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A debate over meat and morality

Friday, November 12th, 2010

The Atlantic is featuring an interesting back-and-forth between rancher and author, Nicolette Hahn Niman, and philosopher Adam Phillips.

Niman: Dogs Aren’t Dinner: The Flaws in an Argument for Veganism

Phillips: Dogs Aren’t Dinner–and Pigs Shouldn’t Be Either

This debate focuses on whether eating pigs carries the same ethical considerations as eating dogs.   But it has deeper roots in a centuries-old debate about objective vs. relative moral truths in our world.


For a current example of how this deeper debate is playing out, check out Sam Harris’ latest book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.

For good examples of the philosophical foundations of this debate, read Anderson, Sen, Nussbaum, and Appiah.


Photo credit: nao-cha

Posted in behavior, environmental ethics, food and agriculture, nature and culture | 2 Comments »

The diversity of values held by conservation scientists and why this matters

Monday, November 1st, 2010

Right up there with climate change, biodiversity conservation is one of the most challenging issues at the intersection of nature and culture.  Part of this challenge arises because of genuine differences in how people value other species.

In an interesting forthcoming article in Conservation Biology, Chris Sandbrook and colleagues at Cambridge University argue that these value differences not only show up in society at large, but among conservation professionals, who—like climate scientists—are drawn to the possibility of developing scientific consensuses to inform policy debates:

Conservation biology has been called a crisis science and a mission-driven discipline. Both the mission, and its urgency, seem clear, and there has been a substantial increase in activities intended to address the rapid decline in the variety of life on Earth at all levels of biological organization (structure, composition, and function). Nevertheless, there are tensions within the field about the values that underpin the conservation mission, particularly concerning the nature and singularity of these values and the role of values when conservation professionals try to inform or influence policy.

Recently, the values held by conservation professionals themselves have been debated. Conservation professionals often refer to both instrumental values (the usefulness of nature for humans) and noninstrumental or intrinsic values, and there may be an element of opportunism when they do so. Thus, although some may privately base the positions they hold on intrinsic values, they may espouse use-value arguments in public, adapting arguments to the interests of their audience. Some call for conservation scientists to return to a conservation ethic derived from intrinsic values

…[Others] propose a more pragmatic engagement with material values of nature in their focus on what they see as the “hard socioeconomic realities in real-world conservation problems.” The environmental philosophy of pragmatism, with its acceptance of both intrinsic and instrumental values of nature, is the hallmark of adaptive management

To study values held by conservationists, the research team posed a set of values to scientists and asked them to rank the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with the statements (Q methodology).  The responses were then run through a set of statistics (factor analysis) to distill the huge pile of value-by-person data into four overarching factors that summarized the main values held.

Their results suggest that consensus building may not only be difficult, it may be counterproductive…


Posted in biodiversity science, communication and framing, environmental ethics, nature and culture, policy, population, race and class, science advocacy, social science, sustainable development | No Comments »

Lauerman: Our conflicted relationship with animals

Sunday, September 5th, 2010 is running an interview by Kerry Lauerman with Hal Herzog on his new book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat.   The story is worth reading for an assessment of why the public can be outraged by women throwing cats into dumpsters or puppies into a river (last week’s tabloid news) while at the same time consuming more meat than ever.

A few excerpts:

Why is it so hard to think straight about animals?

I think it’s the human-meat relationship. The fact is, very few people are vegetarians; even most vegetarians eat meat. There have been several studies, including a very large one by the Department of Agriculture, where they asked people one day: Describe your diet. And 5 percent said they were vegetarians. Well, then they called the same people back a couple of days later and asked them about what they ate in the last 24 hours. And over 60 percent of these vegetarians had eaten meat. And so, the fact is, the campaign for moralized meat has been a failure. We actually kill three times as many animals for their flesh as we did when Peter Singer wrote “Animal Liberation” [in 1975]. We eat probably 20 percent more meat than we did when he wrote that book. Even though people are more concerned about animals, it seems like that’s been occurring. The question is, why?

And, by the way, I think that the argument against eating meat is very strong.


So is the solution just to come to terms with the disconnect between loving our cat and treating it like a family member and enjoying our fried chicken?

I think that’s the human condition. I think this humanization of pets is really fascinating. I developed a tongue-in-cheek scale that I called “feeding kittens or boa constrictors” scale. I asked people, “Would it be OK to feed snakes versus cats certain types of food?” One was mice: Would it be OK to feed a mouse to a boa constrictor? Is it OK to feed a mouse to a cat?

Almost everyone said it was not OK to feed a mouse to a cat. I interviewed a student who had cats. I said, “Would you ever feed a dead mouse to your cat? You can buy them at the pet store.” She said, “No!” She was horrified. And I asked why. She had this great quote. She said, “If my cat ate mice, it wouldn’t be like me.”

I love that. And that really gets it. When we admit cats and animals into our world, and we think of them like relatives and we think of them like us, it makes perfect sense for us to think that, yes, they’d rather have a gourmet natural duck entree out of a can than eat a mouse. No, my pet really enjoys dressing up for Halloween. And so we basically have drawn that moral circle so that we think of them more like us than like them. I don’t really see that as changing.


And that’s the lesson here.   Our modern food system disconnects humans and the animals we eat all the way to the supermarket meat aisle.  Ethicists like Singer argue that sentient animals should be given the same moral considerations as people, as many folks already do for their pets.

Would we be willing to eat meat if we raised our own cows, pigs, and chickens and treated them with the same respect and care we show our pets?

For some meat eaters, probably not.  But for many others, probably yes…and that would be a good thing to the extent it generated a world with less animal suffering.


Photo courtesy of sandcastlematt.

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Earth Day at 40: A new Gallup poll on the state of environmentalism

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Riley Dunlap has an interesting article, At 40, Environmental Movement Endures, With Less Consensus, with new Gallup poll results that’s worth reading.

April 22 marks the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day, an event widely considered to be the birth of the modern environmental movement. Few social movements survive 40 years, so in this sense alone, environmentalism might be considered successful. On the other hand, the movement has had limited success in policy arenas in recent years, leading to allegations of the “death of environmentalism.”  In addition, this year’s Gallup Environment poll finds historically low levels of public worry about environmental problems (particularly global warming) and support for environmental protection. Are we witnessing the end of environmentalism as a significant social movement and, in the eyes of many, a major progressive force in the United States?

Read more to find out…


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Posted in behavior, climate skeptics deniers and contrarians, communication and framing, environmental ethics, environmental history, environmentalism, nature and culture | No Comments »

Ethical eating: Should we expand the circle to include plants?

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009


In a NY Times column yesterday, Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too, Natalie Angier pushes the boundaries of what we consider to be ethical eating.

She works through a series of biochemical and physiological examples of how plants are amazing—almost animal-like.  With one of my undergraduate majors in botany, I agree:  Plants are amazing and animal-like.

Attacked by an herbivove?  Plants can emit volatile chemicals to warn other individuals of the same species (analogous to a warning call). They can turn on chemical defenses that make themselves less palatable (an immune response).  And in an amazing display of evolution, some plants can even send signals to the predators of the herbivore to come get a free meal (analogous to getting your big brother to beat up the bully picking on you). For example, some corn varieties when being eaten by insect larva emit a chemical signal to attract wasps that lay eggs in the herbivorous pests, turning the pest into a tasty meal.

But being animal-like doesn’t mean we ought to give plants the same ethical considerations as animals.  Sure, plants are amazing, but that’s not a particularly effective ethical argument for diet choices for a couple of reasons:

  • Plants, without well-developed brains and nervous systems, are not sentient beings with a capacity to suffer or a will to live (sorry Brussels sprouts).  They are watery bags of enzymes and genes with exquisite biochemical and physiological responses.  They are essentially green cellulose robots that are evolutionarily and genetically programmed to respond in complex ways to complex and multifaceted environmental stimuli.  Eating plants, as many ethicists would argue, is therefore less morally challenging than eating a sentient mammal that can feel pain and possibly possesses a will to live.  Just like smashing a mosquito is less morally challenging than smashing your pet dog.
  • We have to eat something.  And until the day comes when we can mass produce food from tissue culture (don’t laugh, people are trying to culture meat in test tubes), we will have to eat living organisms.  Three arguments strongly favor plants over animals in terms of food ethics and sustainability:  (1) Plants have less capacity to suffer and feel pain (although some primitive animals like mussels and oysters may fall into this category), (2) we can feed a lot more people on a diet of plants than a diet of animals, as noted in an earlier post, and (3) growing plants for food releases fewer greenhouse gases than raising livestock.

It’s hard to tell whether Angier is being serious or satirical (and whether the rest of the blogosphere and I are being punked by developing an elaborate rebuttal).  The following passage suggests the former:

But before we cede the entire moral penthouse to “committed vegetarians” and “strong ethical vegans,” we might consider that plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot. This is not meant as a trite argument or a chuckled aside. Plants are lively and seek to keep it that way.

Nevertheless, her argument is flawed because it asks us to equate the moral consideration of sentient animals (like pigs) and plants.  I don’t know of a single ethicist who would make this argument given what we know about intelligence and sentience.

Furthermore, by equating plants and animals ethically, she implicitly uses this to justify eating meat because plants are objects of moral consideration too.  As the title of her article insinuates, if we are no longer able to eat Brussels sprouts, we must not be able to eat anything because of ethical equivalency.  We are led to conclude that this is absurd, so, therefore, we should just chill out and eat anything we want.

What Angier’s argument lacks in ethical rigor, it makes up in one important way:  It asks people to be thoughtful about what it means to eat other organisms.  Humanity should recognize and marvel at these amazing plant evolutionary adaptations—even be thankful for them—and do what we can to preserve them over the long haul.


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Posted in environmental ethics, food and agriculture | No Comments »

Progress and the good life

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

3461159301_8445e9b2f0The cover story of this week’s The Economist, The idea of progress—Onwards and upwards: Why is the modern view of progress so impoverished?, examines an issue central to this blog:  What does/should the good life look like?


In the rich world the idea of progress has become impoverished. Through complacency and bitter experience, the scope of progress has narrowed. The popular view is that, although technology and GDP advance, morals and society are treading water or, depending on your choice of newspaper, sinking back into decadence and barbarism.

….The Economist puts more faith in business than most. Yet even the stolidest defenders of capitalism would, by and large, agree that its tendency to form cartels, shuffle off the costs of pollution and collapse under the weight of its own financial inventiveness needs to be constrained by laws designed to channel its energy to the general good.

Nor does economic progress broadly defined correspond to human progress any more precisely than does scientific progress. GDP does not measure welfare; and wealth does not equal happiness. Rich countries are, by and large, happier than poor ones; but among developed-world countries, there is only a weak correlation between happiness and GDP. And, although wealth has been soaring over the past half a century, happiness, measured by national surveys, has hardly budged.

….And it is not just that material progress does not seem to be delivering the emotional goods. People also fear that mankind is failing to manage it properly—with the result that, in important ways, their children may not be better off than they are. The forests are disappearing; the ice is melting; social bonds are crumbling; privacy is eroding; life is becoming a dismal slog in an ugly world.

….Such values are the institutional face of the fundamental engine of progress—“moral sensibility”. The very idea probably sounds quaint and old-fashioned, but it is the subject of a powerful recent book by Susan Neiman, an American philosopher living in Germany. People often shy away from a moral view of the world, if only because moral certitude reeks of intolerance and bigotry. As one sociologist has said “don’t be judgmental” has become the 11th commandment.

But Ms Neiman thinks that people yearn for a sense of moral purpose. In a world preoccupied with consumerism and petty self-interest, that gives life dignity. People want to determine how the world works, not always to be determined by it. It means that people’s behaviour should be shaped not by who is most powerful, or by who stands to lose and gain, but by what is right despite the costs. Moral sensibility is why people will suffer for their beliefs, and why acts of principled self-sacrifice are so powerful.

People can distinguish between what is and what ought to be. Torture was once common in Europe’s market squares. It is now unacceptable even when the world’s most powerful nation wears the interrogator’s mask. Race was once a bar to the clubs and drawing-rooms of respectable society. Now a black man is in the White House.

There are no guarantees that the gap between is and ought can be closed. Every time someone tells you to “be realistic” they are asking you to compromise your ideals. Ms Neiman acknowledges that your ideals will never be met completely. But sometimes, however imperfectly, you can make progress. It is as if you are moving towards an unattainable horizon. “Human dignity”, she writes, “requires the love of ideals for their own sake, but nothing requires that the love will be requited.”


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Posted in environmental ethics, environmentalism, nature and culture, solutions, sustainability | No Comments »

Most people just don’t care about the lives and fortunes of animals?

Monday, November 23rd, 2009


In a recent op-ed, Animal, Vegetable, Miserable, in the Washington Post, Gary Steiner examines this question and the ethics of eating meat.

Following in the footsteps of James McWilliams last week and Jonathan Safran Foer a few weeks earlier, Steiner puts meat-eating—rather than vegetarianism—on the defensive, arguing that it is problematic to brand vegans/vegetarians as moral snobs when uncritical carnivores/omnivores feel they have a sense of entitlement to meat regardless of the ethical implications of their food choices.

LATELY more people have begun to express an interest in where the meat they eat comes from and how it was raised. Were the animals humanely treated? Did they have a good quality of life before the death that turned them into someone’s dinner?

Some of these questions, which reach a fever pitch in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, pertain to the ways in which animals are treated. (Did your turkey get to live outdoors?) Others focus on the question of how eating the animals in question will affect the consumer’s health and well-being. (Was it given hormones and antibiotics?)

None of these questions, however, make any consideration of whether it is wrong to kill animals for human consumption. And even when people ask this question, they almost always find a variety of resourceful answers that purport to justify the killing and consumption of animals in the name of human welfare. Strict ethical vegans, of which I am one, are customarily excoriated for equating our society’s treatment of animals with mass murder. Can anyone seriously consider animal suffering even remotely comparable to human suffering? Those who answer with a resounding no typically argue in one of two ways…

Continue reading here


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Posted in behavior, environmental ethics, food and agriculture | 1 Comment »

On the morality of climate remediation

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009


If a technology exists that can remove CO2 from the atmosphere, does that mean it’s morally acceptable to emit CO2 from fossil fuels?  That’s the question addressed by Hale and Grundy in the current issue1,2 of Environmental Values (subscription required).

In what sense are we culpable for our actions when the damage wrought by those actions can be undone through technological correctives? … Put differently, it is this: if we can correct a wrong by flipping a switch, or by introducing a technology, does this then make our original act morally permissible?

At face value, most people would say yes.  After all, that’s the basis for carbon capture and storage.  But Hale and Grundy argue we often relate pollution with harming others.  Take away the pollutant, and we take away the harm.  If, instead, we believe the moral basis for wrongdoing is disrespect, then things get murkier.

In a fun paper, they pose a set of thought questions to suggest why this matters…


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