Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Ethics of Food

A discussion of the ethical considerations that we all employ when we decide what we should and should not eat. With special guest Richard Spencer of the Faith and Freethought podcast.


Blogger Dan Sawyer said...

Keep your hats on, folks - this one was a really good one in the recording. Our guest and the representative of the PETA side of things, Richard Spencer, was very articulate and refreshingly open to engaging in ethical hypotheticals. Although nobody changed their minds, we had a good healthy hash through untangling many of the disparate issues of ethics around food.

5/15/08, 11:03 AM  
Blogger Danny Schade said...

(count the lame food jokes)
Hot Dog, what a great show! I really enjoyed the fruits of this discussion.
I kinda wish I could have been there, but I most likely would have spoiled the broth. I particularly enjoyed Richard and Dan's back and forth. Dan gave me some great points which I've never considered before. I do sympathize with the vegan perspective, as I was actually vegan for quite a while, but I ultimately feel like a hypocrite when I talk about it. I enjoyed Dan's arguments and his reasoning has helped me work through some cognitive dissonance of my own. Great work, guys!

5/19/08, 12:30 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Um.. Dan S... IMO, Richard Spencer was NOT a representative from the "PETA side of things." He is much more reasonable. You're already pitting people against him by attempting to lump him in with the "PETA side of things."

Anyway, great show. I'm a 2yr atheist, 6yr vegetarian (ovo-lacto, vegan when I can). I think the main concept/point is that it is about **CHOICE**. If we have a choice to not cause additional harm to sentient beings, we should make that choice in our dietary and other consumption choices.

Dan S. kept trying to bring it back to an "all-or-nothing" (glues in products) or "abandoning" eating meat in society will threat extinction for those animals... which I don't think it's realistic. (which was his point). Alas, I'd argue that Dan S.'s comments were just straw men. Again, when we have a choice to not cause sentient beings to suffer harm (which we DO have that option in the West), we should choose that option.

I think it's more ethical for worldwide food issues to eat more (or solely) vegetables rather than waste 10-20+ pounds of grain to get 1 pound of meat.

Regarding what cows desire... funny how Dan S. didn't mention that they also *might* desire to LIVE. :-) Sure, we may have bigger, better brains... but it doesn't mean we know what they want. I doubt they choose to be "slaughtered humanely" (big oxymoron).

I don't think food ethics are about drawing lines (bonobos vs. dolphins vs. cows), but I think choices that are currently made in our culture are made for the wrong reasons. The thoughts of other animals suffering isn't high on our collective list. All we (westerners) think is that, "oh, the McRib is back on the menu." We don't think what pain and suffering that $1.49 price tag entails.

As a side note... CANNIBAL! The Musical" is one of the best comedy-musical movies ever. Trey Parker & Matt Stone (pre-South Park). :-)

~Dan T.

5/19/08, 10:47 AM  
Blogger Dan Sawyer said...

Dan T. -

Richard said at one point during the discussion (I don't recall whether it was in the pre-show warm up or on the air) that an encounter with PETA was one of the seminal events during his life that set him on the path to ethical veganism. Thankfully, you are quite correct in that Richard is far more reasonable and rational than the leaders of that organization.

On your other points:

Kudos to you on your choice. If it works for you, that's fabulous.

On the hypotheticals, I fear that the point of them came back. It's not a matter of all-or-nothingness so much as it is a question of priorities. The animal rights movement, in all its varied forms from reasonable empathetic folks of good will to the ranting extremists has, in my opinion, chosen the wrong ethical hill to die on. The question of animal suffering is an interesting one, and certainly one worth addressing on an individual level and perhaps to some extent on a social level - rescuing abused animals, organizing boycotts of meat plants that abuse the animals on the way to the slaughter (as happened here in CA recently), refusing to attend illegal cock fights, and treating the animals you encounter with kindness are all morally good things.

My problem comes with the notion that vegetarianism is somehow moral because it reduces animal suffering in the world. It doesn't. If the entire state of California went vegan there would be a miniscule impact on the number of animals bred, hunted, herded, slaughtered, experimented upon, and processed every year for human benefit. The only moral thing it does (leaving personal health considerations aside) is falsely assuage a guilty conscience - and in my book that's a immoral, rather than moral.

Why do I say "falsely assuage?" Because, as I said on the show, there isn't a person alive in the world who doesn't subsist on either the corpses or the labor of other animals. Even the most extreme example of ethical vegetarianism - that practiced by Jains - cannot avoid this. Living away from civilization, as did the more remote Jain tribes did in the nineteenth century, they still did not survive without the assistance of animals (in the case of Jainism, keeping cows for milk and milk products).

We in the West may have the unique choice to decline to eat meat, but we do not have a choice about participating in animal suffering. Everything we use has animal products in it, the medicine we take and most of the soaps we use were developed through animal experimentation, and the two most significant areas of technological advance can not exist without animal testing.

Animal products are in cinder blocks, sometimes in farm fertilizers and pesticides, sheetrock, plywood, glues, gelatins, electronics, audio and video tape, many kinds of plastics, some kinds of paper, and countless other things.

Attributing the quality of "sentience" to livestock is at the very least a rhetorical muddying of the waters. To begin with, it's not a word with a well-agreed-upon definition. If Jeremy Bentham's definition (accepted by Peter Singer) is accepted, and sentience means "the ability to feel pain and/or suffer." However, microbiotic science makes this an untenable position from which to enumerate our ethics, as there are any number of creatures - ants, gnats, mosquitos, and even some kinds of microscopic organisms and some kinds of plants - that react to stimuli in a way that indicates that they can suffer and feel pain. The ethical argument which you advance at the end of your post, namely that "...I think choices that are currently made in our culture are made for the wrong reasons. The thoughts of other animals suffering isn't high on our collective list," simply doesn't hold water in a world where we can measure the suffering of insects.

On the issue of what a cow wants, cows most certainly don't have an awareness of death. They are aware of decay and danger, and they flee from suffering, but the philosophical and emotional awareness of death and all that goes with it - feeling anxiety about one's own mortality, mourning the loss of loved ones, wondering what the world will be like after we die, understanding that the world goes on without us, etc - are the domain exclusively of a very small subset of higher mammals. Dolphins, some whales, and some primates (including humans) are the only animals that can lay claim to this kind of knowledge in some degree. Some lower mammals - particularly some species of canines, felines, and some kinds of livestock (including some subspecies of cows) have a strong enough bonding impulse that they can mourn the loss of a companion, but they do not actually understand what "dead" means in any meaningful emotional sense. So, your argument that the cow wants "to live" is specious. The cow doesn't have the ability to formulate that desire.

To wrap up:
On the one hand, reducing animal suffering in a meaningful way can not - and never will - be accomplished through vegetarian diets. We use animals for too many other purposes and can't replace them for many more decades, if not centuries, and it's likely that the uses we put them to will continue to radically expand as biogenic hydrocarbons leave the experimental phase and come onto the market.

Declining to eat meat is a perfectly fine personal dietary choice - it can even be a very healthy one if one makes sure to get the right variety of foods. However, casting vegetarianism as a moral choice because it "relieves animal suffering" is, in light of the facts of the world we live in, vacuous and hypocritical. It is, indeed, little more than a way for comfortable and wealthy people to feel like they're contributing to making the world a better place without actually doing anything. This is a false morality.

Vegetarianism is a lifestyle choice, not a moral one. Presenting it as a moral one DOES invert our priorities, and dangerously so. Our world is still filled to the brim with humans who suffer needlessly under the boot of political oppression, who do not have the right to free speech or access to a free market, and who consequently don't have proper access to food, education, medical care, or opportunities to better themselves. In the light of malaria and AIDS plagues in Africa, rising dictatorships and gangster regimes in some of the former Baltic states, the suffering of people across the world from cancer and other curable or potentially curable illnesses, and the many other sources of human suffering that still persist in the world, focusing one's moral energies on whether or not to eat animals seems to me frivolous in the extreme.

Frivolity disguised as morality has not been a healthy recipe for human health, justice, or civilization in the past, and I see no good reason to think it's a good idea in this instance.


5/19/08, 4:39 PM  
Blogger Dan Sawyer said...

Dan T. -

I should add that the resource aspect of food ethics is one that's worth exploring - my apologies for not acknowledging that point in my main reply.

5/19/08, 4:41 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Thanks for the response, Dan. I will start out by saying that you went back into an "all-or-nothing" train of thought. I don't care if the "entire state" of California went vegan. It won't, it's a moot point.

However, saying that "reducing animal suffering in a meaningful way can not - and never will - be accomplished through vegetarian diets" is completely incorrect. Me choosing not to eat meat (along with others) reduces the demand, and this would economically drive price down and thus drive supply down to get at a higher priced profit equilibrium for suppliers. Someone not eating meat does help in reducing suffering to some extent. Yes, small amounts. But it's does help reduce.

True, we (vegetarians) won't ever make the suffering go away completely. But it doesn't mean that our choice doesn't help reduce some of the suffering.

I still find it funny that you know what a cow thinks. Regardless of your reading about supposed higher mammals desires compared to lower, you simply don't know. How is my line of thinking specious and yours obviously not? I think I'll remain agnostic on that front... and err on the side of "cows want to live rather than die." :-)

Regarding getting the right variety of foods... it's really a moot point, too. It's hard not to get the right variety. Somehow meat eaters always seem to think that vegetarians are anemic or something. It's quite a misperception. The only supplement a vegetarian or vegan might need is B-12, and that's about it (seriously). Humans can get any other protein, iron, vitamin nutritional needs from plants, grains, and nuts. I'm not saying a meat-free diet is right for everyone, I'm just trying to inform some misperceptions.

Re: the moral/ethical case.... yes, vegetarian-grounded food ethics is minor with regards to other problems that this world faces. I do think, however, that the resource aspect is one that should be addressed (and isn't so much in our culture). Same thing with trying to find alternatives to oil using agri-crops (driving the price of corn & soy up rather than trying to develop better cars that don't rely solely on oil/gasoline). It seems like the big planners out there are missing the boat...

Anyway, that's all I really had to add... good show, great follow-up.

Looking forward to the next show.

5/19/08, 5:19 PM  
Blogger Dan Sawyer said...

Hey Dan T. -

Thanks for the reply.

Four quick points:
1) You're quite correct that humans can get all their nutritional needs met on a vegetarian diet. I'm not meaning to imply that vegetarians are anemic, only that many vegetarians I've known suffer from chronic nutritional deficiencies because they don't know basic things like how to combine corn and beans to get complete protiens. This is a failure of education, not of plants, so when I mention getting a proper variety of foods it is concerned with just that point.

2) On the all-or-nothing point, the example of the state of California and the extrapolating out to impossibly large scenarios is an important way of examining the cost/benefits of any given scenario. The point of the example is that, given the ineffectuality of a given large scale action at solving the desired problem, that course of action is ill suited to the intended goal. This is as true for the Kyoto protocol as it is for personal vegetarianism: both are largely symbolic acts that, even if successful on a large scale, will not solve the problems they are intended to solve. In both cases, other courses of action are necessary.

3) On the point of the awareness and cognative abilities of certain animals (dolphins vs. cows), this is a question of comparative neurology. Humans all too easily fall into the trap of anthropomorphizing other living beings, and it's an error of thinking. My study of neurology and the components of consciousness in other animals - which is that of a voraciously interested layman - leaves little doubt in my mind that there is an order-of-magnitude difference between the awareness of a snake and a cow, and again between a cow and a dolphin, and again between a dolphin and a human (assuming species-average neurological function in each case). I may be wrong, of course, and even if I'm not wrong about the current state of the research, future research could always prove me wrong. However, this is a question of fact rather than of taste. What you do with those facts is another matter entirely - I just prefer to have the argument and disagreements upon matters of conclusion, interpretation, and priorities rather than having a convervsation biased by unsupportable claims of fact in an arena where the factual landscape is easily established.

4) You said:
"However, saying that 'reducing animal suffering in a meaningful way can not - and never will - be reduction miaccomplished through vegetarian diets' is completely incorrect. Me choosing not to eat meat (along with others) reduces the demand, and this would economically drive price down and thus drive supply down to get at a higher priced profit equilibrium for suppliers. Someone not eating meat does help in reducing suffering to some extent. Yes, small amounts. But it's does help reduce."

Economic history tells a different story. With the exception of scenarios where one commodity is superceded by another (whale oil by petroleum, for example), when demand reduction leads to a price crash, the result is nearly always a spike in consumption. It works like this:
1) demand reduces, leading to larger stockpiles
2) producers, in order to unload inventory, cut prices
3) the lower prices attract customers who wouldn't otherwise have access to the commodity
4) the producers move a higher volume of the commodity at a lower price, and the industry remains profitable or becomes moreso, although smaller producers with less price flexibility tend to go out of business.

In the case of cows, any demand reduction introduced by vegetarians (even massive scale vegetarianism, as in my unreasonable hypothetical) are more than offset by market growth due to reduced prices. At the moment, prices on beef are skyrocketing worldwide due to long-term demand increase (and to feedstock-based biofuels subsidies), and that demand increase is fed by the global economic uplift of great sections of the world's poor who until recently couldn't afford to eat meat regularly.

So, yes, going vegetarian for ethical reasons might lead to YOU eating fewer cows, but it does not lead to any *meaningful* (i.e. statistically significant) reduction in animal suffering in the world. If that truly is your goal, then you will get more bang for your buck investing in biotech companies that are working on vat-grown meats and other next-gen meat growing animals. Just as the domestic sheep and domestic cow are far less intelligent and aware than their wild forebearers due to selective breeding for controllability, so too the future generations of engineered meat producing organisms will be less sensate - perhaps to the point of being acephalitic. The further we move down that curve, the less suffering there will be, as the organisms we'll be using will have more and more primitive nervous systems, or none at all.

Of course, none of that means that if you're uncomfortable with eating a cow that you shouldn't refrain. It just plays a lot into whether that stance stands up as one of ethics or one of personal preference.

Thanks for your comments - it's been a pleasure. Hope you keep listening - and keeping me on my toes!

5/19/08, 6:38 PM  
Blogger David said...

Another fascinating discussion! It seems like there's a really big tendency to slip into the naturalistic fallacy here. Just because we can eat meat, or have evolved to eat meat, doesn't mean it is moral (or amoral) to do so.

On the other side, it is entirely possible to live a truly vegan lifestyle in the way Dan describes, forgoing cement and whatnot. If it is morally preferable to not cause animals suffering, it's inconsistent to apply that rule only to food. That doesn't mean the moral rule is invalid, just that those advocating the rule are inconsistent and a bit hypocritical in how they apply it. One response is that avoiding all animal products is inconvenient in this modern era, but that just means the person is sacrificing morality for convenience.

I wonder how much of this comes down to psychology. Perhaps a hyperdeveloped sense of empathy for animals develops as a reaction to not being able to empathize with themselves. I only have a few anecdotes about some acquaintances to support this tentative theory, so I advance it most tentatively. One public example was the outrage over the video of the Marine throwing the dog over the cliff -- instead of doing his job, which is, in large part, to kill and maim humans. I wonder, If there was as loud and universal a protest over the killing of humans by American Marines as there was in the killing of the dog, would the war be over by now?

Again, great podcast, thanks for sharing it! (And I look forward to the release of your next story on Sculpting God, Dan!)

5/19/08, 7:19 PM  
Blogger Dan Sawyer said...

David -

Watch the Sculpting God feed next week for cool news about Sculpting God and about the new project :-)

Your comment about the naturalistic fallacy brought to the top of my mind another problem I have with the logic behind ethical vegetarianism - namely, that it makes a categorical imperative out of a situational ethic.

Peter Singer argued in The Expanding Circle that human ethics advance through bringing into the "in-group" circle of compassion people who once belonged in the "out-group" circle and were thus not elligible for compassion. I largely agree with this basic point, that the expanding circle is a desirable thing and is good for all concerned. The natural consequence of this argument, taken to its logical extreme, is animal liberation (which was, not coincidentally, the title of an earlier book of his upon which the modern animal rights movement is largely based).

In theory, animals may be brought into this circle - I said on the show that I think the self-conscious higher animals certainly should be considered at least nominally inside the circle. In the west, we generally consider that beings inside the circle (and theoretically that circle includes all humans) are morally responsible agents, and should be subjected neither to slavery, forcible imprisonment, murder, or assault.

If the argument ends there, you have a Kantian categorical imperitive - but it can't end there. Each of those examples above are subjected to numerous exceptions - criminals are forcibly imprisoned every day, as we consider them to have forfeited their rights in breaching the rights of another. Although we have no slavery, we do have employment, whereby one being sells his time to another in exchange for the means to purchase room, board, and the means to pursue his other interests inasmuch as he is able. And although we have a strong proscription against murder, the definition of murder is a very narrow one - there are a lot of ways to kill somebody, but only a few of them are unethical. Killing another person to preserve one's own life or the life of another - particularly in direct self defense, but less often in other cases - is not a moral evil. Even when it is not legally permissible (say, killing someone whose threat comes to you via triangulation but will nonetheless injure, maim, kill, or enslave oneself or one's loved ones) self defense is *always* morally justifiable.

Now, if livestock are admitted into the expanding circle (which I don't believe they should be), we don't actually change the current equation. Animals are created, bred, raised, and slaughtered to further human survival - in medical research, in food, in industrial products. Moreover, on free range farms, the animals are treated like employees rather than slaves - they are paid their wage in food, freedom, water, and medical care, and they have a pretty good deal when it comes to survival and quality of life (as stipulated on the show, factory farms are often a whole separate issue where there are legitimate ethical concerns that I think should be a lot more pressing to most people than they are right now). Finally, animal cruelty laws make it a crime to assault an animal, even in a slaughterhouse, or to cause an animal excessive suffering, and these laws carry penalties as stiff as the penalty for assaulting another human (though the laws are not enforced as consistently).

So, even if livestock were allowed into the circle, the situational ethics of the matter don't change all that much. The reduction of animal suffering is a moral good, but it is (and will always remain, I believe) a lower order moral concern than the suffering and feeding of humans - and that's as it should be.

Thanks for the comments and feedback - I'll shut my trap now :-)

5/19/08, 11:46 PM  
Blogger Phi Zeroth said...

As "ethical" behavior can be a slippery fish to catch, I, as a vegetarian myself, find it difficult to give any convincing philosophical reason to demand herbivory, and the most immediately compelling causes to re-think eating meat are emotional, which orgs like PETA capitalize on and beat to death. I've made a choice to forgo meat, and I believe my choice to be a good one; but I'm not "dying on an ethical hill." I understand the priorities from our particularly human perspective, but I also believe the ethics of food to be a more worthy target of my time and effort than, say, the latest celebrity/TV gossip or the all the team stats of a favorite sport, both of which many people apparently devote large portions of their lives to. I'm willing to give animal ethics a couple hours of my life here and there.

So, for the most part setting aside the issue of whether killing and eating animals is unethical in and of itself, I would like to add a utilitarian issue or two. Given that we must prioritize our own well-being (as individuals, as societies, and as a species) above the well-being of other animals, what are the implications of the meat industry for us? Dan Sawyer, I know our views may converge often here, but bear with me.

Take the statement:
If one values the reduction of human suffering (i.e. hunger and health risks), reduction of negative environmental impact, and reduction of energy waste, while minimizing animal suffering and/or exploitation, then one should make choices which further these goals.

Now, it's beyond the scope of this post to go into detail on each of the above issues as they relate to industrial meat production and consumption, but I'll give an example reason or two for each in reverse order:

• Animal suffering and/or exploitation - If given the choice, all else being equal, between an animal being killed and an animal not being killed, most would consider the option of life as being ethically preferable. Given a real situation, killing an animal for food is more ethically charged and debatable, and requires more ethical consideration to prevent cruelty, suffering, etc., than killing a plant for food. That's as far as I'll go here, as this issue has already been pounded out. The point is that, all else being equal, few would consider raising and killing animals more ethical than not raising and killing animals, so if food could be produced while improving the following variables while reducing the utilization of animal life, it would be preferable.

• Energy waste - A meat-based diet requires much more energy, land, and water resources than a vegetarian diet; meat production is currently quite inefficient compared to plant production.

• Negative environmental impact - Livestock production currently produces a more harmful dose of greenhouse gases than does transportation; also soil erosion and other land degradation are an issue.

• Human suffering - 1) Given the inefficiencies of first-world meat production, if its production energy were redirected to plant crop production, much more food could be produced, and a greater and cheaper surplus of food would be available for the world's hungry. I understand that the actual application of this would be complicated, and I'm no economist, but it seems feasible that the reduction of gross energy and economical inefficiencies would improve the cost and availability worldwide. 2) Adverse health effects of meat consumption depend on the type of meat, amount consumed, production factors, etc.; omnivorous diets can be quite healthy, but often are not. Overconsumption of meats, especially red meats, does result in health risks. Human health should be taken into consideration.

The original proposition stated again and specified:
If one values the reduction of human suffering (i.e. hunger and health risks), reduction of negative environmental impact, and reduction of energy waste, while minimizing animal suffering and/or exploitation, then one's choices should include those concerning the production and consumption of animals which further these goals.

Means of furthering these goals include more energy-efficient AND humane production methods, decent organic and free-range farming, a reduction in meat consumption, an increase in proper agronomy, finding synthetic alternatives to other animal uses, etc.

Dan S, I should note here that I agree with you that many ethical problems caused by today's factory farming can be avoided by free-range farms. However, free-range farms are also less space- and energy-efficient; therefore to achieve the best balance of the above proposed goals, consumption must be reduced to compensate. Well-regulated, humane, organic, free-range farm operation costs even more per pound of product and are less productive than the crowded factory farms; the profitability of these farms would necessarily rely on a higher product price than factory farms would be limited to. Therefore, if only these free-range farms existed and overall demand for meat were decreased, meat could find a stable "luxury" position in the economy.

Also, Dan S, I believe you greatly overstate the non-food material uses of animals and understate the availability and continuing development of synthetic alternatives.

Now, the ideal solution seems to be in-vitro meat, which would satisfy those who feel they just must have meat. But until the day comes when in-vitro meat replaces traditionally produced meat in the economy, I will do my part, in my miniscule, democratic way, by reducing demand for factory-farmed meat products and increasing demand for alternatives.

Apologies for the length of this! I wrote this on the fly at 10:00 pm, and it may be utter claptrap.

- phi

5/20/08, 7:20 PM  
Blogger Dan Sawyer said...

Phi -

Thanks for the reply. You're right, we do agree on and converge on a number of points (almost all of them, really).

A few points of divergence that I haven't already beaten to death:

1) Try as I might, I can't see death as a necessary ethical drawback, given the following two brute facts of reality that we cannot change:
A) Everything dies
B) Everything is food for something else.

As a consequence of these brute facts (and because my intellectual orientation is heavily bent towards realism rather than idealism), I can see ethics only in the HOW of these two things (i.e. HOW death is accomplished, and HOW the resulting corpse is put to use).

2) On the point of energy and waste, I think you are particularly correct in the case of grain-fed beef. Other diets for livestock (alphalpha intensive, waste grain intensive, etc) can - and often do - yeild positive environmental impacts. The current factory farming system is WAY overbalanced in favor of corn feed, largely because corn has been SO chep for SO long. I daresay the current spike in food prices due to the fetishization of feedstock ethanol will eventually necessitate a change in the way food animals are fed and raised, though it will likely take quite a while for the changing economic realities to transform the industry.

3) Redirecting feedstock land to crops intended for direct human consumption is an interesting notion, but it has been unneccessary up to this point. The Green Revolution (the introduction of artificial fertilizers and hybrid plants) and the second Green Revolution (biotech crops, no-till farming methods, etc.) have been spectacularly successful - the world has run a terminal food surplus for decades now, to the point where there hasn't been a famine related to crop failures in nearly 80 years (there have been political famines, whereby despotic governments and short-sighted trade policies have kept grains off the international market). The current food shortage is similarly political, though it is possible that it could turn actual. In that eventuality, I agree, it would be very important to free up food crops from biofuels and possibly from meat production for direct sale to people as grain.

In other words, though the current system for raising meat (particularly beef) is spectacularly inefficient, that inefficiency has no relation to world hunger. World hunger is a political, not an agricultural, problem. If that changed, I'd be right on board with you.

4) On the matter of the healthfulness of a diet depending upon the balance and types of foods consumed, we are in complete agreement.

5) On the topic of free-range farms, you're entirely correct that it is impractical to grow the world's meat entirely on free range farms if the dominant meat continues to be beef. Other kinds of meat - ostrich, chicken, rabbit, sheep, deer - are more space efficient and less grain intensive, and can also be raised on far smaller scales than cattle. Diversifying the types of livestock raised and diversifying the diets of all people in the world are two ends i consider highly desireable.

And yes, I think you're correct that free-range cattle will probably remain a niche luxury market, due to the simple economic realities of the equation.

6) On the issue of animal-based industrial products, there are a few broad categories they fall into:

A) Medical. This equation won't change anytime soon. Animals are necessary both for the production of vaccines and hormones, and as test beds for synthetic and/or plant-based medicines, and for studying diseases such as cancer. We're easily half a century - and more realistically a century or two - away from replacing animals in these roles.
B) Chemical. A good deal of animal by-products are used in the manufacture of chemicals - soaps and detergents, inks and dyes, emulsifiers and binders, explosives and cements, glycerines and gelatins, lubricants and glues. Some of these chemicals simply can't be synthesized by anything within our forseeable technological grasp. Some of them can, and as synthetic applications become cost-effective they inevitably replace and/or augment their animal-based forebearers. The problem with synthetics is that their major source is petrochemical. As the price of oil rises, synthetics become less cost-effective. Using petroleum based synthetics also has a complicated environmental impact, which sometimes (though not always) is far higher than the animal-based chemicals. Making the analysis of the comparative environmental impact has to be done on a chemical-by-chemical basis.
C) Leather and fur. There are synthetic alternatives to both of these available, but as yet they are no match for the originals in terms of durability, cost-effectiveness, and long-term environmental impact (i.e. a naugahyde belt may have less environmental impact than a leather one, but the leather one lasts the lifetime of several naugahyde belts, thus cumulatively negating the environmental advantage).

Thanks for the great post, and don't worry -- it was quite coherent.


5/20/08, 9:01 PM  
Blogger Phi Zeroth said...


I want to mainly respond to your first point:
"1) Try as I might, I can't see death as a necessary ethical drawback, given the following two brute facts of reality that we cannot change:
A) Everything dies
B) Everything is food for something else."

This will take me into the ethics of meat production itself, which I was avoiding the first go-round. Firstly, I won't state that death is a necessary ethical drawback. I'm fully on board with the "situational ethics" you mentioned in the "Atheist Ethics" episode. Living things eat other living things, often in gruesome and brutal ways, and this is the way of nature. But my main beef is not with eating animals, though I personally choose not to and am satisfied with my choice. Nor do I insist that hunting is morally reprehensible, though I personally don't hunt... In fact, I am much more in favor of regulated hunting than animal farming, as I think Richard mentioned as well.

Is there a gradation of ethical implications of A) a hungry man killing a wild animal for food, B) a family raising and breeding a small handful of animals for their own benefit, and C) a society supporting an entire industry based on raising animals for slaughter for distribution and profit? If we were to replace the word "animal" with the word "human" in all three cases, would there be the same gradation of implications?

Everything dies, yes. Everything is food for something else, also true. But not every living thing exists specifically as a means to another's particular ends. The antelope on the African plains has her own thing going—she's got food to forage, a mate to find, a foal to feed, etc. She lives her life in danger of getting eaten by a hungry lion pride, but she has a natural alertness, speed, and other defenses to at least even the odds against the attack that may never come. If she escapes predation and hunger and sickness, she is rewarded with a long life of 15 years. On the other hand, a bull in a farm was born, is raised, and exists for one purpose: an early death (1.5 years out of a lifespan of up to 20, which I wouldn't call a "good deal when it comes to survival") for the benefit of humans. This difference between natural danger and inescapable doom is one that I don't think should be ignored, and I think the question which should be considered here is whether creating, using, and destroying other living beings, with goals of their own, entirely as means to our ends is a necessary ethical drawback.

I think the necessary questions are: Are animals eligible for moral consideration (you seem to argue that they are), and is utilitarianism strictly anthropocentric—if not, where are its limits? (for the greatest good of whom, exactly?)

You mentioned the Expanding Circle and criticized it on the basis that if taken to its logical extreme, it leads to animal liberation. But this is not necessary. Say the expanding circle is not a solid color with a definite boundary, as it were (both radical animal liberationists and strict anthropocentrists use this)—but a color gradient with ourselves in the center and a outward gradation of moral priorities. My own health is more important than another person's property, but unless my well-being or some greater good depends on it is not moral for me to destroy a person's motorcycle.

You've expressed ethical considerations for livestock, such as health, welfare, freedom, etc. Would you agree to allow livestock into a "gradient circle"? Now, does our well-being or some greater good really depend on meat? Regarding other useful animal products: Yes, they exist; but no, the number of animals slaughtered to meet food demands are not necessary to meet the demands of non-food uses with no viable synthetic alternatives. Also I don't believe the sheer utility of a particular type of glue or a leather belt or an explosive justifies systematic slaughter of objects of ethical consideration, nor does this utility constitute some great reduction in the "suffering of humans," nor, in the face of the fact that economical, healthy, and ethically free dietary alternatives exist, is the eating of meat necessary for the "feeding of humans." However, in the case of medical research and practical medical uses for the benefit of humans, I am in agreement that this is an acceptable use of animals, though clearly billions of head of livestock are not needed for this.

Dammit, I've got to squeeze another thing in here. Dan, you have a nobly idealistic vision of "free-range" farming, most closely resembling the traditional American privately owned farm, which is endangered because of limits of production. The reality of "free range" commercial farming is drastically different, and is usually really just factory farming which minimally conforms to a few particular criteria with no other purpose than to get a USDA approval to plaster "free range" and/or "organic" on the packaging and gain a market advantage. Often, especially in the case of "free-range" chickens, the imagined "freedom" and quality of life is all but nonexistent. The same inhumanities and ethical problems of mass production exist as in factory farms, and it must be so to meet our exorbitant demand and remain profitable. The only way the idealistic free-range operation will be able to survive is if demand is greatly reduced; and if one is concerned with the humane treatment of what he eats, I suggest it would be inconsistent of him to not participate in the reduction of this demand.

One last thing, if you or other omnivores don't mind answering: Given the ethical considerations surrounding meat production, why do you eat meat? Taste? Nutrition? What is it that meat provides you that alternatives can't, that justify the ethical minefield that is meat production? This was not brought up in the podcast, and I think it's a fairly basic and important piece in the discussion.

- Phi

5/21/08, 9:07 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

FYI... if you're a vegan/vegetarian in Minnesota, WATCH OUT FOR THE FBI. They want to come to your potlucks!



5/21/08, 11:08 AM  
Blogger Danny Schade said...

You said:
"On the other side, it is entirely possible to live a truly vegan lifestyle in the way Dan describes, forgoing cement and whatnot."

How, may I ask, is that possible at all? Remember that anything which is grown in soil is "made from animal by-products".

5/22/08, 1:01 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

um... that's a little bit extreme view of "made from animal by-products." And i's not what being a vegan is all about.

Even if it were (but it isn't), it's really more about intake... if the soil/fertilizer is animal by-product, the actual food is not.


5/22/08, 8:12 AM  
Blogger David said...

Dan S. - I listened to the file you sent out on the Sculpting God feed. The project sounds great; I'm excited for when it starts up! As regards Peter Singer, is it the term "compassion" that makes the proposition of the expanding circle fail? Or are you saying that the principle of assuring (even to humans) these basic rights is a situational, not a categorical, imperative?

Danny - I think you might be mistating the vegan principle. As I understand it, the principle behind the vegan lifestyle is to not cause animals harm. By eating meat or using glues, they create a demand that results in someone going out and causing an animal harm. The life cycle in the wild, of wolves killing cows that then become part of the soil, is not the moral responsibility of the human.

5/22/08, 2:39 PM  
Blogger Zachary Moore said...

Here's another interesting consideration: What do you do about the animals that try to eat the vegetables you're trying to grow?


6/5/08, 8:42 AM  
Blogger Dan Sawyer said...

Awfully sporting of the rabbits to show up to the barbecue right as the salad is running out. ;-)

6/6/08, 3:05 AM  
Blogger harpoonflyby said...

Interesting that a discussion on the ethics of food, never once brought up the problem of food scarcity in the world. Meat production drives economies of scale so that we can actually afford to feed the people in the country, not to mention other nations who are starving or suffering malnutrition. So it seems that the idea of mass meat production, meat that is safe to eat, free from melamine, etc is absolutely not immoral on the most basic of assumptions - cost.

Animals are a resource, like the land, like agriculture. Humans are a resource too, we just don't eat ourselves (well some cultures maybe). Now, we can argue about which resources are abused, but we can't say it's immoral to help people survive given cheapest resources we have available. Even we humans are resources, we rent ourselves out, and we used to enslave each other. Aren't these MORE immoral?

If the question were about animal cruelty then I would concede the point, but as long as we don't wipe out entire species then we as society have no reason to not make the most economical and safe use of our resources. There are far, far, greater things to worry about in the world that people (much less animals) still suffer from, such as diseases we can cure, genocide we can stop, wars we can bring peace to. If we don't help society first, then there's no way to even begin to describe your "morality of meat". If you want to discuss personal emotions about animals that's one thing, but let's not confuse it with "ethics" which are how society perceives right and wrong

11/19/08, 12:19 PM  
Blogger Phi Zeroth said...

harpoonflyby, I would agree with you that priorities must be made, but the problem of meat goes beyond ethics. The resource and energy inefficiencies, the cost, the greenhouse gas and pollution effects, and healthiness of meat and meat production must also be considered. These are not ethical concerns, but practical and of direct concern to humans.

11/19/08, 12:52 PM  

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