Thinking About Mitt Romney and Seamus, Michael Vick and Dog Fighting, and Eating Animals

Don’t Worry About Obama; Worry about Seamus

Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, has got more to worry about than a lack of enthusiasm for his candidacy.

Romney has to worry about Seamus.

Seamus was Romney’s Irish setter, whom Romney stuck in a crate and strapped to the roof of his station wagon for a 12-hour family trip to Canada in 1983. Seamus apparently defecated, mostly likely because he was terrified. Romney stopped at a gas station, hosed Seamus down and stuffed him back into the crate to continue the trip. According to Romney’s sons, Seamus ran off when the family got to Canada.

And, now, it seems that just about everyone is talking not about Romney’s substantive policies, but about what he did to Seamus.

We can forgive almost anything, but we can’t forgive intentionally harming animals without there being a very good reason. To paraphrase a famous quote from Gandhi: “The moral greatness of a presidential wannabe can be judged by the way he treats his dog.”

This isn’t the first time there’s been hoopla about someone’s treatment of his dog.

Remember Michael Vick?

Most people will recall the matter involving former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and his involvement in a dog-fighting operation on some property he owned in Virginia. The matter was covered by the media nonstop for weeks when it first came to light in 2007 and, again, when Vick came out of prison in 2009 and signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. Vick continues to be in the news and it is clear that people are still furious with him.


The answer is simple: Because Vick did a barbaric thing; he caused dogs to suffer and die for no good reason. Vick may have enjoyed the “sport” of dog fighting, but that was not justification for what he did.

Why not?

Again, the answer is simple. Although there is a great deal of disagreement about moral issues, no one disagrees with the notion that it’s wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on an animal. We need a good reason to inflict suffering on an animal. We might disagree about whether necessity exists in any given situation and what constitutes a good reason, but we would all agree that enjoyment or pleasure cannot constitute necessity or serve as a good reason. This is part of our conventional moral wisdom.

The problem is that eating animals is, as a matter of moral analysis, no different from dog fighting.

We kill and eat more than 56 billion animals a year worldwide, not counting fish. No one doubts that using animals for food results in terrible suffering. So, let’s apply the analysis that we all agreed was uncontroversial just a moment ago: have we got a good reason for this suffering? Is there anything that is plausibly considered as necessity involved?

The short answer is no.

We don’t need to eat animals. No one maintains that it’s medically necessary to eat animal foods. The conservative American Dietetic Association acknowledges that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” Mainstream medical people are, with increasing frequency, pointing out that animal products are detrimental to human health. But whether or not you agree with them, there is certainly no argument maintaining that animal foods are necessary for optimal health.

There is also consensus that animal agriculture is an ecological disaster. It takes many pounds of grain and many gallons of water to produce one pound of meat. It takes a great deal more land to produce animal-derived food for one person on a continuing basis than it does to produce food for a vegan. Animal agriculture is a major cause of global warming and is responsible for water pollution, deforestation, soil erosion, and all sorts of unhappy environmental consequences. And to anticipate the objection that non-animal foods are beyond the reach of those without economic means, a diet of fruits, vegetables, grains and beans is much less costly than a diet of animal products.

So, in the end, what’s the best justification that we have for the suffering that we impose on the animals we use as food?

The answer: they taste good. We enjoy the taste of animal flesh and animal products. We find eating animal foods to be convenient. There is nothing here that remotely resembles necessity.

How is that any different from Michael Vick? The answer: it isn’t. Vick liked sitting around a pit watching animals fight. The rest of us like sitting around a barbecue pit roasting the corpses of animals who have been treated just as badly as Vick’s dogs.

It doesn’t work to claim that Vick participated directly in the dog fighting and we just buy animal products at the store. We enjoy the results of animal suffering, but, unlike Vick, we don’t enjoy the actual process of slaughtering animals. As any first-year law student will tell you, if John has an aversion to violence but wants Joe dead and hires Sally to pull the trigger, John is still guilty of murder. The fact that we pay others to produce meat and other animal products does not get us off the moral or legal hook. Although there is a psychological difference between ordering a steak for dinner and deriving pleasure from watching dogs fight, once we realize that that the torture and death of the animals we eat cannot be justified by anything other than pleasure or convenience, the psychological difference can have no moral significance.

But We’re a “Humane” Society, Aren’t We?

So, what’s wrong? Why do we continue to participate in the infliction of suffering on billions of animals when we have no good reason to do so?

A good part of the answer is that because we want to continue consuming animal products, we delude ourselves into thinking that the solution to the moral problem does not require that we stop eating animal foods – it only requires that we raise and slaughter animals in a “humane” way.

This view goes back about 200 years to when British social reformers, such as philosopher and lawyer Jeremy Bentham, made the observation that our moral obligations to animals did not depend on whether they were rational, could speak, or had other “special” mental characteristics that we regard as exclusive to humans. Rather, the only thing that mattered was that animals could suffer and no one, with the possible exception of Descartes, doubted that animals were sentient, or perceptually aware and could, indeed, suffer. Bentham argued that because animals could suffer, we had an obligation to give moral weight to that suffering.

Bentham was no doubt aware that the animals we use for food suffer a great deal. He did not, however, advocate that we stop eating animals. According to Bentham, animals are not self-aware; they do not care if we use and kill them as long as they don’t suffer in the process. So, we could continue to use animals as long we treat them reasonably well and kill them in a relatively painless way.

And thus was born the animal welfare movement, the central premise of which is that it is morally acceptable for us to use animals as long as we treat them “humanely” and do not impose “unnecessary” suffering on them. This moral sentiment soon found expression in anti-cruelty laws on both sides of the Atlantic and, eventually, much of the world. And most of us are stuck in this 19th-century paradigm: we accept the view that it is morally acceptable to use and kill animals because they do not care that we use and kill them. But we have a moral obligation to treat animals “humanely.”

There are, however, at least two serious problems with this view.

“Happy” Meat and Padded Water Boards

The first problem is practical: the view that we can accord animals “humane” treatment is a fantasy. It cannot work.

Animals are property. They are things. And the whole point of being a thing is that you don’t have an inherent or intrinsic value. Animals are economic commodities; they have a market value. Animal property is, of course, different from the other things that we own in that animals are sentient and have interests in not suffering pain or other deprivations and in satisfying those interests that are peculiar to their species. But it costs money to protect animal interests. As a general matter, we spend money to protect animal interests only when it is justified as an economic matter – only when we derive an economic benefit from doing so.

Anti-cruelty laws supposedly require “humane” treatment, but these laws generally either explicitly exempt what are considered as the “normal” or “customary” practices of industry, or, if the practices are not exempt, courts interpret pain and suffering imposed pursuant to industry practices as “necessary” and “humane.” That is, the law defers to industry to set the standard of “humane” care. This deference is based on the assumption that those who produce animal products – from the breeders to the farmers to the slaughterhouse operators – will not impose more harm on animals than is required to produce the particular product just as the rational owner of a car would not take a hammer to his or her car and dent it for no reason.

Animal welfare standards have actually fallen dramatically in recent decades. We are using more animals today and we are treating them worse than at any time in history. The idyllic family farm – where, by the way, there was a great deal of pain and suffering – has vanished and been replaced by intensive agriculture – “factory farms” – where cows, pigs, chicken and fish are kept in crowded conditions, subjected to severe confinement and mutilation and generally lead miserable lives from the moment they are born until the moment that they die.

There is increasing consciousness about this horrible state of affairs, but the solution proposed by most animal advocates is to increase welfare standards. Peter Singer, author of “Animal Liberation” and regarded by many as the “father of the animal rights movement,” agrees with Bentham that it is morally defensible to use animals if we provide reasonably pleasant lives and relatively painless deaths for them.

Popular writers such as Jonathan Safran Foer, Michael Pollan, Sarah Palin speech writer Matthew Scully and an endless parade of celebrities, rock stars and environmentalists have joined Singer in condemning factory farming and in calling for larger cages, “free-range” conditions and what are, in the grand scheme of things, minor modifications of a most horrific process. Large animal protection organizations promote various “happy” meat and animal products labels, which supposedly guarantee that the animals whose corpses or products have the particular label were treated better.

But no one is really kidding anyone here. The most “humanely” raised animals are treated and killed in circumstances that would constitute torture were humans involved. The standards required to get “happy” certifications require what would be analogous to padding on water boards at Guantanamo Bay; there is precious little difference between conventional battery eggs and “cage-free” eggs, where thousands of birds are, in effect, crammed into one large cage.

The bottom line is clear in that, although we can delude ourselves with myths about “happy” or “humane” animal products, welfare standards will necessarily be very low because animals are property and because it costs money to protect animal interests.

Eating People With Amnesia

The second problem with the animal welfare position is theoretical; it rests on the notion, which we would all recognize immediately as completely crazy if we were not so invested in continuing to eat animals, that animals do not care about their lives; that they don’t have an interest in continuing to live, but only have an interest in not suffering.

Why did Bentham think such a silly thing 200 years ago? Why does Singer – and why do many of us – think that now?

We believe that animals occupy an “eternal present,” that they don’t have memories of the past or thoughts about the future because they don’t plan vacations or think about what movie to see this weekend.

Any of us who have ever lived with animals surely recognize that position as factually wrong. We live with four rescued dogs and the notion that they are not self-aware and have memories and future desires is as absurd as the notion that they don’t have tails. All you need to do is watch them. There is simply no way to explain their behavior without attributing some sense of self-awareness to them.

But let’s not get stuck in the morass of trying to determine the nature of animal minds. Since we are the only animals who use symbolic communication, we will probably never really understand what it is like to be a bat or a chicken or a cow or any other animal. Let’s assume that animals are perceptually aware and can suffer but live in an “eternal present.”

So what?

There are humans who have a form of amnesia in which they have a sense of self only in the present. They have no memories and they do not think about the future. Is such a condition morally relevant? It might be. We might not want to appoint such a person as a history professor. But would we say that such a person has no interest in continuing to live and that death is not a harm to that person?

Surely not.

So, why do we say that about animals? The short answer: because we want to eat animals and we don’t want to eat humans with amnesia. We tell ourselves that death is not a harm and the trick is to do it all “humanely.” But we can’t do it “humanely” and, in any event, death is a harm that we should not impose – however “humane” our treatment and method of execution – if we don’t have a good reason.

Pleasure is not a good reason. That is why we got upset with Vick. Convenience is not a good reason. That is why we are unhappy that Romney could not have been bothered to make arrangements for Seamus to be transported properly. And that is why it’s time to get beyond all the “free-range” and “happy” animal products’ propaganda and see that we simply cannot justify the use of animals for food. We should care for the domesticated animals whom we have caused to come into existence, but we should stop breeding more for human consumption.

On one hand, that’s a very radical conclusion. On the other hand, it isn’t radical at all; it flows from moral ideas that we all already claim to accept. What is remarkable is that a species that prides itself on its rationality has allowed the desire to eat animals and animal foods to cloud our judgment to the point where we can criticize – and even hate – Vick, or regard Romney as some sort of unfeeling moral failure.

We entertain all sorts of crazy ideas in order to justify our daily consumption of animal products and the imposition of suffering and death on animals that this requires.

But the problem is that they are just that – crazy ideas.