Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We’ll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re listening to The Conversation.
Micah Saul: Well, howdy. It’s uh…it’s been a little while.
Aengus Anderson: It has. We were last here with John Fullerton, but in the interim instead of posting an episode we posted a new website.
Saul: Yes. Which we’ve been threatening to do for quite a long time. And to finally have that out there is just…it’s really awesome, because it’s really cool.
Anderson: It is really cool. And we have to thank Chris Willard a lot. He was our web designer. He did a phenomenal job. Really dragged him through the mud. He tried a lot of different things to figure out how do you represent this really weird data set?
Saul: Right. Especially considering well, the subjectivity of that data set. And that’s something we should maybe talk about real quick.
Anderson: Yeah. So, a lot of you have probably listened to Lawrence Torcello’s episode. He’s the philosopher; if you haven’t, you should give him a listen. It’s a great conversation. But we’ve stayed in touch since then. And as we were sort of conceptualizing how do you map these different philosophical ideas, I sent him an email. And at the time I’d been thinking about sending a survey to every different participant of the project and asking them, how do you feel about these different philosophical questions? And Lawrence had one of these kind of disarming observations, where he said, “You have these amazingly nuanced conversations. How can you quantize them and do like, a little perceptual matrix?” And of course, I didn’t have a good answer for that except, “We can do it…subjectively.”
Saul: Right. So, if you visited the website, you’ve probably visited the most recent blog post, which sort of lays out what the whole thing is doing. But really quickly, the most important thing to take away from it is that is a map of our perspectives on what we think the thinkers were talking about in our conversation with them.
Anderson: Right. And that’s so key. Because of course any one of the interviewees in this project could take a look at that and go, “Well, I don’t believe those things.” But within the conversation that we had about the subjects that we had, they seemed to lean in one direction or another. And so, subjective as that is, we think it’s really valuable because at this point, if you’ve been with us from the beginning or if you’re just jumping in, you know that this series has gotten pretty big. It’s gotten really self-referential. And it’s this giant thicket of ideas. And so mapping it I think gives us some great tools to actually see well, god, there are patterns here. And they’re patterns that I could never hold in my memory, just listening from one episode to the next.
Saul: So if you haven’t gone to see it yet, do go check it out. Let us know what you think. That’s not all that’s changed, though.
Anderson: But, wait. There’s more.
Saul: But wait. As we mentioned at the top, it’s been a little while. And we had some really good momentum going. And well…I am the one responsible for the loss of that momentum. Basically my life has gotten way the hell busier since I returned from my travels, and it’s becoming harder for me to devote as much time to the project as I’d like to. Especially while keeping this to a weekly schedule. So instead of continuing to kill that momentum, we are adding a new voice to the project.
Anderson: We were talking about this earlier and thinking there are a lot of advantages to that, anyway. If you’ve been with us again, from the beginning, you’ve heard us talk about this stuff a lot. But we thought God, a new voice will really shake this up, bringing in some new ideas, hopefully make the discussions at the end a lot more engaging and surprising.
Saul: Would you like to introduce who we will be talking to, and who our listeners will be hearing?
Anderson: He’s not famous, and doesn’t have a Twitter account, but…Neil Prendergast. He’s going to be at the end of the episode today, cohosting his first conversation. He’s a historian. He’s up at that the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. Like, if I was a competent historian, I might have a grasp of 1/10th of the knowledge that Neil’s going to be bringing to this project.
But also he’s a guy who I’ve been having conversations with about this project and about themes related to this project for a long time. And so I think this should be a pretty smooth transition to bringing in a new voice.
Saul: Yep. But before you meet Neil, you’re going to meet Gary Francione.
Anderson: Right, so that was probably the longest introduction we’ve ever recorded. So, let’s get to the chase. This is Gary’s episode, and this is a great conversation. Gary is an animal rights activist. He’s a proponent of veganism. He’s also a Professor of law, and a scholar of law and philosophy at Rutgers up in Newark, but we spoke down at Rutgers Camden, where we both got parking tickets while recording this because we talked for so long. He’s taught at Penn. He worked as an attorney in New York. He clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor of the Supreme Court. He’s written several books, including Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement. So, he’s written a lot about animal law. But if you expect this to be just about animals, you are wrong.
Saul: Yes. You will be very, very surprised.
Gary L. Francione: You know, it’s sort of interesting what you just said, that animals haven’t come up. And in one sense that’s surprising. And in another sense it’s not surprising at all. Because animals are an important part of most of our lives. They’re important in different ways, some of which I think are more negative than others. But they’re important parts of our lives. And if you walked out on the street and just started talking randomly to people, I think you would find most if not all of the people that you ask regard animals as having some moral status. They don’t regard them as just things that can be treated in any way that we want. They regard them as having some sort of moral value.
Nevertheless, when we seek to translate that into what our moral obligations are, we fail and we fall. And so in a sense it surprises me that no one’s mentioned animals, because I think animals are important and I think they’re important both in terms of our personal lives and in terms of the way we think about moral issues. But, I think the bottom line is because we all eat them. And I think that’s really what the issue is. We can talk about hunting, we can talk about vivisection, we can talk about anything you want to talk about.
The bottom line is those are sideshows. We eat them. We eat them three times a day. And because we do that, in a sense we have a vested interest in sort of not finding our moral compass when it comes to animals. What I call moral schizophrenia. I mean, on one hand we regard animals as members of the moral community. On the other hand we regard them as property, as things that have no inherent value. Some animals we regard as members of our family. Other animals that are no different from the animals that we regard as members of our family we stick forks into. It really doesn’t make any sense. So in a sense, it surprises me what you say, in a sense it doesn’t surprise me.
Aengus Anderson: Animals are one that our behavior towards and uses of is so old and so normalized to us, it’s very difficult for a lot of people to kind of rethink our relationship with animals.
Francione: But you know, in a lot of ways it’s no— I mean, it’s different but it’s not different from a lot of other fundamental moral questions. I mean, you could say the same thing about sexism. You could say, “Well you know, sexism is really sort of deeply seated.” You know, it’s regularized. It’s part of the way we think. You know, for we boys, the world that we get up and see every morning is a world that is constructed—it’s a phallocentric world in which you know, we are at the center of that world. And even though things have changed in terms of the moral status of women in our society, I would laugh if you or anyone else were to suggest that women have equal moral status in the society—they clearly don’t. Sexism is still a present part of our culture. So you could say the same thing about what, racism, sexism, heterosexism. Deeply-seated immorality is part of the moral furniture of the world. And so the fact that well, you know, we’ve regularized our exploitation of animals—yes, we clearly have. But we’ve regularized our exploitation of lots of groups.
Anderson: So, why are animals moral agents?
Francione: They not necessarily moral agents. I’m not saying that they’re moral agents. What I’m saying is you don’t have to be a moral agent to be a member of the moral community. I mean, we think normally of moral patients; children, people who are compromised in various ways, who we don’t really think of necessarily as agents. We nevertheless think of them as members of the moral community.
Think about what happened with Michael Vick. Now, Michael Vick in 2007 is arrested for participating— He had a property in Virginia someplace and he was doing dog fighting. And he gets arrested. And he does a plea bargain, he goes to jail. People were not just upset with Michael Vick. They were furious with Michael Vick. Why? Certainly, the people who were upset with him, they don’t have my philosophy. They’re not vegans. Most of them I would imagine would think that it would be quite alright to use dogs in a biomedical experiment in which they were subjected to suffering, if it would find a cure for cancer or something like that. But not Michael Vic. Well, why?
I think the answer to that question is because he was inflicting suffering and death on these animals for no good reason. He didn’t have a good reason. Now, he could say, “Look, I enjoyed this.” Well, that’s not enough. And in a sense what Michael Vick did which upset everybody was he violated a fundamental norm that most of us accept, which is animals don’t matter as much as humans do morally, but they do matter. And that if we are going to inflict suffering and death on them, we can do so only if we have a reason—a good reason. Now, we can argue about what those good reasons are. We can argue about what constitutes compulsion or necessity. But the bottom line is that if the idea that it’s wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on animals has any meaning at all, pleasure or amusement can’t constitute a good reason. I mean, you think about this in a human context. If I said, “Well, you know, it’s wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on children. Do you agree with that Aengus?”
“Yes, I agree with that.”
“You know…but occasionally I just like to hear them scream. I get pleasure out of listening to children scream, so I beat them.”
You would say “Well, wait a minute now.” Say you agree with the idea that it’s wrong inflict unnecessary suffering on children, but that it’s okay to do so if you get pleasure out of it. Then you’ve created an exception that is so large you can drive a truck through it.
And that’s why people get upset with Michael Vick. That’s why people get upset when we talk about things like bullfighting. Or things like rodeos. People say well you, animals are suffering and there’s no really good reason for them to suffer except entertainment, and that can’t be enough.
But the problem is that our use of animals for food runs into the same problem. I mean, the number of animals that we consume for food is just…it’s extraordinary. I mean, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, we kill 56 billion animals a year worldwide for food. Now, that’s land animals, okay. There are no really good estimates for fish and aquatic life. But a really low estimate is probably a trillion. That’s an extraordinary number of animals that are killed every year.
Now, what’s the best justification we have? We don’t need to eat animals to be optimally healthy. I mean, indeed if you look, even mainstream healthcare people are now saying that eating animal products are detrimental to your health. Even if you don’t want to accept that evidence, there certainly isn’t any evidence that you need to eat animals to be optimally healthy. I mean, even conservative organizations like the American Dietetic Association say that you can be perfectly healthy on a vegan diet.
And animal agriculture is an ecological disaster. I mean, it takes between six and twelve pounds of plant protein to produce one pound of flesh. It takes many times more water to produce a pound of flesh than it does to produce a pound of wheat or a pound of potatoes. Animal agriculture’s destroying groundwater. It’s destroying topsoil. And animal agriculture is a greater source of global warming than the use of fossil fuels for transportation. That’s the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. They did a study a few years ago in which they said that if you take all of the greenhouse gas that you get from burning fossil fuels for transportation, and you take all of the greenhouse gases that you get from animal agriculture, you’re talking about a greater quantity in the second situation.
If we were all vegans, we would have many fewer acres under cultivation. An acre of land can support you know… I don’t have the figures in front of me but it can support fifteen or twenty people a year, whereas it takes three or four ac—I don’t remember exactly the number, but it’s like three or four acres to produce food for one omnivore. So, every time you eat a steak, you’re eating like, I don’t know, eight, ten, twelve pounds of plant protein. So, if you’re eating the plant protein directly, you can eat a lot less of it than you’re going to eat if you eat it in its form of meat, or milk.
So, we don’t need it for health. It’s an ecological disaster. The best justification we have for killing fifty-six, fifty-seven, whatever billion land animals and a trillion sea animals every year is that they taste good. And so, in a sense how is this any different from Michael Vick, who likes to sit around a pit watching dogs fight, or at least he used to? And we like sitting around the barbecue pit roasting the corpses of animals that have been treated every bit as badly, if not worse, than the animals that Michael Vick used for his dog fighting. And you can’t really say well you know, Michael Vick participated in it directly and I go to the store and I buy the animals. I mean, as anybody who’s gone to law school can tell you that it doesn’t really matter if I hire somebody to shoot you or I shoot you myself. It’s murder in both cases. So it doesn’t it really matter if we pay somebody else to do the killing. That doesn’t let us off the moral hook. Nor should it, you know—
Anderson: But it does let us off the emotional hook.
Francione: Ah, yeah. But the emotions have no— Look, we all know, everybody who eats animal products knows, even if you don’t watch the gory movies that these animal organizations circulate or whatever— You know that there’s a great deal of violence that goes into your food.
Anderson: Well, do you think we can detach the two, just as kind of what we are as people? Is making a moral case for this… Does that have to bring in emotions to reach people? You know, to make change?
Francione: Yes. I think that you’ve got to care about morality in order to be receptive to a moral argument. However good, however rational the moral argument is, you’ve got to be receptive to it. Why you care about moral arguments…that care, that concern, can come from a number of different sources. But many of those sources have a really, I think, sort of deep emotional or spiritual—whatever you want to call it. I mean, there’s some extrarational element.
You know, my view is you give me somebody who cares about morality and who regards animals as having some moral value, and I can use rational arguments to get that person to the position that he or she really ought to stop eating them, wearing them, using them, or supporting their exploitation in our society, period. But if somebody says, “Look, I don’t care about animals,” the rational arguments are going to resonate as much.
Anderson: This actually makes me think of a conversation I had with a philosopher named Lawrence Torcello. We were talking about…pluralism is inevitable. We’re going to have all of these different ideas… In a free society, you’re going to have that.
Anderson: So how do you get away with allowing pluralism without going down the road of moral relativism? So, maybe we’ve got someone over here who sees no value to an animal. They’re just like chairs to them. I mean, I’m actually going to talk to a guy possibly later in this project who advocates, if you want to sell yourself as property, you’re property. So it’s like, there’s the complete other end of the moral spectrum. Can there be any conversation there?
Francione: One of the things that we’re dealing with in modern society is the effects of postmodernism. I mean, this rejection of moral realism. Look, I think postmodernism is the single most responsible factor for our inability to think clearly about moral issues. When you start saying that everything is a discourse of power, then you really can’t talk about justice as anything but a discourse of power. So I think that postmodernism leads to sort of nihilism. And I’m not a nihilist. I’m not a fan of most postmodern thinking. And I’m a moral realist. I mean, I believe that there are moral facts in the universe, in the sense that for example, all other things being equal, an action which results in suffering or death is not a desirable thing. I mean, something that we ought to reject from a moral point of view. I think of that as a moral fact. I mean, it’s wrong to torture children. It’s wrong to engage in rape.
This is what I hear from a lot peo— They say, “Well, you know. I’m skeptical about moral propositions.” And I say why does your skepticism stop at moral propositions? Why aren’t you skeptical about everything? And this idea that we can somehow segment off moral propositions or treat them as things that we can be skeptical about, whereas everything else is not a matter of skepticism I think is nonsense.
When I when I teach this course on human rights and animal rights, the first class that we have, we ask the students, how do you think about morality? What do you think morality is? It’s interesting, because you’re dealing with people who have gone to undergraduate schools—very good undergraduate schools. They’re now in a professional school and they’re taking their first elective, and they’re taking this course which is encouraging them to think about legal issues but in a philosophical way. They’re you know, 23, 24 years old; the youngest are that, and many of them are older. They’ve never been asked that question, how they think about morality.
And so what you end up with at the end of the first class, or in the middle of the first class, is the consensus that morality is a matter of opinion. You know. It’s just…opinion. This is the legacy of postmodernism. Most of them have probably never read Foucault, Derida, any of these people. Some of them have, but most of them haven’t. But they’re living in a postmodern world in which pluralism is accepted as not only a fact, but it describes the normative universe. Everything is a matter of you know, it’s all relative. So they say, “Well you know, it’s a matter of opinion.”
And I’ll say, “Okay, fine. So, if you think the Holocaust was…bad, but I think it was good, well…then for me it’s good, for you it’s bad.” Then they…you know, they become uncomfortable about that, because you take something as obviously hideous as the Holocaust, and you say that’s a matter of opinion, people say, “Well you know, I dunno if I, you know.” And what quickly emerges from the discussion is that people don’t really think that it’s all just a matter of opinion. And that they think that there are some facts out there. They don’t think about it in this way. They don’t think about cognitivism non-cognitivism. They don’t think about moral realism, or— You know, they don’t think about the isms. They think about well…yeah, there are some things out there that are just bad.
I do believe, for all this talk about moral pluralism, moral relativism…most of us don’t buy that. Really, when we’re confronted with concrete situations—things like the Holocaust, torturing children, blow-torching dogs, things like that…there is a right and a wrong. And where that right or wrong comes from—I mean, you know, some people might say, “Well you know, that’s part of my spiritual tradition,” or part my religious tradition, or you know, in my case I’m just a moral realist. I mean, I believe that moral propositions have a truth value, and at least some of them are true.
Anderson: Where does that come from, for you?
Francione: I have a strong belief in the truth of nonviolence, and the notion that violence is generally ineffective in terms of resolving problems. And that violence is generally morally wrong. There may be some circumstances in which it can be justified, but most of the circumstances in which we attempt to justify it, it doesn’t work. I always sort of describe veganism as sort of practical nonviolence. I mean you know, you can’t really be committed to a nonviolent life if you’re celebrating death multiple times a day by sticking corpses and mucosal products and whatever into your mouth.
What’s really interesting is, as an abstract proposition most people think nonviolence is a good thing. Most people look at a person like Gandhi, or at a person like Jesus or whatever as being exemplary people. And we might say, “Well you know, but you can’t really live that— You know, as a practical matter there are probl—” But nobody sort of says, “Well, as an abstract proposition, I reject that.” Most people say as an abstract proposition I embrace it.
Saul: my view is look, there are difficult questions in life. Lots of them. But one of the really easy questions is, should I consume animals when I don’t have to consume animals? Now you know, one of the questions I get a lot is, “What if you’re on a desert island, and you’re dying, and there are no vegetables? Would you kill and eat a rabbit?” And the answer is look, I don’t think it would be right to do so, but I think it would be excusable if I did so. In the same sense, frankly, if I were on a desert island with another human, and there was nothing to eat, and I was starving to death, and I killed and ate the other human, we wouldn’t say it was alright for me to do. But most of us would understand you know, after three weeks of not eating people are going to enga—
And there actually have been legal cases where people have done these sorts of things. It’s not morally justifiable, it’s not the right thing to do, but we understand— Anymore than it is if I put a gun to your kid’s head and I said, “If you don’t go in and rob that store, I’m going to kill your child.” Well, you know, you go in and rob the store? Is that moral? Is that an alright thing to do? No, the person you robbed from didn’t do anything to harm you. You’re doing it because I’ve put you under duress. But is it excusable in the sense that we understand why you would go in and rob the store in order to stop me from blowing your child’s brains out? And the answer’s well yeah, we do. It’s excuse. It’s not justifiable, it’s excusable.
Saul: I would say that if I were on a desert island, and there were no vegetables around, and I killed and ate a rabbit, it would be alright for me to do. I’ve got no right to do that. But it would be an excusable thing to do. But you know, I’m not in that position. I mean you know, I’m going to leave here tonight, and I’m going to go home, and I have to decide what to eat. I’m not in any conflict situation. I’m not starving to death. I’m not in a situation of of extremis. I just decide what it is I want to eat. And to the extent that I say well, you know, my palate pleasure justifies the suffering and death of another sentient being who valued his or her life as much as I value mine—maybe in a different way because they think differently or whatever—it doesn’t really matter, how can I justify doing that? And the answer is I don’t think I can.
Anderson: We confront the issue of anthropocentrism and what can we empathize with. So, I think if you talk to a lot of people about nonviolence, to broaden that to an animal, to something that is…to so many people does seem fundamentally different—
Francione: Right, right, right.
Anderson: —and especially if you sort of look at the slope on down to smaller animals, how do you avoid sort of…what to the West often looks like the absurdity of something like Jainism, where you’re sweeping bugs out of your way, you know.
Francione: You know, I’ve spent a lot of time with the Jain community. Look, I don’t walk on grass, because I don’t want to kill insects. I don’t know whether they’re sentient. I really don’t know whether they’re sentient. But I don’t intentionally kill them. When I find them in my house, I don’t kill them. I either leave them alone, or if they’re large things then I will put them outside. But I endeavor not to kill them.
You know, look. I think we have a lot of confused thinking. Christianity, if you look at what Christianity was, I mean it is a religion of nonviolence. One of the great con jobs of modern civilization is people who embrace war talk about Christianity and talk about God and Jesus and stuff like that, which is, I’ve always found, somewhat bizarre. If you look at Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, the religious response to the use of animals is to say “Well, you know…” But it says we have dominion over animals. Well, dominion doesn’t necessarily mean domination, but if you actually go and look at what Genesis says, in the first book of Genesis god creates the world and gives it to humans, gives it to Adam and Eve, and basically says, “The herb and the seed shall be your food.” He says to the animals, “The herb and the seed shall be your food.” So the animals are not eating each other, and humans are not eating animals. What happens is, when there is a rupture of the covenant between humans and God, and humans are ejected from the Garden of Eden, it is only then that death begins. It’s only then. Then God says later on to Moses, “Go ahead and you can consume animals and things.” And so in a sense, one can look at, to the extent that one’s attracted to that tradition, there seems to be sort of a recognition that in the optimal spiritual situation there is no killing.
You know, the only use of animals that we make that is not transparently frivolous is the use in science. I don’t accept that, however we can have an interesting discussion about that. The rest of it: use of animals for food; use of animals for sport hunting; use of animals for clothing; there’s nothing there. The arguments that you make are no more sophisticated than Michael Vick saying, “But wait a minute! I really like watching dogs fight.” Or somebody saying…you know, I mean, one of the arguments you get a lot is culture. I remember I was in Spain some years ago and I was taking the position that bullfighting is really no different from rodeos or other sorts of entertainment uses of animals. And I remember when I was giving the lecture, somebody said, “But this is part of our culture.”
I said, “Look, sexism is part of your culture. Racism is part of your culture. Colonialism is part of your culture. So what? So what? Our cultures are composed of all sorts of really ugly things, and maybe we ought to sort of take a step back and say just because something is part of culture doesn’t mean it’s okay.” All it means is we do it a lot. That’s all that means, you know. The hurdle we’ve got to get over is people have to become comfortable with the idea that having strong moral positions doesn’t mean you become a religious zealot, or that you become a fundamentalist or something like that.
Anderson: What would a world look like without our current systems of animal use? I think for most people it would almost be…again, we’ve just talked about culture and it just means you’ve done it a lot. We’ve done this a lot. It stretches the imagination, in a way.
f Well you know, it stretches the imagination but for me it stretches it in a very good way, a very positive way. The history of humanity is a history of otherization. What we do is, what we’ve always done is to sort of segment off some group, whether it’s humans or nonhumans. I mean, on a larger scale it’s nonhumans. We segment them off, they’re the other we can do what we want to with them. But we do it in other ways. We do with women. We’ve done it with Jews. We do with people of color. We do it with gay people. We otherize them. We put them on the other side of the line, and then whatever we want to do to them is okay. If we were critical about our otherization of nonhumans, it couldn’t help but to translate into a greater sensitivity about our otherization of human groups.
Anderson: It also seems to have just vast economic implications.
Anderson: And I think of— You know a lot of this project has been talking to people about these big inertial systems we’ve built. You know, economic systems and… The conversation I had last was with John Fullerton. Are you familiar with him?
Anderson: Okay. So we were talking about essentially how do you spin the engine down? It’s going, it’s supporting all of these people, and how do you transition to either another type of economy, or an economy that’s more sustainable? And I think if we took animals seriously, that obviously has huge ramifications for what physically we’re doing with the world and how we use it. Does taking animals seriously imply a critique of a growth economy?
Francione: Well, it implies a critique of this sort of growth economy. I mean look, most of the consumer goods that’ve been consumed by human beings have been consumed in the past what, fifteen or twenty years. I mean, that’s not sustainable. So, when you say well, can you get rid of animal exploitation and have this sort of growth economy, the answer is no. But this sort of growth economy is insane. When you say growth economy, that implies something positive. That it’s flourishing. The answer’s it’s not flourishing. It’s destroying life on this planet. It’s destroying us.
What worries me is we’re moving in a direction where morality isn’t going to matter at all as long as people have the latest smartphone, or the latest iPad, or you know, whatever these things are. That they’re happy with that. And we’re rapidly moving in that direction.
Anderson: So that’s a cultural shift.
Francione: Yeah, and that’s a cultural shift. And I’ll tell you something, it’s a scary cultural shift. Because you combine it with the postmodernism and the moral nihilism and stuff. And then you take it to the next step of you know, people really starting to value and accord inherent value to these things that they consume.
We are in a serious moral crisis, where when you have people literally lining up for a day to get the newest phone being made in a plant by people who are committing suicide because things are so bad there—and that nobody cares about that, what they care about is getting the phone. They don’t care about the fact that the phone is being made by somebody who is essentially being treated as a slave. There is something terribly frightening about that.
One of the things that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan did, which was diabolical in many ways, is they popularized this Ayn Rand notion that selfishness was a virtue. That you could act morally by being a selfish person. And this is one of the reasons why, by the way, I have such a strong reaction to a lot of these animal groups that say, “Well, the solution to the problem is happy meat or happy milk,” you know, animals that are being treated more humanely. Because its—first of all I think that’s nonsense. I don’t think those animals are treated any better.
But that’s really not the point. I mean, it sort of focuses the moral issue on consumerism and says oh well, you know, if you want to be a moral consumer, go out there and buy meat that’s been slaughtered in a slaughterhouse that’s been designed by Temple Grandin. Or go and buy your your animal products at Whole Foods because they have an animal compassionate rating system. But really, it’s essentially reinforcing this idea that yeah, continue to be selfish. And continue to be a consumer. And don’t really think about the moral issues. Just consume. Consume compassionately. What does that mean? It’s nonsense. And I think that we are in a situation of moral crisis. Because we become nihilistic, and so many people in your generation I fear, they don’t think about morality. They don’t think in moral terms. Everything is a matter of opinion. Well I’m sorry all opinions are not valid.
Anderson: So, if we go back to your classroom. You know, if you can ask that question to your class, and you can say, “So, the Holocaust is just another discourse?”
Anderson: And if they get uncomfortable with that, that seems promising, right? [crosstalk] Because then it’s not gone.
Francione: It is. It is. But Aengus, I’m the first person who’s having this conversation with people who are 25 years old, you know. And that worries me. Because in a sense it’s a failure of my generation because we’re failing to teach it. The problems of postmodernism and nihilism is not just a problem of the younger generation, it’s a problem of my generation as well.
Anderson: Sure. I guess I was just thinking that it’s not something… It can’t vanish, if that’s the case, right? There could be a biological basis to feeling that some things are moral and some aren’t. Which seems like well, then you’ve still got something to work from. [crosstalk] It can’t just get programmed out.
Francione: Well, I don’t know that I want to get into sociobiology, whether there’s a biological basis for this stuff. I mean, maybe there is and maybe there isn’t. I don’t think about in terms of biological basis. What I think of is there is something in our emotional lives, our moral lives, our spiritual lives, whatever you want to call it. I don’t think of it as biological, I think of it as the other part of us. And again, I don’t want to— I’m not— I don’t want to get religious about it, but I—
Anderson: But that there’s something that’s not just…stuff.
Francione: Right. There’s something that’s not just matter. And there’s something that goes beyond that. The fundamental issue that we have to confront is whether we think we’re stuff. And we think that it’s all just a matter of moral relativism, and that the only question is how do we recreate ourselves in a way that is most beneficial to some number of us? Or whether we think that there’s really something to morality? I mean, I really see the crisis right now as moral relativism versus moral realism. That for me is the question, and in many ways the only question. That if you come down on the side of moral relativism and that there’s no right or wrong, then we’re all utilitarians in a sense. And there’ll be all different sorts of views of what social welfare is, what maximizes social welfare. But that’s we’re just all calculators, basically.
Or we think that there are certain things that can’t be done. That there are certain rules that we ought to embrace and live by because we think they’re right. That’s the crisis for me. That’s the question. For those people who say, “Well, we’re just stuff,” the answer’s yeah, but that’s your way of looking at the world. It is not my way of looking at the world. And can I prove to them that my way of looking at the world is right? And the answer is no. Can they prove to me that their way of looking at the world is right? The answer is no.
You know, we’re also living in a time when people think that they can find morality in science. You have people like Sam Harris and those people. I started reading it because my students were reading it. And it was to me frightening, this idea that we’re going to find truth in science or that you can prove scientifically that Islam is a bad religion. I just love that. I mean, that you’re going to prove scientifically that certain theological systems are inferior or wrong or something like that.
That way of thinking is, I think, not only wrong but incredibly naïve. Science is not normative, and I would have thought that that notion of science’s objectivity was debunked with Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend. When Kuhn, who wrote a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—
Anderson: The paradigm shift.
Francione: Yeah, the paradigm shift. And he basically said you can’t look at science as moving closer and closer to Truth with a capital T, it’s just a question of one paradigm replaces another paradigm replaces another paradigm. It’s not rationality that determines what paradigm will replace the prior paradigm, but it’s other things. It’s extrarational elements that will determine.
And so this idea that science is going to lead us to moral truth…is mind boggling to me.
Anderson: It’s scientism.
Francione: It’s scientism. Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. You know, progress is itself a normative notion that has all sorts of value elements built into it as to what progress is. I mean, we can look at the world that we live in right now and say, “Wow, we’ve made tremendous progress.” We can also look at it and say, “What a disaster.” Where have we gotten with this progress? Yes, we all have cell phones. We all have computers. But we have all become alienated from each other. So, you could look at that and say, “That’s not progress. We’re going in the wrong direction.”
Anderson: That’s really inter— Because you talked about relativism versus realism as a crisis. And here we are almost looking at, with each of those comes a different definition of progress, almost.
Anderson: And with relativism, it seems like their vision of progress is typically quantifiable and measured in terms of complexity. And then with other people—
Francione: That has to be that. But that can only be their idea of progress.
Anderson: Right, because there’s only stuff.
Francione: Exactly. It’s a closed system. I mean, it’s basically you know, if you define material things, and the more material things you have, and the more complex material things you have as progress, well then it becomes circular. And if you say, “Well no, what really matters is our relationships with each other, our ability to care for each other, our empathy, our ability to identify with the other,” if that’s what you think of as progress, then it’s a different thing.
I remember when I was a kid and I read Atlas Shrugged, I was terrified. I thought my God, what a horrible vision, that there’s something wrong with seeing ourselves in connection with other people, and seeing ourselves as related to other people. To me, the relationship notion, the community notion, these are really very very important notions. And if there’s any single idea that I think is something to focus on, its this notion if you look at human history, everything that’s gone wrong has gone wrong as a result of our otherization. We distinguish this group from us, we stick them on the other side of the line, and then anything goes.
Anderson: It almost seems like one of the unique things about this moment is that we’ve otherized everybody.
Francione: Yeah, well that’s the problem of alie— Isn’t that really the logical endpoint of alienation, is everybody’s the other? This is a horrible situation. To call this progress, in my judgment, is insane. And so for me the whole animal thing is, it focuses me every day on nonviolence. Animals are the most vulnerable members of this society. They really are. They have no… They have no ability to protect or defend themselves. I’m not saying there aren’t humans who aren’t very vulnerable; there are. But animals as a general matter are the most vulnerable group, and we exploit them relentlessly.
And what I’m saying is a first step towards healing yourself morally is asking yourself, can I justify this? And if the answer to that is no, then you stop doing it. This is one reason why I have nothing to do with these animal rights organizations, because they sort of focus on the one issue. They don’t see it in a political sense. As a matter of fact, some of these animal organizations, they use sexism to promote animal—and I have a problem with that. I mean, I think sexism is a big problem. And they look at the animal issue as an issue in isolation. I don’t.
I see this as really being you know, you take nonviolence seriously, put into practice in your life. It’s part of a more…general sort of way I look at the world. And I am so happy that many years ago I went to a slaughterhouse. Because someone said to me, “You know, you talk about nonviolence, but you eat animals.” You know, I came out of it— I grew up during Vietnam, right. And we had heard Dr. King talk about nonviolence. But it was an abstract idea. It was a great slogan to use to justify why you didn’t want to get shipped off to South Asia and be forced to kill people you didn’t even know, let alone dislike.
But I never realized what nonviolence meant until I walked into a slaughterhouse and saw these sentient beings—different for me, yeah. They don’t use language, they— I mean, I don’t know what goes on in the minds of animals, and I don’t really care. But I mean, I think a lot of us have this notion that animals don’t really have an interest in living, because they don’t have a sense of their lives, because they’re not self-aware in the way that we are. And the answer’s maybe they’re not. Maybe they live in an eternal present. But so do people who have transient global amnesia. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t self aware in that second, that they want to get to the next second of consciousness, etc., and the next second, the next second, the next second. Even if animals live in an eternal present, so what? And so I went into the slaughterhouse and I saw these these sentient beings terrified, scared, you know. It was horrible. I’d never seen anything like that before. And I walked out, and I thought, all of that happens because I like the taste of something? That’s insane. That can’t be right.
And then you come out and you sort of start saying, well you know, this violence is wrong. And then you realize the dairy is the same, and the eggs, and all that stuff. And you just sort of say, “I can’t participate in that violence.” But then once you understand it in that way, it makes it more difficult for you to otherize anyone else. And you start realizing we’re all in this mess.
There are people out there who want to do to humans what we do to animals, which is commodify them. They’re happy with the commodification of nonhumans, they want to commodify humans. My view is no. Gotta go the other way. We’ve got to go the other way. We need to see the commodification of nonhumans is a moral disaster. It’s a moral disaster, it’s an ecological disaster, and it’s killing us. That stuff is killing us. By rejecting the commodification of nonhumans, we are going to become increasingly sensitive about the commodification of humans. That to me is progress.
Aengus Anderson: Well, Neil Prendergast welcome to The Conversation.
Neil Prendergast: Thank you for having me, Angus Anderson.
Anderson: We’re counting on you to save us. Make us coherent.
Prendergast: I’ll do my best, but I can’t really promise anything there.
Anderson: Well, promises or not, we’ve got a pretty cool episode today, Gary Francione. I think this is the first time we’ve seen someone come in with a claim that we’re talking about a moral crisis and a moral issue. I mean, John Fife mentioned that just at the very beginning of the series. But Gary brings it back, and he brings it back in a really different sort of way. Kind of the thing that popped out at me first was that we’re almost dealing with like a Kantian-style moral imperative here, right? Like, nonviolence is a good.
Prendergast: Right. I mean, there’s almost I think kind of a purity to what Francione is saying. You know, there aren’t situations that are different. That nonviolence is always good.
Anderson: Something I want to do as we’re talking about morality and sort of the the purity thing that you’ve brought up is want to take it to its extreme where you really do apply it as a categorical imperative, where you try to be nonviolent towards all things. You know, he talks about Jainism, and he talks about not walking on grass and being uncertain of whether or not insects are sentient. As I was thinking about this, like…if you want to have this conversation with most people… I don’t know, there’s sort of like a dirty pragmatism that gets into it, right? Like, could you persuade most people to not walk on grass?
Prendergast: The idea of not walking on grass would be absolute ridiculous, I think, to most people, right. And I think that’s where his ideas really have a hard time gaining any kind of traction, is really in that pragmatic realm. And I think he says that, actually, really nicely himself. He says look, we can agree to a lot of stuff in the abstract, but then in our everyday lives when it becomes pragmatic, we sort of just say well, no. You know, what we agreed to in an abstract way is not at all what we’re going to do. And that’s I think a part of his moral schizophrenia that he talks about, right.
But I don’t think that I agree that well, what we need to do that is just kind of make a better commitment to the ideas we agreed to in the abstract. I think that we actually need to maybe think through what’s going on in the pragmatic a little bit more, too. And he probably doesn’t in his scholarship, I’m sure.
Anderson: So, what do you mean by that?
Francione: I guess what I mean is something that goes back to an earlier interview that I really enjoyed from the project, which was the Timothy Morton interview, and this sort of big separation between the idea of nature as something that is outside the human realm, untouched by people. And then you know, culture being our world. And of course, as Morton points out, you know these worlds are like, absolutely intertwined with each other and saying that they’re totally separate categories is inaccurate, and can actually lead to a lot of problems. And I think that that’s why it’s relevant for what Francione is saying.
Saul: kind of what I mean by that is that if we separate nature and culture out, then it’s really easy to do things like preserve national parks and say okay, that’s where nature is going to be. But we’re not going to care at all about the polluted creek running through a city that no one even sees anymore, right. It lets us create these kind of sacrifice zones. And I think that what Francione is doing is trying to say look, we’ve got to expand our realm of moral concern.
But, what I expect most people see in Francione is a similar type of dichotomy that okay, there’s the real world, and then there’s the world of the abstract ideas. And they’re so different, they’re so far apart from each other, that we’ll never be able to adhere to the standard of what we agreed to in the abstract. In the same way that will never be able to live up to our idea of nature that we have when its an idea of nature that we can’t touch.
Francione: Yeah, so it’s kind of like well, because we can’t live up to that ideal, then we’re not going to have any kind of pragmatic ideal at all.
Anderson: We’re always talking about compromise and conversation in this project. And so, if you’re dealing with nonviolence as a moral imperative, is that something that can be compromised on if it in a way defeats its own ends. Like, so if you want to persuade people to not eat meet, and if you want to say that it’s just flat out wrong, and ultimately that leads people to ignoring you, I think we have to engage the question of utilitarianism, which is something that Francione really objects to in the work of Peter Singer. But the idea that you know, can you get to slightly better states. Is that the best we can do?
Prendergast: You know, I think it’s a really good question. I mean, I was blown away by the figure he offered. What did he say, fifty-six billion animals consumed every year in the world? It’s impossible. It’s too big.
Anderson: I mean, you know, I understand what he’s saying. You know, a wrong is wrong. Like, if it’s wrong you don’t do it. But would any dent in that industrial slaughter system still be better, you know? I guess it’s ultimately a question of do we believe this is attainable.
Prendergast: Right. And clearly it’s not attainable to take that number of fifty-six billion and make it zero. So I think that everything does kind of have to come back, at least to me, to sort of what’s actually going on around us. And I love ideas like Francione’s that sort of make us actually think through all of this.
Anderson: It does get into this sort of like, dirty realm of what we are as a species in a away. And it enters into the sort of irrational question of what is good. And I like that Francione brings that up, when he’s talking about conversations you can have about nonviolence as a moral good, where some people simply will not accept that. And there’s no way to make them accept that, you know. It’s arational, and they can never make him accept some other idea.
Prendergast: Right. So in lots of ways people are just going to continue to talk past each other.
Anderson: Which makes you wonder one, is a conversation about this type of thing possible, because a lot of it seems…visceral. And this is where you know, he said that he didn’t want to get into sociobiology… [crosstalk] That’s very wise of him. I don’t blame him for that at all.
Prendergast: I caught that, too. You were kind of baiting him there, I think.
Anderson: I was. I was baiting him, he didn’t take the bait because he’s a lot smarter than me. But I do wonder about that stuff. You know, the idea that when it comes down to a sense of good, is there something that we biologically have? It seems like a lot of his argument ultimately rests on like, could you walk into that slaughterhouse and see that, the half-conscious cows being cut to pieces, and say, “I’m okay with this?”
And honestly, I think he’s right. I mean, it’s like the example that he uses of the Holocaust with the students. Can you ever, in a morally relative world, be okay with letting someone else call that good? Is there a biological thing that just makes you cringe when you see that stuff, or when you hear those propositions?
Prendergast: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know if it’s biological or cultural, but I do think that there are items that we actually, most of us, 99% of us on the globe would would agree upon as being good or bad. I think that I share Francione’s concern that cultural relativity has perhaps been used and abused by a lot of people. I definitely share that. I think he’s right in making that point.
Anderson: And as we think about expanding the circle of empathy, you know, we talked earlier about like, how far can it go? We’re kinda going the other direction. Let’s talk about, if we’re interested in nonviolence as a good, I think there’s something else in here that came up regarding people. And Francione talks about the strangeness of a culture that will line up to buy Apple products from a factory where people are jumping off the roots to kill themselves.
I thought about that a lot, because it’s a really evocative example of this strange disconnect? And yet most of this conversation is about the disconnect between your meal and the pain of the slaughterhouse. But, we don’t talk as much about the disconnect between your purchases and the pain of wage slavery or terrible working conditions. And I wonder, if we’re going to be talking about sort of the categorical imperative of nonviolence, and if that translates into veganism on one hand, does it also need to translate into boycotting mass-produced goods? Or most mass-produced goods. Ones were you know that they’re being produced in really questionable conditions, you know. Is that a natural outgrowth?
Prendergast: Really seems like it to me, doesn’t it? And I think that’s one of the powers of his critique, right, is that it wouldn’t apply just simply to the production of meat but also all sorts of other different production chains.
Anderson: It’s funny, we’ve just gone in a big circle in a way. Because I feel that we’re back to the question of pragmatism here, you know. And this is something that came up in John Zerzan’s conversation. And John was saying you know, “I’m a neoprimitivist thinker, but I can’t opt out of the system we’re in. I have to have a computer to reach people. I have to have a phone. I occasionally fly pla—,” And you know, he hates technology. But he can’t get out of it.
And so you know, when I think about the moral imperative of nonviolence, I think, can you spread that word while opting out of the technology that is creating a system of violence? I mean, if you think of your laptop as being produced in a factory in China where people have terrible arthritis in their hands because they’re working on these repetitive tasks all day long, you kind of have to not buy the laptop.
Prendergast: You know, I think to be completely logically consistent, you’re right. But I also think that that’s where we run up to the problem of purity again. And what we need instead I think is some way to say look, we’re going to have to accept some compromises. But we need to have a conversation about the compromises.
But it’s really interesting that you need thinker like Francione to help us think through all of this. Because without him as a catalyst, then we don’t even talk about compromise. I think it’s really important to have somebody on that end of the spectrum.
Anderson: Oh, I couldn’t agree more. But at the same time, I think he does a lot more than just encourages us to have conversation, you know. I think if you are a serious thinking, feeling person who takes nonviolence seriously, you have to say well, setting aside all of the stuff about purity and the logical implications of this, “Am I okay with my preference for meat leading to a system of industrialized slaughter.” And I think when you think about that, it’s really hard to not think about the moral imperative.
Aengus Anderson: Wait, wait, wait, wait. Before this episode is over, we’ve got to add a quick postscript. Gary has responded to the discussion that Neil and I just had, and I’ve put a link to it on the bottom of his episode page. You should check it out. It is both thorough and concise. And he takes a part a lot of the ideas of purity and pragmatism that we were just talking about. So, we can’t recommend reading it more. You’ll find it really interesting, and this conversation is incomplete without reading it. Okay. Now we can end the episode.
Aengus Anderson: That was Gary Lawrence Francione, recorded November 8, 2012 at Rutgers in Camden, New Jersey And it goes without saying that you’re listening to the conversation, a project by me, Aengus Anderson, Micah Saul, and now introducing Neil Prendergast.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.