Monday, May 31, 2010

Respect My Choice?

(Revised; ignore the previous version of this post if you read it; I was not quite happy with it and shouldn't have posted it.)

Foer's Eating Animals is, on the whole, a worthwhile read, especially for someone who needs an introduction to factory farming. An Amazon reviewer characterizes the book as "an urban book by an urban author for an urban audience that surely needs a good shake as it reaches for the package of cheap Tyson chicken thighs at the Fairway." This is not entirely unfair, and Foer is honest about his status as a "city boy." Of course, factory farmed meat isn't "urban"; it's utterly pervasive in the U.S. Nevertheless, there might be something to the idea that Foer's most sympathetic audience will be urban because he is urban. Presumably, this is because we are most inclined to listen to those with whom we might conceivably sit down and have a meal. Those who can't take the "city boy" seriously can always turn instead to books like Howard Lyman's Mad Cowboy, which I haven't read, but appears to be the "country" equivalent to Foer's book (though it's a bit old, given the fact-driven nature of these books. However, my impression is that the basic facts about factory farms haven't changed that much).

As I was reading Foer's book, I was also reading about athletes who've turned to a vegetarian diet (and readers will be glad to know that Prince Fielder has returned to usual form). In reading through some of the (often predictably bad) comments (yes, we all know that reading comments on news websites is a bad idea!), I was struck by the following one, which is somehow connected to the pervasive thought that choices about what we eat are "personal":
I personaly don't care about how the animals are treated, or how they are butchered as they are being turned into my next meal. They are still "animals" as in below humans. And if ya'll don't like it, thats ok, eat your soy and beans, I'll not try to stop you, just please give me the same respect. I'll take mine medium well done thank you.
Really, this is just another thoughtless waste of internet space, and I feel a bit apologetic about framing any thoughts in response to it. (I feel like the man in the cartoon who says to his wife, "I'm busy right now! Someone said something wrong on the Internet!") But there's an idea encapsulated in this stupid remark that I've been thinking about: the idea that what we eat is a "personal" choice.

In discussing my move away from meat (at least mammals and birds), a not-unsympathetic family member attempted to summarize my decision by glossing it as a "personal choice." My response was, "Well, if I thought it was just a personal choice, I'd still be eating bacon, because bacon is tasty!" At the same time, I try to resist the urge to get "moralistic," which is presumably what the commenter above doesn't like. But this is hard once one has a vivid impression about just how inhumane, disrespectful, and plain gross the factory farm industry is. At least, it's hard not to take the occasional jab. Is that disrespectful? Surely not.

I have no idea why anyone would need to "try" not to stop someone from eating beans. What exactly is the corresponding "respect" the commenter above wants? I'm not going to try to take his steak away from him while he's eating. I have other things to do. (Does he have a strong impulse to slap veggie burgers out of the hands of others?) Does he want his choice to be respected? "Respect my choice." What does that mean? Not to criticize it? But that doesn't make sense. Even if a choice is "personal," that doesn't seem to rule out the permissibility of criticism of a sort, as with style and music criticism. But let's grant that criticism of that sort is merely "aesthetic," and so there's plenty of room for disagreement in taste and choice on such matters. Is what we eat merely "personal" or "aesthetic" in that respect? The easy answer, I think, is that it can't be "merely" personal because what we choose to eat affects other living beings (including farmers, who've been either marginalized or forced into being mere "producers" for the meat industry with little control over their animals).

I understand, more or less, why people continue to eat factory farmed meat--which is just about the only kind of meat you can get in a grocery store or a restaurant. The intellectual transition, for me, has taken some time. (And I'm still not really a vegetarian since I'll still eat fish and shrimp, but the more I read about "bycatch" and the environmental problems with fishing, the more my appetite wanes. That said, the practical transition is pretty easy in comparison to the intellectual one.) I'm sympathetic with the idea that grass-farmed animals, and even responsibly hunted animals, could be respectable sources of food. I'm not (yet?) prepared to go vegan, and so it's hard to achieve true "consistency" in food choice. (Eggs and dairy products present lots of problems, too.) But to demand respect, especially on the grounds that one "personally does not care" where one's meat comes from, just seems stupid and obnoxious. And this, as Foer (and others, like Michael Pollan) bring out, is really the problem: most people just don't seem to care where their food comes from. But on what grounds could that indifference--whatever you're eating--possibly be worthy of respect?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Eating Animals

"The justification for eating animals and for not eating them are often identical: we are not them."

This line, for whatever reason, stood out to me as I've been working through Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals. (Check out the website here.) I'm about halfway through, and was very hesitant to get this book--not because I was "afraid" of what I might learn (though I have learned some things from it, and the book has extensive references), but because I thought the book would be cute and mildly pretentious. (I don't know anything about Foer, haven't read his novels, but have this probably unfair image of him as a NYC literati hipster...hence my reservations.)

But the book is in fact quite good so far. The problem is that between this and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, there isn't very much left to eat on a daily basis that can leave one feeling very good. That is, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the thought that there's nothing one can do right when it comes to eating. (The butternut squash I purchased at the new Meijer store in Richmond today was shipped from Mexico; how much oil did that take? One might say: at least it didn't suffer during the ride...) When one confronts the problems with "industrial" food, whether meat or produce, it's hard to know where to start with righting one's own ship, at least until the local farmer's market opens in June...

I hope to have something more cohesive to say about Foer when I finish the book. I've been eating quasi-vegetarian (with some shrimp and fish--though fish is looking like a worse deal the more I read and learn) for several months, but I don't have strongly settled views about most of the subtleties of the "eating animals" debates.

But back to Foer's line above: what do you make of it? It's easy, perhaps, for the animal liberationist (say, Singer) to say that "we are not them" is a red herring (ha ha) (speciesism, etc.) when it comes to justifying eating animals, but is that right?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Comparing Lives: Rush Rhees on Humans and Animals

Update 6/9/11: The link below now takes you to the most recent draft; the paper is now forthcoming in Philosophical Investigations (and I will have to take down this draft when the paper is published).

Here is a draft of my paper on Rush Rhees' remarks about animals. Comments will be greatly appreciated. I'm still pretty new to the animal ethics literature, and have already gotten some feedback that I'll need to think about having to do with how I frame Rhees' position (especially with respect to Section I).

Comments appreciated!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Integrity and Virtue

Is integrity a virtue? I'm not so sure. The reason I'm not sure is that integrity seems to be a much broader concept than many of the other virtue concepts. Some, like Bernard Williams, have made a similar suggestion, although sometimes the worry looks to be that integrity is not a virtue because people with morally suspect (or even pernicious) commitments could have integrity by remaining "true to themselves." In their book Integrity and the Fragile Self, Damian Cox, Marguerite La Caze, and Michael Levine argue that integrity is a virtue, and while I am sympathetic with the idea that it doesn't make sense to say, full voice, that a person who is "true" to vicious commitments thereby manifests what we normally mean by integrity, I find much of their argument confusing. Consider, for example, their characterization of integrity:
As we conceive it, integrity is not a kind of wholeness, solidity of character or moral purity. It involves a capacity to respond to change in one’s values or circumstances, a kind of continual remaking of the self, as well as a capacity to balance competing commitments and values and to take responsibility for one’s work and thought. Understanding integrity involves taking the self to be always in process, rather than static and unchanging or containing an inner ‘core’ around which reasonably superficial changes are made. Rather than presenting integrity as a merely formal quality characterizing the ‘good order’ or ‘well-functioning’ of a person’s psychology, we take it to be a complex and thick virtue term. It stands as a mean to various excesses: on the one side, conformity, arrogance, dogmatism, fanaticism, monomania, preciousness, sanctimoniousness, rigidity; on the other side, capriciousness, wantonness, triviality, disintegration, weakness of will, self-deception, self-ignorance, mendacity, hypocrisy, indifference. (41)
Certainly, to possess the characteristics described by Cox et al would be a mark of virtue, but that is part of what confuses me. It seems that integrity, as they understand it, is virtue, or at least a large swath of it, and not simply a virtue. The fact that they locate integrity at the center of many excesses and deficiencies of character signals to me that integrity is a characteristic that captures a whole host of virtues. That is why I find it slightly awkward to say that it is a virtue. They also cannot (and do not) completely rule out the significance of the standard ways of conceiving of virtue: wholeness of character, resistance to compromise of one's commitments, and so on, are in many cases the features of a person's life and actions which prompt ascriptions of integrity.

I'm tempted to suggest that integrity is a "family resemblance" concept (in the manner of Wittgenstein); this would explain why attempts to provide accounts of integrity that reduce it to a particular trait or feature tend to generate counterexamples. Or maybe integrity is like porn: we know it when we see it.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Humans and Animals, Apples and Oranges

This is a follow-up to an earlier post. I'm shaping up a paper on Rush Rhees' remarks on humans and animals, and have been trying to get clear on the nature of the confusion he suggests is present in certain kinds of attempts to compare humans and animals (or to compare harms to each). The following is an excerpt. Background: I introduce two contrasting cases in which a very young girl and a pig are both confined (indefinitely) to dark and cramped quarters, sometimes become restless and violent, but for the most part adapt to their respective situations (say, through what psychologists call learned helplessness). Following some discussion of the open-endedness of a human future (in the paper), here, I think, is the upshot:

The contrast between these two cases shows that the nature of the harms to the girl and the pig are not entirely the same. (They are not, of course, entirely different either.) This is because the open-endedness of the future of which the girl is deprived is not something which, in the same way, we can attribute to the pig. The next question is whether these considerations show that the confinement of the girl is worse than that of the pig (or vice versa). But this is precisely the point at which the idea of making a comparison between human and animal lives, or what can be suffered by humans and animals, seems to lack any principled basis for assigning weight. If we say that it is worse for the girl to be confined than the pig, then the justification for this would have to be that there is something of which she is deprived which is not deprived of the pig. But something about that seems fishy because the future of which the girl is deprived is not something of which the pig could be deprived. That doesn’t mean that the pig is harmed less than the girl, but only that the basis of the harm to the pig is slightly different from the basis in the girl’s case. To say that the harm to the girl is greater would thus seem to involve the claim that the possession of the kind of life which has a potentially open future is of greater objective value than the possession of a kind of life which is not conditioned by an open-ended future. But what could justify that claim? Intuition? The problem is that any such intuition is going to be a human intuition, and thus will look like little more than a speciesist insistence that human life has more objective value than animal life. [...]

On the other hand, if we say that the harm to the pig is just as bad as the harm to the girl, that claim runs the risk of leaving out the differences in what exactly is deprived of each individual. It might be objected that if the one harm isn’t worse than the other, then they must be equal—that is, one is just as bad as the other. However, one might ask what exactly is gained by the claim that the harms are “just as bad” over and above the obvious point that confinement in each case is very bad. [...] [I]f it is true that the nature of the harms to the pig and the girl are different in important ways, then the problem with saying that the harm in each case is just as bad is similar to the problem in trying to say that since an apple is not tastier than an orange, they are both equally tasty.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Cavell on the Transcendental

From an interview with Stanley Cavell:
[T]here's two kinds of people...those to whom you don't have to explain the transcendental and those to whom you can't explain the transcendental.
You have to sign up to read the interview, but it's free, and it's an interesting read. HT: OLP & Literary Studies Online, which is now firmly on my radar.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Overpopulation & Eating People

This was the highlight of my day grading. From a student's short explanation of Hardin's "tragedy of the commons" as applied to overpopulation:
One good thing about the cow is we can eat it if it takes up too much of our resources. And until we can start eating humans we need to seriously consider the affects (sic) of over population on our future.
Take that, Jonathan Swift.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Difficulty of Experience

I've just posted a draft of a paper I've been working on for awhile. Here it is. And here's a description:
Some things are hard to put into words, including profound experiences that inform our way of judging the world. This paper explores the intersection of the problem of putting such experiences into words and the problem that some disagreements hinge on unshared experiences. I suggest that two ways of dealing with these difficulties--which I call mysticism and extreme anti-mysticism--are both false. I consider in detail examples involving Wittgenstein's "wondering at the existence of the whole world", J.M. Coetzee's character Elizabeth Costello and her horror at the treatment of animals, and a correspondence between Freud and Romain Rolland about the "oceanic feeling." Often, what we need is not simply to put our experience into words but rather to find a way to give the other a similar experience.
Comments will be greatly appreciated.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Well, I'll be a comfortable savage...

Ah, Thoreau, Walden:
And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him. As I understand it, that was a valid objection urged by Momus against the house which Minerva made, that she "had not made it movable, by which means a bad neighborhood might be avoided"; and it may still be urged, for our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them; and the bad neighborhood to be avoided is our own scurvy selves. I know one or two families, at least, in this town, who, for nearly a generation, have been wishing to sell their houses in the outskirts and move into the village, but have not been able to accomplish it, and only death will set them free.

Granted that the majority are able at last either to own or hire the modern house with all its improvements. While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. It has created palaces, but it was not so easy to create noblemen and kings. And if the civilized man's pursuits are no worthier than the savage's, if he is employed the greater part of his life in obtaining gross necessaries and comforts merely, why should he have a better dwelling than the former?
Which is to say: I've bought a house, and have been thinking about Thoreau the whole damn I have to go read Whitman again, quickly. "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)"