Small Eyes and Big Claims: Kristof on Animal Empathy


“Like many readers,” writes Nicholas Kristof in today’s Times, “I don’t particularly empathize with chickens.” His reason? “It’s their misfortune that they lack big eyes.”

So let me get this straight. Kristof’s ability to empathize with an animal hinges on the animal’s ability to make eye-contact? Yes, Nick Kristof appears to rely on the categorical determining power of eye diameter to do something rather morally acrobatic: justify the decision to exploit chickens while denoting concern for their ultimate welfare. Eye size. Earlier this week I spoke at the University of Texas and a student based his choice to eat animals on the Book of Genesis. I’d give this student the edge over the Times columnist.

Kristof recalls growing up on a farm in Oregon. “I found our pigs to be razor smart, while our geese mated for life and our sheep and cattle had distinct personalities. The chickens were the least individualistic of the animals we raised.” Hmm. So, add mating for life and “razor sharp” intelligence to the vexing list of Kristof’s prerequisites for the right to moral consideration.  (As for how he determined whether sheep and cattle had personalities, I’m going to assume it had to do with, well, their big eyes.)

Kristof’s comments are, at best, thoughtless toss-off lines that in no way reflect the deeper qualities of Kristof’s intelligence. We just happen to live in a culture so inured to behaving unconsciously toward non-human animals that one of the nation’s most respected columnists can, with a smirk and a wink, make comments that are, upon even the sketchiest examination, patently inane.

After all, if we took Kristof’s remarks literally, and examined them reflectively, we would have to conclude that he believes anyone with multiple sexual partners, lukewarm SAT scores, or congenital eye impairment is rightfully subject to arbitrary exploitation.  Needless to say, he doesn’t believe this. In fact, his column goes on to express genuine concern for the chickens who refuse to meet his gaze. He writes, for example, “I flinch at a system in which hens are reduced to widgets.” He even mentions the “arc of empathy,” noting how “our sensibilities have evolved so that there is an outcry when animals are abused.” Wow.

Without intending to, Kristof’s column not only causes whiplash, but it drives home an important message: as a culture that claims to value peace and the reduction of suffering, we’re illiterate when it comes to animal ethics. I’m not letting Kristof off the hook here. I’m simply observing the reality that the court of intelligent public opinion–the kind embodied in the Times–tolerates Kristof’s inconsistency regarding the moral consideration of animals because the court of public opinion has never really thought about it.

Obscured by Kristof’s insouciance are questions that cut to the core of what it means to be a human being. Can we justifiably cause unnecessary suffering? Can we claim to value the life of an animal and declare its premature death morally acceptable? I’d love to hear a writer with the moral depth and intellectual acumen of Kristof give these questions a column or two.



About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

5 Responses to Small Eyes and Big Claims: Kristof on Animal Empathy

  1. CQ says:

    Well, at least he’s being honest about the limits of his concern.

    It IS odd, though, that he vascillates between disdain for the “widget” approach and acceptance of eye size as a determinant of empathy.

    The impression I’m left with is that the carnist system under whose spell most of us are living is designed to make us feel moral ambiguity. We are told we must care about the welfare of those whose body parts sustain us — whose muscles and milk we apparently can’t survive without — and at the same time we are asked to not take seriously these animals’ desire to lead a full, self-directed life.

    If the astute, decent and basically kind Kristoff cannot question his upbringing, cannot think for himself after so many years of being off the farm — and as a consequence of this subject swirling around in his head and in society at large in recent years — it does make one wonder how any of us ever develop the guts and the grace to forsake the status quo and “just say no” to killing creatures.

    I have hope for us all. I have to believe that each individual will at some point be ready to shun the enslavement of animals and shed humans’ claim to them as property.

    As to *when* that will happen, well, as a quote I read last night puts it: “[T]hat depends upon the tenacity of error” (Science and Health, p. 296).

  2. Mary Martin says:

    I’m so glad there’s another person who wasn’t “all in” on this one. What frequently happens with him, for me, is he comes close or is even spot on, then writes something equally not spot on. For example: “For those who are wavering, think for a moment about the arc of empathy. Centuries ago, we humans amused ourselves by seeing other people executed or tortured. [ok] Until modern times, we considered it sport to see animals die horrible deaths. [WHAT?] Now our sensibilities have evolved so that there is an outcry when animals are abused — unless it happens out of sight on farms.”

    All over the “civilized” world, many individuals and certainly entire cultures still see fit to brutally slay animals for sport. The Faroe Islands massacres. Any place that still has bullfighting. Hunting of any kind (including the hunting and killing of fishes and also releasing them back to die slow, excruciating deaths). Religion still, in 2012, includes ritual sacrifice of animals (which doesn’t fall under “sport” but still falls under “in no way to be considered necessary”). Our sensibilities have a lot of evolving to do before most people consider the lives and deaths of the animals on their plates.

  3. Krisotf wrote that he flinches at a system in which hens are reduced to widgets, yet whether it’s factory farming or small-scale farming, any system in which sentient beings are treated like things is a system where those beings are reduced to widgets.

  4. Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten says:

    Here’s a link to the article:

    Is an Egg for Breakfast Worth This?
    April 11, 2012, Nicholas D. Kristof

    Not much of a fan of Kristof because his farm boy background informs his opinions on such topics and he never seems to feels it at all necessary to challenge the assumptions he was raised with.

    Personally, I tend to question my youthful experiences and beliefs the most because I’d like to think I hopefully got wiser as I got older. Ever reread literature you first read as a child, it’s like reading a different book.

    With that said many vegans and vegetarians either grew up on farms or spent enough time around livestock, or went hunting, etc, and their childhood experiences later inform their attitude towards slaughtering or using animals.

    “I grew up on a farm therefore I know about animal ethics,” and city slicker vegetarians presumably don’t, is fairly tired especially when you consider that people like Donald Watson, who grew up on a farm as well, ended up establishing the Vegan Society.

    In response to your blog post, it reminded me of Ira Glass on The David Letterman Show:

    It runs a little long, and the audience indulges in a plenty of laughs (reinforcement of the normalizing paradigm through ridicule), but it makes it all the more poignant when the “punch line” is delivered.

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