Raw - What Is It Good For?

My latest column at The Philosopher's Magazine--

Blogging at 3 Quarks Daily, the legal philosopher Gerald Dworkin recently discussed whether food can be considered art. Cooking is a “minor art form”, he argues, but if he’s right, food doesn’t always lend itself to discussion. Food writers tend to tell me more than I want to know about the state of their taste buds, seldom making the jump to any bigger issues. No wonder: most of the time, food isn’t about anything. But it can be, as I discovered during a trip to a raw food restaurant in Dallas, promisingly called Bliss.

Sandwiched between a busy street and an elevated train track, the tiny place had outdoor seating only. Across the street was a “can this be real?” liquor store where bikini-clad women brought orders out to customers sitting in cars and pick-up trucks – possibly all a holdover from a strip club next door that seemed to have shut down. We looked over menu options like Rawsagna Supreme, Rawko Taco and Naked Pizza while suffering a sense of impending doom, thanks to the vapid, end-of-the-world soundtrack that was being piped in. Our children had to be reassured that we were safe, despite the panhandler who reached his hand in and asked for train fare.

No doubt I was receptive to the semiotic possibilities because I had been reading The Year of the Flood, a new novel by Margaret Atwood. The restaurant staff could have been members of “The Gardeners”, a cult set in the near future that uses organic gardening, veganism, science, and a little Old Testament religion to hold their own in a world overrun by mega-corporations, environmental devastation, and genetic engineering run amok. The Gardeners live in Pleebland, a violence-infested neighbourhood outside the wealthy, gated HelthWyzer community. Under the leadership of Adam One, they prepare for a prophesied flood by honing survival skills and respect for animals and nature. Ren grew up a Gardener, but works in a strip club called “Scales and Tails” when the year of the flood – a waterless pandemic, as it turns out – arrives. She has to do more than deliver liquor to cars, but maintains her wits and doesn’t forget her Gardener roots.

All organic and vegan, Bliss goes a step further than the Gardeners, and eschews cooking. As we waited for our food, we wondered about this. It’s environmentally sound to eat local and organic, and good for animals to eat vegan, but how is it better to eat raw? I pondered the fact that heat is just the motion of molecules. Were we to prefer less motion, the way Puritans disapproved of dancing?

Later on I looked into health claims made by raw foodists. Cooking robs food of vitamins, and some of the compounds formed by cooking are possible carcinogens. But in a new book called Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham argues that cooking has its benefits, or at least had them, back in the days when we were barely past apehood. Heating changes the chemistry of food, making it more readily digested. Our forebears got more energy from their food when they started cooking it and quickly developed smaller guts and bigger brains. Social relations were altered and time was freed up for other pursuits, at least for men (Wrangham says that cooking is universally women’s work). If it weren’t for cooking, we’d still be chewing our food for six hours a day, like chimpanzees. Plus, cooking is needed to make things taste good. Isn’t it?

I picked up Atwood’s book not because I was thinking about going to Bliss, but because I’d been paying attention to a debate about animals and genetic engineering. Atwood’s novel is full of perverse animal life. Most of our familiar species have gone extinct, and greedy corporate scientists are busy engineering new and curious species. There are colourful Mo’hair sheep with human hair, rakunks made from raccoon and skunk genes, and pigs with human brains. The Liobam has been created to support the biblical prophesy about the lion lying down with the lamb.

Back here in the real world, I’d been reading about a proposal to genetically alter factory farmed animals so that they can’t feel pain. Though there are thorny arguments to be considered, novelists can help us imagine who we will have become, by the time we are using bioengineering to remake the animal world. We will have become a species on the precipice of extinction, Atwood’s novel says. There’s nothing that isn’t strange in this novel, but there’s both strange-good and strange-bad. The Gardeners, though gently mocked throughout the book, are strange-good. Though they are greener than green, I’m pretty sure we are meant to heed their messages.

But what about going one step beyond – going green, organic, vegan, and raw? When our food finally arrived, I was stunned. It was absolutely delicious. The flavours were intense and unique, and sheer heat was not missed. In fact, it turns out that hot spices are just as warming as high temperatures. And we did not sit there chewing for hours like chimpanzees.

Atwood’s novel was delicious too – as an exploration of science and religion, environmental ethics, and our planet’s future, but also as just plain riveting fiction.

NOTE:  It will interest Dallasites to know that Bliss may (may) be moving to a new location soon. If you want to dine in Pleebland, better do so soon. 


Being with Animals

I enjoyed this interview with Barbara King, author of the new book Being with Animals, but listening to her talk about connecting with animals makes me think I may be animal-challenged.  One of our cats jumps up and walks in front of my computer screen about 10 times a day.  True confessions: I find this non-pleasing. Might we say that calm cats are calming, and frantic cats are...franticking?

I particularly like what she says about looking out at buffalo in Yellowstone National Park and finding something marvelous about the way they go about their business with total indifference to her. Watching them gives her a feeling of atunement not directly with them, but with the universe. E.O. Wilson's notion of biophilia comes to mind.

I used to have a major I-thou relationship with our dogs when I was growing up. A favorite thing to do was to lie on the floor and watch out basset hound Andy eat his food. Great sound effects. Are cats just a bit less I-thou?

She does a great job of answering one caller's question about vegetarianism.  I'm looking forward to reading the book.

Corporate Free Speech

I've been puzzled by the response to the Supreme Court's recent decision on corporate speech. The court struck down parts of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that prohibited corporations from airing political ads shortly before elections. The majority ruled that corporate speech is protected by the first amendment.  In response, many progressives are insisting that only individuals should have a right to free speech.  (See here for example.)

There are lots of good reasons to worry about corporations wielding too much influence, but how can anybody really want to see free speech rights restricted to individuals? Surely a city shouldn't be able to take down billboards put up by advocacy groups like the Sierra Club or Peta, or even the NRA--just on the basis of their content. Right?  We wouldn't want free speech rights not to extend to groups.

I don't even find it obvious that a for-profit corporation should be silenceable. Say that Coca Cola wants to put an ad on TV supporting gay marriage in Georgia--whether for ideological reasons or to sell products or to attract good staff to their headquarters in Atlanta. Or maybe they want to object to gay marriage. Should it be possible for some government entity to prohibit the ads?

The critical question is whether the usual free speech rights of corporations (surely they have some) should be curtailed when it comes to elections. Is it so harmful to our democracy for corporations to run political ads right before an election that their normal free speech rights should be overridden--much like we don't let people yell "fire!" in a movie theater? 

Maybe, but there's a right there to be curtailed. It doesn't seem wise to completely deny the right--if we want to live in a free and open democracy.

There's a further reason to be wary of restricting rights to individuals. That's bound to be interpreted as meaning "human individuals." The fact that corporations are legal entities in this country, with rights and liabilities, opens the door to other expansions. This point is made in Cass Sunstein's very interesting article "Can Animals Sue?"

All around, it doesn't seem wise to insist that rights are for you and me only--that would have ramifications that are bad all around, bad for progressives, and especially bad for pro-animal progressives.


Minsky's Wager

OK, so a life extension drug is not available. What's a mere mortal to do? It turns out you can have yourself frozen.
Robert C. W. Ettinger is ninety-one years old and he is a founder of the cryonics movement. When he dies, the blood will be drained from his body, antifreeze will be pumped into his arteries, and holes will be drilled in his skull, after which he will be stored in a vat of liquid nitrogen at minus three hundred and twenty degrees Fahrenheit. He expects to be defrosted, sometime between fifty and two hundred years from now, by scientists who will make him young and strong and tireless.
Ettinger is the owner of the Cryonics Institute, so presumably gets a discount
Ettinger has already frozen his mother and his two wives, along with ninety-two other people who await resurrection inside giant freezers in a building just a few blocks from his house, in Clinton Township, Michigan.
For regular folk, the price is $28,000, plus a yearly subscription fee before death. Okaaaaay.

It turns out some very smart people go in for this idea. MIT computer legend Marvin Minsky is going to have himself done at a rival business in Arizona called Alcor. He thinks this is perfectly rational. Why? Apparently this is the explanation he sent to New Yorker writer Jill LePore:

Which looks an awful lot like this famous argument:

Now, Pascal's Wager doesn't tempt me at all.  I think if an all-good God exists, he's not an egomaniac who will give me an afterlife (or not) depending on whether I believe in him and pray to him. I really don't think believing and praying would increase my chances of surviving in an afterlife by one iota.

But getting frozen might increase my chances of survival (here)...even if just by one iota.  So what about it? Should I rip off my descendants for a little chance of a lot more life? (Is that a tendentious way of asking the question?!)


Carnival of the Animals

Philosophy Carnivals are compilations of posts from philosophy blogs. (Here's one from the past.) I'm going to be hosting a "carnival of the animals" mid-February. Posts on all things animal (ethics, law, animal minds, animals and theology, animals and the environment) will be included. If you have posts you'd like to contribute or know of posts, please send me a link: jkazez@smu.edu

Is Vegetarianism Losing Ground?

Trendwatchers (here and here) keep saying that vegetarians and vegans are getting lured by the growing "humane meat" movement.  I don't know if I believe this.  Trendwatchers also say that New York brides throw botox parties to get their bridesmaids ready for the big event (oh come on--how many, how often?) and that men in Tokyo go around with pillows they consider their girlfriends (same questions).  So--it could be that editors just love the vegetarian-turns-carnivore story line.

Then again, maybe there's something to it.  Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser have lately been shaping the discussion of "ethical food" and they've greatly expanded what that means to people.  Their books (The Omnivore's Dilemma and Fast Food Nation--both available in kids' versions too) are superb.  Then there's Food Inc, the documentary based on their work, which I just saw last weekend.

Food Inc shows that an ethical eater should worry about the treatment of animals, but also about other matters.  If you imagine the USDA putting ethics labels on food alongside nutrition labels (that'll be the day), they would cover impact on animals, but also impact on humans and the environment.

Even on its own the animal portion of a label on "humane meat" would be puzzling. Small humane farms kill animals but give them high well being throughout a big part of their lives. How do you add together those incommensurables?  So: problematic.  But Food Inc shows that plant foods raise ethical issues too. There are human and environmental problems even with eating a seemingly innocent soyburger.

Food Inc profiles a very interesting assortment of heroes and villains.  The villain, throughout the movie, is the giant corporation.  The most articulate of the good guys is Joel Salatin, owner of a little idyllic farm in the Shenendoahs.  Every other sentence that comes out of his month is a gem. (Granted, in one segment he kills chickens while he utters the gems--definitely food for thought).

Among the many smart things Salatin says: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."Polyface farm isn't perfectly good for animals, but it's pretty good, and it's very good for humans and the environment.  No wonder consumers who want to eat ethically are looking for their own local Polyface farm.

The bad guys in the movie are the giant corporations that own factory farms and meat-packing plants.  For example, Eldon Roth, master mind of the ammoniated meat-scraps scheme that was recently covered in the New York Times, makes a chilling appearance.

But another bad guy is Monsanto, the corporation that owns the genetically modified seed that yields 90% of the soybeans in this country.  They are portrayed as bad for small farmers, bad for the environment, and bad for us.

At the end of the movie, there's a lovely poem-like series of imperatives (with Bruce Springstein singing "This Land is Your Land" in the background).  First screen-

Good advice. But what exactly does it mean?  All things considered, I think we are most respectful, all around, if we eat locally grown plants.  I'm afraid it's very hard to believe that killing an animal and eating it is respectful, no matter how much happy grazing precedes that moment.

Still, bearing in mind that we shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, I can't be gravely concerned about the humane meat crowd.  And I think there's some hope for "trickle down."  It may very well be that the Food Inc message is making the larger population receptive to farm reforms like this recent one in Michigan.  (With Michael Pollan's latest book now #1 on a The New York Times best-seller list, he's surely having a very broad impact.)

My own diet is a compromise between vegan and omnivorous--no meat, only "more humane" eggs and milk.  So I'm disposed to embrace compromisers.  Still, it's good to bear in mind what "perfect" would be and try to keep oneself moving (maybe just step by step) in that direction.  Perfect surely would mean no killing and we all (in our heart of hearts) know that.



Don't you love that word?  There's a new book out called Rewilding the World, about wilderness preservation.  Let's hope that's not a hopeless goal, but then again, how much of the world could we reasonably hope to rewild?

This is highly relevant to a certain sort of debate people get into about domesticated animals.  Defenders of animal farming sometimes point out that about 25% of earth's land surface is used for grazing.  All over the place, billions of animals are living out natural lives the moments of which are mostly pleasant.  There would be much less animal happiness in the world if we stopped using these animals for meat, milk, wool, etc. (Note, I am not talking about factory farmed animals here.)

Critics can challenge the basic ethical perspective that takes quantities of happiness as ethically important, but there are lots of reasons to take that perspective seriously.  It's certainly true that many people do take it seriously.  So it would be a bad idea to dismiss this sort of defender of animal farming by saying total happiness doesn't matter.

Some critics simply point out that animal farming has not, in fact, increased the population of happy animals.  For thousands of years, human beings have been clearing land to make room for livestock. There were once wild animals on that land, and they may very well have had richer and more pleasurable lives.  The replacement of wild animals continues today, as forest continues to be cut down to make room for grazing animals or their feedcrops.

Looking backwards or forwards, you don't find points in time when you can deem the replacement of forest with pasture a net boon to animal happiness.  It's another question though, whether today we can argue for reducing the number of grazing animals on grounds that wild animals will compensate for any resulting drop in total happiness.

If human beings suddenly vanished, and with them all their livestock, wildlife would fill in all the empty spaces.  But if humans don't vanish, but merely put an end to animal agriculture, surely grazing land would be put to some other economic purpose.  Humankind abhors an economic vacuum.

The choice is not between retaining billions of farm animals and bringing back the same number of wild animals. Not gonna happen! It's between having a world teaming with sheep pastures, cattle ranches, and the like, and a world where land is used (and abused) in some other way.  The former pastures would become--what?--paper forests, or housing developments, or sites for mining, or carefully pest-controlled plant farms...or who knows what?

If there were fewer grazing farm animals, that would mean a net decrease in happiness, but also a decrease in killing.  For those who think happiness is good, but also believe killing animals is inherently wrong, the whole thing is hard get a grip on.  For them, increasing happiness and decreasing killing are incommensurable goods.  Would we live in a better world if the pastures were emptied out and put to some other anthropocentric use?  I think that's a very hard question to answer.


PeTA Skin (again)

Wait a second. This just looks like kiddie porn. I think I'm going to have to move toward taking a more definite stand against PeTA's many skin campaigns.  They seem to be going off the deep end.  I also wonder, more generally, about the constant juxtaposition of animal cruelty and sex, as in this Huffington Post PeTA page.  If PeTA doesn't watch out, they're going to wind up creating a generation of fetishists who actually get aroused by the thought of animals being abused.  That wouldn't be good.


"I Should But I'm Not Going To"

I'm busy today, so this is an "archive edition" (to borrow Terry Gross's euphemism!)--something I wrote back when I was blogging at Talking Philosophy. 

There’s a way of thinking about morality that is common and, I think, unhelpful. On this interpretation, if you should do something, then “end of story.” You really can’t coherently say “I should but I’m not going to” unless you’re willing to wail and self-flagellate. This way of thinking makes people very resistant to recognizing putative obligations. The feeling is that, once you admit you should do something, you’ve put yourself in a trap.

This sense that obligations trap us might be behind resistance to the view that it’s mandatory to give a lot to the extremely poor. If people are told they should make huge sacrifices, and given good arguments to that effect, they do tend to twist and turn every which way. Hardly anybody will say “I should, but I’m not going to.” In my experience, people will make glaringly bad arguments rather than just admit to not fulfilling an obligation. Arguments about meat-eating meet the same sort of resistance. Rare is the person who can say—yes, the arguments are great, but I just can’t give up meat right now.

Maybe it’s so hard to admit to wrongdoing because we don’t see enough differences between types of wrongdoing. I ought to give my own children adequate food and health care. If I don’t do that, I really am a creep and I really should loathe myself. But if I can’t bring myself to sacrifice things I deeply want every single time there’s a life at risk somewhere—and that’s all the time–I don’t think I should loathe myself. I should try harder. I should back off of the really silly luxuries. But I don’t need to utterly lose self-respect if I don’t always do what I should.

Same goes for meat eating [and eggs and dairy]. I should give it up rather than eat animals who lived miserable lives in factory farms. But if I can’t? Well, meat eating runs deep in a evolutionary, cultural and personal sense. Better to say “I should but I’m not going to” than come up with flimsy counterarguments.

Which obligations are “strict”—you comply or feel very, very bad? Which obligations are “softer”—we should comply, but we shouldn’t hate ourselves if we don’t? What’s the basis for this distinction? It seems like an underexplored question.


Life extension, again

Sadly, it turns out I misread Russell Blackford's article, and we aren't really to think of the life extension drug as costing users a reduction in offspring.  Boo hoo, because I thought it was awfully fun contemplating whether it's worth giving up life-creation for life-prolongation.  I was working myself into a nearly Catholic fervor about the beauty of making new people.

No, what's going to happen is that in the 150 scenario, population will be halved fairly naturally, since people will have on average 2 kids in the first 75 years, but won't reproduce in the second 75 years.   In the usual 75 scenario, people would have 2 kids per 75 years of life.  So there are indeed half as many people in 150 but not because people have traded away one kid for a longer life.

Apologies to Russell for messing that up!  Now let's see what else I can mess up. (I wish I could just give you the pdf, but that would be a no-no.) 

Blackford and Singer both assume 150s have lower average happiness than 75s because of a bit of post-75 age-related decline.  We can stipulate that it's 4.5 in 150, but 5 in 75. Still, the total amount of happiness for a 150 is greater (675 units) than for a 75 (375).  They both think this makes 150 the better life, a claim you could debate, even given those numbers (see Robert Nozick's book The Examined Life for objections), but let's go along with it. If 150 is the better life, isn't it obvious that the researchers should develop the drug?

No, says Singer.  We have to do all the math. Using Blackford's numbers--
75 world:  375 happiness units X 2 billion people = 750 billion
150 world: 675 happiness units X 1 billion people = 675 billion
Singer says we should stick with our 75 world because there's more total happiness.  Blackford says this is misguided, and we should pursue the 150 world.

There's way too much in the article and in the voluminous associated literature to explain the reasoning on both sides, so I'm going to pluck out just one issue.  The lower total in 150 is because of the missing happiness of non-existent people.  Deciding what to do based on totals effectively attaches importance to them.  Blackford thinks their good doesn't matter, since they're merely possible.  Thus, we shouldn't decide what to do based on totals.  (He also makes a rather different argument that turns on Parfit's "repugnant conclusion," but I'm going to sidestep that whole kettle of fish.)

Here's a thought experiment he offers to convince us that the total approach is wrong.  A benevolent (but not all powerful) god must choose between two worlds he could create:
Planet A:  1 billion people each enjoy a total of 6 (out of 10) units of happiness over their lives.  Total: 6 billion units of happiness.
Planet B:   6 billion people enjoy a total of just 1.5 units of happiness over their lives.  Total: 6.5 billion units of happiness.
It would be really daft if the god created planet B, right?  So deciding based on totals must be wrong.  Doing so effectively gives weight to the missing happiness of non-existent people, and that's as misguided as it sounds.

OK, so far it seems like Blackford is right. But is he?  Singer defends the total view in Practical Ethics by noting how it does make sense to give weight to the non-misery of non-existent people.   To see his point, think about that god again.  Now he (she?) is faced with a choice between creating more miserable people or fewer miserable people.
Planet C:  1 billion people all suffer constantly, each experiencing a total of 10 units of misery over their lives. Total: 1 billion units of misery.
Planet D:  2 billion people all suffer constantly, each experiencing a total of 10 units of misery over their lives. Total:  2 billion units of misery.
Clearly the god should create Planet C, just as the total view says.  It's not misguided at all to effectively take into account the missing misery of the people who don't exist on Planet C.

If the total approach where misery is concerned is correct, then how can the total approach where happiness is concerned be wrong?, Singer asks. This strikes me as very good question.

Some of the worry about the total view comes from what I take to be a mistake about what it leads to.  If you take the missing happiness on planet A to be bad, does that mean we all have an obligation to create as many children as we can? Do we have to "rescue" non-existent children and bring them (and their happiness) into existence?

No, because there's nothing that says there aren't better ways for me to increase total happiness.

Take, for example, the very wonderful Paul Farmer, described in Tracy Kidder's very wonderful book Mountains Beyond Mountains.  By working in a Haitian hospital and starting innovative health services around the world, he has saved thousands and thousands of lives.  He has just one child.  It would be daft to think that the total view enjoins us to complain that he didn't have more children.

In our overpopulated world, there's a very real question whether adding more children does increase total happiness.  The child's happiness has to be taken into account along with the impact produced by her coming into existence.  It's really the person who wants to have children, not the person who doesn't, who has to work hard to come up with a justification.

But now suppose we mess up the world terribly, and wind up with an utterly bleak scenario like the one in Cormac McCarthy's book The RoadAll animal life has been wiped out, and there are just small numbers of humans trying to eke out their survival.  So all that is good in sentient lives is at risk of disappearing.  In that world, is there an obligation to make sentient life--like human children, for example?  I don't find it counterintuitive to say so.  And the obligation doesn't seem to really be about perpetuating a particular biological species, as opposed to creating happy individuals.

So--because of the misery argument, and because I don't think the total view leads to absurd claims about who ought to have more children, I'm casting my vote with Singer.

I've sidestepped a lot of other arguments in Blackford--but writing this much is cruel and unusual enough.  Final footnote for the perplexed:  all these issues are relevant to huge numbers of questions in animal ethics, reproductive ethics, and environmental ethics.  Reading Practical Ethics is a pleasant way to find out the relevance, while reading Parfit's Reasons and Persons is a much more toilsome sine qua non.

Vengeance Watch

I have two contributions to "vengeance watch" for today.

First, have a look at the comment thread that follows this essay by "mere vegetarian, but nearly vegan" Victor Schonfeld, director of the groundbreaking movie The Animals Film.  What a drubbing!

Then we have this badly reasoned brief against vegetarians. Law professor Sherry Colb writes--
Ovo-lacto vegetarianism is no better than nothing, because it causes as much death and possibly even more suffering than omnivorism, if one is consuming the same quantity of animal products but merely switching from including flesh to increasing dairy and eggs, as many lacto-ovo vegetarians do.
On every level, this is out in left field.  First, there's no reason to assume that vegetarians simply replace meat with greater quantities of dairy and eggs.  The meat that used to be in my spaghetti sauce got replaced by vegetables, thank you very much.  The beef that used to be in my red bean chile got replaced with...more beans.  What makes me a vegetarian, not a vegan, is that there's still parmesan on top of the spaghetti, and possibly some shredded cheddar on top of the chile.  But omnivores would have those toppings as well.

But let's suppose, contrary to fact, that vegetarians are replaceatarians.  So where omnivores eat chicken for dinner, vegetarians eat omelets.  Her claim that vegetarianism is no better than nothing would still be groundless.  As I say in the comments over there, if you eat one chicken per week, you kill 52 in a year. On the other hand, laying hens live about a year and lay about one egg per day. So eating a daily egg for a year involves the suffering and death of two chickens: the layer plus the male chick killed at the outset.  If you have 3 eggs a day, the cost is 6 chickens (Those approximations are backed up at this Humane Society fact page.) Replacing chicken with eggs  would prevent the death and suffering of a large number of animals.

The vegetarian-bashers are followers  and associates of Gary Francione who fancy themselves modern day abolitionists working to emancipate animals just as their forebears tried to abolish slavery.  I wonder, though, what the anti-slavery abolitionists would think of their tactics.

19th century abolitionists were certainly not slave owners, just as vegans and vegetarians aren't likely to be hands-on killers of animals.  The analog of diet-activism in the world of anti-slavery abolitionism is the strategy of a boycott.  You could try to end the institution of slavery by not using slave produced goods and trying to encourage others to do the same.  If slave produced products had no buyers, abolitionists may have argued, slavery would have to come to an end.

I am reading a great book about slavery (Inhuman Bondage, by David Brion Davis) so perhaps I will soon know to what extent abolitionists were boycotters.  But morally, maybe they should have.  It's surely morally wrong to put slave produced sugar in your tea.  Doing so makes you complicit in the horrendous things that took place on the Carribbean sugar plantations where most sugar was grown and refined.  And don't say sugar was a necessity--of course not. Nor could abolitionists plead ignorance about which sugar was slave produced.  All sugar was slave produced.

It's fair to say that sugar use would have been wrong, but did 19th century abolitionists give it up?  And if so, did the most fastidious boycotters demand abstinence from others? Did the abstainers hold themselves up as the true leaders of the cause? Did they try to convince themselves that just drinking unsweetened tea, and not wearing cotton, etc., would put an end to the awfulness that was slavery?

Francione likes to say that vegetarians are like rapists on a diet ("I'll rape one woman today, instead of ten"). Did abolitionists accuse each other of being like rapists on a diet for still putting a little sugar in their tea?

Despite the wrongness of using slave produced sugar, abolitionists obviously would have been fools to spend their time monitoring the teaspoons full of sugar in each others' tea.  Likewise, even if all use of animals for food is wrong, vegans should give up their crusade against vegetarians.

Take home question.  What's the difference between putting slave-produced sugar in your tea and being a rapist?  If we knew that, then we could explain the difference between putting milk in your tea and being a rapist. Your suggestions welcome.

More "defense of vegetarians" is here.


The Life Extension Puzzle (continued)

The world has become prosperous.  Population has stabilized at 10 billion.  All is well in every way.  And now scientists are working on a cure for aging, a pill that will increase average life span from 75 to 150.  If people live longer, they will have to produce half as many children (to avoid a drain on resources). But this helps a bit: the pill will have a secondary effect of making fertility last to age 50.  And we are to assume that the super-elderly would retain the abilities and vigor of people in their 60s and 70s.

Should the anti-aging pill be pursued? There are a couple of crucial questions. (1) What's better, a 75/2 life or a 150/1 life?  (2) What of the fact that there are half as many people in 150/1?  Should halving the world's population concern us?
Singer and Blackford think the 150/1 life is better, so at first glance (they think) we should develop the drug.  As I said yesterday, I find this dubious.  The 150/1 life may include a lot of second-half dullness and less first-half joy and satisfaction--due to the reduction in child-bearing and the absence of siblings. To think the 150/1 life is better requires taking a "total view" of life assessment.  You add up happiness enjoyed on day 1, day 2, to the end.  More total happiness makes for a better life.  But that doesn't mesh with how we normally assess our lives.  We are not especially impressed with a dully pleasant super-long life, just because it yields a high total. Better to live a shorter life with higher highs--at least many of us think.

So I don't think the drug is attractive, even at first glance. But let's assume it is, just to see what the dispute between Singer and Blackford is all about.  Halving the population creates a problem, according to Singer. That's not because we should grieve for the missing people.  It's just because it affects the math.  Here's how it works--

The good in a 75/2 life is, say 100.  They assume that in the first half, the good in a 150/1 life is also 100, but in the second half it's just 90, because of age-related decline.  So--a total of 190.

With 10 billion people living 75/2 lives, there are 1 trillion units of good.  With 10 billion people living 150/1 lives, there would be close to 2 trillion units of good.  So--fantastic!  But of course you can't have that.  Once everyone is taking the life-extension drug, the population will go down to 5 billion.  There will be 5 billion times 190 units of good.  That's under 1 trillion, less than the total good in the 75/2 world.

Singer thinks we ought to take those totals into account when we decide what we should do.  So we should not pursue the life-extension drug.  Blackford thinks the total view here is incorrect (though the total view of life assessment is correct).  So there's the disagreement between them.

Why be against the total view here?  There are lots and lots of super-tricky issues involved that bear on all sorts of questions in applied ethics.  To be continued...


More Kids, Please

To continue...

The world has become prosperous.  Population has stabilized at 10 billion.  All is well in every way.  And now scientists are working on a cure for aging, a pill that will increase average life span from 75 to 150.  If people live longer, they will have to produce half as many children (to avoid a drain on resources). But this helps a bit: the pill will have a secondary effect of making fertility last to age 50.  And we are to assume that the super-elderly would retain the abilities and vigor of people in their 60s and 70s.

Should the anti-aging pill be pursued? There are a couple of crucial questions. (1) What's better, a 75/2 life or a 150/1 life?  (2) What of the fact that there are half as many people in 150/1?  Should halving the world's population concern us?

Blackford agrees with Singer that the 150/1 life is better, but disagrees with him about the significance of halving the world's population.  So (2) is where the action is.  Because they answer (2) differently, they come to different conclusions about the whole question. Singer: no anti-aging pill.  Blackford: let's do it.

But let's not rush to (2).  (1) is interesting...and puzzling.

Up to age 75, Blackford says a 75/2 life will be just as happy as a 150/1 life.  No argument, it's just supposed to be obvious.  But how so?   Can it make no difference to happiness whether we have one child or two?

Also there's this: the 150/1 people will have no siblings.  Will that make no difference to happiness? (Happiness isn't really all that counts, as I argue here, but let's pretend it is to keep things simple.)

After age 75, Blackford assumes there will be just a small reduction in average happiness for the 150/1s.  He draws support from positive psychology research that shows that people in their 70s and 80s tend to be quite happy.   But how much can that tell us about what it's like to be 135?

At any rate, both Blackford and Singer assume that average happiness for 150/1s is a little lower than for 75/2s, because of that late life decline.  Maybe it's just 9 for 150/1s and 10 for 75/2s. Yet they both assume 150/1 is the better life.  Do the math, they say:  150 x 9 = 1350.  75 x 10 = 750.

It seems as if they must be using the right formula, but not necessarily. Suppose you are offered a gift of 150 good books (9 points each) or 75 great books (10 points each).  If you multiply, the total value of the first collection seems greater than the total value of the second.  Yet, it might be rational to choose the 75 great books, if that's the only way you're going to get Tolstoy and Dickens.

Likewise, it's perfectly reasonable to want the shorter life, even if it yields less total happiness. Why?  Because just like you want Tolstoy and Dickens, you might want the high highs you'd have with a second child and with siblings. 

I think 75/2 may be the better life.  So I don't have to worry about the conundrum whether a world of 150/1s should be preferred, since it contains better lives but fewer of them. It doesn't necessarily contain better lives.  But "what-me not worry?" (to mangle Alfred E. Neuman).   So (perhaps) more on that later.


Director's Lament

Seeing The Animals Film nearly 20 years ago had a huge influence on me. That was when I stopped trying to think of ways to defend eating animals, and started thinking I might have to stop.  Here's the director lamenting the direction of today's animal protection movement, complete with comments on the topic of yesterday's post--PeTA's use of celebrity skin.

A Second Child or 75 More Years?

A New York Times article yesterday featured the new field of anti-age medicine.  Primarily the goal seems to be for patients to feel and look young in the final decades of life, rather than (necessarily) to add years to their lives, but there are those who think medicine ought to look for ways to add years.  For example, here's ethicist Julian Savulescu on the subject:
Anti-aging research is scandalously under-funded.  In the US, a vast proportion of the funding doled out by the National Institute of Aging is given to research on Alzheimer's disease. According to one estimate (from circa 2004), only about 0.02% of the money spent by the National Institutes of Health (of which the NIA is part) is spent on fundamental aging research. I think funding ought to be perhaps 1,000 times greater. Even if we only hastened progress to a cure for aging by one year, that is brought it forward by one year, that’s about 30 million lives saved. Every year we delay finding a cure, 30 million people die.
I frankly can't imagine anything more strange than trying to give more years to the elderly while millions of children are dying everyday, both here and around the world, from disease and poverty.  Giving more years to an 80 year old is not morally equivalent to giving more years to a 5 year old.

But, just for fun, let's think about this.  Fast forward a couple of hundred years to a time when children aren't dying.  All the more urgent problems have been solved.   There is prosperity everywhere.   One of the ways this has been achieved is that people have learned to limit reproduction.  So the world's population holds constant at 10 billion, year after year.

Researchers are on track to find a cure for aging that will double average lifespan.  The only hitch is that to hold resource use constant, people will have to trade children for years of life. So--the research can be stopped, so people continuing living on average 75 years and having 2 children.  Or it can continue, with the eventually result being that people live on average 150 years and have 1 child.

Just to remove possible distractions, pretend the anti-aging drug won't be available for another 100 years, so the researchers themselves won't be beneficiaries.  Nor do they have any duties to existing people to create or not create the drug.  Which future should they aim for,  "150/1" or business as usual--"75/2"?

I'm reading an article by Russell Blackford that discusses this choice (Journal of Medical Ethics 2009), which was explored in a 1991 article by Peter Singer.  To stay on the same page with them, let's also stipulate that in 150/1, fertility will continue a little later into life, so that people can have that one child at about age 50. Furthermore, in the second 75 years, people will retain the health, appearance, and vigor they had in their 60s and 70s. Otherwise, none of the basic facts of life are different in 150/1.

There are lots of things that bear on which scenario is better overall, but one is which life is better, a 150/1 life or a 75/2 life.  What do you think?  Imagine you're age 30 and you have one child. You're given the choice between having a second child and having your expected life span changed from 75 to 150.  Which would you choose?

More on what Singer and Blackford say later in the week...


PeTA Skin

Melissa kindly mentions my new book here, and notes I've never discussed how PeTA objectifies women.  She discusses the issue here.  So what about it?

I've tried to mind, but the truth is I don't...or not a lot.  But just to be clear: I also don't strongly object to other PeTA tactics that are ethically impure.  For example, I can't work up much sweat over the way PeTA harrasses fur-wearers or sends undercover investigators into factory farms under false pretenses.  That's not to say I am attracted to their celebrity skin campaigns or would get involved in their street theater (the Humane Society is more my style), but I don't object. (Where the undercover investigations are concerned I'll go much further--they're great.)

Should I object?  I got to thinking about this more after having lunch with Carol Adams in November. She's well known for several books that characterize animal abuse and sexism as linked oppressions, including The Sexual Politics of Meat and The Pornography of Meat.  After talking to her, I was a bit more sensitized to the issue.

In fact, soon afterward I accidentally ran into some PeTA porn. I had bought a sweater and realized it contained angora rabbit fur when I got home.  I decided to investigate how the rabbits are treated and then return the sweater if necessary.  When I googled some relevant terms, I wound up at a PeTA site that showed a young woman cuddling a soft, cute rabbit against her naked breast.  Plus there was information about rabbit fur farms. (I'd publish the photo, but I can't seem to find it again.)

My response was to feel misunderstood.  I wanted to know about rabbits, not about the bunny-breast dyad, if you see what I mean. It was as if PeTA had heard of guys interested in the bunny-breast dyad, but not middle aged  women (gulp) who worry about cruelty to rabbits.  Why were they privileging the guys' perspective?  It also seemed likely the breast in the picture would distract from the bunny.  You come to the site with one part of the brain lit up, and suddenly there's a power surge somewhere else. Ahem.

I raised these question about invisibility, objectification, and distraction with my Animal Rights class, which happened to be dominated by women last semester, and did my best to get a feminist reaction out of them.  To my surprise, only about a third of the class thought there was a problem with PeTA's use of skin in their campaigns, but two thirds didn't.  People did seem to agree at least about the distraction point. 

Is there really anything wrong with publicizing animal abuse by using women's (and less often men's) bodies?  And why does PeTA do this, to begin with? I take it that attracting skin-seekers to the PeTA website is just one of the goals.  Probably more important is the goal of making concern for animals seem glamorous and sexy.  It's not just men who want to be involved in things that are glamorous and sexy, but women too.  Men's magazines are full of skin, but so are women's magazines. (And so are good liberal websites like the Huffington Post.)

Is there a problem with women posing for pictures with rabbits pressed to their bare breasts?  If they were forced into it, there would obviously be a big problem.  If they choose to do so, that helps a great deal.  Still, we can worry about the choice.  I do have concerns about the impact it has on women to regard themselves as being valued more for their bodies than their brains.  Then again, is that really the message? Many of my female students said "pshaw" (or something like that) when I threw that out as a possibility. And let's admit, Ingrid Newkirk is the biggest PeTA celebrity there is.  And she isn't getting naked with rabbits.

The bottom line is that I like the results that PeTA achieves.  We live in a society where unspeakable things are done to millions of animals, day in and day out.  I see PeTA activists as being like a gang of tiny elves trying to influence a massive giant.  To get the giant's attention, they throw little rocks, say wild things, and take off their clothes.  And amazingly enough, it works!  The pay off is animals saved from abuse, suffering reduced, a more informed population.  Their ethical crimes are rather trivial, considering what they have been able to achieve.

But why commit any ethical crimes or misdemeanors?  Carol Adams asked me--"do the ends justify the means?"  Who would want to say that the ends always justify the means, that X is always justified, if X leads to a very good Y? Not me. However, I think it's true that an action can sometimes be inherently problematic, ethically speaking, and yet justifiable as a means to achieving a very great good.  There are tons of examples.

Kant's famous case of the inquiring murderer:  if a murderer comes to the door and asks if his wife is on the premises, do you lie?  Of course you do, even if that's inherently problematic.  It's worth the lie to save the woman's life.  It's worth telling a lie for much less serious reasons too.  In today's "Ethicist" column, Randy Cohen talks about someone who lost his insurance because he truthfully reported occasionally smoking pot on a health questionnaire. With hindsight we've got to say it would have been fine for him to lie.

The bigger the potential gain, the more that indiscretions can be justified. So I don't think PeTA should automatically be condemned if some of their tactics are ethically impure.  What I do wonder about is which of their tactics are effective.  How important are the sex ads? Could they be even more successful by adopting a tamer Humane Society style?  I don't know for sure, but I'm not prepared to wave my magic wand and make them change their ways. 

All that being said, I'm a consumer of animal abuse information--in fact, I'd call myself a pretty big buyer.  So PeTA should care about my reactions. When I want to learn about rabbit abuse I just want to learn about rabbit abuse. I prefer the way the Humane Society (for example) sticks to the subject at hand.  I personally don't want to be distracted or titillated.

As to the rabbit facts: I read (at a different website, though PeTA does have lots of information) that 90% of "angora rabbits" are housed in factory-farm style in China.  It all sounded pretty revolting, so I returned the sweater.



Animalkind looks to be at Barnes and Noble pretty widely.  And available through amazon, though there seems to be some hold up at amazon.uk.  The six pictures in the book are by Ruth Talman Kazez, an artist with an eye for animals.



The issue about conscientious participators brings up an interesting question that goes back to the post about "the tipping point."  Larry Carbone is a vegetarian veterinarian who works in an animal lab. If it makes sense to boycott the meat industry, why doesn't it make just as much sense to boycott animal research? Should he quit not only meat but his job?

Of course, this reasoning presupposes that animal research should all come to a halt. Carbone doesn't have that view, and in fact I don't have that view either (see chapter 8 of my new book). But leave that aside--suppose animal research really should come to an end, and imagine a vegetarian veterinarian who's come to believe this--and let's call her Terry. Should Terry quit her job?

Here's the way she may have thought about meat-eating. Given the way the meat industry works, one vegetarian doesn't do any good. The meat industry doesn't lower production until there's a big shift in demand. So abstainers only make a difference in combination with other abstainers. Still: there are enough abstainers for vegetarians to see themselves as effective.  So the question is this: shouldn't Terry qua lab vet go through the same reasoning? Shouldn't she quit her job, and figure that her abstention will combine with other abstentions to slow down the animal research industry?

The reason I don't think so is because  the research will simply go on without her. Veterinarians don't keep animal research in business in the way that meat-eaters keep the meat industry in business. With fewer meat-eaters, there fairly soon has to be a smaller meat industry. But with fewer veterinarians, animals will just receive worse care.  The AWA mandates their involvement in animal research, but there's plenty of latitude--they can be heavily involved or relatively absent. You'd have to have a massively successful boycott to close down labs or reduce their size.

But wait.  If Terry figured her meat-boycott could be effective, even though she didn't know exactly how many other boycotters there were, why shouldn't she be equally sanguine here? Well, it's different. In the meat case, she doesn't know if there will be enough other boycotters for her boycott to make a difference. In the second case, she actually knows there will not be enough to make a difference. She knows that even if she quits her job, the animals will continue being experimented on. Her reason to not eat meat just can't be retrofitted and turned into a reason to quit her job.

So: she shouldn't eat meat. But it's not true that she should quit her job. In fact, we may even have to say something stronger. If she's an exceptionally good vet and she thinks nobody would take her place right away, or nobody as skilled, then she should stay. While not eating meat is at the very worst ineffective, and can't be bad for animals, quitting her job could be bad for the animals in her care.

Now some people will say the reason to avoid meat and avoid animal research is not related to impact to begin with, but to our own character. You taint yourself by being involved in bad business. So Terry really should quit, to avoid that taint. But how can that make any sense?  If Terry is doing something good, and nothing bad, by keeping her job, then there's no taint to be avoided.  We shouldn't have the primitive notion that if we stand close to bad things, then they defile us. It has to be psychologically difficult to be a conscientious participator in something you regard as wrong, but you hardly wind up defiled if you're doing the right thing for the victims of the practise.

A fringe benefit of Terry's remaining on the job is that she stays in a position to tell the world what's going on in the lab.  She can be a relatively non-judgmental "explainer" like Larry Carbone.  Or, if she thinks she has evidence that can close the lab down and make a real difference, she can become a whistleblower.  She can smuggle videos out to PETA, if it comes to that. (And hurray for people who do, when necessary.)  She doesn't have the same reason to immediately quit her job that she has to be a vegetarian.


Haiti Relief

I decided to donate to Partners in Health, an incredible organization, but there are lots of ways to contribute to earthquake relief in Haiti.  A list is here--

American Red Cross International Response Fund
AmeriCares Help For Haiti
Direct Relief International
Doctors without Borders
Haiti Emergency Relief Fund
Mercy Corps
Yele Haiti

Pass it on!

Conscientious Participators

If you object to a practice, should you stand on the outside and protest, or get in the middle of it and make sure it's at least done better? Surely it depends what the chances are of making a difference by protesting, and what good you could do on the inside.

I used to have an immediately negative reaction to the whole concept of a lab veterinarian. I suspect that much of what goes on in animal labs shouldn't be going on at all. So lab veterinarians always struck me as partners in crime. What were they doing in there, instead of taking care of animals who are valued for their own sake--like cats and dogs?

I completely changed my mind as a result of reading Larry Carbone's very informative and moving book What Animals Want: Expertise and Advocacy in Laboratory Animal Welfare Policy. This is a must read for anyone who wants to understand what goes on in US animal labs and what the Animal Welfare Act does (and doesn't do) for animals.

We find out in the first paragraph that Larry Carbone doesn't eat meat, a tidbit I found reassuring. It conveys (in less than 10 words) that he takes it seriously that we have obligations to animals. He never takes a stand for or against animal research (at one point he says we might not have a right to do it, but we "need" to). His position is rather that animal research is going to be done for the foreseeable future; so animals in labs need good caretakers and advocates; and who is better poised to be a good caretaker and advocate than a lab veterinarian?

It's very hard get "behind the scenes" in an animal lab.  If you let PETA be your escort, you will see one thing. If you let Americans for Medical Progress be your guide, you'll see another.  (Watch this PETA video and then this pro-research video, and feel your head spin.)  Carbone reveals that the truth is not the white wash we get from defenders of animal research. All is not completely well, and the Animal Welfare Act does not give animals all the protection they need. But the images of torture we get from animal rights organizations aren't representative either.

This is a book that will tell you how Animal Care Committees (IACUCs) really work--and whether they are anything at all like Human Subject Review Boards (the answer is no).  What about the 80,000,000 rats and mice a year that aren't covered by the Animal Welfare Act (amazingly enough)? Are they being treated much worse than covered species (like hamsters and guinea pigs)?  What happens when a lab flunks an inspection--for example, if the dog cages are too small? How much pain is inflicted on lab animals? How are they "sacrificed" when an experiment is through?  This is a book that answers many of the questions that will occur to you if you spend some time reading and thinking about animal research.

But what about conscientious participation?  Right or wrong?  I would say:  right.  Animal research will be done whether Carbone participates or not.  It would be unconscionable for all concerned people to look to the very, very far future, concentrating their efforts on bringing animal research to an end. Today's animals have to have their caretakers and advocates. It's interesting to learn, as well, that insiders have some power to reduce the number of animals used. Part of a lab vet's job is to serve on the animal care committees that must approve research proposals before they are sent to funding agencies.  Though these committees almost invariably approve of research (so they are by no means "ethics commitees"--see chapter 8), they can recommend using fewer animals.  They also have the power to shape the proposal in order to reduce pain and suffering.  It's all to the good for there to be caring veterinarians serving on these committees.

It's also true that lab veterinarians are poised to be whistleblowers, should it be impossible to solve problems on the inside.  Yet I imagine it must be a terribly difficult decision when to resort to that solution. Once a whistleblower, never again a lab vet--or so I would assume. The whistleblower becomes a protester on the outside, instead of a conscientious participator.

No doubt there also need to be protestors like that.  Peter Singer talks about some of them in the very thorough and disturbing chapter on research in Animal Liberation--another "must read" for someone trying to get a full picture of animal research.

I should say--as long as I'm commenting on books--an animal research bookshelf should also include The Animal Research War (Michael Conn and James Parker).  The chapters on what it's like to be targeted by animal rights protestors are very worth reading. As for the rest, the authors are admirably restrained about the word "terrorism," but I do think they white wash animal research.  They try to reassure the public that lab animals are adequately protected under US law. I think anyone who reads Singer and Carbone will find that extremely doubtful.

Suomi, 40 Years Later

One of the most memorable passages in Animal Liberation is about the animal research done by Harry Harlow and Stephen Suomi in the 1950s.  The two used rhesus monkeys to investigate maternal attachment, maternal deprivation, and depression. Of course, their real concern was about these phenomena in human beings, but they were using animals as a "model."  Reason: you could do things to animals in a controlled lab setting that would be completely horrendous if done to human beings.

For one, Harlow and Suomi tried to induce depression in baby monkeys by letting them become attached to a mother apparatus that could become aggressive.  This is a paragraph from a Harlow-Suomi joint paper written in 1970 (quoted in Singer, pg. 33)--

The first of these monsters was a cloth monkey mother who, upon schedule or demand, would eject high-pressure compressed air. It would blow the animal’s skin practically off its body. What did the baby monkey do? It simply clung tighter and tighter to the mother, because a frightened infant clings to its mother at all costs. We did not achieve any psychopathology.

However, we did not give up. We built another surrogate monster mother that would rock so violently that the baby’s head and teeth would rattle. All the baby did was cling tighter and tighter to the surrogate. The third monster we built had an embedded wire frame within its body which would spring forward and eject the infant from its ventral service. The infant would subsequently pick itself off the floor, wait for the frame to return into the cloth body, and then cling again to the surrogate. Finally, we built our porcupine mother. On command, this mother would eject sharp brass spikes over all over the ventral surface of its body. Although the infants were distressed by these pointed rebuffs, they simply waited until the spikes receded and then returned and clung to the mother.
What Harlow and Suomi learned is that baby monkeys remain attached to very bad mothers. And then they inferred the same about human babies. 

By 1972, they'd come up with another way to induce and study depression. They had started placing baby monkeys in vertical stainless steel wells for up to 45 days.  They learned that this produces "persistent psychopathology."  So probably in people too. 

Harry Harlow died several years ago, but Stephen Suomi is alive and well.  Is he an outcast now, living out his days in some retirement home for sadistic psychologists?  In the back of my mind, I suppose I thought that must be true.   This research is shameful because it was hideously cruel and didn't teach us things we couldn't have found out in less harmful ways.  Surely the scientific community banishes people who fall so far short of ethical standards.

Well...I was completely right, if you call it banishment when someone is set up in an NIH laboratory for life.  I must say, I was surprised to find Suomi featured in a December article in Atlantic.   It turns out that life after collaborating with Harry Harlow has not been so bad:
Of all the evidence supporting the orchid-gene hypothesis[the subject of the article], perhaps the most compelling comes from the work of Stephen Suomi, a rhesus-monkey researcher who heads a sprawling complex of labs and monkey habitats in the Maryland countryside—the National Institutes of Health’s Laboratory of Comparative Ethology. For 41 years, first at the University of Wisconsin and then, beginning in 1983, in the Maryland lab the NIH built specifically for him, Suomi has been studying the roots of temperament and behavior in rhesus monkeys—which share about 95 percent of our DNA, a number exceeded only in apes.
You can read the article and consider whether this is research that really serves a vital purpose.  But I have to say that it saddens me to see Suomi's earlier efforts so richly rewarded.


A short interview with Suomi (with a clip about the 50s research) is here--


Ethics Blogs

You might be interested in this list.  Lots of ethics blogs...and not just for business students. 


Progress Report

My New Year's Plan (call it a resolution and it's bound to fail) was to eat more vegan meals.  So here's my progress report.

On New Year's Day, the plan was implemented with a vegan dinner much enjoyed by all.  We had carrot-ginger soup, black eyed peas with greens, lemon, and garlic, homemade tortillas, and a tomato basil salad.  A+.

On the following Sunday, we decided to get ambitious. It was going to be Vegan Sundays from now on.  The problem is, we immediately hit a snag.  Our homemade cappuccinos were undrinkable whether made with soy milk or rice milk--both of which we had on standby.  Not being masochists, we reverted to the usual recipe. 

Our usual banana pancakes were really pretty good made with soy milk and no eggs, though (let's be honest), not quite as good as usual. Still--entirely edible, B+. That night's vegan dinner was a great success.  We had a red bean chile type of thing, with southwestern corn pudding from Veganomicon (really good), a salad with avocados, and chips and salsa. A+.  Enthusiasm for project building.

This past Sunday we decided to aim a little lower (because of the cappuccino fiasco) and just plan a vegan dinner.  I've always loved a good "mole" (chocolate-based Mexican savory sauce) so whipped up a batch from Veganomicon. This took me about an hour and approximately 500 ingredients.  I added it to sauteed tofu and yams, which were served with rice and beet greens.

I won't say it was horrible, but I did feel like somehow we'd wound up in a penal colony.  There just wasn't the slightest reason why you'd eat another fork full. All the rest of the mole (there were vast quantities) thrown down the drain.  Much soul searching ensues.

I think there's a bit of a tendency in vegan restaurants and cookbooks to equate "vegan" with "weird."  So you get very strange concoctions (not to mention huge amounts of tattooing and body piercing). Plus, for people who say they don't miss meat, vegans make way too much effort to recreate it. Then there's the mind-set that says "screw tradition," which leads to ... much screwing of tradition.  After throwing out the mole, I looked at a great Mexican cookbook by Rick Bayless. Well, it turns out traditional mole sauce is vegan. Next time I'll go with that.

Never mind, we're having fun and learning things.  Slightly off topic, but one thing I learned this week is that according to The Simpsons, one must never use the phrase "penal colony." My kids think it's hilarious.

p.s.  I stole the photo from here--a blog with unbelievably gorgeous pictures of vegan food.

The Tipping Point

Richard Chappell offers this solution to the "causal impotence" problem (see also Alastair Norcross here):
A common justification for buying meat is that one's individual consumer choices won't make any difference: the supermarket buys steaks by the crate, and so isn't sensitive to such tiny changes in demand. It'd take (say) a hundred boycotters to make a difference. But there's a subtle fallacy here. It might typically take 100 boycotters to ensure that one less crate of 100 steaks is bought. But one of those hundred individual choices must have made the difference between the store choosing to buy X crates or X-1. We just don't know which one -- where the tipping point lies -- whether we just need to decrease demand by 1 more steak, or 36, or 99, before the store will respond. So, in the absence of any further information, any individual consumer should see their personal steak boycott as having a 1/100 chance of reducing the store's purchasing by 100 steaks. (And so on up the supply chain.) That's an expected impact of (ta-da) one steak. The "chunkiness" of the market's sensitivity thus makes no difference. Your lessened chance of making an individual impact is exactly counterbalanced by the higher steaks payoff if you happen to succeed in influencing an entire 'chunk' of demand.

The point generalizes to many other 'chunky' impacts, e.g. life-saving charities, or situations where each of many individuals has an equal chance of making the decisive difference for all of them. For a slightly different case, Derek Parfit made a similar argument in defense of voting: even if your individual vote only has a 1 in a million chance of making the difference between electing Inferior and Superior, it's worth it if the election of Superior would raise average welfare by more than what it cost you to vote. (The structure of this situation is different from the sort of consumer 'chunking' discussed previously, but hopefully the similarity I'm highlighting is clear enough.)

P.S. Technically, the consumer impacts aren't quite so straightforward as all this. For example, reducing demand might lower prices, causing some others on the margin to buy slightly more meat than they otherwise would have. But this presumably won't completely counteract the good done by one's own abstinence -- so we're not in "moral dupe" territory yet. Anyway, my point here is just that chunking doesn't undermine the expected efficacy of our individual decisions. Other things might, but evaluating other objections is a job for another day.
I hope nobody can find an objection because I make much the same argument in my book.


Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

Apparently the Swedish are.
We don't like newcomers much in our village. Truth be told, we're relative newcomers ourselves. But that no longer seems important now a new family has moved in. Unkempt, smelly and downright antisocial, everybody seems to want them gone – everybody, that is, except a nice tree-hugging friend, who thinks they are romantic. The newcomers are wolves, you see.

The wolves I grew up with were romantic in a literal sense: they existed only in fairy tales and the odd song by Duran Duran. But since I've been coming to rural Sweden, wolves have been encroaching on reality. Three of them, it turns out, seem to have made their den a stone's through away from the churchyard.
Would it be out of place to ask who's doing the encroaching? Mr. Dammann is a London lecturer. What's he doing in rural Sweden, mixing it up with the local wolves?
Swedes hate uncertainty but love to hunt. For both these reasons the native wolf population died out completely in the late 1960s. But in 1974 the government placed wolves under strict protection. Killing them without direct and almost impossible to procure evidence of an immediate threat to the life of human and other domesticated animals became punishable by prison sentences not incomparable to those for manslaughter. It was an excellent piece of legislation, for the wolves. By the end of last year there were thought to be over 240 wolves in Sweden, most of them to be found in the vast swathes of woodland sweeping through the middle of the country.
What's with the numbers here?  Can it really be true that 240 wolves are a major problem, if they're found "in the vast swathes of woodland sweeping through the middle of the country?" 
Last year the environment ministry decided to organise the first cull in nearly half a century. A total of 27 wolves were to be shot between 2 January and 15 February ...
Let's see.  240 minus 27 is 213.  So 240 are a terrifying threat to life and limb, but 213 will leave everyone sleeping soundly at night.  Just one question.  What would Little Red Riding Hood say?  Would she think 27 less makes a difference?
... and some 12,000 permits were issued to hunters wishing to participate.
What, are they going to be setting up firing squads?  Militias? 
Usually slow to the point of hazy sublimity, for a brief two days the pace of Swedish country life quickened inordinately. In many places the quota was reached in a few hours. Nationally, 28 wolves were recorded shot by 5 January, the extra being attributed to a communications error (cough cough). The hunters could keep the skins, the bodies were to be gathered and transported to Stockholm for postmortem.
Phew.  And then it was presumably time for lingonberry pancakes, though not with a side of wolf.
The rural enthusiasm for the hunt is easy to understand.
While it is no longer the case that the majority of Swedes living in the countryside are farmers, it is only a matter of a generation or two at most. And for farmers, or indeed anyone else with domestic animals or small children, wolves are a natural enemy. With recorded wolf killings of sheep and dogs having risen sharply in recent years, frustration at what many see as exaggerated levels of protection has waxed similarly. Furthermore, given that the present generation of wolves has never known man as a predator, contemporary Swedish wolves are attracted to rather than repelled by signs of human habitation.
And now that the 27 wolves are gone from the wide swathes, no doubt the little kids are romping in the forests again.  That solved it!
Not wanting to risk accusations of anthropocentrism (God forbid), the government presented the cull in purely lycocentric terms: restricting the national wolf population to a manageable total of around 210 would limit the frustration of the biped neighbours, thus ensuring the animals' safety. Furthermore, given that the current population is descended from what is thought to be a mere three individuals brought over from Finland, the gene pool is not what it might be.

Heart and kidney disease is increasingly common and a cull would increase the effectiveness of the government's plans to introduce 20 new wolves over the next four years.
What?  Kill 27 and introduce 20?  So the wolves of Sweden are a menace to childen and pets, but all's well if we can get the number down from 240 to 233?
It's a nice argument, but the socialist press are not buying it, suggesting the government is simply pandering to the rising bloodlust of the hunting and farming community (the Center party , traditionally popular with farmers, is currently a key part of the governing centre-right coalition). Their own bloodlust rising in turn, calls are being made for the head of the environment minister and Center party MP Anders Carlgren.

So who is right? In ways reminiscent of Britain's fox-hunting debates, opinion is divided sharply along urban and rural lines, but shouldn't we be able to appeal to a higher moral code when it comes to such cases?
"We must, must, must protect ourselves from those wolves, because they are too many by 7!  Believe me, it's a matter of self defense.  Please believe me.  Please? "
According to the Rev Andrew Linzey, whose book, Why Animal Suffering Matters, was published last summer, it is absolutely wrong to inflict suffering on an animal unless it is for its own good. This precept is a simple extension of that trusty cornerstone of all moral thought, do as you would be done by. That is to say, when considering the implications of our actions for others in the light of how we ourselves would desire to be treated, we should include animals among these others.

In this sense, the question of the conflicting perspective of rural v urban dwellers is irrelevant. The imperative to preserve the wolf species is, after all, bound up with the more general recognition that certain predators or vermin once understood as being in simple competition with us are in fact partners within a more complex ecology. The cull therefore offends a universal moral precept and the immediate perspective of the human agents is irrelevant.

But perspective is the lifeblood of moral awareness. The grounding principle to which Linzey refers derives from an effort to balance perspectives, not to do away with them altogether: incorporate into your own point of view what you understand to be the point of view of others with whom you identify. The moral sphere exists in the lived and felt relation between sentient, self-conscious beings, and in that sense it is local before global, particular before universal.
"Perspective is the lifeblood of moral awareness."  Very nice. Let's balance perspectives.   Can we also say "Honesty is the lifeblood of moral awareness"?  Come on, nobody can really think that reducing the total population of wolves by 7 is going to significantly protect rural dwellers from wolf attack.
So while we may be right to identify with wolves in the abstract, identifying with them in the flesh is a rather different matter. The people in our village are currently more intrigued and alarmed than frightened by their new neighbour. But without culls of this nature, the fear of wolves preserved in fairy tales will once again become quite real.
Reducing the number of wolves in all of Sweden from 240 to 213, just to raise the number back up to 233? That's what's quelling the fear of the Big Bad Wolf?  "Honesty is the lifeblood of moral awareness." I like it!
There's a rumour that our new neighbours is now a family of two. I, for one, am glad.
I for one think "is" should be "are."  For two, I wonder how much the Swedish government earned selling the 12,000 wolf hunting licenses, and what they did with the money.