Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Perfect, The Good, and The Truth in Animal Cruelty

On FindLaw today, I will have a column that discusses the question of why we have anti-cruelty laws, one example of which is the pending Captive Primate Safety Act, approved by the House in the wake of the Connecticut incident in which a pet chimpanzee violently mauled his owner's friend and was subsequently killed by police.

In the column, I propose that although a genuine concern for the interests of animals plays a role in motivating the passage of anti-cruelty legislation, the deeper purpose of the laws is to calm the conscience of those who believe that it is wrong to harm animals but nonetheless feel committed to actively subsidizing the largest and most grotesque treatment of animals by consuming meat, eggs, and dairy products. By having laws that appear to protect animals from cruelty, well-meaning people are able to imagine a comfortable and even pleasant life, along with a humane death, for the creatures who later appear on their dinner tables.

I want to focus in this post on what I predict will be a response that some self-described "conscientious omnivores" will have to what I say. Some will argue (and have said to me in the past) that the perfect can be the enemy of the good and that if the choice is between becoming a vegan and the status quo, most people will choose the status quo and leave the current deplorable conditions of animals unchanged. Wouldn't I prefer, they might ask me, that the animals within the food industry suffer less rather than more? And if so, then why do I find fault with legislation aimed at accomplishing precisely that -- the reduction of suffering in a population of animals who are almost certainly going to die to satisfy human appetites either way.

My response to this point has three parts.

First, I reject the notion that such modifications in animal agriculture as "cage-free" eggs represent "the good" -- something positive that simply falls short of perfection. Though "cage free" sounds like freedom, it means very little in fact. The label of "cage-free" is overwhelmingly applied to cases in which chickens are crowded into dark buildings in which the concentration of their waste products fills the air with toxic gas (though there are no cages, so the setting is literally "cage-free"). The hens' beaks are mutilated, and male chicks are killed as babies (often by suffocation or by being ground up alive) in cage-free facilities. The "cage free" image -- of chickens roaming around a barn filled with hay, able to nest and run around -- is inaccurate. To put the point differently, I view the "changes" made by anti-cruelty laws (and the practices they promote) as representing the introduction of euphemisms into the vernacular.

Second, I do not view current levels of demand as unchangeable. Neither does the food industry. To say that a law or practice might reduce the suffering of farmed animals by a tiny amount -- even if, contrary to the evidence, we were to believe in the reduced suffering claim -- is to assume that the law or practice has no impact on demand. In reality, however, people in the agricultural industry know that our collective conscience is, on occasion, repelled by what is done to animals in our name (especially in the rare case when commonplace practices become public). Participants in the industry have an interest in calming such revulsion so that it does not reduce demand. The misleading labels "humanely raised" or "cage free" and the misleading legislation that purports to protect animals thus serve to expand or prevent the contraction of a consumer-base that might have otherwise been drawn to a plant-based diet for reasons of health, the environment, and a rejection of the suffering inflicted. Such labels -- far from representing "progress" for the animals already condemned to suffer -- can thus increase the number of animals tortured and killed. The "good" -- in this case -- is enemy of the good.

Third and finally, I do recognize that not everyone is ready to become a vegan. I would have to live on another planet to be unaware of this fact. But there is something constructive that a person who wants to reduce animal suffering can do. He can reduce his consumption of animal products. Rather than substituting "cage free" eggs for the regular kind, she can commit to consuming fewer eggs in total. Rather than buying "organic" milk with pictures of happy cows on the container, she can begin to incorporate some combination of soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, and hazelnut milk into her diet as replacements for cow milk. And rather than buying "humane" meat, poultry, and fish, he can begin to include the many plant-based sources of protein and iron (including grains, beans, and vegan meat substitutes) in meals that were previously built around dead animals. The first step to abolishing animal cruelty does not lie in symbolic gestures. It lies in the reduction (and, in time, elimination) of demand for products that require -- by their nature -- the infliction of suffering and death on vulnerable, sentient beings.

Posted by Sherry F. Colb

13 comments:

Greg said...

I noticed, in both your FindLaw article as well as this post, your use of the word 'sentient'. It would help my understanding of your thoughts if you would share the definition of sentience which you are using.

jlmiller said...

I don't get it. You start out by talking about anti-cruelty laws, and end up talking about choices made at the individual level. These are very much not the same thing.

I agree with the substance of your third point - that one can eliminate more animal suffering by consuming fewer eggs than by consuming cage-free eggs - but question its relevance, since most people do not care enough about animal suffering to do either of those things. If they did, there would be no need for anti-cruelty laws, since there would be no demand for battery eggs to begin with.

Paul Scott said...

The connection is fairly straight forward. Anti-cruelty laws have an effect of allowing individuals to pretend that there is such a thing as cruelty free meat or dairy.

Those things in turn reduce the incentives for individuals to shift from an animal based to a plant based diet.

In a real sense, the problem with the meat and dairy industry has less to do with the actual cruelty they inflict than their success in hiding it. IMO, most cruelty laws do little to ameliorate the former while greatly assisting the later.

David Burn said...

An argument one often hears is this: suppose that an alien intelligence as superior to ours as ours is to chickens' (however superior that might be) subjected us to the same conditions as those to which we currently subject chickens. How would we like that?

Not much, is the answer. But what would we do? Imagine being offered this choice on behalf of the entire human race:

Press the green button and the aliens will exterminate humanity forever.

Press the yellow button and the human race will continue to be subject to cruel treatment by the aliens for millennia, but with gradual improvements in their treatment until humans cease to suffer altogether (whilst still being required to perform whatever useful functions the aliens require).

Think carefully, now. Which button will you press?

jlmiller said...

I'm just not buying the argument that anti-cruelty laws prevent any significant number of people from going vegan or reducing their animal-product consumption.

Cage-free eggs, for example, are available right now. They are an option in most (or at least many) grocery stores. Therefore, any individual who believes (wrongly, in my opinion) that buying cage-free eggs is doing "enough" - that buying cage-free eggs means that she doesn't have to go vegan - is buying cage-free eggs right now. A law forbidding the production of battery eggs would have no effect on her behavior, since she is not buying battery eggs anyway.

Bea Elliott said...

It is something that I've come to grips with too (this being my first vegan year) - that not everyone will (in my lifetime) follow. But - we can all do "something" - Reduce meat consumption.

And to Greg... my understanding of "sentient" is "a being aware of their existance". Sentience = consciousness.

And when anyone wants to claim that "meat" can be cruelty free I direct them to www.humanemyth.org.

Thanks for inviting comment - Great blog you have here :)

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