2006/03/26

Tofu eating revealed to be immoral

The front page article in The New York Times Magazine this week is a long and self-indulgent intellectualization of the killing and eating of animals, "The Modern Hunter-Gatherer". If you cut away all the fat, it comes down to this:
there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian, the blamelessness of the tofu eater. Yet part of me pities him too. Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris. Ortega suggests that there is an immorality in failing to look clearly at reality, or in believing the force of human will can somehow overcome it.
I have some sympathy for the moral imperative to be honest about reality. Yet I'm at an utter loss as to how a desire to change the systematic brutality of that reality can thereby be dismissed with the wave of a hand. Or as to how the author, after extensive and dramatically rehearsed expressions of disgust and shame at his killing of a wild pig, can resolve all this in a few lines of confused pseudo-philosophy.

9 comments:

Chris said...

And if he's upset about hunting and killing a wild pig, he should feel really bad about eating factory "farmed" meat, a process which, for innumerable reasons, should be considered much worse than hunting in every way.

I recently learned that large scale slaughtering and meat packing was the genesis of the first assembly lines. Kind of gives you a new perspective on the historical precedents for Henry Ford's innovations.

ariel said...

he doesn't eat factory farmed meat. this guy has written a lot about agribusiness and slaughterhouses. i remember him from this essay he wrote for the times back in the day (nov. 10, 2002 "an animal's place"). i don't agree with his reaction to singer (though i certainly have my own reservations when it comes to utilitarian moral philosophy) and you will certainly not agree with his conclusions. however, he explains what he means by "denying reality"- that a "vegetarian utopia" as he calls it would lead to an even more industrialized agricultural system (and an increased dependence on fossil fuels, etc.). i am certainly not defending this dude, his pseudo-philosophy, or his pseudo-science (esp. his ridiculous "but humans have always eaten meat" argument)- but just a heads up that he has given more consideration to issues of animal liberation than his overly pat comments on vegetarianism would suggest.

jenny said...

"vegetarian utopia" will not increase the need for large scale agriculture. livestock production takes up 50% percent of fresh water usage and 70% of grain usage in the US. not to mention the additional land required for grazing pastures on the non-factory farms. "meat" animals don't just exist in a vacuum, they actually have to eat and drink and shit and fart. the farther down the food chain we are, the more inefficient is our use of agriculture. it's a waste. if this is the author's only reason why vegetarians could be myopic, he's clearly wrong.

ariel said...

once again, i'm not defending this guy- his argument that vegetarianism is unsustainable takes the status quo agricultural model as a fait accompli and seems counter-intuitive to me- but if you're interested, this is what he says after a long discussion of singerian ethics and several horrific descriptions of "confined animal feeding operations" (which, as noted before, he wholly condemns):

...We may require a different set of ethics to guide our dealings with the natural world, one as well suited to the particular needs of plants and animals and habitats (where sentience counts for little) as rights suit us humans today.

To contemplate such questions from the vantage of a farm is to appreciate just how parochial and urban an ideology animals rights really is. It could thrive only in a world where people have lost contact with the natural world, where animals no longer pose a threat to us and human mastery of nature seems absolute. ''In our normal life,'' Singer writes, ''there is no serious clash of interests between human and nonhuman animals.'' Such a statement assumes a decidedly urbanized ''normal life,'' one that certainly no farmer would recognize.

The farmer would point out that even vegans have a ''serious clash of interests'' with other animals. The grain that the vegan eats is harvested with a combine that shreds field mice, while the farmer's tractor crushes woodchucks in their burrows, and his pesticides drop songbirds from the sky. Steve Davis, an animal scientist at Oregon State University, has estimated that if America were to adopt a strictly vegetarian diet, the total number of animals killed every year would actually increase, as animal pasture gave way to row crops. Davis contends that if our goal is to kill as few animals as possible, then people should eat the largest possible animal that can live on the least intensively cultivated land: grass-fed beef for everybody. It would appear that killing animals is unavoidable no matter what we choose to eat.

When I talked to Joel Salatin about the vegetarian utopia, he pointed out that it would also condemn him and his neighbors to importing their food from distant places, since the Shenandoah Valley receives too little rainfall to grow many row crops. Much the same would hold true where I live, in New England. We get plenty of rain, but the hilliness of the land has dictated an agriculture based on animals since the time of the Pilgrims. The world is full of places where the best, if not the only, way to obtain food from the land is by grazing animals on it -- especially ruminants, which alone can transform grass into protein and whose presence can actually improve the health of the land.

The vegetarian utopia would make us even more dependent than we already are on an industrialized national food chain. That food chain would in turn be even more dependent than it already is on fossil fuels and chemical fertilizer, since food would need to travel farther and manure would be in short supply. Indeed, it is doubtful that you can build a more sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients and support local food production. If our concern is for the health of nature -- rather than, say, the internal consistency of our moral code or the condition of our souls -- then eating animals may sometimes be the most ethical thing to do.

jenny said...

ariel, the exerpt you posted is more complex than i expected it to be (i couldn't read the article because i didn't want to pay money). i know you're not defending pollan, although now that you posted what he said i have to respond. pollan had some good points about the urban/rural mindset, but i severely discounted what he had to say when he started refering to that guy from oregon state, steve davis. Davis wrote the awful article about rodents getting ground up by tractors making vegetarianism invalid. i remember reading about him a few years ago. that guy is the intellectual champion of the meat eating world.

the problem with their arguments is their LACK of accepting reality. you're right that their "vegetarian utopia" assumes the status quo agricultural model...while their "omnivorous utopia," the one that takes environmental rights into account and leaves vegetarian morals obsolete, is referring to a sustainable agriculture model not practiced today. i would call that a double standard.

if you put both "utopias" together, then i believe there may be a reason for argument. but what's the use of debating the merits of two utopias? why assume the laws of nature still apply if you're talking about utopia?

if you put both realities together, eating meat causes heavier use of intensive agriculture and is clearly worse for the environment.

i believe that there are models of sustainable agriculture that don't require eating meat or enslaving animals. a time where everyone in the world is vegetarian is so impossibly far into the future that the earth as we know it may not even exist. the agricultural models may not apply.

on a side note, i didn't realize this is the same guy who wrote botany of desire. that's weird.

ariel said...

jenny- if you are interested in reading the article, you can avoid the evil archive fee
here
.

yeah, when i saw that the guy works in "animal science" i just assumed he had a vested interest in the continuation of animal farming.

Chris said...

thanks for all the information ariel. i'm glad to see that we are all working in standardized non-capitalized internet english here.

i'm tempted to agree that it would be very difficult to eliminate animal death from a large, organized agricultural system. but i think that what may be a larger issue for some is the viability of a moral imperative against killing animals.

i'm coming around to the point of view that this isn't viable... the definition of animal could be part of the problem; if you accept a scientific definition of animal (including insects) then there is no way to eliminate millions (billions?) of deaths from any kind of agriculture system.

if you exclude insects from a definition of animal, you (might) come close to admiting that your definition of animals is closely linked to proximity to humans. i think this may be inevitable, i'm less optimistic about animal liberation being really post-humanist than i used to be. i think that our current ideas around vegetarianism have deeply humanist groundings.

which isn't necessarily bad, but i'm aiming for clarity. anyway, sorry about the rambling-ness here, my mind is still very open on these ideas so criticize away.

jenny said...

i tried to do some research on jainism to disprove your theory that agriculture requires the killing of insects. that was silly. the best i could find is that "Farming, which injures insects, is permitted because the harm is unintentional." but jains typically avoid being farmers, so their moral stature is preserved! and there are particular plants (like broccoli) that are known to attract insect nests more than others, and are forbidden to be eaten by jains.

most awesome quote: "It is considered noble to allow oneself to be bitten by a snake rather than kill it."

about humanism, i agree that most vegetarians/vegans are humanist...that's why it's okay to eat plants, right? you may be pushing forward with fruitarians, but those people are normally considered crazy. organic farming and the non-gmo movement is probably less humanist, since it's encompassing wider environmental goals. eh?

i disagree that animal lib is not post-humanist. vegetarianism and animal lib are not the same things. animal libbers are much more rare.

Chris said...

i don't know. i'm gonna hold firm with my assertation that animal liberation remains in large part (if not in whole) a humanist outlook. despite it's intentions. (same goes for environmentalists/organic people/whatever)

or maybe not, i'm probably allowing a definition of humanism that is too broad. suffice to say that humans (in my opinion) will always be primarily concerned with human society, and will value other living things, at least to a great extent, based on how closely they resemble humans. if we spent all our time worrying about insects, we probably couldn't have a society at all.

if you knew that a cross-country road trip in your car would kill (and i'll be generous here) ten cows, i bet you wouldn't take it. but it's much easier to push the insect deaths (always plenty of evidence on your windshield and grill) from your mind. i think that there is a point where morality can't avoid becoming inconsistent, and i don't think that that point should be ignored.

Jains sound great, but they eat food that is farmed, right? i'm very curious about their relationship to the societies they live in... what is the relation of their moral-ness to the relative lack of moral-ness of the people they live among? do they want everyone to become like they are (clearly impossible because you need a lot of farmers) or are they kinda holding down the rest of us who can't spend all our time avoiding killing insects? obviously i don't know anything about Jains, but if anyone wants to tell me more, i'd be interested to hear.

anyway, i don't want to sound too combative or give the impression that my commitments have really changed. i don't feel like they have, these are just the issues i'm grappling with right now.

also, i was telling jake and ariel and kristina that part of the reason that vegetarianism is a good thing to promote is that it would make for a better society to live in, apart from the obvious benefit that fewer animals get killed and the environment isn't destroyed as much. it would actually make people have better values, or at least better to my taste. what do you think of this argument? i'm probably exaggerating a little bit, and the effects of vegetarianism on non-human animals seem much more important than these side effects, but do think that this would be true? would people be better, or just more like me (in that they don't eat meat)?