Sunday, December 12, 2010

How we find always find a rationale for what we want to do

In an interview/talk with Dan Barber on public radio with Krista Tippet, Barber talks about citrus fruit. He lives in a cold-weather climate where citrus is not local, but he wants citrus on his plate even in the winter. And so he gets citrus through the distribution/transport system for non-local food. He says he loves citrus. It's a good thing to get non-local citrus in winter and there's nothing wrong with that.

Later a questioner asked him why he's not a vegetarian. His region: geography. He's from a region that's conducive to producing meat, and he says you need to listen to the ecology, not force values onto the ecology. He eats meat because that's what his local region allows.*

When it comes to eating the citrus fruit you want to eat, well, call it a luxury and take advantage of the system for transporting non-local food. When it comes to eating the meat you want to eat, well, listen to the local ecology.

* (He also goes to the *vegetarians have blood on their hands too* argument because of manure or shipping or something. Well, no shit: anybody living in modern developed society has indirect blood on his/her hands for something, even lots of things. Does that exonerate people for killing animals for the pleasure of their taste? Is that an argument against those who try reduce their complicity in death and suffering?)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ad Hominem

At The Atlantic, James McWilliams writes a column arguing that treating animals well while they're alive doesn't absolve one of the moral wrong of eating them, since that still causes harm and is still unnecessary. At Grist, Tom Philpott responds not be engaging in McWilliams' argument, but in the classic Ad Hominem fallacy of attacking McWilliams.

Philpott starts by pointing out and criticizing other things McWilliams has written. Later he suggests McWilliams' article is part of "a careerist strategy." He labels McWilliams' arguments a bunch of nasty names: a "tedious moral screed" (Erik Marcus has criticized the word "screed" at, he calls McWilliams "moralistic" (when somebody says "X is wrong," if X is something you do and would like to continue to do, then that person is labeled "moralistic"), and he says McWilliams "adds nothing new or interesting" to the discussion of the ethics of eating meat (1. most of the arguments against eating meat are old: that doesn't mean they shouldn't be restated to reach new audiences and reframed to convince old 2. by writing about something quite specific--free-range meat is still morally problematic--McWilliams isn't merely repeating old talking points here 3. just because the arguments are not new, does that mean they are wrong). He questions why McWilliams is bothering to turn his attention to the wrongs of eating free-range meat.

Philpott writes a response to try convince us McWilliams is bad, untrustworthy, annoying. He hasn't written a response to engage with the content of McWilliams' argument. And I suppose that's understandable, since it is extremely hard to argue against the claim that killing animals for the pleasure of eating them is unnecessary. Pilpott then doesn't have to argue against McWilliams' conclusion:

"by choosing death for an animal, humans choose the seduction of taste over an animal's right to its future. Until someone can convincingly prove that this denial does not constitute unnecessary harm, I'll continue to view free-range farming and factory farming as gradations on the scale of cruelty."

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Christians and Eating Animals

(portions reposted and revised from December 9, 2006)

There are objections one can make if Christians insist that humans can eat animals because God has made the animals for us to eat, or that the purpose of animals is human use. These are objections that either come from within Christian thought, can fit into Christian thought, or do not contradict Christian thought.

According to the Book of Genesis, in God's perfect plan for creation, humans did not eat animals.
At the creation of the world in the book of Genesis, God gives man dominion over the earth and all the animals. He says in 1:26 "let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth" and in 1:28 "have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."

Interestingly, in 1:29, God says "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food." Even after giving man "dominion" over the animals, God specifies that man can have the plants for food. The text repeats the point. Again in 2:9, "And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food..." And then before prohibiting man from eating from one particular tree, God says in 2:16, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden." Again, God explicitly tells people they can eat the plants He created, but there is no explicit mention of whether the animals are available for food.

So before the Fall, there is no mention that people eat animals. I find this absense striking. God commanded man to have dominion over the animals, AND God explicitly commanded man to eat plants. With such explicit mention of dominion over animals AND explicit mention of what people are supposed to eat, it seems like a loud silence on animal consumption. It would seem perfectly within context to mention eating animals at this spot, but it doesn't happen.

It seems that the permission to eat meat was a later accommodation for sinful humans. This all makes theological sense, too: it was humanity's sin that tainted creation and brought death into the world.

And the fact that according to Genesis, God made the animals first suggests that they have his special concern and consideration. It is not that God made humans and then gave them food: they existed for some purpose other than the benefit of humans when they were first made.

So did God create animals for the purpose of humans to eat them? In the perfect plan for creation, God didn't tell people they could or should eat animals, and in fact the text makes explicit that plants are meant for human consumption.

Simpler: what is an animal made for?
What did God create animals for? I don't know. But I think it is hard to argue that God, say, made a chicken so that it could have its beak cut off and spend its entire life in an extremely small cage. There are all sorts of ways that humans have manipulated and limited animals in ways that run contrary to any biological understanding of what the animal was designed for.

Even if at a fundamental level, a Christian understanding of animals is that they are ours to use, that would not justify the extreme cruelty and suffering of current animal agriculture.

Monday, December 6, 2010

They know the score: Isaiah

A portion of Sunday's Old Testament reading stuck out to me (Isaiah 11: 6-8):

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.

Maybe these animal references, rich and diverse and detailed as they may be, are symbols to illustrate coming peace and reconciliation of enemies (though the specificity and power of the language shows a voice with understanding and attention to animals). But maybe also this is a reminder that animals are a part of God's creation, that they are imbued with dignity, and are included in some way in God's plan of salvation for the world.