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.


Killing Traditions (with recipe)

It's starting to be that time of year.  From the "archive" (11/07)--

A student of mine once wrote a paper saying he couldn’t stop eating meat because it would mean giving up too many traditions. For example, on Thanksgiving Day you’re supposed to have the smell of roasting turkey wafting through the house all day. A vegetarian meal would simply cook too fast.
To a purist this is an atrocious argument. What, a turkey is supposed to be bred to ridiculous, uncomfortable proportions, housed in cramped conditions, and carelessly slaughtered, just so we can enjoy all-day cooking?
I see myself as pro-animal, but not as a purist. I do take it seriously that traditions would have to change if we were kinder to animals. It’s hard to completely embrace a vision of the future with no sheep dotting the hills in Wales, and no cattle milling around in west Texas. It’s hard for me to say the good people of Dallas should close down their barbecue restaurants and steak houses. I even have some sympathy for the Eskimos who want to go on killing whales.
Last summer I had a chance to learn about the Eskimo whaling tradition in depth at the museum of art and history in Anchorage. Native peoples necessarily depended on animals for everything—food, fuel, clothes, even the walls of their houses. (It turns out Eskimos never lived in igloos year around—that’s a myth.) They were very clever about this, even making windows and waterproof parkas out of seal guts. Whales served the community’s needs, but also brought it together in an activity that had to be communal. (You can catch a hare on your own, but not a whale.)
For all that the Eskimos vitally needed to hunt whales before first encounter with westerners and their resources, they weren’t as crudely exploitative as we are today. They didn’t think of the whale as a mere commodity. The Eskimos justified killing whales with the thought that they made a voluntary sacrifice—they gave themselves up for slaughter. No doubt wishful thinking, but at least this myth shows an awareness of a moral problem—how can I justify giving priority to my life over any other living creature’s life?
Eskimos want to keep killing the bowhead whale today. Now, I think that’s a bad idea, both because there are too few of them left (despite what native ecologists want to think) and because each whale is a truly glorious creature. But I take the loss of native traditions seriously. One wants to think there could be a way to hang on to something of it, if not the main thing. (Maybe establish a world-class Cetacean Research Institute in Barrow Alaska?)
Getting back to my student, and Thanksgiving—who says traditions have to stay exactly the same? Here it is, food that takes forever, and probably the only recipe you will ever see on this blog. Happy Thanksgiving!

* * *

(serves 10, takes all day, adapted from Fields of Greens, by Annie Somerville)

Use butter substitute and skip the egg to make it vegan.

  1. Make mushroom stock.In large pot, use 9 cups of water to cover 1 chopped onion, one clean chopped leek, 4 cloves crushed garlic, 1 oz dried shitake mushrooms, 1 tsp salt, ½ tsp peppercorns, ½ lb sliced mushrooms, 2 small carrots, 6 parsley sprigs, 3 fresh thyme sprigs, 2 fresh marjoram or oregano sprigs, 2 fresh sage leaves, 2 bay leaves.Simmer an hour or two, strain, and simmer some more until you have 3 cups. Set aside.
  2. Make a pie dough with 1 ½ cups flour, 6 TB butter, ½ tsp. salt, a bit of cold water.Keep in refrigerator until needed.
  3. Using a big heavy pot, heat 2 TB olive oil and add 4 cups sliced mushrooms. Sear for 6-7 minutes over high heat, add 4 finely chopped garlic cloves and ½ cup sherry.Simmer until mushrooms are pretty dry.Put all that in a bowl.
  4. Chop firm vegetables of your choice, such as potatoes, celery root, parsnips, turnips, rutabagas, fennel, carrots (best with all of the above). Use enough to nearly fill 2-quart oval earthenware casserole (or whatever you have).
  5. Heat more oil in the big pot and add a chopped onion over medium heat.Saute a little while, then add all the chopped vegetables. Also add 2 TB each of fresh marjoram, thyme, and parsley). Cook and turn for about 20 minutes.
  6. Make sauce out of stock.Heat 3 ½ TB butter in medium size saucepan and add 5 TB flour.Whisk until smooth.Gradually add stock, whisk, cook over low heat, turn off heat.
  7. Pour all the vegetables and mushrooms into the casserole dish.Add the sauce.Don’t fill the casserole to the top or it will all boil over in the oven.
  8. Roll out the dough and cover the pie with it, crimping the edges. Roll out leftover dough and cut out turkey image.Affix to top of pie using whisked egg.Brush the rest of the pie with egg.Make slits in top of pie.
  9. Place on baking pan just in case of spills.Bake in 375 degree oven for 40 minutes.Take out and let cool 5 minutes.

Atheism 2.0

Plain or movement, plain or movement. I keep asking myself where I fit into Ophelia's classification of atheists.

If I were a "plain atheist," I guess I'd have be quietly skeptical, and not especially interested in the subject of religion.  That can't describe my attitude, considering that I have written a book about the good life that delves into the role of religion in our lives (among many other topics).

To be a "movement atheist," I'd have to be "overt unbashful explict," she says.  Check.  But I think I'd have to be more than that. I'd have to share the goals of people like Benson, Dawkins, Harris, etc.  One of their goals is "the end of faith" (to use the phrase that titles Harris's book).  But I don't have that goal.  My book takes a position about religion that can be summed up in two words:  not necessary.  But don't rearrange the words. I reject the view that says: necessary not.  While not necessary, I argue that there are some ways in which religion can help people live better lives.

If I were doing the classifying, I think I'd have three categories.  Atheism 1.0 (Ophelia's "plain" atheists): these people put no energy into denying the existence of God, like I put no energy into rejecting astrology.  Atheism 2.0: open unbelievers who (for various reasons) aren't working toward (or even hoping for) the end of faith.  Atheism 3.0  (Ophelia's "movement" atheists): working toward or at least eager to see the end of faith.

Atheism 2.0 represents the view of a variety of people, including psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and Martin Seligman. They are openly atheists and write about religion, but they write about the benefits of religion, and I very much doubt they're hoping for, let alone working toward, the end of faith. I think it's also the view of people like E. O. Wilson and Chris Mooney who are primarily focused on goals like preventing global warming and protecting endangered species.  They are too busy working with religious people as allies to be aiming for "the end of faith."

As to the supposed "schism" between atheists... There are substantive differences between atheism 2.0 and 3.0. It's inevitable that atheists should debate each other as well as debating "outsiders."  This is no different from different kinds of Catholics, or Jews, or Democrats, or animal rights activists, or Africa specialists, or health care experts, debating each other.  Ho hum.


Your Dog's Carbon Footprint and the End of the World

What, something else to worry about?  Apparently so. Check out Wayne's new blog, where he ponders the problem of your dog's (or cat's) carbon footprint.

Here's an uncomfortable truth.  Carbon emissions can be reduced through changes in lifestyle.  But they can also be reduced by reducing the number of individuals who have lifestyles.  We can have fewer children.  We can stop breeding livestock and pets.  But there's more:  we can let sick and starving people die.  We can kill the dogs and cats in animal shelters.  At some point though, a phrase from conservative religious ethics comes to mind and even starts to seem apt.  We should surely not become a "culture of death." 

In short, limiting animal breeding and human family size is all to the good, but let's not start dispensing with sick people and cats and dogs, as if they were of no value.

Speaking of the "culture of death," I'm starting to worry about the mini-culture that is my family.  For a while now we've been running a Friday night "end of the world" film series.  We've now contemplated the apocalyptic powers of fire (Knowing), ice (The Day After Tomorrow), germs (I am Legend), and aliens (War of the World).  I'm not sure what will be the bringer of death and destruction in tonight's movie (The Island), but I'm starting to think "enough."

The "end of the world" theme in recent movies and books (like Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood and Cormac McCarthy's The Road) seems to be a symptom of unease about the real apocalyptic worry of our time--global warming.  So argues William Deresiewicz in an insightful review of Atwood's novel.  
So here we are, right back where we were a few decades ago and hoped we'd never have to be again: staring down the barrel of global catastrophe. Anyone over 40 will remember the feeling. The numb resignation, the night panic, the sense of a world gone mad. The missiles, it seemed, were already overhead, hanging like a pregnant pause. And now the feeling is back, and anyone under 40 has to wonder what's in store for them before they die. Will they live to see the cities drown, the fields dry up, the food system collapse? Will they die a peaceful death, or will they be driven from their homes to wander the roads and eat grass? And if the worst does come, how will the survivors find the will to go on? 

We need to worry, think, and do something.  But enough about death!  I've proposed that our next film series should be about inspiring social reformers--people who try to do something about the world's problems.  I'm afraid that didn't go over well.


The Big Schism

Ophelia has a really perceptive editorial on the supposed schism between atheists at Comment is Free--  
Many atheists want to be able to be atheists without being dragooned into some boring noisy unsubtle bad-tempered "movement". Many other atheists want to be able to be overt explicit unbashful atheists without constantly being told to be more euphemistic or evasive or respectful or just plain silent by other atheists, who surely ought to know better.
This "who surely ought to know better" is one place where the disagreement really grips. To the first group – let's call them plain atheists – this idea looks like typical political hegemonising, like ideological policing, like the demand for uniformity and agreement and loyalty that always goes with a "movement". It looks like groupthink. To the second group – call them movement atheists – that's not it, it's just that other atheists should understand that euphemism and respect have been the norm for a long time and we really ought to be allowed to talk freely.
The rest is really good.

(Now about commas.... Snazzy!  It never occurred to me you could drop them for effect.)


Is Meat Green?

Interesting article about the question in the New York Times Saturday.  If they reject my letter to the editor, I'll be putting it here.

My letter--

Re: The Carnivore’s Dilemma, Nicolette Hahn Niman, October 30.

Small traditional farms are much better for animals, but from an environmental point of view, they’re not the answer to high-impact industrial farming. In the US alone, we kill 9.5 billion animals a year for food. 99% of them live in crowded, intensive facilities for all or part of their lives. Even so, over 30% of the land mass of the United States is already used as grazing land for farm animals—mostly cattle that live outside for the first eight months of their lives. Where are we going to put even more grazing animals?

Niman suggests feedcrop land could be converted into grazing land (which may absorb more carbon dioxide per acre), but feed can be grown in a fraction of the space that’s needed to let animals graze. Realistically speaking, feeding the world’s population through traditional animal farming would mean more deforestation, more greenhouse gases, and more endangered species. There’s no getting around it: if we want to protect the environment, we need to eat a lot less meat.
Other people said much the same thing, but without all the amazing statistics!