Real Liberals Don’t Eat Animals: The Political Connection between Animal and Human Rights

Compassion is an attribute that ultimately transcends political ideology. Nonetheless, it seems safe to say that progressive liberalism embraces the tenets of compassion more actively and conspicuously than political conservatism. The liberal tradition, at least since the early twentieth-century, has built its identity on values that promote empathy, tolerance, an open mind, cooperation, and the celebration of diversity.  Conservatives, by contrast, have typically espoused the qualities of individualism, competition, and suspicion of social welfare programs.

Embroidered into liberalism’s set of attributes is a more specific combination of ideals. This would encompass, but not be limited to, a belief in the equality of opportunity, the rejection of arbitrary power relations, and disdain for inherited hierarchies. As a result of these qualities, the liberal tradition remains a noble one–and one that I embrace. Even if these values are rarely honored in the breach of daily political life, they at least pay rhetorical homage to the better angels of human nature. They at least speak to the more dignified aspirations of those bound into nations, precincts, and tribes.

But, for many liberals, these values don’t extend to humans alone. If the virtues of compassion, tolerance, open-mindedness, empathy, and an insistence on fairness sound familiar, they should. They’re precisely the characteristics that underscore and drive the animal rights agenda.  Not only do these attributes pervade the literature on animal rights, they also seem to pervade the character of the movement’s advocates. I’m not saying that all ethical vegans are adorned with permanent halos, I’m only noting that their ideology is synonymous with that of those who do wear permanent halos.

I make this observation after attending and speaking at another remarkable “Veg Fest,” this one in Ottawa. Thousands of people attended; I was able to speak with dozens of them personally; and I was reminded yet again that individuals who advocate for animals–to whatever extent and in whatever form–generally exhibit a kind of humble empathy that, were it only manifested in the political sphere, would make the world a more harmonious and thoughtful place for all living beings.  Again, I’m not suggesting that conservatives aren’t compassionate. It’s just that their defining icons–Rush Limbaugh, Rick Santorum, Glenn Beck–aren’t exactly what I’d call paragons of that virtue. 

Sadly, though, despite the ideological compatability between progressive politics and animal right advocates, the former is about as interested in the latter as are Rush, Rick, and Glenn. Liberals’ unthinking–and sometimes thinking– decision to evade this potentially empowering relationship is especially unfortunate because the foundation of progressive liberalism has never been in more desperate need of repair. Fact is, it’s crumbling.

Cowed by the electorate’s alarming dodge toward some mythical notion of rugged individualism, small government, and Tea Party fanaticism, not to mention a range of other red state shibboleths, progressives in the United States are gradually shortchanging their liberal core to appease wavering centrists. An infusion of traditional liberalism is desperately needed. Conveniently, the animal rights version of these values is potent, alive, and undiluted by two decades of toxic political compromise. Our message has never been better honed and it’s ready to go primetime. It is certainly more attuned to liberalism’s ideals than the motivating mission of locavores, who strike me–with their exclusionary and libertarian-ish rhtetoric–as being far more at home on the political right than the left.

If the bricks of liberalism would benefit from the fresh mortar of animal rights, animal rights advocates would do well to bind themselves to those bricks with tenacity. People who fight for the rights of animals must also fight, in the spirit of progressive liberalism, for the human right to fair wages, universal health care, freedom from oppression, gender equality, gay marriage, racial equity, and a fair tax code, for starters. These concrete political goals are not only inseparable from the motivating values integral to animal rights, they’re the very goals liberals stand to relinquish if we fail to shore up the stressed foundation of progressive politics.

Merging animal rights with other justice-oriented causes, if only nominally at first, integrates the cause of animals into a much larger, much more public discussion. Whether liberals, who I imagine are just as addicted to animal products as conservatives, will accept this potential merging of interests is the key question. It’s for this reason that vegans–who I think it’s fair to say tend to be liberals– mustn’t fail to note that fighting animal injustice is a remarkably powerful qualification for fighting human injustice.

More to the point, as animal rights ideas inch closer and closer to the mainstream, liberals face the risk of being exposed for espousing a basic way of life–omnivorism–that reifies abuse, hierarchy, intolerance, and arbitrary dominion over those most in need of our cooperation and compassion. They risk, in other words, being exposed as violators not only of animal rights, but of their own deeply held values.  Vegans, in this sense, can save liberalism from consuming itself.

Ottawa to Montreal and Back: A Vegan Salon

This morning I took a hypnotic train ride from Ottawa to Montreal to visit a fellow food writer (and friend). She’s vegan; her husband comes close (he’s French and when he visits his family back in the homeland, there’s that damn cheese plate); and her three friends who joined us (philosophers who specialize in animal ethics) were also vegan. The train was clean and on time.

After a bike ride around Montreal (on one of those impossibly progressive city-owned bikes), we spent the afternoon in my friend’s apartment talking animals, ethics, social change. One of her friends was fresh from jail, a victim of the crackdown on students protesting tuition hikes; another was fresh from graduate school, having earned her PhD two days ago. They appeared equally liberated.

Talking and drinking good red wine with intelligent and like-minded citizens of Quebec was, well, unspeakable bliss, much needed after months going tete-a-tete with ornery foodies, hunters, and Joel Salatin. Adversarial confrontations are needed, but they can take an emotional toll. Speaking with real people on a similar plane can be better than therapy. Today felt better than therapeutic.

Our conversation was something rare: it was a conversation. Everyone spoke, everyone had interesting things to offer, everyone came from a slightly different perspective. There were disagreements as well as nods of consent, and a lot more English spoken than French, which was critical for me, a sad product of the American emphasis on uni-lingualism. (Although I had no trouble recognizing any reference to “vin rouge.”)

Tomorrow I speak at Ottawa’s fourth annual VegFest. Report to come.

The EATS Show: UNC-Chapel Hill and Animal Ethics

Last Tuesday I did my bi-annual speaking gig at UNC-Chapel Hill’s world famous EATS seminar. This multi-faceted “food studies” course encourages the university’s best-and-brightest undergrads to grapple with the multiple complexities of today’s broken food system. Students are not only deeply engaged in matters of the mind, but they pay equal attention to matters of the palate.  Questions of taste, texture, and refinement are just as critical to the classroom ethos as the inadequacies of the Farm Bill. Facing fifteen gourmand geniuses requires strong coffee, nerves of steel, and airtight arguments. All things considered, it was one of the most engaging classroom experiences I’ve had in 15 years of teaching.

It didn’t take long for students to bring the razor-sharp lucidity of taste to bear on the ambiguity of animal ethics. Several students made it perfectly and proudly clear that they ate animals because animals tasted good. So there. The underlying implication was clear enough: there’s no arguing with taste—it’s the ultimate arbiter, not only of pleasure but, one assumed, ethical legitimacy.

Needless to say, I was all over this assumption like bearnaise on eggs Benedict. For one, it’s a brand of fundamentalism no different than that espoused by the University of Texas student who just last week told me that he ate meat because The Book of Genesis said he could do so.  Fine, but this won’t do. What our food culture needs is an intellectually sound justification for causing unneeded suffering, not a reference to an arbitrary external “authority” such as Genesis, or taste.

Moreover, we don’t claim a customary right to experience an endless array of pleasure in other arenas of sensual life.  The pleasures of food are often compared to the pleasures of sex. Still, few of us live life under the impression that we can indulge every sexual desire that tickles the imagination just because it creates pleasure. We don’t have TV shows featuring figures such as Anthony Bourdain traveling the world sampling local and exotic sexual indulgences. To the contrary, we structure the quest for sexual pleasure within a framework of reasonable, morally bound regulations. Whether we adhere to these regulations or not isn’t the point–we generally assume that they serve an important societal function. As I see it, the only reason food gets a pass from this form of regulation is that animals cannot provide their consent.  Thus our quest for pleasure trumps their right not to be needlessly violated.

Another common justification offered for eating animals was that it’s an integral part of culture, ritual, tradition, and even religion. Two thoughts came to mind on this point. First, not to be flip, but so what? Culture, ritual, tradition, and religion change with the wind.  At the time of the American Revolution the forces of tradition affirmed the oppression of women, enslavement of blacks, and the decimation of Native Americans. Point being: the existence of a tradition is hardly proof of its ethical legitimacy. Second, for a generation hoping to reform the food system, an appeal to tradition, culture, and ritual is dangerously counter-productive by virtue of its inherent conservatism. Why support values that oppose change, especially when culinary “culture” and “ritual” for most Americans today centers on fast food and Twinkies?

A final point that evoked debate was the issue of sentience. The ability to suffer, I argued, transcends species differentiation. In fact, it’s the crucial commonality humans share with farm animals, the one that specifically nullifies any right to raise and kill them for food. This idea penetrated the group like a toothpick into a boulder. They wanted none of it. The primary objection was that varying levels of sentience justified the decision of higher order “life forms” to kill and eat lower order life forms. I joked with the class that I hoped, especially as I aged, that I never end up stranded with them on a desert island. My quip had a purpose: I wanted them to think of sentience differences within species as well as among them. Would they apply their sentience-differentiation-justification to mentally handicapped humans, humans living in a vegetative state, or humans wracked with dementia? Thankfully, nobody would admit to that.

I consider it a victory of sorts that, not only were there already committed vegans in this class, and not only was the collective discussion incredibly vibrant and respectful, but that we were having the discussion at all.  I told the class that I didn’t really expect to see any real progress toward a food system free of animal exploitation in my lifetime.  But, whether intentionally or not, the class gave me at least a spark of encouragement.

Hunting for Reflection: Another Talk in Texas

Culture is everything. I gave a talk today at the University of Texas. Students at UT-Austin are as smart as students anywhere. After I presented my ideas about the myriad problems with animal agriculture, venturing into the issue of animal rights, students seemed to be generally receptive to my message. Then came the inevitable question: what about hunting?

Ah, hunting. Texans don’t just hunt, they hunt. It’s life not only for middle class insurance agents in Huntsville, but for high SAT scoring college students in Austin. One student appealed to the Bible’s insistence that humans have “dominion” over animals and thus could shoot them at will. Another made a case for conservation and deer control. Yet another argued that hunting starving animals wracked by drought put them out of misery. When I responded that humans have a duty to minimize the purposeful infliction of harm, one young man rolled his eyes.

I say these students are intelligent, and they are. But intelligence does not mean reflective. One student, whom I know, stated that he ate animals because, well, they were animals and he was human. Really? He ate them because it made him happy. I asked him if he’d eat his dog and he looked horrified and said, “no.”

When I left UT I hopped on my bike and rode to Casa de Luz, Austin’s vegan haven, and had a wonderful lunch of lentils, sweet potatoes, kale, and brown rice.  On my way down to Casa I rode along Lake Lady Bird (pictured above), where I watched dozens of people, young and old, many of them probably hunters,play with their dogs. All the while I was thinking how, for so many of us, the dots are in place.

Culture, though, makes it very hard to connect them.

The MIT Experience: Boot Camp

I spoke today at MIT’s “Food Boot Camp”–a conference I almost had to miss. This is an annual meeting of food and agriculture writers from all over the world. I’ve done this gig for years and, with one exception, it’s been a great experience. Today was no different. Seasoned journalists are deeply skeptical, highly attentive to detail, and inveterately curious. Unlike academics, they are refreshingly free to develop opinions by following their instincts rather than being cowed by the burden of credentialed expertise. Also unlike academics, they don’t wait until you’re done speaking before hammering away with questions. This threw me off the first time I spoke here, but I’ve learned to embrace the questions.

Really good questions. My talk was an argument against small-scale animal agriculture, one that builds on many of the critiques offered throughout this blog. I covered the environmental, economic, and the ethical problems inherent in the small scale systems that are so often glorified in the foodie media. What surprised me was not only the fact that the premise of my talk seemed to be commonly accepted, but that the ethical component of my presentation generated the most interest. My technique was to explore the ethical implications of slaughtering animals that we claim to invest with moral worth, eventually leading my discussion to the ultimate extreme of the sustainable trend: backyard slaughtering.

I showed the pictures and I read the texts of the DIY slaughterers. What I expected, I suppose, was the objection that these examples were hardly representative of the trend as a whole. Anticipating this argument, I made sure to present  and highlight the patterns of hypocrisy evident in my samples, stressing how common it was for home slaughterers to take the rhetorical high ground while behaving in a manner directly opposed to that rhetoric.

This strategy seemed to have worked. Almost as if on cue, one journalist suggested (before I went to my slides) that DIY slaughterers were actually doing something noble by looking death in the face. They were “facing their food.” My suggestion was that, although the slaughterers talked a good game about the benefits of slaughtering animals, their actions belied their concern for the animals they killed. I drove home my point with this image, taken from a small organic farm in California raising rabbits for meat:


I hate to say that I was pleased with the power of this image. But it worked. I was also pleased that there seemed to be a general sense that these remarkable–if remarkably depressing–blogs about slaughter are legitimate ways to understand and critique the idea of locally sourced animal products. As I’m working on a book about the dangers of eating animals from small farms, I welcomed the response ( and encourage readers to send examples they might find).

The Old College Try: Speaking about Veganism in Texas

I spoke today at Southwestern University. My lecture primarily focused on the problems of alternative systems of animal agriculture, stressing that the local, sustainable, humane options aren’t what they’re advertised to be. Southwestern is a small liberal arts college in Georgetown, Texas with a deeply engaged and friendly intellectual community.

Honestly, it’s hard for me to really say what people thought about my talk. The audience was not large–maybe 25 people. Nonetheless, questions were probing. An environmental studies professor pushed me to consider small-scale alternative animal farms as, at the least, a step in the right direction. I countered that, while I saw where he was coming from, I couldn’t agree with his assessment. The alternatives ultimately reify the cultural acceptability of eating animals, I explained. In so doing, they inadvertently promote the essential prerequisite of factory farming. He seemed unpersuaded. This person raises grass-fed cattle, and freely admitted that this work almost certainly biased his perspective. We agreed to disagree.

An economics professor explained that she concurred with me with her heart but not her head. Her “head” argument was that animals can’t sense what’s coming as they near the end of life and, as a result, are spared the psychic agony of impending death. If they lived a good life, all was well.  I responded that, in fact, they  often do sense the reality of impending death and, even if they didn’t, what does it say about human regard for the intrinsic value of animals if we think it’s okay to kill them so long as they don’t know what’s coming? I noted that we wouldn’t apply the same logic to human infants.  After the talk she told me that she didn’t think that human infants and farm animals were the same. I said they’re clearly not the same, but they share the commonality of sentience. She retorted that she’ll favor the human every time. I asked her on what basis she valued human sentience over animal sentience. She said, “it’s a gut feeling.”

A vegetarian student thought that arguments against harming animals were compromised by the fact that animals harm animals all the time. I explained that animal-on-animal violence hardly justified human-on-animal violence. We’re the only species capable of making the decision to reduce suffering and, in turn, we have a duty to exercise that power. Animals don’t have that choice. Humans do. She didn’t disagree, but seemed to think the “nature red in tooth and claw” argument left vegans open to attack. I noted that humans have long considered many horrific practice perfectly natural, including slavery, patriarchal dominance, ritualistic slaughter, and homophobic violence.

Another extremely bright student engaged me on viability of veganism in non-western cultures that had deep traditions in meat eating. Indians that eat seals. Asians that drink ox-blood. Poor farmers who have to depend on the family cow for sustenance. I noted that I was wrong to argue that “everyone” can go vegan here and now (I meant everyone in the room), but I explained that cultures can change engrained habits, noting the radical change in American opinions on slavery between 1750 and 1850. “So you think eating meat is immoral no matter what the context,” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered. “Yes I do.”

The Horrors of Dairy: How “Sustainability” Obscures Suffering

Yesterday I spoke to a Philosophy Dialogue Series on my own campus (Texas State) about food and sustainability. For me, of course, “food and sustainability” means eating plants. As in Berkeley, I hit this message hard, arguing, in part, that we may as well erase the word “sustainable” from our ever-expanding eco-vocabulary if we cannot make the term include the ethical implications of eating. Students seemed receptive. Questions were excellent, smart. It was a nicely structured event, leaving a full 90 minutes for “dialogue.”

After the event a graduate student in “Sustainability Studies” (I didn’t know we had such a degree!) told me that she was a lifelong vegetarian but had never put much thought into the ethical problems of dairy. I quoted Gary Francione’s line that there’s “more suffering in a glass of milk than a pound of steak.” Then I explained to her what happens to a dairy cow–even an organic dairy cow producing milk for “artisanal” cheese. When I told her how the mother cow’s calf is dragged away shortly after birth and, if male, jammed into a veal crate; and when I explained how mother cows wailed and thrashed to have their calves back with them, drinking their milk; and when I explained that this happened repeatedly to milk cows, causing horrible diseases and immeasurable suffering; and when I asked what right humans have to do these things to a sentient being, this woman’s face dropped. She told me she had chills and I could see her eyes water a little.

I’ve since sent this woman a couple of e-mails with links further illuminating the horrors of dairy. Whether or not this women goes vegan is an open question, but I think the chances are good. What I’m especially concerned about, however, is something more structural. How is it that a vegetarian student studying sustainability could have no idea about the cruelty within the dairy industry? This is in no way to criticize this woman–she seemed to be an an extremely bright and dedicated student. My concern is really with how these increasingly popular programs in sustainability (and Food Studies) arrange knowledge–and, in essence, create a reality of ideas worth knowing–in a way that obscures the underlying ethical questions at the core of eating. I see this trend as little more than intellectual laziness. How much easier it is to sing the virtues of “artisanal” cheese production compared to industrial cheese production than it is to engage the deeper philosophical and ethical questions about sentience and suffering.

The trouble with this avoidance is that it’s hard to detect. This is often the case because so often what “environmentalists” or “experts in sustainability” promote comes with a positive message of “improvement” and “empowerment.” These are the good guys taking on the polluters and factory farmers! It’s hard to condemn someone who’s ostensibly working to save the planet as complicit in a world of injustice. But the more I do this the more I’m saying screw it to politeness and tact. We need to hit these prophets of sustainability hard. We need to wake them up.  We need to start asking tougher questions about sustainability–more fundamental questions that cut to the core of animal exploitation. College campuses strike me as a good place to start this effort.