Defending Diet Defensively

Interesting piece in today’s NYT about Jeffrey Masson and his path to veganism.  It’s heartening that in the space of a couple of weeks the Gray Lady featured Kristof’s piece (mentioned below) and this one, both of which deal with diet and animal rights.  Overall, I see articles like these as an enormous net positive so the following cavil should be taken in that context.

My quibble involves the ubiquitous need of (non-animal activist) people who write about animal rights and diet to trumpet the challenges of a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle.  Kristof felt compelled to avow his bona fides as a meat eater and Eric Konigsberg, who wrote the Masson piece, had to open with a joke about the tastelessness of vegan food and to focus on Masson’s nostalgia for and occasional indulgences in dairy products.

It seems to me that non-animal based diets need no longer be treated as fringe behavior (if indeed they should ever have been) and it’s time to move the discourse toward examining the normative issues underlying the American diet.  For my part, I believe that all of us (from vegans to omnivores) need to inspect the way our lives interweave with industrial agriculture and to cry from the rooftops about how corn subsidies as well as confinement pens link directly to animal brutalization.  If we keep the focus on the horrific wrongs of factory farming, then it will become harder and harder for people to shrug good naturedly and chalk up their willingness to eat cruelty to a philosophical disagreement about whether or not to eat meat.  As a matter of intellectual consistency, it makes no more sense to decry animal cruelty while eating a cafeteria cheeseburger than to condemn racism while attending a lynching.

David Cassuto

3 Responses

  1. “As a matter of intellectual consistency, it makes no more sense to decry animal cruelty while eating a cafeteria cheeseburger than to condemn racism while attending a lynching.”

    Hmm, that’s a tad bit reductionist for me and not helpful in addressing complex issues. Racism has no rational defense and the parameters of that bigotry are fairly well established (as opposed to questions about how to remedy systemic racism about which reasonable people and not always reasonable law professors may disagree with integrity).

    The root issue with “animal cruelty” is that a broad consensus only exists about behavior clearly off the radar screen, e.g., maltreatment of animals that meets the standard of probable cause to charge an offender (and examples show up in the media almost every day).

    But with regard to diet, the values table is rather lopsided with a very clear majority of folks being carnivores or omnivores. Are they to be excluded from the debate about how to treat animals? Should their input be refused or ignored because they are enjoying a “cafeteria cheeseburger” while engaged in discussion about diet, health and the treatment of animals? Methinks not for two reasons. One is purely tactical-support from the majority is needed to identify, highlight and redress those aspects of the treatment of animals about which a consensus can be shaped. The other is intellectual honesty and openness-shutting out those whose values and practices are anathema to a minority is fundamentally in opposition to the quest for knowledge and the desire for inclusiveness in public discourse.

  2. I’m not sure why Professor Cassuto’s statement that “it makes no more sense to decry animal cruelty while eating a cafeteria cheeseburger than to condemn racism while attending a lynching” should be taken to mean he is excluding those who would do so from the debate. It seems more likely that he is just stating his own position — that their stated arguments against animal cruelty are inconsistent with their unstated arguments (if behavior can be considered the equivalent of an argument) that consumption of a cheeseburger is not the equivalent of animal cruelty.

    Certainly, as the poster points out, this is a subject that needs to be discussed, and one that Professor Cassuto seems most eager to address with anyone, cheeseburger in hand or not. Thus, this blog.

    One interesting question that is part of this subject is the meaning of the assumption made earlier in the post, i.e., that there is a broad consensus only about maltreatment of animals sufficient to charge an offender. Since our cruelty laws are inherently ambiguous as to their interpretation vis a vis farmed animals, it’s not actually very clear what is needed to charge a factory farm for animal cruelty. But, more pertinently, given the landslide level support for ballot initiatives that have banned cruel farming practices in other states, it seems clear that there is broad consensus about the wrongness of these very widely used practices. Can one share that consensus and eat the cheeseburger at the same time with a clear conscience? It’s certainly an interesting question, and my answer would be, like Professor Cassuto’s, that one cannot (or, should not). But I certainly don’t mean by stating that opinion that I don’t think it’s worth hearing the other side.

  3. […] the behavior that created it.  To do so is intellectually inconsistent.  Mariann (in her comment below) is quite right that I do not exclude intellectually inconsistent people from the debate.  My view […]

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