Saturday, June 16, 2007

Making the Connection

When PAWS did its "Meat Tray" demonstration outside of Frist, I was struck by the number of people who confronted me asking why we would worry about saving chickens and pigs when there were people dying in Iraq, humans suffering in Darfur. One person - whose banal and uninformed statement earns her anonymity - told me that "Telling someone not to eat meat is like Catholics telling Jews not to be Jewish."

Is our movement really one that should relegated to the backseat? Is it just a matter of preference or personal philosophy? Many people think that caring about animals is a good thing - but that animal treatment is not a major political issue.
When asked about the nature of animal liberation even Dan Mathews, Vice President of PETA, asserted that our movement is not a political one, but a consumer one. Certainly, if we were to track the number or success of bills going through congress or listen to the presidential debates, it would be pretty clear that animal liberation is on the political backburner.

Or is it?

Whether or not politcians will admit it, many contemporary issues are undeniably tied to the way our society treats animals. Take the VT shootings for example. Whether or not Cho Seung-Hui turns out to have been an animal abuser, animal abuse is one of the most prevalent signs of a budding school shooter. Moreover, it signals other forms of violence; according to the American Humane Association, 88% of families engaging in child abuse also abuse their pets.

Here's another connection few people know about. Animal liberation would seem to be totally unrelated to the bills on undocumented immigration stalled before the Senate right now. But the next time you hear a commentator arguing that immigrants take jobs no American wants, its worth noting that 40,000 undocumented migrants work in slaughterhouses. Is it a coincidence that our most invisible workers are sent to the places we most want avoid seeing - where our meat comes from? Perhaps we should ask why so few Americans would work in such places. If we bring the immigrants out of the shadows, will the places they work also become visible?

Finally - and this is an issue that you'll be hearing from PAWS about a lot in the upcoming year - animal liberation ought to be part of any serious political solution to global warming. When global leaders met at the G-8, they quibbled over cutting automobile emissions and switching to renewable energy, all the while ignoring that 18% of global warming - more than transportation emissions - is a result of animal agriculture. To pretend that we can ignore the source of one-fifth of the problem in crafting a solution is an exercise in willful ignorance. Sorry Al Gore.

So it seems to me that whether or not our leaders choose to confront these issues directly, they cannot entirely avoid them. This seems to be the opening for Animal Liberation advocates. It requires no philosophical sea change of thinking to convince people that school shootings are bad, that jobs so horrendous that no American will take them might be in truly horrendous places, and that it is not a good idea to let the earth fry. Add in the health benefits, and it seems like you could convince people to free the animals without convincing them to care about animals in the slightest.

I do wonder, however, if we can truly acheive a cruelty free world without forcing people to accept that animals do truly have interests.

Read. Muse. Respond.

Alex '09


  1. My friend and comrade's remark that animal abuse "signals other forms of violence" reads like an effort to revive Kant's claim we have a duty of kindness towards animals since (the argument goes) those who treat animals kindly are more likely to treat people kindly. On Kant's view, our only direct duties are to people; however, according to Kant, our duty of kindness to people confers an indirect duty of kindness to animals, by the argument given.

    This claim rests on the fragile empirical supposition that people who treat animals kindly are actually more likely to treat people kindly (or, similarly, that people who treat animals cruelly are more likely to treat people cruelly). The evidence Alex gives is that, "according to the American Humane Association, 88% of families engaging in child abuse also abuse their pet". The relevant figure, however, is not whether 88% of families involved in child abuse also abuse their pet, but rather whether a large percentage of families who abuse their pets also abuse their children.

    To join issue, Alex should show that people who harm animals typically also harm people - and not conversely.


  2. Thanks for the logic lesson as always, DB.

    Though I'd hardly say there is "fragile" empirical evidence (see, for example,
    _9_2/contents.html), you're right that the correlation doesn't imply the direction of causation. For people who don't care at all about animals but only about the impact on human welfare, it's important to see if whether animal abuse actually leads to child abuse, school shootings, sexual assault, etc.

    It seems to me that it does. Anyone who gets pleasure from torturing or killing an animal most likely has some psychological problems, and would be more likely to derive similar pleasure from torturing or killing a human. Abusing animals may not be the cause of future violence, but it is certainly a clear warning sign that something is wrong. (If you’re interested, check out HSUS’s “First Strike” campaign.)

    Maybe trying to convince people that torturing an animal is morally wrong solely because of the effects on people is the Kantian way of going about it, but it’s also an effective way – and the only reason any of the anti-cruelty laws last century were passed. (Of course, if you don’t like those ‘welfare’ laws, that’s another story…)

    As for me, I think Alex’s three ways of getting people to embrace animal liberation without actually embracing animals are right on.

  3. "I do wonder, however, if we can truly acheive [sic] a cruelty free world without forcing people to accept that animals do truly have interests."

    I don't think we can. Though using indirect justifications and circuitous arguments can sometimes be the most effective way of stimulating change, in the long run our society will reflect the lack of belief in animals' interests.

    I think, however, that it is not so much a problem of people recognizing whether or not animals have interests as it is that they don't have reason to believe that those interests are important and deserve protection, especially at the cost of some inconvenience.

  4. First I should say that I regard the empirical supposition (that people who treat animals kindly are more likely to treat people kindly) as fragile only relative to other, much stronger, reasons to act in ways consistent with veganism. Further, the point of my intervention (as my co-founders know) was not to cast doubt on the general case for veganism, but rather to urge my comrades to concentrate on the most powerful arguments for it. In fact my initial remarks were even more preliminary than that, since all I claimed was that Alex had given evidence that was logically irrelevant to the Kantian thesis under discussion. I gave no argument against that thesis, though I did call its empirical foundation fragile, a remark which I have now tried to clarify.

    I doubt that anyone here accepts the Kantian thesis in its original form, according to which our only duties to animals are the indirect ones conferred by our (direct) duty of kindness to people. Nevertheless, it might be maintained that there is some evidence that people who treat animals poorly are likely to treat people poorly. Jen in fact maintains this. I am very obviously unqualified to evaluate that evidence, though I find its implications not implausible. There is a further belief that we should use that evidence to persuade people – particularly, people who are unconcerned with the rights of animals themselves – to act in ways more consistent with veganism. I share the above writer’s skepticism about the kind of progress that will be made if people are not convinced both of the interests of animals, and of the need to protect those interests. However, as a tactical matter I would not suggest that we confine our arguments to the subject of animal rights. That is, I think it may be tactically advisable to give people who appear unlikely to become vegan outright reasons to act in ways more consistent with veganism, and that some of these reasons may have nothing to do with animal rights as such.

    Although I am unqualified to evaluate the evidence of what I’ve called the empirical foundation of the Kantian thesis, and despite my belief in its plausibility, I maintain that we should drop that argument and concentrate on a much stronger, but similarly prudential, reason to act in ways more consistent with veganism. I say this both because of the intrinsic methodological difficulty of establishing claims like “people who treat animals poorly are likely to treat people poorly,” and because we do in fact have a much stronger prudential reason, namely the reason to act in ways more consistent with veganism out of concern for the environment – a reason which, like the Kantian one, depends not at all on anyone’s willingness to admit of the need to protect animal interests.

    There are, it seems to me, methodological difficulties in establishing the first (social scientific) reason which simply do not occur for the second (natural scientific) reason. Jen alludes to one element of this difficulty by indicating the correlation/causation problem. These methodological difficulties would be tactically irrelevant – a mere philosopher’s worry – were it not for their tendency to become a political liability. Consider, overwhelming evidence was of the clear harm to women caused by the consumption of pornography was presented in a legal effort to justify the constitutionality of laws which would have made the harm civilly actionable. (The evidence really is overwhelming. See MacKinnon and Dworkin eds., In Harm’s Way: The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings (Harvard, 1997).) Enemies of the legislation were nevertheless able to claim successfully that the evidence was somehow open to doubt, largely for methodological reasons. The legislation was struck. As Judge Easterbrook indicated in his opinion in Hudnut for the Seventh Circuit, “MacKinnon’s article collects empirical work that supports this proposition. The social science studies are very difficult to interpret, however…” I claim that the social scientific evidence for the social harms of meat-eating may be politically unconvincing because they are similarly open (fairly or not) to skepticism about the methodology underlying it. I offer that the natural scientific evidence (see e.g. the paper of geologists Eshel and Martin) for the environmental harms of meat-eating is not similarly open to criticism, and that therefore there is a tactical motivation to focus discussion on these harms.


  5. For what its worth, I don't think this essay was at all intended to suggest that an animal liberation movement can seriously be based on such items as global warming, domestic violence, or immigration. My main point is simply that issues related to animals are prevalent throughout society, even if many politicians deny that they are. It would preposterous to think that we could honestly convince people to make huge changes to their lifestyles simply because they were worried that occassionally animal abuse correllate with wife-beating.

  6. db's idea that it needs to be shown "whether a large percentage of families who abuse their pets also abuse their children" rather than "whether 88% of families involved in child abuse also abuse their pet", while technically correct, is also a bit irrelevant. it's rather like the cigarette companies' game, 'yes while we acknowledge that an extremely high percentage of smokers do get lung cancer, you need to show that if you smoke, then you get lung cancer'.

    the point is the correlation is undeniable. the many who abuse animals also abuse people and many who abuse people also abuse animals. the key here is not to worry too much about which came first. if you really want to follow that line of nitpicking, you might as well wonder whether a person who abuses a chicken is likely to abuse a hamster or should you be worried about whether the person who abuses the hamster is really likely to abuse the chicken? now we really kant want to konsider this konundrum kan we?

    however, db's excellent and important point is very well taken. one should not try to build the ar case primarily based on the 'animal abuse => people abuse' for 2 reasons:

    1. no matter how much solid 'evidence' you gather, you'll always get opposition to the statement that if A, then B. until B actually happens, there will always be those who say that just because A happens, doesn't mean that B will happen. and even if B does happen, there will be those who will argue that A and B are unrelated.

    2. people regularly abuse other people. one would think that knowledge of this would inspire the end of people abuse at least on the grounds that people have rights (etc, etc). of course, not only hasn't the abuse of people been stopped, there is strong opposition from the greedy and the powerful to stop abuse based on fascinating human rights arguments (we are infringing on the rights of the abuser) or profit arguments (we won't make money) or new world order arguments (since our world order is better for us, it just must be) or practically anything that serves the purpose.

    hence, the aforementioned correlation should be used only as one of many weapons in the arsenal.


  7. The above correspondent has evidently confused two issues, so to decide which he regards as nitpicking, we must distinguish them for him. The problem of showing causation over mere causation is quite unrelated to my original point about what evidence corresponds to what claims. Kant wanted to show that people who mistreat animals are more likely to mistreat people. Alex indicated that people who abuse their children are more likely to abuse their pets. I pointed out that the claim relevant to animal rights was the first, and that Alex had only given evidence for the second. This is not equivalent to the objection that it is insufficient to give evidence that smokers are likely to get lung cancer that in order to show that, if you smoke, you'll get lung cancer. It is rather the objection, "The claim, 'A large number of people who get hit by buses cross the street', does not follow from evidence that a large number of people who cross the street get hit by buses". A related point is that it is not, in general, permissible to switch "Some F are G" for "Some G are F" (this is what logicians call "simple conversion"). (Alex, by the way, was guilty of no confusion, since he never actually tried to make the stronger, more interesting Kantian claim; he simply said that animal abuse "signals other forms of violence", and his evidence entitled him to this).

    Although the correspondent starts out insisting on "undeniable correlation" - which, as I've said, has nothing to do with my original point - it is my original point which he seems to regard as "nitpicking". By way of parallel, he offers another version involving the claims, "a person who abuses a chicken is likely to abuse a hamster" and "a person who abuses a hamster is likely to abuse a chicken" - claims about which, he says, "you might as well wonder", as though this would be a very absurd thing. "The key here", apparently, "is not to worry too much about which came first". On this advice, I suppose, it would be similarly pedantic to ask whether evidence of the fact that all Greeks are men can be given for the thesis that all men are Greeks.

    There are a number of ways in which animal rights advocates can handle the "argument" that, if humans reason according to norms of rationality (including a logic), then they are entitled to mistreat those who do not. One very bad way, it seems to me, for animal rights advocates to handle it is to turn themselves into counterexamples to the antecedent.

    Turning away from this extravaganza, I want to confirm that no one attributed the absurdities Alex mentions to him (or at least, I certainly didn't). I also want to voice my agreement with Alex that, "It would preposterous to think that we could honestly convince people to make huge changes to their lifestyles simply because they were worried that occasionally animal abuse correllates with wife-beating". Obviously, something much stronger than occasional correlation would have to be shown. Unfortunately, it might also be preposterous to think that we could persuade people to make huge changes to their lifestyles even if we showed strong direct causation of the form, "if you habitually abuse your animal, you'll be more disposed to beat your wife". This is because, after all, no one seems to care about wife-beating in the first place. In fact, wife-beating (or related horrors) is itself part of the lifestyle of a large number of men. The rate of rape and attempted rape on American women is 44% - and that takes a lot of men. A fact, perhaps, not unrelated to the condition of animals.