Friday, August 28, 2009

Clarity and Consistency as Tools Against Speciesism

I read an excellent essay this afternoon by Angel Flinn, posted over on the (unfortunately mostly welfarist) Care2 forums. It's called "A Mouthful of Flesh", and in it, Flinn examines whether there is a meaningful ethical difference between eating a nonhuman animal such as a dog (or a cat, hamster or horse) and eating a nonhuman animal such as a pig (or a cow, chicken or deer). She writes:

Frankly, it's a little baffling trying to figure out what combination of factors puts certain animals off-limits to certain people. Rabbits are a case in point. We're horribly confused about rabbits – some of us shoot them, some of us pet them, some eat them and some enjoy watching dogs tear them apart, limb from limb. As a society, we don't seem to know what rabbits mean to us. Are they our pets, are they our prey… or are they, in fact, persons: individuals who exist for their own reasons?
She considers how some claim that the difference lies in the fact that there are some nonhuman animals we welcome into our families--we insist that they matter more because we have come to "care about" or "love" them, and how that sort of language has now become what's more or less a creepy marketing tool for farmers pushing guilt-free "happy meat" (i.e. animals most humans customarily view as food and who are touted as having been raised under loving and cruelty-free conditions until they're slaughtered to be eaten). Flinn views this as yet another attempt by humans to justify "morally reprehensible" acts against nonhumans and she's right. It's the reactions immediately following her essay, however, that are most telling when it comes to illustrating the absolute moral confusion humans have concerning the use of nonhumans. I encourage fellow-vegans to read the piece and to go through the comments left in response to it and to even jump into the discussion itself. There is so much work to be done to fight speciesism.

Earlier today, though, it was another article online that got my attention and got me wondering about how thoroughly confused some humans are about nonhumans. In an opinion piece in USA Today yesterday called "Veterinarian Isn't Necessarily Synonymous with Vegetarian", veterinarian columnist and admitted welfarist (and Pollanite) Patty Khuly decided to explain why she feels that professionals who earn their money by bettering and saving the lives of some animals shouldn't be expected to not want to spend some of that profit on products that involve the suffering and slaughter of other animals. Khuly admits that "our human science convincingly demonstrates that animals do feel pain, fear and stress — presumably to the same degree we do" and that "animals are not so very different from us". She then takes issue with what she describes (and resents) as the following general implication:
The problem is that doing so brings us in uncomfortably close proximity to the suffering of animals we've pledged an oath to protect. So it is that when we buy the meat, milk and eggs like everyone else does, we get less of a moral pass when it comes to checkout time. We understand animals. So we should know better.
To a certain extent, I agree with her that this is a non sequitur. After all, the fact that someone profits from enabling others' use of nonhuman animals in no way entails that those who are profiting are, in fact, motivated by anything other than profit (and we have seen this ad nauseum with prominent regulationist animal welfare organizations, for instance). Unfortunately, Khuly chooses to take it further to make an argument concerning herself and her fellow-veterinarians, that
[f]or some veterinarians, first-hand knowledge leads to veganism, vegetarianism, reduced animal protein consumption or a highly selective diet of home-grown or non-factory-farmed animal products. And while all such variations are geared toward an animal welfare position that's defined by how animals are used or how they're treated should they be used, not a one includes an insect-sweeping observance of animal life preservation wherever possible. We all impose limits … somewhere.
Not a one, Patty? It becomes obvious that this was a lead-in to justify what follows as her description of her own lifestyle, in which she raises chickens and goats for personal consumption and "cherish[es] [her] leather" shoes. It's in her final paragraph, however, that she almost petulantly expresses what I think are the bonafide gist and raison d'être of her article:
In short, I'm not perfect. None of us should be. We're only human. Now, if only the naysayers could begin to accept that individual moral progress is far preferable to a slavish adherence to any one particular animal rights dogma … then perhaps veterinarians could catch a break every once in a while when the dinner bell rings.
I can't help but find such animosity towards the very idea of animal rights a bit disturbing from a woman who just earlier in her article was insisting that "animals do feel pain, fear and stress — presumably to the same degree we do" and are "not so very different from us"--even worse, that she'd hold this much animosity after she'd insisted that those such as herself "who devote [their] careers to finding ways to diminish animal stress and alleviate their suffering are more keenly aware of it than most". What's not surprising, however, is that an animal exploitation industry funded group such as the Center for Consumer Freedom would have hopped on her pile of moral confusion to present it as some sort of evidence that it's not, in fact, hypocritical to supposedly "dedicate [one's] life to helping animals" while accepting one's place "in the food chain"--that caring and concern need not apply to what's on one's plate.

The only thing that seems clear from this entire ball of moral confusion is that there is an overwhelming need for those who do take the rights of nonhuman animals seriously to adopt veganism as a moral baseline and to address the use (and not merely the treatment) of animals by educating others about veganism. Clarity and consistency about this are the only things that are going to change people's mind in a significant enough way to end animal exploitation. Anything less is disengenuous.

11 comments:

Bill Cherry jr said...

I agree! With out intending to inflame anyone, these are the reasons I am pro-life. Humans are animals, too!

Mylène Ouellet said...

That's really a completely different topic, Bill and I would prefer it if any discussion that may perhaps arise from this particular blog post not get side-tracked into a discussion of the abortion issue. Thanks.

erin said...

this is the type of person i understand the very least. its no surprise she feels guilty and hypocritical, she should. the whole article sounds like nothing more than an attempt to talk (write?) herself out of putting her professed values ahead of her tastebuds. i couldn't find anything that even remotely resembled a decent excuse to continue exploiting animals in the entire apologist article. pathetic.

Mylène Ouellet said...

It was quite sad, indeed, Erin.

Dr. Patty Khuly said...

I truly appreciate this post––despite the pan. I do not, however, consider my position morally relativistic and confused. In fact, I did not offer my point of view at all––not in a philosophical description, anyway.

I believe in animal use. I do not value the lives of animals over humans. I do believe animals MUST be treated humanely. I admit to loving leather but [mostly] do without (you missed that point). I eat very little animal protein precisely because I do not buy in to the "happy animal" marketing ploys industrial agriculture sends my way. And I grow my own beloved animals (and slaughter them myself) precisely because I believe their welfare comes first.

The difference between you and me is a difference in basic philosophy. It's about morality...and everyone draws their own lines, whether others agree with them or not.

The hardest part? Being true to my beliefs. in every sense. Is it so wrong to admit that it's hard work to do so?

Mylène Ouellet said...

You didn't have to state a formal point of view. Your speciesism came through quite clearly in your article. As did your absolute contempt for those who, unlike you, take the lives of nonhuman animals seriously. And it was that contempt that was actually most jarring, especially considering your assertions about animal sentience. I mean, are they only so very much just like us into the next sale at the shoe store?

Insisting that I missed the point about your "loving" using the flesh of a slaughtered sentient creature for aesthetic reasons, but mostly do[ing] without" is actually what's beside the point. It's like asserting to me that you like to beat toddlers, but don't do it a whole lot. You want to be "true" to those "beliefs" and feel good about it and expect someone to shrug and agree that you're just doing your own thing--drawing your own "line"?

The moral schizophrenia inherent in how you engage animals is even more glaringly obvious in what you just stated:

And I grow my own beloved animals (and slaughter them myself) precisely because I believe their welfare comes first.

How would all of your clients react if you asserted this to them, but instead of using the general term 'animals', told them

And I grow my own beloved dogs to eat (and slaughter them myself) precisely because I believe their welfare comes first.

My point is that at the end of the day, whatever claims you make about caring for the well-being of some animals, you view them as things. And quite honestly, there's really no hard work involved in that.

Live Vegan said...

Hi Mylène,

I appreciate your response to Dr Khuly. Thank you.

A couple of years ago I had a conversation which went back and forth with the owners of a deer farm in the UK. The Fletchers raised deers for a living and then murdered them on their farm. Nichola Fletcher was convinced they "loved" their deers and said they consider them "pets". I asked her how they would kill the deers. She told me they would come up behind the deers, whom they said they supposedly "loved", and they would shoot them in the head.

Here is their site http://www.seriouslygoodvenison.co.uk/ which claims they raise "Ethical venison" "Welfare friendly", "stress-free venison"

Nichola told me that the deers trust them so much, that even when the fence was damaged by the ALF at one stage, the deers did not try to escape. I said to her, isn't it so sad they trust you, and here you are, murdering them one by one and profiting from their flesh. She could not see, or would not admit to seeing my point. She very calmly maintained her position and was quite convinced of it.

I asked her would she do the same to their dogs? She did not respond to that question, because I don't think she had an answer to it.I think its partitioned in her mind. But we all know the answer to that.

Mylène Ouellet said...

Speciesism is so deeply entrenched in people's minds. Chipping away at it is going to take a long time, unfortunately.

These people with whom you spoke are just as horribly confused as the rest. It really does sound a bit twisted when you sit back and listen to the language they use, doesn't it? To "love" what you shoot in the head?

Gary said...

[Part 2 of comment]

- You state that you don't value the lives of animals over the lives of humans. Whether or not bias toward one's own species is inherent or learned or both is a valid topic that I'm side-stepping for the moment. If you were
driving and were forced to either hit the dog or the child, then yes, you'd have to make a judgment about which species you value more. But that's not what's happening when we eat animals. It's not the animal vs us. One need not value animals and humans equally to see that it's wrong to commodify and enslave animals. To put it another way, animals need not be valued identically to humans to have the right not to be teated as disposable property - for that's what they are when we kill them for pleasure or out of habit.

OK, here's my question - a serious inquiry, not a trick: What would it take for you to be vegan? I.e., how would you finish the question, "I would be vegan if..."?

Follow-up: same question, but instead of going vegan, cutting animal product consumption in half. I ask because, in my experience, when someone does this, they become more un-used to animal products, better versed in and more acclimated to plant-based diets, less strident in defending eating animals, and likely to make further cuts in their animal product consumption.

Thanks.

Gary Loewenthal
Compassion for Animals

Gary said...

[Part 1 of comment]

Hi Dr. Khuly,

I have a main question, in good faith, for you at the end of this comment. But first, a few other points, if I may --

- I appreciate the steps you've taken thus far to reduce the amount of harm you cause animals raised and killed for food. I also appreciate that you've devoted our professional life to helping companion animals. I honestly don't know what I'd do without my veterinarians; they've been godsends and life-savers at times. Credit where credit's due.

- You state that we all have limits in terms of how much we're willing to avoid harming nonhumans. I think that's a given, and no animal rights advocate would try to prescribe a precise place at which one must draw the line. I would submit, however, that since animals have profound interests, including the will to live and the capacity to suffer and feel pain, joy, and sadnesss - points we agree on - we have an obligation to refrain from inflicting easily avoidable harm on them. It's practically impossible to avoid stepping on bugs when you take a walk. It is not at all difficult, at least in this part of the world, to choose not to eat meat, dairy, and eggs.

- You state that you put animals' welfare first. Just to make sure, I have to ask: Does this mean you avoid most (if not all) products from the store that contain significant amounts of animal-derived ingredients? This would include mayonnaise, most baked goods, yogurt, and much more.

- To me, killing an animal because you like the taste of his or her flesh is profoundly at odds with putting the animal's welfare first. I would submit that in that situation, you are putting your taste preferences or habits first. As Mylene pointed out, imagine if one of your clients told you, "I put the welfare of animals first. That's why I walk my dog every day before killing him to eat him." You'd probably be aghast. The main differnce is that we're used to inflicting these profound harms onto certain animals.

Also, virtually any dairy or egg product compromises animals' welfare in big ways. For example, dairy cows have been bred to grossly overproduce milk, which taxes their bodies and increases the incidence of painful mastitis infections. They're impregnated earlier and more frequently then would happen naturally, their calves are pulled away usually at two days old or less, and the males and "excess" females are killed. Similar cruelties exist in the egg industry, including on small, cage-free, organic operations.

Come to thnk of it, all animals today commonly raised for meat have been engineered to overproduce flesh and grow too fast. We've perverted their very biology for our purposes, and at their expense.

(continued...)

Tim Gier said...

Dr. Khuly says that she does not consider her position to be morally relativistic and then she says this: "It's about morality...and everyone draws their own lines, whether others agree with them or not" which is pretty much a definition of moral relativism.