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.