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On Absurdity and NYT Editorials

An editorial in today’s New York Times, called "Million-Dollar Meat" is screaming for letters to the editor. I haven’t been writing as many letters for animal rights as I usually do, as my commitment to blogging daily (and at least a couple of times a week at the recently-launched is my priority, and sometimes that’s all my day allows.

The back story is that PeTA is "offering a $1 million reward to the first scientist to produce and bring to market in vitro meat."

Let’s deconstruct:

  • The Times is "disgusted by the conventional meat industry in this country, which raises animals — especially chicken and pigs — in inhumane confinement systems that cause significant environmental damage." So is everyone else, and there’s absolutely no risk in writing that. In fact, they’d sound like barbarians, at this point, if they took any other position.
  • Naturally, the Times believes that: "There is every reason to change the way meat is produced, to make it more ethical, more humane." Without fear of sounding like a broken record, I am disappointed that such bright, articulate, educated people fail to consider slaughter without necessity as unethical or inhumane, regardless of the conditions the animals are kept in. But they will explain themselves, in a remarkably unsophisticated manner, in a moment. First, however, they must exacerbate the existing confusion over what animal rights is.
  • "But the result of the technology that PETA hopes to reward could be the end of domesticated farm animals." What’s so bad about the end of domesticated farm animals?
    They’re only domesticated because we made them so, and we only made
    them in order to dominate and exploit them
  • "This has often seemed as if it were the logical conclusion of some radical animal-rights activists: better for animals not to exist at all if there is a chance that they would suffer." Seems as if it were the logical conclusion is confusing to me. First, seems as if it were often tells me that the editorial board at the Times isn’t clear about what animal rights is and hasn’t been properly introduced to the idea that domination and exploitation are at its core. Next, it is a logical conclusion that bringing animals into the world for the sole purpose of using them isn’t right, and I don’t know what’s so "radical" about that idea. Finally, I don’t think that last clause is the point of animal rights. The idea that it’s better for animals not to exist at all if there is a chance they would suffer is inaccurate. I would rewrite it as: better for animals not to exist at all than to be brought into this world for the sole purpose of being dominated, exploited and slaughtered for no legitimate reason. But because of all of the focus on cruelty, this misunderstanding about animal rights has become ubiquitous.
  • This editorial is a perfect example of what happens when you focus on cruelty: you open the door for what the Times "prefers," which is "a more measured approach."  Once you couch your objection in the language of suffering, you have no choice but to accept any resolution that seeks to reduce suffering, otherwise you look like you’re against reducing suffering.
  • Of course, this is the direction the Times chooses, with its declaration that we should: "Ensure the least possible cruelty to animals, by all means, and raise them in ways that are both ethical and environmentally sound." Again, the editorial board, word people that they are, might want to further explore the notion of "ethical," and ponder the place of dominance, exploitation and slaughter in their definition.
  • The next sentence contains a notion I found embarrassingly unsophisticated, not to mention absurd: that we should "also treasure the cultural and historical bond between humans and domesticated animals." It is not a bond that we are treasuring; it is bondage. What kind of a society treasures involuntary servitude in 2008?
  • Surprisingly, the penultimate sentence articulates the substance of animal rights as I know it, yet it appears that the editorial board isn’t aware of what it has done when it states: "Historically speaking, they exist only because of the uses we have found for them, and preserving their existence means, in most cases, preserving the uses we have made for them." Exactly. The editorial board might want to think about what that means.
  • We end with: "It will be a barren world if the herds and flocks disappear in favor of meat grown in a laboratory tank." Animals wouldn’t completely disappear, and there are more food animals in sheds and factories than in herds or flocks.

What’s amazing–but not really–about that last sentence and much of the editorial, is that it celebrates the idea that we bring animals into the world for our use. And that the Times thinks it would be a damn shame–a barren world–if we didn’t get the opportunity to continue to use them the way we wish to. If the Times understood animal rights in terms of nonviolence and social justice, I wonder what kind of "measured approach" they’d be able to conjure up?

Letters can be sent to:

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mary wrote: "Once you couch your objection in the language of suffering, you have no choice but to accept any resolution that seeks to reduce suffering, otherwise you look like you're against reducing suffering."

    I disagree. I think you can talk about suffering AND use. I don't think there is always a bright-line difference between welfarism and abolition. It's not always a dichotomy; sometimes it's continuum.

    I think you can "couch objection in suffering" without accepting that any reduction in suffering at any cost is acceptable.

    Furthermore, I think the vast majority of people who reach an animal rights perspective traveled through a variety of philosophies to get there and began with more of a welfarist approach. That speaks to the notion that there is a continuum of thought, not just a pure dichotomy.

    That said, I agree with the vast majority of your objections to the NY Times article. They were WAY off in their conclusion that there is such a thing as humane meat. There is no such thing.

    April 23, 2008
  2. Elaine,

    I've written several times about the spectrum of what we eat/how we live. Here's a recent one:

    You can talk about suffering and use, sure. But, again, if your argument is about use, the other person has nowhere to go but non-use. If your argument is suffering, and they propose a measure that will reduce suffering, you've just agreed to use, not to mention suffering. I see a very, very bright line between welfare and abolition when it comes to campaigns and what I would spend time and money supporting. I used to be what Gary Francione would call a "new welfarist," but I am now convinced that the intellectual dishonesty necessary for that is not something I'm willing to stand for. Cognitive dissonance is something I like to avoid if I can.

    But that's me.

    April 23, 2008
  3. By the way, I wrote my own deconstruction here:
    And I quoted you, favorably 🙂

    Also, thanks for the call to action at the end. I always appreciate it when bloggers invoke a "here's what you can do" in their critical posts. It really helps the reader feel less apathetic or sad and helps inspire motivation to get active.

    April 23, 2008
  4. (1)
    An interview with Donald Watson

    "Abolitionism versus Reformism" by Martin Balluch

    We are told that we need vegetarianism (1) and welfarism (2) as stepping stones to veganism and abolition. I could not disagree more. These are simple inductive fallacies, and they are severely hindering our progress.

    Deductive arguments arrive at conclusions that, if the premises are correctly stated, are necessarily (100%) true. Deductive reasoning generally flows from the general (rules/laws/theories/facts) to the specific (instances/cases). Inductive arguments reach conclusions that are, best case, strongly suggested by the premises… but might also be specious. Inductive reasoning usually flows from the specific to the general. In the following examples, specific observations are translated into general theories that, upon inspection, don't hold up well.

    Example One: It is observed that many humans have been vegetarian before being vegan. Thus, it is concluded (improperly) that vegetarianism is required to advance veganism.

    Example Two: It is observed that many humans are attracted to and supportive of welfarist perspectives and campaigns before they accept the proposition of basic nonhuman rights, and the abolition such rights require. Thus, it is concluded (improperly) that welfarism is required to advance abolitionism.

    Both fallacies assume that, concerning the future, the way things have been… are binding and should provide guidance. That what has been happening, is the way things must continue to happen. These fallacies ignore the relevant ideological paradigms. Vegetarianism and welfarism have been, and continue to be, the dominant norms concerning our relationship with nonhumans. Most humans perturbed by said relationship do initially adopt these norms. But this in no way suggests that the current norms are necessary steps toward the norms we wish to establish. Humans embrace welfarism and vegetarianism because they predominate; we see them first.

    Both fallacies do not properly recognize the more logical pathways to veganism and abolition. We can advance veganism and abolition directly (the former being the lived expression of the latter). We can go after what we want, without concession or compromise. Recipients of vegan advocacy (delivered with an abolitionist perspective), can either go vegan immediately (it does happen), or transition to veganism. The logical step between non-vegan and vegan, is an individual who has not completely expunged exploitation from their life. The step (less vegan that fully vegan) is ethically aligned with the goal. Vegetarianism (eggs, dairy, fish, skin, hair, rodeos, whatever = acceptable), as a step, is not ethically aligned with the goal, and is therefore inimical to it. Veganism rejects all use, but vegetarianism embraces several uses, and ignores the rest.

    Welfarism does encourage humans to be more "humane" toward nonhumans, but in a bizarre manner that focuses on questions of cruelty and suffering, thereby obscuring our underlying use of nonhumans. Suggesting that, consistent with the utilitarian philosophy informing it, whatever appears to mitigate cruelty or suffering is worthy or celebration and promotion. Abolitionism considers nonhumans to be rights bearers, and demands that their use be terminated immediately, as a moral matter, and incrementally with the spread of veganism, as a practical matter. The moral sympathy conditioned by the abolitionist approach instructs: veganism. The moral sympathy conditioned by welfarism instructs: the pursuit of industry regulations, excitement about any move along their cruelty spectrum, and veganism as an extreme and difficult method of reducing suffering — typically suitable only for fanatics and ascetics. Welfarism is not ethically aligned with the abolitionist approach, and is therefore inimical to it. Abolition can be promoted and advanced directly, through uncompromising and unequivocal vegan advocacy. The current step between now and abolition, is more vegans.

    April 30, 2008

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