Yearly Archives: 2012

Nicholas Kristof: Please Wince. Please.

Once again, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof provides us with a glimpse of the how the postmodern liberal mind struggles with the violence and immorality of animal agriculture.

Kristof obviously knows there is something wrong here. If he didn’t think so, he would not write these columns about our moral obligations to animals.

Indeed, it seems that the New York Times is obsessed with the matter generally. Between columnists like Kristof and Mark Bittman, who can’t stop trying to convince us that “happy” animal exploitation is the answer to the basic question of how we can morally justify using animals, and multiple pieces from those who tell us that plants possess “nonconscious intentionality” so let’s not jump to the conclusion there is a moral distinction between a salad and a steak, the New York Times really–really–wants to reassure us that it’s just fine to continue doing something that we all know is wrong.

Kristof’s latest contribution to “don’t worry, eat happy” literature is an essay called Where Cows Are Happy and Food Is Healthy.

In this essay, Kristoff tells us about Bob Bansen, “a high school buddy” of Kristof’s. Bob is a dairy farmer “who names all his 230 milk cows, along with his 200 heifers and calves, and loves them like children.” Kristof tells us:

As long as I’ve known him, Bob has had names for every one of his “girls,” as he calls his cows. Walk through the pasture with him, and he’ll introduce you to them.

Bob “has figured out how to make a good living running a farm that is efficient but also has soul.” You can have a heart and a make a profit from exploiting your “children.” Indeed’ “happy” cows are more productive:

Many cows in America now live out their lives in huge dairy barns, eating grain and hay and pumping out milk. But evidence is growing that cows don’t do well when locked up, so now many dairies are reverting to the traditional approach of sending cows out to pasture on grass.

“Pasture does wonders for cow health,” Bob said. “There’s so much evidence that they are much happier out there. You can extend their lives so much by keeping them off concrete, so the trend is going that way.”

Is it a soggy sentimentality for farmers to want their cows to be happy? Shouldn’t a businessman just worry about the bottom line?

Bob frowned. “For productivity, it’s important to have happy cows,” he said. “If a cow is at her maximum health and her maximum contentedness, she’s profitable. I don’t even really manage my farm so much from a fiscal standpoint as from a cow standpoint, because I know that, if I take care of those cows, the bottom line will take care of itself.”

But Nicholas, do the cows die of old age?

No, apparently not:

When cows age and their milk production drops, farmers slaughter them. Bob has always found that part of dairying tough, so, increasingly, he uses the older cows to suckle steers. That way the geriatric cows bring in revenue to cover their expenses and their day of reckoning can be postponed — indefinitely, in the case of his favorite cows.

I teased Bob about running a bovine retirement home, and he smiled unapologetically.

“I feel good about it,” he said simply. “They support me as much as I support them, so it’s easy to get attached to them. I want to work hard for them because they’ve taken good care of me.”

Kristof concludes:

We need not wince when we contemplate where our food comes from.

The next time you drink an Organic Valley glass of milk, it may have come from one of Bob’s cows. If so, you can bet it was a happy cow. And it has a name.

Relax everyone. Please. Don’t wince. Rest assured that you can exploit with “compassion.” Yes, these gentle animals will meet their “day of reckoning” when they will be slaughtered. But they were “happy.” Drink that milk. It’s good for you and for Bob’s “children.”

I wonder whether Kristof has any pictures of how happy Bob’s “girls” are on that “day of reckoning.”

But the profound moral schizophrenia of Kristof’s position is summed up in one sentence: “And it has a name.” “It” has a name. “It.” Despite Kristof’s confused concern, the bottom line is that these animals are things.

And that’s the whole problem in a nutshell. For Kristof and other welfarists, and this includes just about every large “animal protection” organization in this country, animals are things. They are not nonhuman persons. They are not members of the moral community. It is fine to exploit them as long as we torture them less than they would be tortured in an alternative situation; as long as we send them to slaughter with a name.

And before I get the usual angry emails from the welfarists who will ask some version of: “but isn’t Bob’s farm better than a conventional dairy farm?”, let me be clear: It is worse to impose 10 units of suffering than 5 units of suffering. But we have to justify both. And we cannot justify either if the only reason offered is the pleasure we get from consuming milk.

If the principle that unnecessary suffering is wrong–a principle that everyone, including the Kristofs of this world, purports to accept–means anything, it must mean that pleasure cannot be a sufficient justification for imposing pain and suffering on animals. There must be a compulsion; a necessity. There is no compulsion here. There is only the tragedy of those who are choosing to do something that they know is morally unjustifiable and engaging in transparently frivolous thinking masquerading as progressive thinking. Nothing more.

I often hear animal advocates complain about people who say, “don’t tell me where my food comes from.” Although I understand the frustration that comes from hearing that, I’ll take those people any day over the Kristofs, Safran-Foers, Bittmans, and all of the “animal protection” community, who push this “compassionate consumption” nonsense and tell us that we can know where it comes from and what’s involved and that it’s okay anyway. We don’t have to “wince.”

And if anyone doubts that this “happy” exploitation approach isn’t counterproductive precisely because it explicitly reinforces the idea that we don’t have to “wince” when we eat that piece of meat or drink that glass of milk, then I suggest you are not thinking clearly. Kristof’s essay is a perfect example of the problem.

Wince. Please, for the sake of everything decent in the world; for the sake of nonviolence; for the sake of basic justice; for the sake of Bob’s “girls” who will be sent to their “day of reckoning,” please, please wince.

*****

If you are not vegan, please go vegan. Veganism is about nonviolence. First and foremost, it’s about nonviolence to other sentient beings. But it’s also about nonviolence to the earth and nonviolence to yourself.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

©2012 Gary L. Francione

An Invitation to Professor McWilliams

James McWilliams, professor of history at Texas State University and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, had a provocative essay, Vegan Feud on Slate.com. The subtitle of his essay: “Animal rights activists would accomplish a lot more if they stopped attacking the Humane Society.”

McWilliams states:

No writer makes the abolitionist case more eloquently than Rutgers philosopher Gary Francione. In his books Animals as Persons and Rain Without Thunder, Francione, who is also a lawyer, powerfully argues that the only ethically consistent stance for humans vis-a-vis animals is the complete elimination of all animal ownership. This position leads him to savage HSUS at every turn. When, last year, HSUS agreed to work with United Egg Producers to legislate larger cages for chickens, Francione responded:

That is just plain silly. “Enriched” cages involve torturing hens. Period. The torture may be slightly “better,” just as padded water boards may be slightly “better.” But let’s be clear: the hens will continue to be tortured. And they will continue to end up in a slaughterhouse.

Francione’s logic is hard-hitting, but his extreme message is unlikely to resonate widely in a population that’s only 1.4 percent vegan. According to social psychologist and longtime vegan Melanie Joy, the abolitionist approach could attract a lot more supporters if it acknowledged, as HSUS does, that most people are going to embrace veganism on their own….it’s asking for a profound shift in consciousness that people make only when they’re personally ready to do so.

As his subtitle states, McWilliams thinks that abolitionists should not criticize HSUS.

This is not one of the times that I agree with McWilliams (except that I agree that my logic is “hard hitting”!).

So I posted a comment on Slate.com:

Dear James:

As you might expect, I disagree with this essay on both theoretical and practical grounds. I have some brief comments and an invitation.

As a preface, however, let me be clear that I had no involvement whatsoever in the event that you described at the Animal Rights National Conference–other than my having produced some ideas over the past 20 years or so that these and other “abolitionists” very generously borrow and then regurgitate, often inaccurately. I say that not only because your essay could be misconstrued to say that I was involved, which is wrong, but because you have to be careful not to describe the position generally based on whatever it was that these folks apparently presented at that event.

My Comments: The animal welfare position explicitly accepts that animal life per se has no moral value and that we do not harm animals if we kill them painlessly. That was Bentham’s position; it is Singer’s position; it is the position that most of the large organizations accept. Indeed, it is precisely that position that allows PETA to kill healthy animals that it takes in at its Norfolk facility and to advocate that it’s fine for other shelters to kill animals. That position, in my view, is problematic for a number of fundamental moral reasons.

Moreover, you accept uncritically that animal welfare reforms actually do provide significant improvements for animal welfare. I disagree. At best, the reforms are analogous to padding a water board at Guantanamo Bay. Note that I said “At best.” Most of the time, they do even less.

From an economic standpoint, most of these welfare reforms actually increase production efficiency. For example, you cite the HSUS campaign against gestation crates. Have a look at HSUS’ own literature, which, after surveying the agricultural research, states: “Sow productivity is higher in group housing than in individual crates, as a result of reduced rates of injury and disease, earlier first estrus, faster return to estrus after delivery, lower incidence of stillbirths, and shorter farrowing times. Group systems employing ESF are particularly cost-effective.” In addition, “[c]onversion from gestation crates to group housing with ESF marginally reduces production costs and increases productivity.”

So why does industry fight? Because that is all part of the symbiotic relationship that exists between industry and these large groups. The animal groups identify practices that are economically vulnerable; industry resists; a drama ensues; industry eventually agrees to make what are meaningless and possibly even financially beneficial changes; the animal groups declare victory and fundraise; industry, praised by the groups, reassures the public that it really does “care” about animals. The public feels “compassionate” and continues to consume animals.

You discuss Joy’s view that going vegan is “asking for a profound shift in consciousness that people make only when they’re personally ready to do so.” Has anyone suggested otherwise? The issue is not whether it’s a matter of moral choice. Of course it is. The issue is whether we are going to make the argument that people ought to make that moral choice or reassure them that they can discharge their moral obligations by eating “happy” animal products and consuming “compassionately,” with all that involves, both as a theoretical and a practical matter.

As a general matter, I found it bewildering that you think we are going to make people more receptive to a vegan message by deciding, along with Joy, Cooney, and others that the public simply is not ready to hear a serious argument about animal ethics. I disagree. I think that most people can understand the arguments just fine. The problem is that the animal welfare groups simply don’t want that discussion to take place. They have for many years now done everything possible to stifle it. Indeed, you seem to think that this issue is recent. It isn’t. It’s been a heated topic ever since the early 1990s. I recognize that some advocates have an interest in making it appear that this is something new. It isn’t.

My Invitation: As we are both academics and try to look at “big picture” issues, I think we should discuss these issues. I have a podcast that I do in connection with my website, www. abolitionistapproach.com, and I would like to cordially invite you to join me for a discussion of these issues.

Best regards,

Gary

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

I expect that Professor McWilliams will enjoy discussing and debating these issues. Further information to follow.

Update September 8, 2012:

I have spoken with Professor McWilliams and we will be doing a podcast in October. More details soon.

*****

If you are not vegan, please go vegan. Veganism is about nonviolence. First and foremost, it’s about nonviolence to other sentient beings. But it’s also about nonviolence to the earth and nonviolence to yourself.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

©2012 Gary L. Francione

Only Sentience Matters

Animals Who Are Almost Human, part of an online psychology program, provides a perfect example of reinforcing the seriously problematic notion that the cognitive capacities that matter morally are humanlike ones–and not just sentience, or subjective awareness.

To the extent that we link the moral status of animals with cognitive characteristics beyond sentience, we continue the humanocentric arrogance that is speciesism. To say that the animals who matter are the ones “like us” is similar to saying humans who are light skinned matter more than humans who are dark skinned.

It’s not a matter of how “smart” animals are or whether they have mental capabilities that we recognize as being like ours. If they are sentient, that is the only characteristic that they need for us to have a moral duty not to use them as our resources.

The “animal movement,” which, in addition to its promotion of “happy” exploitation, continues to have an obsession with nonhuman great apes, marine mammals, elephants, etc., is stuck in the hole of speciesism. That approach is seriously problematic for at least two reasons:

1. It ignores that cognitive characteristics beyond sentience are morally irrelevant for determining whether we use a being exclusively as a human resource. We see that in the human context. That is, being “smart” may matter for some purposes, such as whether we give someone a scholarship, but it is completely irrelevant to whether we use someone as a forced organ donor, as a nonconsenting subject in a biomedical experiment. We ought to see this in the animal context as well.

2. It sets up a standard that animals, however much they are “like us,” can never win. For example, we have known for a long time that nonhuman great apes are very much like humans in all sorts of ways but we continue to exploit them. However much animals are “like us,” they are never enough “like us” to translate into an obligation on our parts to stop exploiting them.

What I call the “similar minds” approach involves a game that animals can never win. They’ll never be enough “like us.”

A final issue: Does a focus on sentience itself establish a hierarchy of the sentient over the non-sentient? No, because sentience is a necessary as well as sufficient characteristic for a being to have interests (preferences, desires, or wants) in the first place. A rock is not sentient; it does not have any sort of mind that prefers, desires, or wants anything. A plant is alive but has no sort of mind that prefers, desires, or wants anything.

It is interesting to note that the “animal movement” itself perpetuates the notion that chickens, the animal most exploited in terms of sheer numbers, lack all of those “special” cognitive characteristics and may continue to be used as a resource by humans if we do so “humanely.” And although the list of seven animals discussed here includes animals other than the ones that animal advocates usually fetishize, it still excludes chickens and our main source of dairy–cows. How convenient.

*****

If you are not vegan, please go vegan. Veganism is about nonviolence. First and foremost, it’s about nonviolence to other sentient beings. But it’s also about nonviolence to the earth and nonviolence to yourself.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

©2012 Gary L. Francione

“Pets”: The Inherent Problems of Domestication

As a practical matter, there is simply no way to have an institution of “pet” ownership that is consistent with a sound theory of animal rights. “Pets” are property and, as such, their valuation will ultimately be a matter of what their “owners” decide.

But you might ask: “What if it were possible? If, as a hypothetical matter, we changed the legal status of dogs and cats so that they were no longer property and they had a legal status closer to that of human children, would our continued production of dogs and cats (or other nonhumans) and our keeping of ‘pets’ be morally justified?”

My answer to this purely hypothetical question is “no.” We cannot justify the perpetuation of domestication for the purpose of keeping “pets.”

Domesticated animals are dependent on us for everything that is important in their lives: when and whether they eat or drink, when and where they sleep or relieve themselves, whether they get any affection or exercise, etc. Although one could say the same thing about human children, the overwhelming number of human children mature to become autonomous, independent beings.

Domestic animals are neither a real nor full part of our world or of the nonhuman world. They exist forever in a netherworld of vulnerability, dependent on us for everything and at risk of harm from an environment that they do not really understand. We have bred them to be compliant and servile, or to have characteristics that are actually harmful to them but are pleasing to us. We may make them happy in one sense, but the relationship can never be “natural” or “normal.” They do not belong stuck in our world irrespective of how well we treat them.

We cannot justify such an institution, even if it looked very different from the situation that now exists. My partner and I live with five rescued dogs, including dogs who had health problems when we adopted them. We love them very much and try very hard to provide them the best of care and treatment. (And before anyone asks, all seven of us are vegans!) You would probably not find two people on the planet who enjoy living with dogs more than we do.

And we both encourage anyone who can to adopt or foster as many animals (of whatever species) they can responsibly have.

But if there were two dogs left in the universe and it were up to us as to whether they were allowed to breed so that we could continue to live with dogs, and even if we could guarantee that all dogs would have homes as loving as the one that we provide, we would not hesitate for a second to bring the whole institution of “pet” ownership to an end.

We regard the dogs who live with us as refugees of sorts, and although we enjoy caring for them, it is clear that humans have no business continuing to bring these creatures into a world in which they simply do not fit.

I understand that many people will be bewildered by my argument about the inherent problems with domestication. But that is because we live in a world in which we kill and eat 56 billion animals a year (not counting fish) and where our best justification for that practice is that we enjoy the taste of animal flesh and animal products. Most of you who are reading this right now are probably not vegans. As long as you think it is acceptable to kill and eat animals, the more abstract argument about domesticating animals to use as “pets” is not likely to resonate. I understand that.

So take a few minutes to read some of the many other essays on this site that discuss veganism, such as Why Veganism Must Be the Baseline.

And then reconsider the issue of “pets.” I also discuss the issue of “pets” in two podcasts: Commentary #2: “Pets” and Commentary #4: Follow-Up to “Pets” Commentary: Non-Vegan Cats.

*****

If you are not vegan, please go vegan. Veganism is about nonviolence. First and foremost, it’s about nonviolence to other sentient beings. But it’s also about nonviolence to the earth and nonviolence to yourself.

If you are able to adopt or foster any nonhuman animals, please do. Domestication is morally wrong but they are here now and they need our care. Their lives are as important to them as our lives are to us.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

©2012 Gary L. Francione

Do Abolitionists Have a Position on Human Rights? You Bet We Do!

Someone said to me today (in an email): “I’m totally for animal rights but I don’t think that means I have to be for women’s rights or gay rights or whatever.”

Wrong.

Think about the logic. Speciesism is wrong because it’s like racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc., which also involve focusing on an irrelevant criterion (race or sex or sexual orientation or whatever) to justify not according equal consideration.

We can’t say that speciesism is wrong because it’s like these other wrong things but we don’t have a position about these other wrong things.

Of course we do.

And that position is that all discrimination is wrong. Period. It doesn’t matter whether it’s discrimination based on race, sex, sexual orientation, class, age, etc. It’s wrong.

If you say that speciesism is wrong but you don’t have a position about other wrongful types of discrimination, all you do is reinforce the notion that “animal people” do not care about humans.

And the abolitionist movement is not about misanthropy.

*****

If you are not vegan, please go vegan. Veganism is about nonviolence. First and foremost, it’s about nonviolence to other sentient beings. But it’s also about nonviolence to the earth and nonviolence to yourself.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

©2012 Gary L. Francione

Veganism and Nonviolence

If the principle of nonviolence means anything, it means that you cannot justify any killing or suffering for transparently frivolous reasons such as pleasure, amusement, or convenience. And doing something “with compassion” that is not morally justifiable does not change the fact that it’s morally unjustifiable.

When you decide what you want to eat, wear, or use, you are not acting under any sort of compulsion. You are simply indulging your palate pleasure, sense of fashion, etc., or allowing what is convenient to trump the interests of another sentient being.

So if you embrace nonviolence and you are not vegan, you need to think about what is unquestionably a serious inconsistency.

*****

If you are not vegan, please go vegan. Veganism is about nonviolence. First and foremost, it’s about nonviolence to other sentient beings. But it’s also about nonviolence to the earth and nonviolence to yourself.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

©2012 Gary L. Francione

Road Kill, Abandoned Eggs, and Dumpster Diving

I am frequently asked whether it is “vegan” to eat “road kill,” the abandoned eggs of hens who are kept as companions, or animal products that you find in a dumpster.

The short answer: no.

The explanation: Although these activities do not contribute directly to demand for animal products, they are deeply problematic as a symbolic matter. They reinforce the idea that animal products are things to consume; they reinforce the idea that animals are things, are human resources; they reinforce the social practice of consuming animals; they reinforce demand even if they don’t contribute directly to it.

But what if no one sees you do these things? In that case, you are not engaging in any activity that symbolizes anything to anyone because no one observes it or knows about it. You are not reinforcing demand.

But you observe; you know about it. You are participating in the act of consuming animals; a ritual that has no meaning apart from the speciesist celebration that animals are things to exploit.

Being vegan means that you reject the notion that animals are things for us to consume. They are not commodities; they are not resources.

They are not food any more than a human arm that you find in the dumpster.

We would never think of eating a human. Humans are moral persons. We don’t eat persons. But nonhumans are persons as well. They have moral value. Their bodies and the products made from them are not things we should consider as food, even if we find them dead along the road way or in a dumpster, or even if they are abandoned by their makers, such as unfertilized eggs that hens don’t eat.

*****

If you are not vegan, please go vegan. Veganism is about nonviolence. First and foremost, it’s about nonviolence to other sentient beings. But it’s also about nonviolence to the earth and nonviolence to yourself.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

©2012 Gary L. Francione