Monday, May 2, 2011

Eating misery

Do you believe that animals should be protected from abuse?

If you answer yes, then you should not be eating meat, according to Bruce Friedrich, an animal-rights activist who participated in a debate last Monday night at MIT titled "Is Eating Meat Ethical?"

Friedrich, who is PETA's vice president for policy and government affairs, painted a grim view of farm animals' lives. Just consider what happens to chickens:
  • The tips of their sensitive beaks are cut off, without the benefit of painkillers.

  • Some chickens are crammed into cages so small, they are never able to extend their wings.

  • Because modern farming techniques promote unnatural growth, chickens' upper bodies grow to sizes so large that they cripple under their own weight.
  • When being transported to slaughterhouses, chickens are tossed callously into crates like bags of trash, and many die on the journey.

  • At slaughter time, chickens are slammed into metal shackles, hung upside down by their delicate legs, and spun on a gruesome carousel so that their throats may be slit, often while they are still conscious.
"Alice Walker calls eating chicken eating misery, because that's what their lives are — unmitigated misery," said Friedrich, referring to the acclaimed author and animal-rights champion.

"If you wouldn't personally split animals' throats open, don't pay other people to do it for you."

Rainforest crimes
Friedrich and his debate opponent, MIT sophomore Shireen Rudina, spoke before a few hundred people at the Maclaurin Buildings, the university's signature domed building on the Charles River.

The event began with Friedrich presenting his primary argument, which was essentially that people who claim to care about the environment and animal welfare have an ethical obligation to abstain from eating meat.

The environmental argument is not insignificant. In essence, eating meat is inefficient — Friedrich cited statistics about how the production of one calorie of meat requires far more land, water and fossil fuels than does one calorie of vegetables or vegan food. This is partly because the number of calories that an animal consumes so that it can grow up and be slaughtered is far greater than the number of calories a person can gain by eating the animal.

"It takes 20 calories into a chicken to get one calorie back out in the form of that animal's flesh," Friedrich said. "How many people here would walk to your refrigerator, take out 19 plates of pasta, dump them in the trash, and eat one plate of pasta? Nobody. Of course not. It would be unethical. And yet that's the relationship we enter into every time we choose to eat meat."

To illustrate this point, Friedrich spoke about damage that has been inflicted on the Amazon rainforest by a conglomerate that provides animal feed to Kentucky Fried Chicken. He showed a photo of a gigantic banner unfurled across the rainforest, bearing a less-than-complimentary message about the conscience-free fast-food giant.

"As you can see, it says 'KFC — Amazon criminal,' because the rainforest is being chopped down to grow soy to feed to farm animals," Friedrich said. "If we ate the soy directly, we wouldn't have to be chopping down the rainforest. Of the 220 million metric tons of soy that were grown in 2008, 98 percent of it was fed to chickens and pigs and other farm animals.

"If we care about the environment, the only ethical diet is a vegetarian one."

The ethics of eating someone else
Is it really comfortable to think about eating someone else? Someone like you?

Showing a slide of his cat, Gracie, Friedrich asked, "If you were on a desert island and you could eat Gracie or you could eat a peanut butter sandwich, who would eat Gracie?"

Friedrich won a few laughs when he joked that at some of these college talks, people jokingly yell "Gracie!" But then he got serious again.

"No, of course not, because we recognize that Gracie is someone, not something," he said. "She is an individual, and yet what animal behaviorists tell us is that pigs and chickens do better on cognition tests than dogs or cats. They are also interesting individuals. There are an array of capacities, cognitive capacities, that chickens and pigs have that dogs and cats don't have."

Still, Friedrich said that the issue is not just the intelligence of animals, nor their physical similarities to humans.

"It's not just that these species are made of flesh and blood and bone, just like we are," Friedrich said. "It is also, as Darwin said, that other animals, like humans, they manifestly feel pleasure and pain. They feel happiness. They feel misery. Or as Richard Dawkins puts it, these are our evolutionary cousins. All of the emotions that we have, all of the psychological capacities that we have, they have. They may not have them to the degree that we gave them, but they have them. Evolution worked on them like it worked on us.

"If we are eating meat, we are eating someone, and it's someone who is more like us than is unlike us."

If that isn't sobering enough, Friedrich also reminded listeners of the brutality that farm animals suffer throughout their lives.

"Unfortunately," he said, "it's not just that you are eating a corpse, it's not just that you are eating someone, but it's that you are eating someone who was gratuitously abused for you."

Animals not smart enough for consideration?
Rudina, however, said that Friedrich had it all wrong.

Arguing on behalf of the MIT debate team, Rudina seemed to suggest that Friedrich didn't understand what is meant by "ethics," and she specifically rejected the idea that the environment or animal welfare can be considered ethical imperatives.

"Bruce doesn't provide you a clear ethical framework for what is ethical or not ethical," she said. "Rather, Bruce says, 'these things are probably good things; that means they're ethical.' That is not at all what 'ethics' means."

Further, if environmental concerns and living efficiently were ethical considerations, she said, then people could be considered unethical for driving a car, or for having too many pairs of shoes when in fact they only need one, or for spending $40,000 on tuition at MIT.

Rather, Rudina defined an unethical action as one that harms a being who has moral consideration — a designation, she said, that does not include animals. She also noted that the "only secular way" to define ethics is as a set of agreements amongst people regarding how to behave toward one another, and that it is simply not possible to have an interspecies code of conduct.

Rudina added that she didn't especially like the abusive practices against chickens that Friedrich revealed when he played an excerpt of a video called "Meet Your Meat." Still, she said that a person who eats meat is not responsible for abuse the animal might have suffered en route to the dining-room table, especially if the meat-eater thinks the meat might have come from a humane food producer.

"I don't think that what he showed you should happen, but I don't think it is an ethical dilemma. I don't think animals owe us anything, and I don't think we don't owe animals anything," she said. It's nice if animals can be treated well, but "we don't owe animals any kind of ethical considerations or rights in the same way that we owe human beings."

One reason for this, she said, is that, animal thinking is unequal to human thought, focused as it is on survival and satisfying "lower-order" needs: "Humans have rationality and cognitive capacity that animals do not," she said. "We have aspirations. We have the ability to sit in this room and talk about things like ethics. We have this greater consciousness, which I don't think animals have at all. In order to give a being moral consideration, they have to be able to consider morality themselves or be able to make ethical judgments."

Referring to the fact that animal testing can help produce life-saving medicine, Rudina added that even if one cares about animal interests, human interests are always more important.

"You have to weigh their considerations against human considerations," she said.

A small good versus a big bad
Not having studied ethics any time recently, I actually found Rudina's presentation interesting. One thing I realized is that, all these years after taking Intro to Philosophy, I no longer have a sophisticated understanding of the term "ethics" — certainly I couldn't claim to know the definition that "most philosophers" agree with, as Rudina did. Still, I feel strongly that harming animals is morally wrong, and nothing in her argument persuaded me otherwise.

Friedrich wasn't persuaded either — and he insisted in a rebuttal that meat-eating is indeed unethical.

He began by taking issue with Rudina's comments about animal intelligence, and her suggestion that animals practice exclusively lower-order thinking.

"The first thing to say to that is that it's categorically untrue," Friedrich said. "There aren't many animal behaviorists who believe that that's true. We now know that, to quote Discovery magazine, chickens do not just live in the present but can anticipate the future and demonstrate self-control, something previously attributed only to humans and other primates. The Telegraph tells us that pigs have proven that they are at least as clever as chimpanzees at deceiving others of their own species, and making decisions on the basis of who is and is not present. And it just goes on and on.

"But the second thing to say about that is, so what? Even if they didn't have higher-order thinking, they would still be made of the same stuff that we are. They would still have the same physiological response to pain that we have. And we would all still owe them a duty of mercy and compassion."

Friedrich added that the human interest in being able to eat meat is a relatively trivial one.

"Even if you are going to grant her paradigm that you have to weigh animal and human interests and that human interests come first," he said, "I would contend — strenuously — that the 15 minutes of pleasure or less that you're going to get from that taste of animal flesh does not outweigh your ethical obligation to not cause animals to suffer needlessly. The good of eating meat I don't think comes anywhere near the bad of eating meat."

As for Rudina's assertion that the person who orders meat isn't responsible for what happened to the animal, Friedrich said that this makes as much sense as saying the person who takes out a hit is not responsible for the murder. He added that there are no humane for-profit farms.

"Every single farm in this country that is commercial, all of those farms are doing things to animals would warrant felony cruelty-to-animals charges were dogs and cats similarly abused," he said.

"Make no mistake about it. If you eat meat, you are saying 'Yes, this is OK with me.' You are paying for these abusive practices. Things like castrating pigs without pain relief. Imagine doing that to a dog or a cat — you'd go to jail. Yet even the so-called most humane farms in the country castrate all of their male pigs without pain relief. They castrate the male cows without pain relief. They chop the beaks off of the chickens without pain relief, which causes chronic pain and kills some of the animals.

"How many people here would want to spend an afternoon slicing chickens' throats open on a humane farm? You know, most people don't want to watch it, we don't to think about it, we don't want to do it — so where is the ethical integrity in paying other people to abuse animals in these ways so we don't have to?"

Related to this point, someone in the audience pointed out that bears, like humans, are omnivores. He asked Friedrich, "Should we find bears as ethically responsible as us, and if not what's the difference?"

Friedrich responded that this particular question is one he fields rather frequently. He noted that "other versions of the question are, 'We're part of the circle of life,' and 'Animals eat one another — why shouldn't we eat them?'"

"My argument is that we have a capacity to make ethical choices," in a way that animals don't, Friedrich said. "Animals may procreate by rape, but we don't generally say, 'Well, animals do it, why shouldn't we?' Animals will fight territorial battles to the death. We don't say, 'Well you know, I like your car and I'm bigger than you are. ...' "

When people laughed, Friedrich said: "We laugh, but this is what ethics boils down to in a lot of cases. And I think we should be asking hard ethical questions about how many pairs of shoes we wear. I think we should be asking what our MIT education is going toward and how much money we're putting into it and what are we going to do with it to try to make the world a kinder place. These are precisely the sorts of hard questions that we should be asking, but I don't think the vegetarian question is an especially hard case. Causing animals to suffer unnecessarily is wrong."

Don't live an unexamined life
I grew up eating meat, and I did it until fairly recently, so I liked the part of the event when Friedrich spoke about his own pre-vegetarian years.

Friedrich said that in the '80s, as a high-school athlete in Norman, Oklahoma, he thought that Dairy Queen blizzards and Big Macs were food groups.

"The first time someone told me he didn't eat meat, I thought there was something medically wrong with him," Friedrich said. "He said I haven't eaten meat in years. I looked at him like he hadn't breathed oxygen in years. It was just something I wasn't examining in my life. I wasn't thinking about where meat comes from and, once I started thinking about it, I adopted a vegan diet."

Quoting Socrates' maxim that the "unexamined life is not worth living," Friedrich suggested that people have a responsibility to think about the things that they do, including eating, and all of their moral consequences. In explaining this, Friedrich, who before joining PETA ran a homeless shelter and soup kitchen, spoke at length about compassion.

Interestingly, one of Rudina's recurring responses to this was that compassion has nothing to do with ethics. Parts of what she said seemed fair, but other parts struck me as dead wrong, most notably her very strange identification of compassion as a religious quality.

"It would be nice if we were compassionate, right? That may be a religious value," she said. "I don't think it is an ethical, secular value, which we are trying to talk about in this debate."

Rudina also suggested that the real reason for animal-cruelty laws is to protect human interests: "I think there are two reasons" for these laws, she said. "I think first, because watching animals getting beaten up or whatever makes people feel unhappy. It's kind of a selfish reason actually. Second, animal cruelty often translates into human violence, and I think that's something we actually do value."

As an atheist who happens to be compassionate, I was mystified by the suggestion that compassion is a religious trait. As for animal-cruelty laws, Rudina could be correct that these laws are an extension of human societies trying to protect their own comfort levels. If that is case, though, clearly more people should become uncomfortable about what happen on farms and in slaughterhouses. Maybe then we would have better laws — ones that prevent the horrors that take place every day in the name of steak, bacon, and Chicken McNuggets. (And if you think the word "horror" is too strong, I dare you to watch this video of bloody slaughterhouse footage narrated by Paul McCartney.)

Friedrich might have played into Rudina's hands a bit when he mentioned the title of a book that he finds compelling — "Christianity and the Rights of Animals." Still, I believed him when he said that the author's central message is for people of "any religion or no religion."

The book, he said, challenges people to consider the morality of how they eat.

"What the author argues is that, every time we sit down to eat, we make a decision about who we are in the world," Friedrich said. "Do we want to choose mercy, or do we want to choose misery? Do we want to choose compassion, or do we want to choose cruelty? Do we want to cause someone to suffer and die? Or do we want to make a vegan choice that does not cause someone that kind of suffering? ... I think it's clear that the ethical choice is against the meat industry."

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Copyright 2009-2010 by Sasha Sark. Please don't reuse without permission.
"West African Dark Blue Cloth" image is displayed courtesy of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University.