Monday, June 27, 2011

It Leaves a Bad Taste in Your Mouth

If the human animal were a purely rational animal, there would be no need to draw attention to the ways in which meat production and meat eating are disgusting. The facts about the harm done to the environment, the harm done to human health, and the terrible harm inflicted on the non-human animals that humans kill and eat would be enough to persuade every meat eater to change his or her behavior. But the human animal is often impervious to argument of that sort; what else can be tried?

For one thing, vegetarians and vegans can start to make clear that we find the sight of meat—and, even more so, the smell of meat—disgusting. That’s not the sort of thing that can or should be done in all circumstances, or on all occasions. But if, for example, the person beside you on a long flight starts to eat a greasy Big Mac, or dig into a large plastic bag filled with very smelly chicken parts, I don’t think it’s amiss to ask them to keep it as far away from you as they can. And if they ask why, we shouldn't hesitate to say politely, "I’m sorry, the smell of meat really makes me nauseous.” If I remember rightly, it was in part through that sort of small request that the movement against smoking started to make progress in the 1970s; at the same time as informational campaigns were starting to get across the message that smoking was bad for our health, individuals started to say openly that they found the smell of tobacco smoke bothersome.* Disgusting, in fact. I don’t think we should shy away from doing the same now over the sight and smell of meat.

Nor do I think we should hesitate to use language that is calculated to make people think of what is really happening when seals or whales or tuna or salmon are “harvested,” when “pork” or “beef” or other “meat” and milk and cheese and eggs are “produced,” when all these are “consumed.” None of those words speaks to the reality of what occurs. We give a better picture of the truth if we talk of tuna being slowly frozen to death or beaten into unconsciousness before they are cut up for human animals to eat; of the sows that give birth to “bacon” being immobilized for their entire lives; of egg laying hens living in a few square inches of space in a dark sheds filled with the smell of ammonia, of chicken excrement, and of dead birds; of fresh excrement inevitably being mixed in with the dead flesh of the cows and the pigs and the chickens that humans put into their mouths.

Nor, finally, should we shrink in certain circumstances from gently making clear that the human habit of eating the dead flesh of other animals tends to make for more smelly and disgusting humans; the gases emitted from the anus of a human who has consumed a lot of meat are far more noxious than those produced by those who live on a vegetable diet.

Disgust is a reaction to certain things we see and taste and smell; it is also, as George Orwell, William Ian Miller, and various others have pointed out, “a moral and social sentiment.” For all of us engaged in the struggle against cruelty to animals, it should be a natural ally in the cause.

*I was a moderately heavy smoker in those days, and I remember feeling mildly irked when on the receiving end of such comments. But the message sank in; like the rest of the smoking world, I did slowly change my ways—and then was very happy to have been pushed to change.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Helping One Bird at a Time

The week’s most heartwarming story is surely that of the rescue carried out at an eagles' nest near Sidney, British Columbia. The nest, which since 2007 has been viewable through a webcam set up by David Hancock and the Hancock Wildlife Foundation, is home to two parents and three baby eagles (all born last month). As millions around the world are now aware, one of the eaglets—named “Donald” by Hancock, for his Trump-like bullying of his siblings (and “Flyer” by a group of local schoolchildren, though he is still too young to fly)—became tangled in some fishing line that had been in the material of the nest. Yesterday rescuers on a great crane managed to reach the nest and free Donald’s leg from the line; the 7½ pound bird, who almost certainly would not otherwise have survived, will now be free to lead a normal eagle’s life.

That the story captured the imagination and the sympathy of millions must in large part be attributed to the fact that it was visible. If a distressed bird suffers out of our sight (and our hearing), our sympathies will inevitably be less fully engaged. At the other extreme, of course, is the plight of the billions of birds that humans condemn to entire lives of suffering far worse than that endured for a few weeks by Donald the eaglet. The industry makes sure that those lives and deaths happen out of the sight of humans, confident that out-of-sight (and out-of-hearing) will also be out-of-mind. Our senses are dulled too by numbers: Donald the Eaglet is recognized as an individual, whereas we are conscious of the birds that we allow to be treated with endless cruelty only as part of an endless mass.

That's how our minds are in the habit of working, and how industry wants them to work. Psychologically it's quite understandable—but we can hardly pretend that mental habits of this sort have any ethical justification. For a moment, then, let's try think of the billions and billions as we think of Donald—and think too of what just one individual human is responsible for. Just one person. If you are an average American you consume about 30 birds per year. That means you, personally, bear real responsibility for the cruelty with which those birds (with very few exceptions) are treated throughout their lives, and real responsibility for having them killed. More than two birds every month. Canadians and Europeans eat somewhat fewer birds; if you are an average Canadian or European you’re likely responsible for only about half as much cruelty to birds, only about half as many killings. But responsible you are. And it’s up to you to decide what to do in the future—whether you just don’t care how much cruelty is inflicted on how many birds so long as the result is cheap meat and eggs for you; whether you’d like to try to reduce the cruelty a bit by paying a little more and buying free-range chicken and eggs; or whether you’ll just say no to cruelty by eating other things instead. Donald the eaglet was saved through a lot of effort (and many thousands of dollars) from a life of suffering and an early death. With almost no effort (and certainly through no additional expenditure) the average North American or European could save one bird from the same fate every month, even every two weeks. Starting now.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Moral Psychology (2)

In a recent posting I discussed one of the ways in which issues relating to the treatment of non-human animals may connect with matters of moral psychology. Do people who might otherwise be persuaded by the horrors of factory farming to give up the consumption of meat and dairy products tend to refrain from making that choice if an ethical “half-way house" is available in the form of “happy” meat and dairy products? Or are there likely to be more people who will decide, once they have reached the halfway house, that they should keep on going?

Those are arguments to do with strategy, carried on by people who are in broad agreement on certain ethical fundamentals; they agree that veganism is a better choice than free range—and they agree as to the desirability of changing human behavior. The point at issue is how best to do that.

Another sort of argument that turns on moral psychology may seem similar in some respects, but is in all its fundamentals utterly different; it’s the sort of argument put forward in Hal Herzog’s Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. Herzog’s stated intention is to explain the many inconsistencies and outright contradictions in human attitudes toward non-human animals—such as those that relate to consuming those animals as food. But what he ends up providing is more a catalogue of those inconsistencies than an explanation—and again and again he ends up throwing up his hands at the complexity of it all; everything is “more complicated than we thought,” he concludes:
Moral consistency is elusive, if not impossible, in the real world, and both head and heart can lead us astray in how we think about the treatment of animals. … I have—mostly—come to accept my own hypocrisies. … The yahoo [within me] tells me that the exquisite taste of slow-cooked pit barbeque somehow justifies the death of the hog whose loin I am going to slather [with sauce]. … When I first started studying human-animal interactions I was troubled by the flagrant moral incoherence I have described in these pages—vegetarians who sheepishly admitted to me that they ate meat; cockfighters who proclaimed their love for their roosters; purebred dog enthusiasts whose desire to improve their breed has created generations of genetically defective animals; hoarders who caused untold suffering to the creatures living in filth they claim to have rescued. I have come to believe that these sorts of contradictions are not anomalies or hypocrisies. Rather they are inevitable. And they show we are human.

Thus we are assured that whatever is the case now is somehow “inevitable.” And, as Herzog implies through rhetorical sleight of hand, is also right. The extraordinary implication of his ringing conclusion is that we would lose our humanity if we behaved in less contradictory—and ethically better—ways toward non-human animals. Others might call the cruelty of our treatment of the animals we raise in order to eat them "inhuman." Herzog turns that on its head and suggests that it would be “inhuman” to try to eradicate such cruelty; he implies that to do so would go against the grain of our extraordinarily complicated natures.

But he only implies this; it is noteworthy that the list of contradictions he ends with steers the discussion away from the most vexing of the sets of contradictory attitudes that he set out to explore: the contradictory and hypocritical attitudes of humans who, in a system of great cruelty, raise non-human animals in order to kill them and consume their dead flesh. That would be a distasteful contradiction with which to conclude; let's look instead at the morally less heinous hypocrisies and contradictions of other sorts of behavior. According to the number of lapsed vegetarians that can be found, carnivores may feel secure in concluding that they’re doing something ethically acceptable after all.

It’s not hard to point out the logical absurdity of the sorts of connections Herzog is trying to make here. Just try applying them in a different context, substituting “slaves”, or “gays and lesbians”, or “women” for “non-human animals”:
Moral consistency is elusive, if not impossible, in the real world, and both head and heart can lead us astray in how we think about the treatment of women. … When I first started studying man-woman interactions I was troubled by the flagrant moral incoherence I have described in these pages—suffragettes who sheepishly admitted to me that they were attracted to men who stand firmly opposed to the women’s movement; men who publicly proclaim their desire to give women the vote but confess privately to their worries as to what may result if such a change ever occurs; campaigners for the supposed betterment of women’s lot who have ended by making things worse for those they aim to help. … I have come to believe that these sorts of contradictions are not anomalies or hypocrisies. Rather they are inevitable. And they show we are human.

If we’re going to be grown-ups we have to live in the real world. Yes, there are sometimes going to be contradictions and hypocrisies, Professor Herzog suggests. But that’s no argument for change.

Like Herzog, Melanie Joy teaches psychology. And her Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows has a similar starting point to that of Herzog’s similarly-titled Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. But Joy’s purpose in trying to understand the mechanism through which humans hide from themselves the true nature of what they are doing is not to provide us with a rationale for avoiding change; it is to help bring about change. She sees clearly the parallels between the ways in which humans today think about other animals and the arguments that “enabled widespread discrimination and hatred towards homosexuals, the deeply entrenched system of apartheid, and the genocide in Darfur.” The lesson she draws is a fundamentally different one from that of Herzog. She acknowledges our human tendencies towards “apathy, complacency, self-interest, and blissful ignorance”—as well as towards hypocrisy. But she also believes that “as humans, we have a fundamental desire to strive to become our best selves.” Surely she is right as to the existence of that one vitally important human desire. And if behaving ethically is a concept that has any meaning at all, it surely means that we are obliged to strive for what is right—not to complacently accept the worst aspects of our natures.


As I re-read this I wonder if the posting is too harsh on Professor Herzog--a person who seems genuinely interested in broadening our understanding, and genuinely in favor of lowering rather than increasing the level of suffering for non-human animals.* It's just very sad that, by spending so much effort on rationalizing and so little on taking a strong stand against cruelty, he is surely helping to support an utterly horrific status quo.

*Interestingly, Herzog reports that, in recognition of such cruelties, he and his wife now eat free-range eggs and chicken and beef. Yet he appears uninterested in forcefully speaking out against the mass-scale cruelty of factory farming; indeed, he downplays any suggestion that there might be a significant ethical difference between his eating behavior and that of humans who choose to consume the products of factory farming; "I ... make what are probably symbolic gestures to reduce the cruelty of the fork ... I know ... that according to Consumer Reports terms like natural and cruelty-free ... are usually marketing ploys that mean little."

Saturday, April 2, 2011

"Animal Justice"--A New Umbrella Term?

At one session at the just-concluded “Thinking About Animals” conference at Brock University, Katie Sykes of the Law faculty at Dalhousie University gave a good paper about the concept of animal rights and the medieval trials of non-human animals (in which pigs, for example, were tried for causing damage to human property or physical harm to humans). The non-human animals in such circumstances were, notionally at least, granted rights; they had a counsel for the defence, and so on. But in practice, of course, the fix was in. Sykes's point was that in practice things such as rights can have only a limited force without underlying changes in attitudes.

I was prompted by the paper to reflect on the degree to which “animal rights” has become a loaded term; the sad truth is that phrases such as “animal rights activists” and “animal rights movement” alienate many people before they even begin to think about the issues. However fraught it may be, “animal rights” surely remains a useful term—indeed, a necessary one in many contexts. But there are also certain contexts in which it would be good to be able to use a different term: circumstances where rights vs. interests is not the primary concern, and circumstances where it is important to bring together animal rights advocates, animal welfare activists, animal liberationists—the full spectrum—so as to maximize our chances of bringing about positive change on a particular issue.

I asked at the conclusion of the session in which Sykes had given her paper if anyone had specific suggestions as to what we could use as an umbrella term in such circumstances. I suggested simply “animal advocates,” and someone else suggested “animal protection” advocates, but neither of those seems entirely satisfactory. Towards the end of the following day, however, another academic who had given a paper in the same session—Andrew Weiss of Ryerson University—came up to me and said he had been reflecting on the question and thought “Animal Justice” might make a good umbrella term. He also said he had been trying the idea out with others at the conference through the day and that they had all had a positive reaction. I’ve since tried it out on a handful of others, and everyone I’ve talked to so far has reacted very positively. I really like Andrew Weiss’s suggestion – and the more I imagine it being used the better I like it:

“Animal Justice advocates responded with a strong statement concerning ...”
“The Animal Justice movement was out in force today to protest the …”

What do you think?

Moral Psychology

At the very interesting and lively “Thinking About Animals” conference this past week held at Brock University there was an ongoing current of tension regarding the animal welfare approach to improving the lives of non-human animals. There were in fact few if any pure “animal welfarists” at the conference; almost everyone there believed (as I certainly do) that the best solution to the horrors of factory farming is simply for all of us to adopt a vegan diet. Halfway measures (“freedom food,” “happy meat”) that try to improve the welfare of non-human animals while leaving in place the underlying paradigm of human animals raising other animals purely in order to kill them and eat them can at best be classed as constituting merely a lesser evil than that of factory meat production.

But is it possible that "halfway measures" are actually counterproductive? Many abolitionist vegans argue that by presenting humans with a seemingly more ethically acceptable alternative means of consuming meat and dairy products, advocates of animal welfare approaches are helping to perpetuate the underlying paradigm. If, on the other hand, the choice remains an utterly stark one in which humans must choose between veganism as one alternative and eating dead flesh (or eggs, or dairy products) from animals that have suffered conditions tantamount to torture throughout their lives, that stark binary may make it more likely that people will make an ethical choice, and that real change will happen.

I would like to think that the hearts and minds of most human animals operate like that. But certainly my own case argues otherwise. As I discuss in the Afterword to Animals, the move towards veganism has been for me a long and slow process. Looking back now, I very much doubt I would have started on that road had there not been way-stations available. For a number of years I ate free range beef and chicken and so on; if you had told me that I could give up meat and milk entirely and not miss them at all (as is now the case), I’m sure I would have been entirely disbelieving.

The reactions I’ve received to Animals from people who say the novel has led them to change are an absurdly small sample to go on, but it's a sample that goes to support the view that not all human psyches are alike in this way. (Interestingly, few people reference the Afterword when they say how the experience of reading the book has led them to change; they tend always to speak of the novel itself.) I have had some people tell me that they stopped eating meat entirely the day after reading the last page of the story; I have others (a larger number) tell me that reading the novel led them to significantly reduce the amount of meat and dairy products they consume, or to switch to eating free range meat and to start thinking seriously about the issues while they considered if they could go further than that. Like me, they found it impossible to contemplate an immediate, 100% change.

In many ways Animals itself provides a strong sense of the tension between abolitionist veganism and welfarism.* When I began writing the book my aim was simply to combat the evils of factory farming, not to present in imaginative form a more broad-ranging argument against humans eating other animals. But as I was writing the book I was changing, and by the time I had finished there was a great deal in it that undercuts the animal welfare position; Broderick’s arguments in defence of “free range yurn” as an option are hideously blinkered, and I think those who have argued that the novel reads much more coherently if it is taken not as an argument against factory farming, but as an argument against consuming other animals have a very good point. Of course the Afterword that appears following the novel itself takes a different tack; it emphasizes that the book's declared intent is to help turn people against factory farming, and it very much downplays any suggestion that the book might have a broader message. To undermine factory farming was indeed my main intent—but if the book does in fact convey a broader message I now feel very happy about that. And I would be overjoyed if, fifty or a hundred years from now, the Afterword is read (if it is read at all) as a historical curiosity in a world in which human animals have given up eating other animals.

Is it in fact the case that on average human animals are more likely to give up eating other animals if the choice is an entirely stark one—or is it the case that they are more likely to approach that destination in the way that I have, in slow steps? My guess is the latter; that’s not something that makes me happy, either about my own nature or about human nature generally. In terms of what I would like to see happen, I've become a fellow traveller in the abolitionist vegan camp. But my guess is that along the way we will stand a better chance of achieving wholesale change if we don’t try to insist that people must immediately choose veganism or the status quo, with nothing in between.

I want to emphasise that this is a guess; I don't think any one of us can really know what will work best on average with the human psyche. But one thing we we do know is that the forces defending the status quo when it comes to factory farming are very, very powerful, and that attitudes supporting it are deeply entrenched. If you put all the vegans and all the vegetarians and all the animal welfarists together, we are still badly outnumbered. That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to bring about change; those pushing for justice for women and for an end to slavery were also badly outnumbered at first. And in those cases too there were a wide range of approaches, with gradualists often at odds with absolutists on many points. But they managed at key moments to bridge those differences and to work together for positive change. In the same way, if we are to bring positive change for non-human animals, surely our best chance of doing so is to work together as much as possible. That doesn’t mean that we should ignore the very real differences (of which abolitionism versus welfarism is only one; the debate over whether we are defending the rights of non-human animals or their interests is another broad issue, and there are many other smaller ones). But it does mean that we may be well advised to try to find common ground as much as possible. We may strongly disagree, for example, as to whether “free range” is an adequate response to the cages in which battery hens are now confined, or to the cruelties of gestation cages for sows. But surely we can come together in common cause over the fact of these things being wrong; we can keep trying to publicize those wrongs, and we can keep protesting together.

*One interesting paper at the conference ("The Critique of New Welfarism in LePan's Animals and Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go" by Dru Jeffries and Emily Fraser-Jeffries) looked at precisely this point. Jeffries and Fraser-Jeffries suggest that the novel Animals makes an effective case against “a welfarist approach to animal agriculture reform”; they also argue, however, that the Afterword severely undermines this message, with the result that the book as a whole “embodies the moral schizophrenia underlying new welfarism as an approach towards advancing animal rights.”

I think they are right--on this as well as on many other points they make (both about my novel and about Ishiguro's) in their very intelligent paper.

In my January 4, 2010 blog posting “Words After an Afterword” I discuss the text of the Afterword as it was originally published (in the 2009 Canadian edition), and how—as I had just then been made to realize—the alternative ending in the Afterword to that edition does not connect coherently with the novel itself. At that point I also posted on my website a revised text of the Afterword, which became the basis for the text of the Afterword in the American edition. (It will also replace the original afterword in the Canadian edition on the first reprint of that edition.) I still find it an extraordinary instance of a moral/psychological disconnect on my part that I was able to write the original version of the “alternative ending” in the Afterword without getting that the alternative ending was advocating eating free-range human meat. Perhaps just as striking is that as many as fifteen others read the book in advance of publication of the Canadian first edition; none of them raised this as a problem either.

When the Afterword and the novel itself are treated as a whole, the brief alternative ending in the Afterword as originally published is the most striking pointer towards “moral schizophrenia.” But–as suggested above—I think it is arguable that something of the sort operates even with the revised Afterword. Certainly I've come to think that there is tremendous tension between the explicit message of the Afterword (even in its revised form) and the implicit message of the novel itself—and I thought Jeffries and Fraser-Jeffries explored that tension very perceptively in their conference paper.

Quite a few people in advance of publication advised against including an afterword—the novel should stand on its own, they suggested. I think that in fact the novel has stood on its own and that it will continue to do so. But I don’t apologize for having included an afterword between the same two covers. I’ve written in my blog about my reasons for doing so initially. I now have another reason; an afterword written at the time a novel is published can demonstrate wonderfully well just how wrong an author can be about what the underlying message of his or her own work really is!

Monday, January 31, 2011


It came to me today that, when it comes to eating dead animals, everything I eat these days would be classed by many people as disgusting. Clams. Oysters. A lot of people find clams and oysters disgusting; slimy is a word that’s often used.

What’s so bad about slimy? Why are some people who love sex disgusted by oysters? Maybe oysters and sex are both gross, but sex is delightful, and--to me at least--an oyster tastes wonderfully good. And (much much more importantly) eating an oyster isn't unethical--at least, so far as I know.

Leave aside cows and dogs and wolves and cats and pigs and parrots and eagles and chickens—and what they think and feel when we are killing them so we can eat their dead flesh (it isn’t always a quick process, the killing). Think only of what they may think and feel when they are being bred for slaughter—tortured, essentially, according to the principles of modern intensive farming. Those non-human animals are, as most of us do know, fully conscious beings, capable of both thought and feeling—capable in many cases of something very like our own thoughts and feelings.

(The surprise for me has been that shrimp are sentient too. That’s why I no longer eat them.)

The fact is that disgust doesn’t connect with ethics as it should. No matter how horrifically a pig or a calf or a chicken has been mistreated in confinement awaiting slaughter, no matter now horrendously it has been slaughtered, most of us have made ourselves immune to disgust. To my unending shame, I did this myself for more than half of a life.

In a very good book that I’ve recently discovered,* Melanie Joy points to something very interesting: “what is most striking about our selection of edible and inedible animals is not the presence of disgust, but the absence of it. Why are we not averse to eating the very small selection of animals we have deemed edible?” This goes to the heart of the matter. As children we react with the same level of repulsion to the mistreatment and eating of a pig or a chicken as we do to that of a cat, or a dog, or a robin. But as a society we have trained ourselves to lose our disgust. Along with that, as Joy points out, we have trained ourselves to lose our empathy. And, it seems fair to add, our moral compass.

* * *

Animals events next week: I'll be joining classes for discussion on Monday at the University of Toronto, and on Tuesday at York University. On Thursday I'll be at the Happy Endings bar in Manhattan as part of the Animal Farm Reading Series--"dedicated to promoting the best writing, in any genre, that has a satirical and/or critical point of view on the world." If you are reading this and will be in New York next Thursday, please come.

* Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism