The Orwellian Distortion of “Humane”

I think one of the most horrific things about industrial animal agriculture is that, by any measure of decency, it’s so horrific. What I mean here is that it exists on such a deep level of hell that virtually any other approach to raising animals for food–such as so-called sustainable animal agriculture–looks comparatively angelic. Making matters even more troublesome is that industrial animal agriculture is so firmly entrenched as the dominant mode of production that any alternative–again, so called sustainable animal agriculture–comes off looking like a savior, a knight in shining armor, or at least a prodigal son. In reality, though, it’s more like a Trojan Horse.

The human mind responds well to dichotomies. Industrial agriculture is super bad. Non-industrial agriculture is thus super good. This is an easy distinction that, for most critics of agriculture, is beyond dispute. The problem, though, is that the dichotomy is false. Terribly false. It exists not because of an objective difference between industrial and “sustainable” agriculture. Instead it thrives because of what consumers choose to see. And what consumers choose to see depends deeply on a question people in the sustainable food movement simply won’t talk about: what rights do farm animals have?

Ethical vegans build their worldview on the back of this question. We believe animals deserve some level of moral consideration. The extent of that moral consideration will always be an open question, but at the least ethical vegans believe that animals are worthy enough not to be intentionally killed so we can eat their bodies. Omnivores routinely call this idea radical. I call it common decency. I call it humane. It is through this humane lens, moreover, that I view the non-industrial farm raising animal products.  And what that lens invariably highlights is how similar that good farm is to the bad farm. “Humane” and “arbitrary death” don’t go so well together.

Take another look at the short film “Free Range” (above) and you’ll get the point. The film’s perspective is tilted in such a way that the small farm looks eerily like an industrial one: on this bucolic farm chickens are still grabbed by the legs, jammed into stacked crates, stuffed into a neat row of cones, and, as if on an assembly line, summarily killed. They’re tossed in scalding water, thrown into a centrifuge to be plucked, and hung up like articles of clothing. They’re cleaned and sold. It all happens on a smaller scale, but the ultimate goal is exactly the same.  This is what the humane perspective reveals. This is what you see when you think animals matter.

 Advocates of small-scale sustainable animal agriculture do not believe that animals have a right to their own lives. They believe animals are here for our use and exploitation. They thus see something altogether different.  When they look at a small animal farm, they see happiness. They avert their gaze from the murderous similarities and, instead, relish sunny skies and happy animals frolicking in green pastures. They support these farms because “the animals are treated with dignity.” Sure. Because when you believe animals can justifiably be killed whenever a human craves their flesh you don’t stop to ask: can arbitrary death ever be dignified?

Interestingly, these people also call their perspective humane. When I hear this term used for small scale animal agriculture I’m reminded of the comedian Louis CK, who likes to joke that he often imagines himself doing something virtuous and, even though he never actually does the virtuous act, feels smug satisfaction for even having the thought.  This is what supporters of small scale animal agriculture do. They see what they want to see, ignore the underlying and ultimate reality of what they witness, and feel good about themselves for even caring about animals at all. They do this as they “give thanks” over their happy meat.

The paradox here is almost worth smiling over. Small scale animal farms can only be considered “humane” when the consumer adopts an inhumane perspective. In other words, it is only when the consumer reduces a sentient animal to an object worthy of commodifying that he can call the system–a violent system–that does the objectifying “humane.”  To call this trick of the mind “better” than industrial farming is not only far-fetched, it’s a distortion of the values advocates of sustainable agriculture so earnestly claim to seek.  One reader recently noted that I allow the “perfect to be the enemy of the better.” In light of what I argue here, I’d put it differently: I allow compassion to be the enemy of self-deception. As do all ethical vegans.

“Vapid”: Animal Ethics and the Mainstream Media

This morning I was running with a friend—and an accomplished scientist—who declared my ethical justification for not eating animals to be “vapid.” Pressed to explain this response, he refused to discuss the matter in any further depth. It should be said that my friend has worked impressively over the past year—largely as a result of my own influence– to cook vegan for himself and his family. However, he only wants to hear about the health justifications for his choice. The ethics remain irrelevant to him.

My skin is thick. Thus, the vapidity comment didn’t leave a mark (well, maybe a little one). What’s lingered all day, though, is the depressing reminder that virtually every aspect of society is structured to prevent rational discussions about animal ethics. I’m reminded of Bob Torres’ book Making A Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights. In it, he argues persuasively that “Most of us give the consumption of animals and their products as much thought as we do the oxygen we breathe.” The reason, Torres adds, is that “speciesism is woven into our mental, social, and economic machinery.”

It’s also, I would add, an integral part of something much less mechanistic: our culture.  As with any problem, what we don’t see is just as important as what we do.  What’s conspicuously amiss in our contemporary media-saturated environment is an accessible discussion of speciesism and animal rights. These discourses are certainly thriving, but they’re doing so in the more distant corners of cyberspace and, to a lesser extent, in some academic journals.  These venues reliably serve the interests of those who have already lent their minds to the matter. They generally do not, however, reach into the intelligent mainstream of modern culture and shake up pre-existing conceptions.  This, as I see it, is a huge problem, one that vegan writers, artists, filmmakers, and social media experts must collectively address.

Oh, and what a barrier we face. Big media generally relish stories that challenge the status quo, but here’s the rub:  only so long as advertisers aren’t threatened. I’ve heard from several reliable sources—one of them an editor at a major magazine—that advertisers have become so dominant in print media that they’re now insisting their ads run next to “upbeat” stories. Ever wonder why foodie magazines dedicated to the world of cuisine won’t go near an article questioning the ethics of eating animals? Advertising would vanish. One editor who’s published some of my writing on-line has claimed that my articles would “sink” a mainstream print magazine.  I realize this may be old news for an adbuster generation, but it bears repeating.

Plus, it explains so much about my friend’s “vapid” comment. He’s hardly alone in being a highly intelligent, Ivy League educated, professionally successful individual who won’t go near the issue of animal rights. But he’s also hardly alone in that, should the issue eventually escape into the mainstream, and stay there long enough, he’d be the first to spar with it. I’m no media theorist, but here’s the critical thing about how culture structures knowledge: when the “legitimate” media ushers a topic into the limelight, that topic is not only legitimated, but it’s knocked around enough to the point that it becomes part of an educated public discussion.  This is a necessary step in the long journey to end the exploitation of animals for human wants.

As a writer, I believe deeply in the power of words to shape ideas in the public sphere. This is why I’m always trying to put stuff “out there.” It’s a struggle. But here’s what I know:  it must be done with tact as well as conviction, passion as well as reason, and patience as well as raging desire to elevate, rather than evade, our discussions about animals, sentience, speciesism, and ethics.

“Perhaps the Only Ethical Meat”?: The “Ethicist’s” Finalists

The finalists are in for the New York Times Magazine’s “Ethicist” contest seeking an essay justifying the choice to eat animals.  While there’s little doubt in my mind that two of the judges– Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan–will (based on their previous work) find most of the chosen answers adequate, I’d be shocked if the others– Peter Singer, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Andrew Light–allowed these often thoughtful, but consistently speciesist, accounts to see the light of day. The exception, of course, may be the call for in-vitro meat, which I’ve included below.

The other finalists can be found here:

 From “The Ethicist”:

I’m About to Eat Meat for the First Time in 40 Years

My father was an ethical man. He had integrity, was honest and loathed needless cruelty. He was also a meat-eater’s meat-eater. He loved sitting at the elevated gourmet table (“gourmet” actually meant something back then) at the fanciest hotel in Sydney to take his evening meal.

He hung up game until it “ponged” to high heaven and enjoyed local meat dishes: wild boar in Switzerland, giant crabs on Easter Island and, in the Persian Gulf, sea turtles whose shells he pierced so that he could stake them at the water’s edge, keeping them fresh until they were popped into the pot.

His habit killed him in the end: the first sign of trouble came with gout, then colon cancer, heart problems and strokes, but he enjoyed meat for decades before all that “wretched bother” in a time when ethical issues were raised only by “a handful of Hindus and Grahamists.”

He taught me, the animal lover, to enjoy meat, too. It did not occur to me that while I would never dream of using a firearm to dispatch a deer or a duck, the specialty butcher’s package, with blood seeping through the paper, came from animals who knew what hit them, who saw and smelled it coming, their hearts thumping in their chests, their eyes wide with fear.

I busily ate my way through the animal kingdom. My father and I hunted for mollusks — mussels and winkles — on the rocks around the Cornish coast. We relished organ meats like liver and kidney and even tripe, which my mother cooked reluctantly for us, a hankie covering her nose. We picnicked on raw triple-ground steak, smashing it messily into the palms of our hands, and mixing in, with our fingers, a raw egg, capers and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. If peckish, I would make a sandwich from the roast beef drippings congealed in a pan left in the larder.

Is it ethical to eat meat? Some 40 years ago, I took a long break from eating any animals, but soon I will be able to eat meat again without any qualms, without worrying about my health, cruelty to animals, or environmental degradation. That’s because this autumn, 14 years after it was just a gleam in the eye of the Dutch scientist Willem van Eelen, the very first laboratory-grown hamburger is to make its debut.

Dr. Van Eelen, while a prisoner during World War II, had been badly treated, but what bothered him more was the abuse he saw meted out to animals destined for the guards’ tables. He was determined to find a way to reduce animals’ suffering, and eventually, he and the scientists he inspired all over the world succeeded. It is thanks to him that I can return to the table with my lobster bib tucked into my shirt front, my conscience clear.

In vitro meat is real meat, grown from real cow, chicken, pig and fish cells, all grown in culture without the mess and misery, without pigs frozen to the sides of metal transport trucks in winter and without intensive water use, massive manure lagoons that leach into streams or antibiotics that are sprayed onto and ingested by live animals and which can no longer fight ever-stronger, drug-resistant bacteria. It comes without E. coli, campylobacter, salmonella or other health problems that are unavoidable when meat comes from animals who defecate. It comes without the need for excuses. It is ethical meat. Aside from accidental roadkill or the fish washed up dead on the shore, it is perhaps the only ethical meat.

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.


Interpreting Sentience: Scientific Skepticism Vs. Common Sense

Envision a famous sculpture–say, Michelangelo’s Statue of David. Let your mind’s eye focus on it for a moment (or just look above). Impressive specimen, you might think. Now imagine a skeptic coming along and arguing that you weren’t really seeing what you thought you were seeing: the image of a man.  We couldn’t be totally sure, the skeptic would say, that the statue represents a real live human being. Granted, a lot of evidence suggests that it represents a human being (such as the fact that it looks exactly like one!). But consider a few points: it’s seventeen feet tall, made of marble, and only shaped in a general resemblance of a human being–a resemblance that could, after all, be coincidental. None of these characteristics, the careful skeptic would argue, proves that Michelangelo intended it to reflect a human form.

Scholars are skeptics, and their cautious and systematic doubt–the kind that questions the representation of David–is prevalent in animal studies. A recent case in point is F. Bailey Norwood’s and Jayson L. Lusk’s Compassion by the Pound: The Economics of Farm Animal Welfare. Norwood and Lusk are accomplished, well-respected agricultural economists. Their book is generally superb. However, a compelling chapter on the sentience of farm animals stopped me in my tracks, reminding me how scholarly caution–usually an admirable quality–can lead to conclusions that are not only obviously wrong, but supportive of proof that’s empirically unachievable.

The chapter in question–”Animal Qualia: Investigating Animal Sentience”–summarizes an incredible hit list of peer-reviewed studies confirming animal sentience, emotionalism, and intelligence. We learn that cows “can not only solve simple problems but they become excited when a solution is found,” that pigs recognize as many as 30 of their peers, that after years of absence “a cow can still recognize up to 50 cattle and ten human faces,” that “pigs resemble humans to such a large extent that the heart valves from pigs can be transplanted into humans,” that chickens often behave “much like Pavlov’s dog,” that “unlike human infants, baby chicks will search for an object they have seen being hidden behind a screen,” and that pigs, which can predict what another pig thinks and sees, “are as smart as dogs.” It’s a spellbinding summary of sentience, and it’s hard to imagine an omnivore reading this chapter and not thinking seriously about becoming a herbivore.

Until the chapter’s conclusion. It’s then that that authors’ counterproductive skepticism kicks in, caution emerges, and a spade, all of a sudden, is no longer a spade. While there are “many reasons to support the idea of animal sentience,” there are, somewhat out of nowhere, “some reasons to cast doubt on the idea.” Despite the overwhelming, and often poignant, evidence that animal sentience is undeniable, the authors write that there is “a fair possibility that animals can feel pain.” A fair possibility? Even more befuddling, the authors conclude that, “it seems reasonable that this pain should be given some consideration.” Seems? Some? Where are these buffers coming from?  What am I missing here? What’s most troubling to me about this two-page dance around the evidence is that the conclusion could have been reduced to a few choice words: stop eating animal products.

But, as an academic, I’m well aware that that’s not how we academics roll. We tread lightly; we complicate; we question, object, challenge; we never jump to conclusions; we deliberate; we don’t like bumper-sticker length conclusions. These tendencies, however, can backfire. Specifically, at the threshold of common sense, they turn a statue of a beautiful human being into a pile of marble and a beautiful, sentient, non-human being into a falsely justifiable dinner option.




Monkey Business: The Dubious Role of Animal Experiments

Relatively recent reports confirm that the National Institute of Health (NIH) spent almost four million dollars over the last ten years funding research into how monkeys react to methamphetamine, heroin, PCP, and cocaine. This particular study placed special emphasis on how addiction to these narcotics influenced primate menstruation. When CNSNews  caught wind of this choice federal expenditure they awarded it a “What Were They Smoking?” award. What rationale, it wondered, could justify “sponsoring an outrageous government spending program that sends taxpayer dollars up in smoke”?


No doubt, the study was a colossal waste of money. But the fact that taxpayer dollars went up in smoke strikes me as insignificant compared to the fact that monkeys were transformed by scientists into toxic dump sites. Not only are monkeys sentient, self-referential beings capable of feeling empathy and experiencing autonomy, but they also, as has been recently confirmed, exhibit a clear sense of altruism, morality, and fairness. As Frans de Waal, a professor of psychology at Emory and author of the recent study documenting these primate qualities, explained, “There is enough evidence  . . .  to agree that some of the stepping stones towards human morality can be found in other animals.”

Regrettably, most people aren’t ready go there. Indeed, a common defense of animal-based research–and animal objectification in general–instinctively falls back on a rigid conception of the species barrier to justify denigrating sentient non-humans. We are human, they are not, end of story. This line of defense is not only simplistic, but it’s deeply rooted in, among other traditions, a fundamentalist Christian belief that morality is granted by God exclusively to humans in order to distinguish us from non-human animals, to whom we’re evidently superior and, as a result, in a position to own, control, and exploit.

But there’s a more scientific way to critique the common practice of ending compassion and morality at the species barrier. Instead of issuing a fundamental distinction between the human and non-human animal world, basic evolutionary biology conceptualizes all animals on a finely-grained continuum of anatomical and cognitive differentiation. Forgive the following block quotations, but in explicating this continuum, the following scientists cast the federally funded drug monkeys in a new light, one that makes it much harder to justify their exploitation on the basis of their non-human status.

Donald Griffin, the father of cognitive ethology–the science of animal thought–writes:

 The central nervous system of multi-cellular animals all operate by means of the same basic processes regardless of the species or even the phylum in which they are found. Because we know that at least one species does indulge in conscious thinking, and take it for granted that conscious and unconscious thinking result from activities of the central nervous system, we have no solid basis for excluding a priori the possibility that conscious thinking takes place in any animal with a reasonably well-organized central nervous system.  

Bernard E. Rollin, a leading authority on veterinary ethics, echoes this theme of continuity in his book Animal Rights and Human Morality:

 For Darwin himself, and for the nineteenth-century biologists (at least in England and America) who carried forth his ideas, thought and feeling in animals was an inevitable consequence of phylogenic continuity. If morphological and physiological traits are evolutionarily continuous, so, too, are psychological ones.” Rollin deems this idea central to “the foundational theory of modern biology.

No less a thinker than the late Stephen Jay Gould has similarly complicated the human/non-human barrier by highlighting the problem of excluding humans from the family Pondigae (the family which includes the great apes). He writes in The Dinosaur in the Haystack:

Humans arise within the Pondigae, and cannot represent a separate family, lest we commit the genealogical absurdity of uniting two more distant forms (chimps and gorillas) in the same family and excluding a third creature (humans) more closely related to one of those two united species. I surely cannot claim to be more closely related to my uncle than to my brother, but we make exactly such a statement when we argue that chimps are closer to gorillas than to humans.

If Griffin, Rollin, and Gould are right–that is, if the deepest principles of evolutionary biology prevent us from limiting the scope of moral concern to humans–then the act of pumping heroin into an ape, even for the noble purposes of research, becomes profoundly troubling. It must be acknowledged that the act of using non-humans as research subjects is based on an unspoken paradox: scientists use non-human because they are not like us and, at the same time, they use them because they are like us.

Thinking Fast and Slow about Animals

There’s a frequently overlooked, but essential, connection between our quest to understand animal minds and the quest to understand human minds. A quick perusal of the existing literature on both topics yields fascinating respective findings. When it comes to animals we’re learning that they not only possess what most would agree is self-awareness, but they deploy that awareness to make situational decisions that are easily deemed rational. When it comes to humans, by contrast, we’re learning that, after living through the age of reason, our behavior has become far more erratically irrational than previously assumed (see Dan Arieli’s Predictably Irrational as an example). Turns out we decide against our own interests all the time. Which makes me wonder: what happens when these two lines of inquiry are joined?

That’s hard to say as, to my knowledge, nobody’s really tried to analyze the implications of increasingly human irrationality and animal rationality. Still, it’s more than a little fun to think that humans, perhaps as a result of our relatively comfortable place in the food web, are slowly falling off the rails of rationality while wild animals, perhaps as a result of our frequent intrusion into their habitats, are being driven to hone rational habits in order to prosper under rapidly altering environmental conditions. In other words, phones, cars, computers, flat screen TVs, tweats, texts, alarm clocks, fast food, and electric toothbrushes have made life so soft for humans that we can coast blissfully through fogs of confusion while global warming, edge habitats, deforestation, fertilizer run-off, and the interstate highway system have selected for wild animals that can make sharper choices in a world being trashed by human ingenuity.

In his recent book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economics, argues that humans tend to avoid judicious and drawn out contemplation of serious questions because we’ve been rewarded by evolution for thinking fast and acting quickly. The connection between quick thought and swift action might explain why Americans often think of themselves as a nation of “doers” and, in turn, skeptical of intellectual and contemplative approaches to life. Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to suggest that humans (and eventually, Americans) might eventually realize that fast thought has so many shallow pitfalls that it’s time to indulge not only in slow food, but maybe some slow thought. What might happen when we think slowly and conscientiously about animals?

Now there’s an exciting question. I deeply believe that if most people were fully aware of the emotional, intellectual, and social lives of animals, they’d screech their omnivorous worldview to a halt, look animals in the face, and, to begin with, offer a sincere apology. Maybe we’ll get there, and maybe, just maybe, an unexpected aspect of evolution will be our guide.