Never Mind a Slippery Slope: Someone Cut the Brake Lines!
As far as exploring issues concerning animal ethics goes these past several weeks, The New York Times has been less of a trail-blazer and more akin to a drunk wandering home down a dark road, occasionally stumbling into the ditch when squinting at approaching headlights. Seriously. Between columns by its non-vegan writers weaving misinformation and assumptions into messages to the paper's readers about how difficult it is to go vegan and more recently, articles raising eating plants as a notable concern within the context of the overall question of ethical consumption. "Inquiring into justifications for consuming vegetal beings thus reconceived, we reach one of the final frontiers of dietary ethics," wrote Michael Marder, while at the same time, The New York Times' Ariel Kaminer, writer of its column "The Ethicist", was inviting people to step up to the plate to present their best arguments to justify that the consumption of the flesh of other animals could somehow be moral. A contest was launched for one and all, it was, and if not for the sad reality of the matter at hand, it would be all too easy to just write it off as an unfortunate farce. Sadder, still, is that Kaminer trivialized the notion that choosing not to consume other animals could, in fact, be an ethical stance to consider.
Was There an Elephant in The New York Times' Lobby?
Recently, in response to this contest as it neared its conclusion, a number of scholars, physicians and writers came together to sign a letter to The New York Times to express just how wrongheaded the whole enterprise was from the ground up, noting that with one exception, the panel of judges picked was mostly comprised of men who make their living and reputations defending the so-called "humane" use of other animals.
There is an important debate to be had about the ethics of killing and eating animals. But this is not the way to have it. Honest ethical inquiry begins with the question, “How should we live?” or “What should I or we do about ‘X’?” It does not begin with a predetermined conclusion, then work backwards for justification. To throw down a rhetorical gauntlet–”Defend X as a practice”– is not to open up an ethical conversation; it is to build closure into the inquiry, and to stack the deck from the outset.And that was, in fact, the problem with this contest. It was set up by taking as a given that other animals are ours to use and that those who use them needed a forum to voice their justification for continuing to do so. The best justification coughed up would receive the nods of approval of the who's who of those who champion the idea that conscientious consumerism can--and in some cases should--indeed include the enslavement and slaughter of other sentient beings. The New York Times' well-intentioned readership could emit a collective sigh of relief. After all, even many who are in fact vegan and who do regard themselves as animal advocates sometimes end up applauding these popular and privileged humans as somehow making an actual difference in terms of their respective fans coming to know and to accept that we owe other animals a lot more than to treat them as things.
And the Winner Is...
A few days ago it was announced that Ariel Kaminer would be stepping down from her position as columnist for "The Ethicist". (Aw, really??) This morning, the contest's finalists were announced, including its recipient of the most votes and its hand-picked winner. I don't have much to say about PETA's Ingrid Newkirk's piece, called "I'm About to Eat Meat for the First Time in 40 Years". It's about lab-grown meat and I'll let you take a read yourselves, and then ask you to have a look at Alice Springs Vegan Society co-founder Jeff Perz's essay "The Case Against Test Tube Meat" to see where Newkirk's got it all wrong. The veritable winner, though? He who received the symbolic bobbing-in-unison of the heads of Jonathan Safran-Foer, Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Peter Singer and Andrew Light? Some environmental studies instructor at a place in North Carolina called Warren Wilson College.
Jay Bost describes himself as a former vegetarian and then vegan who decided to go back to consuming animal products. Claiming that the issue weighs on him constantly, Bost insists that "[t]he reasons [he] became a vegetarian, then a vegan and then again a conscientious meat-eater were all ethical". Bost's emphasis in his short piece is no surprise considering that his work revolves around environmental studies and the only two times he brings up animal sentience are strictly with reference to the killing of a "sentient being". Bost sugarcoats the question of actually using and enslaving other animals by calling doing so "raising meat". Animal flesh and secretions are products, and producing these products are no different to him than growing plant-based foodstuff. With this in mind, he presents what he call his main argument as the following:
[E]ating meat raised in specific circumstances is ethical; eating meat raised in other circumstances is unethical. Just as eating vegetables, tofu or grain raised in certain circumstances is ethical and those produced in other ways is unethical.An animal is a plant is an animal to Bost, in this sense. He seems to present it as a given that use in and of itself is somehow not an ethical concern, but that how the final product comes to be is the only thing worthy of consideration. Animals are merely machines, sometimes proving to be more efficient according to the environment in which they are used to produce useful calories and protein for human consumption. He goes on to say that
If “ethical” is defined as living in the most ecologically benign way, then in fairly specific circumstances, of which each eater must educate himself, eating meat is ethical; in fact NOT eating meat may be arguably unethical.Once cannot help but wonder, then, using this narrow interpretation and definition of what is indeed "ethical" whether Bost would agree that where human overpopulation is concerned, perhaps cannibalism could be seen as a viable option and whether perhaps humans not opting to consume other humans "may be arguable unethical". If this seems an oversimplification, it should be pointed out that totally side-stepping the question of what's in fact involved when we use other animals as machines existing for human use is an even more ludicrous oversimplification when it comes to attempting to argue any sort of justification to use them.
His two sole references to sentience are token at best and Bost writes sentience off in the end, winning this contest by asserting that consuming other animals is indeed ethical if 1) we keep in mind that "all life (including us!) is really just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form" (which brings me back to wondering if Bost would extend this to our consumption of other humans in areas horribly overpopulated), 2) be "compassionate" and "choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat" (again, not presenting any sort of case for how it could be deemed ethical to enslave and slaughter another sentient being, other than his aforementioned environmentally-concerned presentation of other animals as efficient energy conversion machines for humans) and 3) that we "give thanks".
I always scratch my head at this whole business of trying to justify the torture and killing of another being by emphasizing gratitude and the act of expressing this gratitude. I mean, really? To whom is this gratitude expressed? To the animal whose life was hijacked and taken from her? To the offspring torn from her so that we can drink her secretions? Would it not be ludicrous to posit that if someone were to enslave another human being and to torture and then kill her for sheer pleasure that it might somehow be more ethical or excusable to have done so if the torturer or killer gave thanks? But we live in a world where we view other animals as existing for human use. Bost's short piece takes this as a given. The New York Times' contest in "The Ethicist" took it as a given, as well, and its panel of expert judges have also expressed this through their own writings and work. So I'm left going back to my original quote from the letter signed by 59 scholars, writers, artists and physicians to protest the contest and to explain why the whole thing was a farce from the word "go":
There is an important debate to be had about the ethics of killing and eating animals. But this is not the way to have it. Honest ethical inquiry begins with the question, “How should we live?” or “What should I or we do about ‘X’?” It does not begin with a predetermined conclusion, then work backwards for justification. To throw down a rhetorical gauntlet–”Defend X as a practice”– is not to open up an ethical conversation; it is to build closure into the inquiry, and to stack the deck from the outset.There is indeed an important debate to be had. What The New York Times attempted to do (and accomplished) was no more than a sensationalist and lopsided poke at an issue which is trendy and talked around a fair deal in mainstream media, but ever so rarely addressed clearly, consistently, coherently and in earnest. It was no surprise, but was and is a true shame, nonetheless.