Friday, March 9, 2012

Horses, Lambs, Children, and Conflicting Ethics

In the March issue of The Atlantic, Darcy Courteau writes about the consequences that have been faced by the horse market in the years since the last slaughterhouse that produced horse meat in the United States was forced to close. I remember that story well, as I felt at the time that I was at odds with what I perceived as a widely shared instance irrationality in American culture. It seemed absurd to me that the Department of Agriculture should place a value judgment upon the production of horse meat, which differed from that applied to all other livestock.

I disagreed in no uncertain terms with that bit of interference with free enterprise. I disagreed with it on rational grounds despite being a vegetarian and a person highly concerned with animal rights. I simply don’t see how the overwhelming public support for the removal of horse meat and only horse meat from the American market could have stood up to any measure of introspection. It relies on a false distinction between one type of animal and all others.

Being a vegetarian and an animal rights advocate, I want to see that society avoids the mistreatment and slaughter of all animals, not just the ones that I like. How I feel about the creatures is irrelevant; right and wrong are never contingent upon personal attitudes. It may be contingent upon the objective nature of different things, but this doesn’t seem to apply to the situation of horses and other livestock. I don’t see how anyone could realistically argue that horses possess personalities that, for instance, cows or lamb lack, or that horses are better able to experience pain, discomfort, or fear.

Unless one earnestly believes that horses are intrinsically different from other animals, which belief they would have to hold in absence of real evidence, I can only assume that their impulse to suppress the slaughter of horses while allowing it for other animals is on the basis of the personal relationships people sometimes have with horses.

But that doesn’t really make a difference when we’re talking about just the concept of slaughtering them for meat. It’s not as though opponents of horse meat had personal relationships with this or that particular horse. Some people have personal relationships with particular rabbits, or snakes. It’s not unheard of for someone to keep a pig as a house pet, or to feel affection for a cow that is kept solely for dairy production. Rarely is any of this used as grounds to argue that the entirety of society ought to disallow the killing of or production of meat from any animals of a certain species.

If one recoils with horror at the very thought of horse meat, but never bats an eye when filling his shopping cart with pork and beef, he is wedging an artificial dividing line into the application of his principles. Such selective defense can only be irrational. And if one is concerned with consistency of his own beliefs or ethics, instances like that ought to lead to one of three outcomes: a change in attitude leading to universal application of the principle, even if potentially inconvenient; abandonment of that principle; or production of a satisfactory account of why the dividing line is not artificial.

If a person utterly opposes the production of horse meat but neither opposes the slaughter of all other creatures nor truly believes that the mental lives of horses are significantly and objectively different from those of all other creatures, then that person is trying to hold two contrary views at once: that killing a sentient, autonomous being that’s called a horse is wrong, and that killing a sentient, autonomous being that’s not called a horse is okay.

Cognitive dissonance is the enemy of breaking points. When you give yourself license to hold views that are in opposition to one another, you strip yourself of the crucial motivation for intellectual or moral growth. Breaking points arise of conflict, and sometimes it is a conflict between two opposing ideas that you yourself maintain. A person who is concerned with rational consistency will keep an eye out for such conflicting views, and his breaking point will entail a sudden realization that either one of his ideas is wrong, or he doesn’t actually know why each of them is right.

In the case of the ranching of horses and the slaughter of them for meat, the tension between views goes well beyond the simple difference in perception of horses and other animals. Cognitive dissonance is easy when you’re operating on pure intuition. When those intuitions are directly challenged by pragmatic concerns, it’s much more difficult to make glib pronouncements that a certain action is simply wrong. Courteau writes of the fallout from the closure of the last US horse meat producers:

“In states across the country, reported cases of equine abuse, neglect, and abandonment skyrocketed. And the kill buyers of yesteryear aggregated into rarer but still more haunting boogeymen, purchasing for the abattoirs of Canada, or, worse, Mexico, where horses at some slaughterhouses are reportedly subject to torturous conditions.”

Consequentialism makes for complex ethical calculations, and if one wishes not only to release the United States from the stigma its citizenry attaches to the slaughter of horses, but to actually reduce the suffering experienced by American horses, then such a person’s intuition that it was good to force closure of the slaughterhouses is probably in error. But that error and the larger error of deliberate cognitive dissonance are both based on the same mistake of thinking that your knee-jerk intuition is sufficient grounds for all moral judgments.

When one really starts to analyze the consequences of people’s intuitive moral pronouncements, we see that cognitive dissonance is quite easy to come by once all the nuance of principle and pragmatism is taken into account. In other words, what a person thinks is wrong often fails to align perfectly with why he thinks it is wrong. We cannot permanently avoid the moral burden of having to occasionally choose the lesser of two evils. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to occur to many people who have non-inquisitive, black-and-white views of morality.

The other night, I was watching the documentary Sweetgrass, and the depictions of some of the operations at the sheep farm brought to mind these same questions of ethical complexities. The opening scenes of the film largely focus on the beginning of lives for sheep on that farm, and I was somewhat shocked by the dismissive treatment by the ranchers of both newborn lambs and nursing mothers. But if watches with a measure of objectivity, one quickly comes to realize that given such high volume of sheep, the farmers are doing what they can to promote survival of the highest number possible.

Some years ago, I had a good friend who was a devout, even zealous Buddhist. He was exceptionally sensitive to implications of animal mistreatment, and aggressively, immediately judgmental of perceived wrongdoing. It occurred to me while watching Sweetgrass that he certainly would have found the farmers’ behavior to be unforgivable, but that any alternative behavior that would have resulted in the survival of fewer sheep would have elicited just as much disdain from him. While their rationalizations were grounded in Buddhism instead of Christianity, this friend’s social and political views were decidedly conservative, and probably didn’t differ very much from those of his Christian parents.

His moral judgments, like those of many conservatives, and indeed like those of many people of any political leaning, were severely averse to nuance. I recall discussing abortion with him on one occasion and using the word “complex” to describe the breadth and seriousness of the associated ethical questions. That evoked fiery indignation from him, and he said, “No. You can kill or you can not kill. It’s actually really simple.”

And it would be simple if that’s all it came down to, if there weren’t any genuine questions about what qualifies as killing, if there weren’t any other ways of being responsible for another creature’s suffering. What my friend believed seemed simple on the surface, but at a deeper level of analysis it becomes clear that he was keeping it simple by ignoring the hard questions.

No doubt he would have agreed that his moral concern was with decreasing the suffering of sentient beings, a utilitarian concern. That view means it is reprehensible to do anything that promotes or permits the death of, say, sheep or horses. But it must also make it reprehensible to do anything that promotes or permits the hunger or severe discomfort of the same creatures.

In the case of the sheep in Sweetgrass, keeping all of the lambs alive meant separating them from their mothers immediately upon birth, forcibly compelling ewes to nurse lambs to which they had no connection, and hastily handling the creatures as if they were inanimate objects. The alternative would have been to handle them more delicately, more compassionately, but chances are that in light of the enormous numbers of sheep that needed to be handled by just a few farmers, that would have resulted in some of the lambs being neglected, and thus starving or being killed by competing sheep.

Both alternatives may well be similarly unethical, but it’s unhelpful to simply reject whichever alternative is current simply on the basis of its perceived wrongness. The choice of one wrong action is, in cases like this, the direct consequence of the rejection of another.

It may strike some people as hideously dehumanizing to draw such a parallel, but the pragmatic circumstances surrounding the abortion debate can be elucidated by thinking of the entire human race as a correlate to a herd of livestock. As population increase, the rate of survival within that population, or at least the average utility available to each individual, naturally decreases. Mandating the birth of more young is tantamount to mandating the provision of more suffering. A person who opposes either abortion or the neglect of newborn lambs or the slaughter horses doesn’t have to accept that fact as a justification of the contrary position, but he does have to acknowledge the consequences of what he’s advocating.

In fact, I find that most people refuse to do this. They are, instead, happy to embrace cognitive dissonance, presumably because it is easier to live in a fantasy world in which right actions never have unintended consequences than it is to willfully struggle with moral dilemmas. That perception, however irrational, may help an individual to remain admirably committed to his own ethical obligations, but it also results in unfair judgments predicated upon others.

It’s not rational to demand that a creature with little access to resources must both birth its child and feed it. The acceptance of cognitive dissonance results in dissonant demands and no-win situations. That is the cognitive dissonance of, for instance, anyone who repudiates abortion without compromise, but also rejects the provision welfare. Essentially, the two views in concert pronounce that it’s wrong both to terminate a pregnancy and to have a child while poor.

Again, a rational person whose views are at odds with one another must apply the relevant principle, abandon it, or explain how they can be reconciled. In the given case, if a person claims the principle of defending the lives of innocents, he must apply that principle by providing material support to unsupported children. If that is too inconvenient, he must rethink his stance on abortion, or else explain why it’s worth defending an unborn child but not one who has truly entered the world.

It’s not easy to decide upon coherent ethical theories as to what constitutes right and wrong, but even once you have, it’s not easy to determine how to apply those theories. If you want children to have both a chance at life and at least basic comfort once they’ve begun that life, you’ll eventually have to confront a situation in which those desires stand in opposition. If want the lambs to avoid both starvation and mistreatment, you’ll be horrified, when you look closely enough, to realize that it sometimes takes one to avoid the other. You can save the horses from the abattoir, but you may thus doom them stable that does them even greater harm.

There is a certain sense in which my Buddhist friend’s pronouncement is still correct. It’s very simple: you can either kill or not kill. But the operative word there is “you.” The individual often has privileges that are absent to society at large. You can choose to carry your own unintended pregnancy to term, but if you can then feed that child without fail, you’d better thank God that you never really had to face the choice between depriving a child of life and subjecting it to exquisite hardship. And you can’t conflate either situation with the broader hypothetical in which the nation is inundated with a million additional young lives that must be supported and defended.

If you raise horses and you’re uncomfortable with them being either slaughtered or abused and underfed, you can do as Ms. Courteau’s father had always done and refuse to sell them to kill buyers. But when such sales are no longer an option and the reduced demand causes the prices of horses to fall, lowering your revenue to the point where it is no longer possible to take adequate care of the horses you have, the dual ideals of defending all life and defending against all suffering are no longer sustainable.

This has been the situation of horse farming in the United States for the past four or five years. I remember it being mentioned by some as a possible consequence at the time that the last slaughterhouse dealing in horse meat was closing. But mostly I remember objecting to the irrationality of it all. I remember this very well, but somehow I missed the fact that the Congress resumed funding for these slaughterhouses in November, which may result in some reopening this year.

I won’t be happy to see domestic horses go back to slaughter. Indeed, I hope that someday in the far-distant future they all close again, but that they do so then right along with those that deal in every species of animal, and that it be on the basis of the universal application of moral principles, not on the basis of an absurd double-standard.

But despite the fancifulness of that hope, I’m not na├»ve about the implications. I know that many animals will suffer and die from lack of care during any possible transition away from their slaughter and consumption. But if I could be alive when that time comes, I would say that that is the unhappy consequence of doing right in a way that is more crucial to our future moral standing. It is a great tragedy of the social aspect of moral existence that we sometimes have to prioritize our values against one another. But our collective morality gains not a bit from pretending that there is no such problem.

The nuanced demands and consequences of collective ethics are discomforting, in that they may require us to accept things that don’t feel right to us. Intuition is a powerful tool in making moral judgments, but it can only lead us so far. If it guides a situation towards less obvious but more serious harms, we’ve probably made the awfully mistake of eschewing rationality in order to appease the short-sighted demands of immediate perception. Only reason, and not intuition, is capable of handling nuance and recognizing indefensible cognitive dissonances.

Rationality is a skill that must be learned for the sake of coherent, far-reaching moral behavior. It draws the dividing line between those who think they are doing the right thing and truly are, even if they appear not to be.

Courteau writes of the reversal of the double-standard regarding horse meat, “Many pet lovers are furious, but PETA actually supports the reversal, arguing that the suffering of unwanted horses increased after the demise of the kill plants.” If PETA, which is often so prone to over-the-top displays of self-righteous, black-and-white morality, can learn the value of nuance and circumstance, anyone can.

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