In which I respond (sort of) to Slate’s James McWilliams


So, James McWilliams apparently finds himself surprised to learn that “humane” marketing is largely just marketing, in a recent article on Slate. Go read (I’ll wait):
Now then – he concludes with the following tidbits, worth some comment:

As responsible consumers, it’s easy to decide to avoid factory-farmed pork.

No, it’s just no longer possible to pretend that cruelty on a massive scale isn’t happening. It has nothing to do with consumers being more responsible; it has to do with the animal rights movement making the cruelty of standard industry practice unavoidable.

The hard part is what to make of the most acceptable alternative.

This after fretting for several paragraphs over which pigs to kill and eat, trying to decide which ones were “raised humanely” enough to assuage his own moral conscience. News flash, kiddo: killing any of them is inhumane. Period.
It’s not a difficult question in the least: go vegan. All of the rest of the tap dancing that follows simply ignores the most obvious, most effective choice if one’s ultimate concern is actually the better treatment of animals. The entire premise of this article points out what several of us have been saying: welfarist measures to “humanely” raise animals for meat only ever happen when they coincide with the commercial interests of the animal exploitation industries.The freedom that Iberico pigs enjoy is only in the interest of charging exorbitant prices for their flesh. The interests of the pigs do not matter, as McWilliams’ fretting over the utterly unsurprising “welfare” of the pigs in question illustrates. McWilliams may be surprised to learn that “humane” marketing is JUST marketing, but no one in the animal rights movement is surprised in the least.

Does free-range farming justify the mutilation that’s often required to keep pigs outdoors?

Of course it doesn’t, any more than it justifies the unnecessary slaughter of these animals. This seems to be treading on the worn-out myth that since meat eating “won’t ever” go away, we should do meaningless things that make us feel like the animals have been well-cared for instead. This utterly ignores the most obvious solution to this particular ethical dilemma: stop eating animals.

As an ethical matter, the question is open to endless debate. What the conscientious meat eater can take away from it is not so much a concrete answer as a more nuanced way to think about our food choices.

While you and the rest of your so-called “conscientious” carnivore cohorts are wasting time trying to tell yourselves that what you’re doing is somehow “humane”, millions of animals a day on factory farms are being kept and slaughtered in horrifying conditions, absolutely none of which is materially affected by your navel-gazing and worrying about whether the incredibly expensive delicacy meat you have the luxury of buying may not actually be quite the “humane” option it’s marketed to be. None of this faux concern for animal welfare changes anything: the vast majority of meat, dairy and eggs are still going to be produced on factory farms, no matter what happens on so-called “humane” farming operations.

In this age of deeply convincing attacks on factory farms, consumers must be careful not to immediately assume that every alternative to factory farming is as “all natural” or humane as its advocates will inevitably declare…

Again, this is a realization that’s only new or novel to you; it’s telling that you’re leaving out the most obvious, most easily resolvable solution to the ethical dilemma that these false claims of “humane treatment” actually demands: go vegan. Just stop eating animals, altogether.

Is it REALLY a “purist” abolitionism that’s harming animal rights?

The growing adoption of abolitionism within the animal rights movement is causing considerable friction with the existing welfare/”neo”-welfare movement.
The problem here really is one of a fundamental difference, not just in tactics but in general outlook. If you can defend “welfare in the meantime” you’re really not objecting to welfare in any sense at all. I understand that this may be a difficult message to really hear, for some people (it was for me); it remains, however, somewhat inescapable. This isn’t to say that you must object to welfare, just that you shouldn’t claim that you do, if you do not, in fact, object to it. Just as a non-vegan cannot meaningfully claim to be vegan, a non-abolitionist is only muddying the waters if he or she claims to support abolition and welfare at the same time. They’re contradictory positions.
Imagine trying to resolve any two other pairs of contradictory ethical positions: I’m opposed to rape, but I think regulating the rape of women is an ethically good thing, since we can’t absolutely prevent rape in all cases.
I’m opposed to sexually abusing children, but since a future that’s free of any and all instances of sexual abuse is a long way off, I advocate a “realistic” approach that regulates some sexual exploitation of children “in the meantime.”
Where abolitionist animal rights and the welfare movement are concerned, the conflicting ideas are as follows:
  • I do not support ANY exploitation of animals for human ends – regulated or otherwise
  • I support/allow for the use of some animal exploitation, provided that it’s ‘well regulated

These are not resolvable positions.

People may claim that advocating for welfare is preparing the ground for a future adoption of an animal rights consciousness. This is absurd. Advocating for “humane” use of animals does not in any way argue that no use of animals is morally justifiable.
This is akin to saying, “rape is bad, but if you must rape, don’t beat the woman up afterward.” Sure, it’s “less” suffering for the rape victim if she is not also physically assaulted, but it makes no sense to claim that a “regulatory” approach to rape will somehow eliminate it. This fundamentally misses the point: there is no necessity to rape, period. There is nonecessity to eat animals. Accepting that welfarism is in any sense an acceptable strategy is to concede a flawed assumption at the outset. How does this make vegan advocacy easier? All I’ve ever heard, so far, as justification for this is a hope that at some unspecified future point society may have grown up a little. Maybe. That’s exactly the same future hope I have that society will change. So long as this rests solely on the speculated future outcome of each of our approaches, there’s nothing being offered here that really argues against abolitionist advocacy, or any of the welfare critiques that have been offered by the emerging abolitionist movement so far. The claims of “reduced suffering” of the welfare movement do not hold up to any real scrutiny.
It’s important to be unequivocal here: welfare advocacy is not in any sense aiding the animal rights cause, and in some very important respects that welfare advocacy makes it needlessly more difficult to actually advocate a rights-based position. Nobody has really addressed why animal rights advocates should be supporting the animal welfare movement. If we’re critical of the alphabet soup of welfare organizations, there is inevitably no shortage of welfare apologists who muddy the waters by claiming that we’re “bashing other activists.” We’re disagreeing with them. If you think that disagreement is unwarranted, please tell me why I should be doing what you’re doing, instead.
I’ve recently gotten into two separate discussions in which welfare apologists have argued that there’s “no good evidence” that either approach (neo-welfare and abolitionism) is more effective than the other.
I disagree, but I’ll accept the premise for a moment: fine. Assuming that’s the case, why should I agree with the welfare position in this that welfare advocacy is making anything any easier, particularly if I have direct experience – which, people probably won’t count as legitimate evidence of anything, but some folks are already on record saying there IS no good evidence either way – that it’s doing exactly the opposite?

Sigh. “Stay silent. Don’t criticize the welfare movement…”

Some of this is in response to The Veganic Way’s rant here:

At this point, in relation to the time line of earth’s history, change DOES need to happen overnight. The problem is that most of the world is sleeping. We need to wake up.

I fail to understand why so many self-proclaimed animal rights supporters seem to think that any useful progress can be made while we allow the massive welfare organizations to dominate the entire debate, and instead demand that we should sit back and let this happen and effectively offer no response while we instead dither with meaningless media-driven campaigns to “expose” the public to the evils of capitalism.

I’m a leftist. I’m critical of capitalism.

The general public doesn’t care. An echo-chamber insularity and an unwillingness to see the facts in front of us for what they actually are has been an ongoing problem of the modern Left for 30 years. If we can just – JUST – spew enough anticapitalist babble at the masses, maybe this time they’ll listen.

No, they won’t. In the meantime, the cozy relationship between the welfare movement and the industrial animal exploitation industries will continue torturing and killing animals, and the welfare movement will continue providing socially acceptable excuses for it.

What would The Veganic Way have us do in response?

Make use of the “independent media” (here’s a protip, darling: I read Indymedia, too. Joe and Jane Sixpack don’t give a damn) to “expose people” to a convoluted mess of left theory and dithering instead of just dissecting the exaggerations and falsehoods of the welfare movement.
Because Veganic is of course no *fan* of the welfare movement. He’s just saying we should all shut up about it.

Is it any wonder that we’re so small and ineffective? Instead of taking the direct, accomplishable route of educating people and disabusing them of welfarist fictions, no, instead we need to take on Smithfields and Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto. Because bazillion dollar multinationals are eeevil, but utterly stupid, and will be stopped by a tiny little micro-horde of “independent journalists” from the outer edges of the fringe media who want to do a “hard hitting expose” and the multinationals, who have no media budgets of their own, nor any skill at manipulating the corporate media, will just roll over and play dead. Really, seriously, good luck with that.

The strategic calculation in this isn’t difficult to understand: the industry is responding to demand. The industry will ALWAYS respond to demand. Reduce and eliminate demand, and the industry goes away. Play at making “hard hitting” fringe media to “expose the truth” about the industry is a surefire recipe for echo-chamber success. Lots of noise and congratulatory accolades from the chamber, and no change at ALL on the ground.

Good luck with that.

The problem is demand. Unless we meaningfully address the issue of demand – through ongoing vegan education and outreach – we can play at “holding the oppressors” feet to the fire all we may like, and not a damn thing will change. You’re welcome to try. I’m beyond convinced it won’t work in the way you think it will — that’s not to say that it won’t work at all. But your standard of success in this is rapid, widespread cultural change. There is a mountain of evidence that suggests that if this is your expectation and standard of success, you’re likely to be disappointed.

There are no easy solutions in this. Complaining because vegan and abolitionist education works “too slowly” is completely pointless. Everything works too slowly. Some things work not at all. The reason so much of the present abolitionist argument is focused on dissecting the claims made by the welfare movement is because there’s a serious need for it. There’s widespread default acceptance for the claims made by the decades-and-decades old welfare movement, and that will not simply go away because you wish folks would focus on YOUR priorities instead.

It would be nice if people would. They will not, as a practical matter, actually do so. They won’t focus on mine, either, but I’m not making a claim that what I’m doing is going to produce overnight change.

Sure, fine, most people will ignore any and all vegan education; I’ve said so, several times. It all works too slowly. But there are no magic solutions. Pretending otherwise is completely counterproductive.

But, honestly, don’t take my word for it. Go make a documentary. Go fund investigative reportage. Get it out in the culture. Go do it. I’m not telling you not to do it. I’m telling you you shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations about its impact. But, ultimately, whatever expectations you have are your own business.

Eating animals does not honor them

From Open Salon:

If you’re going to kill an animal, at least have the good sense to honor it by appreciating the sacrifice it made.

Would you call it an honorific if your pet was killed, skinned and cooked? Would it really honor your dog or your cat – presumably a companion animal you shower with love and affection – if that animal was served to you on a plate and you ate her?

Of course it wouldn’t.
I’m well aware that most people will not go vegan today, tomorrow, or ever. But please: ideas matter. Eating animalsdoes not honor them. Pretending that it does may be something humans need to tell themselves to try and dance around the ethics of doing it, but it’s not “kind” or “honorable” to the animal to consume her flesh.
I’m aware that many of you may choose to see eating animals as a “personal choice,” but it’s not really about you. It’s about the animals you’re killing. I don’t mean to be tedious and pedantic here, but ideas matter.
I’m not drawing a comparison to pets to try and draw on your heartstrings. The point is that we routinely do things to pigs, cows and chickens we’d never dream of doing to dogs or cats. This makes absolutely no sense. My aim here is just to get the people I can get to see to open their eyes and see. Most people, mired in conventional thinking, are unreachable.
But it’s not really about the unreachable.
If I can get even one person to open their eyes and see, to really see, then it’s worth it. I understand that it’s not a popular idea, and like all unpopular or unusual ideas, it’s easy to write all of this off as just the ranting of yet another moralizing vegan.
Most of the people reading this will only read that into it. I accept that.
But a few people won’t.
I have a moral obligation to try and drag this culture, kicking and screaming, if need be, out of its selfishness and wanton sadism where its treatment of animals is concerned. Killing and eating animals is optional. It’s completely optional. Causing optional suffering and death to sentient life – life that is not, in any meaningful way different from the pets we shower with affection – is not an honorable act. It will never ever be honorable. Merely calling it honorable does not make it so.
I know many people choose to see eating animals, and the ethics of eating animals as a “personal” choice. But it is not, in any way, personal. Lives are taken for no purpose other than satisfying our tastebuds. That’s not a personal choice. It’s not honorable.
Open your eyes. See. Really see.

    Animal testing blathering…

    Over on OregonLive, I’m in the midst of the usual silly blathering with folks whose defense of animal testing is ill-considered and defaults to the status quo, and human benefit uber alles. This is typical.

    The animal rights case against animal testing is one of simple decency: that humans derive benefit from animal testing is irrelevant. That humans have tested drugs and other medical treatments on other animals for a very long time is also irrelevant.

    Animal rights holds that animals possess intrinsic value, and no not merely exist as a means to an end, any more than humans exist as a means to an end for other humans.

    We recognize that animal testing isn’t going away tomorrow, or any time soon, but we recognize that no aspect of animal exploitation is disappearing in the near term. But we still have a moral obligation to speak out against it, because things will never change so long as we sit silent.

    The argument is simple; where we do not now have good, scientifically valid alternatives to the use of animals in research, develop them. Don’t rest on the status quo, simply because humans have benefitted from that status quo for as long as any of us have been alive. Where we do currently have viable alternatives (human tissue studies, using excised tumors, for example) use them. In many cases, where viable alternatives are available, they’re not actually being used because animal testing, like every other form of animal exploitation, is a profitable business.

    Huntingdon Life Sciences, a frequent target of AR actions, reports annual profits in the region of $50 million a year or more, on annual revenues close to $200 million a year. In 2007, Financial Times ran an op-ed, in which HLS managing director Brian Cass justified further investment from the financial sector on HLS given its profitability:

    Regulatory filings show the US company had 47 clients placing orders for more than $1m last year, and reported gross profits up 5 per cent to $50m on revenues of $192m.

    Don’t buy into the “necessity” argument: the animal testing industry is an industry, like any other form of large scale, ongoing animal exploitation. It does not exist altruistically.

    We accept that change will not come soon – but it must come.

    Animal ag “respects” animal rights? Hmm.

    This is like saying slave owners respect “slave’s rights.” Sigh.

    No, folks, the fact that you enslave and kill animals for profit doesn’t mean you “respect” animal rights. What you enjoyis the way the animal tastes, or the fact that your livelihood is legally permitted. You do not “respect” animal rights.

    Hits the nail on the proverbial head.

    This is precisely why I don’t like the term “partner” – especially when we buy into using a “less-than-equal” term on our own to describe our relationships. In this society, your married-other-half who is a woman is your wife. If your married other half is a man, he’s your husband. There’s no reason heterosexuals get to own these terms. From the Prop 8 trial testimony:

    Chu: How does getting married change things. 

    Zia: In most immediate sense, it was in how our families related to us. When we first got married. We have a niece, 2 years old, only known us Auntie Helen and Auntie Leah. WHen she saw Leah and me, she gave us a big hug, said, Auntie Leah, now you’re really my auntie. I thought, well, you’ve always known her as your auntie. Somehow it made a difference. It made a difference to our parents.When you say you’re a domestic partner. When people say …who’s this person? I can’t count the number of times who said …Partner in what business. We’d say …partners in life. Often it was bewilderment. What business is life, do you mean life insurance. It’s a matter of how our families relate to people. For me to show up at every event. People ask who’s she. For her 90-something auntie to say, here’s Leah’s friend. She must be a really good friend, suddently there were able to say, Helen is my daughter in law.

    Animal Rights = Freedom for All Beings

    Since I keep going the rounds with this, with speciesists big and small:

    Animal rights is the ethical position that all sentient beings are inherently free beings, and that humans – who have the option of recognizing this – have no moral justification for denying that fundamental freedom where possible.

    Breeding and selling animals denies this freedom.

    Consuming animals denies this freedom.

    Using animals as objects for experimentation denies this freedom.
    Exploiting animals for our entertainment denies this freedom.

    Using animals as property – in all the many ways we choose to do it – denies this freedom.
    Yes, even pet-keeping denies this freedom (but, in the interim, it may be the best of a bad set of options, under certain conditions).

    It’s not up to us to grant animals the basic freedom that is their inherent right: it’s up to us to recognize it, just as we’ve expanded the sphere of freedom to many classes of humans to which it was once denied.

    Is the animal rights case perfect? Of course not. No theory of moral rights ever devised by humans perfectly allows for the absolute freedom of all beings. Many human societies recognize a right to free speech (among humans), but nevertheless curtail some kinds of speech, anyway.
    Will animal rights ever be “perfect?” Probably not. But we can do better that we’re doing now with regard to the rights of nonhumans. We just have to stop being selfishly concerned with our own desires – and ONLY those desires.

    Feeling proprietary around the word “Marriage?” Me too.

    Ok, social conservatives. I get it.

    Really, I do.

    You feel an incredible sense of propriety around the word “marriage.” To some of you, it even represents a religious sacrament. It’s deeply meaningful to you, on several levels.

    But here’s the thing: you don’t get to claim exclusive ownership of “deeply meaningful on several levels.” I have a stake in that, too. Just as you have the deeply intuited sense that marriage means “one man and one woman, joined together in a social, legal and cultural framework, (and, for at least some of you) blessed or ordained by God” the sticking point is that you don’t get to make an absolute demand that every other legal marriage has to conform to each and every aspect of that proposed framework.

    Are you folks saying that heterosexual civil (but non-religious) marriage isn’t marriage?

    Are you saying that non-Christians who get married aren’t entitled to consider themselves married?

    Are you saying that – given that procreation is inevitably used, over and over again to justify heterosexual privilege, here – that infertile-but-straight couples have no right to claim the term “marriage” for their relationships?

    Of course you aren’t.

    If you can make room for civil marriage – not domestic partnership, not “civil unions,” not semi, sort-of, watered-down versions of “marriage lite” for other folks – for atheists and agnostics, for folks who have no intention of ever having children, biologically or otherwise, for folks who don’t solemnize their relationships in anything even remotely close to your personal religious traditions – if you can make room for THOSE folks, is it really so beyond the pale to consider that a gay couple is owed a place at the table, too?

    I get that many of you feel provincial about marriage.

    I get that you’d rather we just settled for domestic partnership, in all its lack and imperfection, but here’s the thing:

    Separate-but-equal is unconstitutional. It doesn’t matter how many “defense of marriage” laws you may manage to pass. Once upon a time, the written letter of the law in this country defined black people as 2/3 human. The law was wrong. It changed.

    The laws around marriage, as presently written, in much of the country are wrong. They’re simply, flat-out wrong. They need to change. I understand that you don’t want them to change, but that doesn’t alter the fact that a fundamental moral wrong is still being done, here.

    Even if our domestic partnership/civil marriage arrangements really were separate-but-equal, they’d still be wrong, and the “marriage-lite” arrangements we have aren’t even within shouting distance of the appearance of equality.

    Full civil marriage for all consenting adults, or none at all. Anything else is simply wrong – not just as a matter of principle, but as a matter of settled law.

    Why can’t animal use be justified?

    As an animal rights advocate, I’m often asked to “prove” why I think the use of animals is wrong; this is largely a dodge. Folks demanding such proof aren’t usually interested in really considering any particular response, and will instead look for reasons to disagree, and tell themselves that x particular animal use, under y “humane” conditions should be viewed as ethically neutral.

    The problem is that there’s ultimately no fundamental justification for either position. You can either agree or disagree on the fundamental question: animals are not ours to use. If you agree, the animal rights case follows rationally from that initial premise. If you disagree, you may hang all sorts of modern scientific (or, more likely pseudoscientific) justifications on that disagreement. We may say nonhumans are “less sentient” or “lack sapience” by way of making a claim that a particular use is justified.

    This is flawed at the outset.

    We domesticated animals thousands of years ago, and we didn’t make any determination about those animals sapience or sentience when we did it. We simply decided to do it, because we wanted to do it. The justifications for it come after the fact, not before. Given that, any justification for animal use is inevitably going to be weighted in favor of the human’s given use of a given animal. We may hang what seem to be “good” arguments on that to make that use seem rational, but it doesn’t really change anything.

    We’re simply making a choice to override an animal’s interests in favor of our own, whenever, wherever and however we may wish, and then coming up with an argument for why that use is justified after the fact. But the situation is rigged: in these cases the conclusion is foregone: there’s no possible objection to use, so any justification has to be viewed in light of that inherent bias. The game is rigged, and we’ve rigged it in our favor, always. Our use of animals is habitual; rationalizing those habits is a secondary (if that) concern.

    The animal rights case departs from that position at the premise: no use is ethically justified. Yes, human and nonhuman interests will conflict in places, but that doesn’t have anything to do with setting up a circumstance where entirely optional uses of animals will be perpetuated for the foreseeable future. The animal rights position is an attempt – in many ways an imperfect attempt, given the hurdles we face in getting society to reevaluate its use of animals, but an honest attempt, nevertheless – to readdress the issue of use not from the foregone conclusion that use is going to happen, no matter what, but from the starting premise that none of it is justifiable, and then working to come up with solutions that progressively eliminate that use.

    The fundamental premises in either case can’t be argued: they’re both based on a founding assumption: use either is, or isn’t permissible. If it is permissible, the animal rights case says that use will ALWAYS turn animals into property – objects to be exploited, because we’re deciding at the outset that these are not beings with their own interests. We may claim to respect some animal interests – the interest in not suffering “excessively,” perhaps, but that again assumes at the outset that a given use is going to happen no matter what. Our definitions of “excessive” suffering become, therefore, highly elastic and the whole matter is always going to be weighted in favor of the human’s desired use, instead of the animal’s interest in not suffering at all.

    If use is not permissible, then it simply doesn’t matter what claimed justifications humans may come up with for those uses – it doesn’t matter if animal testing may cure diseases, or if happy meat may have lived a relatively comfortable life before being killed and eaten – the presumption of permissibility of use automatically overrides the animal’s interest giving automatic preference to the human desire.

    People will either wake up to this, or they won’t. But getting ensnared in a side debate with a committed speciesist on justifying the premise is a waste of time. Those persons are never going to make any other determination than permitting animal use. They may advocate for kinder treatment in some cases while such animals are being used (typically before we finally kill them and do something else to their bodies), but that kind treatment isn’t really being done in the interests of the animal – those interests have already been overridden, inherently. Treating animals “kindly” in this context is largely an aesthetic question: We’ll nearly always only do what’s the bare minimum standard of “humane” treatment so we can tell ourselves we’ve done something kind for that animal. But it’s not really about that animal – it’s about justifying the use of that animal to ourselves.