26 February 2007

Happy Birthday, O v. C v. T!

Just realized this little ol' blog turns 1 today! 8300-some visits is the daily traffic figure for some sites, but for us it's a yearly total. Whee! Bust out the party hats, O and T, and do some celebrating for me....

15 February 2007


Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
February 2, 2007

Much of the meat sold in supermarkets and other stores has been grown via factory farming. Factory farming occurs when industrial conditions are used to grow large numbers of chickens, pigs, and other animals. In this column, I argue that you should not buy pig- or chicken-meat that has been grown in these conditions.

The factory-farm conditions are often cruel. Animal-welfare groups like People of the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and GoVeg.com report that piglets have their testicles cut out, tails cut off, and the ends of some of their teeth broken off with pliers. This is all done without anesthesia. The adult sows are confined to small metal crates that don’t allow them to turn around. Citing industry reports, PETA and other groups claim that they are transported under harsh conditions that cause frequent death and injury (more than 1 million per year die and 420,000 are crippled during transport).

These groups observe that other animals like chickens are packed into small wire cages without enough room to spread out their wings. These cages are stacked on top of one another so that the excrement of the chickens in higher cages falls on the ones below. Their sensitive beaks cut off so they don’t peck each other and the hens are sometimes not fed for fourteen days in order to get them to produce more eggs.

I will assume that the majority of the pigs and chickens raised under these conditions do not have lives that are not worth living. If this is incorrect, then my argument fails.

Now imagine you saw a group of young teenagers torturing a stray pig. They’ve tied it to a tree and are carving into it with a rusty nail. You’d likely ask them to stop. If they refused, you might even give them the pimp hand (a hard slap to the side of the head). Why? Because it’s morally disgusting to torture animals. This is even more offensive when you realize that we would feel nauseated at the thought of persons torturing dogs and cats and the pigs are probably more intelligent than dogs and cats. Now there is a theoretical issue as to whether torturing animals is wrong because it infringes on their rights, reflects a vicious character, or makes the world a worse place. I’ll sidestep this theoretical issue and proceed on the assumption that you wouldn’t tolerate the pig-torturers.

Now consider what happens when you buy pork products in the supermarket. You’ve in effect paid the factory farmer to grow the pig under torture-like conditions. That is, in purchasing the meat you’ve in effect paid the factory workers to torture the animals. In short, the pig-torturers now act in a way similar to the teenagers only now they do it more frequently and efficiently and they work for you. In short if you or your employee is purchasing factory farmed pig- or chicken-meat, you’re a low-level monster. Plain and simple.

One obvious objection is that you are paying the factory farmer to torture the pigs for food, whereas the teenagers are doing it for pleasure. However, eating factory-farmed pork or chicken isn’t necessary for health, it’s merely consumed for taste, that is, for pleasure. In fact, given the number of fat people one sees walking the streets, less meat consumption is arguably a good thing. In any case, I’m not arguing that it’s wrong to eat pork or chicken, just that it should be purchased from producers whose animals have lives worth living. My argument is also consistent with hunting. Nor does it rely on any paternalistic claims about what foods are healthy or similar claims from nanny-types who are always trying to get us to stop smoking and drinking and to wear seatbelts.

A second objection is that human beings only have duties to their own kind. In response to such ignorance, one feels the pimp hand stirring. The fact that an individual is a member of a biological category (for example, human being) is no more relevant than the fact that an individual is a member of a racial category (for example, white). What matters is whether an individual has a morally relevant feature, such as the ability to feel pain or the ability to experience emotions. Both categories are had by non-human beings, most obviously by apes. To allow them to be brutalized in ways that we would never allow done to severely retarded human beings is unprincipled.

A third objection, this time a sophisticated one, is that the consumption of factory-farmed meat is permissible because for every animal you eat, you in effect pay for his replacement. The problem here is that the animals you are substituting in for your dinner meat do not have lives that are worth living. Hence, paying others to torture animals can’t be justified just because they regularly switch victims.

A fourth argument, and another sophisticated one, is that your purchasing of meat has only a negligible effect on the profits of meat producers and hence doesn’t affect the world. The problem here is that it might be wrong to do an action that has a very small role in bringing about an injustice. For example, consider a starving man who has a plate full of life-saving rice. It is wrong for each of a thousand individuals to steal a grain of rice from his plate, thereby killing him, even if no particular theft endangered the man. In the case of meat purchases, the objection also fails for a second reason, namely that if you purchase factory-farmed pork and chicken year in and year out and do so for family and friends, then your multiple actions will affect producers’ decisions because you will now be consuming many pigs.

Some people respond that no matter what animal defenders argue, pork and chicken just tastes too good and only factory-farmed meat is affordable. I’m sympathetic to this. I’m ashamed to admit that I occasionally buy it. However, let’s be clear about what’s going on. That meat on you or your child’s dinner plate came about because an innocent animal was tortured. Enjoy your meal but don’t worry about the bill, an innocent creature already paid it.

Is environmentalism the new religion?

A very interesting piece! I've frequently noted the intense, seemingly religious fervour that often accompanies discussion of environmental issues. Inquiring minds will ask: but what is a "religion"? Good question! I cover this in my Intro to Philosophy of Religion course. The two most helpful attempts at definition I know of are as follows. Both can't get rid of certain borderline cases, but they're helpful nonetheless.

First, the authors of this excellent book, say

“a tentative, working definition... [a] religion is constituted by a set of beliefs, actions, and experiences, both personal and corporate, organized around a concept of an Ultimate Reality.” (p.7)

By that definition, many forms of environmentalism will count, as they revolve around an idea of ultimate reality as either (1) the natural world (as science reveals it), or (2) the natural world understood as including the Earth as a living thing - "Gaia", or Mother, etc., other living things being our siblings, as it were.

Philosopher Keith Yandell gives what I think is more helpful, functional definition of what a religion is, in this book.

A religion proposes a diagnosis (an account of what it takes the basic problem facing human beings to be) and a cure (a way of permanently and desirably solving that problem): one basic problem shared by every human person and one fundamental solution that, however adapted to different cultures and cases, is essentially the same across the board. Religions differ insofar as their diagnoses and cures differ.”(17)

Environmentalism, then, will be the religion defined by something like the following diagnosis and cure. Diagnosis: as things stand now, our Mother Earth is dying, and thus our race is doomed. Cure: we can save her, and thus our race, by recycling, by voluntary lifestyle changes, and through increased governmental control of earth-harming industries, traditions, and practices. That does seem to me like the central narrative of the universe defining the lives of many current-day people.

"Religions" are complex things. We philosophers tend to focus on the belief element in religion, but late philosopher of religion Ninian Smart (yes, smarty pants, he was very smart) pointed out that religions have six dimensions: doctrinal, mythic, ethical, ritual, experiential, and social. Various streams in the Environmental Movement clearly have all six dimensions. Thus, they aren't simply like religions, or quasi-religions - they are religions - they compete with others in the religious area. This can be obscured by the fact that people syncretize environmentalist religion with other kinds.

08 February 2007

more Haggard scandal follow-up: "not gay"

The saga continues here. I'm sure this "not gay" statement will invite a lot of mockery, cat-calls, and good old-fashioned contempt. Thanks to the Constructivist, btw, for an example on another blog. But I wonder if this claim could be non-trivially true.
He is completely heterosexual,” Ralph said. “That is something he discovered. It was the acting-out situations where things took place. It wasn’t a constant thing.”

Why Haggard chose to act out in that manner is something Haggard and his advisers are trying to discern, Ralph said.

Can you "act out on" a sexual desire, when that desire is in fact not a core part of your sexual identity, so to speak? I don't see why not. Most solidly heterosexual people, I reckon, have the occasional same-sex sexual desires. Were they to act on them, when say, drunk, over-tired, or in some unusual situation, it would be a mistake to accuse them of "really being gay" and hiding it, right? They're only "gay" in a trivial sense - that they occasionally experience same-sex sexual attraction, and it so happens that they infrequently (or maybe even once) acted on those desires. If you buy all that, then you might buy that a "completely heterosexual" but stressed-out and isolated mega-church pastor could do what Haggard did. What do y'all think?

01 February 2007

Objectivist: Get the Government Out of the Recycling Business

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
31 January 2007

Our Mystery Guest provides a number of arguments for her claim that the government should mandate and subsidize recycling. It is worth emphasizing that we are not talking about recycling in general--no one opposes this--but rather government-induced recycling. This recycling is similar to protectionist tariffs and corporate welfare in that it involves interference with the free market.

Mystery Guest provides three arguments in support of her claim for government-induced recycling. First, she argues that because landfills are unsafe, government-induced recycling is desirable. Her evidence for their lack of safety rests on the claims of some experts who argue that current landfill regulations are so inadequate as to be ticking time bombs. Second, she argues that because persons don't want landfills located near them, government should induce recycling. Third, she argues that government-induced recycling has good results, namely it creates jobs, reduces the use of virgin materials, saves energy, and reduces pollution.

Mystery Guest's first reason is irrelevant. Government-induced recycling doesn't eliminate the need for landfills. At most, it lessens it. If landfills are as dangerous as she suggests, the obvious solution is to require that new and safe landfills be built. If this is done, then her argument is disarmed. If it's not done, then government-induced recycling will do little to combat toxic contamination of air and groundwater from the material already stored there. By analogy, if there were a factory that was pouring toxic compounds into a lake, we should demand that it stop doing so rather than merely tinkering at the margins with its level of production.

It's also worth noting that the experts whom Mystery Guest cites appear to admit that there is no recorded instance of an up-to-date landfill failure (specifically, Subtitle D landfill liner failure), that is, one that allowed toxic chemicals to enter our air or groundwater. Now to be fair, she would respond that the EPA is criminally negligent in refusing to require that landfills test for more than 200 of the chemicals that are found in landfills and likely claim that the test period is too short. Even if this is correct, it's still hard to see how it supports her program.

Mystery Guest's second argument is that government should induce recycling because persons don't want landfills located near them. I doubt that she takes this argument seriously. I wonder if she would give similar weight to the majority's preference to eliminate race and gender preferences, shut down third-world immigration, and, in some areas, teach creationism.

The not-in-my-backyard problem is common to a number of goods. For example, many people don't want prisons, military bases, or sewage plants located near them. It doesn't follow from this that we should have fewer prisons, sharply reduce the military, or eliminate sewage plants. The reason for this is that persons have other preferences (for example, reduced crime, protection against foreign attack, and convenient handling of excrement) that conflict with these other preferences and at the very least we need an argument for prioritizing conflicting preferences. Even if there weren't conflicting preferences, it is worth considering the wisdom of preferences. For example, we shouldn't give much weight to irrational preferences such as those against interracial marriage or homosexual sodomy. This is particularly true when these preferences precede public discussion of the issues.

In any case, these preferences are informed only when the polled citizens know how much a community will gain from allowing landfills in their county or town. For example, if the polled citizens were told that landfill fees would fund the schools and thereby reduce staggering property taxes, the poll results might be quite different. Assessing complex policies by citing unspecific and uninformed polls won't convince anyone who isn't already a true believer.

Mystery Guest's third argument is that government-induced recycling has overall good effects because it creates jobs, reduces the use of virgin material, saves energy, and reduces pollution. Consider the first claim that government-induced recycling creates jobs. Even if this were true, she doesn't even try to show that the benefits of the additional jobs outweigh their costs. The proponents of corporate welfare and sky-high tariffs for sugar and textiles also claim that these policies create jobs but ignore the costs of doing so. In the absence of at least some argument showing that the benefits outweigh the costs, their arguments fall flat. Mystery Guest's jobs argument fails for the same reason and the same is true for her virgin-material and energy-savings arguments. This is particularly relevant since some recycled material costs considerably more than virgin material (for example, glass and plastic resin).

The market has an advantage here in that it allows people to enjoy the benefits of their decisions and forces them to eat the costs. It thereby provides a reliable means by which to compare the benefits and costs of various decisions. This in large part explains why the market is more efficient at production and distribution than the government. For those of you who doubt this, I challenge you to name just one area (outside of natural monopolies) where the government is more efficient. Just one. I thought so.

Mystery Guest's last argument is that recycling reduces pollution. This time her argument is less than half the picture. First, she doesn't even consider the toxic by-products that recycling produces and hence her argument is one-half of the pollution picture. Second, she doesn't consider whether the costs of reducing pollution outweigh its benefits. For example, if recycling were to achieve very small amounts of pollution reduction at substantial cost, we might decide that it's not worth it. For example, it's not clear whether the benefits of marginally less greenhouse gases would outweigh the costs of an additional fifty-cent per gallon gasoline tax and up to 4,000 additional highway deaths per year due to car-efficiency requirements. In the absence of an estimate of the costs of induced recycling, Mystery Guest's argument makes about as much sense as a person who goes shopping for clothes without looking at price tags.

In short, Mystery Guest's various arguments for government-induced recycling are irrelevant, unconvincing, and incomplete. A person can't do a cost-benefit analysis if she ignores costs any more than she can intelligently shop for clothes while ignoring price tags.