Vegan Compromise

How is it that Americans, so solicitous of the animals they keep as pets, are so indifferent toward the ones they cook for dinner? The answer cannot lie in the beasts themselves. Pigs, after all, are quite companionable, and dogs are said to be delicious. …

How would you judge an artist who mutilated animals in a gallery because it was visually arresting? How riveting would the sound of a tortured animal need to be to make you want to hear it that badly? Try to imagine any end other than taste for which it would be justifiable to do what we do to farmed animals.” …

“Almost always, when I told someone I was writing a book about ‘eating animals,’ they assumed, even without knowing anything about my views, that it was a case for vegetarianism,” he says. “It’s a telling assumption, one that implies not only that a thorough inquiry into animal agriculture would lead one away from eating meat, but that most people already know that to be the case.”

More here.  She’s right: we will not tolerate folks watching animals tortured for entertainment, as in movies or cock-fights, but we will tolerate animals being tortured for food, for meds, or perhaps lipstick.  We care far more about our pets than our food, even if they are very similar creatures.  And we know deep down that the usual sorts of principles most folks endorse do not support this behavior.  We are hypocrites.

Those with strong self-images as principled intellectuals have two outs:

  1. Become vegetarians, to make our acts match our words.
  2. Change our principles, to make our words match our acts.

Rather than warring to the death for one side or the other to win such a conflict, I prefer to seek compromises between our near and far selves.  Let us seek principles that can account for most of our acts, then try to change the other acts to conform with such easier principles.  My tentative resolutions:

  • We don’t care much about most animals, even smart ones.
  • It is a bad sign about someone that they would be enjoy watching animals being tortured.  We prohibit such watching to make our society look “civilized” to other societies.
  • We are kind to our pets to show others we are loyal to those loyal to us.  Fido has always been there for us, so we will be there for him – up to a point at least.
  • We are willing to spend only modest sums to make food animal lives a bit more enjoyable.  We should spend such sums, but not go overboard.

More interesting quotes from that article:

Foer’s villains include Smithfield, Tyson Foods, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and—rather more surprisingly—Michael Pollan. There is perhaps no more influential critic of the factory farm than Pollan, and Foer acknowledges that he “has written as thoughtfully about food as anyone.” But when Pollan looks at animals he doesn’t feel worried or guilty or embarrassed. He feels, well, hungry. …

Pollan says, it’s too late for people to start worrying about eating animals. The problem with factory-farmed meat isn’t the meat; it’s the factory. The solution is to return animals to the sorts of places where they can graze and root and fly—or at least flap around—before being dispatched. …

Pollan contends that “people who care about animals should be working to ensure that the ones they eat don’t suffer, and that their deaths are swift and painless.” Similarly, the author and livestock expert Temple Grandin, who designs what are often called “humane slaughterhouses,” argues, “We owe animals a decent life and a painless death.” We “forget that nature can be harsh,” she has written. “Death at the slaughter plant is quicker and less painful than death in the wild. Lions dining on the guts of a live animal is much worse in my opinion.”  …

But is even veganism really enough? The cost that consumer society imposes on the planet’s fifteen or so million non-human species goes way beyond either meat or eggs. Bananas, bluejeans, soy lattes, the paper used to print this magazine, the computer screen you may be reading it on—death and destruction are embedded in them all. It is hard to think at all rigorously about our impact on other organisms without being sickened.

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  • Steven

    Haha, it’s a bit humorous that you mistakenly wrote that SHE’s right after the quote. Could there be an underlying assumption here?

  • Ari

    @Steven: It’s no mistake. The author of the article is Elizabeth Kolbert, and the second passage is a quote from a female animal rights activist.

  • Greg Conen

    Regarding compromises between near and far selves, Pollan and Gradin’s “humane slaughterhouses” seem to play an important role. This effect already exists in people boycotting particularly cruel foods (eg foie gras).

  • . ” We are hypocrites.”

    Pretty strong words here youhg fellow. Perhaps it would be better to suggest that we are ambivalent.

    Loves final act is in being eaten. This universe is a metabolic process and none of us are going to get out alive.

    Want to save the world, take the advice of Krisha and change yourself.

  • Robin,

    While I’m a great fan of signalling theory to explain almost everything, this is overboard:

    “We are kind to our pets to show others we are loyal to those loyal to us. Fido has always been there for us, so we will be there for him – up to a point at least.”

    At least the first part. This is simply the near/far problem. We care about suffering we see, and suffering of those who are emotionally near. While it may once have been signalling evolutionarily, now it’s built in.

    Give a dollar to the indigent or to africans, which is more valuable? africans. % charity to each? Massively (if I’m right) towards the local indigent. Emotion of care is massively impacted by proximity. trying to pretend otherwise is the silly part.

    • Psychohistorian

      Along with that, given that we seem to have something of a history of tending animals and keeping dogs, and that we all seem to find dogs, particularly helpless ones (i.e. puppies) cute, it’s very likely that treating certain types of animals decently is simply adaptive, and we do it largely for that reason.

      Of course, our cuteness-detectors may just be harmlessly misfiring at puppies and kittens, but it would make sense if there’s a reason we have a natural affinity for them, given some history of light symbiosis.

      • Baby pigs are cute too.

      • Robert Koslover

        Adult pigs are not cute. That may have some relevance.

      • Stuart Armstrong

        I find adult pigs cute too.

        As part of a hypocrytical, messy near-far semi-signalling compromise, I’ve stopped eating pork. If I’m going to choose some random criteria for which animals I eat or don’t eat, it might as well be the intelligence of the beast.

    • anon

      Give a dollar to the indigent or to africans, which is more valuable?

      This is a non-trivial question. We have very little information about what our aid/charity money is doing in Africa. Giving money to a local cause which can be readily monitored seems to be a fairly reasonable choice.

      • Stuart Armstrong

        No it isn’t. The return on investment (in terms of lives saved) for some african projects (some of those dealing with diseases) is over ten thousand times that of local charities. Even if that african charity spent 99% of your donation on luxurious Roll-Royces and Caviar, it would still be the better charity to donate too.

        If you want a mix of acceptable return (alas, it wastes money by using it in the US, fortunately not too much of it though) and good monitoring, pick something like the Gates foundation.

      • anon

        You may be right: a web search shows that the B&M Gates Foundation receives about $10M/year in unsolicited donations. Still, the Foundation actually discourages direct donations–it asks people to match its grants instead.

        However, this is a very recent development. Over the past decades, Africa has received billions of dollars in charity and aid money with very little to show for it.

      • Dave

        In the past sixty years $2.3 trillion have been spent by the West to fight poverty in poor countries,with little success ,probably due to over reliance on top down management of the programs. Source of information:”The White Man’s Burden” by William Easterly.

  • Re: “We are hypocrites.” That seems rather insulting for the audience. Presumably that was not intended to cover everyone.

    This whole post is rather odd. If we are talking about vegetarianism what I would normally *expect* to hear from Robin Hanson is something like:

    “vegetarianism is not about animals – it’s about holier-than-thou signalling – to illustrate to each other what saintly creatures we are”.

    [Quote marks for illustrative purposes only].

    • tim

      I think most people probably are hypocrites on this subject – I know I certainly am. I don’t want to know more about factory farming for the same reason I don’t want to know more about fast food kitchens. It would probably turn me off my food. Of course, I also don’t want to see pictures of starving orphans on the front page of the paper every morning either. It’s not so much that I want to avoid having to deal with the ethics of it, but that I already know I can’t give up eating meat, going to Burger King or buying luxury goods, so there’s no point in making my life more depressing by confronting me with that fact. Like the author says at the end of Robin’s quote, every single person’s impact on the planet is negative to at least a few other organisms, and you can’t help that. You also probably can’t live like Mother Theresa or Gandhi, so do what you can to minimize suffering… but don’t feel bad if you don’t give up all your worldly possessions to feed the hungry. You’re only human – only a hypocrite like the rest of us.

  • Duncan

    There are basically 2 kinds of animals: those who eat meat, and those who are meat.

    I say we eat the vegans.

    • Nothing, I say, nothing tastes as good as a grain feed vegan.

  • Emile

    She’s right: we will not tolerate folks watching animals tortured for entertainment, as in movies or cock-fights

    We will not tolerate folks having sex with animals either, and this is also presented in terms of protecting the animals. Hard to see how that can be worse than eating them.

    • Depends on how inclusive you make that “we”. There have probably been more people that have watched cock or dog fights throughout history as have seen movies.

  • Doug

    Earlier you stated that brain emulations living at substinence is morally tolerable and maybe even good, because even though it lowers the average quality of a life it allows many more lives to be lived.

    Isn’t it the same concept with farmed animals. The number of cows/pigs/chickens alive without farmed meat would be vastly lower, even if the average life improved in quality. The same moral calculus says that if we care about cows we should eat more meat, not less.

    • Yes, it is good that there are many farm animals if their lives are worth living. I don’t think the modest sums I suggest spending to make animals lives more enjoyable would reduce the number of them very much.

      • It is a curious moral calculus that assigns value to the total number of farm animals in twe world. It seems plausible that we will replace animals with tastier, cheaper, safer and more environmentally friendly vat-grown protein. Why should we resist this farm animal apocalypse?

    • Dremora

      Even if you assume the lives of farm animals to be worth living (according to your standards?), it is still the sign of an optimization failure. Surely farm animals aren’t the best possible causal vector to maximize happiness in the universe? They are a by-product of something else, namely sustenance for interesting human lives, which means there is waste in the process of sustaining interesting human lives, which means that a better system without animals could potentially sustain a greater number of interesting human lives.

      Alternatively, maybe you just want to maximize your own happiness, and screaming animals make you uncomfortable? Then do exactly what you have to do in order to discharge those emotions, at minimal cost.

      In the spirit of Eliezer Yudkowsky and Katja Grace, find out what best approximates your values and then be efficient about implementing them. Don’t rationalize sub-par optimization and don’t pretend efficiency is a bad thing. Claiming the existence of farm animals is good because their lives are worth living implies that this is the best available way of creating lives worth living, and that hypothesis is unlikely to hold true upon critical examination.

  • I eat meat because I love it so much I’m practically addicted, but I simply cannot find any moral justification for it, especially if the animals feel pain or fear upon being slaughtered.

    I suppose if I were given the choice between not ever having existed and existing until the prime of my life when I would be slaughtered so I could feed a more intelligent species, I’d pick the latter.

    • Psychohistorian

      How could one possibly be given a choice between not existing and existing? Being able to make the choice means you already exist.

      • Jonas

        Same goes for the question:
        “Why is there something and not nothing?”
        It is weird that the question still seems to make sense.

      • Jonas

        Excuse my bad English. The question was supposed to be:
        “Why is there Something rather than Nothing?”
        “not nothing” would be something.

    • Well I can understand your preference and I agree – better to live and be slaughtered than not to live.

  • Anon80

    Well, sorry but I care more about humans (specially me and my family) than animals, and meat is the best food for us.

    So I’m with Pollan, but not because of the confort of the animal but because they are healthier for us if grown free and eating its (evolution-wise) normal food, rather than cheap industrial feeds.

    • If this were true, it implies you should not care about the well-being of most far-away people.

      If you think that way, you should also find it acceptable to breed a genetic branch of humans that wouldn’t otherwise exist, then slaughter those people in their prime, and serve them in restaurants.

      A simple way to create a genetic branch of humans for food, that wouldn’t otherwise exist, would be to pay a substantial amount to a bunch of pregnant women who would otherwise abort their babies.

      If you don’t care about the animals’ well being, and you don’t believe that there’s a magical difference between human animals and other animals, then you should be fine with such a branch of humans being used for other humans’ food.

  • Bill

    We are hypocrites.

    “We” are not hypocrites. We have just mis-identified our visceral reaction to perceived animal suffering as having a moral basis. Sort of like the psych literature showing how extensively we rationalize our behavior after the fact rather than rationally choosing before the fact.

    Absolutely nobody gives a crap about the suffering of animals they don’t personally know and can’t see. Do animal rights nutballs want the level of deer hunting which minimizes some aggregate suffering of deer? Ha ha. What do they like better: deer being painfully ripped apart by wolves, or gunshot to the head (hypothetically, of course: nobody shoots deer in the head)? See also what Tim Tyler said.

    Listening to or seeing an animal in distress is disturbing because the signs of their distress are enough like the signs of our loved ones in distress that we respond. Why is watching baby seals get whacked so very disturbing? Their faces look like babies’. We can make the disturbing go away either by looking a lot and thereby deadening ourselves to it or by never looking. The modern West very strongly prefers option 2. Veganism, “cruelty-free farming,” and telling animal rights weirdos to shut up are three possible paths to option 2.

    Notice what tim says above: “I don’t want to know more about factory farming.” That’s the common and interesting phenomenon here.

    The interesting questions are things like “Why does the modern West strongly prefer option 2,” “What are the benefits of not inuring ourselves to the suffering of animals,” “What are the psychological effects of inuring oneself to the suffering of animals?” This represents a seemingly big difference between modern us and evolutionary us, and also between agricultural us and industrial us. What are the benefits and costs to whatever changes this works in our brains? Is it somehow related to neoteny (kids seem especially freaked by suffering animals), for example? Also, according to Wikipedia and TV cop shows, psychopaths are indifferent to / interested in animal suffering as children. Related?

    Other interesting questions are why some urban societies and subcultures did not develop (or not right away) our aversion to deadening ourselves to animal suffering. Cockfighting, dogfighting, and bear baiting are examples of sports which have been pursued in the past and are pursued now in urban areas where residents could avoid animal suffering if they wanted. Not to mention the Colosseum. What explains which do and which don’t? And when? And which subcultures?

    Is there a literature on this in psych? I don’t know.

    • I see the problem here as being the claim that our visceral reaction is mis-identified. This claim isn’t supported in the paragraphy that follows, and I think scientifically we can indeed say the opposite is true. I like to go for Peter Singer argumentation on it, because it makes a very crude but visible sense that doesn’t look like it could easily be wrong. (Perhaps this isn’t even a good thing but here’s the argument anyway).

      So, we can identify similarities between the brains of an animal and a Homo sapiens such that we can say that animal X is worthy of the same moral consideration as a human child at age N. Say X=’adult dog’; and N=’4 years old’;. The dilemma then becomes: either I say killing dogs is not permissible or killing four year olds is permissible. The variables I’ve provided here are rough at best but there are some well-known comparisons that make the same point. The irrational position is surely the belief that one can harvest all the species but one’s own.

  • “Almost always, when I told someone I was writing a book about ‘eating animals,’ they assumed, even without knowing anything about my views, that it was a case for vegetarianism,” he says. “It’s a telling assumption, one that implies not only that a thorough inquiry into animal agriculture would lead one away from eating meat,

    Or, you know, because only vegetarians use the term “eating animals” and everyone else says “eating meat”…

    Nah, too obvious.

  • Edward Gaffney

    “We are kind to our pets to show others we are loyal to those loyal to us.”

    Robin, have you ever owned a pet?

  • Dan

    I don’t understand the point of “seeking principles that accord with most of our acts.” Putting aside the question of whether your bulleted hypotheses are true, what exactly is the point? Presumably some our evolved traits are relatively positive and others are relatively negative. What is the value of trying to conform our principles or acts to some theory of what actually motivates people and then attempt to adopt those motivations?

  • Tetrisd

    I think you’re only partially correct in attributing our affection for pets as stemming from loyalty. It seems like someone who adopts that reasoning is forcing their bias into a principled framework. In reality, it ignores the strong emotional-love bond that develops between people and their pets. I might go further and argue that loyalty to the pet stems from love for it. How can we enter a two-way loving relationship with a dog but subject a pig to torture for the pleasure of our taste buds?

  • People have coexisted, on their own farms, with dogs and cats for pets and farm animals penned up for slaughter for thousands of years. Heck, they even trained the dogs to torture sheep (by nipping their ankles, terrorizing them and denying them their civil rights to peacable assembly). Other dogs were trained to fetch recently executed birds, and cats were prized for their ability to torture cuddly rodents. At night, the dogs would snuggle up to their owners, keeping their feet warm at night. (You can’t do that with pigs, by the way – they might be cute and they’re no doubt smart but cuddly they ain’t – the hair is very course.) And when they got around to the slaughter, the techniques were very hands on. I’d think if this “hypocritical” arrangement presented some intolerable level of cognitive dissonance in the human mind, it would have ended many generations ago.

    Yes, people don’t pay money to watch chickens sit motionless stacked in small cages because it’s _boring_. Nor does anyone watch calves standing motionless in pens, or pigs eating slop in dark rooms, or whatever else it is that we’re supposed to think of as “torture,” because it’s boring. We don’t know what cattle or chickens or pigs “feel” at their farms. We know when wolves disembowel them while they’re alive they sure shriek like they’re in pain and when a wolf is chasing them they sure act scared. But do they know they’re on their way to the slaughter when the time comes at the ole factory farm? Are they aware they could be running around scrounging for food instead of being crammed together and fed on some schedule? Perhaps they’re grateful they’re not subject to the vagaries of the wild, for all we know.

    So this thought experiment may seem deeply profound to this odd set of people who read this blog, but it won’t gain much traction out in the real world.

  • Rob
  • haig

    I really couldn’t resist this quote from Pulp Fiction:

    Vincent: Want some bacon?
    Jules: No man, I don’t eat pork.
    Vincent: Are you Jewish?
    Jules: Nah, I ain’t Jewish, I just don’t dig on swine, that’s all.
    Vincent: Why not?
    Jules: Pigs are filthy animals. I don’t eat filthy animals.
    Vincent: Bacon tastes gooood. Pork chops taste gooood.
    Jules: Hey, sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I’d never know ’cause I wouldn’t eat the filthy motherfucker. Pigs sleep and root in shit. That’s a filthy animal. I ain’t eat nothin’ that ain’t got sense enough to disregard its own feces.
    Vincent: How about a dog? Dogs eats its own feces.
    Jules: I don’t eat dog either.
    Vincent: Yeah, but do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?
    Jules: I wouldn’t go so far as to call a dog filthy but they’re definitely dirty. But, a dog’s got personality. Personality goes a long way.
    Vincent: Ah, so by that rationale, if a pig had a better personality, he would cease to be a filthy animal. Is that true?
    Jules: Well we’d have to be talkin’ about one charming motherfuckin’ pig. I mean he’d have to be ten times more charmin’ than that Arnold on Green Acres, you know what I’m sayin’?

  • Grant

    How is it that Americans, so solicitous of the animals they keep as pets, are so indifferent toward the ones they cook for dinner? The answer cannot lie in the beasts themselves. Pigs, after all, are quite companionable, and dogs are said to be delicious. …

    Many of us find dogs and cats cute. This shouldn’t be surprising since both animals evolved with humans to some degree; they’d evolve to be pleasing to us so we don’t eat them.

    Most people don’t find pigs cute. I’ve known women who found rabbits cute and refused to eat them.

  • Jonas

    reading recommendation:
    “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” by the author Michael Pollan

  • Ryan

    I wonder if hunter-gatherers ever lost sleep over the animals they killed to survive. Maybe its only because food is guaranteed to us cheaply and easily, thanks to factory farmed meat, that we have the luxury to worry about the feelings of the animals.

    What about synthesized meat? The time and money invested in animal rights may be better used towards getting that technology going and making people comfortable with the idea. Seems like the best solution which keeps the health and enjoyment benefits of meat and eliminates whatever degree of suffering (even if its very small) we put food animals through.

  • It is our nature, and should be our nature, to be kind to those close to us and those that resemble us, and mercilessly indifferent to those far away and strange. Cats and dogs, through symbiosis, get honorary human status – we associate with cats because they kept down vermin, dogs because they guarded our property for us. Cattle are food. Their sufferings do not matter, and matter less when out of sight.

  • Evan

    “We” are not hypocrites. We have just mis-identified our visceral reaction to perceived animal suffering as having a moral basis.

    Listening to or seeing an animal in distress is disturbing because the signs of their distress are enough like the signs of our loved ones in distress that we respond. Why is watching baby seals get whacked so very disturbing? Their faces look like babies’.

    I think that I agree with this to some extent. While some of the higher animals probably do deserve moral consideration, I think that for a lot of them we are projecting human traits onto creatures that do not have them. Our moral intuitions about the proper way to treat animals can’t really be considered reliable for that reason.

    I have a vivid memory of a time I was playing a realtime strategy videogame and deciding to betray my ally. The AI sent me several pleading scripted messages invoking our friendship and begging me to stop attacking. I found that I was not able to continue fighting the AI, even though I knew it was just an AI sending me scripted responses. My moral intuition told me it was wrong to betray the AI because it was sending me human-like signals of trust and distress. But it would be silly for someone to argue that it would be morally wrong for me to delete that game from my computer for that reason. It wasn’t a person with moral rights, it was an AI that happened to superficially resemble a person in enough ways that it triggered my moral intuition.

    Similarly, I remember as a child displaying great affection for several of my stuffed animals and mourning when I thought I had permanently lost one, even though I knew they were bags of cloth designed to superficially resemble living things. It would be silly to argue that bags of cloth deserve rights and consideration because they trigger emotional or moral responses.

    We need to have some way of knowing when it is that our moral intuitions concerning animals are genuine and when they are just examples of a mindless automaton with vaguely human characteristics that are triggering our moral intuitions. I think the vast majority of animals are probably automata, although I do think we should study the manner thoroughly to make sure we aren’t harming any animals that aren’t.

    I would submit that a lot of the hypocrisy Robin perceives is due to our intellectually knowing that most animals are not truly worthy of moral consideration, but not wanting to witness animals suffering because having our moral intuitions triggered, even by something unworthy of them, feels extremely unpleasant.

    I personally think that a good test of whether or not an animal is really worthy of moral status is if it is mentally capable of responding and reciprocating to moral treatment. It seems like the great apes are to some extent, maybe a few cetaceans and elephants as well. Someone will no doubt ask me what I think about severely brain-damaged humans, since they cannot respond or reciprocate either. I am willing to bite the bullet and consider severely brain-damaged humans as having the same moral status as a corpse. You are your brain, if it is severely damaged you’re basically dead. I might even go out on a limb and posit that sociopaths do not deserve the same moral consideration as other humans.

    • Noumenon

      Evan, that’s pretty insightful and very rationally written! Thumbs up.

  • Lk

    I really enjoyed the recent South Park episode about whaling. It points out the bizarreness of Americans being angry at Japanese for killing dolphins when they slaughter millions of cows. American culture embraces hamburgers while some cultures of India see cows as valued and not to be slaughtered. Who’s right?

    I’ve never understood this. Americans think that the Vietnamese custom of eating dog as barbaric and worship their pets but killing chickens and pigs is fine. The horse nuts in California made it illegal to kill a horse or even use a dead horse for meat. Yet these same ranchers drive around with “Beef: Its whats for dinner” bumper stickers.

    So is it just what creature is cuter? I’m for consistency. Kill all animals or kill none. Meat eaters who cry about dolphins being slaughtered for meat need to choose a side and stop being hypocritical.

  • djcb

    Agree with Robin; non-vegetarians that want to be consistent with their moral values regarding the killing of animals either have to become vegetarians or have to admit that they find far-away non-cute animals not really *that* important.

    However, vegetarians/vegans (for animal-right reasons, not Hitler) probably have an interesting problem as well in determining the relative rights of, say, cows, fish, insects, bacteria. I understand that there is some discussion on the use of insects (honey, silk). It seems that one who worries about insects would also be on the pro-life side in the abortion debate, or?

    Maybe all of this will become moot when so-called in-vitro meat hits the mainstream.

  • MattMc

    I don’t really enjoy any of the other species as companions. Thus, the “eating pets” contradiction has no weight with me. Bring on the posintang.

  • Alex

    I agree with the post and djcb that if we consider the issue at all we have to become vegetarian or change our our principles. As someone who cares about truth, as any academic or curious mind should, it seems silly to me to change my principles in such an intellectually dishonest way. I think anyone who enjoys learning and knowledge should be committed to truth almost like a vow, and therefore as a corollary would probably become vegetarian/vegan as these positions are, to my mind, objectively stronger.

    • Both your current actions and your current principles can embody relevant info about what you should do – it is only if you thought your actions completely uninformative would you want to rely only on your principles.

  • How kind and compassionate is it to be nice to an animal…up to the point you kill it?

    Defining a meat animal based on intelligence…then why don’t we eat retarded people?

    Some of us are vegetarians for reasons that have nothing to do with concern for animal welfare. Or health. We abstain based on environmental degradation. Becoming a vegetarian is more effective than the top ten sustainable strategies COMBINED. At best, most will drive a hybrid, buy better lightbulbs, recycle their trash or bring their own bags and call it good. Few are willing to make substantive life style changes and go against the grain of culture and family norms. You become an outcast. Who wants to signal that? Assuming you could. Speaking of, Tim wrote:

    “vegetarianism is not about animals – it’s about holier-than-thou signalling – to illustrate to each other what saintly creatures we are”.

    I’ve written quite a bit about this. You can’t effectively signal your vegetarian status. You can signal you care about sustainability whilst tooling around in your Prius; perfect strangers will think you’re hip. Diet is private. At best, your family and friends know. Diners at the next table won’t know or care. I’ve long argued that were it possible to signal your vegetarian status to perfect strangers, the number of vegetarians would dramatically increase.

    • And in fact the number of people who claim in public to be vegetarians is greater than the number of practicing vegetarians. Saying “I’m a vegetarian” may be a weak signal but it is still used that way.

      Nonetheless, I agree, the more compelling reason to adopt vegetarianism is not moral consistency (or health) but sustainability. I don’t care if a wolf kills a deer or a hunter kills a deer, unless the deer is endangered. It’s factory farming, overfishing, hunting to extinction that could be avoided.

  • Alex Perrone

    Let us seek principles that can account for most of our acts, …

    In other words, let’s rationalize our actions away. Actually, though, there are two ways to take this: prescriptive and descriptive. If this curious way to start is prescriptive, meaning if it is supposed to actually be a respectable belief on what we should do, this can’t be defensible because it starts with the assumption that current practice is correct. But whether we should continue current practice is actually the question. It is theoretically permissible to justify current practice, but not this way. We can all think of examples in history where starting with the assumption that we should justify current practice would go astray (human sacrifice, slavery, holocaust, etc.)

    And if these principles more or less just describe what we do, so that we can formalize our actions and maybe cut out a tiny bit of the worst ones, then it’s of course not really an answer to whether we *should* eat meat, since the latter is a prescriptive question. One would instead end up with descriptive principles, merely generalized behavioral observations that have no moral impact. It’s not really a compromise, just principles that fits most of the behavioral data with an unargued for prescriptive assumption that these principles should be continued. In other words, the whole idea that this is a compromise is never truly defended.

  • wwoofer

    Identity, politics, identity politics, and somewhere desire.

    It gets to a point where one has to defend the politics for taking a piss – behind a bush, in an alley, in a public restroom, in your own bathroom – indoor or outhouse. That my need to take a piss should be weighed by my peer collective, culture, community and society as a whole as to when I should, how I should, where I should and sometimes with who – whether as to arguments for privacy, communal joints unisex or not, and perhaps even erotic and intellectual sports.

    It’s nothing.

    Maybe someone better suited can debate the economic impact and solutions rather than pulling on moral and ethical strings or social nazism of the current green trend.

    Personally, I’m for solyent green as a recommendation for a sustainable future.

    But eh, likewise I am also lost on the arguments of.

    I eat what I eat because I have a desire to and to promote survival. It’s my selfish need – which arguably could be the need to eat at all.

    I’d be keen to say my politics aren’t dictated by my diet, my diet isn’t dictated by my politics. But thinking on it… maybe it truly was a manifesto in the making in protest of VeggieTales or an herbivore fursuit fetish.

    Yeah, what was the argument here…?

  • I would change the last point to shift the focus away from spending and onto consumption

    I.e. We provide a minimum level of comfort to animals we plan to eat, regardless of cost; if that means we end up eating fewer animals because meat becomes expensive, so be it.

    Also, we should encourage meat-eaters to “do the deed” themselves before allowing them to outsource the task to butchers. This would, at least, help limit the absolute level of hypocrisy by forcing the issue (i.e. change habits or beliefs)

  • nelsonal

    I agree, MoN. I think everyone who eats meat should slaughter a mammal at least once. I’ve rarely met a hunter who didn’t have a very great respect for the animals they pursued and ate.

  • pete

    I don’t think i’m so much ambivalent as I just accept that nobody’s suffering really matters until it’s personal. You make a personal connection and it’s going to matter to you. Otherwise it’s just a drop in the bucket. Genocide wipes out a whole people and I don’t lose any sleep. My best friend gets killed and I mourn for a month.

    In general none of this stuff matters (“feelings” or cruelty or whatever). What matters is when you get into the strange additives used to help make the most money out of the slaughter and their eventual bad side-effects on the consuming population. This is more related to the general trend of food-tampering that’s been going on for decades though.

    I have a question which I don’t think anyone has an answer for: is my food safe? If it isn’t, why the fuck are we eating it?