“No animals were harmed”: Strict film standards are not evidence that violence toward animals is decreasing

Blackfish, a film about orcas in captivity, has stirred up a recurrent debate about using animals for entertainment. This tiny fraction of animals who suffer under human care in the service of entertainment is much more controversial than other animal uses that cause greater harm in aggregate. This could be for a variety of reasons, and here I’ll reference Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, a framework for understanding moral reasoning. The harm/benefit calculation of animal suffering may not add up when the ends are as obviously unnecessary as entertainment. Liberals, those most concerned with animal welfare, tend to be more focused on harm/care but can also be concerned with purity (aka sanctity/degradation) in the form of what is “natural”. Eating meat is considered natural but using animals for entertainment (or shooting them for sport) is much more maligned. Moreover, animals used in entertainment are, almost by definition, charismatic and anthropomorphized, a recipe for identifying with those who are unfairly treated. Is this moral outrage the beginning of consciousness raising about animal treatment more generally?

In “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, Steven Pinker impressively maps out all the ways that violence is decreasing in our world. However, as I pointed out in a radio episode about this book and its implications for animals, I fundamentally disagree with his idea that violence towards animals is decreasing as well as what he sees as the major barriers to an animal rights revolution (e.g. where to draw the line of sentience, “meat hunger”). Moreover, as I pointed to in a previous blog, I am skeptical that pushing for improvements in animal welfare will have significant impact on actual animal welfare for a variety of reasons (e.g. evolved ethical blind spots toward animal suffering).

One of Pinker’s central arguments is that a reduction in animal harm in films is indicative of this trend toward a reduction in violence towards animals. At the time, I made the argument that, because of more nonviolent social norms, people have become less tolerant of visible animal harm (as in films) and their reputation regarding harming animals (e.g. distaste for hunting, better treatment of pets, support for stricter laws concerning animal treatment). Unfortunately, humane use of animals in films is a case study in superficial regulation that does a better job of assuaging the guilt of consumers and polishing the reputation of producers than actually preventing animal harm.   

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Will in vitro meat become cruelty free?

Today in London there was the first public tasting of in vitro meat (although it seems a bit
silly that the fate of such a potentially gamechanging technology would be influenced by the initial reaction of a couple of gourmands). The Guardian has dubbed Post’s in vitro patty as “the world’s first cruelty free hamburger” although Peter Singer, who actually wrote the piece knows enough to steer clear of this misnomer. This is a milestone for sure but how much difference will in vitro meat make to actual animal cruelty or the number of animals used for food? I previously explored how lab meat is created and whether in vitro meat would help animals in this podcast, including an interview with David Pearce where I asked (around minute 7), what market forces might move lab meat to involve the least amount of animal suffering.

In this blog, I first discuss the aspects of in vitro meat that are still potentially unethical. Then I talk a bit about how disgust, and the groups that are most disgust sensitive, may reduce the impact that in vitro meat will have on the reduction of animal suffering.

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The Ethical Case for Eating Oysters and Mussels- Part 2

Pearl OysterIn the last blog, I made the case that there really wasn’t a good ethical reason not to eat mussels and oysters. As an astute commenter noted, I wasn’t really making a case FOR eating mussels and oysters so much as saying that the argument against lacked sufficient evidence from the perspective of reducing suffering. In this blog, I’m going to remedy that by outlining some positive effects that might result from the acceptance of oysters and mussels as ethical to eat if not defined as “vegan”. Specifically, I think that eating oysters and mussels 1) undermines the case that vegans are motivated by disgust and purity 2) offers some nutritional benefits that might make people more likely to eat (or continue eating) in a way that causes the least suffering.

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Recent media appearances June 2013

Just a quick note before I post my followup to the Oyster and Mussels blog.


I never realized before how much I talk with my hands

Last week was a pretty big media week for me. On Sunday, June 2nd I was on BBC1’s “The Big Questions”“Has man’s dominion been good for the planet?”. My major contribution on The Big Questions was meant to address the idea that humans are the “pinnacle” of evolution. I argued that intelligence is a somewhat arbitrary criteria by which to judge superiority and if we were to judge species, say, by their ability to pick up objects with their noses we would instead say elephants were the pinnacle of evolution (and here is me gesturing like I have an elephant nose, for your amusement).

On Tuesday June 4th I was on “Your Call” Radio 5 Live “Should we go vegetarian to save the planet?”. In both these appearances I mostly made an argument that preventing suffering is what is important rather than more abstract (and potentially less effective) actions such as recycling or saving endangered species (more on this in a followup blog). On Radio 5 Live I said that just like environmentalists strive to reduce their carbon footprint we should all be trying to reduce our”suffering footprint” by not consuming animal products. Turns out I had converged on a term used by Matt Ball of Vegan Outreach.

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The ethical case for eating oysters and mussels

It was five years ago this month that I became vegan, or…well, ostrovegan. In this blog I oystersofficially come out of the closet, err, shell.  I am almost sure that cultivated mussels and oysters are ethical to eat. I argue eating these animals is completely consistent with the spirit if not the letter of ethical veganism and the tenet of causing less harm with our consumer choices 1. This blog is on bivalve sentience/ability to suffer; for further arguments, including nutrition arguments, see my second blog.

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Suicide food and sexual cannibalism

“Good evening,” it lowed and sat back heavily on its Sausage Suicide Foodhaunches, “I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body?” -Douglas Adams “The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

Nonhuman animals raised for meat have been domesticated for thousands of years. Some characteristics that have been artificially selected for are  earlier maturation,  tolerance for crowding,  reduced exploratory behavior and docility including an almost across the board decrease in brain size (and arguably intelligence, compared to their wild cousins).

As much as we have changed the behavior and responses of animals bred to be eaten we have not been able to breed out of them the desire to carry on living.  What if animals could be bred who had no preferences about existing and who wanted to be eaten?

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Understanding evolution made me vegan

Ahh, the good old days

Photo credit: Richard Kock‘s talk at Wellcome

I’m very often sent news stories that come out showing that meat (or other calorie dense foods seldom mentioned), helped expand human brain growth and reduce the interbirth interval in our species (enabling us to outcompete other nonhuman primates) or that the skeleton of a boy was found who died of apparent b-12 deficiency (because his mama was feeding him vegan, obviously). If eating meat is something humans evolved to do how can I argue against it from an evolutionary perspective? Here’s are my abbreviated arguments for being vegan with many of the finer points to be fleshed out in later blogs.

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