Cityophilia (and Happy New Year)

Looking back at the last decade, I have to say I've seen some incredible natural beauty--e.g. I've seen the beaches, volcanoes, and rainforests of Hawaii as well as the glaciers, mountains, and bays of Alaska. E. O. Wilson strikes a chord with me when he talks about biophilia--a yearning for the wildness of unadulterated nature.  I go in search of it whenever I can.
And so it comes as sort of a surprise.... When we were in New York last Thanksgiving I found myself looking out at the skyscape from the top of the Rockefeller center and guiltily realizing this was as thrilling a view as I could possibly imagine. I can't honestly say a view of the Napali Coast in Kauai or the highest peaks of Alaska is more stunning.  It turns out that art and engineering compete pretty well with Mother Nature.  I even love Times Square.  Which reminds me...
Happy New Year!


More On Eating Animals

John Williams has a point (many points, actually).  I too was puzzled by Foer's never referring to Peter Singer.  Almost as surprisingly, he never refers to Matthew Scully's more "writerly" book about animal issues, Dominion.  If I had to recommend one book on the treatment of animals--especially to someone looking for a "good read"--it would be Scully's book.  It is simply fantastic. Singer and Scully come to mind not just because they're obvious predecessors, but because there's a quality in both of them I missed in Foer.  Williams aptly calls it "forcefulness and clarity of purpose." It's interesting, though, how gracious Singer is about Foer's book in this review... another sign of clarity of purpose?  Eating Animals is going to awaken a new generation of readers to the travesty of factory farming.  It wouldn't make sense to fuss too much.


Eating Animals

Some thoughts about Jonathan Safran Foer's book, which I've been reading voraciously while enjoying holiday cheer with family.

Holiday cheer. Well, the book is bright green and some of the lettering is decorated with what looks like holly, but otherwise this is not a festive book. It's a horrifying book.

Foer's prime directive, writing-wise, seems to be "Not linear!"  He zigs and he zags.  The book is first about his own eating decisions, then (screech) about our wildly different treatment of dogs and farm animals; and then (screech) he's talking about fish. He sets off to break into a factory farm with someone named "C" but we're on to other topics before we're told what they saw. Other voices pop into the book in the form of letters.  They are from "C", farmers, activists--people with lots of different points of view.

All of this zigzagging imparts various messages-- There's so much to say.  This subject is overwhelming. There are lots of ways to look at these things.  The truth is complicated.

Which would be all very well, except that the shifts sometimes take a toll.  I really did want to know what Foer saw in that factory farm, but he cut away to something else.  At one point early in the book he says that animals euthanized at shelters are rendered and sold as pet food.  Really?  It wouldn't hurt to follow up with another paragraph of explanation and an endnote.  And what about the statistic that "roughly 450 billion land animals are factory farmed every year"?  Why not explain where the figure comes from?  (My own research suggests 25-50 billion land animals are raised and killed every year, in all types of farming combined.)

The book gets to be much more linear, and more fleshed out, by the second half.  A chapter called "Slices of Paradise/Pieces of Shit" is so powerful and informative it ought to be required reading in US schools.  This is what's going on in factory farms and slaughterhouses, and everyone needs to know about it.

But what should be done?  Foer zigs and zags even in the second half.  The reporting about the worst possible farms and slaughterhouses alternates with reporting about the best possible farms and slaughterhouses.  The latter are so rare, representing perhaps just a couple of percents of the total, that one might wonder "why bother?"

He bothers, I gather, because best-case farms raise the hardest ethical question:  is it inherently wrong to raise animals for food, or is there just a problem (and a huge one) with modern industrial strength farming?  Foer likes the traditional farmers he meets.  He thinks they're well-intentioned and that they genuinely care about what he cares about.  Nevertheless, he's troubled by what he sees when he visits "humane" farms and a small-scale slow-speed abatoir.  There's still castrating, branding, killing...though it's also true that the animals spend most of their lives milling around in spacious pastures under wide blue skies.  What to think?

What he's sure about is factory farming.  "I simply don't want anything to do with the factory farm, and refraining from meat is the only realistic way for me to do that."   My sentiments exactly.  Foer points out that being a "selective carnivore" is a recipe for being an omnivore.  Most of the time factory farmed meat is all that's available, and asking a host where they shopped is much harder than just declaring that you're a vegetarian.  If you really want to keep your distance from factory farming, the best way to do it is to stop eating meat.

But would it be wrong to consume "humane" meat?  Is it wrong that farmers are trying to go back to the traditional farming methods that were ubiquitous 50 years ago?  Foer uses the same word that Peter Singer does in Animal Liberation--he can "respect" people who are trying to run ethical animal farms.  A turkey farmer by the name of Frank is his paragon of the ethical animal farmer.  But is it really, entirely, totally OK?  Bottom line: I think Foer is uncertain. Here's what he says:
I have placed my wager on a vegetarian diet and I have enough respect for people like Frank, who have bet on a more humane animal agriculture, to support their kind of farming.  This is not in the end a complicated position. Nor is it a veiled argument for vegetarianism.  It is an argument for vegetarianism, but it's also an argument for another, wiser animal agriculture and more honorable omnivory.
It may be wrong to raise animals for food, but we're going to be doing it for the foreseeable future, so let's support doing it in the best way possible.  I think that's about what he's saying--and I couldn't agree more.

But what can we do to stop the worse case practices?  The clear message to the reader is "stop eating meat."  But if that message is only going to be heeded by a tiny minority (at most 3% of Americans are vegetarians), then it can't possibly be the whole answer.  We don't need more obsessing about our personal dietary dilemmas, but legislation that prohibits what factory farms are doing to animals and the environment.  We need serious inspections and audits of slaughterhouses. 

As much as I'm looking forward to trying out my new vegan cookbook (see previous post), reading this book made me want to spend more time figuring out which animal rights organizations are most effectively lobbying for change.  I hope a lot of people will read Foer's book--regardless of an excessive zigzag or two or three--and that they'll do the same thing.  Yes, we should boycott the bastards and stop eating meat...but more importantly, we need more state referenda like California Prop. 2 and more systemic change.


Santa Reads My Blog!

I know it, because he brought me Veganomicon, one of the five vegan cookbooks recommended here by YOU, dear readers. (Even Jewish atheists get Christmas presents, by the way--if they marry the right people.)

Which gets me thinking (yes, I think even on Christmas day--but not for too long, lest I be considered an enemy of the people):  why must being a vegan be all or nothing?  You might resolve to be more green or give more to Oxfam in the New Year (yes, I want to do both).  Nobody thinks they have to become Perfectly Green or Perfectly Giving.  Why not think the same way about veganism? (In fact, why think of it as an "ism" or talk of "being a vegan"?)

Complicated question...for another day!


Happy Holidays

Have a warm and fuzzy holiday season!  Looking ahead: in the New Year, this blog's going to diversify a bit. I'm teaching Environmental Ethics for the first time this spring, which should produce "blog fodder," plus I'm going to spend more time in the territory of ethics and parenthood.  My book comes out in the UK January 8 and in the US January 18, just not in time for Christmas...so expect lots of animal talk to continue.  Miao!  Happy New Year!


This column by Natalie Angier may seem like a silly attempt at a reductio ad absurdum, but actually raises interesting questions. What Angier shows is that plants pursue their own good in something like the way that animals do. No, they're not sentient, but why do we think sentience is necessary for moral status? It's at least conceivable that the more basic thing is "having a good of one's own," as the philosopher Paul Taylor puts it in his book Respect for Nature. Higher animals pursue their good with the help of sentience, but it's having a good of one's own that marks our a special class of entities deserving of respect, not sentience per se. If that's right, then we seriously need to allow that respect comes in degrees (as I think it does), or we won't be able to explain why brussels sprouts are a better choice for dinner than cats or kids.



My forthcoming book urges respect for animals, but not equality.  How's that?  How could it make sense to reject equality, if I mean to raise the status of animals?

I argue against equality not just because I think that's the right position, but because I think assertions of equality get in the way of elevating the status of animals.  Anything that sounds at all like "cats are people too" makes people think animal advocates are on the lunatic fringe.

Here's a bit of super-egalitarianism from the book Speciesism by Joan Dunayer.  Suppose field mice occupy a field where developers want to build.  She argues that the land belongs to the mice like Native American land belonged to Native Americans.  Removing the mice would violate their right to property, she says.  How about gently relocating them? No, she writes, that would deprive them of autonomy. It also might interfere with the rights of animals in the new territory.

What to do?  Just don't build.
Land currently inhabited by nonhumans and humans can remain cohabited, but humans shouldn't be permitted to encroach farther into nonhuman territory...If humans don't want to be more crowded in already-"developed" areas, they can practice zero population growth. (p. 146)
First thought: this sort of thing makes the animal rights movement look ridiculous.

Second thought :  what if she were right?  What if it really were morally impermissible to build on land already occupied by mice (or ants--she says insects have the same rights as mice)?  If we were really convinced of that, I think we would simply change our minds about morality.  We wouldn't think people really have to do the right thing--we'd adopt a new view that morality is just for saints.

Third thought:  why say all of this about the mice?  I think Dunayer operates throughout her book with an incorrect notion of what "speciesism" means.  Here's what she proposes as a test for whether someone is a speciesist--
The test for speciesism is simple: If the victims were human, would you be speaking and acting as you are?  If not, don't speak and act that way when the victims are nonhuman. (p. 73)
This can't be right.  Imagine an analogous defintion of "sexism"--it would say that it's sexist ever to speak and act differently toward men and women.  That's obviously not the case.   For example, we think that women can terminate a fetus but not men.  That's because of an ethically important difference: fetuses are carried by women. It's not sexist to recognize real and morally important differences between men and women and it's not speciesist to recognize real and important differences between humans and animals.

Speciesism, as I would define it, is bias based on species and nothing more.  By abjuring speciesism, we do not automatically abjure making distinctions or attaching ethical import to those distinctions.  Of course, there's no guarantee those distinctions will make sense.  We can be wrong about some type of line drawing.  But we're not automatically being speciesist just because we're drawing lines.

So about those mice. It's not automatically speciesist to think we can build where mice already live, but not build where Native Americans already lived.  There could be a perfectly good reason to grant property rights to Native Americans but not to mice. But what's the reason?

Or is the question just too ridiculous?


Not Eating Animals

It's awfully nice of the New York Times Magazine to have a food section devoted to vegetarian cooking today, but what were they thinking?  Tofu with rice and cauliflower.  Care for a slice of white bread with that?

Not only does the meal have a serious plating problem, as they say on "Iron Chef," but it sounds downright revolting.  The tofu is cooked in a cup of carmelized sugar and the cauliflower is deep fried and then steeped in a cup of carmelized ketchup.  Honestly, we don't have to make up for missed animal protein by gorging on sugar.

For great vegetarian cooking, we can turn to talented people like Mollie Katzen, Deborah Madison, and Annie Somerville.  Still Life with Menu and the Greens cookbooks are wonderful.  But what about vegan cooking?   I'm looking for a vegan cookbook that's completely non-faux--no mock meat, no mock butter, no mock anything.  Anybody have any ideas?


Suggestions so far:
Vegan Soul Kitchen
Millenium Cookbook
Vegan Yum Yum
World Food Cafe


Animal Concern: Emotion or Reason?

Here's an interesting study of the psychology behind concern for animals.  Herzog and Golden tried to find out what role disgust plays in making people animal activists or vegetarians.  They hypothesized that it should play a major role based on Jonathan Haidt's model of moral psychology.  On that model, people have immediate intuitions, colored by disgust and other emotions, and reason comes in as an afterthought.  We rationalize what are really gut level reactions.  So--is that true or false, in the case of people's concern for animals (or lack thereof)?

The authors gathered data from social networking sites like Facebook, dividing study participants into three groups--(1) self-described animal activists they found at animal rights sites, (2) promoters of animal use they found at pro-research sites (and the like), and (3) non-aligned people they found at sites chosen randomly.

Besides finding the answer to their question, they found out some interesting things.  42% of the animal activists were not vegetarians.  The authors say this meshes the finding that 40% were meat-eaters at the 1990 March for Animals. (Vegetarians were defined as non-meat eaters; there was no separate category for vegans.)

On the other hand, 48% of the vegetarians were not animal activists.  Many of them were vegetarians for environmental and health reasons, not for moral reasons. 

As to emotion and reason:  the researchers found that the animal activists scored higher on a general test for disgust sensitivity. They were generally more prone to "yuck" reactions.  That makes a lot of sense to me.  I do trace my initial interest in animal issues to seeing pictures and videos that elicited a strong disgust reaction.

However--big surprise--disgust sensitivity was not a predictor of vegetarianism.  The authors used the Animal Attitude Scale to measure participants' beliefs about animals and ethics.  Their scores did strongly predict whether they ate meat.

What does all this show? Well, a bunch of things.  That beliefs do matter, so people who teach and write about animals are not wasting their time.  That it's a mistake to draw lines between advocates and non-advocates based on who eats what.  That alliances are crucial--environmental and other concerns can draw people toward animal-friendly behavior.

Most interesting, maybe, is that meat-eating is a hard behavior to change--people don't find it disgusting. In light of that, it seems completely wrong-headed to make abstinence the price of admission to the animal movement.  I am reminded of a student I had in my Animal Rights class recently.  Her family had built the downtown animal shelter.  After I learned that, I met her father at a bookstore--we had both come to see PETA president Ingrid Newkirk give a talk.  He wanted to chat about cattle ranching and hunting. 

It's a funny world. We must not draw too many lines.


The Thirsty Cow

Can we go back one more time to my pre-Thanksgiving criticism of Gary Francione (in this comment, to be precise)—the objection that launched a thousand ad hominems? At the time, a few commenters felt I had him wrong and would see this if I just read his book about the animal rights movement—Rain without Thunder. I figured I’d read enough (his first book, some articles, his website), but I was curious.

Now that I’ve read it, I’m all the more baffled by all the hostilities. In fact, the book just substantiates the charge. I said Francione wants to keep animals in the worst possible conditions to achieve abolitionist goals. Well, yes. At least he wants to keep them in much worse conditions, and part of the reason is to achieve abolitionist goals.

Francione is against reforms like Proposition 2 in California, and the recent referenda in Florida and Arizona, but what you learn from the book is that he’s also against the Humane Slaughter Act, the Animal Welfare Act, and any reform that ameliorates the treatment of animals without actually liberating them. The AWA is inadequate, as many have argued (and I argue in my book) but it does provide very basic benefits to animals, like pain relief during experimental procedures, bigger cages and appropriate diets, rest stops and water every 5 hours for animals being transported etc. The Humane Slaughter Act covers too few species and is inadequately enforced, but it does require stunning before slaughter for cattle. I don't see him saying in the book that this legislation doesn't alleviate suffering; clearly it does.  But he fears such reforms will increase the use of animals for food, experimentation, etc. So they will retard progress toward abolition.

There are a couple of other points in the book that shed light on Francione’s thinking. I argued (with a slavery example) that denying basic welfare improvements to animals is incompatible with taking them seriously (particularly on Francione’s view—since he sees animals as “persons”.) But – surprisingly – Francione has just the opposite view. He thinks we violate the rights of animals when we pass humane legislation—
… [E]ven if I am obligated to give a thirsty cow water on the way to slaughter it does not follow that I should pursue that obligation as a legal or social policy, for the practical reason that it will never and can never succeed on an institutional level, and for the theoretical reason that it conflicts directly with the notion that animals have rights. (p. 223)
The same odd idea is stated earlier in the book, when he’s defining the (clearly pejorative) expression “new welfarist”—
The new welfarists believe that it is both coherent and morally acceptable to disregard the rights of animals today (by pursuing welfarist reform that reinforces the property status of animals) in the hope that some other animals will have rights tomorrow.” (pg. 39)
So (he thinks), possibly I ought to give a thirsty cow water on the way to slaughter, but if I try to make sure all cows have water on the way to slaughter, I’m disregarding their rights. I’d be respecting their rights more if I just let them be thirsty on the way to slaughter, and concentrated on vegan education.

But surely not. If we are virtually powerless to liberate animals from farms and labs, then we certainly don’t violate their rights by passing laws that insure that lab and slaughterhouse workers do at least more of what they should to alleviate suffering.

Francione repeats over and over again throughout the book that “new welfarists” support humane reforms as a means of working toward more fundamental change. Thus, he thinks the success of these reforms can be measured based on whether they are actually producing fundamental change. By that measure, they’ve failed. The Humane Slaughter act has not reduced the number of animals killed, and I believe the AWA hasn’t either.

But surely that's not the intent of animal advocates, and not the right standard for judging anmal welfare legislation.  Animal advocates want to alleviate suffering simply because it's bad.  They have further goals having to do with justice and fundamental change.  But they don't want to alleviate suffering in order to achieve those more distant goals. The right way to judge animal welfare legislation is to consider a counterfactual world--one just like this one, but without the legislation.  There's more misery in that world, and no less killing and injustice. That's a worse world and we're right to avoid it.

Time to move to greener pastures.


Erik Marcus Interviews Jonathan Safran Foer

"Do you want to ask people to take the last step or the first step?"  Smart stuff from Jonathan Safran Foer and Erik Marcus.  I can't tell you how much I enjoyed this interview.


God and the Holocaust

Jerry Coyne has an eloquent post here.  I especially like the part when he complains, "Collins doesn’t even have the decency to say that he doesn’t understand these things."  I wrote about the same topic after visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington D. C. two years ago--a devastating experience. Nobody should be allowed to write about the problem of evil without first steeping themselves in first person accounts of the the death camps.

"Jonathan Safran Foer is not a Vegan"

I bet this is the complaint that Jonathan Safran Foer is most tired of hearing as the media covers his new book Eating Animals (I'm going to read it over the holiday break--so stay tuned for a "review" in January).

Everyone who's made dietary changes for ethical reasons has encountered the same reaction from omnivores.  But do you wear leather?  But do you eat fish?  But do you eat eggs?  Even Elizabeth Kolbert, clearly an unrepentant omnivore, can't resist a dig about what Jonathan eats in her largely sympathetic New Yorker review:  "Foer never says anything about forgoing eggs or dairy, which seems to imply that he consumes them."

If you're a vegetarian, you get this kind of reaction from omnivores all the time.  There's no question what the motive is--to dismiss the whole argument for giving up anything.  They want an excuse to think about nothing and do nothing.  Obviously, they're being illogical.  Making less than the optimal effort is no excuse for making no effort at all.  But that's how people think. 

Vegetarians should ignore Elizabeth and Co and the high priority they assign to consistency.  If you do prioritize consistency, you're going to start thinking you've got to choose between being a consistently indifferent omnivore and a consistently scrupulous vegan.  A huge number of people will choose the first.  It's just the way it is--if you've spent 10 or 25 or 50 years learning to love ice cream, and you're surrounded by ice cream eaters, the only path to consistency you may be able to take is the path back to consistent indifference.

And that really would be a pity.  If you didn't eat chicken all year, that's about 25 fewer chickens dying after a miserable life.  You'd be making a big mistake if you discounted that savings, just because you could have saved 26 (that's about what it works out to), if you'd also given up eggs.

The obsession with consistency hampers all sorts of efforts people make to do good.  For example, you might (wisely) decide that saving the lives of strangers is more important than buying luxuries.  How inconsistent of you to write a check to Oxfam and then, the very next week, but yourself a new ipod!  For that amount of money, you could literally have saved another life!  But again, if faced with a choice between consistent indifference and consistent life-saving, most of us will choose consistent indifference.  It's really important not to think that's the choice we face.

The same point can be made about efforts we make to be "green."  If I had to be consistently indifferent or consistently green (which means recycling everything, flying nowhere, riding a bicycle all the time, etc.), I would certainly choose to be consistently indifferent.

Most absurd of all, Jonathan Safran Foer has been getting flack from a handful of militant vegans for being "just" a vegetarian.  They ought to think through what it means, practically speaking, to demand perfect consistency.  It's an obvious fact about the psychology of consumption (whether it's food or other stuff): the person who puts a premium on consistency is much more likely to choose consistent self-indulgence rather than consistent compassion.

Maybe what the militant vegans are really complaining about is the fact that Foer is not a vegan, yet he wrote a book of animal advocacy.  I'm sure glad the author didn't worry about that--or we wouldn't now have a powerful work of animal advocacy nearing the Amazon top 100.  I very much doubt his readers will find him less inspiring because he's still drinking lattes (if he is).  In fact, many people are going to find inspiration in the message that normal, struggling, imperfect people can start thinking and doing differently.  Go Jonathan!


Carnival of the Animals

Way, way way ahead of time, I know...

The mid-February Philosopher's Carnival will be here, and it will be a Carnival of the Animals.  Please submit blog posts on topics such as:

  • Animal minds  -- So animals feel pain? Are they "trapped in the present"? Do they have a sense of self? Are animals capable of any sort of morality?  Etc.
  • Animals and theology -- Is animal pain an insoluble difficulty for theists? Etc.
  • Animals and ethics -- Lots and lots and lots of topics.
  • Animals and the environment --Does it matter if species go extinct? Do wild animals matter in a special way? Etc.
  • Vegetarians, Vegans, Ethical Omnivores -- Lots of topics.
  • Hunting -- Is it defensible?  Is a hunter's use of deception unethical?
  • Factory farming and humane farming-- Should humane reforms be supported? 
  • New frontiers -- Should we pursuit innovations like "lab meat"?  Should we genetically engineer pain-free livestock?
  • Ethics and activism -- Which strategies are ethically dubious?
  • Feminist approaches -- Does feminism shed light on issues about our treatment of animals?
The possibilities are endless. Send links to jkazez@smu.edu

Do Ethicists Steal More Books?

Tell me it isn't true!  More here.


The Life You Can Save

Something to think about before going Christmas or Hannukah shopping.

The Perfectly Humane Farm

At the end of the last thread we got to talking about "perfectly humane farming"--animal farming that yields a happy life for animals, ending in a painless death.  That doesn't seem like an oxymoron, like it's an oxymoron to talk about perfectly humane slavery.  Human beings resent being enslaved, and so almost always suffer under it; I don't think farm animals resent their lot in life.

There probably aren't any perfectly humane farms in the real world (Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma provides proof of that), but I think there are some that come close.  

The chickens in the first picture lived on an organic farm in Hawaii that I stayed at last summer.  The chickens in the second picture lived in the English Lake District.  It's reasonable to think these animals had lives that were 99.9% pleasant.  The problems remaining in their lives were two:  (1) At some point they were going to be eaten for dinner and the killing was likely to be painful (though quick). And (2) throughout their lives they were being used as resources.  The eggs they labored to produce were taken from them, though in return they were housed and fed.

Is there a problem with (1) and (2)?  I just want to make a "meta" point and not answer the question. The "meta" point is that this is a difficult question.   There are really difficult and perplexing problems here.  As the saying goes:  reasonable people will disagree.  I think that's what Peter Singer must have been thinking when he wrote, "I can respect conscientious people who take care to eat only meat that comes from such animals," in the last chapter of Animal Liberation, even though in chapter 4 he had already made many arguments that people ought to give up eating chicken--including "humane chicken."

The questions about (1) and (2) are difficult. Even those who say "wrong" and "wrong" can just have a flickering sense of wrongness, not a sense durable enough to survive the competition with their fondness for chicken and eggs. At the same time, I find that almost everyone sees a problem with what is being done to the third chicken--her life is being made a living hell.  And that's the fate of almost all of the 6 million chickens we kill for food in the US, every six hours.

To save that chicken from a miserable life, many people are prepared to act differently.  Maybe they'll pay a little more for cage-free or free-range eggs (which are better if not perfect), or go to the polls to vote for a referendum, Some will stop eating chicken altogether, or stop eating both chicken and eggs. 

Because of the difficulty of (1) and (2), I don't think the main thrust of animal advocacy should be eliminating the whole practice of using animals for food.  I'm (honestly) pessimistic about that campaign, but optimistic about the campaign to alleviate suffering.  Since it matters enormously whether animals suffer, whether or not there's also a problem with (1) and (2), I think that's a rational way to set priorities.

Just for fun: more happy animals, for your viewing pleasure.  The pig lives in Central Pennsylvania.  The sheep were grazing on a hill very near Hadrian's wall in northern England.  

UPDATE:  Maybe I didn't make this clear.  We cannot possibly make every farm animal as happy as a Hawaiian chicken or the pig and the sheep in these pictures.  To achieve much less suffering, there has to be at least a reduction of the number of animals eaten.  But suffering should be the main focus of arguments for veganism and vegetarianism, because (1) and (2) just aren't compelling enough to most people or even to most conscientious and clear-thinking philosophers.  I say this after many years of watching lots of people react to animal ethics messages.


This might be a good time...

...to link to this amusing rundown of types of commenters. Fortunately, the commenters who usually post here are type #10.

Just Another Philosopher

This survey of what philosophers think is really interesting (though possibly not interpretable by the public, because the survey questions are so tersely stated). I'm just a bit surprised to learn that my answer matched the most popular response on almost every question. Biggest eye-opener (maybe)--72% of philosophers "accept or lean toward" atheism.

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.)


The Matter of Taste

Jonathan Safran Foer makes a powerful point about taste in the New York Times excerpt from his book "Eating Animals"--

... taste, the crudest of our senses, has been exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses. Why? Why doesn’t a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to confining, killing and eating it? It’s easy to dismiss that question but hard to respond to it. Try to imagine any end other than taste for which it would be justifiable to do what we do to farmed animals.
I've been thinking about taste lately because of a surprising experience I had during my recent trip to New York.  When we travel we like to eat at vegetarian or vegan restaurants, since they're so rare.  So we went to a highly recommended vegan  restaurant called "Angelica's Kitchen."  We started with a soup and some appetizers that were totally delicious, but then we moved on to a dish called "barbecued seitan" that was, er, aesthetically challenged.  It would not be going too far to say that it both looked and smelled like crap--literally.  This was not good.  The other entrees were not as awful, but not good.  Instead of taking a chance on dessert we fled to another restaurant, where we had yummy non-vegan concoctions.

Now, vegan food can be much better--don't get me wrong.  My local vegan restaurant in Dallas will serve you a very satisfying meal, nine times out ten.  But let's suppose vegan food were always really bad.  Then would we still have an obligation to eat it, and not animal products, because of what's done to farmed animals?

A really interesting argument by Alastair Norcross tries to convince us that taste doesn't justify us in eating animal food by means of a thought experiment. A guy named Fred has had an accident and has lost his ability to enjoy the taste of chocolate.  He obtains a necessary restorative substance called "cocoamone" by torturing puppies in his basement, doing to them more or less what's done to animals in factory farms.   We are invited to share Norcross's intuition that inflicting all that suffering just to enjoy chocolate again can't be justified--and I do.

But after eating at Angelica's Kitchen, I got to thinking--what if the accident had not just knocked out Fred's ability to enjoy chocolate, but his ability to enjoy all food?  Suppose that without that hormone, all his food tasted like cardboard.  Or more to the point, suppose that without the hormone, all his food tasted like the food at Angelica's.  What would that supposition do to Norcross's argument?

To answer my own question--I think it would not change the outcome.  Fred would still be wrong to torture the puppies, even if he was doing it to avoid having all his food taste boring or terrible.  Yet we would have much more sympathy with him.  We would think he was committing a crime, but we'd find it more understandable.   We would still judge his action wrong, but wouldn't think as negatively about him.

Now, what does this have to do with the real world?  In fact, I think there's a taste-loss involved in switching from an omnivorous diet to a vegan diet.  The loss is greater than what Fred suffers, when he loses just his ability to enjoy chocolate, because animal ingredients are ubiquitous.  The loss is less then we'd suffer if we had to eat cardboard all the time, or dine daily on barbecued seitan.  There's some significant loss there, smaller to some (my husband and daughter don't especially like meat), larger to others (I do like meat).

The sympathetic reaction we have to Fred---in the scenario where everything tastes like cardboard or barbecued seitan--has to be extended to people who  experience a lot of loss from not eating animal products.   I'm not going to castigate you if you sometimes prioritize taste, and I'm not going to castigate myself for jumping ship from Angelica's to another restaurant for dessert.  Foer is right that taste is not exempt from ethical rules, but there's no point in denying that it's a deep and powerful motivator.  At least it comes into play when we decide how much sympathy to feel for ourselves and others when we do less than we really should.

That's part of what I was thinking about when I wrote a recent letter to the New York Times encouraging tolerance for people who give up some animal products for ethical reasons, but not everything they really should. Those who think I'm being too "nice" (toward others and myself) really ought to think more about Cardboard Fred, or Angelica Always Fred.  At least where sympathy is concerned, we can't ignore issues of taste.

Note to RH:  Don't worry. It was a cool place and an interesting experience--and the appetizers were fantastic!

What does "engaging" mean?

I'm famous!  The proof is that Gary Francione rants a bit about "this Kazez person" at the end of today's podcast.  He complains that I said something that upset him, and then I refused to engage with his work.  The upsetting bit was in the comment section of an earlier post--
Alex, My outlook is just pragmatic and results oriented. An ethical omnivore is someone who's making food choices on ethical grounds, and does think animals matter. They may not be going far enough, but they're doing much better than the total animal dismissers.

I am worried about Francione's approach--especially his opposition to proposition 2 and the like. It's certainly true that such reforms are not enough, but to actually oppose them strikes me as bizarre. Imagine someone in the 19th century started a campaign to supply shoes for slave children. Would any reasonable abolitionist object to that, on grounds that images of shoeless children strengthen the abolitionist cause? It seems to me that Francione's rejection of the humane movement is analogous. Essentially, he wants to keep animals in the worst possible condition in order to use their suffering to rally people to the cause of totally changing the status of animals.

I've got to run right now, but I hope to write a post in the not too distant future about Francione and what I like and don't like about his ideas.

Let the record show that I did follow up.  I have written several posts about his work (here and here), full of very specific arguments.  He has responded to none of these arguments.  It's bewildering, but "engage with his work" evidentlly means exactly one thing to Gary. It means "talk to me on my podcast." Apparently when I write about his work, that doesn't count. (And of course, reponding is not on his list of things to do).

Shaking head. Moving on. 

But first, one more remark--I think it's peculiar the way Gary  uses the fact that I am not a vegan as an argument against me.  Some day this will make it into critical thinking textbooks--the "ad non-vegan" fallacy will be listed as a subspecies of the "ad hominem".


Bathroom Ethics

Wayne has a funny thing here.  For us who agonize about small things, there's also the issue about going through electric doors.  Should we really consume the energy that's meant for the disabled?  I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who thinks about this stuff!


Where Have I Been?

I've been traveling a lot lately and getting excited because my book is coming out next month.  If you can guess the two places where I've been based on these two images (clue: one is a detail from a painting), I will send you a copy of my book (as soon as I have one!).  Rules:  you've got to have a US address. Please, no guesses allowed about just one of the places.  Send your answer to:  jkazez@smu.edu

We have a winner!  The soup can is a detail from an Andy Warhol painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and tthe pig is at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.  I thought for sure one of the very nice and interesting Arkansas students I met would be the lucky winner, but the winner is in fact....(drumroll)...Jonathan in NY, who will indeed be receiving a copy of my book just as soon as I have one in my hands.   More guessing games and book give-aways sometime soon. 

There's Something About Gary

Francione, that is.  From Google alerts that keep landing in my mailbox, I've learned he's an absolute master of the ad hominem, and at grandstanding, and demanding apologies instead of answering criticism, and putting excerpts from private email on the internet, and misinterpreting them to begin with. One of his ad hominems has to do with Temple Grandin endorsing my book.  May as well consort with the devil, he seems to think. But I'm thrilled with the endorsement.

Temple Grandin is a hero in my eyes (and by the way, also in the eyes of PETA, who gave her an award a couple of years ago).  That's so even if she's more accepting of the whole practice of animal consumption than I am.  Here's the kind of change she's brought about in slaughter houses: under her auditing system, stunning has to work on the first attempt 95% of the time.  That's a significant improvement over past success rates (data here).  Without stunning, a cow will be conscious when hoisted up by her back leg and getting her throat slit.  When stunning is unsuccessful on first attempt, the animal endures much more pain. 

Now Gary (and he has to be just "Gary" because back when we were using honorifics, he thought it was right to address me as Adjunct Professor Kazez) thinks this is just a trivial improvement.  That's his general assessment of all "humane" reforms.  They're no more of an improvement than "being tortured with electrical shocks while strapped into a padded chair rather than a chair without padding."  (See here--and note the ad hominems.  Just what "welfarist corporations" does Peter Singer "lead"?!)

The trouble with Gary is that he's "abstractifying," to use a lovely term coined by Temple.  He's focusing entirely on killing itself, as the fundamental wrong we do to animals--or treating animals as property, which he considers our primary mistake.  He's not getting inside the minds of animals, which is what Temple Grandin is so good at (her book Animals in Translation is fantastic).  There's a huge difference between being effectively stunned and going to your slaughter, and being unstunned, or struggling after an initial improper stunning and being stunned again.  The difference is by no means trivial, and given how many animals will in fact be slaughtered in the foreseeable future, we've got to take it seriously.

Of course, if Grandin's auditing system did do something trivial for animals, that wouldn't be a reason to object.  An animal activist has no reason to care if animal scientists and meatpackers are just wasting their time and money.  What bothers him, really, is that he thinks with reforms like this, people are going to eat more meat.  So there's going to be more killing, and more of all the abuses that go along with animal agriculture.

Even if that were the case, I'd still have a hard time believing we don't have an obligation to make animal slaughter as gentle as possible.  We should not use animals' suffering strategically, leaving some of it in place in the hopes of discouraging animal consumption.  In effect, this is what Gary would have us do.  (My saying this is what's got him hurling so much abuse at me.  Too bad he hasn't just responded with a clarification of his true aims or a defense of this sort of strategy. It might have been interesting!  I might even have retracted the criticism if he'd directly responded to it with some convincing argument.)  We wouldn't use the suffering of death row inmates, or slaves, or starving children that way.  If we're serious about animals being entitled to respect and compassion, we shouldn't use them that way either.

But all that's really just theoretical, because I don't buy it that Temple Grandin's reforms are going to make people consume more animal products. There have been a number of humane reforms in the US in the last several years, and even more in the European Union, but the overall amount of animal food being consumed in developed countries isn't increasing, according to the UN report Livestock's Long Shadow (pg. 16).  I've seen no evidence that the trend toward humane standards is attracting people toward animal consumption who wouldn't otherwise be engaging in it. (And here's where Gary's responding to argument might have been helpful.  What's his evidence?  Why does he think there's a trend like this?)

An aspect of Gary's approach is its categorizing of animal advocates as either "abolitionist" or "new welfarist."  Abolitionists see a problem with the basic practice of killing animals and using them as our resources. Then there are welfarists (and he may as well say "demons," since that's how he sees them) who care only about animal welfare and favor incremental change. This is really a hopeless taxonomy because there's no reason whatever that bits of the two positions can't be combined (and supplemented with other ideas). It's a combo view that many advocates actually embrace.

Like me, for example.  I think there is a problem with killing (I don't buy Peter Singer's "replacement argument"), but it does not eclipse the problem of suffering.  We ought to address the problem of suffering and we ought to address the problem of killing. It's not that one is just a matter of "how" and the other is the essence of the matter.  It's really important for cattle to be effectively stunned in slaughter houses.  Bravo for Temple Grandin that she's tackling the problem of suffering.


Should Humane Farm Reform be Opposed?

A fairly offhand remark I made about Gary Francione in the comments to my last post apparently caused offense, so I need to expand, explain, etc, especially because Gary tells me he plans on using me as a poster child for the "welfarist" (i.e. utilitarian) stance in a planned podcast. My forthcoming book is actually steadfastly non-utilitarian, so this doesn't make much sense. Let's understand the child, before we put her in a poster. I'll explain what I think about Francione and humane farm reform later today. Stay tuned.


Let's start with some classifying of positions on humane farm reform, by which I mean everything from just widening stalls a few inches to raising animals outside with plenty of space and sunshine.
  1. Full supporters think humane reforms are not only good, but sufficient.  They think once we've implemented all the realistically possible reforms we can, we'll be done and we'll all be able to eat meat with a pretty clear conscience, even if there may be some residual concern about whether killing is wholly respectful.  In this category I'd put Michael Pollan and Temple Grandin.
  2. Partial supporters think humane reforms are good, but insufficient.  They think we should not be raising and killing animals just to satisfy our own desires for food pleasure.  On this view, any realistic scenario in which animal farming continues will raise serious ethical concerns.  In this category I'd put utilitarians like Peter Singer, non-utilitarians like myself, activist organizations like PETA and the Humane Society, and many others.
  3. Opponents think that humane reforms are bad and should be actively opposed.  Gary Francione is in this category.  When California voters had a chance to vote for or against Proposition 2, which abolished cages for laying hens, sow crates, and veal crates, he encouraged his followers to vote against it, or at least abstain.
Francione thinks that being a partial supporter of humane reform necessarily goes together with having a utilitarian (or "welfarist") outlook on ethics--or so he seems to say here.  Thus, he supposes that all animal advocates who are partial supporters of humane reform must reject animal rights, animal personhood, the duty to respect animals, and the like.  This is not the case.  Partial supporters of humane reform can come to that position from a variety of ethical and empirical premises. Singer comes to that position from utilitarianism.  I come to that position without accepting utilitarianism. The guiding concepts in my forthcoming book are respect and compassion; I don't see maximizing happiness or interest satisfaction as "the prime directive."

In fact, I think that someone with Francione's position on animals--that they are persons, not property, and that it violates their rights to use them as resources--could easily be a partial supporter of humane reform.  To see this, it helps a lot to develop analogies.  The reason it's helpful is because it's actually rather difficult to see what is entailed by the assumption that animals are persons.  Solution?  Think about various cases where an injustice is being done to human beings--clearly persons.  Then think about whether it would make sense to oppose humane reforms that fell far short of abolishing the injustice.

So--slaves in the antebellum south were obviously persons.  Would it make sense for an abolitionist to tell people to vote against humane reforms like supplying shoes for children or letting slaves learn to read or stopping families from being broken up at auctions?   I can see how an abolitionist might worry that humanizing "the peculiar institution" might slow down the pace of change, but when you see slaves as persons, you must see them as entitled to whatever small mercies are possible.

Or take abolitionism about the death penalty.  Would it make sense for a death penalty abolitionist to be against reforms like making the method of execution more humane, or making DNA testing more available, or reducing the number of strip searches or hours spent in solitary confinement?  All of these types of reforms do make people more comfortable with the death penalty, and may delay the day when the death penalty will finally be abolished in the US.  But since death row inmates are persons, they're entitled to these improvements.

Now, you might complain that my analogies involve a variety of reforms, some involving not "just" welfare improvements but matters of justice; some small, others big.  So focus just on the smaller welfare-oriented reforms.  Shoes for slaves, a nicer method of execution for people on death row.  Could any abolitionist about slavery or the death penalty really oppose these things?

In short, even assuming (1) that animals are persons, and (2) that there's a legitimate concern about whether humane farm reform slows down progress toward a vegan world, and (3) that humane reforms are small, I can't see how it can make sense to vote against Proposition 2.  Especially if you see animals as persons, you must secure what you can for them,  even if that slows progress toward the ultimate goal.

But now let's have a closer look at Francione's empirical assumptions.  He thinks humane reforms are minor and that there's a serious worry about humane meat increasing meat consumption or slowing progress toward veganism.   I don't actually find either point compelling.  Some humane reforms are minor and some are major.  Take for example "humane beef."  Most cattle spend the final 5 months of their lives in the gruesome environment of a feedlot, being stuffed with corn, hormones, antibiotics, and even cement dust.  "Humanely" raised cattle never go to a feedlot. I don't think someone can really be imagining life from a steer's standpoint if they think that difference is negligible.

And as to meat consumption slowing progress toward veganism--this assumes that people who buy "humane" animal products at a Whole Foods (for example) are former vegans or would-have-been vegans.  This conflicts with my experience. In almost ten years of teaching an animal rights class, I've had lots of experience of seeing what happens when I present videos about factory farming as well as information about "humane meat."  Meat eaters progress "only" to the humane meat option usually just because they think it would be too hard to go further.  I do not observe vegans or vegetarians regressing to the humane meat option.  They do not think "humane standards" do enough to remove the ethical problems with meat-eating.

It also flies in the face of some key facts to suppose that humane animal products increase meat-eating.  For one, they're very expensive.  That's a deterrent.  Second, Whole Foods is presumably the biggest seller of humane animal products in the US. I have read that 90% of Whole Foods shoppers are not there because of any concern at all about the treatment of animals.  If they weren't shopping at Whole Foods, they'd be shopping at another pricey grocery store like Central Market or at an ordinary grocery store.  They'd be buying ordinary factory farmed meat.

A third important point is that the humane movement is succeeding at a key task.  People do tend to completely dismiss animals raised for food. For many people, an animal that's going to be eaten just doesn't matter at all. It's astonishing and really impressive that 63% of California's voters voted for Proposition 2, effectively saying that all animals matter.  They're not going as far as Francione would want them to, or Peter Singer would want them to, or I would want them to, but they took an absolutely critical first step.

There's much more that could be said, but this is already monstrously long.   I just have to add--read my comment policy.  I will delete any comment that is not to the point and impeccably respectful.  No comments about me or my way of moderating this blog are going to be published. 


In Which I Casually Mention...

...that the New York Times published my letter about Gary Steiner's editorial today. I'm going to be super-busy in the next couple of days (NOT busy cooking a turkey), but your thoughts welcome.


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!


Stories vs. Arguments

I'm happy for the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. His new book Eating Animals is getting lots of respectful attention (like here and here), and that's good both for him and for animals. I'm happy for him.  Really!

OK, I'm insanely jealous. Here's why.  What he's got going for him is narrative. He tells the story of the animal issue, instead of systematically working through it.  Judging from the essay he had in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago, his book is all about growing up in a Jewish "pass the brisket" household. It's about his grandmother, and traditions, and having children, and close encounters with animals. Narrative makes things readable.  It's lovely the way a story unfolds, keeping you in its grip to the end.

Arguments, on the other hand, can come across like an assault.  As soon as someone starts arguing (especially in the explicit fashion that philosophers love so dearly), you start feeling bad.  First, you start wondering if you're going to be too stupid to understand.  Then, once the argument gets going, you start feeling pinned.  Either you're going to have to make an effort to extricate yourself, or you're going to have to undergo a change of mind--and who really wants that?  It's so much more pleasant just to read a story, which (you know) may subtly alter your perceptions, but without being so...frontal, and violent, and obvious.

My new animal book starts with narrative and there's as much narrative as I could muster throughout the book.  But the fact is the book has lots of arguments.  I like arguments. I'm interested in arguments!  And so--ironically, sadly, understandably, probably--my book will never reach the sort of audience that Safran's can.  It couldn't, even if I had as much talent as an arguer as Safran has as a story-teller.  Stories just win in a competition with arguments.

I get that. I understand that. I like stories too.  But...it's...frustrating!


Animal Fiction

Suppose that animals were legally persons and every cow, dog, rat, etc., qualified for basic rights--essentially the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  You would no longer be able to buy and sell animals, lock them up in zoos, kill them for food, experiment on them, etc.  You can look at the arguments for giving them that status, and you may just find them convincing, but to start desiring that world, and really aiming for it, you've got to be able to imagine it.  What all would be going on in a place like that?  How would every day life be affected?

Enter, fiction. Unforutnately, I can't think of a novel that imagines what needs to be imagined--a world where animals are just "out there" in the wild, and not in our houses or grazing in pastures, or trapped in cages and stalls.  A world where squirrels are reclassified as persons, so roadkill is not a laughing matter.  In all the animal-elevating novels I can think of,  the animals are not elevated in status as animals.  They're Disneyfied --human on the inside, animals only on the outside.  I can't think of a novel where genuine animals are treated as persons.

What we need is something along the lines of Margaret Atwood's novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood (parts I and II of a trilogy, and both excellent), which vividly imagine distortions to the world of animals wrought by environmental disaster and biotechnology.  The normal species have gone extinct.  All sorts of new life forms have been genetically engineered for fun and profit.  There are rakunks (raccoon/skunks) and pigoons (pigs used to grow replacement organs for human beings).  Mo'hairs have long tresses in multiple colors that can be harvested for human use.  Apparently livestock have largely disappeared.  There are headless chickens that yield chicken flesh without any suffering, and "real" burgers of very scary, mixed provenance, but mostly people eat a lot of soy pseudo-meat.  If you wanted to think vividly about whether we should engineer new animal forms, it would be a very good idea to first read these books.

But what should we read before we decide whether to reclassify all animals as persons?  We really do need something.  We can philosophize about whether that's the right thing to do,  but I really think the imagination has to play a role when we make up our minds about what to do, how to live, how to reconfigure the world.  If we can't picture a future and tell coherent stories about it, then--hold on!--we shouldn't be aiming for it.  So...

Wanted:  a novel or movie with animals (real animals, not talking animals) elevated to the status of personhood.  No need to go to extremes--those who want personhood for animals aren't saying they ought to be able to vote or enroll in public school or receive medicare.  They're saying they should be legally protected from death, torture, and confinement.  I'd like to read a good, vivid novel about a society in which that has come to pass.  If you know of one, pray tell.


Giving Away Money

I am soooo busy with various and sundry that I've been unable to post or respond to comments lately. But here's an article I've been thinking about:

Academic pledges to give away £1m

Dr Toby Ord
Dr Toby Ord says his donations will improve people's lives
An Oxford University academic has pledged to give £1m of his earnings to charity during the course of his life.

Dr Toby Ord, 30, who researches ethics, believes his donations to charities in developing countries could save 500,000 years of healthy life.
He is launching a society to encourage others to follow his example.
Giving What We Can wants others to pledge at least 10% of their earnings to help tackle poverty in the world. The first to join has been his wife.
Dr Ord will give up 10% of his annual salary, plus any yearly earnings above £20,000 for the rest of his career.
"I was living very happily as a student and worked out what I'd need to continue living like that through my life - or a little bit better, to allow some room for improvement - and then I worked out how much I could do with that amount of money.
"I could save thousands of people's lives, and saving one person's life is often thought to be an amazing kind of thing you can do over your whole career," he said.
Sacrifice 'extras'
He said he had been thinking for a while about how he could make a difference in the world.
He has predicted he should be able to earn about £1.5m over the course of his academic career, and has decided to donate about £1m of it to charities fighting poverty in the developing world.
Dr Ord said said he was happy with his life and did not mind missing out on material wealth in the future.
He said he had a "wonderful wife", and enjoyed books and seeing places and people.
"I've got all of that and I just miss out on these various extras of having a bigger house or something like that. But that doesn't really bother me," he added.
Obviously this is a wonderful thing to do...but at age 30 and so publicly?  Do we know enough about our future selves and lives at 30 to make such a pledge?


The Faceless Woman

Yes, I did watch the video clip of the woman who had her face ripped off by a chimpanzee, and her hands too. It was over at the ABC news website, and I couldn't resist. And yes, the image has been haunting me, as appparently it's been haunting a lot of people. Two of the blogs I read referred to the woman last week, and Jon Stewart talked about her with Jane Goodall a couple of nights ago.

There are lessons to be learned here about how animals are not humans dressed up in costumes and (according to Goodall) about how chimpanzees shouldn't be kept in captivity. But what's really haunting is...the face. It just seems so unfair. She's exactly the same person underneath, but with a face people find horrifying, how will she "interface" with the world? Will people stand by her--like her daughter, her twin brother, and her friends?

Let's hope so. Here's something that struck me when I read about the woman's situation. She needs both a face transplant and a hand transplant, but she's been told she isn't eligible for a hand transplant, since she's now blind. She doesn't explain why there's this policy, but I'm guessing that hands suitable for transplant are very rare and priority is given to the patient who can get the most good out of them. If you can see, you can do more with your hands than if you can't see. (Anybody have a better grip on why organ registries might have this policy?)

But there's another way of thinking about this. Perhaps hands should go first not to the person who can get the most benefit out of them, but to the person who's especially badly off. The multiply afflicted patient seems to merit special consideration, even if her multiple disabilities would stop any particular part-donation from having the maximum benefit.

Does it make sense to give spare hands to the person who's most nearly normal, and can therefore get the most use out of them, or to someone who would be saved from much greater misery by the donation?  The former approached to distributing "spare parts" has a certain logic to it, but so does the latter.

In short--give this woman some hands! I hope her association with Oprah will help her get the care she needs.


Good and Absurd

Russell Powell makes sense here, when he says religion doesn't have to be either absurd or good for the world.  Apparently that's the false dichotomy presupposed by a series of debates between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson.
Posed as a disjunction, the question assumes (and by inference, these opposing authors assume) that religion cannot be both absurd, in the colloquial sense of illogical or laughably false, and good for the world, in the sense of furthering what humans rightly value.
How can something absurd also be good?
For example, it may be manifestly untrue that there is an all-knowing supernatural being, such as a god, spirit, or ancestor that is concerned with everyday moral behavior and monitors the thoughts and actions of group members. But believing this to be the case might very well encourage cooperation and suppress free-riding, behaviors that help to solve collective action problems that attend to living in large, unrelated groups.
I was thinking of the peculiar possibility of good and absurd while reading an article about evidenced based medicine in Sunday's New York Times Magazine.  The writer reports that hospitals and clinics in Utah and Idaho have been using a new system of evidence based medicine, under the leadership of a very science oriented observant Mormon named Brent James.  With apologies to Mormons everywhere, I have to say that Mormonism is a real stand out when it comes to absurdities. The reporter intimates that part of the success of the initative--it seems to be saving thousands of lives--comes from a shared religion.
More than half of the state’s residents are Mormons. This homogeneity creates a noticeable sense of community, even a sense of mission, among many Intermountain doctors and nurses.
The good effects of religion seem to be overlooked when people like Sam Harris blame liberal religionists for giving faith a good name, and thereby sustaining malignant religious practises.  If unitarians and reform Jews can be blamed (even a bit) for Osama bin Laden, then they also have to be given credit (just a bit) for Brent James.

I like Powell's point that the very thing that makes religion beneficial can also make it harmful.
...the same emotional commitment mechanisms that allow religion to play a role in motivating morally aversive behavior, such as violence directed at an out-group (or toward a dissenting minority within), are the same psychological processes that make religion such an effective binding force within groups, encouraging altruism between group members and improving their intra-psychic wellbeing by instilling a sense of belonging.
That defines the task of liberalizing religion--getting that sense of belonging to function entirely for the good.


Women in Philosophy

There’s been a torrent of discussion about women in philosophy since TPM published an article on the subject in the last issue. Here at Brian Leiter, Peter Carruthers suggests that experimental philosophers get involved in figuring out what keeps women underrepresented in the field.  Carruthers points out that women are 25-30% at every stage—undergraduate education, graduate school, and professional philosophy.  He thinks women pick up on the combativeness of philosophy early on and many are deterred.
The discussion that has ensued over there is typical of these kinds of discussions.  Lots of theories are advanced, but they all fit within certain parameters, as if an invisible cop were policing the discussion.  There are Things We May not Say, and everyone knows what they are.  On the other hand, there are Permitted Hypotheses, and those are generally understood as well.
One of the Things We May not Say is that women are worse at philosophy. It’s just as well that’s forbidden, because I really think that’s nonsense.  Even if some professions are disproportionately male because of gender-related aptitude differences (not impossible), I doubt philosophy is one of those.  So:  women can do philosophy.  But do they choose to? 
Another Thing We May not Say is that women choose to less than men because they have different interests.  One reason we may not say this is because it raises the spectre of innate gender differences, and that’s anathema to some people.  But of course the idea that women have different interests isn’t intrinsically connected to any claim about innateness. It might just be that by the time women are adults, social influences have pushed them in certain directions.
I actually think the “different interests” hypothesis is pretty attractive.  It’s corroborated by the fact that even within philosophy, men and women are drawn to different subjects. More women are in ethics, fewer in epistemology and philosophy of mind.
One of the commenters at Leiter offers a different explanation why more women do ethics and applied ethics. She says these are areas in which people can prove themselves comparatively quickly, and women are eager to do that, because of tacit sexist prejudice in the field.  That’s a Permitted Hypothesis, because of the way it makes women’s underrepresentation a result of sexism.  Explanations in terms of biasses are the only ones many parties to these discussions will take seriously. (And so many don’t care for Carruthers’ point about women disliking combativeness.)
If you settled too quickly on a “different interests” hypothesis, and ignored sexism, that would be a serious problem.  We don’t want to overlook injustices.  On the other hand, we don’t want to blame people who aren’t blameworthy. I also find it pretty insulting for women to be portrayed as avoiding aggressive debate, unduly anxious to prove themselves, and drawn to subjects not out of interest but to get ahead rapidly.
If you did find out that women have somewhat different interests, then you’d have to accept that there are naturally fewer women in philosophy. Or at least, that in a society that’s overall like ours, there are bound to be fewer women in philosophy. You might think society as a whole should shift toward a less gender-based way of raising and educating children. But you wouldn’t go on thinking there’s a fixable problem specific to philosophy. So diagnosing this properly has implications for what does and doesn’t need to be done.  I hope some experimental philosophers will take up Peter Carruthers' suggestion and look into this...without preconceptions.