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