intentions" (38-39).

I think the benefits of anthropomorphism extend into childrens' literature, television, and film.

"The Twilight Zone" and War

Watch "A Quality of Mercy," a season three episode of The Twilight Zone available at

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"Lisa the Vegetarian"

on animals (reposted from December 19, 2008)

You don't usually expect to see such a thoughtful episode of a mainstream television show, but this episode of The Simpsons manages to:

--show the moral progression of a vegetarian.
--show the difficulties of being a vegetarian in a meat-eating society.
--savagely mock that meat-eating society.
--end with a message the vegetarians should show tolerance and respect for others, influencing people without badgering them.

It's the sort of episode I can show my kids, an episode not with a trite TV lesson, but an actual lesson.

Environmentalism and Religion: "the child is father of the man"

on animals (reposted from May 1, 2009)

"It is understandable that Luther could have found this preoccupation [with personal self-acceptance] in the apostolic message since it was his own question. [...] It was also perfectly natural for a John Wesley, a Kierkegaard, or today for an existentialist or a conservative evangelical reader to make the same assumption and find the same message--for all of these are in their variegated ways children of Luther, still asking the same question of personal guilt and righteousness."
--John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus

In some strains of Christianity, you may find a human-centered chauvinist attitude toward the natural world. The thinking seems to go that since humans are the pinnacle of creation, the rest of the created world exists for whatever humans wish to use it for. There is, then, a divinely sanctioned human "dominion" over the rest of creation (this way of thinking may be opposed by the concept of "stewardship"--essentially the idea that God made all of creation for himself, and humans are caretakers. In this way of thinking, nature has transcendent purpose, and humans have a moral obligation to care for creation. I commend the concept of "stewardship" for finding in nature if not "inherent" value, then a value wholly separate from humankind's utilitarian use of it).

This religious human-centered attitude toward the environment actually eases into secular human-centered attitudes toward the environment (or do these secular views emerge from the religious thought?). In one business-friendly strain, what matters is human benefit, and if the environment is damaged for the economic interests of humans (or corporations, or governments), so be it--what matters is human use. Another strain can suggest that humans, as the most advanced species, have an inherent right to use the lower species for whatever purposes humans want. As Harold Herzog writes in "Human Morality and Animal Research: Confessions and Quandaries," "Research with animals is based on the premise that a 'superior' species has the right to breed, kidnap, or kill members of 'lesser' species for the advancement of knowledge."

I think it possible that these secular arguments about human use of nature (including animals) may develop from the same historical strain as Christianity's arguments about human use of nature (including animals). The child may be father to the man.

One might think that "Environmentalism" is an alternative, or a corrective, or in opposition to, a religious-based human-centered attitude toward the environment. But this is not always the case. It seems to me that some (I won't say many) environmentalists maintain human-centered chauvinist attitudes toward the natural world. Some environmentalists view the natural world as worth protecting and preserving--so that humans can continue to use it. What environmentalists? Environmentalists that eat meat.

If you claim to be an environmentalist but still think animals can be killed for your pleasure, then whom are you really trying to save the environment for? You're not trying to save the environment for the animals (you probably don't see inherent value in the animal, if you are willing to eat it for your pleasure). And you probably don't see inherent value in the natural world outside of human use. Environmentalism can maintain this chauvinism, can still see humankind in a power-relationship over the natural world. Secular environmentalists can still believe in human "dominion" over the rest of the natural world, can still see humans in a position of control, capable of using any part of the natural world (including animals) for our own purposes. It is worth preserving the environment, not for its inherent value, but for its value to humans.

The child is father of the man.

What does violence mean?

on peace (March 10, 2008)

Peter King recently wrote about his USO trip to Afghanistan. It's mostly what you'd expect: an incredible experience being in a war zone, his experience talking with the soldiers, etc. After writing about one soldier that died, he writes about "guys [that] jump out of planes and hunt Taliban soldiers for a living." He writes about a guy that reminds him of Rambo, of another guy "as tough as they come." He writes,

"One of them talked about mowing down Taliban troops as they walked into death.

"'We heard on their radios later that we got 75 of 'em,' one of the Rangers said. The platoon members joked about what bad shooters the Taliban soldiers were, and if they had been any good, how many more of our side would be dead or wounded."

Later King describes a ceremony for a soldier that was killed. At the end, he writes about his trip to visit the military in Afghanistan that "They don't sell tickets for the experience of a lifetime, but if you can do it somehow, I'd highly recommend it."

During all this writing, King speaks nary a word critical of war. He doesn't challenge military values. Yet near the end of his column, he manages to do what he frequently does in his columns; he criticizes violence in film:

"While waiting for the flight out of Bagram on Sunday night, we watched the worst movie of all time. Death Sentence, with mindless killing until everyone in the world was dead. You're better than that, Kevin Bacon. I think."

Peter King talks about visiting with soldiers that were "mowing down" 75 real human beings. He speaks of two soldiers that were killed and being mourned. He doesn't condemn war. He doesn't suggest war is a bad thing. He doesn't show horror at real life killing.

But he doesn't like a movie that had a lot of killing.

Nonviolence and our lives

on peace (reposted from November 27, 2007)

Jesus was nonviolent, and he taught his disciples to be nonviolent. When Jesus was being arrested, Peter tried to use force to defend Jesus. Jesus told him not to, saying "He who lives by the sword dies by the sword," suggesting that those who act violently are likely to come to a violent demise.

Of course, we know who else came to a violent demise: the nonviolent Jesus and most of his nonviolent disciples.

Turning the other cheek, loving and blessing our enemies, these are not maxims to live a cheerful and successful life. A life of nonviolence often comes with suffering.

Certainly those who live a life of violence may suffer a violent end. But so too can children, victims of wars they don't create or understand. So too can Christian martyrs, who willfully choose their death and do not fight back. So too can the victims of genocide, killed not because they lived by the sword but merely for who they were (and are).

Those who live by the sword may die by the sword--though they may not. Those who live a life of peace and love may also die by the sword.

What does peace mean?

on peace (reposted from September 11, 2007)

This isn't a comment on a book, but on a book cover--it's meant not to critique a book (which I haven't read), but to examine a screwed up way of talking about "peace."

Robert Spencer has written a book called Religion of Peace? Why Christianity is and Islam Isn't.

Of course you know that I do believe Christianity is a religion of peace, that peacefulness is imbued in Jesus's message. But looking at history, it is easy to believe that Christianity has in practice not been a religion of peace (see this, this, this, and of course this, and I shouldn't have to verify for you that a lot of Christians in America support America's wars). But let's step aside from this historical examination.

The book cover for Spencer's book includes a brief blurb from Ann Coulter on the front, and a longer blurb from Coulter on the back. The front blurb calls the book "a clarion call to America to wake up and fight back." The back blurb says "This goes a long way toward explaining why liberals never wanted to fight this war in the first place."

So let's be clear here: a book proclaiming Christianity a religion of peace, and condemning Islam as being not a religion of peace, features blurbs on the cover by a pro-war Christian criticizing people who oppose a particular war.

So what on earth does "peace" really mean?

Yoder's "Nevertheless"

on peace (reposted from March 24, 2008)

In Nevertheless: the Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism (Revised and Expanded Edition), John Howard Yoder does not explore the biblical or theological grounding of a pacifist stance. Instead he examines different forms such pacifist stances can take. Most chapters are structured similarly (though later chapters cover other types of pacifism more briefly): Yoder explains a particular nonviolent stance, followed by:

"Axiom" the underlying principle driving this stance

"Shortcomings" fair and reasonable arguments against this stance

"Nevertheless" why despite its shortcomings this stance is still a respectable, valid stance (later Yoder writes that "In each case we were able to criticize but not really to refute")

"After All" how war advocates also use the logic of this particular pacifist stance, but in a deeply flawed and terribly destructive way.

Perhaps the strongest arguments in the book are in the "After All" portions. Yoder shows that despite any shortcomings of a particular pacifist stance, it is still preferable to any equivalent violent stance. For example, in the chapter called "The Pacifism of Utopian Purism," Yoder writes:

"This utopian pacifism trusts less to an irrational leap of faith than does the rhetoric which tells us that by forcibly making refugees, we are defending self-determination; or that by supporting a puppet government, we are enabling democracy to grow. There is no more utopian institution than an idealistic war. [...] War is utopian both in the promises it makes for the future and in the black-and-white way of thinking about the enemy, which it assumes."

A pacifist can read this book and find easy counters to any war advocate's objections; the war advocate often uses arguments similar to the pacifist, but in manner that frequently ignores the way in which war dehumanizes, and in a manner that justifies deadly destruction (as Yoder writes, "every serious critique one can address to the pacifist, if taken honestly, turns back with greater force upon the advocate of war").

But with Yoder, the point is not to win an argument: if all that happens after reading Nevertheless is that I'm able to pull out a stronger argument and counterargument when debating a war advocate, then my pacifism is empty. A religious pacifist reading Yoder should come away with greater conviction, greater spiritual commitment, greater desire to put belief into action and practice. While Yoder asks that "each type of pacifist reasoning be respected in its own right," he also writes that "the moral commonality of all of them is greater than the systematic diversity."

My enemies are my neighbors and I am commanded to love them.

Utilitiarian Thinking in "The Quiet American"

on peace (reposted from April 1, 2008)

In The Quiet American, Pyle, like Don Quixote and Madame Bovary, has read the wrong books, and thinks reality should match what he's read in books. Fowler is like Rick in Casablanca: he believes he is neutral, but he learns that he cannot be uninvolved.

After witnessing the atrocities of war, after seeing a woman covering her dead baby and a man cut in half by a bomb Pyle is responsible for, Fowler recognizes that he must act. Because of the damage the well-intentioned Pyle has and can cause, Fowler acts to have Pyle killed.

Pyle is willing to aid atrocities for what he sees as a greater cause. Of the deaths of civilians after a bombing, he says "They were only war casualties. [...] It was a pity, but you can't always hit your target. Anyway they died in the right cause. [...] In a way you could say they died for democracy." The individuals that were killed were simply collateral damage for Pyle in the greater cause of bringing democracy to Vietnam. And for this naivety and the damage his innocence can cause, Fowler is complicit in his murder.

And yet, Fowler's action is not terribly different from Pyle's action. Pyle is willing to sacrifice lives in a utilitarian ethic--their lives will bring about a greater good. Fowler is willing to sacrifice Pyle's life in order to save other lives--to bring about a greater good. That we can look back and say that both men failed in their goals (Pyle couldn't bring democracy to Vietnam, Fowler couldn't prevent the terrible violence and suffering that came from American involvement in Vietnam) can make us question the efficacy of violence as a means to an end. But while we may sympathize with Fowler's action more than Pyle's, they both acted on the same principle: life is expendable if it is for a good reason.

Fowler recognizes his utilitarian assessment, too: "what right had I to value her less than the dead bodies in the square? [...] I had judged like a journalist in terms of quantity." And he recognizes his similarity to Pyle: "Was I so different from Pyle, I wondered? Must I too have my foot thrust in the mess of life before I saw the pain?"

It is a beautifully written and incisive book.

When we think about the things we say about war

on peace (April 8, 2008)

There is one common argument used to continue the war in Iraq that, when we consider it, it is both obvious and absurd.

The argument goes that we must keep fighting in Iraq because military generals, soldiers, and veterans believe we should continue to fight in Iraq.

But think about it carefully. This argument suggests we should continue the war because:

People who have embraced military values wish to continue the war.

People who are trained to wage war wish to continue the war.

People who have put their belief in violent solutions into practice wish to continue the war.

People who wage war for a career wish to continue to the war.

When you think about it, isn't that a bit obvious? This argument is always self-justifying: it suggests a behavior should be continued because those who believe in and devote their lives to that behavior wish it to continue.

Should we continue a war because people who choose to serve in the military wish to continue a war?

Should we continue a war because those who accept violence as a means wish to continue a war?

If your best argument for waging war is that those who wage war for a living say we should, you may want to reconsider your logic.

A pacifist watches "Dexter"

on peace (reposted from May 4, 2008)

In Dexter, Dexter Morgan is a serial killer that only murders other killers. At the end of season one, Dexter muses on how horrified those around him would be if they knew the truth. But then he reconsiders--they might actually approve of what he does. He uses violence to stop bad guys--he keeps other people safe. He fantasizes about people cheering for him, cheering for his violent deeds. They cheer him, tell him they love him. As he walks, they surround him as if for a parade, a hero's welcome. Surrounding it all is red, white, and blue confetti.

"The only way to end war is to cease to fight"

on peace (reposted and revised from June 20, 2008)

We have yet another confirmation of Orwell. When John McCain, an adamant supporter of a particular war, whose policy plan is to continue a particular war, ends a commercial with "Reform. Prosperity. Peace" (emphasis mine), there is no more intellectual honesty, and politicians can use words to mean whatever they wish them to mean.

This same politician says in another commercial, "I hate war" (I believe this is quoted on Franlin Roosevelt's monument, by the way). Of course we all should hate war: the debate isn't between people who love and hate war, but between people who disagree about whether war is moral, effective, or necessary.

But in an upcoming election, the politician who has adamently supported a current war, whose intention is to continue the war, is campaigning with the word "Peace" and saying "I hate war."

(The title of this post is a quote from "Peace Is the Will of God" by Historic Peace Churches and International Fellowship of Reconciliation Committee, 1953).

On being a pacifist sports fan

on peace (reposted and revised from November 10, 2009)

This past weekend, several networks showing NFL games used the broadcast as an opportunity to pay tribute to U.S. soldiers currently occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. I've been struggling to articulate why I find these tributes unsettling, and I realized, why even have a little-read blog if not to explore one's own thoughts through writing?

Consider this, then, one pacifist's attempt to explain to himself why these tributes to the troops disturb him.

The "Thank You" contains implicit support of the current wars
Many of the statements of thanks to the soldiers are couched in conventional language: thanks for keeping us safe, thanks for protecting our freedoms, etc. But to thank soldiers currently occupying Iraq and Afghanistan for keeping us safe/protecting our freedoms implicitly assumes that their current mission is necessary to keep us safe/protect our freedoms, and is therefore "good." Such statements of thanks, then, become more commercials for waging these wars.

Perpetual tributes for a state of perpetual warfare
Tributes to serving soldiers have been going on during NFL broadcasts at least since Thanksgiving 2001, shortly after 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan. That means that for eight years, NFL broadcasts during special occasions (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Veterans Day, etc.) have been used to pay tribute to soldiers currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. We've understood a need to pay regular tribute because we've accepted that U.S. soldiers will be occupying foreign countries for a long time.

The normalization of militarism in culture
Like toy soldiers, military video games, and wearing camouflage for style and fashion, the fusion of military tributes with our sports entertainment just further makes militarism and military values a normal, everyday part of our culture. We accept shows of military virtue as something that is ensconced in all parts of our lives--and thus we perpetuate a culture that supports military violence.

Rejecting Militarism

on peace (reposted from March 10, 2009)

Peter King writes about Larry Fitzgerald's USO tour to Iraq:

"In every stop on the four-player tour [...] of U.S. military bases in Iraq, the playoff hero told the crowd some version of this: 'Thank you. If it wasn't for you doing what you do, I wouldn't be able to do what I do. I just want you to know how much I appreciate all the sacrifices you're making -- and I'm not alone.''"

I know many people believe this: that the U.S. military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are necessary for Larry Fitzgerald to make millions of dollars catching passes. But I see it as a non sequitur that perpetuates a militaristic culture that glorifies war. This is why I can't share in Nathan Schneider's hope that

"There must be a way to honor such sacrifices as war brings out in people while abhorring the pointless insanity that occasioned it, abhorring it so completely that it can never possibly happen again."

I think this sort of mythology (that soldiers occupying a foreign nation make our necessary lifestyles possible--a belief many hold as a secure article of faith, one that is difficult to refute, yet also difficult to prove) contributes to a culture that sees warfare as necessary and honorable. The conventional wisdom that we are able to live our lives as we do because of soldiers grants a necessity to warfare that I do not accept. I want to reject militarism at all levels.

The logic of militarism

on peace (reposted from March 19, 2009)

I'm pulling this quote from Andrew Sullivan out of context, but I think it is worth it:

"It's also important to note that war crimes happen in every war - and that the way to judge a society is how it handles such things."

Follow the logic here: since war crimes are an inevitable part of war, the way to judge a society is on how it treats war crimes when it chooses to go to war.

I think to reach this conclusion over the inevitability of war crimes is insane (or, if you prefer, highlights intrinsic acceptance of militarism). To me, the inevitability of war crimes in war calls into question the effectiveness and morality of warfare, and suggests the way to judge a society might be how much of its resources it devotes to warfare, the efforts it takes to avoid war, and how and why it chooses to go to war. To a pacifist, Sullivan's statement is a bit like saying that if you let your kids throw rocks at passing cars, they'll inevitably hit a few pedestrians, but what matters is that you tell them to avoid hitting pedestrians, and punish them if they do.

But if you accept (or support) warfare, and you accept that warfare inevitably leads to war crimes, you're left with the conclusion that what matters is how the society treats the inevitable war crimes. When you've accepted a culture of militarism, you don't reach the conclusion that war itself is the problem.


on peace (reposted from April 18, 2009)

Using "the end justifies the means" logic leads to an obvious problem. If you believe nefarious means can be justified by a desired end, then you would be willing to use nearly any means to achieve ends you deem very important, and you will use absolutely any means to achieve ends you deem absolutely necessary. But if you do so, the only thing that separates you (whom you consider good) from your enemy (whom you consider evil) is the desirability, nobility, morality, goodness of the ends. Horrible atrocities have been perpetrated by those that believed so strongly their ends were just/right/desirable that they were willing to kill to achieve those ends.

In history there have been those (such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi) who believed their moral superiority to their enemies must exist in the means, not just the ends. John Howard Yoder's understanding of Christ in The Politics of Jesus also suggests a leader (with social/political ends) who insisted on using a moral means.

Religion does not provide a clear direction. Too often religious motivations have led humans to murderous means to achieve the ends they view their religion demands. And sometimes it is religion that leads humans to recognize a moral demand, a "higher law," which extends beyond the desirability of the end that humans have in view. So religion can lead humans to treat other humans as "means" to be used for transcendent purposes, but religion can also insist on transcendent purposes which forbid certain evil means to achieve human ends.

There is little doubt that torture denies the dignity of the one being tortured. Torture insists that the tortured person is simply a means, a means to be used to achieve the torturer's end. The tortured person does not have inherent value; the value of the tortured person is only his/her value to the torturer. Humans distort, limit, and deny each others' inherent dignity all the time, but violence is perhaps the most intentional, outright, egregious denial.

"Gran Torino" and Violence

on peace (reposted from June 28, 2009)

There are many films that feature not merely "righteous" violence, but "redemptive" violence. That is, a violent act becomes a necessary, regenerative, redeeming act; within the narrative and within the context, violence is an obvious and successful solution to a threatening problem. In the film's narrative, violence works to bring about the good it intends.

Gran Torino appears that it may follow the redemptive violence myth. Walt Kowalski is repeatedly successful when he uses the threat of violence to defend innocent, threatened people. However, the real success of Walt's transformation is not in his use of violence to protect the innocent, but in the relationships he builds, particularly with Thao and Sue Lor. He becomes heroic not because he's willing to violently destroy evil, but because he becomes willing to build friendships, engage with people. The motif of the tools is important: it is easier to destroy than to build, but building is what matters. He helps Thao by teaching him, by providing for him. The middle of the film is devoid of much violence at all, and that is when Walt is able to do good.

But in this peaceful middle, Walt has not given up his belief in regenerative violence. When Thao is again harassed, Walt goes violently after one of the gang members that harasses him. He violently beats the man, tells him to leave Thao alone, and threatens him with further violence. What happens, however, of course does not end the violence. The gang shoots up the Lors' home and beats and rapes Sue. Violence begets violence.

Walt realizes the role he played in this cycle, how his own violence makes him responsible for what happened. When he sees Sue, he drops his drink, goes home, and begins mutilating his fists by punching through glass. Given that Walt is clearly dying, a viewer may now expect the violent shootout in which Walt nobly and bravely sacrifices himself to help Thao and Sue. Sort of. It is not redemptive violence, but redemptive self-sacrifice: Walt goes unarmed, allowing himself to be murdered so that the gang would be imprisoned. He uses the final shootout scene not to wage righteous violence, but to bring about redemption through sacrifice.

Now, the image of the selfless hero sacrificing his own life for the greater good (often with explicit Christ imagery) is not new in art: the very violent Matrix trilogy ends with peace, not destruction, brought about when Neo sacrifices himself and, indeed, finds himself sprawled out on screen as if crucified. Reading Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the comparisons of Randle Patrick McMurphy to Jesus become almost a bit much. It may even be that this has become a tired, repetitive, uncreative image. It is, however, a story worth repeating, especially in American film: if the deconstruction of the redemptive violence myth seems itself overplayed, it is only because the redemptive violence myth is even more overplayed.

And while Christians often seem to perpetuate and encourage the redemptive violence, it seems rather obvious to point out that the story of Jesus's life is one of redemptive self-sacrifice. In The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder writes that Jesus explicitly rejected the "Zealot" option of violence. Indeed, when Peter tries to violently defend Jesus against arrest, Jesus stops him, telling him that living by the sword means dying by the sword (in other words, violence begets violence). I'm afraid that given a different context, many American Christians today might defend Peter's actions, seeing his violent self-defense as entirely justified (I can't stomach a serious response to this). But Jesus offers a different message: that redemption cannot come through righteous violence, that waging violence does not bring about salvation or peace. That message is in direct conflict not only with many violent films, but with the logic that justifies perpetuating America's current wars.

Myths of War

on peace (reposted from July 7, 2009)

In "All sides blame McNamara for Vietnam" in Salon, Michael Lind argues that it's not quite fair or reasonable that Robert McNamara receives so much specific blame for the Vietnam War. I think he makes some good arguments, particularly that the presidents responsible for the policies in Vietnam deserve much more blame than they get. Lind writes that McNamara gets criticized from the left, right, and center for the Vietnam War, and he makes the effort to debunk all three criticisms. The right wing criticism, according to Lind, is basically the Rambo idea: the U.S. soldiers/military could have won the war if the civilian politicians would have just let them:

"Just as they had done during the Korean War, however, conservatives denounced a Democratic administration for allegedly holding back the U.S. military. Just as the right accused the Truman administration of needlessly throwing away victory in Korea by restraining and then firing Gen. MacArthur, so the right accused the Johnson administration of needlessly throwing away victory in Indochina by restraining Gen. William Westmoreland. This "stab-in-the-back" theory of the Vietnam War, blaming timid civilians like McNamara and LBJ for forcing the U.S. military to fight with one hand tied behind its back, was popularized by the late Col. Harry Summers after the war and is still the dominant view on the American right."

How does Lind attempt to debunk this view? He essentially argues that the civilian politicians were right to hold the military back because of the threat from China:

"The conservative stab-in-the-back theory of the Vietnam War has flaws of its own. If only the Johnson administration had 'unleashed' the full power of the U.S. military, by invading the North or bombing the dikes, then the war would have ended quickly, with far fewer American and Vietnamese casualties, with a reunified noncommunist Vietnam or perhaps a Korean-style stalemate lasting to this day. What this attractive might-have-been ignores is the fact that the Johnson administration feared that China, which was already supplying North Vietnam with hundreds of thousands of logistics troops, might engage in full-scale war with the U.S. in Vietnam as it had done in Korea. The evidence that has emerged from China since the end of the Cold War suggests that Mao very well might have intervened directly, had the U.S. gone too far. The Johnson administration in retrospect was far from stupid in trying to prevent Vietnam from escalating into a second Sino-American war."

By arguing this myth strategically, Lind leaves intact the essence of the myth: that our soldiers/military could have won the war if only the civilians and politicians back home would have let them. He doesn't challenge this myth: he doesn't suggest that it is itself what was wrong. And this myth is a specific part of a larger, very dangerous belief. It is the belief that the U.S. can win any war it wants, it just needs the proper commitment and will. And that is part of the myth that there is a violent, military solution to any problem.

Lind's debunking of "the antiwar left" or "radical left" is also rather flimsy; I might even call it a straw man. He essentially provides two arguments: First, that "Nobody takes seriously anymore the claim made by many radicals at the time that the Second Indochina War was merely an anti-colonial rebellion that had nothing to do with the wider Cold War." O.K., and what if antiwar radicals even conceded that fighting communism was at the essence of the war? What of the antiwar radicals who still believe the war was wrong even on those grounds (and I might add that communist motivations were not entirely separate from anti-colonial motivations)? Lind does not address this objection. Second, Lind says

"The moral case against the damage done to the Vietnamese population and landscape by U.S. firepower and Agent Orange defoliation is compelling. But the U.S. effort in Korea was even more devastating, and the U.S. efforts in World War II included the incineration of German and Japanese cities by conventional and atomic bombing. To the historian, the case that the Vietnam War was a unique atrocity in itself is hard to make."

I see this as a pretty weak argument: he acknowledges the moral argument against the war because of the death and destruction committed against Vietnam, but basically says other U.S. wars have been vicious and destructive too. Again, what of the antiwar radicals that would concede this: does the overall horror of war, and the specific horrors of the previous U.S. wars, really wash away the moral argument over the destruction of Vietnam?

Lind argues that everybody is wrong in their criticism of the Vietnam War. As he does so, he lets the faith in military solutions to problems stand, and does not meaningfully address a broader antiwar view.

Am I allowed to crap on the carpet?

on animals (reposted from June 11, 2009)

One argument used by meat-eaters to justify killing animals for food is the "But animals do it" argument. It sounds reasonable: since animals slaughter other animals for their food, why shouldn't humans slaughter animals for our food? Aside from the fact that people mostly eat animals that don't eat other animals (cows, chickens), this argument is shaky at its very core.

Let's assume that animals are amoral beings (for if we call animals moral beings, added to what we already know about the intelligence and emotions of animals, we must further question whether they should be eaten). It does seem rather absurd for humans to get our morality from amoral beings. It conflates the behavior of beings that have a choice about their behavior with beings that have no choice in their behavior (indeed, some animals are biologically required to eat meat, while humans are not). Are proponents of this defense of meat-eating willing to apply this same logic to any other issues? Because if we're going to judge one activity based on the behavior of amoral beings, should we judge all our activities on the behavior of amoral beings? I'm not entirely uncomfortable with this idea (as Dostoevsky frames it, that "everything is permitted"), but I doubt very much the proponents of the "But animals do it" argument are comfortable rejecting all human ethics. Do they want humans to behave as animals in other aspects of life? Do they want to claim that humans are really no better than the animals we're willing to eat? Do they want to claim a superior species would be justified in eating humans? Do they want to reject the premise that humans are rational beings capable of choosing our actions?

I think this smacks of defensive justification for a desired behavior, not an objectively reasoned out position.

Distracting Headline

on animals (reposted from July 2, 2009)

Here's how it works: the title of the AFP article on is "Vegetarian diet 'weakens bones.'" Will meat eaters now latch onto this new finding, giving a "ha ha, tsk tsk" to vegetarians? Only if they stop at the headline. The first line of the article:

"People who live on vegetarian diets have slightly weaker bones than their meat-eating counterparts, Australian researchers said Thursday."

"Slightly weaker"? Should this be a concern? Maybe not. What does lead researcher Tuan Nguyen say?

"There was 'practically no difference' between the bones of meat-eaters and ovolactovegetarians, who excluded meat and seafood but ate eggs and dairy products, he said."

Interesting: an article titled "Vegetarian diet 'weakens bones'" includes a sentence claiming there is "'practically no difference' between the bones of meat-eaters and ovolactovegetarians." Is the headline a lie, then, or just an exaggeration?

The researcher finds, then, "that vegetarian diets, particularly vegan diets, are associated with lower bone mineral density." Vegetarians apparently have 5% less dense bones, vegans 6% less dense.

How meaningful is this difference? Or rather, how strong is the association between vegan/vegetarian diets and weaker bone density? Actually, not at all:

"'But the magnitude of the association is clinically insignificant,' he added."

Clinically insignificant!

So, the headline reads "Vegetarian diet 'weakens bones.'" At no point does the article suggest a vegetarian (or vegan) diet weakens bones to the point of unhealthiness. Though Nguyen attempts a Michele-Bachmann-like association at the end of the article ("Given the rising number of vegetarians, roughly five percent (of people) in western countries, and the widespread incidence of osteoporosis, the issue is worth resolving"), there is no evidence provided that a vegetarian or vegan diet leads to greater bone health problems. And actually, the article featured by this headline claims there is practically no difference between the bones of meat eaters and vegetarians, and includes a quote from the researcher calling it "clinically insignificant."

Scientific research may be objective; what we do with the results, however, is subjective. A headline reporting these very same results could focus on the "clinically insignificant" part, or it could focus on the "practically no difference" part. But of course that doesn't happen. The headline instead gives fodder to meat eaters who want to believe/claim they are healthier than vegetarians and vegans, or that vegetarians and vegans are "weak."

Vegetarians and Priorities

on animals (reposted from November 20, 2009)

Advocates of animal rights or animal welfare often have their priorities questioned. Aren't there many human problems? Why should we focus so much attention on the suffering and death of animals when there is so much suffering and death of humans?

In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani says as much in her review of Jonathan Safron Foer's Eating Animals:

"It’s arguments like this that undermine the many more valid observations in this book, and make readers wonder how the author can expend so much energy and caring on the fate of pigs and chickens, when, say, malaria kills nearly a million people a year (most of them children), and conflict and disease in Congo since the mid-1990s have left an estimated five million dead and hundreds of thousands of women and girls raped and have driven more than a million people from their homes."

The problem is that this sort of logic--that we shouldn't "expend [...] energy and caring" on animals when there are still human problems--is that this logic can rightly be applied to most human activities and endeavours in the developed world. Why is Kakutani devoting any energy at all to reviewing the fiction of Nabokov, or Irving, or Ishiguro and Roth, when she could be devoting her energy to solving the world's human problems? What is reading literature doing to stop malaria or war or oppression of women? Why does she care about novels, when human beings are suffering?

Vegetarians are expected to get their priorities straight, and worry about the problems of human beings first. That all sorts of people are devoting all sorts of time, energy, and resources to all sorts of things that do nothing to assuage human suffering around the world is left aside.

On Necessity and Animal Consumption

on peace and on animals (reposted from August 20, 2009)

In a New York Times conversation, Gail Collins brings up the suffering of pigs on factory farms. Ross Douthat responds:

"I’m a unapologetic species-ist: I reject Peter Singer and all his works."

Since Douthat claims to be a speciesist, it is difficult to argue the morality of our treatment of animals with him.* I can, however, argue with his logic. He writes:

"I would leave a thousand pigs to die in conditions of absolute misery to save a single human infant."

OK, that’s what one would expect from a speciesist. However, how many pigs would Douthat let die for one human being’s pleasure? Because when we talk about animal consumption in the modern developed world, that’s what we’re talking about. Individuals don’t eat meat to survive, but because they think the flesh of dead animals tastes good. When we’re talking about animal consumption, we’re not measuring the life of an animal against the life of a human. We’re measuring the life of an animal against the pleasure of a human. If you choose to eat meat, your pleasure is more important to you than the life of an animal.

Douthat also claims to be "susceptible" to arguments like that of

"an American farmer, which defends modern agriculture on the grounds of human welfare: 'We have to farm 'industrially,' he writes, if we hope 'to feed the world.'"

According to Marc Bekoff in Animals Matter,

"It takes about 16 pounds of grain to make a pound of beef."

Bekoff also writes that

"it takes about nine acres of farmland a year to produce the meat that one person eats. By comparison, a person who does not eat meat can be supported by only half an acre necessary to grow plant food for a year. Twenty vegetarians could live for a year on the amount of grains needed to provide meat for just one meat eater!"

Even if you dispute Bekoff's specific numbers, you can recognize the logic: it doesn't make sense to use land and resources to create food to filter it through animals to create less food. If your concern is actually to feed the world, then it is more efficient to feed the world plants.

Douthat justifies poor treatment of animals on the grounds that human life is more valuable than animal life (or more specifically, that the value of human life is absolute and the value of animal life is not). His defense of poor treatment of animals is a familiar switch 'em change-o: instead of making an argument defending killing animals for pleasure, he makes an argument defending killing animals for necessity. In doing so, he hasn't actually addressed Collins' claim that

"We should channel some of our concern for dogs and cats toward factory farms that keep masses of animals in a state of permanent discomfort until they’re slaughtered."

He just thinks he has.

*Though I might ask a question about the morality of our treatment of other humans. Douthat writes

"I think that the value of animal lives is contingent and the value of human lives absolute."

Can a war supporter really claim that the value human life is absolute? War always makes life contingent, relative. The war supporter claims that one group of people or type of people can be killed for the sake of something else. There’s really no getting around this: the logic of war says that there are some reasons for which some people may be killed (and modern warfare often means the people being killed are civilians). Doesn't the claim that "the value of human lives is absolute" contradict the support of a war, which claims that there is sometimes reason enough to take human life (even the claim that killing in war will save other lives denies the absolute value of human life, because the lives of some are measured against the lives of others)?