It was a happy cow

I adore Nicholas Kristof, and love the way he's taken up the cause of animals, but his column today does make me wonder if he's ready to think carefully about these things.  The howlers (as English philosophers used to say) are so obvious they're almost funny.

Kristof has a friend named Bob who raises dairy cows in relatively humane conditions, giving them names and calling them his "girls".  What happens, though, when they grow old?  Kristof tells a story about one of Bob's favorite cows, Jolly, that's supposed to reassure us --
When Jolly grew old and unproductive, he traded her to a small family farm in exchange for a ham so she could live out her retirement with dignity.
If only I were teaching Animal Rights this semester, I could have the fun of asking my students what's odd about that sentence.  (Whisper:  the ham, what about the HAM?)

The last paragraph is just as unreflective--
The next time you drink an Organic Valley glass of milk, it may have come from one of Bob's cows. If so, you can bet it was a happy cow. And it has a name.
IT has a name?  Either you can urge people to support farms with named cows or you can refuse to use personal pronouns for animals, but surely you can't do both!  (Aside: I'm mighty puzzled by the convention that animals are to be called "it". Aren't there very plainly male and female animals?)

OK, minor points.  Kristof is a good guy trying to support more humane methods of farming. I applaud him for that.  Gary Francione, predictably enough, doesn't. Here's Prof. Francione excoriating Kristof for his wrong-headed concern.
For Kristof and other welfarists, and this includes just about every large “animal protection” organization in this country, animals are things. They are not nonhuman persons. They are not members of the moral community. It is fine to exploit them as long as we torture them less than they would be tortured in an alternative situation; as long as we send them to slaughter with a name.
Well, that's right. Kristof does not think animals are persons, and that's probably because (if he thinks it through) he would reject the theory that sentience is sufficient for personhood.  It doesn't follow that animals are mere things or that they don't matter at all. They just don't matter in exactly the same way that persons like us matter.

Even if they matter in some intermediate, "somewhere between person and thing" way, there's still the question how we can possibly be justified in taking an animal's life, just for the pleasure we get from eating animal products.  The more I think about that question, the less I find it has any easy answer.   It's one thing if the pleasure in question is a small increment--like the difference between (say) Godiva chocolate and Hershey's. It's another if the difference is quite large--like the difference between eating in a school cafeteria and in a great restaurant.  Sad fact: I think for many people, a vegan diet would be like a lifetime of eating in the cafeteria. 

For someone like Francione, Kristof is a major enemy. He makes it seem like you can reconcile ethics with eating animals, just so long as you make enough humane reforms. This essay from Slate, sent to me by a reader (thank you!), makes clear how intense the fight is between abolitionists and other kinds of animal advocates.
Take, for instance, this year’s annual Animal Rights National Conference, which was held in Alexandria, Va., last month. After an abolitionist petition to ban HSUS from the conference failed, abolitionists tried sponsoring an independent seminar in protest of HSUS’s involvement. The hotel where the conference took place then attempted to shut down the abolitionists’ competing seminar (apparently at the main conference organizers’ behest). It’s this dust-up—not any of the myriad practical strategies of reform discussed during the four-day conference—that has earned the bulk of the attention in animal rights circles.
The rest of the article is well worth reading.


Craig Urias said...

[Note Slate link points to page 2.]

It's interesting because there is some point at which compromise becomes untenable. For instance suppose in the 1800s there was a group in America lobbying for better conditions for slaves: less hours, improved living quarters, perhaps even vacations. Some abolitionists might see them as making things worse, as tools of the oppressors that lend legitimacy to the immoral practice of slavery. If slave owners followed the recommended guidelines, it would make the case for abolition harder. On the other hand, it would be difficult to actually oppose improving the lives of slaves.

A more direct and more morbid analogy would be a group during WWII that lobbied for better conditions for the inmates of the Nazi concentration/extermination camps. I won't expand on that example.

The HSUS versus abolitionists fight brought to mind the accommodationists versus religion-abolitionists fight in atheist circles. The parallels are quite close in spirit. If religion causes harm and suffering in the world, why dabble in compromise? If abolition is not possible in any case, why not compromise?

Dan Hooley said...

I'm curious what you mean when you say that for many people, a vegan diet would be like a lifetime of eating in the cafeteria.

Do you mean that these individuals will feel as if their vegan diet is a sacrifice, and that it would come nowhere close to the culinary achievements of a diet including animal products? Or do you think for some people that would, in fact, be the case, and they would have a significant drop off in pleasure on a vegan diet? (My own view: I tend to think people overestimate how unsatisfying a vegan diet can be).

In any case, even granting that there is less pleasure on a vegan diet, why would a 'more significant drop in pleasure' matter morally? We aren't, of course, entitled to eat like kings. So why should it matter if some people don't gain as much pleasure from consuming plants, if its enjoyable enough and they get everything their health and longevity require?

Jean Kazez said...

Criag (not Craig?), Yes, those are the types of analogies that Francione uses. I've never this sort of argument compelling because (a) reform measures didn't actually undercut the pressure to abolish slavery, and (b) I don't think the chances are high that everyone will ever come around to Francione's view that animals are persons with a right to life like ours. So reform measures aren't impeding progress toward something likely to ever happen.

Yes--I've often thought of the parallel with accommodationism with respect to science and religion.

Dan--In my Animal Rights class I always have students visit a vegan restaurant and we discuss how they liked the food. For many, the answer is something like "C-". But take this further, just for the sake of argument. Suppose that vegan food is perfectly nutritious for me, but tastes like cardboard. Now what happens to the "gustatory pleasure is trivial" argument? Does it really still hold? To me there is something perplexing here.

Daniel Hooley said...
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Daniel Hooley said...

Jean: A great idea, having students visit a vegan restaurant. A lot of these restaurants, as I'm sure you know, specialize in 'faux' foods. Something that can be delicious and helpful once you've been veg for a while, but is, admittedly, less appetizing to people who haven't been eating vegetarian or vegan for some time. I'm inclined to think that as our diets change, and hopefully with a little effort and gustatory exploration, individuals will find a world of delicious, plant-based food that they will come to crave. Before I became vegan, I don't think I ever craved certain veggies the way I do now. And trying other cuisines (like Ethiopian, Thai, Mexican, and Indian veggie and vegan fare) has definitely expanded what I find appetizing and interesting.

Anyways, putting that aside, you are probably right that for some, even the best veggie fare will never compare. What should we make of this? Well, I'm inclined to think that this pleasure is, in some sense, perverse. Just as we would say the pleasure some individuals may get from killing people, or watching animals suffer, or any other sort of morally objectionable activity shouldn't "count" in how we weigh/consider the issue, the same I think is the case for the pleasure people get from eating animals.

Now, its not the case that most of us are at fault for deriving pleasure from the flesh of animals (we don't choose what food we grow up on, nor what our taste buds like). But I don't think this pleasure in any way lessens our obligations, nor do I think it in any way could count towards justifying the killing of animals for food. In that respect, I take it, it is the same as the preverse pleasures I alluded to above. The upshot, then, is that for some individuals, morality just may be more demanding. It may be more difficult for them to stop eating animals, but that is there obligation none the less.

Wayne said...

Gustatory pleasure does seem trivial to me. If vegan food was cardboard, I'd still eat it if that was my only option between eating meat and being vegan (Thankfully it isn't). It requires a greater sacrifice, but the sacrifice isn't morally comparable. We're trading a non-moral pleasure, with a moral wrong. So unless non-moral pleasures suddenly are more important values than moral values, then I don't see how one could charge that its non-trivial.

But more importantly, in the real world, vegan and vegetarian cuisine isn't really a step away from cardboard. If it is, then you really need to find better vegetarian food. The last time I had some chips and salsa, I thought it was tasty and delicious, and its something most students would eat on a regular basis.

I wonder if students aren't also clouded by their preconceived notions of what their food is supposed to taste like. They go to a vegan restaurant, and expect bland tasteless food. So they judge it so.

But this might just be because I've been eating veg so long now, that I've become accustomed to the taste of vegetarian... which is another point to remember... It takes time for people to adjust to new diets. Novel things often won't taste good, but given some time we begin to cultivate an appreciation for it. So even given nutritious vegan cardboard, I believe eventually I'll start making more refined distinctions about the texture and flavor of the pizza box as opposed to the moving box.

Jean Kazez said...

Daniel, True, the place most of them visit (Spiral Diner in Oak Cliff) does specialize in faux animal food, and that's a cuisine I just couldn't eat constantly. There's a newer vegan restaurant in Dallas (The V Spot) that has much better food, with no faux ingredients. I think you're right that vegan cuisine could evolve so that it's much better than it is right now. And yes, food preferences change. I'm a big fan of all kinds of beans now and wasn't before I became a vegetarian.

The pleasure issue--I respect what y'all are saying, but still find it perplexing. It can certainly be obligatory to give up some kinds of pleasure, like if you enjoy being an exhibitionist or a peeping Tom, for example. But the pleasure of eating ice-cream certainly isn't twisted in that way.

Will not press this point too hard, as I wouldn't really be able to back up this idea of entitlement to basic, natural pleasures--it's just an intuition I have (some of the time).

Spencer said...
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Spencer said...

Great discussion! I'm wondering if any of you think the following captures the thinking behind the "Vegan Feud" debate over animal welfare reforms.

Consider human slavery. Suppose a slave-master works his slave all day and provides him with insufficient water. The slave-master is being obviously cruel, but he’s also being inefficient — if he kept his slave well-hydrated, he’d be able to work him more productively. Now suppose welfare legislation could be passed that would require slave-masters to adequately hydrate their slaves, and thus: (a) reduce suffering (by addressing the dehydration problem), and (b) improve productivity (by allowing more efficient exploitation). From an incrementalist pov, (b) is bad, but its evil doesn't justify sacrificing the good of (a), whereas from an anti-incrementalist pov, (b)'s badness is a decisive reason against the legislation since it outweighs the good of (a). This is how I'm understanding the current divide between animal rights incrementalists and animal rights nonincrementalists. Every animal welfare reform has those two effects, and this debate seems to be about weighing them against each other in light of the shared goal to end factory farming.

Torquil Macnneil said...

" I think you're right that vegan cuisine could evolve so that it's much better than it is right now. "

It is actually not too hard to serve a vegan meal to mat eaters without them even noticing if you cook Indian style and exchange oil for ghee. If you like your food spicy, I think veganism needn't be too onerous, although vegetarianism is much much easier (it's the yoghurt).

BenSix said...

This farm sounds a bit creepy to me. How could one hold that animals aren't persons and then love them in the manner one might love a child? And by what standard does he choose the "favourites" that will be spared from the chop?

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for minimising animal suffering, but it sounds like Bob is in dire need of some grandkids...

Daniel Hooley said...

Just one more point (I apologize for belaboring it) about the switch to a vegan diet and the pleasure one experiences. EVEN IF people experienced less pleasure, I don't think it would necessarily follow that we should think of them as worse off. For there is an important bit of info we have thus far left out: vegan diets are way healthier. If everyone adopted a vegan diet, not only would people on average live longer, but they would have less chronic diseases, and do better with the conditions and ailments that many experience already. Adding, perhaps, years of pleasure to ones life.... :)