One Last Reason

April 29, 2012

If all has gone according to plan, I’m headed to Verona today in order to catch my flight back home after attending a project meeting on animal biotechnology and visiting a Green Mountain study abroad group in Merano. I write in this curiously oblique way because I’m using the WordPress scheduling feature to post a Thornapple blog automatically while I’m in Europe. This saves me having to lug my computer around, but it also means that I have to write these blogs ahead of time.

Which explains why I’m still thinking about all the reasons I didn’t send in an entry to the New York Times essay contest on the ethics of eating meat.

And truth be told, the real reason may just be that I shy away from being judged by the New York Times. Sure, I know that if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere, but I woke up in the city that doesn’t sleep (or close to it) when I was in graduate school. There may be something to my friend Greg Moses’ idea that pounding the sidewalks of New York is important for catching a certain rhythm and spirit that has always permeated the best philosophical writing in America, but even if that is so, there is no reason why people pounding those sidewalks need to read about it as they gulp coffee regular with one hand and juggle The Times with the other.

There was a time in our history when Americans elected Presidents who went to school in San Marcos, TX or Eureka, IL. And in between those Presidents we had graduates of Whittier College, the U.S. Naval Academy and some school down state (even though that guy wasn’t elected), too. Given the way our next election is shaping up, it will be at least 2035 before anyone teaches a class of college freshmen who can remember a President who wasn’t educated at Harvard or Yale. It is very unlikely that I will ever see that day again personally, so it’s no wonder that everybody who’s anybody expects me to publish in The New York Times.

Fact is, I rather like the obscurity of the Thornapple Blog. I like the fact that I can be sarcastic without having to worry (too much) that the Mackinac Center is going to find out about me and then try and get Rick Snyder down my neck for criticizing Republicans. I like being able to mount arguments that are so convoluted they border on being loony, and I like being able to slop back and forth across that border now again, too.

And frankly, I like the fact that I’m giving it away to anyone who takes the trouble to find it.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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Another Reason

April 22, 2012

Not long after posting last week’s blog on the New York Times “ethics of meat eating” contest I heard from my friend Andrew Light, who is one of judges. Andrew doesn’t read the Thornapple Blog, but I had sent him a copy of the first draft as a courtesy. He reports that The Times has received more than 5000 entries to the contest, some of them sounding themes very much like my blog. He also notes that the judges weren’t to have finished their work until this past Wednesday, so if you went looking for the results in the NY Times Magazine last week, you were probably disappointed. Maybe next week.

Andrew picked out this sentence of the blog for comment:

You can’t live in the world of food ethics without being aware that many philosophers who live on considerably more than $2.60 a day have decided that eating meat is a “trivial pleasure” which people are morally obligated to forego in light of the fact that producing animal protein (and this would include eggs the way we do it in the industrialized world, by the way) requires the death of animals.

He assures me that none of the judges (two of which, himself included, are philosophers making more than $2.60 per day) hold the opinion that meat eating by the poor is a trivial pleasure. This may be so, but the other philosopher who is a judge has in fact written that meat eating is a trivial pleasure, and when he did so, he did not qualify his statement by confining it to people at higher levels of income. I have had this phrase thrown at me on several occasions, and I rather suspect that people who use it picked it up from the writings of Peter Singer. I wrote about a particular occasion on which something rather like this phrase was used in a Thornapple Blog on November 14 of 2010.

Nevertheless, I would be remiss if I did not also point out that Professor Singer is one of the loudest and most consistent voices raised on behalf the poor. He is known for donating a substantial percentage of his income to charities running aid and development programs in developing countries, and this is not something that I do myself. So Andrew would be quite right in correcting any implication that the sentence he quoted was a valid criticism of the contest judges. Singer is notorious for his advocacy on behalf of animals, but he has always qualified this advocacy. It is not based on a concern about the death of animals, nor does he present it as a rationale that could cited to deprive people in poverty of the food that they need.

In fact it was never my intention to criticize Andrew Light, Peter Singer or the other judges (who are not philosophers, in any case, and two of whom are not, so far as I know, vociferous advocates of ethical vegetarianism). I was being sincere in trying to explain why I find philosophical arguments about what other people should eat to be so troubling. The 2010 blog also talked about people a bit less fortunate than I am, though in that case they were my neighbors, which means that they are getting by on significantly more than $2.60 per day.  I could have talked about some other people I know who are every bit as well off as I am.

There is a woman I know who struggles with several dietary conditions and takes virtually no pleasure (trivial or otherwise) in eating whatsoever. What’s offensive about the “dietary ethics” arguments in this case has little to do with vegetarianism, and everything to do with the assumption that what you eat is a matter of choice. As further evidence, I could cite my own case. I’m a diabetic, though my blood sugars are reasonably well controlled at present. They tend to be better controlled when I eat a meat heavy diet. In fact I don’t eat a meat heavy diet, which means I have to offset rice or pasta meals with some pretty vigorous exercise. But for me, diet is a regimen contextualized by numerous factors, only some of which are ethical in nature. It’s still not really a matter of “choice” in any straightforward sense.

And then there’s the poor fellow who takes a bag full of medications every day. Some drug or some combination of drugs and/or food sets off a round of explosive diarrhea every other week or so. If you see him make a beeline for the men’s room, cut him a little slack, would you? Trouble is, he can’t figure out what to eat, what not to eat, or whether it’s some weird combination of the moon, the tides or bulgur and tofu that’s the root of all.  If he could help his condition by eating meat, I’d say go for it. I probably wouldn’t encourage him to write to the Times, though. His case points us to a reason why we’d probably all be better off not to talk so earnestly about what’s at the end of each other’s fork.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

I Didn’t Write to The Times

April 15, 2012

According to the World Bank, the criterion for “extreme poverty” is an average income of €1.00 per day, which works out to be about $1.30. When you earn $2.60 per day, you leave “extreme poverty” and are then (by World Bank standards) simply poor. Roughly 3 billion people in the world are below the poverty line, and about half of them live in extreme poverty. According to research by household economists, when people move from extreme poverty to just being poor, the main thing that they spend their second Euro on is animal protein. They buy a little meat to eat, or possibly some eggs or (less frequently) milk.

I mention this factoid because I’ve been getting e-mails about the New York Times writing contest on the ethics of meat eating. It seems that someone at the Times thought it would be fun to see who could come up with best ethical argument in defense of eating meat, so they offered a prize and put together a jury of white males from the industrialized world to judge the entries. The winning entry is probably being published in the NY Times Magazine today.

I’ve heard from friends who thought I should enter, and I also heard from people in the world of livestock production who wanted me to complain about the judges. It’s not that livestock producers see a problem with an all white male jury, mind you. They think the whole contest is biased against them.  As for myself, I think the whole contest is biased against people who are just now starting to earn their second Euro, and have started integrating meat into their diet a little more frequently than they did when they were extremely poor.

I do not have the temerity to present myself as someone who could speak on behalf of someone who lives on $2.60 per day, so I was loath to even try to justify the dietary preference of people who do to the Editors of the New York Times. I was not surprised by this contest, however. You can’t live in the world of food ethics without being aware that many philosophers who live on considerably more than $2.60 a day have decided that eating meat is a “trivial pleasure” which people are morally obligated to forego in light of the fact that producing animal protein (and this would include eggs the way we do it in the industrialized world, by the way) requires the death of animals.

Although I can’t really imagine what it would be like to emerge from extreme poverty into a world where I am now earning a second $1.30 per day, I cannot convince myself that such a person would spend their “windfall” income on trivial pleasures. I have thus become exceedingly cautious about pontificating on the ethics of eating meat. I feel that someone who is spending a portion of their second Euro on some meat or eggs deserves at least this modicum of my respect for their preferences.

This is not to say, mind you, that there are no ethical problems with meat eating. Readers of the blog know that I work with mainstream livestock producers to help them think through the ways that they can improve the welfare of animals in their care. And the planetary ecosystem simply cannot tolerate a world where everyone ate as much animal protein as the typical American eats. But a contest calling for an ethical defense of meat eating? I think I have to pass on that one.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Agrarian Ethics

April 8, 2012

Looking back to last week’s blog on “Industrial Ethics,” I ask you “How serious could an April 1 blog be, anyway?”

In fact I do think that most Americans think of agriculture as “just another sector in the industrial economy,” and I do think that a lot of good, important and totally legitimate work can be done on agriculture and food issues under the umbrella of an “industrial ethic”—an ethic built on efficiency, on the one hand, and not harming third parties, on the other. I do think that a lot of heroes in the food movement are working out of that paradigm. If you’ve read my book The Agrarian Vision, you would know that I include some icons like Michael Pollan and Vandana Shiva among them.

But here’s what I wanna say when it’s NOT April Fool’s Day: It hasn’t always been like that, bucko.

Back in the first half of the 20th century (which is to say before even I  was born) it was not all that unusual for people to think that farming and ranching had unique roles to play in making us the kind of people like we are. And we could probably include fishing in that, too, for some coastal areas where commercial fisherman braved the wine dark sea to provide subsistence production. I’ve hit this note in the Thornapple Blog before, talking about “the agrarian vision” of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson thought we needed a nation of farmers because a person whose livelihood is tied to the land won’t hightail it off to Bermuda when the Redcoats show up to collect more taxes for King George. Farmers are more virtuous as citizens, Jefferson thought.

In the Thornapple Blog’s tradition of celebrating popular song lyrics in which food is mentioned I should point out that this may be the coded meaning behind one of best loved (but least understood) musical poems of our era:

The poor cook he took fits,
threw away all of my grits,
then he took and ate up all of my corn.

As you will recall, all this occurs “round Nassau town” with “my grandfather and me.” But that’s probably a story for another time and place.

We have some agrarians in our own time, too. Victor Davis Hanson wrote a couple of interesting agrarian books before he became a reliably Republican commentator on current events from a post at the Hoover Institute. Brian M. Donahue is someone you could look to if you wanted a more reliably left-leaning version of a contemporary agrarian vision. Donahue has argued that farming, gardening and participating a community supported agriculture can give as a more rooted sense of the way that we are integrated into the natural world, and this rootedness translates into a form of environmental citizenship.

And I do think we’d be more ethically competent if we could recognize the difference between an agrarian argument and standard left-right politics. My book has been called “conservative” simply because I say nice things about Hanson’s agrarian writings.

This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.

Agrarian ethics: something we need in our time as much as Jefferson needed patriots in his.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Professorship in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Industrial Ethics

April 1, 2012

I think most Americans think of agriculture as just another sector in the industrial economy. The economy has an energy sector, a health-care sector, a manufacturing sector, an entertainment sector and an agricultural sector. When it comes to ethics, there’s nothing special about agriculture either. Every sector in the economy gets evaluated equally when it comes to ethics. And we can break that ethical evaluation down into two parts.

First, the firms in each sector of our economy are supposed to be efficient, which basically just means that the sector as a whole is supposed to be competitive. When the sector is efficient, every firm has to work hard to keep their costs low so that they can keep the price of the goods or services they offer as low as possible. If they don’t, buyers go to another firm and the inefficient firm is out of business. But sometimes the big boys are able to bend the rules so that they get an unfair advantage. That’s why “be efficient” can be thought of as a principle of ethics for an industrial economy.

The sector we worry about most with respect to this rule is probably the financial sector, but this is a food blog. And I do think that one key area for agricultural and food ethics has to do with questioning whether big players have advantages that allow them to be inefficient. That’s the ethical rap against genetically engineered seeds, for example. Big companies like Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta are said to have an oligopoly over seed, and they are using their power to put the squeeze on little guys. Be efficient, fellows!

But there’s a second ethical rule that we also apply to firms in every sector of the economy: Don’t get your advantage by hurting bystanders. In the language of the economists: Internalize your costs! Although we want firms to supply the crap err.. commodities (yeah, that’s the ticket) we want to buy, and we want them to supply it as cheaply as they can, we don’t want them cutting corners in ways that simply pass on costs to their workers, their neighbors and to future generations. So we have rules of the game that they have to follow, and the short-version of these rules is this: Don’t harm third-parties!

This is the rule where the main part of the action in agriculture and food ethics takes place. We don’t like agricultural practices that screw farmworkers, either by exposing them to undue risk or by using their economic vulnerability to short their pay. We don’t like farmers who lower their costs by using chemicals that accumulate in the environment and wind up killing songbirds and causing cancer. We don’t like it when farmers squeeze get the price of that hamburger or bacon down by imposing intolerable conditions on their animals. All these gripes (and they are legitimate) in agricultural ethics fall under the general principle of not harming third-parties.

Now we have some disagreements about how to flesh out these two rules (Be efficient, but don’t harm third parties). Some people have a more robust sense of harm than others, and some people are willing to live with a world in which everyone has a little bit higher chance of coming down with stomach cancer or heart disease so that they can put by a few pennies on lunch and dinner and spend them on something else.  Some people root for the workers and others root for the people who write their paychecks. So we hash these differences out in our political debates and in our philosophy classrooms. There’s nothing particularly unique about the agricultural or food related character of these debates. They just reflect the different opinions that people have about how every sector in the industrial economy should operate.

Which makes my job easy. We don’t really need a philosopher of agricultural ethics at all. Any old crackpot prof from the business school could have already told you everything you need to know.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University