Friday, December 16, 2011

Suffering We Can Recognize

At Lawyers, Guns and Money, Erik Loomis posts this image and writes:

"This image from Life Magazine disturbs me. I guess because it looks like the shot is set up like giving a dying solider a last drink of water."

My first thought was perplexity: does Loomis really need to "guess" why this image "disturbs" him (might it be because an animal is quite obviously suffering)? This led me to the sincere speculation that Loomis was being ironic: he can't really have to guess why the image is disturbing, right? But on further thought, I realize that Loomis is onto something: this image is disturbing precisely because it creates a connection between the turtle and a human.

Most people are not remotely disturbed by the idea of a living animal being killed to be eaten. It is commonplace. Most people are not, I suspect, disturbed at seeing images of the animals that will ultimately be killed to be eaten. Do you get disturbed merely by looking at images of farm animals? But in this image, the turtle is in a pose that can be recognized as human: a prone, dying creature opening a mouth wide to receive some desperate succor for its sufferings. That this turtle can remind one of a human means that this turtle can make one empathize.

That may be the source of the disturbing feeling this image evokes. A creature is suffering, but we are made to actually see its suffering, because the pose has made its suffering relatable to a human viewer.

Animals are capable of suffering, even if we choose not to see it. And when we do choose to see it, or are forced to, we may be less inclined to have them end up in our soup.

Monday, November 28, 2011

What war does.

Glenn Greenwald's "The fruits of liberation" at Salon.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Nonviolence at work

There is something moving about watching these people slink away as the crowds shout "Shame on you!" Violence can make your opponents feel just in thwarting you (including thwarting with violence): nonviolence can shame them.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Many Men and Vegetables

Herman Cain, via Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon:

"...'A manly man don’t want [pizza] piled high with vegetables!' [...] Cain then explained that a real man would dismiss any pizza contaminated with vegetables as 'a sissy pizza.'"

This is pretty typical gender policing: "manly" men are supposed to want to eat meat, and it is inappropriately feminine ("sissy") for a man to want vegetables, and for that he should be shamed. One can only speculate how Mr. Cain will react to discovering that pizza is, in fact, itself a vegetable. I hope he doesn't doubt his manhood as much as he evidently doubts mine.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

On being a vegetarian guest

Ecorazzi notes that Anthony Bourdain uses the argument that vegetarians/vegans are bad because they are bad guests. Bourdain himself:

“They make for bad travelers and bad guests. [...] you’re unwilling to try things that people take so personally and are so proud of and so generous with, I don’t understand that, and I think it’s rude. You’re at Grandma’s house, you eat what Grandma serves you.”

It's a bit annoying that one even needs to refute the "You're bad if you don't betray your morals for the sake of a host's feelings" argument (after all, shouldn't "hosts" be at least as concerned about their "guests"?). Certainly one could come up with absurd hypothetical examples of behavior no guest would be expected to engage in out of politeness. But it seems that food comes with a whole different set of rules when it comes to discussion of both ethics and hospitality. Food is intimately tied up in hospitality, and behavior around food is central to a host-guest relationship. There are all sorts of social customs, even rules, about it. But we don't have to invent outrageous hypotheticals to show how silly this line of argument still is. In fact, we can turn to another central behavior of hospitality, of the expected relationship between hosts and guests: conversation.

Talking is a regular part of hospitality. Hosts and guests chat, sometimes engaging in small talk, sometimes discussing current events, sometimes catching up on each others' lives, sometimes even just trying to amuse each other. That's common and expected, and there's a certain expectation of politeness surrounding the conversation.

But let us say that you are a guest, and your host begins telling racist jokes. Would it be rude not to laugh? Would it be rude to tell the host that you don't like racist jokes? Furthermore, should you care if it is rude? Would you say "Well, I'm at Grandma's house, so I have to talk about what Grandma decides we'll talk about?" Maybe an otherwise hospitable host telling racist jokes makes for an awkward, uncomfortable moment. Maybe it will be a strain one way or another no matter how you decide to handle it. But would you really say that one is "rude," a "bad guest" if he or she didn't want to engage in racism? And would you really put the burden of rudeness on the guest for this situation?

Of course not. But this is the sort of logic that happens around eating animals, because people often have such wildly different ideas of what it means, or whether it matters at all, to be eating animals. Because food is necessary, everyday, social, and personal, we have whole different rules of logic about it. And for some who focus a great deal of attention on the eating of food but who have no regard for an animal as a creature deserving of ethical treatment, it will of course be a greater sin to offend a host (even if you politely decline!) than to eat an animal for your own pleasure. But those same people wouldn't expect their logic about food to be applied to similar situations.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Animal Research: Emotion and Vantage Point

At NPR, Neal Conan talks to David Martin Davies about using chimpanzees for medical research. There are many things in Davies' framing and word choice to show his function is to defend animal research and convince listeners to support animal research, but I don't want to spend too much time dissecting his language. Instead, I will focus on Davies' framework of rational scientists versus emotional animal rights activists. Davies says:

"The entire scientific community is nervous about this. They're concerned that they are losing a national debate about this topic, which is based mainly on emotional issues. And, yeah, Neal, of course, it's an emotional issue. No one wants to mistreat our great apes, our great cousins, but they realize that there is a need for this and it could benefit humanity."

I would argue that support for animal research relies more on emotion than opposition to animal research, due to the vantage point of who benefits.

Personally, emotion plays no role in my opposition to animal research. I know there is a great deal of suffering in the world, and I have little meaningful emotional reaction to a few specific chimpanzees suffering more. I am, however, a human with people I love and whom I wish to protect. From an emotional standpoint, I would actually prefer that absolutely anything be done to potentially save those that I love. That's not reason: that's emotion.

My individual personal reaction doesn't matter much, of course. But it does connect to what does matter: the human vantage point. When humans discuss animal research, it is always in the context of humans benefiting. Us. We benefit. It is difficult, then, not to have an emotional stake. One group (humans) discusses an activity that benefits itself, even if it exploits another group (animals). There are all sorts of logically framed arguments supporting animal research, but there is always a personal, emotional appeal. We benefit. We get helped. People we love get helped.

Davies' framing of opponents of animal research as dealing with emotion (in opposition to scientists dealing with reason) is particularly bothersome as Davies in fact uses an emotional argument to support animal research:

"the person you got to bring into the conversation is if you are about to undergo an experimental treatment or if you have a condition, do you - you would want to know that everything is possibly been done on this drug before it reached a human person. The first person who takes that drug is going to be the experiment now instead of a chimpanzee."

Here Davies is not asking listeners to examine the situation from an objective position. He is not asking listeners to dispassionately use reason to assess the ethics of a particular practice. He is asking listeners to imagine themselves in a position of need for medical treatment that might require animal research. He is asking listeners not to reason, but to take on a particular emotional state. What would you do if... The attempt of this appeal is to put the listener in a particular vantage point where he or she would benefit from this research. This is a bit superfluous, because as I said, when we discuss animal research we already have the vantage point of the group that benefits. But we can also use this imaginary situation to put ourselves in a different vantage point.

In "Human Morality and Animal Research: Confessions and Quandaries," Harold Herzog discusses The E.T. Dilemma. Herzog says the logic of animal research is that a superior species has the right to use an inferior species for the superior species' benefit. What if, Herzog asks, an advanced alien species, obviously superior to humans, were to use human beings for medical research to help itself? Could this advanced alien species kidnap, imprison, and perform invasive tests on people? If, in terms of superiority, we are to the aliens as great apes are to us? If you assess this hypothetical logically, there really is no getting around it: if we are allowed to use inferior species for our benefit, a superior species would be allowed to use us for its benefit. If you feel otherwise, you are using emotion: you now have the vantage point of the victim of somebody else's benefit.

Opposition to animal research is, I am sure, often based on emotion. But it is also based on a quite logical, quite reasonable question, one that can be asked in a spirit of dispassionate objectivity. How do we justify using animals for research? By what right may we do what we will with animals if it benefits us?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

You don't even have to look for the hypocrisy of our treatment of animals; it just reveals itself

Paging through a Sports Illustrated magazine from a few weeks ago, I came across a praising profile of a bullfighter. Sports Illustrated is the same magazine that did much to vilify Michael Vick. I can't help but wonder, why is torturing dogs to death for sport evil, but torturing bulls to death for sport worthy of a lengthy profile piece in a respected sports magazine?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

On effecting change

At Feministe, Jill endorses Nicolette Hahn Niman's proposals to end farm animal cruelty ("1. State laws should protect farm animal welfare." "2. Congress should prohibit overusing antibiotics in animal farming." "3. Government should better enforce environmental laws." "4. Farm subsidies should foster grass." "5. The United States should launch a domestic Peace Corps for farming. "), and then writes,

"That’s a lot more effective than 'go vegan.'"

That depends on what one means by "effective;" if it means to effect change, I'm not so sure. Surely Jill has considered the great difficulty of effecting even one of Niman's proposals. There are powerful economic interests, structural impediments, and cultural norms that entrench the status quo and make these changes difficult. It requires strengthening a political movement to elect the representatives willing to make such changes, and then the political pressure to make them do so. It takes cultural work of building the political will to make it possible (or necessary) for politicians to take on those entrenched, self-interested opponents, and to change people's attitude that being able to eat lots of cheap meat is a priority over concern for animals.

On the other hand, going vegan simply requires you to stop consuming animal products. As a movement, it also means convincing others to stop consuming animal products.

It's possible the political reform movement can effect change greater than the attempt to convince people to change their personal behavior (obviously people's personal behavior is quite entrenched as well, as you can see by the lengths people go to defend eating animals), but I'm not sure.

Jill's argument also raised a theoretical question: why is an animal worthy of enough moral concern that it should be treated nicely before being killed for your pleasure, but not worthy of enough moral concern to not be killed for your pleasure at all? The position that animals should be treated nicely before being killed assumes that an animal's suffering matters--yet it still assumes that the meat eater's pleasure is more important than that animal's suffering. That's not terribly much moral concern, however much better it makes a meat eater feel.

Friday, May 13, 2011

What the Live-And-Let-Live Argument for Eating Meat is Really About

Sometimes meat eaters make an argument like It’s fine if you don’t want to eat meat, but don’t be preachy about it/push your values on me/tell me what to do. I’ve often taken to parodying this line of argument with something like If you want to abstain from kicking elderly people in the shins, that’s your choice, but don’t bother me if I like to kick elderly people in the shins. I hope this parody shows the flaw of dismissing a moral argument about harm to other beings as if it is a matter of personal preference that you shouldn’t push on others.

But I think we could go further: there is a moral principle underlying the Mind-Your-Own-Business dismissal. That principle is obvious: animals are not beings worthy of moral consideration; their suffering doesn’t matter. If you accept this principle, then eating meat is a matter of personal preference, not an ethical choice. Think about it: very few people would say something like It’s fine if you don’t like child abuse, but don’t tell me not to abuse children. (I am not making a moral equivalence, but using a parallel argument for analogy). That’s because most people accept children as thinking, feeling beings, worthy of moral consideration, who should be protected from cruelty and unnecessary suffering. It’s harder to dismiss ethical consideration about behavior that causes harm with the Mind-Your-Own-Business dismissal. By using the Mind-Your-Own-Business dismissal, the meat eater is implicitly arguing that an animal’s suffering and death is not a matter of ethical concern, because nobody whose suffering matters is being harmed.

But the Mind-Your-Own-Business dismissal is annoying because it refuses to discuss this underlying principle. It refuses to engage in an ethical discussion about behavior that causes harm. It instead turns it into a Live-And-Let-Live argument. It’s not hard to make an argument like If you don’t like Diet Coke, fine, but I’m not hurting anybody else by drinking it, so leave me alone. When people engage in behaviors that don’t hurt anybody, we should live and let live. When people engage in behaviors that don’t hurt anybody but themselves, I think we probably should live and let live. But is an animal a Diet Coke?

I can summarize my (mostly vegan) vegetarian principle concisely: If I choose to eat meat, I am choosing my own pleasure over the death and suffering of an animal; given what we know about animals’ capacity to think, feel, and suffer, I do not think my pleasure is more important than an animal’s suffering and death. Those using the Mind-Your-Own-Business dismissal choose their pleasure over the animal, but refuse to engage in a discussion of what comes after the semicolon. They have a principle, but the dismissal leaves that principle implicit and often unacknowledged.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


I've been feeling a political despair. How can there be mainstream discussion about significant cuts on spending on the poor and in need, but discussion of cutting a massive military budget is still left to the lefty, antiwar fringes? How is reducing the social safety net a matter of serious discussion, but reducing the world's largest military budget is barely talked about? And whatever I could convince myself in the past, it is now abundantly clear that Democrats in general are barely less interested in military solutions than Republicans, as we now have a Democratic president proposing and maintaining a massive military budget and continuing to use violent military solutions around the world. So who among the politically powerful is actually going to call for reduced military spending?

But this Gallup Poll (via Kevin Drum) reminds me that it is not strictly a political problem, but a cultural problem. Only 14% of Americans think the military has too much power, 53% think its about right, and 28% think it doesn't have enough power. Twice as many people want the military to have more power than want it to have less, and a strong majority of the country thinks the military's power is what it should be. Put another way, 81% of Americans support the military's current power or want it to be greater.

It is not so much that we have elites ignoring the needs of struggling people to maintain military spending and warfare against our own wishes. It is that, evidently, Americans are devoted to militarism.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Temptation to Justifiable Violence

A conscientious person who wishes to do good in the world faces the temptation for violence. When one looks at the brute evil that causes harm in the world, there is a temptation to use violence to prevent harm or to cause good. The temptation to violence for a good cause is a strong one, and one that requires vigilant, committed resistance. Men like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Cesar Chavez certainly had just causes, and they deliberately chose means of nonviolence to strive for their causes.

According to John Howard Yoder in The Politics of Jesus, Jesus was tempted greatly by violent political action, that he "perceived the Zealot alternative, was tempted by it as by no other, and nonetheless rejected it" (52). By "Zealot option," Yoder means "the issue was whether violence is justified in principle for what one considers to be a very righteous political cause" (58). Yoder's thesis is provocative: even Jesus, who taught his followers to love their enemies, who even forgave his murderers and mockers as he suffered painful death, who was willing to sacrifice his own life, was tempted to righteous violence.

Nicholas Kristof devotes his life to traveling the world and exposing suffering and injustice: he is a man who does and desires to do good for the world. He is eloquent and passionate in his efforts to do good and prevent evil. And so he makes a worthy tempter for supporting military action in Libya, as here and here. Kristof's is the liberal case for military action, it is the argument that sometimes, however rarely it may be, a positive impact of military violence can outweigh the negative. Kristof's is a reasoned, realistic rather than idealistic argument, and a tempting one. Why reject it?

There are, of course, practical reasons: the cost of war, the suffering that come with war, the unpredictability of war's outcomes, the tendency of violence of war to spread and cycle over distance and time and to leave long-term problems. There is also the argument that war puts aside creative nonviolent intervention strategies. I find these arguments compelling: the fear of war's unpredictable, lingering effects makes me wary of any argument for war. Yet Kristof's argument is practical too.

This is where the religious grounding of pacifism is important for me: when the practical argument is tempting, I must stand with the theological commitment to peace. This is where I have to rely on Jesus's teachings and example of nonviolence, of loving and forgiving enemies, of what Yoder calls "revolutionary subordination." I have to remember that he too was tempted. This is where I have to remind myself that Martin Luther King Jr., with firm knowledge that his cause was just, with belief that God had called him to this cause, as he faced violent opposition to his cause remained committed to the principle of nonviolence, and his cause was the better for it.
Peace, too, can look scary. Practicing nonviolence, too, means uncertain, unpredictable outcomes, and can mean suffering. But I place my faith in peace rather than war.

Works Cited
Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus (2nd edition). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Why be a pacifist?

"All the others. The others who spend their lives believing that we still believe. It is our task in the world to believe things no one else takes seriously. To abandon such beliefs completely, the human race would die. This is why we are here. A tiny minority. To embody old things, old beliefs. The devil, the angels, heaven, hell. If we did not pretend to believe these things, the world would collapse. [...] We are left to believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure that they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don't want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen, rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life."

--Don DeLillo, White Noise

Why be a pacifist? When the world dismisses us as naive, ignorant, stupid, immature? Why be a pacifist, when our cry is dismissed, mocked, marginalized, and ignored? Why be a pacifist, when we turn to the liberal writers you've come to read for their insight and find some of them embracing military violence? Why be a pacifist, when there are evil people filling the world with brutality and blood and our beliefs feel utopian and ideals feel sheltered?

Because in this world, there needs to be somebody there to always preach an antiwar message to the others. There needs to be somebody there who will always be skeptical of war's aims, that will always fear war's consequences, that will always remind people of its costs. There needs to be people there to point out the horrors and atrocities of war. Somebody, even a very few, must be there to always reject the rationale for war, no matter how just or humanitarian it seems. There needs to be somebody that will reject war regardless of who calls for it. Somebody must be there to try and find other solutions (for nonviolence is not isolationist, not opposed to intervention but opposed to violent intervention). There must be somebody to claim that violence is always immoral.

If pacifists gain the power of decision making, then you can tell me how hopelessly naive and lost we are, how harmful or wrong-headed our beliefs are. But until then, while you are running things, we need to be here, rejecting violence and demanding peace.


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Wars do things you don't want them to do.

Matthew Yglesias on "The Mostly Hypothetical Case for Armed Humanitarianism:"

"I think it’s telling that enthusiasts for this kind of war typically have to make the case with reference to hypothetical success stories about military operations we didn’t undertake. These are useful cases to deploy in arguments, because since the intervention didn’t happen one doesn't need to wrestle with the potentially problematic consequences and downside risks. [...] I think it’s a problem when all your best evidence is drawn from scenarios that didn’t unfold." (emphasis mine)

One reason to oppose war, to avoid war, and to be skeptical of claims calling for war, is that wars almost always have unpredictable, unforeseen consequences. These unexpected consequences, which can be deeper, wider, and go on longer than war proponents' imaginations seem to grasp, are almost always negative. When you unleash a war, that war becomes a thing itself, going places and doing things you didn't know it would do and certainly didn't plan for.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why Antiwar

Because shit like this happens every goddam time.

A pacifist cannot easily claim that without war, everything will be just fine. Jesus said "He who lives by the sword dies by the sword," shortly before being violently killed (many of his nonviolent followers were also violently killed; it was some time later that his followers quit practicing nonviolence). The world, in addition to beauty and love, is filled with evil and brutality. A pacifist does not look at the violence in Libya with blindness toward its awfulness, and does not suffer the illusion that Libya's problems will go away if left alone. But a pacifist knows not only the moral problem of attempting to use violence to stop violence, but also knows the practical problem of humanity, of atrocity, of blood.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Pleasure Argument

At Feministe, Jill makes the pleasure argument for eating meat:

"A lot of people also (and this is my personal reason) view food as a fundamental pleasure, and see it as something to be experimented with and shared and tried and tasted in all of its forms. The idea of removing a major source of food from the list of options isn’t going to fly if you believe that food is for something more than just to fill you up. But that pleasure-centered view of food — that it’s not just fuel, but also something that should nourish your body well and should be variable and exciting..." (emphasis mine)

The defense of a behavior based on its pleasure only works if it is a harmless behavior. If your pleasure causes no harm, then it is very easy to defend it. But if the behavior you take pleasure in does cause harm, then it is extremely difficult to defend that behavior on the grounds of pleasure itself. For example, if I were to argue that I view kicking elderly people in the shins as a fundamental pleasure, and see it as something to be experimented with and shared and tried in all of its forms, you would rightly recognize that regardless of how much pleasure I might get from kicking elderly people in the shins, I would be wrong to do it because of the harm it causes.

So to defend eating meat on the grounds that food is supposed to be pleasurable is to implicitly claim that your individual pleasure is more important than the life and suffering of an animal.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Offering Peace

Should a pacifist eat meat? There are of course many sources, and many expressions, of a pacifist ethic. But if one is practicing nonviolence, does it not seem strange to rely on violence against animals for one's daily living?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

By their actions

I grew up believing that public education is a social good, and that teaching is a noble vocation that serves the social good. I can't help but feel that the contingent in power in Wisconsin right now simply does not believe this. When they consider making massive, deep cuts to public education a viable solution to a budget problem (when they see any tax increases as a bigger social problem than serious funding cuts to education), and when their actions show how little they respect teachers (some public professionals have been exempted from their attack on collective bargaining rights, after all; those professions they evidently do respect), it's hard to believe they even think what we do is important.

Whose side?

"I don’t believe God picks sides in politics. I believe God calls us to be on His side."

--Scott Walker, quoted in Matthew Rothschild's "Scott Walker Believe He's Following Orders from the Lord"

The Republican Bible is repeatedly filled with passages showing that God is on the side of the rich and powerful. Weirdly, the Bible I've read says exactly the opposite.

I don't need to take seriously the claim that the Republican Party is about Christian values--not when its primary goal is to enact policies that benefit the rich at the expense of everybody else. Whether it's working to eliminate governmental environmental regulations so that industries can pollute the air, land, and water the rest of us share, or staunchly opposing tax increases and instead cutting and eliminating institutions and programs for social good (Amanda Marcotte notes, "Consider that the top 400 wealthiest Americans have a combined wealth that’s almost equal to what the bottom 153 million Americans have. Consider that Republicans are saying that’s not enough, and they will do whatever it takes to break working people and turn this country into a banana republic"), Republicans are squarely on the side of the rich and powerful. Gross economic inequality is of no concern.

This is not a partisan attempt to claim that the Democratic policy platform is sanctioned by God--but then, Democrats rarely claim that it is.

Peter Laarman in Religion Dispatches:

"It is simple class violence, waged (as always) by the powerful against the vulnerable. It’s nice, I guess, that Scott Walker loves Jesus. He’s clearly not acquainted with the Jesus who lifts up the lowly and pulls down the powerful from their thrones."

Monday, March 7, 2011

"Rather than..."

I agree with Monica Potts (and others) who have criticized attempts to criminalize exposing animal cruelty on farms: there's something cracked in punishing X for exposing Y's sins. But this sentence sticks out, too:

"What's interesting here is the lengths people will go to in order to avoid responding to consumer demand. Because they're increasingly aware of the violations against animals we commit in the name of feeding ourselves, a growing number of American consumers are calling for changes in the way we produce meat. Rather than respond to that demand [...] companies try to use their power and influence to get out of changing." (emphasis mine).

Let me borrow Potts' structure to make a different, but related point:

What's interesting here is the lengths people will go to in order to avoid giving up meat. Because of efforts to expose and reconsider the problem, they're increasingly aware of the violations against animals we commit in the name of feeding ourselves. Rather than respond by giving up meat, many people try to use their influence as advocates and consumers to reform and improve the system in order to get out of changing their own habits.

Industrial agriculture (through its political enablers) indeed appears to be taking efforts to avoid making changes. But in advocating for reform of a system, a system they could choose to abstain from if they were willing, many consumers are also taking efforts to avoid making changes.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

On Being a Leftist Christian

Most of the ethical, political concerns that I believe my religion requires (concern for the poor, opposition to war, striving for social equality, care for the environment) are today more likely to be concerns shared by secular minded folk, while religious minded folk (at least politically) often seem opposed and even hostile to these concerns.

So to see goals that I consider deeply Christian goals be achieved, it is better for society to become much more secular.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Logic of Justifiable Violence

Mother Jones has reported on some attempts at the state level to make killing in defense of a fetus "justifiable homicide," and many have interpreted the language of the bills as allowing for the murder of doctors who provide abortions.

I think this is related to the problem of underlying axioms. When you accept an underlying axiom, you can debate about degree, but you will have excesses following the axiom. The underlying axiom at work here--violence can be a moral means to prevent evil--is largely accepted. So when some view a particular action as abhorrently evil, they may consider violence to prevent that evil as morally justified. The same logic that allows some to justify war (the general principle, specific wars, and particular practices of warfare), torture, and capital punishment, can be used to justify murdering.

Many grapple with this underlying axiom to try apply it responsibly in a complicated world. Some abuse the axiom for their own ends, while others ignore it and use violence to their own ends. Some will apply the maxim in ways that most of us find dangerous and immoral. And some (very few) reject the principle altogether as a matter of ethical principle.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Religion and Justice

Today in church, the Old Testament reading included the following passage from Leviticus:

"The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning."

It is a simple, specific rule, but it is typical of the Bible's concern for social and economic justice. The writers of this text tell us that according to God, employers are to deal fairly with their employees. According to God, there is a righteous and an unrighteous way for workers to be treated.

What does this mean for us today?

The Journal Sentinel's Annysa Johnson cites a Catholic Archbishop, a Methodist Bishop, and a Rabbi expressing support for unions and collective bargaining in Wisconsin. Johnson also cites Illinois churches and synagogues that have offered sanctuary to the Democrats from Wisconsin that fled the state to avoid a vote stripping state workers of collective bargaining rights. These religious leaders, with their conviction and faith in God, are standing up for the rights of workers and the usefulness of unions and collective bargaining.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

I am a Wisconsin state worker.

At one rally I attended, a speaker said (something like) that if this was happening in the 1800s, it would be a riot, but we've learned nonviolent protest, we've learned what works. And that's not only the legacy but the lesson of Gandhi and King: they not only showed us that nonviolent protest can work, they actually taught us how to do it. Today, around the world, people know the shape and form of a protest. People know about the strength of numbers, about passive resistance, about why but also how to gather into large groups and nonviolently express protest. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't (sometimes it is even in opposite causes), but this is the form that protest takes today because we were taught that this is the form that a protest can take. We have power in and through peacefulness.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Gender and Meat

When I teach units involving popular culture, and particularly about advertisements, I focus a lot on gender stereotypes. We discuss things like what foods get associated with a particular gender ("Close your eyes and picture 'beer drinker.' Who are you picturing?"). And we discuss meat. There are so many representations of Men in popular culture as voracious meat eaters (when men are shown cooking, it is usually over a grill), that Manhood and consuming animals are closely associated. Sometimes I perceive that in American culture, I'm not seen as a "Real Man" because I am a (mostly vegan) vegetarian (and a pacifist too at that).

At Grist, Holly Richmond complains about a trend of mainstream media articles, ripe with gender stereotypes, featuring shock at discovering male vegans. She's right in what she says, though I wonder if baby steps toward less rigid gender stereotypes about food and eating are still steps worth taking. Those steps are definitely still worth critiquing too, of course.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Amanda Marcotte is critical of B. R. Myers' crusade against foodies, because Myers' emphasis on the sinfulness of gluttony is, Marcotte says, anti-pleasure. I can see validity to her critique, if the gluttony stuff is taken literally. But I took the trope of gluttony as a framework for Myers to make his central thesis: in general, foodies have little to no regard for ethical concerns about eating, and when they're not outright dismissive of ethical questions, they find ways to argue that their own desired forms of eating are ethically superior to everybody else's.

In that sense, Myers' crusade scratches me right where I itch. I have little time for Michael Pollan, whom I perceive acts like and is treated like the moral compass of eating, but whose public function largely features defending eating meat, assuaging questioning consciences and assuring meat eaters not to worry about their lifestyle of eating animals. Myers' negative review of Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma similarly had me reading with an attentive rush, finding some of my vague perceptions articulated concretely.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The new wishy washy

As I listened to Stephen L. Carter on NPR telling us about the kind of conversations we need more of, I realized he's hardly the first commentator in recent years I've heard tell me what kind of conversations we need to have more of. It's actually quite frequent. Somebody points out some of the moral ambiguities of (drone attacks/indefinite detention/escalation of war/torture/targeted killing), talks about how complicated the issue is, and then rather than saying these things are morally wrong (or bad policy), the person will say something about how we need a more open debate about these matters, about how people aren't discussing these matters enough.

I suppose that's of a piece with having a hawkish liberal president who appears thoughtful: the morality of a drone attack that might kill civilians is somewhat dependent on whether the leader who orders the attacks is sufficiently reflective about it.

I might suggest that having a conversation in which you argue for more conversations is just sort of a way to avoid actually having that conversation. But I'm unsure: I think we should have more debate about that.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Are animals part of "the environment"?

At Mother Jones, Kate Sheppard discusses the "eco-friendly" nature of fake leather versus real leather,

"thinking about whether fur, or for that matter, any other animal-derived material used for clothing, is inherently a bad environmental choice."

Plenty of commenters to the article brought up the obvious animal rights part of the discussion (Sheppard barely hinted at it), but I think Sheppard's language is typical of a seeming blind spot shared by a lot of environmentalist writers. Sheppard can write an article exploring whether using animal products can be "environmentally friendly," because she basically doesn't consider animals part of the environment.

This is that blind spot. I heard a colleague once say at a presentation that when we talk about the environment, we usually think of something green. Sheppard, like some other environmentalist writers, seems to view the environment as something green and blue that needs to be saved for humankind's pleasure and usage, and the sentient animals are just objects that happen to live in the environment, evidently not part of the ethical consideration about what needs to be saved, protected, and preserved.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"No life is worth a sandwich I don't need"

At The Atlantic (via Andrew Sullivan), James McWilliams argues why it is wrong to eat animals, no matter how they are raised:

"Say I'm stranded on an island with a pig. And say the island is stocked with an endless supply of fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts—enough to feed us both. Am I justified in killing the pig?

"The application of equal consideration would require me to consider if the suffering I would cause the pig—indeed, taking its life—was worth satisfying my own taste for pork—something that I hardly need. My answer would have to be no. The pig's sentience—its status as a non-object capable of suffering—morally trumps my desire to eat a BLT, no matter how much pleasure it gives. No life is worth a sandwich I don't need."

This is the heart of the argument that I would make against eating meat (though there are others): it is unnecessary. For most people living in a developed society, it is not necessary to eat animals to survive, or even to thrive. There is a mess of traditional, social, personal reasons people do eat meat, but if you try to pull eating meat out of this mess, and turn it into a rational, conscious, ethical decision, you have to address a question:

Is my pleasure more important than an animal's life?

If you wish to get more specific, you might ask:

Why is the pleasure of fulfilling my tastes worth more than the suffering and death of a creature that is capable of thinking, feeling, and suffering?

In my view, the only way to consider these questions and reach the conclusion that it is OK to eat animals, is to reach the conclusion that an animal's life really doesn't matter. Yet most Americans haven't actually reached that conclusion. Anybody arguing for humane treatment of farmed animals has reached the awkward conclusion that an animal is worthy of being treated humanely while it is alive, before being killed and eaten. It is a strange compromise to suggest that an animal has some inherent quality (such as the capacity to suffer) that makes it worthy of humane treatment before slaughter, yet not quite such a quality to make it worthy of not being unnecessarily slaughtered in the first place.

And many other Americans think mistreatment of certain animals is wrong, but evidently not mistreatment of other animals. I might direct your attention to public reaction to Michael Vick's involvement in dogfighting, and to Jonathan Safran Foer's argument "The Case for Eating Dogs" in Eating Animals. Most people with pets would seemingly balk at the conclusion that the suffering of a dog, or a cat, or a horse, doesn't matter, yet evidently don't much care about the suffering of cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, or fish.

Is there a willed blindness or willed rationalization in this? I think so, but it is not only on the individual justifying his/her pleasure and taste. We are socially formed, and there are cultural and traditional reasons people eat meat. Eating meat is built into many people's daily living, personal lifestyles, social customs, and family relationships (Foer addresses the role of food in family and socializing in Eating Animals). It is something held dear. If meat eaters are defensive, that defensiveness is for bigger reasons than their own pleasure.

That's why the questions I posed above aren't really that effective or convincing. It's also why the logical ethical argument McWilliams makes is necessary, but so too is the novelist's gaze at what deeper role eating has for the meaning we make in our lives.