Pondering Michael Vick & Grandma´s Turkey

David Cassuto

From the Recommended Readings Desk:  This from Sherry Colb over at Dorf on Law — a very thoughtful essay furthering a discussion begun when Gary Francione lectured at Cornell Law School.  Among other queries, the piece explores the relative morality of dog-fighting vs. cooking a Thanksgiving turkey.  The name of the essay is ´Animal Rights, Violent Interventions and Affirmative Obligations´ and is well worth the peruse.

One Response

  1. since i’ve previously written on a few of the propositions reiterated in this article (e.g., is abandoning animal products really practical for most of the world, and how do we make grand moral conclusions about those who continue to use them) i’ll limit my comments to the issue of violence and moralizing.

    firstly, though this isn’t directly addressed by the article, there seems to be an unstated assumption running throughout related articles that moving beyond ‘speciesism’ entails moving towards a sort of ‘pacifism’ amongst animals. i can understand the idea that, once we consider the pain and suffering caused by violence, we should try to be less violent, but i don’t think that disassembling the barriers between humans & other animals means we should be less violent; indeed, i think that we may instead become more callous about our behavior towards other humans.

    studying the behavior of our chimp cousins reminds us that violence (intra-species or inter-species) is not an aberration, but part of our very nature; this includes completely unnecessary, premeditated, sadistic killings. in fact, both species ENJOY violence. an interesting question would be whether we treat chimps much worse than one chimp tribe treats another, or than human societies treat other human societies.

    when one animal attacks another, we say, ‘well, that’s just an animal being an animal,’ and we pass no judgment. (unless it happens at a dog run; we apply different rules to dogs, for better or for worse.) humans hold explosive, profound debates on when life begins, when it should end, how we should treat each other, how we should treat other animals, and what is moral. and we accordingly determine when it is ok to terminate life or behave violently.

    it is noble to strive to reduce unnecessary pain and suffering, and removing the intellectual barrier of ‘speciesism’ may assist in this endeavor vis a vis animals. however, let’s remember that pursuing such noble aims also entails acknowledging that violence (and, for some species, sadism) is more ‘normal’ and perhaps, then, less ‘immoral’, than we would like to acknowledge.

    which leads to my second point. what i want to stress is only that none of this is obvious. ask 100 people, you may get 100 different answers. one of these may be Prof Colb’s ethic of “cause no unnecessary suffering to animals but prefer humans in triage and affirm obligation contexts,” but that very description (her own) evidences how non-intuitive it is, and how much we must strain ourselves to find a workable ethic. (I should note that i believe such ‘straining’ to be one of the highest pursuits of man, so i don’t wish to come-off as condescending in the least–merely to show how difficult the endeavor is.)

    if we strain so hard to both construct and describe an ethic, it seems to me to be quite subjective and non-intuitive; thus, how can it be so morally superior to every other ethic? i don’t think it is.

    thirdly, i think we should be very careful about the way we advance these conclusions into public debate. She concludes by instructing that those who adopt the ethic ‘understand’ that meat-eating is ‘objectionable.’ I’m confused by what this entails. if she calls for more moralizing, i think we will fail spectacularly, and indeed, cause a serious backlash against animal advocates (as i have written before).

    (especially given that she appears to agree with Prof. Francione that ‘grandmother’ is just as ‘bad’ as Michael Vick, and that veg diets are healthier, delicious & satisfying–opinions seemingly held by nearly every vegetarian in the work, and scoffed at by nearly every carnivore in the world. again, while very reasonable, these rationales & opinions are by no means obvious and are hotly debated in nearly every culture and context in which they arise.)

    if understanding means merely stating that, according to the ethic of “cause no unnecessary suffering to animals but prefer humans in triage and affirm obligation contexts” (i had to copy and paste the very name), eating meat is objectionable, then fine–she’s just applying the ethic to an activity. to me, this allows for a good starting point for dialogue, and i always find dialogue more effective than sermonizing.

    again, encouraging vegan behavior for enviro & ethical concerns is important. but in the world that i live in, outside of the academic & activist echo chambers, moralizing will do nothing bur further marginalize these objectives. carefully making people think about where we draw lines re: what is murder, what is moral, etc., is an important philosophical enterprise. but most of us know that implying that carnivores are murderers is not helpful either.

    Prof Colb recognizes the importance of cultural contexts while wrestling with a few of the more difficult (or, to the average person, loony) propositions. i hope that we are similarly conscientious when moving beyond ‘preaching to the choir’ to ‘actually trying to reduce animal consumption by convincing people to change their behaviors.’

    for these reasons, i applaud the professors for the extent to which they advance these debates, while i strongly caution them and us against staking out any one particular position as inherently more moral than all the others.

    (i think that the comments to her post reinforce the notion that, even amongst strong sympathizers, extreme hypotheticals and moralizing language causes quite a bit of dissonance.)

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