Thursday, November 04, 2010

Anything but Sentience

I'd blogged about Nicolette Hahn Niman back in June when she'd written about taking on "Mad Cowboy" Howard Lyman in a "debate" in Berkeley. She's the wife of "happy meat" producing Niman Ranch founder Bill Niman and she publicizes that she's a vegetarian to present herself as a well-rounded commentator on the issue of whether or not it's ethical to use animals. The Nimans are still ranching, so it's no surprise that the missus would argue for the morality of eating (or otherwise exploiting) animals. I mean, it's her bread and butter, right?

Although in her debate with Lyman, Hahn Niman focused on attacking the environmental arguments that are sometimes used against animal agriculture, in her latest piece in The Atlantic ("Dogs Aren't Dinner: The Flaws in an Argument for Veganism"), she instead opts to attack the validity of comparing one species of non-human (e.g. pigs) to another (e.g. dogs) to educate others about this strange aspect of speciesism of which Gary L. Francione has written extensively in his books and on his website. She writes:

[L]ately, it seems as if every time I turn around, a vegan is insisting that feasting on a pork chop is morally equivalent to eating a hunk of dog meat. It's irrational, illogical, and hypocritical, they say, to treat pigs as meals but dogs as friends.
Hahn Niman makes it clear that the thought of eating her own beloved dog is "mortifying" to her, but that regardless of being "pummeled with this argument at every turn" that she thinks it's full of flaws.

Custom and Culture, Oh My!

According to Nicolette Hahn Niman, people have let things like "income, geography, climate, culture, heritage, habit, and even, to a certain extent evolution" dictate what is or isn't food for years and holding a belief that it is wrong to eat dogs stems from this and that it's "no more contradictory to eat a pig but not a dog than it is to eat arugula but not purslane". She also asserts that the "glaringly obvious issue of relationships" gets ignored when people point out the irrationality of calling one animal "food" while calling the other "pet":
The human relationship with dogs is unique. For as many as 30,000 years, dogs have literally been indispensible [sic ]members of the human family. Quite naturally, many humans have qualms about eating a family member.
So, just because something has come to be a certain way and has been a certain way for a long time, it's flawed to question that this has been so? I mean, once upon a time someone like Hahn Niman would not have been allowed to hold-- never mind express -- an opinion about the workings of the world. For a very long time in the West, a woman's place was in the home, tending to the needs of her husband and raising his children. When arguments were raised that women were as intelligent, as rational and as worthy as men -- that they were and are persons, those arguments were met with appeals to tradition and other such balderdash, as well.

Hahn Niman then goes on to talk about how different cultures have different taboos and how up until recently in Hawaii, for instance, it was quite ordinary to raise pigs
and dogs for human consumption. She describes this as being a bit of an exception to how most of us in the West view dogs and goes on to talk about how the evolution of humankind's relationship with them -- the evolution of our assignment of a particularly use or role to them -- is what has established our present-day relationship with them, as well as what has led to the taboo that many hold dear against consuming them. Hell, Hahn Niman even quotes good old Temple "Down the Chute, Bossy!" Grandin to establish why it is that many humans won't eat dogs. I won't repeat her condensed history of canine domestication here, since you can read it for yourself in the article (and you may very well have read all about it before). It certainly explains one aspect of what feeds into our speciesism and explains our favoured treatment of one type of animal we've come to use, but is it really sufficient in indirectly providing a justification for why we should not consider whether to use and eat others?


So, Nicolette Hahn Niman tells us why many humans will not eat dogs. Her given throughout her piece seems to be that animals are here to be used by people and the majority of them to be eaten, with the exception of a favoured few such as domesticated members of the Canidae family who've found themselves a higher calling by being more useful to our ancestors than in just conveniently filling their bellies. The truth is, however, that
these days Fido's role has less to do with helping us preserve our lives or to preserve the lives of our family members, and more to do with being a cute and fluffy giver of affection in the home. No doubt, as Hahn Niman suggests, the fact that dogs have ingratiated themselves to us and have come to be considered family members of ours comes as the result of the short stint by which canine-human relations were symbiotic. But do we really keep bringing dogs into our homes because we feel we owe them a favour for having helped our great-great-great-great-great-grandparents hunt once-upon-a-time?

We've conditioned ourselves to view dogs as off-limits when it comes to what we put on our plates, but are we incapable of factoring other things into our consideration of how we use animals now? For instance, when abolitionist animal rights advocates bring up speciesism, it's not to question how we've come to view this or that species, but rather, to point out that the criteria we use is sort of arbitrary unless we factor in
what Francione illustrates in his work should be the only basic criteria determining whether or not we should use other animals: sentience. Hahn Niman argues that culture has shaped our culinary choices, but what animal advocates ask in talking about speciesism is that we dig further to consider the morality of animal use rather than shrug off this or that use and write it off to tradition. Are we not capable of becoming moral agents and of determining right from wrong and then making our choices according to this determination?

When comparing one animal to another, we are asking our fellow humans to consider the tortures we inflict on a certain species and to examine their justifications for it and whether those justifications would hold up if those same tortures were inflicted upon our beloved dogs. We point out that pigs have as much interest in living out their own lives as do dogs and that it's simply bizarre to exclude an animal such as a pig from the moral consideration we'd give to an animal such as a dog. We ask that instead of writing off this inconsistency to culture or tradition that people instead consider that the same reasons we would most viscerally protest putting a dog through the hell that we do animals raised for food are just as applicable to those animals we raise for food.
Of course Nicolette Hahn Niman disagrees, which as it turns out is lucky for the beloved Great Dane she mentions in her article, but not so lucky for the animals she and her husband profit from as raise them and send them off to slaughter.

To learn more about speciesism, sentience and what we really owe non-human animals, please visit Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach.


Allysia said...

If anyone on the "animals are just meat for my belly" side of the equation were to come up with an ACTUAL reason for eating animals, then I would be really surprised. Stunned, even. Thanks for another well-worded article, Mylene!

Gena said...

Exceptional blog post. Thank you. I commented on that preposterous article earlier, and my thoughts were:

"Of course, this blog post ignores the most fundamental part of the argument it's seeking to dispute, which is that, in spite of the fact that we humans tend to decide what's food and what's not based on culture and tradition, and in spite of of how uniquely emotional our attachment to dogs is, there is very little moral difference between eating a dog and eating a pig -- at least insofar as the suffering cause goes.

Dogs and pigs have similar capacities for pleasure and pain; of course we may preference our connection to one animal over our connection to the other, but that doesn't mean that we aren't causing similar kinds of harm when we kill a pig instead of a dog. We are causing similar pain and suffering, and it is a similar ethical choice. That we've decided to domesticate dogs and not pigs isn't the point; the point is that it's an equal wrong (if indeed you believe that causing the needless suffering of a sentient being is wrong). To say that our arbitrary decisions about which animals are dear to us and which aren't justifies our killing habits is akin to saying that nothing is immoral, so long as it fits within our stated preferences.

And of course we choose what to eat and what not to eat based on culture, climate, trend, and passing fancy. But the issue here is not that we make these choices, but rather how justifiable those choices are."

Excited to find your blog!

Sowmya Rame Gowda said...

hi u have good interests

Julie Varughese said...

Well-articulated, as usual. Niman also felt the need to mention that the panel with Howard Lyman was attended by many vegans who sided with him. That's irrelevant; it's clear facts and figures aren't what she's all about, either.

veganelder said...

You write.."So, just because something has come to be a certain way and has been a certain way for a long time, it's flawed to question that this has been so?" as a summation of a major point in the argument Ms. Hahn Niman presented. Then you go on to point out the "traditional" role assigned to women in many cultures and that based on that role she wouldn't have the standing to argue at all.


I generally don't pay much attention to "arguments". Every rotten disgusting practice that humans have ever engaged in has had defenders (those who behaved disgustingly) and so far as I know arguing has had little impact on their behavior or their thinking....but I sometimes enjoy seeing the absurdities of a self-serving fallacious position exposed.


The Tasty Vegan said...

Excellent post,

I do like blogs where it's clear that a real understanding of the issue is present rather than the dreary regurgitation of old news that most often occurs. Nice work.

To touch on your point about women's rights and animal's rights I thought it might amuse you to look at some of Peter Singer's work (although you've probably already read it right?!).

In a highly readable article Singer worte about liberation movements, which you can read at, he wrote:

“In the past the idea of “The Rights of Animals” … has been used to parody the case for women’s rights. When Mary Wollstonecraft, a forerunner of later feminists, published her Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, her ideas were widely regarded as absurd, and they were satirized in an anonymous publication entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes. …[which] tried to refute Wollstonecraft’s reasonings by showing that … If sound when applied to women, why should the arguments not be applied to dogs, cats, and horses? They seemed to hold equally well for these “brutes”; yet to hold that brutes had rights was manifestly absurd; therefore the reasoning by which this conclusion had been reached must be unsound, and if unsound when applied to brutes, it must also be unsound when applied to women, since the very same arguments had been used in each case.”

Anyone daring to concur with that apparent ‘logic’ these days would face stiff opposition. Clearly the argument does function logically if we assume that the end proposition (that animals have no intrinsic rights) is true. So you could say (go on, I dare you!) that if you’re not a vegetarian or vegan then you fundamentally disagree with the equality (whilst maintaining the differences, of course) of men and women, and that essentially women have no rights.

Fun logic. I'd like to see Singer and Hahn Niman have a sophisticated argument. Would get a little messy I think...


M said...

Thanks for all of your thoughtful comments. I'm sorry that I haven't had time to weigh in myself, but I hope to do so over the next day or two. :-)