Thursday, February 05, 2009

Vegetarianism: The Case We Can All Get Behind

Over at Turn Left, where most of my political writing ends up, I'm haggling with another lefty about why on Earth anyone should be a vegetarian. Frankly, I think I'm winning, and this guy doesn't like to admit defeat.

One thing about his argument puzzles me: he doesn't see why he should care about inflicting pain on animals because they're not part of what he calls "the moral community." My latest riposte (of many) is reprinted here. Read the whole thread if you're curious about how we got to this pretty pass. His comments from an earlier post are in italics.


Pigs can navigate mazes but they can't speak. Where do you put that on any intelligence scale? It's difficult to assign any score or confidence level to something for which we so obviously lack a vocabulary. All we have are approximations, and anyway it's not like a lot of scientists devote their careers to pig cognition, so we have little overall data compared to, say, astrophysics. Which explains. . .

I've no idea why it took you this long when I've told you so many times exactly what you needed to do.

There isn't much in the way of the smoking gun you're after, which made me think the project was hopeless in the first place. I'm trying anyway because I think there's enough to go on to at least demonstrate the seriousness of the matter to anyone else reading this thread.

You're talking to a pacifist. I do have an aversion to unnecessary violence against people. But you've yet to convince me that pigs are people.

Yours is a limited and highly qualified pacifism. As Wikipedia tells us: "Pacifism covers a spectrum of views ranging from the belief that international disputes can and should be peacefully resolved; to calls for the abolition of the institutions of the military and war; to opposition to any organization of society through governmental force (anarchist or libertarian pacifism); to rejection of the use of physical violence to obtain political, economic or social goals; to the condemnation of force except in cases where it is absolutely necessary to advance the cause of peace; to opposition to violence under any circumstance, including defense of self and others." I usually consider pacifism as such to entail the penultimate if not ultimate definition, and the others as more good common sense and belief in democracy. You take things further than you realize in saying that you can't decide whether two-year-olds are people and wouldn't necessarily have an aversion to seeing them tortured. This isn't really pacifism at all. Any Quaker meeting would throw you out on your ear. I'm not saying you don't believe your own words, I'm just saying you're stretching the definition of pacifism pretty thin.

If not all pain is equal, then we should not presume that pig pain is morally equivalent to human pain.

You're turning a question of unnecessarily inflicted pain into an occasion for semantic niceties. How could I ever prove to you that pig pain is "morally equivalent" to human pain, given your standards of evidence? What do you want, to hear the pig say it out loud? You want someone to invent some universal pain-o-meter? You can see them squealing in horrible distress, see factory farm workers beating them with metal rods for no apparent reason, see them panting and covered in blood while they die standing up in tiny crates -- I confess, once again, that I don't know what else to tell you. The circumstantial evidence, which is all we'll ever have, indicates that they don't want to be beaten, kicked or killed, that they have an ingrained survival instinct (like nearly all animal life above the microscopic) and clearly cry out when they're injured. I can't invent a machine that will tell you more than you already know. You seriously want me to find some scholarly scientific papers discussing pig intelligence?

Our work shows that pigs have good spatial memory abilities that can be disrupted by common management procedures. If this extended to social memory, it could help explain increased aggression levels in previously familiar pigs after routine procedures. We have also found that pigs adjust their foraging behavior depending on the presence or absence of a subordinate, exploitable co-forager that knows where the food is.
But what will all this tell you that you don't have already? And anyway, why set your bar so strangely high? The intelligence of a three-year-old isn't a very meaningful barrier to compassion, especially for a "pacifist." In fact, I'd say it's arbitrarily and inappropriately high, given the conditions you've already seen in the videos.

If these animals were killed humanely, I'd still have a problem with the sheer waste but I wouldn't view it as so clearly and unnecessarily cruel. But not only are they not killed humanely, there's a lot of evidence that slaughterhouse employees become extremely desensitized and vicious over time.
"It's the same thing with an animal who pisses you off, except it is in the stick pit, you are going to kill it. Only you don't just kill it, you go in hard, push hard, blow the windpipe, make it drown in its own blood. Split its nose. A live hog would be running around the pit. It would just be looking up at me and I'd be sticking, and I would just take my knife and -- eerk -- cut its eye out while it was just sitting there … One time I took my knife -- it's sharp enough -- and I sliced off the end of a hog's nose, just like a piece of bologna … I took a handful of salt brine and ground it into his nose … I stuck the salt right up the hog's ass … It's not anything anyone should be proud of … It was my way of taking out frustration."
How do you account for the pigs' aversion to being injured? Why do they run around and try to get away? Why do they get upset when you hit them? Is this just random behavior?


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