Angels and Demons

One of the things Gary Steiner and Gary Francione talk about in this podcast (toward the end) is my New York Times letter to the editor. In fact, Steiner reads it aloud.  Here's what I wrote--
Re “Animal, Vegetable, Miserable,” by Gary Steiner (Op-Ed, Nov. 22):
Mr. Steiner might feel less lonely as an ethical vegan — he says he has just five vegan friends — if he recognized that he has allies in mere vegetarians (like me), ethical omnivores and even carnivores. Some of us agree with his outlook, but just don’t have the fortitude to make every sacrifice he makes.
In fact, a whole lot of semi-vegans can do much more for animals than the tiny number of people who are willing to give up all animal products and scrupulously read labels. Farm animals also benefit from the humane farming movement, even if the animal welfare changes it effects are not all that we should hope and work for.
If the goal is not moral perfection for ourselves, but the maximum benefit for animals, half-measures ought to be encouraged and appreciated.
Go vegan, go vegetarian, go humane or just eat less meat. It’s all good advice from the point of view of doing better by animals.
Jean Kazez
Dallas, Nov. 22, 2009
The writer teaches philosophy at Southern Methodist University and is the author of the forthcoming “Animalkind: What We Owe to Animals.”
After Steiner reads the letter, he says I must not appreciate the size of the problem, and he cites the 56 billion animals killed for food every year around the world (there are about 10 billion in the US). That puzzles me, because the huge number of animals killed actually seems to cut in favor of my tolerant stance.  Considering the vast number of animals, and considering the tiny number of total vegans, how could you not want to build coalitions with everyone you can? 

I think the coalition building approach doesn't appeal to "abolitionists" because they overdo the analogy between animal exploitation and American slavery (among other reasons).  If you rewrite my letter so that it's about slavery, and change the date to Nov. 22, 1859, it reads like an appalling bit of pandering to spineless slave owners.  If I'd been writing about slavery before the civil war, I would have been saying the wrong things.

But imagine another world instead of the US in 1859--a world in which almost everyone has slaves.  In fact, imagine that there are 56 billion of them (maybe some of them are on another planet, like in the movie Bladerunner).  Imagine also that the vast majority of humanity sees no problem whatever with slavery. In fact, they get great enjoyment out of being served by slaves, and prefer not to think about their gruesome living conditions and the way they are killed (maybe for organ donations, if not for food).  Then would it be so misguided to hold out a welcoming hand to anyone who was willing to reduce their dependence on slavery or at least improve slave welfare?  I should think not! 

Now, I actually think the slavery/animal-exploitation analogy isn't apt, as I argue in my forthcoming book.   The killing and mistreatment of animals is sui generis, and not easily assimilated to what we did to African slaves or what rapists do to women, or what people do the mentally disabled, or anything else.  The point is just hypothetical.  Supposing there really were a valid analogy, it would still be right to develop coalitions between all who are concerned about animals, to any degree.   There is just way too much animal death and suffering in the world, and it's too acceptable to too many people, for it to be reasonable to adulate vegans and villify everyone else.  (Villify? Yes, villify.  Listen to the podcast.)


Faust said...

Slightly off topic but:

Steiner's books look intriguing to me, particularly the first one. Have your read any of them?

Jean Kazez said...

I checked out his book on animals and the moral community the other day (I don't think it's his first one, though). It's got an interesting looking couple of chapters about animal minds that I plan to read.

By the way, though GS does seem to find me reprehensible for the fact that I am just a vegetarian, I don't think he conveys that in a nasty ad hominem way. I do hope he saw my letter in the same way--it's critical, but not meant to be nasty. (Obviously the other Gary sees me as personally hostile, but that's never been my feeling. Vigorous disagreement is one thing, really loathing someone is another! I save my loathing for people like that idiot AA Gill, the happy baboon hunter.)

Anonymous said...

I would guess part of the reason you're receiving some backlash from the abolitionist movement is that you are advocating "Go vegan, go vegetarian, go humane or just eat less meat" - it sorta seems to trivialize a serious matter when it's framed as a "matter of personal degree".

Also, when it's a matter of only the human's personal degree, it still completely ignores the other beings involved.

Insert any other action you believe is morally incorrect and see how distasteful such a stance is. "Don't beat your wife, beat her less severely (more humanely) or just a little less frequently, it's all good for battered wives".

These kind of statements wouldn't convince me of the solidness of a feminist's viewpoint. And that individual or group wouldn't be someone I'd be willing to join in a women's rights coalition with. Sorry.

I'd much rather join a coalition with the right message, even if that message isn't fully applied all the time. When the message is abolition, some people won't get there, fully, right away but if they accept the message, they'll work towards it.

Otherwise, you have to re-do your work later, because you were really working up to the full message in increments. And for different people, depending upon how far along they are, etc. Just a mess. And it's obviously not working.

I also think there's a lot of frustration, all around. And people get worn out, patiences wear thin and when people's views get diametrically misrepresented, things go off in the ditch. Saying someone wants animals to remain suffering to help achieve their goals is a bit vile, too, to be fair.

Anyway, best of luck to you as you move towards veganism (which is a bit of assumption as i haven't read enough of your blog to know if you are working on ditching the eggs and cheese?) That's one thing I wish vegans were more up-front about. Giving up cheese is difficult. Or was for me, at first. But I've found you get over it, once you give it up, in proportion to developing your nutritional yeast addiction! =D I can honestly say ... there's daiya for sale about 20mins away, I haven't even bothered to buy any.

Jean Kazez said...

I figure I did say I agreed with Mr. Steiner's outlook, and I also said animal welfare changes are "not all that we should hope and work for," so I think my stance comes across pretty clearly.

Jean Kazez said...

As to becoming a vegan. My goal is to become more vegan and in fact (yes) I've done so in the last year. Milk is my problem-- I hate soy milk and soy products in general.

The whole issue of how to think of ourselves when we do less than we should is interesting. There is lots of philosophical writing about it. I wrote a short, light thing about it here--


amos said...

The analogy between eating meat and slavery is so forced that it is not worth answering. In an interview (found in the Wikipedia article about him), Su Excelencia Don Gary Francione compares welfarism to those who played music in Auschwitz as people went to their death. That is a bad analogy too and offensive to those, like myself, who lost relatives in the Holocaust and who don't see their family members as comparable to chickens. Precisely, that is the point: people are not chickens and chickens are not people. The whole problem goes back to the concept of speciesism and to the premise that it is intrinsically bad to discriminate. On the contrary, many virtues are based on discriminating between different classes of beings: loyalty, reciprocity, friendship, faithfulness, non-belligerent patriotism, among others. As I said before, I prefer my children to your children: that is a form of discrimination and according to some, that is a virtue, called love of family. I would be willing to bankrupt myself to pay for needed medical care for two or three people in the world; I would be willing to pay substantially higher taxes to assure quality medical care for all Chileans (I live in Chile), but I would not be willing to pay substantially higher taxes to finance quality medical care in China. Neither would I want to pay higher taxes to pay for quality veterinary care for all animals, not even for all animals in Chile. So I discriminate; I have priorities; in fact, choosing who I am is a question of choosing my priorities. While animal suffering and exploitation matter to me, they are simply not priorities on the same level to me as the welfare of my children or my friends or my fellow citizens. No one has given me a good argument so far why there is anything wrong with my priorities: I'm not sure that my priorities are moral, they may be premoral, the basis of my ethics, but that does not make them wrong or immoral.

Jean Kazez said...

The way I interpret it, "speciesism" is bias against members of other species, like sexism is a bias and racism is a bias. Surely we shouldn't be biased. But if we give up our biases, we can still see differences, if they're real. So--see all the differences you want...you just have to cogently argue for them.

One difference pertains to slavery. As nice as you might be to a slave, it's almost inevitable that he or she will have a sense of degradation and a craving for greater freedom and autonomy. The intrinsic problems with slavery almost inevitably become welfare problems for slaves.

It's the same with concentration camps. The intrinsic problems create welfare problems. You can't fix one and not the other.

With animals, it is different. It's not really hard to run a farm so that you have happy, satisfied animals. The intrinsic problems with killing animals for food (if you admit there are any--and I do) don't inevitably create huge welfare problems. So the concept of humane farming has much more going for it than the concept of humane slavery or humane concentration camps. If you ignore the differences between people and animals, then of course it's impossible to see this.

You can say all that without even getting into the tricky question about whether human lives are worth more than chicken lives, etc. etc.

amos said...

No one serious thinker (except Aristotle), as far as I know, has ever claimed that slavery is justified. Bernard Williams, in the book we once discussed Shame and Necessity, makes it very clear that the Greeks in general did not consider slavery to be good and still less something that they would want to undergo themselves. I don't know what apologists for slavery in the U.S. South said, but none of them is considered to be a serious thinker and no one reads them today. Thus, as far as I know, the feeling that being a slave is not something that you would want for your children is a human constant. That being a slave is a horrid fate is even clear in the Iliad. The analogy between slavery and farming (actually, not only farming, but any kind of animal property, including pampered pets) does not take that fact into account. I can't exactly say why that makes the analogy even shakier, but it does, for me at least. Maybe some smart person can work it through.

Faust said...

"If you ignore the differences between people and animals, then of course it's impossible to see this."

The key position of the hard-line abolitionists seems to be this:

"Sentience is a sufficient condition for establishing a moral worth that is equal across all species."

Clearly this moral worth applies to killing in addition to the alleviation of suffering.

So clearly they do think that there are no differences between animals and humans that are worth admitting to this moral calculus.

So in all the ways that matter animals and people are the same.

I'm sure there are subtleties all over the place here. But is this not the main point of contention? And precisely the one that allows them to feel that that slavery analogy is a good one?

Jean Kazez said...

By the way, I'm obviously talking about little, traditional farms in the previous posts, not about every conceivable farm that yields food that's labeled "humane." The point is that the intrinsic ethical problems with raising animals for food don't automatically yield welfare problems for the animals. That was probably obvious.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, I don't read them that way. It's only reasonable to countenance both violations of basic rights AND quantities of suffering. Suffering obviously matters, even if it's not the only thing that matters. Differences between animals and humans can be relevant to how much they suffer in a situation, even in cases where those differences aren't relevant to whether a basic right is being violated. So an idyllic farm and a slave plantation can't possibly be morally equivalent. There may be rights violations in both places, but there have to be differences in suffering, given that slaves are cognizant of being slaves and (almost always) hate it very much.

Clayton said...

"it sorta seems to trivialize a serious matter when it's framed as a "matter of personal degree"."

How does it trivialize a serious matter? It seems like a realistic attitude to take to a very serious matter. Do the best you can seems like good advice and the best you can do for the animals is to try to reach as broad an audience as possible to try to get them all to reform. I think a counterproductive strategy would be to act like a certain blowhard whose name I won't mention and attack people who are sympathetic to the plight of animals.

Hey Jean,

Keep fighting the good fight. Hope all's well.

Faust said...

Well my position is certainly more in line with your postion. But I'm trying to understand the nature of the disagreements in play between "welfarists" and "abolitionists."

The only way I can understand it is if they are maintaining a sense of perfect moral equivalence.

That's why they keep bringing in analogies that suggest that this is "just like human slavery in all the ways that matter." Or "just like X in all the ways that matter."

I'm not saying it makes sense to me necessarily, but the persistence and vehemence of the disagreement seems like it warrants an analysis.

Just like the disagreement between Moody and activist atheists warrants an analysis.

Jean Kazez said...

Clayton, Breath of fresh air! I appreciate it! Hope all's well with you too.

Tom said...

That's a really nice post, Jean.

Here's an undoubtedly ignorant question: if you gave the abolitionists the following gambit, would they not take it? There is a switch they could throw that would bring it about that (i) every human becomes a vegetarian (but not a vegan) and (ii) all milk and eggs come only from animals that are treated humanely (I realize that they might argue that this is an oxymoron). If they don't throw the switch, then the world will go in the course it would otherwise go. Would they not throw the switch? And if the answer is "no," they are surely ignoring even minimal pragmatic considerations and hence don't have the welfare of actual animals in mind. Am I missing something?

Jean Kazez said...

Are we to think that in that imaginary world, there is still some killing going on? In the real world, male dairy calves are killed (for veal) and male chicks are killed (because they have no economic value).

Or should we think this as a sort of world where the male cattle are kept alive and roosters are having fun in people's yards?

You mean no killing right? So the question is whether getting rid of all the suffering and killing is important enough to be worth foregoing any change to the basic role that animals play as resources (since that probably will never change in that imaginary world).

Hmm. Not sure what Francione would say.

Tom said...

Yeah, no killing at all. And good lives (on the whole) are had by all the milk and egg producing animals. True, they are still owned and being used for our sake, but none of this negatively impacts their experience. Nor are they deceived into thinking that they are autonomous because they aren't capable of such thoughts.

Anonymous said...

@Clayton - I mean trivialize because you're considering only one stakeholder's wants and tastebuds while totally ignoring the other stakeholder's sacrifice (their lives, normal behaviors, freedoms, etc). Making *their* life/death a matter of "oh, *you* just do the best you can" puts all the focus on the one doing the eating while ignoring the ones being eaten - how much more could the animals' situation be trivialized than that?

@Jean good luck with the soy products. if milk is a bigger issue than cheese, it should be smooth sailing! =) i've really found different brands of 'milk, especially, vary greatly. while i don't have a desire to drink a glass plain, i have just recently found store brands (giant and safeway organic vanilla) that i like w/ cold cereal. and different brands of tofu, too...far from being flavorless...i have pref's about brands of that, too. best of luck and in no time, you'll be one of those people who realize "hey, if I can go vegan, anyone can." =D

i had a quick look at the article, will hopefully read more after midterms. it initially has me wondering though, if there is some basic philosophic/moral difference between "not harming" and "helping"? certainly there's a legal difference but ... something for me to think about!

Jean Kazez said...

My thoughts about it are in the next post--if there's a problem in that perfectly humane world, it's subtle and reasonable people are going to disagree about whether it exists and how serious it is.

Jean Kazez said...

"when people's views get diametrically misrepresented, things go off in the ditch. Saying someone wants animals to remain suffering to help achieve their goals is a bit vile, too, to be fair."

I am puzzled by this accusation. "Vile"? "Diametrically misrepresented"? I just don't get it. I carefully explain at the end of this thread what you could fairly complain about and what is just plain correct about my characterization of Francione.

He does in fact want animals to remain in worse conditions (conditions that are horrifying, if not "the worst possible"), rather than enjoy the improvements of bigger cages, wider stalls, etc., and he wants this partly to prevent an increase in animal consumption and to advance abolitionist goals. To him, these improvements are very small (like adding padding to a chair in which someone's receiving electric shocks, he says), but not non-existent. Still, he admits the existing conditions are worse, and he does want to preserve them for the sake of advancing abolitionist goals.

I think it's time for some brave soul to step up to the plate and coherently explain why this is a vile misrepresentation.

Faust said...

Well it's not just Francione is it? Steiner said re: some of these issues (on the podcast) "that's what we call 'Proposition 2 thinking.'" So this concern about limited changes to animal conditions seems a part of Steiner's philosophy too.

Isn't the central disagreement about the moral significance of these small incremental changes? I can see them arguing something like:

"New welfarists in their deep confusion over the root causes of animal suffering want to deepen and extend that suffering by implementing meaningless reforms that are irrelevant to the true causes of animal suffering."

Or something like that. I'm mean if you really believe that it's like "putting padding on chair used for torture" then there is simply an outright denial of any premise that suggests "it is possible to incrementally reduce the suffering of animals through the implementation of piecemeal reform."

So this is an argument where both sides are rejecting the other side’s basic premises, to wit:

"Welfarists" accept that incremental reforms will reduction in suffering, and think that over time they will reduce the suffering of animals.

"Abolitionists" deny this and think that in fact such incremental reforms will only maintain or even increase animal suffering overall.


“Welfarists” think that focusing exclusively on the complete abolition of animal use will marginalize the issues to a small segment of the populace and thus maintain the current amount of suffering that animal experience.

“Abolitionists” deny this and think that in fact focus on the root causes of animal suffering (namely their property status or the philosophical underpinnings of their moral status) is the only way to meaningfully reduce animal suffering.

I’m not sure there is anything to be “explained” here, given the depth of the disagreement. Instead what is required is empirical evidence that supports or undermines the claims made about the success of incremental changes in the condition of animals. If it can be shown that incremental reforms both reduce the suffering of animals AND do not increase the number of animals slaughtered or used then it would seem that “proposition 2 thinking” does IN FACT reduce animal suffering.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, I think there's a bit more to this than a disagreement about "what works." There's a question about what animals are entitled to, if you take them seriously.

In all cases of "abolition" of human injustices that I can think of, there's parallel effort on reform and revolution. For example, people try to abolish the death penalty while simultaneously trying to make the method of execution more humane. You don't say--that's a negligible improvement, and just reassures the public, and slows progress toward abolishing the death penalty.

If you really take victims seriously as individuals, you compassionately do what you can for them, while simultaneously working toward your ultimate goals. That is what bothers me about these anti-reform animal advocates. The say they consider animals "persons" and yet they don't take each and every individual animal seriously as a victim.

To put it in a nutshell--they're working for something abstract. Justice for animals, perhaps. They're not working on behalf of individual animals who are suffering today, and will be suffering tomorrow, and for years to come. What I like about PETA and the Humane Society (etc) is that they do both.

You're right. Francione & Co. aren't the only people on earth who think this way. Another one is Joan Dunayer--


amos said...

It's not true that in all efforts at abolishing evils there is a parallel effort at reform and revolution. On the radical left many groups refuse to reform capitalism, because they feel that reforming capitalism will delay the inevitable socialist revolution and workers' paradise.
That has led to situations such as the refusal of the German Communist Party to make a common cause against Hitler with the social democrats, since the coming of Hitler to power would, said the Communists, produce a revolution by the working class.
Stupid. And even if in the long term reforms delay the coming of paradise, as Keynes remarked, in the long term we'll all be dead (not an exact quote).

amos said...

The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.

John Maynard Keynes

Jean Kazez said...

OK, "all" was going too far. But the sane approach in lots and lots of cases is both working toward "revolution" and working for "reform." Death penalty abolitionism is a good example.

amos said...

In radical groups, as you say, individuals don't matter: that is the point of Keynes's remark. It's a moral purity thing: those who are in favor of reforms are sell-outs, Uncle Toms, traitors, collaborationists, accomodationists, etc. It's selfish, when one thinks of it, because the radical prefers his or her moral purity, his or her clean hands, to use Sartre's phrase, to effective change.
As an after-thought, the radical then affirms, against all empirical evidence, that reform
is ineffective.

Jasonw3 said...

I believe this is why Francione thinks you are misrepresenting him. And I would tend to agree. From Francione's website:

"Abolitionists are not, as some welfarists claim, inherently opposed to measures that reduce suffering. If we have decided to inflict harm, it is always better to inflict less harm than more harm. But abolitionists are opposed to claiming that it is morally acceptable to inflict less harm. Abolitionists are opposed to putting resources into campaigns designed to make the public “feel good” about animal exploitation because that militates against social recognition of the inherent immorality of animal use, facilitates continued exploitation, and results in increased consumption. Yes, it is “better” that a murderer not torture a victim before killing the victim. But that does not make murder without torture morally acceptable. It is not something to 'feel good' about."

Jean Kazez said...


I never said Francione considers suffering good. Of course not.

I said he wants to keep animals in worse conditions, and he does. He's actively opposed to humane reforms of all kinds. That passage makes it clear why he opposes them--because he thinks humane reform sends the wrong message and increases consumption. Just like I said.

By the way--I think his objection to humane reform is a bit like what some people say against sex education. If we teach teenagers about birth control, then we'll undermine the message that they should be abstinent.

Most teenagers are smarter than that. They understand the message is--"IF you have sex, use birth control."

People aren't too stupid to understand the message of humane reform--"IF you eat meat, treat the animal right." Humane reformers are not telling people to eat meat, just like sex educators are not telling teenagers to have sex.

Clayton said...

"I mean trivialize because you're considering only one stakeholder's wants and tastebuds while totally ignoring the other stakeholder's sacrifice (their lives, normal behaviors, freedoms, etc). Making *their* life/death a matter of "oh, *you* just do the best you can" puts all the focus on the one doing the eating while ignoring the ones being eaten - how much more could the animals' situation be trivialized than that?"

I don't mean to be rude, but that's rubbish. Jean's motivation has nothing to do with the interests (narrowly construed) of her own or the person she's advising. Her concern is with the animals and doing the best she can by them. Because she lacks Godlike powers to control the limbs of people who eat meat, she has to choose between the strategies that can mitigate suffering. I can say that if and when Jean tries to convince someone to give up some meat, all meat, all animal products, etc..., the stakeholder she's concerned with is the animal and not someone else.

Jasonw3 said...

Again, I think you're misrepresenting. His argument is that humane reform does not reduce animal suffering in any significant way, and in fact results in a net increase of suffering, since, he argues, more animals will be killed. Feel free to argue that on its own terms, but to say he wants animals to stay in worse conditions is, I think, unfair, since he literally says the exact opposite in that except I submitted (less harm vs. more harm).

My problem with your "sex ed" analogy is that sex would theoretically be a choice of two consenting parties. While you could argue the parties involved (teens) may not understand the full implications of said decision, they are jointly making the decision. Animal exploitation involves one party imposing an action (namely, death or suffering) on another party. I think a more accurate analogy would be rape education. And I don't think anyone would advocate for "safe rape," as opposed to the abolition of rape.

Jean Kazez said...

Jason, Read the thread on the thirsty cow. I think you misunderstand him. He is against all "ameliorating reforms," even the major ones like the Humane Slaughter Act and the AWA that clearly have reduced the suffering in today's animal facilities. I think it's morally problematic to keep today's animals in worse conditions, out of a thinly supported worry that humane reforms will lead to an increase in killing.

Let's bring rape into closer alignment with meat-eating, instead of ignoring the obvious huge differences.
Suppose 97% of Americans were rapists, like 97% are meat-eaters, and there was virtually nothing we could do to stop that. Yet we could regulate it, making the crime less violent Do you really think rape victims would object?