If that's your plan, your intentions are surely excellent. But the "humane meat" alternative isn't really so simple. First of all, you have to consider where you're planning on getting your happy turkey. If you live in the country, maybe you have a small-scale "humane farm" you can buy from. Michael Pollan describes that kind of farm in this excellent article.
Polyface Farm sounds idyllic, but before you buy, think about how much of a life the turkey got to have. For tender flesh, you have to kill when animals are young. How was the slaughter done? If at an abattoir, then not nicely. There are no laws at all regulating the slaughter of poultry in the U.S.. Even if the butchering is done on site, it's not necessarily done with any kindness. In his book The Omnivore's Dilemma (great book!) Pollan describes participating in the killing process at Polyface Farm. Speed seems to be the overriding consideration, not kindness.
More likely, you don't live in the country. Your only option is to purchase a "humane certified" turkey at some place like Whole Foods. By all means this is better than getting the usual "butterball" or whatnot (do have a look at that PETA link if you're not sure). I'm a big fan of Whole Foods and do believe in incremental steps. But when you look into the facts about animal welfare at big organic farms, they're disappointing. Free range chickens and turkeys are stuffed into massive barns. They're not in cages, which is great. If they're "free range," as well as "cage free," then they have access to the out of doors. But this may not be until the bird is many weeks old, and at that point slaughtering day isn't far off. That's the inside story I get from Pollan's book and also from The Ethics of What We Eat, a very informative new book by Peter Singer and Jim Mason.
Small farms that can demonstrate truly humane practices are better than big organic. But must you eat a turkey? I'm all for good food, and wouldn't eat a "tofurkey" in a million years. I'm not 100% sure I think eating meat is inherently wrong no matter what. But 95% of what we do to animals in raising them for food is totally repulsive. I'm much happier staying as clear as I can of the whole ugly business.
The mother now travels around speaking out about the risk of leaving children in hot cars—something that people do all too often, with tragic consequences. So she’s not only suffered terribly, but also tried to make something constructive out of her personal tragedy. In an interview the woman sobbed about her child’s death (and you’d be crazy not to feel for her) but she said something I found strange. She said she wasn’t to blame, because she forgot.
Well, you can sort of see it. The fact that her baby was in the car simply never entered her mind. There was nothing deliberate or intentional about it. She hadn’t even done anything overtly reckless, like drinking and driving, or texting while driving. It just didn’t occur to her that the baby was in the car.
It does seem puzzling how a person can be held responsible for forgetting something. Remembering isn’t exactly something we do, but something that happens to us. But on the other hand, there’s a lot a person can do to increase the chances of remembering.
You can write things down on pieces of paper. There’s also a sort of mental writing we do all the time. You maintain mental lists and keep looking at them throughout the day. If you have young children, you do this a lot, asking yourself where your kids are, and under whose care, and what they may need from you, and whether they’re OK.
But (she would say) she forgot to jot, she forgot to check! How can blame get a foothold here? I leave you with that question, but my sense is that there must have been a crossroads. She must have chosen, at some point, to obsess more about her job or whatever was preoccupying her, instead of keeping track of her most important mental list, the one about her baby. Or must there really be a choice, a crossroads, for blame to make sense?
It’s striking what a huge role luck plays in determining the gravity of an error. If only the woman’s car had been parked in a busy parking lot. Somebody would have seen the baby in a short time and saved the day. If that had happened, I imagine the woman would have blamed herself, but for a much lesser mistake—for being dangerously distracted. For imperiling but not harming her baby. It’s understandable that she doesn’t blame herself for the events that actually occurred, considering their enormity, but it doesn’t seem true that forgetting is always innocent. Is it?
And one last thing. Mea culpa. I have sometimes forgotten important things. Fortunately, not with tragic consequences.
Watching American politics today is more fun than a barrel full of monkeys, but enough already. (Or, if you haven’t had enough, I think you’ll enjoy this.)
I’ve been thinking about family ties. It seems as if people do have special obligations to family members. You could reject that entirely, in good utilitarian fashion, but suppose it’s true. It strikes me that there are a couple of ways to think about those obligations.
The obligation of a parent to a child seems particularly clear and understandable. You brought the kid into the world, so the kid is more your responsibility than someone else’s. It’s a parent’s job, more than a neighbor’s job or a stranger’s job, to feed, clothe, educate, etc. the child, and generally to put the child on course to live a good life.
(Note—it strikes me that we have an extra layer of obligation to our offspring, beyond the basic obligations we have to everyone else. I’m not saying we’re entitled to indifference to everyone else.)
If you think about the obligations of parents to children this way, then it turns out that children’s obligations to their parents must have a different basis entirely. It seems to be a matter of reciprocation. “You did all that work to bring me up, so now I owe you something you in return.” Not that we think that way all the time. Parents and children spontaneously like and care for each other, but there’s obligation too, sort of like an extra layer of glue.
So far, pretty good. But if I’ve got the duties between parents and children right, they don’t extend to cousins, grandparents, uncles, aunts, etc. All are more or less like old friends, people you share an especially long history with (which makes a difference, but not the same diference.) If that’s too counterintuitive to bear, there’s another way to think about family ties. You could think that sheer kinship generates extra obligations to family, though the closer the kinship the stronger the obligation. On that way of thinking, there are obligations to siblings, cousins, etc., though weaker obligations the more distant the relationship.
It seems dangerous and pernicious to accept sheer kinship as a source of obligation. If it really is a source, then it’s a basis for obligation across the board, and it’s OK for members of the same race to give each other higher priority. Sharing genes just doesn’t seem to have any moral import that you can put your finger on. But it makes good sense to think creating a person engenders special responsibilities, and that we ought to reciprocate to our parents, if they have met them. This is not essentially a matter of genes.
I’m thinking about these things because I’m trying to write some essays about parenthood, but also because they’re relevant to animal issues. Some say we have special obligations to members of our own species like a mother has special obligations to her children. But if parental duties aren’t based on sheer biological relatedness, then that point falls through. My kids are my responsibility because I created them. I no more created all the human beings around me than I created the cats and dogs. So I have no special duties to other humans, as opposed to animals, on a par with my duties to my children.
So what do you think? Do all family ties create special obligations, based on sheer kinship, or is the tie between parent and child a unique one?
Before I reveal the dark depths of my judgmental soul, a few general points. I think we do have special duties to our children. I think of it this way—there are bits of the world to which people have special connections of various kinds. The connections make some bits of the world more “my responsibility” than others. The connection in this case, of course, is that parents create their kids. That generates special duties.
Before I get around to examples, I also want to stress that parents needn’t sacrifice themselves to their children. My life counts no less than my two children’s. Furthermore, it’s absurd to “go nuclear” and think of oneself as living inside a family bubble. Yes, I have special responsibilities to my kids, but there are another seven billion people out there who aren’t less worthy, objectively speaking. Finally, when I doubt someone as a parent, that’s just one judgment among many, not necessarily the final verdict “all things considered.”
All that being said, I do find it odd that Sarah Palin wants to turn over such a huge chunk of her time to politics, leaving (presumably) so little time for her newborn and the rest of her kids. But I don’t reserve my skepticism for mothers. Before Sarah Palin burst onto the national stage, I had thought the same thing about Barack Obama. His little daughters cannot have seen a whole lot of their father in the last two years, and if he wins the presidency, they’ll see even less of him.
So yes, I do make these kinds of judgments about fathers as much as mothers. It’s not just political parents who have duties to their kids, of course. An avid reader of books about mountaineering, I wonder about all the parents who venture up Everest, knowing they have a pretty high chance of not coming back down (something like 10%, I think). Rob Hall was one of the climbers who lost his life in the ill-fated climb Jon Krakauer recounts in his book Into Thin Air. He went up the mountain with a wife very pregnant, creating a considerable risk of having fathered a fatherless child. Closer to home, I wonder about academics who drag their children from city to city as they climb the ladder a few rungs at a time to greater prestige and success. I’m not at all convinced they’re doing the right thing by their children.
Would it be dreadful if I worried just a tad more about ambitious mothers? It seems unfair, but maybe it’s simply realistic. If Barack Obama is a semi-absent father, it’s pretty safe to assume his wife makes up for it. That’s what women do. Even in two-career families, 85% of mothers take primary responsibility for children. Is it equally safe to think Sarah Palin’s kids will have a devoted father who fills in for her? It’s possible, but no, it’s not as safe an assumption.
I don’t think doubts about Sarah Palin as a mother are unfair, outrageous, or sexist. Do they loom large though? Should they determine your vote? These things fall very low on my list of criteria by which the candidates ought to be judged. The parenting issue, then, is very small potatoes. Still, not quite nothing. Apparently The New York Times agrees. There’s an article about Sarah Palin as a mother on the front page today. A strong, gutsy, unconventional woman, if you believe the article, but if it’s proper to look into her role as a mother, we can’t be required to think exclusively positive thoughts.
Standard procedure for responsible folk is to spay and neuter dogs, thereby denying them, for life, all the pleasures of sex and reproduction, but probably even more. Without their testicles, boy dogs lose out on all the fun of testosterone, which is probably quite a bit of fun. Why not let animals enjoy their full capacities, and take a more direct approach to population control? In short, kill excess puppies, instead of sterilizing parents?
I find this dilemma an excellent Rorshach test of basic moral attitudes. If you think about the two alternatives, killing vs. sterilizing, and the greater good pulls you in the direction of killing, you’re a consequentialist by temperament. If you think killing is inherently wrong, regardless of good consequences, then you’re a non-consequentialist by temperament. If, like me, you change your mind about the case every hour on the hour, then either you’re hopelessly confused or (best case scenario), you have super-subtle, pluralistic intuitions that make you especially sensitive and deep. Naturally I’m rooting for “sensitive and deep.”
It can’t be that consequences have no relevance to morality. Of course you should drown puppies if doing so will save the whole population of Paris. But should you drown puppies in order to preserve the natural enjoyments of adult dogs? One thing’s for sure, I’m not volunteering for the job. As a kid, I got to be midwife to two litters of puppies. Drown ‘em? Not gonna happen, as my kids like to say.
But maybe this is squeamish, and letting a vet spay or neuter just distances us from what is really the greater wrong. Maybe I should admire Mark’s friend, the frank farmer (so to speak). As you can probably tell, my opinion on the matter is changing by the minute, not even by the hour.
Please, don’t say—“doggy contraceptives.” No such thing, as far as I know, and female dogs would be denied some of the pleasures of life. Anyhow, we have a much more interesting moral quandary here if we restrict ourselves to just two options—sterilize adults or drown puppies? Which should it be?
Michael Pollan's Vegetable Garden
A couple of months ago I decided to plant a vegetable garden with my 11-year old daughter. The Sunday we were to get started, I got a nice motivational boost from “the green issue” of the New York Times Magazine. Michael Pollan was asking an awfully good question about making an effort to reduce your CO2 emissions:
What would be the point when I know full well that halfway around the world there lives my evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelgänger in Shanghai or Chongqing who has just bought his first car (Chinese car ownership is where ours was back in 1918), is eager to swallow every bite of meat I forswear and who’s positively itching to replace every last pound of CO2 I’m struggling no longer to emit. So what exactly would I have to show for all my trouble?
Pollan goes on to explain why planting a vegetable garden is a very good solution to this problem, for all sorts of reasons you can read about in the article. By the final paragraph, he’s swelled to an extremely inspiring conclusion:
At least in this one corner of your yard and life, you will have begun to heal the split between what you think and what you do, to commingle your identities as consumer and producer and citizen.... The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.
Cool. Off we went to the garden center to buy all the stuff needed to plant a 10’ by 10’ vegetable garden.
After my daughter did the hard work of getting 12 bags of compost to the back of the house in a wheelbarrow that kept tipping over, we started pulling weeds and digging … and soon we were headed back to the garden center. According to my husband, you don’t need a motorized rototiller to prepare a 10' by 10' bed, but I beg to differ. A couple of hours later, we had a garden bed ready for planting. We buried eight kinds of seeds with trepidation, watered, and crossed our fingers. And then of course drove back to the garden center to return the rototiller.
Now, some months later, I have come to see that it is actually necessary to pay attention to a garden, or it becomes a wild, overgrown mess. And yet...the four cucumbers that have emerged from the mess were actually very tasty. The 10 green beans weren’t bad, and I do see one or two tomatoes as a distinct possibility. But considering the ratio of inputs to outputs, my Chinese doppelganger is probably doing better than me where CO2 is concerned.
Sadly, I don’t think this enterprise has done much to “heal the split between what I think and what I do.” In fact, it’s reminded me that some of us like to think, and some of us like to do. Still, I swear on a stack of Michael Pollan’s books that next time I will not under or over water, and I will thin and weed. Maybe I will even skip the rototiller. I want to have an ethical garden, I really do
This degree of intrusion into people’s lives makes me very uneasy. I certainly want the right to live my life in accordance with my own thinking…at least as long as I am harming no one. I want to be able to speak out (in words and symbols), instead of keeping my ideas in the dark recesses of my own mind.
The best argument I’ve heard to defend French extreme secularism (“laicite,” as they call it) is that the government is saving women from being coerced by brothers, fathers, and clerics who think they know what’s best for them. But that argument makes me nervous. When someone wants to speak out in an unorthodox way, or live in an unusual way, it’s very often possible to question how free they really are. You can often wonder whether there’s coercion coming from family and friends, whether their choices are really free.
Then there’s the argument that Muslim veiling is divisive and the ban in schools is necessary to avoid violence, but this just doesn’t really compute. If I were a Muslim living in a society where I was told what to wear, it would make me furious. If I were the husband, or brother, or friend of the woman denied citizenship just because of her veil, my feelings for French society and its aggressive secularism would not be warm.
In the US we don’t seem to have the same tensions between Muslims and others, which certainly is surprising, given the way US policy has stirred up anti-American sentiment around the world. But we don’t, and I imagine that does have to do with our First Amendment-driven live-and-let-live approach. Once in a while I see a woman in Dallas wearing a head-to-toe veil, and I certainly do wonder why this woman wants to erase herself, imprison herself, not to mention get very, very hot. To my eyes, the image of a completely veiled woman is creepy. (My reaction to the simple head-covering called “hijab” is quite a bit different.)
But I also tell myself to get a grip and recognize that this is her choice. Yes, yes, it may not be a pure expression of “free will” but it’s very hard to say which choices are and which aren’t. It may even be at the most iffy end of the spectrum. I’d be happy to see people persuade her out of it (Muslim women especially—because they are bound to have much more “cred” with her) but I’m proud of the American civil liberties tradition that keeps government at bay.
It was awfully nice to get my copy of Mama PhD in the mail today. I have a slightly soul-baring essay in the anthology--"The Long and Winding Road." Yes, do think of the Beatles song, with all the strings. At least, soul-baring for me. It's not on the order of two books that were reviewed in the New York Times on Sunday--101 Nights of Sex and 365 Nights of Sex (or something like that) No, I just explain why I quite my tenure-track job after I had my twins 11 years ago. By my standards, that's very private stuff. Now I get to read all the other essays in the volume. Fun.
It seems culture must be a good, considering that the story of a culture coming to an end so often reads as a sad story. In The Old Way Elizabeth Marshall Thomas tells a touching story about the way the culture of the San people of the Kalahari desert has all but died away in the last 50 years. The story of the decline of Eskimo culture after first contact with Europeans reads as a tragedy. In Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe doesn't romanticize Nigerian tribal culture, but it's still a loss when missionaries come along and destroy it.
The best answer I can think of is that a culture is a repository of know-how. The Eskimos had made a life in the arctic world by developing an amazing store of knowledge and skills. Same goes for the San people. This was know-how that enabled them to cope with a particular physical environment, but social knowledge as well. These peoples had ways of dealing with all the exigencies of life, from birth to death. Much of this knowledge has been lost. Some of it is still in books, but that's not the same. (I can read a book about how to hunt for whales, but I certainly don't have that know-how.)
Or you could explain the sadness of these stories without assuming that culture is a good. When things fall apart, people are left at the margins of other cultures. There's loss of pride. There are new wants, derived externally, that can't be fulfilled. The old way of life is gone, but a new way of life doesn't necessarily take its place. People lose their anchor and often become destitute.
I suspect loss of culture is the loss of something good, which is not to say that all cultures are equally good or that they shouldn't be judged, or merit absolute deference. And then there are all the additional costs as well when a culture is destroyed.
So what should insiders and outsiders do to prevent the destruction of a culture? Kwame Anthony Appiah's book The Ethics of Identity makes it clear this is a profoundly difficult question. As sad at it is when a culture disappears, it's awfully tricky, ethically speaking, to stop that from happening.
The semester is over, my book proposal has vacated the premises...there's time again for some blogging.
How about this, for starters? I enjoyed Emily Gould's long essay about blogging in the New York Times Magazine yesterday. It's a cautionary tale about someone who turned every square inch of her life into fodder for her blog. The beauty of the article is the way it makes that understandable. It's fun to shape events into stories, fun to immediately put them in a public place, fun to get an immediate response. In fact, it's all so fun it's addictive.
I can relate, even though I mostly blog about issues, and only a bit about my own life. I imagine some of what bloggers experience is just what all writers have always experienced, the difference being a matter of quantity and response time. A blogger can post 10 times a day and get immediate reactions from dozens of people within minutes. Plus, there's the factor of commenters being mostly anonymous and therefore being able to slice and dice and sneer without the slightest risk to their own reputations.
There are things to worry about in this brave new world, but I can't see being a teetotaller. Blogs give people a chance to gather their thoughts, put them into reasonably coherent sentences, and attract conversational partners. So I shall proceed (with caution) to blog a little more over the summer.
I have mixed feelings about the genre, enjoying it and getting some benefit from it while feeling bemused. There are a lot of problems with self-help through happiness science. There’s the classic paradox of hedonism, that happiness eludes us when we pursue it too fiercely. Then there’s the worry that there’s something narcissistic about too assiduously pursuing a happier you. And the even greater worry that the person who is highly happiness-focused might wind up stepping on people or neglecting the world’s more serious problems along the way.
The book Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert, makes aiming for greater happiness seem especially problematic, since people are surprisingly bad at predicting what will make them happy; and they have a fairly consistent “set point” to begin with, so their machinations are likely to make little difference. (More here.)
So–there are lots of reasons not to take the happiness quest too seriously. But I think the main reason why I’m not quite on board with this stuff is that getting happier just isn’t that often my goal. And that isn’t because I’m sublimely happy. Most of the time, I’m just “happy enough”. When people suffer depression, anxiety, and the like, they’re highly motivated to bring that to an end. We want to move out of the negative numbers into the positive. But if your overall mood is reasonably happy–you’d give yourself maybe a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, does that seem like something you have to bring to an end? Do you really need to stop being level 5 happy and move up to 6?
One of the great things about not being unhappy is being released from the focus on yourself. When you’re at level 5, it’s a relief: now you can focus on music, or learning about ants, or helping your kids with their homework, or responding to the world’s serious problems. The last thing I’m going to do, at level 5, is pick up a volume of positive psychology and try to ratchet myself up to a 6 or a 7. If I find myself at 7 or 8, I’m not going to start pining for 9 or 10!
Happier and happier, without end, just doesn’t strike me as life as we know it. I’m curious whether other people see their own greater happiness as an ever present goal.
This post is also at Talking Philosophy, and open for comments there.
I blog here but also at Talking Philosophy. I decided I couldn't keep doing both, so chose the blog with the bigger readership. But having my own blog is a lot of fun, and I may decided to "come home" sooner or later.
My blog diet has been wonderfully effective and I'm happy to report I'm making good progress with the book. I'm hoping some day soon it will have a definite title. The working title is "The Wonder of Animals," but my son informs me that sounds like a Walt Disney movie. I can't decide if that's good or bad.
This is a big powerpoint file (6106 KB) with 52 images. Many of the slides have explanatory notes and links to websites. For a soundtrack I used this interesting guitar instrumental by John Fahey. The music is turbulent and "worried" but not gloomy. It's so easy for music to manipulate, and my goal is get the viewer thinking, not to manipulate.
To use the slideshow with the Fahey soundtrack, you'll have a few technical problems to solve. Email me if you want advice. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In The Omnivore’s Dilemma (good book!), Michael Pollan introduces the idea of an ethical price tag. A tomato around here costs about a dollar, but what does it cost in ethical terms? It depends on the damage done to the environment to grow it and transport it to your plate, the treatment of the workers who picked it and sold it, etc. etc. The ipod has an ethical price tag too.
One benefit of an ipod is self-expression I decide what’s on my ipod. The most self-expressive thing you can do with an ipod is create playlists–compilations that select and juxtapose music in just the way that pleases you. So far so good.
The downside is the way an ipod seals each person within her own little microworld. Of course, a lot of things do that. You don’t have to rub shoulders with strangers anymore if you want to watch a movie You don’t even have to wait for your movie to appear on TV. When I was a kid the annual showing of the Wizard of Oz was a grand, collective occasion. Now the movie routinely shows up on TV. And that’s not even a minor occasion, since we’ve got the DVD in our video collection.
An ipod lets you inhabit a private world, but maybe even more so. One night over the Christmas holiday I found myself plugged in while other music was playing over my in-laws’ stereo. You see people everywhere with plugs in their ears and I’ve heard people say their ipod gives them their own private soundtrack to the world. Er, but there’s a comomon world! Isn’t a private soundtrack just a little weird, and virtual, and Matrix-like?
Yes, it’s a little weird, so I’ll have to add a few cents to my ipod’s ethical price tag. But just a few. Overall, I suspect the benefits far outweigh the costs. Handwringing concluded. Happy new year!