Monday, June 24, 2013

on eating animals, being animals, and taunting animals with consumer electronics

The other day, my aunt emailed this great little video out to me and a bunch of my family.

Responses varied, but not that much:

"If God didn’t want you to eat animals he wouldn’t have made them out of meat."

"Oh my goodness Luiz is sooooo cute!!! I would never eat an animal in front of him."

"I always thought chickens were vegetables -- just based on their intellect."

a) This is why I’m not on facebook. (One reason, anyway.)

b) It’s hard to know how to respond here. Where to begin?

Reasons for not eating other animals (especially factory-farmed animals) range from the practical/economic and environmental, to questions of human health, to serious ethical considerations, including meat prohibitions and restrictions in many religious traditions.

On the other hand, justifications for eating other animals basically fall into two categories: “It tastes good.” & “It’s what we’ve always done.” While totally subjective, the taste argument is sound enough on its own terms. But the second argument is way more problematic in its sloppy historical determinism. It’s what we’ve always done. And nearly every word here (it’s, we, always) is loaded with some pretty reckless assumptions and generalizations.

Incidentally, I’m not telling anyone how to eat, here. Trying hard not to, anyway.

But if we have the access, time, and leisure to, say, read blogs like this, we probably also enjoy the privilege of making some choices about what we eat. And we should be able to honestly and reasonably explain why we choose to eat what we do. (OK, I guess I did use the “should” word there.)

I guess the reason I’m getting so bossy here is to illustrate our larger schizophrenia about how we relate to other animals. Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin note, for example, "an implicit irony … evident in the practices of medicine and behavioural sciences: because animals are not humans, we may subject them to pain, loss of freedom, destruction of their environments, or the cruelties of contemporary agribusiness. Yet it is only because we ourselves are animals that we can gain material, physical or psychological knowledge and rewards from their ill treatment." (2010)

That is, to the degree that other animals are like us, we’ve found ways to benefit materially from their exploitation and abuse. As animals ourselves, these practices have, in turn, required us to strain our rationale for their continuation, their accelerating rate and severity, and their expanding scale.

For example, over the last several centuries, in order to limit human rights and other moral considerability to just our own species, we’ve had to patrol the boundaries of human exceptionalism with increasing vigilance, coming up with more and more contrived standards for what makes us human.

These criteria have slid from possessing a soul, to possessing reason, and then on to using tools. When we noticed other animals using tools, we moved the goal posts to making tools, and then to altruism, and on to language. Again, when other animals (whales, birds, apes, prairie dogs, molluscs, etc.) were shown to be fully demonstrating all of these in many ways, the lines have since been redrawn around even more subjective, abstract things like linguistic novelty, grief, remembered identity and consciousness, aesthetics, poetics, and so it goes.

Now, with most of this conversation decades behind us, it’s sort of adorable to see how surprised we are when other animals take an interest in things like smartphones. Consider, for example, how pets themselves have become a kind of technology to us, and we, ourselves, a sort technology to them.

Tons of people have posted youtube videos of their cats playing games on ipads and even more of gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees, who are now using tablets at over a dozen zoos in Toronto, Edinburgh, Mexico City, Miami, Milwaukee, Kentucky, Washington DC, and so on. As you might guess, most of these clips open by lobbing up awful puns about "monkeying around with ipads" and "going ape (or "bananas") for idpads," echoing the consumerist language of novelty-gadget marketing: "It turns out that tablets aren't just for humans, but for orangutans too!" and "It’s not just humans who can’t wait to get their hands on an ipad." This is followed by a lot of footage of hands reaching out through cages and bars to diddle on screens, "keeping bored apes amused" with music and painting apps, watching videos, and skyping with other apes at other zoos.

Just to be clear, I don’t mean to hate on all of this. Most of these projects are part of Orangutan Outreach’s "apps for apes" program, that gets tablets out to zoos to help keep apes stimulated, and to enable them to become "ambassadors for their critically endangered cousins in the wild." And, for all the anthropocentric talk about apes being “trapped in those bodies,” without the “equipment to communicate (with us),” there’s even a case of an orangutan without arms using the program. This is definitely very good work.

But if it takes an orangutan using an ipad to choose her own lunch, for us to exclaim “they can finally show us they are feeling, thinking creatures,” what does this say about the rest of us?

related: corvids, goats who stare at men, the obliging cephalopod, the immense journey


T.R. said...

Awesome! Few things:

-My advisor is a vegan, excepting seafood, because "at least it had a life."

-There may be more to "we've always done it". We have co-evolved with our livestock, and it may not be the best decision to turn them loose into city streets Bombay style, set them free into the wilderness where some won't be able to cut it, or to quit allowing them to breed. Maybe we can keep eating them, but be nicer? Yeah, I know, not very realistic.

-I think we've discussed this before, but psychological testing with rats is especially problematic because, no, they're not like us when we're deciding what's ethical but yes, they are like us when we get an interesting result and want to publish. In fact, the IRB reviews every individual study based, essentially, on:
1. whether it will cause undue suffering.
2. whether the findings will be beneficial to society.
So basically, the more applicable to humanity it is, the more unethical it is even if you believe that crap about frontal lobes.

-I hear that animals, even wild ones and those in zoos, are getting more obese on a scale comparable to humans. I don't think its the computers, but weird.

english said...

Yeah, seafood's kind of an interesting, common exception. On one hand, it's sort of the last "wild" meat typically sold in grocery stores, some kinds of seafood anyway. But if you're talking say Chinese tilapia, or "Atlantic" salmon, farmed industrially in really nasty cage operations off the Pacific coast, I guess that would be another thing.

About co-evolution, YES, this is precisely the kind of thing Donna Harraway (linked there in the post in the "technology" passage) and others have been saying for a while, both in terms of animal husbandry/livestock and companion animals. In other words, that it is animals that have made us human, not just in the philosophical sense, but in a very physical, material way.

My issue with the way we lazily apply the "because we've always done it" reasoning is that we claim to be the the same "we" who actually lived with, dealt with, understood, took care of, and, with our own hands and tools, personally slaughtered them for food, etc. That we once had a more direct, personal, and ethically immediate relationship with these animals. Now, with these relationships long outsourced to distant factory farms, "invisible" agricultural workers, and so on, we feel we're still entitled to the meat as long as we pay the market value for it, or occasionally ask fashionable questions like "who killed the pork chops?" This, to me, seems pretty disingenuous.

But I think what you suggest here is plenty realistic, and reasonable. In fact, considering this in terms of the the above discussion, we cannot continue on like this without even further compromising our own humanity in the process, and a lot of other things, too...

Anyway, hope that makes sense. These are some great points and examples about the rats.

english said...

--As a little addendum to that bit about "compromising our humanity," I don't mean this in terms of any high-minded, melodramatic human exceptionalism. Rather, I mean it in terms of our basic identity as a species, developed over tens of thousands of years.