Not just pundits like the cheap shot


Tucked in the last paragraph of an otherwise banal review of Jonathen Foer's Eating Animals we find this gem

He uses the word “atrocities” to describe the cruelties visited upon baby turkeys and chickens and writes that KFC “is arguably the company that has increased the sum total of suffering in the world more than any other in history.” He asserts that “we have let the factory farm replace farming for the same reasons our cultures have relegated minorities to being second-class members of society and kept women under the power of men.” And in another section he talks about “the shame” he felt as an American tourist in Europe when “photos of Abu Ghraib proliferated” and then speaks in the very next sentence about the “shame in being human: the shame of knowing that 20 of the roughly 35 classified species of sea horse worldwide are threatened with extinction because they are killed ‘unintentionally’ in seafood production.”

Anticipating reader objections, Mr. Foer writes that people might say “social-justice movements” have “nothing to do with the situation of the factory farm,” that “human oppression is not animal abuse.” But he adds that in his view we interpret the legacies of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez “too narrowly if we assume in advance that they cannot speak against the oppression of the factory farm.”

It’s arguments like this that undermine the many more valid observations in this book, and make readers wonder how the author can expend so much energy and caring on the fate of pigs and chickens, when, say, malaria kills nearly a million people a year (most of them children), and conflict and disease in Congo since the mid-1990s have left an estimated five million dead and hundreds of thousands of women and girls raped and have driven more than a million people from their homes.

As it stands this isn't an argument,  and so isn't fallacious. But, it seems to me that this move is deployed as a sort of defensive argument to shift the burden of moral justification. It questions the author's moral authority, rather than his argument, with a quasi ad hominem circumstantial fallacy wapped in a slice of accusation of hypocrisy. Although it doesn't assert that Foer's conclusion that we should end the massive vicious violence of our current systems of meat "production" is false, it certainly suggests that Foer is, at least, suspect for wanting to make such an assertion. It's about as cheap an argument as you can squeeze into a book review.

Of course, if we allow this move in this discourse, then it seems to me that it can be used about caring about anything–I certainly wonder how this author "can expend so much energy and caring on reading books, when, say, malaria kills nearly a million people a year."

Insofar as it is an argument, it seems to rest on some sort of premise such as that "animal suffering can matter only if human suffering is abolished." This seems likely false to me and seems to miss Foer's point which seems relatively benign–that we should not assume that social justice discourse does not have anything to say about how we treat animals, or that there are similarities between how we degrade human beings and how we treat animals.

4 thoughts on “Not just pundits like the cheap shot”

  1. There is also the suggestion that you cannot both care about the fate of animals on a factory farm AND the suffering of (some) human beings.  One may have only so much energy, but arguing that there ought not to be factory hog farms is not inconsistent with arguing that people ought not to suffer from malaria.  There are, in any case, direct and horrible consequences of factory hog farming (for instance) for human beings.

  2. Nicely said, Colin. There is a question as to what it is to challenge a person's moral authority, for one, and moreover, a question as to whether there is a relevant challenge to that authority if the person fails to emphasize one moral cause or another (couldn't Darfur be invoked in every one of these circumstances?) There's a correlate fallacy (if nameable except as a form of red herring) in environmental ethics, which runs effectively along the following rhetorical lines: theory X about intrinsic value of environments (for example) is wrong for reasons x, y, and, z, and theory Y is better for reasons a, b, and c. However, the time for philosophy is done, and the time for action is upon us… the forests are burning and we must put our philosophy books aside and come to the aid of nature.  (And so consequently, I have the last word on the matter…)

    <quote>Since Kakutani believes that caring is a zero-sum game, and that most of us are too pea -brained to care about more than one thing at a time, she felt it was important to put Foer in his place for raising a voice against factory farming — an industry that, let's face it, is merely really, really, really horrible.
    Since reading her review, we've found it difficult to remember why we ever cared about what kind of car we drive, or whether to pay or shoplift, or who to punch and when. She's right: in the bright light of malaria, everything else is invisible. So no more money to the NRDC, no more hand wringing about health care, and no more helping old ladies across the street. Screw you, injured person lying against the curb, there are hungry kids somewhere else! Better still, here's a kick!</quote>

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