Eating kittens, part deux

As I posted last night, the current issue of National Review has a book review of The Bond from Claire Berlinski. The last post made the point that the review's key perspective--that the protection for pets that keeps us from eating them should be extended to other animals--is shown to be false moral posturing by the experiences of starving people. In this post, some responses to specific statements in Berlinski's article.

"Children are born with a keen curiosity about animals; their horror at the thought that the animals are to be slaughtered must be trained out of them."

This statement is simply false for being based on incorrect premises.

The phrase "children are curious about animals" is a very broad and, therefore, meaningless observation. Not all children are curious about animals. Most children who are curious about animals are not curious about all animals. And children are not curious about animals in the same way or in the same way they are curious about people. These are really very important modifiers. You will note that your dogs and cats are curious about squirrels and mice, as well. No one is daft enough to think that this means they have a special bond with squirrels and mice so that they should refrain from harming them.

"Their horror" is not universal and/or not universally applicable to all animals. Furthermore, no one (at least, very few people) trains children to stop being horrified at animal slaughter. This phrase "must be trained out of them" is very specific--i.e., if you do not actively subject your son to Clockword Orange-style conditioning, he will not be able to eat meat due to the horror--and very ridiculously wrong.

My brother and I are a good example of the reality of children's interest in animals. As a young boy, I was really interested only in dogs and horses. Now I'm older, and I wasn't trained to eat dogs and horses in the interim. I still wouldn't want to eat my compatriots, the foxhounds.

My brother on the other hand had a much more wide-ranging interest in animals, though mostly sea life. On a first trip to the Maine cost as a youth, he was eager to eat lobster but then couldn't bring himself to do it. No matter; we left him alone. Recently, he made us all sit down and watch Planet Earth with him, fascinated as he is by the natural world. Also recently, he made lobster bisque from scratch, slicing through the head of the lobster lengthwise to kill it before dismembering it. I did not note much horror, although the practice of cutting the head first is routine chefs' compassion.

What changed? Nothing but that we grew up. The prejudices, feelings, and beliefs of children are not appropriate to adults. This is not a moral statement so much as a psychological and developmental one.

"It is well known that children who torture animals have something very wrong with them: They often grow up to practice this enthusiasm on humans."

There's a reason this statement comes at the end of a paragraph in Berlinksi's article: any conclusion drawn from it would be a non-sequitur. Children who torture animals enjoy inflicting pain for its own sake. The relationship between this motivation and the motivation of adults to eat meat is completely non-existent. This is really a low point in thought for Berlinski. "Torture" is a term of moral opprobrium that we apply to the motivations of an active party, not a term of description that we apply to the experiences of a passive party. Torture, pain--two very different phenomena.

" requires tergiversations of the mind and soul to accept that animals are thus like plants and their lives no more sacred than a carrot's. We need not value animals more than children to ask, as Bentham did, whether they suffer, conclude that they do, and demand of ourselves that we limit the amount of suffering we impose upon them."

Berlinski disguises an insidious argument here with awkward construction. Let's follow her argument plainly so that, if we want to, we know what of we tergiversate:
(1) Children (implicitly) are (too) horrified by animal slaughter (to eat animals).
(2) Children's initial reactions to the world are morally superior to adults'. (Yes, this really is Berlinski's argument: ask yourself what else it means to say "we need not value animals more than children to ask...")
(3) It is morally superior to be (too) horrified by animal slaughter (to be able to eat animals).

Let's be frank, here: children are not miniature versions of adults who are innocent, giving, and loving. This view of children is held only by child molesters and aging single women who haven't had to raise children. As parents or students of child development can tell you, aging is a process of changing mental and emotional capabilities. As children age, their brains literally change, and their use of verbal, mathematical, and spatial reasoning improves along with their emotional abilities to not act impulsively, to distinguish, and to integrate their feelings with their intellectual understanding of the world. Any argument of the type Berlinksi makes here should be rejected out of hand. Is that tergiversation? Then label me a tergiversator!

" is not normal in human history to see animals as commodities... even as we live in ever greater intimacy with them as pets."

If you read that sentence and went "huh?", you are not alone. I don't think it would have passed muster when William F. Buckley was editing NR. If you didn't go "huh?", read it again. It doesn't actually make any sense unless she is arguing that people in the past viewed animals as commodities because they didn't have pets, which is factually false. Or unless she's arguing that in the past people who had pets were the only ones who didn't view them as commodities.

Let's make up an argument for Berlinski so we can pretend we understand what she means. Let's say she's arguing that the closer proximity you live in to any animal, the less willing you should be to see any other animals as "commodities." This argument is confused on several points.

It asserts that our relationship to all animals should be alike. I.e., when Fluffy purrs while sitting in your lap, it should make you want to spare the Japanese giant salamander from the vagaries of life and death in the animal kingdom. Is that reasonable? Maybe, but I doubt it. The elision of feelings between your mother, your boyfriend, your cat Fluffy, and a giant salamander seems sort of screwed up.

As an historical matter, it is false. As Melissa McEwen has pointed out, domestication (there is no other way to live in proximity or "intimacy" with animals) and commodification are not, as Berlinski suggests, opposing forces. It is hunter-gatherer peoples, who perceive animals as having their own realm of existence, who anthropomorphize their food. When people started keeping animals around their living quarters is when they stopped treating animals like kindred spirits.

Berlinski's view of our life with animals is a projection of her own lifestyle and emotional needs. Berlinksi describes having her cat in her lap and having it affectionately place its paw on her face. I submit that Berlinksi thinks we should extend the same protection to cats that we extend to orphaned children because she keeps the cat in her lap rather than sending it scurrying after rats. A farmer does not in fact live in less proximity to animals than Berlinksi, but she uses them differently. She has, in effect, commodified intimacy. Her perspective is not the natural result of living with animals, it is the result of using animals for affection.

Berlinski's use of the term "commodity" is problematic. I believe she knows enough about trade and financial matters to be held accountable for her use of language. The term "commodity" specifically relates to interchangeable items that can be traded in a market. In her statement above, she argues that we should not see animals with indifference as we live in closer proximity to them. But by using the term commodity, she obfuscates and elides the concepts of "lack of care" and "food stuffs." Before industrial farming, when cattle were raised on the open range, beef was still a commodity. What does she want? An end to industrial farming, or end to animal food?

"Animals have minds."

Berlinski spends several paragraphs telling us that animals have minds, that we don't know what types of minds, but that since animals seem to us to act affectionate, we should treat them as if they have minds like ours. Her most extreme example is a monster crocodile that seems to like getting cuddled by its trainer.

I would agree that animals have minds of some sort, although since I can't define what a "mind" really is even in the human context and I can't live as a bat, I couldn't say what sort of mind a bat or any other sort of animal had. And I agree that animals seem affectionate. In fact, I would say that dogs, my preferred animal (but not my preferred meal--that's duck), evince a whole range of emotion I can recognize. In fact, if animals couldn't do this, they wouldn't be very interesting to us until they became a cutlet. I've even read Animals in Translation. I'm down with animal minds.
But I submit as evidence attacks well-publicized in the news such as those of orca whales on their long-time trainers who they seemed to treat with affection at times. What are we to make of these? Let's assume for a moment that when the tigers and orcas appeared to be affectionate that they actually felt affectionate. Yet they could attack and kill the objects of their affection anyhow. Is that a mind like ours or isn't it? If we compare it to people, we see a similar pattern in cases of domestic abuse. The perpetrator of domestic abuse gives all signs of being affectionate during a "honeymoon period" but reverts back to aggression nonetheless. Is this an affection that we recognize? A mind that we recognize? How much greater the gulf with the mind of an "affectionate" orca whale?

The domestic abuser is not a facetious line of argument, because what Berlinski wants us to believe is that the apparent affection of an animal is a sign that we have made a connection with the animal, formed a "bond" with it. And that it's wrong to break the bond by killing the animal. Yet, what do we think about the bond formed between a couple in domestic abuse? Is the intermittent exhibit of affection proof of a bond in domestic abuse, or simply proof of some other one-way emotional reaction on the part of the abuser such as guilt, dependence, or supplication? If we cannot believe in a bond in these human affairs, can we believe in a bond with violent animals? And if the exhibited affection of violent animals is not a sign of bond, why the exhibited affection of non-violent animals?

I think that, at least to some extent, Berlinski's problem is that the term and concept "bond" is antiquated. We live in a world of broken relationships, and to use terms like "bond" today is like going to the grocer and asking him to "pluck" some raspberries from the fruit stand or asking the butcher to "track down" some fillets.

Let me quote from a letter by Abigail Adams to John Adams:
I received yours of October 23. I want to hear from you every day, and I always feel sorrow when I come to the close of a Letter. Your Time must be greatly engrosed, but little of it to spaire to the calls of Friendship, and I have reason to think I have the largest share of it. Winter makes approaches fast. I hope I shall not be obliged to spend it without my dearest Friend, I know not how to think of it.
They wrote to each other like this all the time. Nobody does that today. I can believe that Berlinski thinks of bonding with her cat or Adam Weitz of communicating with animals, because I think their concepts of human interactions are degraded, as are all of ours, by modern life.

Anyhow, she undermines herself later in the article...

"Our treatment of animals is a measure of our character..."
"I feed [my cats] meat--yet I have rescued and liberated mice from their clutches. No reason for this, I know; just sentiment."

Ah, sentiment. You see, Berlinski is a good person. We know this because we can measure her character by her sentiment. More to the point, she has no bond with these mice, and she doesn't pretend to: she just doesn't like killing, no different from the children, than whom she would never deign to be better.

" is morally relevant that no one has ever said, 'He's loyal as a snake.'"

True, but like the example of psychopathic children, the relevance is only in signs. Animal torture--the desire to submit animals to pain--is a sign of a broken moral compass, but the alleviation of animal pain is not on a moral footing with the alleviation of human pain. Likewise, to treat a dog that licks and nuzzles you the same as a snake that does not interact with you would be a sign of unnatural indifference, but the dog does not have a claim on us by this. I refer you, as in the last post, to the experiences of the starving: no doubt those Parisians were eating dogs that had licked and nuzzled them; why not their children and enfeebled adults?

"To me, those cows and pigs in factory farms look a lot like the cats and dogs who have laid their heads on my chest."

Berlinski tells us she is against only factory farming, not meat eating. Yet her sentiment and perception of bonding would make this statement belie a larger desire to avoid eating meat in all its forms. The fact that, earlier in her article, she addresses the issue of animals killed during crop harvesting indicates that in fact, to her, the question is one of killing animals at all. I don't believe it is right to compare Polyface Farms with crop harvesting, ask which is less hurtful to animals, and conclude that eating meat can be permissible. That is a very different line of reasoning from comparing Polyface Farms to factory farms and asking whether we can afford to make the latter more like the former. I would like to see changes in factory farming, too, but the changes Berlinski would like are different and based on the sentiment that makes her take mice away from her cats.

"After all, if you come across a paper bag in the gutter and it seems something's in it and you don't know if it's alive, you don't kick it, do you?"

The article ends with another statement that, were it teased out into an argument, would fail. No, nobody would kick the bag, but kicking the bag would serve no purpose. Slaughtering animals for meat is not analogous in any way. This sort of statement of Berlinski's is what I would expect from junior high students, not from PhDs publishing in NR.

National Review has now published several articles and reviews like this one. It's a disappointment. If the editors want to take a stand on animal husbandry, they should do it. Publishing weak quasi-vegetarian tracts by building straw-man-like arguments against factory farming is a waste of everyone's time and money.