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Monday, January 16, 2012

Hal Herzog on Animal Rights

Almost finished listening to Hal Herzog's Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat

It's interesting reading (listening), but what's truly interesting is that he seems to have all the evidence he needs to stop or cut back on eating meat (as a moral choice), but he fails to make it.  He rightly points out various inconsistencies with the positions of animal activists, but then he fails to come to almost any conclusions whatsoever as to what is right or wrong with respect to any of the questions that they are trying to address.

For example, he points out that gamecocks live much much better lives than broiler hens -- they are fed well, and then the end comes quickly in a battle that they have been genetically selected to want to fight -- but then he never circles back to wonder whether there is a problem with eating chicken that have been raised in the conditions he himself describes.  He is a fairly unapologetic carnivore, although I think I heard him say that all things being equal, he'd rather eat cruelty-free meat (whatever that is!).

So lots of fun information in this, e.g. about how smart octopuses are (and no, it's NOT octopi) and how Congress has defined animals (for purposes of the Animal Welfare Act) to exclude mice.  But not a particularly deep guide to the problems.  The only reason that I decided to write about it was the following statement I just heard: 

"Here is a rare bird -- a morally serious person who can laugh at himself."

He was recounting a conversation with a guy who founded an organization that saves unwanted animals (6000 pets during hurricane Katrina), and the guy had explained that if a horsefly bites him outside, he'll swat the horsefly, but if it bites him inside, he'll let it out.  Herzog thought that was the exact opposite of the right approach, but the guy explained that once the horsefly is in his house, he feels a responsibility to it that he doesn't feel when he is outside.  The guy recognized that the rationale was imperfect and that the horsefly would probably just bite him outside now.  

The quote is an example of Herzog's flippant style, where he seems to be portraying himself as too light-hearted and cool to be morally serious.  But he is grappling with "morally serious" issues in this book, and in a way, it is directed straight at people who want to be -- or already are -- morally serious.  It's obviously the case that people who take themselves and their views too seriously often seem to lack a sense of humor, but that's almost tautological.  I'm pretty sure you can be both morally serious AND have a sense of humor, and NOT be a "rare bird."

Also, he can be very sloppy with the facts.  He gives a long hypothetical in which the end result is that since (1) you would agree to killing Nazi concentration camp guards who you knew were going to kill Jews, but (2) you would not agree to killing a scientist who engages in animal research that kills animals, that must mean that (3) human life is more valuable than animal life to you, i.e. that at least some forms of "speciesism" are justified.  Nothing wrong with this argument.  But in his hypothetical, his "inner lawyer" told him to imagine himself outside the Dachau concentration camp in 1939, watching the smoke rise from the gas chambers, and knowing that Jews were being killed there.  Now, it's probably a small point -- since there's no question that many Jews were worked and essentially starved to death in Dachau even before 1939 -- but it's also dangerously misleading on two counts: (1) in fact, Dachau didn't start building gas chambers until 1942 (per wikipedia; and for that matter, there were no crematoria before 1940) and (2) despite this, he is suggesting that the German people as early as 1939 "knew" that concentration camps were using gas chambers and did nothing about it.

Clearly, the German people of that time period can be blamed for not doing more to stop the Holocaust (although even now, nobody "knows" exactly what "they" "knew" when), just as long-dead Americans can be blamed for America's history of genocide, slavery, and racism, including anti-semitism, and many long-dead Europeans can be blamed for encouraging the slave trade.  But let's not pour gas on the fire by getting the dates and circumstances wrong.

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