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Re: Jason Hribal: A Message From Tatiana

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 12 years ago, in 2011, on the World Wide Web.

Jason Hribal: A Message From Tatiana. www.counterpunch.org (2011-01-19):

My purpose was singular: I wanted to understand history from below. That fall, I took a research seminar on the Gilded Age, and the topic I chose to write about was the Toledo Zoo. It could have ended up being a standard history: the zoo and its directors, their curatorial…

Until the lions have their historians….

As it happens, I am a vegetarian, but I do not believe in philosophical doctrines of animal rights, and I’m not especially keen on the political programs of animal liberationists. But I do think that human treatment of non-human animals is an issue of very serious moral concern, and, as a matter of historical understanding, it’s important to keep in mind that the institutions for corralling and controlling animals have a structure and a history. And understanding the structure and the history isn’t just a matter of human social developments, or how human cultures go about trying to harness blind natural forces. It is a matter of trying to understand what animals have wanted and what they have done.

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  1. Anonymous

    You’ve made enough offhand references to vegan cuisine that I’d always wondered if you were a vegetarian and what your views on animal rights and associated issues were, so I found this interesting. If you ever find time for even a slightly lengthier explanation of the views you express here, here’s one read who would find that interesting.

    • Rad Geek


      I’m vegetarian but not vegan; the mentions of vegan cuisine mostly have to do with the fact that (1) I hang around with a lot of vegans, and (2) I sometimes do a fair amount of cooking for Food Not Bombs.

      The most extended thing that I’ve written on these issues is actually a paper criticizing a common argument in favor of vegetarianism (or animal rights, or other conclusions in the vicinity). I don’t think I have a copy of the full paper online, but most of the points that I discuss in it are discussed in the two guest posts that I wrote for Philosophy, et cetera some years ago — Freak intelligence, marginal cases, and the argument for ethical vegetarianism and The ends in the world as we know it.

      My view, roughly, is that people have a perfect duty not to torture or slaughter animals under the conditions that most animals which are raised for food or used in experimental testing are tortured and slaughtered. (Because, among other things, it’s a cruel way of treating beings who can suffer, and an ugly way to live when there are other ways to live.) I don’t know whether or not this translates into a perfect duty, e.g., never to slaughter any animal for food under non-emergency conditions; I have much stronger views on the actually-existing conditions of factory farming than I do on abnormal or purely hypothetical cases: I am quite sure that that needs to go, and it’s almost certainly not possible for current dietary patterns around meat and other animal products to continue as-is without large-scale, immensely cruel factory farming.

      But there’s a gap between the duty not to slaughter animals and the duty not to eat dead animals, if one is not the person who does the slaughtering. (Meat is already dead, and my choosing to eat it would not necessarily constitute some kind of after-the-fact complicity.)

      The way that I bridge the gap is by holding vegetarianism to be one way of fulfilling an imperfect duty related to the virtue of propriety (roughly, that you shouldn’t be comfortable with taking pleasure from the product of cruelty and massive suffering). If it is an imperfect duty, then it’s like giving money for mutual aid or recycling bottles and cans, in the sense that it’s one way of doing something that you ought to do, but it is not necessarily a blameworthy fault not to do it in every specific instance where it is possible to do. Roderick’s paper On Making Small Contributions to Evil may be helpful here. Some vegetarians like a consequentialist argument for bridging the gap — on the grounds that, say, if you don’t buy meat, then that will reduce market demand for it, and hence tend to reduce the number of animals being killed. But while I think that the point about market demand is a point worth exploring, I don’t think it’s nearly strong enough to do the amount of work that consequentialist vegetarians want it to do. (One person cannot possibly have very much effect on global demand curves by abstaining from consumption on the margin; and it is likely that a purely consequentialist approach would favor strategies quite different from those consequentialist vegetarians actually adopt.) Then again, I’m not a consequentialist, and I think my dissatisfaction here is pretty closely related to my dissatisfaction with a lot of other things about consequentialist approaches to ethics.

      As for animal rights, I believe that rights are conceptually dependent on the capacity to consent, and I don’t think that animals without a certain kind of rational capacity can count as consenting or refusing consent to anything. (There are standard worries here about, e.g., the rights of infants, the comatose, people with severe brain damage, etc.; that’s the topic that I address in the paper.) Even if they cannot be said to consent or be said to be made to do things against their will, animals do clearly have desires, satisfactions, frustrations, needs; can be pleased or can be in pain; etc. etc. — which establishes some pretty burly ethical obligations to them (the capacities for enjoyment and suffering are what I think makes it cruel to torture or to slaughter them, for example), but not the sort of obligations that constitute individual rights. As such I don’t, for example, believe in using physical force to destroy or abolish factory farming, sport hunting, vivisection, dogfighting, or other forms of killing or torturing animals. Although I do believe that these things ought to end and that people should use all kinds of nonviolent social pressure, interpersonal confrontation, person-to-person education, economic organizing, etc. to put an end to them.

  2. ctmummey

    as a self hating vegan & part time virtue ethicist (like, very part time!) this is interesting. i don’t go quite as far as you in that I think by eating slaughtered animals you are hiring someone to do the killing for you and while that is better its still not good. as for vegetarianism dairying as you have surely heard involves killing off lots of bulls and overworked adult cows. but contrarian that i am eggs & honey i guess i don’t have a problem w/in theory if done right. the best argument for veganism is being an omnivore or milkavore isn’t necessary &, besides lame ass vegans that make shitty arguments, what keeps people from not eating animal products or eating less is obv habit, being brainwashed by corporations & all the meateaters everywhere around them. go galt on that shit m-fers! ;)

    • Rad Geek

      as for vegetarianism dairying as you have surely heard involves killing off lots of bulls and overworked adult cows.

      Yes; I think the mainstream dairy industry is really scummy, and reducing or eliminating dairy in your diet is a good thing to do for that reason. I’m all for vegans in that respect; just not one of them at present.

      On the other hand, it is possible to raise milk-cows without torturing or slaughtering them or making use of conventionally lethal factory-farm practices, and possible to get milk to drink from farms that don’t do the torture/slaughter thing (*); whereas there is no way to get meat that doesn’t involve slaughtering the animal in the end. So that may make some difference between the ethics of eating meat and the ethics of dairy (or eggs).

      (* Although, of course, you have to be careful in doing that; Horizon Farms, rather notoriously, is basically a barely-greenwashed factory farm, and I think they are, more or less, simply lying to their customers. I’d rather buy milk from a conventional dairy than from Horizon Farms, because then at least I’m not paying a premium for hypocrisy and misrepresentation.)

      i don’t go quite as far as you in that I think by eating slaughtered animals you are hiring someone to do the killing for you

      Well, I don’t think this is literally true — typically, the animal has already been killed and would have been killed whether or not you chose to buy that meat. There are exceptions — for example, I think that, say, buying a live turkey from a farm, or buying lobster from a live lobster tank at a restaurant, is *literally* hiring someone else to torture or kill the animal, and I think that’s morally indistinguishable from (say) grabbing the poor creature yourself and throwing it in the pot of boiling water — I would say you have a perfect duty not to do that, for the same reasons you have a perfect duty not to boil it to boil an animal alive on your own. But the lobster case and the typical hamburger or chicken case are different in that respect: the most you can say about the cows or the chicken slaughtered (in part) to provide the meat for your meal is that the farmer raised them to be slaughtered, and the slaughterhouse slaughtered them, on the expectation that somebody or another (they don’t care whether or not it’s you) would come along to pay for it after the fact. Which is a sort of moral entanglement, but a much more attenuated one.

      That said, I do think you’re on to something important here — there’s an additional issue when one is not only eating (and taking pleasure from) meat, but also buying it (or having it bought for them). In that connection, I think you’re right that (under normal conditions, etc. etc.) buying meat does involve some kind of after-the-fact complicity with, or at least after-the-fact entangling with, the act of killing the animal which you’re now eating. That ought to be a source of ethical discomfort for anyone who wouldn’t be willing to slaughter an animal herself, and to tell against being willing to do it.

  3. Anonymous

    Thanks for the reply, very interesting.

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