11/23/09

Humane Turkey

It was good to read Gary Steiner's editorial in the New York Times yesterday, but I think he ought to be more patient with the human race.  It's not that people can't see the problem with killing animals to satisfy human needs and desires.  Many do see it, but meat, leather, eggs, milk, etc are all deeply entrenched in our way of life.  There's no denying that meat tastes good, leather looks good, and egg whites make a cake nice and fluffy....and on and on.  It's no wonder many people are attracted to "humane" animal products as a compromise.  Why not spend more for a happy turkey on Thanksgiving, and still eat turkey?

Steiner is none too pleased with the "humane" alternative, and lately I've been encountering a lot of people like him.  They have the sort of ferocious dislike of humane meat and its advocates (like Michael Pollan) that "the new atheists" have for accommodationism (to draw a parallel between two universes I pay attention to.

Why the ferocious dislike?  Partly, it's because these people think there's not that much of a difference between factory farmed meat and humane meat.  Well, it's true things aren't as rosy and idyllic for "humanely" raised animals as the advertising would you have you think, but it varies.  I think Peter Singer is exactly right when he says, in Animal Liberation, that the critical question is not "Is it ever right to eat meat? but: Is it right to eat this meat?"   There are important differences between this meat and that, and even between this humane meat and that.

As Singer makes clear in The Ethics of What We Eat, and Michael Pollan also shows in The Omnivore's Dilemma, there's a difference between the sort of big humane operation that supplies most of what is sold at a Whole Foods, and a small humane operation.  Both are significantly better than a Butterball barn the likes of which you can see at this PETA site, but turkeys aren't living a happy, natural life in the large-scale operation.  They're still crammed by the thousands into giant barns.

Still, they are living a better life than the ordinary turkeys. That's got to be taken seriously. It's not just negligibly better to buy a turkey from Whole Foods.  It's significantly better.  And if you can get a turkey raised in a truly natural outdoor setting, it's better still. Yes, I think no turkey is best, but better is... better.  Of course!

18 comments:

Faust said...

From the article:

"Chickens may be labeled free-range even if they’ve never been outside or seen a speck of daylight in their entire lives."

Sounds to me like a problem with the laws that enable "free-range" products to be sold as such. What if "humane" animal products were actually produced in the way people who buy them imageine? If it is the case (and I have no reason to doubt it) that animals raised in "humane" ways are not in fact raised in those conditions then this is as much as a problem with the legal standards for advertising as it is with the problem of "humane meat."

The argument: "you should not eat humane meat because it is not currently as humane as you think it is," Is as much an argument for creating legal standards that work as it is for not eating meat currently sold under that label.

Of course Steiner does not believe that any such conditions would be acceptable. A chicken treated like the Prince of Persia right up until it got a swift axe to the neck would still be an unnaceptable dinner for him.

Jean Kazez said...

He must be getting that from Michael Pollan, who explains it this way--free range means there must be access to the out of doors. However, chicken producers keep the door closed for the first several weeks of life, for health reasons. As a result, once the door is opened, the chickens are already accustomed to their indoor environment and so they don't notice the door or go through it. It's not a blatant lie to call that chicken "free range." It's just that "free range" is defined in terms of options, not about where chickens actually spend their time.

Yes, Steiner thinks killing animals for food is wrong no matter how they're treated, but surely it's still important to improve the treatment of farm animals. Same goes for slavery--you couldn't make it right no matter how much you improved life for slaves. Yet it was still the right thing to improve life for slaves before slavery was abolished.

Faust said...

I agree.

Which is worse: supporting practices that cause suffering to animals raised for food for the entire life of that animal? Or supporting practices that only cause very short periods of suffering in animals at the very end of their lives? Seems like a no-brainer no matter what your position on the killing per se.

If one accepts there is any continuum at all then clearly one would want currect practices to be moved along the continuum. Rejecting that there IS a continuum seems bizarre to me.

amos said...

I read elsewhere that in general, people in the U.S. eat turkeys that are especially bred for producing more meat, turkeys that are no longer birds, but meat machines. If that is the case, it matters little whether they are humanely treated or not.

faust said...

Well it would only matter little if they were also bred to not suffer. That goes back to the kock-out meat discussion. That fact that they are bred to become very fat is irrelevant if they suffer the same ammount, at least if suffering is the criteria being used in the moral calculus.

amos said...

Faust: I can see that my comment was not clear, which often occurs. What I mean is that if they are bred to be meat machines, even if they are treated humanely, they do not have the possibility to flourish. It would be better if real old-fashioned turkeys were humanely raised, allowed to flourish, and then killed. It would be even better not to kill turkeys.

By the way, Jean, you say that the smell of cooking turkeys is delicious. I don't find it delicious after 10 years of not eating meat, and I wonder if meat-eating isn't an acquired taste. As a small child, I recall that I didn't enjoy eating meat, except as hamburgers with lots and lots of ketchup. I've raised 2 and a half children (step-child), and I notice that small children prefer eggs to meat and reject large portions of meat. When they do eat meat, they always prefer processed forms (hot-dogs, hamburgers, etc.), not because they are processed, but because they have less meaty taste. Was it in this blog that a man from India wrote laughing at the Western idea that a taste for meat is innate to human beings?

Wayne said...

I started to write a reply.... but it turned really long. So I just turned it into a post on my blog. The short of it is, yes better is better, but we really don't know if it is better, do we? We need more transparency in food production, otherwise we're just naively trusting people who don't deserve our trust.

amos said...

Wayne: Could you link to your blog? This time I promise to save the link. I liked your travel photos from Europe (proof that I clicked on your link before). Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Off topic (sort of, I see consciousness as being permanantly germane to these discussions). In any case. Really interesting:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34109227/ns/health-more_health_news/?GT1=43001

Jean Kazez said...

Wow...incredible link.

Wayne--I added you to the blogroll

Amos & Faust--I'd be concerned about suffering even in turkeys without much chance of flourishing. As to the smell of cooking meat...well, I used to be an avid carnivore, so it still tempts me. It tempts my kids much less, probably because they grew up without all the yummy carnivorous possibilities.

amos said...

Couldn't it be that meat tempts your kids much less, because the love of meat is an acquired taste? I recall that there was a lot of pressure on me to eat meat as a small child, that an appetite for meat was seen as a sign of healthiness, of manliness, of participating in family rites, and that I learned to like meat. Meat thus becomes a habit, associated with a positive self-image and with belonging. When my relations with my family broke down, long before I became a rigorous vegetarian, I began to eat less and less eat, because the associations of meat with family dinners, with parental love, etc., no longer were in force.

amos said...

Error: my post should read: "to eat less and less meat".

Wayne said...

pilesofphilosophy.blogspot.com is my blog.

Jean- I think I came off a little harsher on the blog than I really would have liked to... I would admit that it is Better to treat animals humanely... but I simply don't know if they are being treated humanely.

Taylor said...

Jean: You say,"Yes, I think no turkey is best, but better is... better. Of course!" and "Same goes for slavery--you couldn't make it right no matter how much you improved life for slaves. Yet it was still the right thing to improve life for slaves before slavery was abolished."

Does this reasoning always hold? Would you advise rapists to only rape occasionally if they intend to keep on raping? After all, a little rape is surely better than a lot of rape. Would you say that "If the goal is not moral perfection for ourselves, but the maximum benefit for women, half-measures when it comes to rape ought to be encouraged and appreciated"?

If you don't find that a legitimate parallel, is it because you think animals just aren't as morally significant as humans? And how does the argument from marginal cases factor into that? Would you find it acceptable to raise ("humanely", of course) and eat mentally handicapped humans?

Speaking of whom we eat, you may be interested in Animals, a novel by Don LePan:
http://ww.aelaq.org/mrb/article.php?issue=28&article=813&cat=2

amos said...

Taylor: I'm not Jean, but I'm willing to admit that animals are not as morally significant for me as are people, which does not mean that we don't have a duty to minimize animal suffering and exploitation as much as possible.

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, a rapist who commits fewer rapes and rapes less violently is doing better. All rapists aren't treated the same under the criminal law, and that seems right. I bet you agree, so what's really bothering you (probably) is the idea of reformers encouraging "nicer rape." That seems wrong, even if all raping is not equal. You've got to simply object to rape, not try to reform it.

Then again, what if rape were going on everywhere, and on a massive scale, and there were millions of victims, and lots of people thought it was jut fine, and it wasn't even against the law? Then I think a rape reform movement would be all to the good. Rape reformers would be like slavery reformers--surely "good guys."

So I think reform movements do have their place, even when the activity being reformed is inherently wrong.

Then again, what might really be bothering you is my language--when I talk about "encouraging and appreciating" half-measures, maybe you think I make it sound like I really see nothing wrong with killing animals for food. Well...I do see something wrong with it. However, there are degrees.

As far as degree of obviousness goes, I think it's far more obviously wrong to make an animal suffer than to kill an animal. The issue of (painless) killing is very tricky and subtle, and this is something on which reasonable, caring people will disagree.

As far as degree of wrongness goes--I think it's a worse thing to kill people for food than to kill chickens for food. Both wrong, but one more wrong the other. So all the people sitting down to eat a turkey today are not committing a crime on a par with sitting down and eating human for dinner.

As to why I see it that way, and what I would say about marginal cases...well, it takes me several chapters of my forthcoming book to explain, so I'll just leave it there.

Faust said...

"Would you advise rapists to only rape occasionally if they intend to keep on raping?"

Wouldn't you?

Taylor said...

Thanks for your reply, Jean. I look forward to reading your book.