Monday, March 05, 2007

Foie Gras and Animal Suffering

The Metro Section of the New York Times on Sunday featured an article about the Upper West Side Fairway Market and Farm Sanctuary. The paper reported that Fairway had, until recently, had signs in their stores making jokes about the "supposedly" cruel methods by which pate de foie gras (diseased liver paste made by forcefeeding ducks and geese through a tube until their livers are several times normal size and then killing them) is made. The import of the signs was that despite all of the "pressure" not to sell this product, Fairway would continue to carry it. Farm Sanctuary, an animal rights group that protests the cruelty of animal farming (particularly factory farming, through which most meat in this country is produced) has been doing publicity in New York lately on -- among other things -- the cruelty of pate de foie gras production, so Fairway has taken down the signs, though it continues to sell the product. The Times article quotes a senior manager who calls the Farm Sanctuary Folks "weirdos." The article closes with the following line: "Nearby [the expensive foie gras containers, focus of the controversy], a plastic tub of chicken livers, $1.59 a pound, kept a relatively low profile."

The article is clearly meant as comic relief. The message is that New York is filled with all kinds of quirky folks, including the protesters and the foodies, and that is what makes it so interesting and lively. The writer even makes a potentially useful point about inconsistency -- while everyone is focused on one product of animal cruelty, another receives barely any notice. I say "potentially" useful because in fact, the writer gives no evidence of taking seriously the argument that it is wrong to pay people to torture animals for one's own gustatory pleasure (which is what one does as a consumer of nearly all animal products). By pointing out the chicken livers, the writer thus implies that because animal cruelty is ubiquitous at the store, the animal rights activists might as well just shut up and eat like everyone else. One could, of course, make a very different argument -- chicken livers are wrong too, so our moral discomfort with eating (and thereby financing the production of) foie gras should perhaps awaken in us a more general discomfort with consuming animal products.

When I first began telling people that I was a vegetarian, they would often ask whether I wore leather. It happens that I no longer wear leather, although moving away from relying on dead animals has been a relatively long process for me, so I did wear leather for a while even after I stopped eating meat. The question, however, -- like the writer's suggestion in the Times article -- seemed aimed at suggesting that I might be a hypocrite and that my interlocutor therefore need not give her carnivorous lifestyle a second thought. In that sense, the question resembled "so what do you eat, then -- salad?" or "did you know that Hitler was a vegetarian?" (incidentally, he wasn't) -- ways of dismissing the notion that eating animals is wrong by suggesting that a cruelty-free diet is either empty and thoroughly impractical or that the most famous proponent of cruelty-free eating was a genocidal maniac. Interestingly, such comments are usually not responses to my condemning or even questioning their food choices. I virtually never ask anyone to explain why he or she eats (or wears) animals. The comments instead follow the simple statement that I am a vegan (which I generally say only because I am at a restaurant and need to inquire with the waiter before I order off the menu).

Though some people truly believe that animal suffering does not matter at all, most of us feel empathy toward animals and do not want them to suffer. Nonetheless, as a society, we consume more animals (mammals, birds, fish, etc.) than we ever have before, notwithstanding the mounting evidence that animals feel pain, fear, and grief, just as we do. Learning, for example, of a cow taken away to slaughter, while a neighboring cow bellowed for days, looking vainly in the missing friend's direction disturbed me enough years ago to make me give up "red meat" (mammals). Those who market animals to us try to make it easy to consume the products, by hiding the suffering (and even depicting life on the farm as happy). But it should not be easy. As Isaac Bashevis Singer says through a character in his story, "The Letter Writer": "They [humankind] have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka."


egarber said...

I’m not a vegan, though I only eat fish (as a “meat”). Partly because of taste aversion, but more so because of the general treatment concerns you bring up, I don’t eat any other kind of meat.

In a lot of ways, as it always seems, the hardest question relates to how much this personal view should permeate my parenting. Do I tell my child he’s not allowed to eat school lunches, amid the reality that “fitting in” is important for the self-esteem of a 7-year old? Do I police his behavior at birthday parties to make sure he doesn’t eat hot dogs? And since my wife isn’t as particular as me on this matter, throw in another complicating factor.

As if ethic / moral / political questions weren’t hard enough on their own…:)

Derek said...

I've been a vegetarian (of roughly egarber's stripe) for about 10 years and exclusively for the moral reasons discussed in this post. So, ideally, I should be a vegan (putting empirical questions about fish and pain aside). Anyway, I've always found the "I notice you're wearing leather shoes" remark particularly annoying. I don't proselytize, either, so the remark usually comes after someone questions me about my reasons for not eating meat at restaurants or when discussing what food to order for a party or event.

It's a puzzling phenomenon. Suppose I say, "I don't smoke because I think it's bad for one's health." And someone responds "and yet you eat all those cupcakes!" The fact that I eat so many cupcakes shows, I guess, that I don't compeletly live up to my ideal of healthy living, but does it mean that smoking is in fact *not* bad for one's health? Or that, seeing as I eat cupcakes, it's thereby irrational for me not to go ahead and smoke? Or that my eating cupcakes somehow absolves others from having to justify their smoking?

Maybe I have too much faith in people's rationality, but no one could possibly think these things, could they? The only way the "shoes" comment makes sense in such a context is as a response to a self-righteous charge of immorality. If I said, "I'm so morally pure because I don't eat meat and you are a moral disgrace because of your eating habits," *then* I think the shoes comment might make sense.

So, all this to ask, why do people perceive the principled eating habits of vegetarians and vegans as a personal attack of the above sort? Is it because a) groups like PETA have fostered this impression, b) people are overly defensive because, deep down, they realize eating meat doesn't comport with their own moral standards, or c) something else?

Egarber: the question about kids is really difficult. I'm not married (no kids either) so as a disclaimer I really don't know what I'm talking about, but I've talked about this a bit with my girlfriend (stricter vegetarian than me) and our tentative view is that people shouldn't feed their kids factory farmed meat or give them money to buy it (when you know that's the only option), but that policing is a mistake. Ultimately you have to give them the reasons why you don't eat it or buy it and then let them make their own decision. Doing otherwise is bound to backfire. But, like I said, I really don't know what I'm talking about!

egarber said...

Good comments Derek.

Right now, we spend much of our time fighting the sugar invasion. From a health standpoint at least (I realize that's a different issue), that's the biggest dietary threat to kids today, imo.

Sherry F. Colb said...

Very interesting comments from Egarber and derek. On Egarber's point: I would not hold myself out as a parental role model of any sort, but I do confront the issue of how to negotiate the whole vegan thing for kids. Our compromise is that they eat vegan at home, at lunch at school, and at friends' houses, but only have to be vegetarian at friends' birthday parties (just so that they don't hate us). We try to keep the food as fun and yummy as possible so they realize that vegan is delicious, in addition to being cruelty-free. On derek's point: I love the analogy to not smoking. It also opens a window, I think, on why people feel motivated to find hypocrisy on the part of the vegan (or vegetarian or whatever). A relative of mine used to love to hear about knee injuries that runners would get (because he -- the relative -- never exercised). He resented them for pursuing a lifestyle that he evidently felt guilty for not pursuing himself, and he then enjoyed learning that they were actually hurting themselves after all (and presumably were no better off than a couch potato like him). Spontaneous defensiveness, as Shakespeare so aptly observed in Hamlet, can be very revealing that way.

Unknown said...

I'm not sure how apt the non-smoking analogy really is. If your reason for not smoking was moral rather than prudential, I'd suspect smokers would be inclined to point out the hypocrisy of eating cupcakes. On the other hand, I wonder how many vegetarians who don't eat meat for health reasons have to put up with comments about wearing leather. Perhaps people are just a little more tolerant of weakness of will outside moral contexts.

Anil Kalhan said...

Sherry -- interesting post. I'm not vegetarian, but not really a strong carnivore either -- being subcontinental, I'm often surrounded by vegetarians, and I'm often perfectly content to eschew non-veg food. I must say, though, especially here in New York, I've found it awfully difficult to keep track of what people mean when they say they're "vegetarian." For example, I find it bemusing when people say that they are "vegetarian" but later note that they eat fish" -- not because I think they're hypocritical, but just because it's not the understanding I've long (i.e., from infancy) associated with the term "vegetarian." And if I'm, for example, planning to have said folks over for dinner, or even if I'm trying to pick out a restaurant at which to meet them, it's important to be clear on precisely what they mean.

So I do find myself sometimes asking questions like the one about leather -- not to call people out on any hypocrisy, but more out of curiosity and to learn more about where they're coming from, so I have a frame of reference and can remember to be attentive and respectful to them if circumstances arise in which it seems appropriate to do so. (Actually, as I think about it my questions are usually more about food than about leather, perhaps because I find food infinitely more interesting than fashion? Who knows.) Anyway, I guess my point is just to suggest that maybe the tone and context of such questions might matter? I can completely see why the questions posed to you are properly understood in the way in which you have understood them, though.

(I do confess a certain fondness for the term "flexitarian" to describe some folks, dear friends among them, who identify as vegetarian but eat seafood or fish. But I promise, only in a good-natured and teasing sort of way.)

On a related note, can you recommend a good guide (book or electronic) to veg-friendly restaurants in New York? Thanks!

egarber said...

anil said:

(I do confess a certain fondness for the term "flexitarian" to describe some folks, dear friends among them, who identify as vegetarian but eat seafood or fish. But I promise, only in a good-natured and teasing sort of way.)

Hey, I like that. I'm one those fish-eaters (like Gollum, I suppose), but I don't call myself a vegetarian, largely because it doesn't make sense to me (as you say).

One argument I've heard on the leather issue that may at least contains some truth: The core demand for the animal is for food. Leather is secondary, so when you wear it, you're basically optimizing -- i.e., not wasting the parts -- a use that would be triggered anyway.

Derek said...

I think a flexitarian is someone who is generally a vegetarian but makes various exceptions depending on the social or nutritional situation. This might include eating fish or any other meat. I also like the term "freegan" for people who don't pay for meat or animal by products but will eat them if they're otherwise going to waste.

I admit it's awkward to call oneself a vegetarian if you have to constantly qualify the statement with "but I eat fish." On the other hand, it's a lot less cumbersome then listing the things you don't eat: beef, pork, chicken, mutton. And saying you don't eat meat (not to mention red/white meat) confuses people even more. Everyone seems to have a different view as to whether chicken or fish count as "meat." In any case I sometimes call my self a "fishatarian" for simplicity's sake. But I don't really see this catching on.

Clark Freshman said...

A slightly different frame I use to explain why I try to *reduce* the suffering my eating causes to animals: Most of us give to charity, but few of us take vows of poverty. So, too, if all of us reduced the amount of meat we eat, then there would also be less suffering for animals. It would be best for many if we gave away all but our most essential goods to charity, and never ate meat. But, in the meantime, I take some comfort that I help some charities a bit and help make the lives of animals much easier.

Anonymous said...

I don't eat meat for reasons I don't wish to get into. Though I was wondering about people who have information on the suffering of fish?

I have been advised by both western and alternative doctors of medicine to eat fish as I have no means of supplimenting due to the lack of health food stores in my area and having allergies to various seeds and nuts containing Omega oils. (I have a long term health condition).

I am still very interested in peoples views on 'can fish feel pain' and the length of time they suffer when suffocated out of water?

Do give me your opinions.


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