Food Ethics and Anthropology

A recent piece at Waging Nonviolence by Sangamithra Iyer usefully argues for the importance of the vegan dietary movement. Iyer traces the origin of the movement to an Englishman, Donald Watson, who founded a group adopting vegan principles in 1944. Iyer notes the fanatical opposition from the corporate food industry and captured government agencies.

Contemporary society embodies a profound hypocrisy: many of those who consume animals would likely be unwilling to ever actually slaughter an animal themselves. In contrast to a mere century ago, the vast majority of the populace is now quite removed, culturally as well as physically, from food production. Paying others to do dirty work you are unwilling to do yourself is hardly a defensible moral stance. Documentary filmmaker Keegan Kuhn, who had tackled the animal agriculture industry, notes that “Hiding the animals, hiding the farms, hiding the entire issue is a marketing tool that is used by the industry. Their attitude is, if you can’t see it, it’s not there. There are upwards of 10 billion farm animals slaughtered every year in the United States. But where are these 10 billion animals?” In much of the U.S. in particular, meat products are now often unrecognizable as an actual animal. The fish stick lover may express revulsion at being confronted with a whole fish on their plate.

There is a strong ethical argument to be made for veganism. One of the earlier influential proponents, philosopher Peter Singer, has written about the expanding circle of moral concern. Certainly, our moral horizons have expanded since 17th Century Europe, where René Descartes held that animals were mere automata, incapable of suffering. When I dabbled in vegetarianism many years ago, I did so primarily out of concern for the environmental consequences of meet consumption. Although I was not immune to animal welfare concerns, I felt that animal rights activists tended to be ‘beautiful souls,’ to borrow a Yiddish expression that is not exactly a compliment. For myself, those mixed feelings endure, perhaps typically of a society in transition. Animal rights advocates sit awkwardly within the left of the political spectrum. Socially, there is often some degree of shared sympathy mixed with mutual wariness and disinterest. From an organizing standpoint, there is a danger in separating oneself from the rest of society too markedly in too many different directions all at once. When the great organizer in the Civil Rights movement, Bayard Rustin, chose to keep quiet about his homosexuality, it was a defensible decision. It probably made strategic sense: fight too many battles simultaneously and you ensure defeat on all fronts. I eventually abandoned my vegetarianism. As with all consumer ethical decisions, if there is no active boycott campaign, the decisions are highly personal. It made little sense to me to avoid meat while still purchasing sweatshop clothing, or Foxconn-manufactured electronics. Trespasses against human life and well-being should be regarded with greater concern than violations against other animals.

This is not merely a speciesist claim. Human life has priority because our species is capable of self-awareness – of consciousness. Yet there is more to the story. Human morality is a biological and social construct. Our biology guides the general contours of our moral senses, and socialization further shapes our ethical sensibilities. Reason can inform our moral opinions. As such, some moral precepts are evident: life has value, and the more intelligent a life-form is, the more ethical value it has, up to the point at which consciousness is attained and after which all life is sacred and further gradations of intelligence are immaterial. Opponents of abortion have a moral opposition to killing fetuses. Their error is in overvaluing the life of the fetus, a creature lacking self-awareness. However, studies have found that a human toddler is of roughly analogous intelligence to some of the most intelligent non-human animals. The logical ethical deduction is that – unless we are willing the regard the lives of human toddlers as less than sacred, something very few would countenance – the lives of animals of similar intelligence are substantially sacred as well. Therefore, the most intelligent of animals, like the great apes and cetaceans, are to be accorded particularly strong rights. It also follows that the treatment of other intelligent creatures is an ethical matter. Pigs are as intelligent as dogs, yet in the West the former are food while the latter are accorded special protections and the consumption of the animal in some Asian societies is regarded as barbaric. The attitude is plainly irrational prejudice that cannot be articulately defended. Though the animal rights movement may sometimes be hobbled by sentimentality, it has considerable moral force behind it that has nothing to do with sentimental prejudice.

There is little argument to be made for veganism on health grounds (unless simply because it leads one to consume more vegetables). The much-maligned paleo diet is in fact the by far the most compelling available nutritional ideology (contrary to the confusion stirred by T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study which misreads the adoption of the modern Western diet and the concomitant diseases of affluence as diseases of meat consumption). Nutritional science, hobbled by decades of government-corporate biases, is only very slowly acknowledging the obvious explanatory power of the paleo framework, as advanced by leading proponents like Loren Cordain, still in its infancy. Inevitably, the science of nutrition will adopt a model of an ideal diet that looks far more like Cordain’s than that of the food pyramid (or even the current food plate) guidelines. There is, however, a practical issue with the paleo nutrition model – global society cannot fully adopt paleo dietary practices. As a species our population has grown explosively, fed on the original junk food – grains, tubers, and legumes. It is no longer possible to feed the world eating only what we are best adapted to eating. So while knowledge of proper nutrition is helpful, we must modify our eating practices to include cheaper calories.

The paleo diet is part of a broader awakening of interest in an anthropologically-informed return to a more biologically suitable lifestyle. If the first half of the 20th century witnessed a nadir – an era of boundless confidence in existing science to improve life while arrogantly discarding traditional knowledge, thus, for example, producing guidelines for raising infants with minimal human contact (inevitably resulting in psychological damage) or replacing breast milk with nutritionally inferior infant formulas – the counter-reaction has now set in. American society is finding that Western toilets are poorly suited to human physiology and that most of us would do better to return to the Turkish-Asian style toilets that replicate paleolithic posture. Sedentary life may also be causing back pain and altering our basic erect spinal posture. The negative aspects of overusing antibiotics and soap are slowly percolating through popular culture.  Exercise gurus are now discovering interval training and barefoot running, while offices are abandoning the eight-hour-sit with standing desks and more, all emulating modes of behavior more characteristic of hunter-gatherers.

However, while this new appreciation for the value of anthropology and archaeology to inform our modern lifestyle is all to the good, it does not absolve us of the responsibility to make decisions about how to ethically adapt modern technology to productive ends.

It was not until several years after Watson founded his vegan group that scientists identified vitamin B12. Without knowledge of this essential vitamin, let alone how to synthesize it, veganism would have been nearly impossible to practice healthfully. Though veganism was not practicable until the mid-20th century, there is an ancient history of vegetarianism in some societies, most famously in India. Sometimes this took rather extreme forms, as with the Jains, who avoid eating plants that cannot be harvested without killing the plant (e.g. onions). Other meat-consuming societies, as in some of the American Indian tribes, hunted animals within a value framework that was ethically and spiritually-inflected.

This past is a far cry from modern industrial livestock production, which has inflicted cruelty upon animals at a concentration and scale previously unknown. The move away from small Old MacDonald family farms to  concentrated animal feeding operations has precipitated the new ethical soul-searching. Some have concluded that even the older model of more humane pastoralism is indefensible. Though still a small minority, there is every reason to suppose that this is the direction in which humanity is headed. As civilization grows more technologically advanced, it is becoming possible to transcend our biological limitations, the omnivorism we evolved for among other things. The ethical and environmental pressures may also force a shift towards consuming different animal proteins like insects, as many traditional peoples do, and shellfish, particularly oysters, which are environmentally sustainable and lack a central nervous system.

Predictably, the principle handicap facing us is the institutional structure of our society. The prevailing system of government in the contemporary period, wrongly awarded the label of democracy, is far more accurately denoted by the terms polyarchy or oligarchy. Global society is saddled with anemic fora for discussing ethical issues and is totally bereft of democratic controls upon economic decisions or of a proper pricing mechanism for environmental costs (e.g. the pervasive problem of externalities, unaccounted for in capitalism). To combat this, mass civil society movements will be needed. Ethical consumerism is a piece of that struggle, but hardly the most important one. We are simultaneously hurtling down the road to ruin as a species, and beginning to explore ways to learn from and transcend our origins and ennoble ourselves.


37 thoughts on “Food Ethics and Anthropology

  1. A consequence of the above conclusions is that defining and understanding consciousness universally (i.e. across species) has important ethical ramifications. One recent science article on this front:
    “The results suggest that rhesus macaques have some form of self-awareness, says Couchman. “We don’t know exactly how they experience self-awareness, but they have some access to their own thoughts and some understanding that they are an active force in the world,” he says. “In humans, this is a very conscious experience.”
    The fact that monkeys show metacognition and self-agency, even though they don’t pass the mirror self-recognition test, demonstrates there are different ways to tap into self-awareness. Perhaps more importantly, it means rhesus monkeys understand when they cause an action and can even distinguish between different types of actions.
    “This suggests that it was not just one giant evolutionary leap that made humans what we are today,” says Couchman. “Instead, it was probably a gradual process over millions of years that affected many of our evolutionary relatives.””

    In reality, when it comes to cognitive development, the divide between infant chimpanzees and infant humans is often startlingly small.

    No human even came close to Ayumu’s performance. The scientists studying Ayumu suggest that chimpanzees simply have a better working memory for visual information than humans – which might explain why they can beat us in strategy games involving visual tasks.
    The mind of a dog is roughly equivalent to that of a human who is 2 to 2½ years old.

  3. Peter Singer in his 1979 book Practical Ethics infamously argued that: “Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons”; therefore, “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.” Whatever one makes of this, the argument has a logical coherence. He also proffered a (for our purposes irrelevant and weakly argued) aside about the killing of disabled infants.

    The sociologist Amy Fitzgerald outlines the history of this evolution in her article, ‘A Social History of the Slaughterhouse: From Inception to Contemporary Implications’ (2010). Fitzgerald cites the first public slaughterhouse dating back to 1662 in the United States, and in 1676 slaughterhouses in New York City were moved from the city’s centre to less densely populated regions. And it was in the early 18th century in both Europe and the US that these public slaughterhouses became preferable to private ones because they removed the ‘morally dangerous’ work of animal slaughter from easy view.

    If the first step was removing animal slaughter from the backyards and barns of civilians, out of the public eye, the second was the rise of factory-style meat processing. Fitzgerald draws on Upton Sinclair’s famous novel The Jungle (1906), which portrays lives of immigrant meat packers in Chicago’s infamous Stock Yard. With the industrial revolution came assembly-line style employment. Animal slaughtering is said to be the first ‘mass-production industry’ in the US – Henry Ford partially adopted the mechanisms in his factories from meatpacking factories. With that came expendable employees and a culture of meat-factory ghettos on the city’s edges where immigrants lived in destitution, as Sinclair details. It was a public health and human rights disaster. …

    We live in what Richard Bulliet, a historian at Columbia University, calls a new era of ‘postdomesticity’ – people live far away, both physically and psychologically, from the animals that produce the food, fibre and hides they depend on. Yet they maintain very close relationships with companion animals – pets – often relating to them as if they were human. In Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers: The Past and Future of Human-Animal Relations (2005), Bulliet comments that people continue ‘to consume animal products in abundance, but psychologically, its members experience feelings of guilt, shame, and disgust when they think (as seldom as possible) about the industrial processes by which domestic animals are rendered into products and about how those products come to market’.

    We all know, or are, these people – the ones who’d rather buy our meat frozen, indiscernible from the animal it was, who brush off the family vegetarian at holidays with a Don’t ruin it for everybody else! The same people who might cry when running over a squirrel on the way home from the grocery store.

    Bulliet traces the recent divide, particularly in the US, to an obvious source: in 1900, 40 per cent of people in the US lived on farms. By 1990, 2 per cent did. In 1900, people were doing what my chicken-slaughtering friends do – slaying animals in their backyards. Regulations had been put in place for the slaughter of animals to be sold at a market, hence the public abattoirs and slaughterhouses; but people who lived on remote farms and raised animals, a large percentage of the population, still did it themselves.

    Are Allergies Up Because Of Modern Obsessions With Cleanliness?
    No. Our microbiomes, the population of microbes that live in and on our bodies, have altered from previous generations. This is not because of cleanliness, but because we interact with less diverse microbial environments than those of our largely rural ancestors. The idea that excessive cleaning has created “sterile” homes is implausible: microbes are rapidly replaced by organisms shed from us, our pets, raw foods and dust.

    This understanding has come from the “old friends” mechanism, a refinement to the hygiene hypothesis that offers a more plausible explanation for the link between microbial exposure and allergies. It proposes that exposure to the diverse range of largely non-harmful microbes or parasites that inhabit our world are important for building a diverse microbiome that is vital for sustaining a well regulated immune system that doesn’t overreact to allergens like pollen. These “old friends” have co-evolved with humans over millions of years. By contrast most infectious diseases only emerged over the last 10,000 years as we came to live in urban communities.

    Old friend microbes are still there, but we have lost contact with them due to lifestyle and public health changes over the past two centuries. Improved water quality, sanitation and urban cleanliness have massively reduced infectious disease, but inadvertently deprived us of exposure to these microbes. Changes in microbial content of food, less breastfeeding, more caesarean sections, urban rather than rural living and increased antibiotic use have also reduced early life old friends interaction.

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