Meat, Meat, Meat

Last night at SMU I was part of a panel discussion following a screening of the new movie American Meat.  What a meaty movie!  You see meat cooking, meat sitting in grocery stores, meat being eaten, live animals being turned into meat, meat on the hoof... Lots and lots of meat.  Not really enjoyable viewing, I have to say, for a vegetarian.

The movie's message is that the US should transform animal agriculture, replacing all the factory farming with sustainable, compassionate, grass-based farming on the model of Joel Salatin's Polyface farm (already famous due to its starring role in Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma).  Good message?  From an animal rights point of view, certainly not. But set that aside.  The movie is also problematic from an environmental standpoint.  It conveys the impression that American demand for meat is a given, and perfectly fine.

The narrator observes that Americans eat 190 pounds of meat per year (1/2 pound a day) ... without a trace of horror.  But there should be horror. Even if you set aside concerns about animal welfare and animal rights, that level of consumption is environmentally unacceptable.  The immense amount of land involved in meat production crowds out wild animals.  The ruminants produce greenhouse gases. It takes a huge amount of water and gasoline to produce meat. Plant farming is far more environmentally benign, in every respect.

It's all gonna be okay, the movie suggests, if we shift to a different style of farming.  But wait! Grass-fed ruminants will still produce greenhouse gases.  Animal farming will still use an immense amount of land.  In fact, it stands to reason that it will take more land, if hogs and chickens aren't squeezed into containment facilities, and cattle aren't "finished" in feedlots. Joel Salatin and his adherents want us to think that's not so, because they're going to rotate more than one species on a given chunk of land. There are statistics in American Meat saying it will take far less land to produce all US meat in the Polyface fashion (286 million acres) than the amount of land currently used for animal grazing (600 million acres, which doesn't include the land used to grow feedcrops--the figure is from USDA statistics, not the movie).  So we're going to liberate the factory farmed hogs and chickens, the feedlot cattle, and use half as much land for meat production.

Maybe .... not.  If you liberate the confinement animals, it's awfully hard to believe you're going to squeeze them all onto existing grazing land, but completely strains credulity to say you could cut the amount of grazing land in half.  And if you somehow did achieve that (repeat after me: it's not gonna happen), wouldn't the grazing land be used much more intensively, with more soil erosion, more damage to ecosystems, more interference with wildlife and biodiversity?

I don't believe that Polyface style farming is ever going to make it "green" for Americans to continue being voracious 1/2 pound per day meat eaters.  Michael Pollan has a much more credible message when he talks about Polyface farm in The Omnivore's Dilemma.  The message is that we must both change our style of animal farming and reduce meat consumption.  If you set aside animal welfare and rights problems (no, Polyface farm does not solve all of the problems), that's the right message. 

Granted, we all do things that are not environmentally responsible.  My car is too big (though it's a hybrid). Perhaps what especially annoys me about the Polyface meat-loving crowd is their tone of moral rectitude. (I'm not self-righteous about my car!)  They think they've got it all figured out,  environmentally. But they don't--not if they're still eating half a pound of meat per day.

As for their strategies for dismissing moral issues about killing animals for food, I must merely smile.  They resort to the silliest justifications.  God made animals for us to eat (even the bible says no such thing).  Death comes from life.  Well, very nice.  Next time a cannibal wants to eat you for dinner, tell yourself death comes from life.  I'm afraid we just can't justify killing animals for food with such platitudes!

Maybe I'm being too negative.  Anyone spending more money to buy Polyface-type meat has to have their heart at least somewhat in the right place. They'd certainly doing better than the totally indifferent carnivore.

FYI--I will be out of computer contact for the next couple of days.  Comments appreciated as always, but I won't be able to respond to any of them.  Apologies for non-responsiveness in the last couple of weeks. I have been dealing with a family emergency and time has been in very short supply.


Intergenerational Amnesia

Suppose a 10 year old child had a life-threatening illness that could only be cured at the cost of amnesia. She would lose all memory of her first 10 years, but go on living. It would be bad to forget her early years, but surely worth it to stay alive.  I think we should say roughly the same thing about the practice of saving babies' lives by placing "baby boxes" hear hospitals. When a desperate mother abandons her baby, the baby loses all chance of knowing her origins, but gets to go on living (infanticide is prevented), and will hopefully be adopted by a loving family.  There's a loss, but it's worth it.  Given that characterization, it makes sense to try to change attitudes, so that mothers don't feel compelled to furtively abandon their babies, but instead either keep them or relinquish them in open adoptions.  That would be better for the children, it seems to me.

Charlotte Witt takes a different position on baby boxes here.  She contests Article 8 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been invoked against baby boxes: "States Parties undertake to respect the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations." To my ear, "undertakes to respect" is rather mild.  You could "undertake to respect" the right in question, and still have a system of baby boxes, justifying it by saying in that particular case, saving lives takes priority.  But  Article 8 does postulate a right to know about one's origins (in so many words), and Witt objects.  The alleged ground of the right, she says, is that knowing your family of origin is "central to the healthy formation of identity." So (this is her gloss) one needs to know one's family of origin to form a health sense of identity.  But that's not so, she argues. To the extent that we gain a sense of identity by knowing what we got from our parents and grandparents, they could equally well be custodial, not genetic, parents and grandparents.

I don't know about the idea that there's a psychological need to know one's origins. Do mental health experts really think we're impaired by not knowing anything about our biological parents? But most people do deeply care about their origins.  This is not a matter of just caring about our genes. You couldn't get a genome map of yourself, and thereby dispense with the need to know who your parents and grandparents are.  In caring about our origins we care about our ... origins.  Where we came from, who our progenitors were. This is like wanting to know who created a painting, or who was the author of a novel.  Knowing origins can tell you more about the person, painting, or novel, but is also of independent interest. We want to know where things came from. Period. This seems like a fundamental and not irrational desire.

The person who starts life in a baby box will, like most of us, have a desire to know her own origins. Now "knowing my origins" is a sufficiently elastic concept that we could know a lot by knowing about our custodial parents, grandparents, teachers, nannies, or whoever was closely involved in our lives.  But most of us also want to know our origins in the strictly biological sense.  We'd be missing an important piece of the puzzle about ourselves if we didn't know who our biological parents (and grandparents) were.  It's unfortunate, then, to start life in a baby box--not worse than not living at all, but worse than starting life in a position to know about one's biological origins. Or so it seems to me.

Is this position "bionormative" in some pernicious sense? That seems to be Witt's view.  She seems to think attaching value to knowledge of origins gives some sort of special status to families formed in the standard, biology-based fashion.  But I think biology is normative in some ways.  We all really think so, as evidenced by our intuitions about the following two puzzles.
Puzzle #1 When a child is born, the biological parents are entitled to custody even if they have vastly worse potential to give her a good life than candidates for adoption. Imagine a refugee camp in Chad, where babies are born in abysmal conditions.  Child mortality rates are high.  People can easily live in the camps for decades.  International Rescue Committee workers visit the camp regularly and could take babies home with them, to raise in western health and affluence.  If it's "bionormative" to say refugees are entitled to keep their children, then bionormativity is not to be dispensed with. Biology does in fact enter into determining which adult is entitled to custody of which child.

Puzzle #2  Now imagine a biological parent in that refugee camp who does decide to give up her child for adoption to one of the visiting workers.  There are several candidates, and from a detached, objective standpoint, it's pretty clear who would be better able to provide the child with a good home.  Does the biological parent get to decide between them?  The answer, surely, is yes. And that's "bionormative"--again, the biological facts enter into who is entitled to decide between the candidates.  
Norms are sometimes rooted in biology, so it's not an automatic demerit for a position to be "bionormative".  Bionormative as this judgment may be, it does seem unfortunate to start off in life with "intergenerational amnesia"--permanently unable to know anything about our biological origins.


The Right to Self Defense

This semester I'm teaching an introductory course on contemporary moral problems, and this past week has been gun control week.  It's an exhausting subject, since emotions run high in the aftermath of Newtown and Aurora.  Phew!

When all is said and done, what seems interesting in the ethical debate about gun control is the right to self defense. What is it, and what does it encompass?  This seems clear enough, on a first pass.  If I am attacked, then I may do what's necessary to defend myself, with whatever means are at my disposal. The critical question is whether I'm entitled to have the most effective means at my disposal--for example, a gun.

Some people are inclined to take a "nightmare scenario" approach to that question.  They imagine a scenario in which someone is under horrendous attack.  They imagine no gun in the victim's hands, and they think that would be tragically unfair. For example, I think Sam Harris takes the "nightmare scenario" approach in this passage of a much-discussed editorial--
In my view, only someone who doesn't understand violence could wish for a world without guns. A world without guns is one in which the most aggressive men can do more or less anything they want. It is a world in which a man with a knife can rape and murder a woman in the presence of a dozen witnesses, and none will find the courage to intervene. A world without guns is a world in which no man, not even a member of SEAL Team Six, can expect to prevail over more than one attacker at a time. A world without guns, therefore, is one in which the advantages of youth, size, strength, aggression, and sheer numbers are almost always decisive.
Think about that horrible scene--the woman is raped and murdered in front of a dozen witnesses, and for  lack of a gun, nobody intervenes. (Actually, I wonder why not. I should think a dozen people actually could overcome a man with a knife!) If you keep your mind trained on that one scenario, then you might agree with Harris and not "wish for a world without guns."

But wait.  A world without guns is a whole world, not a single scenario.  What we are really comparing, when we think of worlds with and without guns, are worlds very far apart and very different.  The contrast is roughly like this--

Gun World (ours) and No-Gun World (imaginary)
Gun World (ours) -- vastly more violent deaths, assaults, rapes, robberies; vastly more accidental deaths (guns often aren't stored safely); vastly more successful suicides; vastly more lethal domestic violence; vastly weakened police (I owe that last point to Jeff McMahan--my class has been discussing his recent Stone editorial).

No-Gun World -- vastly less of of all of the violence in world one. Let's suppose, just to put a number on it, the world without guns has 90% less violence than our world.  (See the statistics on this page for evidence the disparity would at least be great).

How could anyone possibly prefer Gun World?  What the "nightmare scenario" approach asks us to do is imagine that in No-Gun World, violent rape/murders would still occur.  Now, if you approach this from a utilitarian perspective  you'll certainly be unmoved.  You won't dwell on the horrors of Harris's scenario, because you'll be mindful of the vast amount of violence that doesn't occur in No-Gun world and does occur in ours. Yes, the woman got raped and murdered at knife-point in No-Gun world, and the dozen witnesses couldn't help (I'm still scratching my head about why not), but think concretely about all the horrendous scenarios that are in Gun World (our world) and not in No-Gun World--the massacre of little children in Newtown, the massacre of movie-goers in Aurora, and so on.  Harris says "only someone who doesn't understand violence" could wish for No-Gun World, but in fact it seems as if only someone utterly irrational could wish for Gun World.  Or ... someone thinking very unclearly about the right to self-defense.

I think that's the heart of the matter, really.  Harris must be thinking that for all the overall reduction in violence in No-Gun World, something really terrible goes on there--the woman can't defend herself; the onlookers can't offer her "proxy" self-defense (if that makes any sense). The right to self-defense has been violated.  And one rights violation is worse than a 90% reduction in violence?  That's got to be the idea. No-Gun World, in his estimation, is worse, for all its lower total quantity of murder, rape, suicide, accidental death, etc, because of that one black mark.   What about -- you may wonder -- the defenselessness of the people murdered, raped, etc., in Gun World?  I can only guess what Harris must be thinking.  The defenselessness of the woman in No-Gun World is singularly pernicious, because there's a systemic denial of rights there--nobody's allowed to have guns. In Gun World, there are a whole lot more murder and rape victims, more accidentally dead children, etc., but that's all at the hands of bad guys.  There isn't the same systemic denial of rights. So (I surmise) he must be thinking, in utterly non-utilitarian fashion (what happened to the utilitarian Sam Harris of The Moral Landscape?)

But this makes no sense, even if you're prepared to take rights very, very seriously. One problem is with the way Harris is playing with scenarios.  If the nightmare scenario had happened in Gun World, he's apparently thinking, the woman (or the witnesses) might have had a gun. But (duh) the bad guy might have had a gun too. And I think guns are more useful offensively than defensively: bad guys can focus all their attention on carrying out crimes, while their victims are busy ... going to school, watching a movie, shopping in a mall, or whatever.  If you imagine the scenario playing out in Gun World, and imagine guns all around, things don't really go any better for the woman.

But never mind that. Let's allow Harris his fantasy scenario.  Let's suppose the knife-wielding rapist/murderer would have still used a knife in Gun World, and the woman would have had a gun. Should we suppose the right to self defense entitles her to that gun, despite the vast difference between the two worlds?  Are we entitled to a means of self defense that comes only at the cost of there being vastly higher overall levels of violence? I think the answer is obvious: no.

We need to not confuse the right to self defense (the right to protect yourself) with the right to have the most effective means at your disposal.  When we decide what means people are permitted to have, we obviously do need to think about society as a whole, and the costs and benefits of the various means. The idea that the woman in the nightmare scenario is entitled to have a gun strikes me as being as silly as saying that everyone's entitled to drive at 90 miles per hour, just because in one conceivable scenario, this would get someone to the emergency room on time to save a passenger's life.  We choose speed limits in light of the overall impact on society, not to optimize the outcome in one rare type of scenario. The right to mobility (there's presumably such a right) doesn't entitle us to move at any speeds we like in potentially lethal vehicles.

Likewise, weaponry.  In some imaginable scenario, a potential victim has a better chance of self-defense if she has a machine gun, but we don't allow people to have machine guns.  A rocket grenade launcher would be helpful in some conceivable situation, but no--we don't get to have them. Denying people machine guns and rocket grenade launchers is not a violation of the right to self-defense, if you think about the right clearly, and neither is wholesale prohibiting guns.

I'm reminded of a point Judith Jarvis Thomson makes in her famous article "A Defense of Abortion": we too quickly (and illicitly) move from assigning someone a right to life to assigning them the right to anything they need to hold onto life.  This has to be a mistake, as we see from simple examples: I have the right to life, but not the right to have Tom Cruise (her example was Henry Fonda!) put his hand on my fevered brow, if that's what it would take for me to stay alive.  Likewise, we too quickly move from the right to self defense to the erroneous notion that people have the right to whatever means would be necessary for effective self-defense, in any particular situation, without regard to the general impact of making that means available. The right to self defense is just the right to protect yourself, not to have any and every weapon.