Friday, September 11, 2015

The Trouble with Being Bred: Vegan Ethics and Antinatalism

Antinatalism comes in may forms. Most notably out of the tradition of philosophical pessimism (e.g. Arthur Schopenhauer, Emil Cioran, and David Benatar), but also importantly in queer theory and activism (e.g. Lee Edelman and Gender Mutiny). In addition, there have been antinatalists who argue that humans should cease to reproduce for environmental and animal welfare reasons (Patricia MacCormack  makes the argument for human extinction to save animals in Posthuman Ethics, and The Church of Euthanasia has long advocated we should "Save the Planet, Kill Yourself") Carmen Dell'Aversano combines Lee Edelman's argument with concerns over animals in the important essay, "The Love Whose Name Cannot Be Spoken." My desire here is not discuss the common argument around antinatalism, which concerns humans voluntary ceasing to reproduce (a position I have some issues with), and instead focus on the implicit antinatalism within veganism that is concerned with stopping the production and reproduction of other animals.

Antinatalism is at the core of so much animal ethics and activism. We can take one example that manages to unite vegan abolitionists, large animal rights groups (PETA and HSUS), and animal welfare groups that don't care about ending violence toward other animals in general (ASPCA), and that is the campaign to spay and neuter your pets. This is one antinatalist policy that manages to be shared by all types of animal advocacy groups. But veganism itself is, in many ways, principally a policy of antinatalism. Now, there are ways to advocate that becoming-vegan is about the productions of certain kinds of subjects and relations, but when we examine the mechanism of veganism to directly relieve suffering of animals, it does so through principles of antinatalism. Here, let me quote Will MacAskill being interviewed by Dylan Matthews:

Right. The chicken's already dead, so that's not where you're having an impact. Instead, you're just slightly decreasing demand for chicken. That means that shops are going to buy, on average, a bit less. They're going to stock a bit less chicken, so they'll buy less chicken from farmers, and in the future they'll produce fewer chickens. You're not saving animal lives — you're preventing animals from coming into existence. You may think it's such a small change that it wouldn't make any difference. Most of the time you don't make a difference. That's true. But occasionally you make a large difference, which makes up for it. Maybe the supermarket makes decisions on how many chickens it's going to buy in 1,000 chicken breast chunks or something. So if it sold above a certain number, then it would increase stock, and if it sold below a certain number, it would decrease stock. Most of the time, you won't make a difference, but if you take it over the threshold, then it won't decide to buy 1,000 more chickens. So maybe 1 in 1,000 times you'll make a difference to 1,000 chickens.Economists have actually studied this, and assessed how much of a difference you make. If you don't buy one egg, you decrease the supply by 0.91. If you reduce the amount of beef you buy by 1 pound, you reduce the supply of beef by 0.68 pounds. [Emphasis added]
I think that MacAskill has the function described above basically right. Veganism in its mechanism of directly helping animals is not about either saving current animals, or even really about improving the lives of future animals, it is rather about preventing animals from being born into lives that we feel are not worth living.

Now, why does thinking about veganism's implicit antinatalism matter? I have at least a couple of reasons. The first is that because antinatalism strikes most people as counterintuitive, and that this is no different when it comes toward animal ethics. It is no accident that ASPCA and the Humane Society spend more time talking about health and behavioral reasons to spay and neutur pets, than they do talking about issues of pet overpopulation, because many people are not going to be convinced by the arguments that because we love dogs and cats, we need to have less dogs and cats in the world. And furthermore, because our antinatalism tends to be implicit, and not something we think about, we tend to produce rhetoric and justifications that are more easily hijacked by "happy meat" producers. One of their central claims is that without eating other animals, these animals wouldn't exist. Which is, on some level, true. Certainly less animals would exist. Look at Temple Grandin making this point in a recent interview:

I was up on a catwalk over a whole sea of cattle — this was in the summer of 1990 — and getting kind of upset about it. And then I thought, you know, none of those cattle would have been born if we hadn’t bred them — they would never have existed at all. But we’ve got to give them a decent life. [Emphasis added]
You can find similar arguments in Michael Pollan, and any number of other advocates for different kinds of happy meat. You can see how this makes a certain kind of sense. If existence is an unquestioned good, then bringing animals into this world is a good. All that is left is to figure out how to reform a system. To get rid of the system, it means taking the stance that for many animals, it is better to have never been. That is actually a hard argument to make sometimes, but perhaps it is one we need to practice making, and making explicitly. Otherwise, vegans can always be painted as bizarrely antianimal.

The other reason we need to explore antinatalism with vegan ethics is because it might change our view of certain tactics. Most of you know that I am pluralist when it comes to tactics in animals activism. Meaning essentially I am not sure what tactic will work (or if, indeed, only one tactic can work), and support a variety of tactics and creativity with promoting animal liberation. There are, however, a great deal of vegan activists who believe we should exclusively promote vegan education, or vegan demonstrations and/or education. I believe we need vegan education and demonstrations, certainly. But I cannot understand the exclusivity with such a view towards these tactics. And one of the reasons becomes clearer when we view it from a standpoint of antinatalism. If veganism is about antinatalism, than these tactics are not about helping already existing animals. It is about making sure future animals are not bred into these conditions. But it becomes easier to understand that we might want to help improve the quality of living for those already existing animals, while also believing we should stop producing more animals in these conditions. The manichaeism of certain abolitionists becomes harder to sustain from this viewpoint (and indeed, most of these abolitionists seem to have no problem taking this stance when it comes to pets, but magically develop an allergy to this sort of pluralism when it comes to advocacy for farmed animals).

I am sure there are other important things we can realize when we make our antinatalism explicit in our thinking of animal ethics. But we need to figure out how to sell the argument that wishing a being into existence is not always a kindness, and can indeed be the worse kind of cruelty.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Call for Applications for summer institute on Race and Animals



JUNE 6-17, 2016 

Deadline December 1, 2015

Lori Gruen, Claire Jean Kim, and Timothy Pachirat invite you to apply for “Race and Animals,” a two-week institute to be held June 6-June 17, 2016, hosted by Wesleyan Animal Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT.

The “Race and Animals” summer institute seeks to foster critical discussions on theoretical, historical, and political understandings of how power works to constitute racialized and animalized subjects.  We encourage applications from:

Those working on current projects addressing the intersection of race studies and animal studies.
Those working on current projects focusing on race who are interested in exploring connections to animal studies.
Those working on current projects focusing on animals who are interested in exploring connections to race studies.
We welcome applications from all fields of study.  Applicants should either have their Ph.D.s or other terminal degrees (e.g., MFAs or JDs) or be advanced graduate students at the ABD stage of their graduate work.

10-12 selected scholars will attend daily lectures and engage in structured daily discussions with the institute organizers and visiting speakers.  They will also have the opportunity to present and receive feedback on their own research.  Required readings will be distributed in advance of the institute.  Participants will be provided with dormitory style housing and will receive $500 each to offset travel expenses.

To apply, please send a single .pdf file containing the following documents to these addresses (; ;  Both the subject line of the email and the attached pdf should read "Race and Animals Application- LAST NAME"

A cover letter (not to exceed 750 words) discussing your interest in race studies and animal studies. You should highlight past and current projects of relevance (publications, syllabi, etc.) and offer a concrete explanation of what your unique contribution to the institute would be.
A current curriculum vitae.
A short writing sample or other work product that engages with race studies, animal studies, or both.
The names, institutional affiliations, and email addresses of at least two references.
The deadline for applications is December 1, 2015.

About the Organizers:

Lori Gruen is the William Griffin Professor of Philosophy, Chair of Philosophy, and Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Environmental Studies at Wesleyan University.  She also coordinates Wesleyan Animal Studies.  She is the author of 3 books, including most recently Entangled Empathy (Lantern, 2015); the editor of 5 books, including The Ethics of Captivity (Oxford, 2014) and Ecofeminism:  Feminist Intersections with Other Animals and the Earth with Carol J. Adams (Bloomsbury, 2014).  With Kari Weil, she co-edited “Animal Others” a special issue of Hypatia (2012).

Claire Jean Kim is Professor of Political Science and Asian American Studies at University of California, Irvine, where she teaches classes on comparative race studies, social movements, and human-animal studies.  She is the author of Dangerous Crossings: Race, Species, and Nature in a Multicultural Age (Cambridge, 2015), Bitter Fruit: The Politics of Black-Korean Conflict in New York City (Yale, 2000), and numerous essays on race and animals.  In 2013, she co-guest edited a special issue of American Quarterly entitled, Species/Race/Sex.

Timothy Pachirat teaches in the Department of Political Science at UMass Amherst.  His book, Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight (Yale University Press, 2011), is a widely acclaimed political ethnography of the massive, repetitive killing of animals carried out by a largely immigrant workforce.

About the Visiting Speakers:

Colin Dayan is Professor of English, Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities, and Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University. She is the author most recently of With Dogs at the Edge of Life (forthcoming from Columbia University Press in 2015).  She has also authored The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (Princeton UP, 2011), a Choice Outstanding Academic book; The Story of Cruel and Unusual (MIT/Boston Review Press, 2007); Haiti, History, and the Gods (University of California Press, 1995, 1998; Fables of Mind: An Inquiry into Poe's Fiction (Oxford University Press, 1987); A Rainbow for the Christian West (University of Massachusetts Press, 1977).

Maria Elena Garcia is director of the Comparative History of Ideas and associate professor in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. She received her PhD in Anthropology at Brown University and has been a Mellon Fellow at Wesleyan University and Tufts University. Her first book, Making Indigenous Citizens: Identities, Development, and Multicultural Activism in Peru (Stanford, 2005) examines Indigenous and intercultural politics in Peru. Her work on Indigeneity and interspecies politics in the Andes has appeared in multiple edited volumes and journals such as Anthropology Now, Anthropological Quarterly, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, Latin American Perspectives, and Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies. Her second book project, Dancing Guinea Pigs and Other Tales of Race in Peru, examines the intersections of race, species, and capital in contemporary Peru.

Jared Sexton  is Associate Professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine, where he is also affiliated with the Department of Film and Media Studies. He has published articles in journals such as African American Review, American Quarterly, Art Journal, Cultural Critique, Radical History Review, and Social Text, and essays in various anthologies on contemporary politics and popular culture. He is the author of Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism and a co-editor of a special issue of Critical Sociology on “Race and the Variations of Discipline,” and has contributed occasional pieces to magazines like Artforum, ColorLines, Jadaliyya, and openDemocracy.

About Wesleyan Animal Studies:

From 2010-2015, Wesleyan Animal Studies, in partnership with The Animals and Society Institute held an annual summer fellowship program for scholars pursuing research in Human-Animal Studies. The fellowship program was started by the Animals and Society Institute (ASI) in 2007 and directed by Margo DeMello; it was hosted by Lori Gruen and Kari Weil since coming to Wesleyan; and over the years funded over 60 fellows. The ASI-WAS Human Animal Studies Fellowship Program will celebrate its 10th year by hosting a conference at Wesleyan in October 2016.

WAS has sponsored a number of speakers and events, including two conferences, and offers a cluster of courses.

[Original Link]

Monday, August 24, 2015

Guest Post: Jacobin's Species Problem, Part Two: Agents, Systems, and Similarity

[I got behind on writing my follow-ups to my last post, however Robert Stanton stepped in to write this wonderful post. -Scu]

Thanks to Scu for the chance to respond further to Sarah Grey and Joe Cleffie’s piece “Peter Singer’s Race Problem” in Jacobin from a couple of weeks ago. Scu has already started the conversation with his previous post, and I’d like to follow some of his points a bit further and also make a few broader observations about the issue of speciesism within a socialist critique.

The main strength of Grey and Cleffie’s article is its observation that rights discourse is at best a weak tool to address animal suffering and exploitation: “Rights,” as they note, “from a materialist perspective, are meaningless outside of human existence; suffering does not necessarily confer rights.” Indeed rights, as a humanist conception, are granted by and to only those individuals who are deemed worthy of them by a certain group of people. Even within the human community, though, the entrenchment of individual rights has been questioned as a reification of specific aspects of what it means to be human: as Wendy Brown observes, constructions of individuality “are predicated upon a humanism that routinely conceals its gendered, racial and sexual norms” (“Suffering Rights as Paradoxes,” 238). The extension of rights to animals, on an individual or a group level, has struck many critics and activists alike as flawed because it inevitably relies on a criterion of rights-worthiness based on one or more characteristics shared with humans, usually including suffering, communicative ability, and rational agency. A classic example is the Great Apes Project, which has fought with some success for the extension of basic rights to “the non-human great primates” who are biologically and cognitively closest to humans.

Grey and Cleffie, by contrast, both recognize and embrace the humanism inherent in most rights discourse: they deny rights to animals specifically because they supposedly lack the human characteristic of rational agency:
Human beings, whatever their racial identity, possess agency. Enslaved human beings, even in the most brutal days of the chattel system, were self-directed beings who not only felt pain and experienced self-perception but who loved, reasoned, wrote, and above all fought for their own freedom. Other species will never display that kind of agency.
Scu has already pointed out the flaws in this argument: not only is it factually wrong (many animals not only love and reason, but do fight for their freedom), but it employs usefully circular logic: if you define agency as all of the things that oppressed humans supposedly do but oppressed animals supposedly do not (direct themselves, love, reason, write, fight for their freedom), then you must by definition deny animals that agency, and hence any sympathy or care that depends on the agency. Lacking this quality, animals immediately become the “objects of history,” subject to those who do possess rational agency. Such a definition implicitly denies agency to animal struggle because it is not conscious, organized, or effective. But this raises disturbing questions within human history.

As Henry Louis Gates notes (drawing on Herbert Aptheker’s American Negro Slave Revolts), a significant strain of historiography denied that slaves ever revolted in nineteenth-century America, for some very familiar-sounding reasons: the Harvard scholar James Schouler declared in 1882 that “the negro” was an “imitator and non-moralist,” “easily intimidated, incapable of deep plots,” “a black servile race, sensuous, stupid, brutish, obedient to the whip.” Slaves have revolted frequently throughout history, sometimes with success (especially in the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804); in the United States, numerous slave revolts took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831 being the best known. Such revolts were certainly conscious, they were sometimes well-organized and sometimes disorganized, and, crucially, they were largely ineffective in overturning the larger institution of slavery; its end was instead largely the result of organized protest by non-slaves. Similarly, Jews rose up in ghettos and camps under the Nazi regime, without significantly changing the progress of imprisonment and genocide. Does the fact that there were not more revolts, or more organized and effective revolts, by black slaves and Jewish prisoners mean that these people were less subjects, and more objects, of history? At this point, the subject/object distinction becomes so muddy as to lose any moral force.

Comparisons such as these inevitably generate great offense to many. Grey and Cleffie claim that “[m]emes – and serious political arguments – that compare factory farms to slavery and genocide are profoundly racist.” They cite examples such as PETA’s use of lynching and Holocaust imagery, the appearance in your Facebook feed of “inflammatory memes juxtaposing images of factory-farmed chickens with images of slave ships or Nazi concentration camps” if you have “animal-rights activists or vegan evangelists” among your online friends, and the backlash to outrage over the killing of Cecil the lion at a time when the killing of African-Americans receives far too little outrage, generating a counter-backlash with the hashtag #animallivesmatter. Inflammatory images, memes, and slogans that assert simple equivalency justifiably generate outrage and offense, especially #animallivesmatter, which cravenly combines the energy of #blacklivesmatter with an ignorance of the underlying issues of oppression at stake.

But “serious political arguments” should not automatically be lumped in with incendiary activist language. Language matters here: if someone says that one thing is exactly the same as another thing, then you should immediately be suspicious of that claim, because no two different things are the same thing. The Jacobin piece frequently uses the word “equivalent,” which in its etymology and usage in this context means something like “having equal moral force or effect.” The idea of “equivalence” between human and animal oppression may convince some people, but will offend many more, especially at a time when the violent force (the “-valence in “equivalence”) of racist institutions and practices continues on a daily basis.

A more effective term might be “similar,” which does not assert equal force but means more precisely “comparable in some respect that is significant and useful for purposes of argument.” Such a concept would much more easily apply to comparisons between racism and speciesism, or mistreatment of humans and animals, even more at a systemic than an agential level. Important for a socialist analysis, similarities allow us to examine the overlapping structural, material, and technological relationships among oppressions. None of this requires asserting that an animal life has the same value as a human life, or even engaging in moral equivalences and analogies. But it does allow us to examine the ways racism and speciesism can engage in logics that support one another, or allow us to look at the material technology of barbed wire in cattle yards, colonialism, and concentration camps. Again, the point is to think at the systemic level, and not only the agential level.

Clearly, Peter Singer’s brand of utilitarian philosophy, by focusing so narrowly on individual agency, fails to account for violence and injustice that is exercised at systemic and institutional levels, as the authors note: “Singer thinks human consciousness has advanced with regard to racism, contending that, while racism still exists, it is widely condemned, and that where it does persist it can be explained by people’s individual attitudes.” Singer is not wrong to assert that speciesism is at a very early stage in terms of its recognition and evaluation: many people would deny that the concept exists, and many more would deny that it is a moral problem. But he clearly holds too optimistic a view of the ebbing away of racism: as Grey and Cleffie note, “entire academic disciplines” have demonstrated, using data and sustained moral argumentation, the persistent structural inequalities of racism, which cannot be effectively combatted solely by arguments about individual choice and agency.

But the imbalance between individual and mass consciousness is itself the big problem in the article. The authors acknowledge “the indisputably horrendous treatment of animals in the industrial production of meat,” but note that individual action such as becoming vegetarian or vegan, or avoiding products supported by animal experimentation, are “ineffective in actually changing the current system.” By way of comparison, “boycotts are only effective when they are part of the strategy of a mass movement that directly challenges the systemic nature of racism.” In fact, animal advocacy groups, whether welfarist or abolitionist, have been undertaking just such mass action for decades, a fact completely ignored here.

Reading the article for the first time, I hoped that a more sustained and productive comparison between anti-racist and anti-speciesist action, one based on effective mass action, would follow. But the obvious next step is glaringly absent: namely, the recognition that the treatment of animals in industrial agriculture is itself structural, systemic, and institutionalized. Animal abuse, and the condition of human workers, worsen when size, speed, and efficiency are maximized: the very things that are necessary for profitable production and distribution in an increasingly competitive marketplace, and especially in the rapid expansion of meat production in developing countries. [This is probably why there exists a broad literature on anti-capitalist analysis and anti-animal exploitation analysis. See, for a partial overview, the work of Ted Benton, Bill Martin, David Nibert, and Nicole Shukin.] Such an argument could, of course, be used to support smaller, more humane, and more sustainable animal agriculture; arguments both for and against such efforts continue to be made by people embracing or critical of capitalist economies. But the fact remains that speciesism as a moral norm – the belief that animals are a category of consumable commodity - specifically benefits the economic systems that depend on its tenacity.
In the end, the authors completely fudge the essential moral dimension within a socialist critique:
There is no question that a rational socialist system would make drastic changes to our current methods of food production; we might indeed eat much less meat than we do now, even if it was of a higher quality. But humanely raised and slaughtered animals could certainly be one component of a food production system created to mitigate the current rate of climate change and to feed not the hunger of profiteers but the hunger of ordinary people.
After briefly mentioning that the treatment of animals under current conditions is a moral issue but not exploring it, the authors conspicuously omit it from a list of moral considerations under a “rational socialist system,” nor could it ever be properly included in such a system without recognizing the functioning of the food production system within current capitalist economies. As a critique of individualist, utilitarian moral philosophy, the article hits the mark, but an effective socialist critique requires an acknowledgement of the entrenched, largely unquestioned power structures that underlie systems of oppression, and their intersections across species boundaries.

Robert Stanton is an Associate Professor of English at Boston College. He is currently at work on a book entitled Holy Signs and Fruitful Toil: Animal Voices and Human Literature in Anglo-Saxon England.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Jacobin's Species Problem, part one: animal subjects

Jacobin magazine has recently published an article entitled "Peter Singer's Race Problem." There is a lot in this article. Some of it good, most of it not so good. What I hope to do here is to produce a few posts analyzing some of the biggest issues of this article. Though, I have many part ones on this blog, and very few part twos, so there is a chance this blog post will standalone. This post is going to focus on the rather odd claims that animals are the mere "objects of history."

Here are the relevant passages from Jacobin:
The biologist and radical Steven Rose, in his essay “Proud to Be a Speciesist,” says that the term speciesism, "was coined to make the claim that the issue of animal rights is on a par with the struggles for women’s rights, or Black people’s rights, or civil rights. But these human struggles are those in which the oppressed themselves rise up to demand justice and equality, to insist that they are not the objects but the subjects of history." Rose here is using the term in a different sense than Singer does, but his point stands. Animals, no matter what Singer and other animal rights activists may want to claim, are objects of history. To compare them with humans who have suffered and do suffer oppression — and, importantly, consciously resist that oppression — is factually wrong, not to mention reactionary. [...] We should certainly try to alleviate unnecessary suffering when dealing with animals, but as journalist Arun Gupta pointed out in a recent speech, this is at best a case of negative rights: for example, the right of “not needlessly being subjected to cruelty.” Rights, from a materialist perspective, are meaningless outside of human existence; suffering does not necessarily confer rights. It’s only possible to talk about human rights, civil rights, or women’s rights because different groups of humans who face oppression have struggled and continue to struggle to win these rights. This is not the case with animal rights. No animals have ever struggled to gain better treatment in food production or to oppose unnecessary experimentation by cosmetic companies. Insofar as animal rights exist, it is humans who have granted and fought for these rights. Animals themselves cannot be said to have inherent rights that we do not give them. [...] Human beings, whatever their racial identity, possess agency. Enslaved human beings, even in the most brutal days of the chattel system, were self-directed beings who not only felt pain and experienced self-perception but who loved, reasoned, wrote, and above all fought for their own freedom. Other species will never display that kind of agency.

So, there is a lot going on here, but really we can boil this down to (1) animals cannot struggle for their freedom, (2) therefore rights can only be given, and (3) that means animals are mere objects. There are two pretty obvious responses. The first is that obviously animals have struggled, and the second is that the struggle cannot be the only way to be a subject of ethics. Let's explore both of these in a little more detail.

Animals engage in a variety of behaviors that are clearly struggles against oppression, that are obviously about resisting. Take this story about a chimp in a zoo. He would break apart concrete, create piles of stones to throw, and hide those piles of ammunition. Then he would use those stones to attack people attending the zoo. Many scientists believe elephants are suffering from ptsd between poachers and habitat lost, and we have now seen a rash of elephant attacks on towns, and at least some are theorizing that the elephants are trying to fight back.  We could see several other examples. Orcas and elephants killing various "trainers." Some of this has been sketched out in Fear of an Animal Planet. But there are more examples, not just ones of obvious violence. We might want to look at animals refusing to reproduce in captivity, running away from slaughterhouses, going on hunger strikes, going limp when workers try to move them, and a whole host of other behaviors that if they were being done by humans in the same situation we would unproblematically call resistance. This refusal to say that animals are engaging in the same behaviors that would believe if saw humans do it is what Frans de Waal has called anthropodenial. You can see how this disavowal works in the Jacobin piece, where we do not have to care about animals because they are not agents, but we know they are not agents because we have already decided not to see any agency.

Now, you can probably think of several objections here. Let's answer a few. One counter-argument is that these modes of resistance from animal subjects has been ineffective, or is necessarily ineffective. But how can this matter? If this is the case, it means that any social movement for recognition or rights cannot be taken seriously until they have effectively won. Another argument is that maybe struggle must be recognized by the dominate for it to matter. If an animal goes on a hunger strike, and no one understands it as a such, does it count as struggle? Well, if it doesn't than that simply means that all rights are conferred by the dominate group, which would not seem to be what the Jacobin writers want. Furthermore it would delegitimize all the resistance that is fugitive and infrapolitical.   Perhaps the issue is that animals' resistance is not conscience as such. Well, first, no real way to know. Second, that would delegitimize all attempts to create communities and lives outside of hegemonic power that is not consciously committed to being resistant. The last objection I can think of is such resistance is not organized. But organize resistance cannot be the only way one gains a right to have rights, can it? Maybe that is the case.

This leads us to the second contention against the Jacobin argument. Namely, why does struggle matter is the first place? The authors of the piece don't even bother to present this argument. Why, of all the grounds necessary for caring about others, is resistance key? The authors reject suffering. One assumes they also reject sociality, joy, vulnerability, and any number of other qualities that are transspecies. No reason is given. But you also feel they can't really believe this. We can think of any number of groups, groups that are usually considered moral patients, eg babies, that we are sure the writers believe we have a moral duty towards. Or what happens if we finally over come oppression (that should be the goal, right?), and in a few generations there are women who do not suffer sexism, queers who won't suffer homophobia, people of color who are not oppressed by racism, etc. Will those generations of humans suddenly have, paradoxically, lost their rights? We are produced and undone by each other. We mingle, and co-become, and build new futures and worlds. And none of this is uniquely human.


Okay, I hope to write at least two more posts. One on race, and another on capitalism. We'll see if that happens. If I don't get to it, you can check out this former post on critical race theory/critical animal theory. Needless to say, I can certainly agree to a criticism that Peter Singer has some issues when it comes to thinking about race, and that the animal rights movement has certainly fucked up, a lot and often, when it comes to race.
I don't think I will get into this later, but so I will put this here as an aside. This article spends a lot of time talking and theorizing about rights. Which is fine. But it is worth pointing out that as a preference utilitarian, Peter Singer doesn't actually care about rights. Moral obligations are therefore not based upon rights for him. Remember your Bentham, rights are "nonsense upon stilts." This isn't really important for my previous discussion, it just seems a technical point that matters if you are, you know, writing an article about Peter Singer.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Moral Baselines?

Recently there has been a bit of discussion of moral baselines in the animal activism community. In particular, Wayne Hsiung of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) has argued that activism, not veganism, is the moral baseline. This is in response to Gary Francione, who has long held that veganism is a moral baseline (for example, see this post). So, what's going on?

In short, Francione has maintained that veganism has to be a moral baseline of animal rights movement. Veganism here means more than diet, and is to be broadly understood as removing ourselves from using products that exploit animals, and removing ourselves from directly exploiting animals. For Francione, animal rights movements have to endorse veganism, and as he argues, "Veganism is not, as some welfarists suggest, the “most” that we can do; it’s the least that we can do if we take animal interests seriously." Okay, Hsiung supports veganism, but he does not see it as the baseline. The example he gives is coming across a mob beating a child. In his analogy, veganism is not beating the child, but activism is actually intervening to stop the beating of the child. He argues that we are morally required to stop people from beating the child, and therefore activism becomes the moral baseline. This debate replicates a fairly traditional debate between negative and positive rights. The quick and un-nuanced version of this debate is that negative rights are all the rights you can give someone just by ignoring they exist (you shouldn't kill them, shouldn't steal from them, etc.), positive rights requires you to act on behalf of the other person (you need to feed them if they are starving, give them medical care, etc.). So, who is right, Francione or Hsiung? Neither, because a moral baseline is a strange framing device. Let's spend sometime with that.

First, what is a moral baseline? This is not a phrase I am familiar with in ethics outside of discussions by Francione or inspired by him. As far as I can tell, this phrase is somewhat of an invention of Francione's (if I am wrong, someone please let me know!). It seems that a baseline would be something that has to be done to be moral, and if you did not do this action, you would no longer be moral. But you do not have to do more than this action to be moral. This is rather strange, because it creates degrees of moralness. One can do more than the baseline and, presumably, be more moral, but the person who does only the baseline is still moral. If we take this as the definition of a moral baseline, let us first look at Hsiung's argument. In order to be moral, we must be activists. If we look at the analogy he uses, we can come up with several versions of the analogies where it would be hard to argue that we have to try to stop the beating. What if we are alone, the mob is large and armed, and we have no cellphone, or anyone nearby, and stopping the mob will certainly get ourselves hurt or killed. While tragic, no one would assume the person in that situation had been less than moral for interfering. Let's go past the metaphor. As you read this, animals all over the world are being tortured. And while you can engage in activism, you cannot directly act on behalf of every animal being tortured and killed for humans in the world. So while activism is a moral good, it is hard to understand it as a moral baseline. Okay, what about Francione? While there might be rare cases where humans cannot be vegan (or at least try to be vegan, assuming actual veganism is, in a way, impossible in our society), for the most part it makes sense to say we can and should be vegans. So, can we therefore say that veganism is the baseline. You can do more, but veganism is the least you can do to be moral. However, I think Hsiung is onto something with his argument on some level. Say there is an animal suffering in front of you, and you can, with little to no cost, help the animal. I think we all agree it would be moral to do so. In other words, some sort of positive action on behalf of other animals is probably necessary. The closest moral principle I can think of to think about this is to refer to Kant's famous distinction between perfect and imperfect duties. Veganism would be an example of a perfect duty toward other animals, and activism would be an example of an imperfect duty toward other animals. While you cannot perfectly be an activist, it is still required. In other words, even through a Kantian lens, we are not given something like a moral baseline. Indeed, the weirdness of a moral baseline with any system of ethics I can think of is not particularly surprising. And that is because despite what the term may imply, the moral baseline is not a principle of ethics, but a principle of organizing.

I am not sure when Francione introduced the term moral baseline, but as far as I can tell, the first time it appears in one of his books is the 2008 Animals as Persons. In it, he argues:
If we ever hope to shift the paradigm away from the speciesist hierarchy that currently informs our thinking about nonhumans, we must develop a political and social movement in favor of abolishing animal use, with veganism, as both a logical and a moral matter, being the clear baseline of that movement. Many new welfarists, however, reject veganism as a moral baseline. They maintain that it is more "practical" to support welfarist reform and to promote animal uses that are more "humane." But this approach reinforces the prevailing view that animal use is morally acceptable if treatment is "humane," and it makes veganism appear as a radical or extreme response to animal exploitation, which is counterproductive to the goal of abolishing animal use. I have long argued, and continue to believe, that an afternoon spent distributing literature on veganism at a crowded place or giving a lecture on veganism at a local community college is a much better use of time, as a matter of both moral theory and practical strategy, than spending that time working on a campaign to get battery hens some extra space or to require that vivisectors treat animals used in laboratories more "humanely." (p. 17)
Clearly in this passage moral baseline has less to do with normative demands on individual actors, and more to do with animal activist organizations should look like. The passage, for example, does not advance an ethical argument, but instead affirms a few strategic reasons that organizations should focus specifically on vegan education and advocacy. This is fine, I just want it to be clear that what is under discussion is principally a strategic conversation, and not an ethical conversation. We need to have strategic conversations, so I have no problem with this. What is a problem is when what is a strategic question is framed as a moral question, to refuse to have a strategic conversation. When that occurs, it shrinks the sorts of conversations, imaginations, and possibilities we can have as a movement.

I am worried about the rhetoric of moral baselines. The idea of baselines are clearly set to be exclusionary, and I worry that our movement is marginal enough as is, and that we have a tendency already to eat our own. I am further worried that it does not allow for flexibility and charitability in our discussions and debates over strategic, and indeed, ethical questions. I want to end by quoting Erin McKenna's Deweyian inspired The Task of Utopia, which encourages that our important utopian imaginations focus not on "homogeneous perfect end-states, but possible futures-in-process" (12).

She quotes Dewey's "Human Nature and Conduct":
The doctrine of fixed ends not only diverts attention from examination of consequences and the intelligent creation of purpose, but, since means and ends are two ways of regarding the same actuality, it also renders men careless in their inspection of existing conditions. . . . The result is failure. Discouragement follows, assuaged perhaps by the thought that in any case the end is too ideal, too noble and remote, to be capable of realization. We fall back on the consoling thought that our moral ideals are too good for this world and that we must accustom ourselves to a gap between aim and execution?
She contrasts this doctrine of fixed ends with ends-in-view:
Insofar as we are concerned with making a better future, this engagement must involve imagination. "All conscious experience must be imaginative to the degree that the past is used to interpret the present and its bearing toward the future." Envisioning the future as a guide in the present is to achieve that very integrative standpoint which Dewey calls lived experience. Visions of the future help organize and structure our present experiences to some purpose; imagination helps organize experience by providing it with a goal. Dewey calls such goals ends-in-view. Dewey's model of experience is a process model that builds on the premise that human beings are interactive, relational creatures. We are born physically dependent and remain socially interdependent. He further believes that we are finite developmental creatures who must grow and adapt to both our changing physical and changing social environments in order to survive. This means there can be no set goals, no predetermined unchanging goods or ends. Instead, there is a continuous chain of ends-in-view becoming means for new ends-in-view which become means for new ends-in-view. (85-86)

The future of our movement depends upon imagination, shared projects, and vast interdependence. Veganism or activism is a beginning, but not a baseline. It is a process, rather than a foundation, it is a relation, rather than a command. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Important new title in Critical Animal Studies

Dinesh Wadiwel, a longtime significant theorist on animals and biopolitics, has an important book out, with a forward by Matthew Calarco.

Are non-human animals our friends or enemies? In this provocative book, Dinesh Wadiwel argues that our mainstay relationships with billions of animals are essentially hostile. The War against Animals asks us to interrogate this sustained violence across its intersubjective, institutional and epistemic dimensions.

Drawing from Foucault, Spivak and Derrida, The War against Animals argues that our sovereign claim of superiority over other animals is founded on nothing else but violence. Through innovative readings of Locke and Marx, Dinesh Wadiwel argues that property in animals represents a bio-political conquest that aims to secure animals as the “spoils of war.” The goal for pro-animal advocacy must be to challenge this violent sovereignty and recognize animal resistance through forms of counter-conduct and truce.

Table of contents
Foreword: Matthew Calarco
Introduction: The Live Hang
Part One: Biopolitics
Chapter 1: Bare Life
Chapter 2: Governmentality
Part Two: Conquest
Chapter 3: Immunity
Chapter 4: Property and Commodity
Part Three: Private Dominion
Chapter 5: Privatisation and Containment
Chapter 6: Companionship
Part Four: Sovereignty
Chapter 7: Capability
Chapter 8: The Violence of Stupidity
Conclusion: Truce


And remember, the Critical Animal Studies book series are looking for manuscript submissions.

Critical Animal Studies investigates and challenges the complex dynamics of structural,
institutional and discursive power formations that affect animals, humans, and the
environment. By “critical” we mean that animal studies must not become a safe and
sanitized discourse; it must use its unique and powerful perspective to advance a radical
and oppositional dissent that engages and politicizes the many profound ethical,
environmental, and social issues embedded in animal studies. With a critical orientation
to the study of human-animal relationships the series seeks to contribute to current
debates and be a resource for social justice, animal advocacy and environmental
movements and research as well as for humanities and social science scholars more
generally. The series bridges boundaries between academic and activist knowledge
development, between scholarship and citizenship, between theory and praxis, as well
as between existing disciplines. We particularly invite texts that explore under
researched areas such as animals and climate change, globalization, capital, colonialism,
queer theory, education theory, childhood studies, labor issues, and disability studies.
We welcome contributions from any discipline.
Possible book proposals may:
• Intervene in the animal economy of the production, science, service, experience, and
culture industries;
• Critically analyze ideologies, practices and effects of the current animal welfare
• Explore diverse forms and sites of human and animal resistance;
• Reappraise preexisting texts (such as Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain) by exploring
new connects to the field of critical animal studies;
• Contribute to bold, innovative, and boundary shifting knowledge development in
critical animal studies.

The Internet of Wetware

We all know about the internet of things, and the fear that with it, that the physical world becomes public by default, and private by effort.  Recently, I have read two articles about what we can call the internet of wetware. The first is this superbly well-written article about fitbits, confession, and exorexic erotics. The second article is about the rise of four different pelvic exercise machines for women. The second article is one that reminds us of the term wetware, popularized by Rudy Rucker, who understood it to mean, "the underlying generative code for an organism, as found in the genetic material, in the biochemistry of the cells, and in the architecture of the body’s tissues. [...] The whole point of the word “wetware” is that it’s meant to make you look at the world in a new way, and to try and see biological systems from a computational standpoint." While fitbits and kegel machines have nothing to do with DNA or epigenetics (yet!), they have everything to do with seeing biological systems from a computational standpoint. As Rose Eveleth points out:

But in the years since, "wetware" has come to represent everything that is soft and squishy about humans: our brains, our health, our fleshy and fallible bodies. Of late, the notion that a human’s wetware is directly analogous to a computer’s software has gained traction in Silicon Valley. The results of this belief are unending attempts to replace, track, or supplement every aspect of our messy human lives with an app or device.

So the rise (and so far mostly financial failure) of wearables are accelerating the internet of things (particularly with the failed google glass) and the internet of wetware (with the fitbit and the apple watch). The internet of wetware seeks to give us the quantifiable body, the data-driven day, the gamification of existence. And as the fitbit article attests to, the current devices are principally about individualizing the self, it is easy enough to imagine a Wetware 2.0, where our devices measure our sociality ("My Friendometer tells me I have given more high fives than anyone else in my social network today!"). And despite that ennui inducing vision of the future, the real issue of the internet of wetware is between two Foucaults. First, there is the latter Foucault who was concerned with the techne tou biou and the care of the self.  Both kegel machines and fitbits seek to address very real health issues. In Foucault's histories of askesis, he points out how journals were used by the stoics to work upon the self. Perhaps the internet of wetware is just part of a broader technology of the self, and the quantifiable body is a resistance to all the ways we are asked to sacrifice ourselves. Of course there is the other Foucault, the one of disciplinary power. In this view, we already know some insurance companies are giving people discounts for turning in data from fitbit and similar devices. How long till insurance companies and others increasingly incentivize this data? If gamification of our bodies is the new trend, we need to be asking who the players of our bodies are in these games. Who are driving us? The right of obscurity must be respected.

None of this, so far, has even dealt with the gendered element of the internet of wetware (both of which are central to the articles that inspired this post). There is a lot in those articles, and it thicker and more interesting than anything I have put forward, so far. But I want to end with one more provocation. If we have seen a rise of a particular kind of feminization of labor (as charted by Nina Power, among others), the internet of wetware represents, perhaps, the feminization of leisure.