Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat

Since reading David Foster Wallace's title essay from Consider the Lobster, I haven't read any more compelling discussion of how a carnivore who is concerned about the ethical treatment of animals should live, until I found Hal Herzog's new book entitled Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat on the shelf at the public library. The first part of the title is shown on a puppy silhouette, the second on a rat, and the third on a pig.

Early on in this book I was pleased to find out that the image I've been stuck with since watching the animated 101 Dalmations as a child--that of the dogs resembling their owners--has some basis in fact. Two-thirds of the time, people in studies successfully match an owner and a purebred dog (rates are lower for mutts, since their appearance as adults is not as predictable).

Other than providing scientific evidence for some of the things I have always believed about animals, however, the first two-thirds of the book struck me as overly general and simplistic. Probably that's because Herzog is writing an introduction to some of these issues for folks who haven't really thought about them before. His section on cockfighting, for instance, proposes an either-or scenario that didn't work for me; it's obvious to anyone concerned with the ethical treatment of animals that fighting cocks do live a better life than factory-farmed meat chickens or even laying hens. That doesn't mean that it's a good comparison, though--much less the only choice. I was irritated by his conclusion that "while the great chicken-eating public...will sleep easy tonight knowing that cockfighting is now banned in every state, teams of chicken catchers from Maryland to California will enter darkened broiler houses and stuff 35 million terrified birds into wire crates in preparation for their journey to the processing plant tomorrow morning." I mean, why this contrast and no other? Some people keep pigs for pets, and the stories I've read about commercial pig production (in other places than this book) are even more horrifying than the stories Herzog tells about chicken production.

The 279-page text didn't really start to tell me things I didn't already know until page 228, when Herzog declares that "Congress should extend the Animal Welfare Act to include all vertebrate species" and begins exploring why "people who oppose all animal experimentation are up against their own inconsistencies and paradoxes." Again he sees only two approaches, but this time simplifying the issue does clarify it for me. The two approaches he opposes are utilitarianism and deontology: "Utilitarians believe that the morality of an act depends on its consequences. Deontologists, on the other hand, argue that the rightness or wrongness of an act is independent of its consequences. They believe that ethics are based on universal principles and obligations....In other words, you should keep your promises not because bad things will happen if you break them, but because you made them."

Discussing Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation (1975) as the representative of utilitarianism and Tom Regan, author of The Case for Animal Rights (1983) as the representative of deontology, Herzog shows the flaws of consistency in applying either approach, ultimately presenting Joan Dunayer's book Speciesism as an example of "what happens when you take logic too far." He concludes that "if you really believe that how we treat creatures should not depend on the size of their brains or the number of their legs, you wind up in a world in which, as Dunayer suggests, termites have the right to eat your house."

Herzog goes through the steps of thinking logically about an ethical system for the treatment of animals; I like the step where he rejects "moral intuition" as a basis for judging, pointing out that "for thousands of years, it was common sense that slaves were property and that homosexuality was a crime against nature." I also like the step where he explores "the implications of living in a world that is morally convoluted, in which consistency is elusive, and often impossible" and declares that the answer is not to "throw up our hands in despair." Herzog's answer involves an attempt to be kind when you can, to accept your own hypocrisies about the treatment of animals while working to better the fate of the ones you care about most.

I think in the end he comes down farther on the side of the utilitarians, and I guess I do, too. It seems a better thing to do something small than to wring your hands uselessly or make a grand gesture that deprives you of some pleasure you might otherwise harmlessly enjoy.

While I don't work at the local humane society as much as I possibly could, I have done it consistently throughout my life. And while I occasionally buy chicken or bacon at the local grocery store, I try to buy those things from a local farmer more often. Because doing what you can is at least doing something. It's nice to read a book that doesn't demand a whole lot more.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

It does often seem so overwhelming in terms of things that are awful that you can't see past wringing your hands. This sounds like an interesting book, in spite of the generalizations and so on. At least the topic is getting treated. And now I'm off to look for a dog that resembles a, um, a, yes, a Victoria's Secret model! (ha ha)

Harriet M. Welsch said...

I was just looking at this book wondering if it was worth a read. Thanks for the review.

Jenny said...

I need to go rewatch 101 Dalmatians. I had completely forgotten about that scene with Pongo picking out a girlfriend for Roger. :p

This is one of those things I cannot decide what I am going to do about it. I really, really, really like eating meat. :( I have mostly cut pig out of my diet, but just because chickens are dumber doesn't mean they deserve to lead miserable lives.

Jeanne said...

Rhapsodyinbooks, it is an interesting book, with a little bit of something for everyone. A dog that "resembles" a Victoria's Secret model, according to Herzog's book, would have long, floppy ears to match the long hair!

Harriet, If you're up on these issues, skim the first parts.

Jenny, Glad I reminded you of that scene, which is stuck ineluctably in my mind.

If I lived in NYC and couldn't buy my meat from a local farmer, I might look around to see what local options there might be in a city. Even asking the questions tells the people who own the shops that you're thinking about the issue. And increasingly restaurants are advertising where the meat comes from, although I wonder just how "free-range" the chicken served at Chipotle really is.

Eva said...

That's my favourite scene in 101 Dalmations! :)

I don't think I'll be reading this one, since it'll make me too sad, and I already know enough about animal testing, the way animals are treated before being slaughtered, etc.

You might like Mark Bittman's Food Matters: he looks at the environmental impact of our food choices and also has a kind of 'let's do our best' approach.

Jeanne said...

Eva, glad to know it's someone else's favorite scene!
I'll look up the Bittman book; it does sound like something I should read--thanks.

Rebecca Glenn said...

Thank you for submitting this review to the Book Review Blog Carnival. Edition #58 will be posted tomorrow on The Book Frog. Don't forget to check it out!