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What Michael Vick Taught Us

What follows is an edited version of the text of my presentation at Hobart and William Smith Colleges on March 31, 2011 as the 2011 Foster P. Boswell Distinguished Lecturer in Philosophy:


Remember Michael Vick?

Do you remember all the commotion about Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and his involvement in a dog fighting operation on some property he owned in Virginia?

Of course you do.

A better question would be to ask whether there is anyone on the planet who does not recall this matter, which was covered by the media nonstop for weeks when it first came to light in 2007 and, again, when Vick came out of prison in 2009 and signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. Vick continues to be in the news regularly. In March 2011, he was going to be recognized as a ‘hero’ by a local arts organization in Virginia and there was such controversy about the matter that Vick did not attend the ceremony. People really were furious with Vick and many still are. There are football fanatics who boycott the Eagles because of Vick.


The answer is simple: Because Vick did a barbaric thing; he caused dogs to suffer and die for no good reason. Vick may have enjoyed the ‘sport’ of dog fighting but that simply was not a good enough reason for what he did.

Why not?

Again, the answer is simple. Although there is a great deal of disagreement about moral issues, no one disagrees with the notion that it’s wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering or death on a human or an animal. We need a good reason to inflict suffering or death on a human or animal. We might disagree about whether necessity exists in any given situation and what constitutes a good reason, but we would all agree that enjoyment or pleasure cannot constitute necessity or serve as a good reason. This is part of our conventional moral wisdom.

Consider an example from the human context. If a person said that she believed that it was morally wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on children but that beating children for pleasure was morally acceptable, we would understandably be confused. If enjoyment can suffice as a good reason to beat children, then there’s no bad reason to beat children. The principle that it’s wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on children would be meaningless.

The same analysis would apply if we talked about someone beating a dog rather than beating a child. No one would disagree that beating a dog for pleasure was morally wrong. And this is precisely why we all objected to what Michael Vick did; he did not have a good reason for what he did.

Well, We’re All Michael Vick

The problem is that eating animals is, as a matter of moral analysis, no different from dog fighting.

We kill and eat more than 56 billion animals a year worldwide, not counting fish. No one doubts that using animals for food results in suffering, even under the best, most ‘humane’ circumstances, results in terrible suffering and death. So let’s apply the analysis that we all agreed was uncontroversial just a moment ago: have we got a good reason for this suffering and death? Is there anything that is plausibly considered as necessity involved?

The short answer is: no.

We don’t need to eat animals. No one maintains that it’s medically necessary to eat animal foods. The conservative American Dietetic Association acknowledges that

appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.

Mainstream medical people are, with increasing frequency, pointing out that animal products are detrimental to human health. But whether or not you agree with them, there is certainly no argument that animal foods are necessary for optimal health.

There is also consensus that animal agriculture is an ecological disaster. It takes 16 pounds of grain and soy to produce a pound of beef; 6 pounds to produce a pound of pork; 4 pounds to produce a pound of turkey; and 3 pounds to produce a pound of chicken or a pound of eggs. It takes between 20 and 50 gallons of water to produce a pound of vegetables or fruit; it takes 2,500 gallons to produce a pound of meat and almost 1,000 gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk. It takes 3.25 acres of land to produce animal-derived food for one person on a continuing basis. Only 1/6 acre is needed to provide food on a continuing basis for someone who only eats plants.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization maintains that animal agriculture contributes more greenhouse gas, which is linked to global warming, to the atmosphere than does burning fossil fuel for transportation. Animal agriculture is responsible for water pollution, deforestation, soil erosion, and all sorts of unhappy environmental consequences. Again, you may dispute all of this but not even the craziest global-warming denier would maintain that animal agriculture is doing anything good for the environment.

So, in the end, what’s the best justification that we have for imposing suffering and death on 56 billion animals a year for food?

The answer: they taste good. We enjoy the taste of animal flesh and animal products. We find eating animal foods to be convenient. There is nothing here that remotely resembles necessity.

How is that any different from Michael Vick?

The answer: it isn’t. Vick liked sitting around a pit watching animals fight. The rest of us like sitting around a barbecue pit roasting the corpses of animals who have been treated as badly, if not worse, than Vick’s dogs.

In 2009, when Vick signed with the Eagles, someone said to me that although he was a big Eagles fan and would continue to go to their games, he could never enjoy watching Vick play because of the dog fighting issue. I asked him whether he ate hot dogs and hamburgers when he attended football games. He replied that he did. I pointed out to him that the animals used to make the products he enjoyed had lives and deaths every bit as bad as Vick’s dogs.

He did not have an answer because there really isn’t anything to say.

It doesn’t work to claim that Vick participated directly in the dog fighting and we just buy animal products at the store; that we enjoy the results of animal suffering and death, but, unlike Vick, we don’t enjoy the actual process of suffering and death. As any first-law student will tell you, if Mike has an aversion to violence but wants Joe dead and hires Sally to pull the trigger, Mike is still guilty of murder. The fact that we pay others to impose the suffering and death on animals does not get us off the moral hook any more than it would get us off the legal one.

It also does not work to say that eating animals is a tradition. Animal fighting is a tradition as well. And, by the way, so are sexism, racism, and just about any other form of discrimination. Tradition, like pleasure, is an inadequate reason for imposing harm on anyone.

But We’re a ‘Humane’ Society, Aren’t We?

So what’s wrong? Why do we continue to participate in the infliction of suffering and death on billions of animals when we have no good reason to do so?

A good part of the answer is that because we want to continue consuming animal products, we delude ourselves into thinking that the solution to the moral problem does not require that we stop eating animals; it only requires that we treat and slaughter them in a ‘humane’ way.

This view goes back about 200 years when British social reformers, such as philosopher and lawyer Jeremy Bentham, made the argument that our moral obligations to animals did not depend on whether they were rational, could speak, or had other ‘special’ characteristics that we regard as exclusive to humans. Rather, the only thing that mattered was that animals could suffer and no one—with the possible exception of Descartes—doubted that animals were sentient, or perceptually aware, and could, indeed, suffer. Bentham argued that because animals could suffer, we had an obligation that we owed directly to animals to give moral weight to that suffering.

Bentham was no doubt aware that the animals we used for food suffered a great deal. He did not, however, advocate that we stop eating animals. Why not? Because, according to Bentham, animals are not self-aware; they do not care whether we kill them and eat them or use them for milk, eggs, etc. They just care about how we treat them while they are alive and how we kill them when the time comes and so it was not necessary to stop using animals; it was necessary only to treat them reasonably well.

And thus was born the animal welfare movement, the central premise of which is that it is morally acceptable for us to use animals as long as we treat them ‘humanely’ and do not impose ‘unnecessary’ suffering on them. This moral sentiment soon found expression in anti-cruelty laws on both sides of the Atlantic, and, eventually, much of the world.

And most of us are stuck in this 19th century paradigm: we recognize that our use of animals raises profound moral problems but we comfort ourselves with the thought that we treat animals ‘humanely,’ so our use of them is morally acceptable.

There are, however, at least two serious problems with this view.

‘Humane’ Treatment: Torturing Animals Nicely

The first problem is that the animal welfare approach simply does not work as a practical matter. Given economic realities, it cannot work.

Animals are property. They are things. And the whole point of being a thing is that you don’t have an inherent or intrinsic value. Animals are economic commodities; they have a market value. Animal property is, of course, different from the other things that we own in that animals, unlike cars, computers, machinery, or other commodities, are sentient and have interests. All sentient beings have interests in not suffering pain or other deprivations and in satisfying those interests that are peculiar to their species. But it costs money to protect animal interests. As a general matter, we spend money to protect animal interests only when it is justified as an economic matter—only when we derive an economic benefit from doing so.

Consider the Humane Slaughter Act in the United States, enacted originally in 1958, which requires that large animals slaughtered for food be stunned and not conscious when they are shackled, hoisted, and taken to the killing floor. This law protects the interests that animals have at the moment of slaughter, but does so in large part because it is economically beneficial to do so. Large animals who are conscious and hanging upside down and thrashing as they are slaughtered will cause injuries to slaughterhouse workers and will incur expensive carcass damage. Therefore, stunning large animals makes good economic sense. These animals have many other interests throughout their lives, including an interest in avoiding pain and suffering at many times other than at the moment of slaughter, but these interests are not protected because it is not economically efficient to do so.

Virtually all animal welfare laws fit this paradigm. They protect selected animal interests and the effect of protecting these interests is to make the production process more efficient.

Anti-cruelty laws supposedly require ‘humane’ treatment but these laws generally either explicitly exempt what are considered as the ‘normal’ or ‘customary’ practices of institutionalized animal use, or, if the practices are not exempt, courts interpret pain and suffering imposed pursuant to those practices as ‘necessary’ and ‘humane.’ That is, the law defers to industry to set the standard of ‘humane’ care. This deference is based on the assumption that those who produce animal products—from the breeders to the farmers to the slaughterhouse operators—will not impose more harm on animals than is required to produce the particular product just as the rational owner of a car would not take a hammer to her car and dent it for no reason.

The result is that the level of protection for animal interests is linked to what is required to exploit animals in an economically efficient way. Animal welfare standards generally increase production efficiency and do not decrease it in that we protect only those interests that produce economic benefits.

Animal welfare standards have actually fallen dramatically in recent decades. We are using more animals today and we are treating them worse than at any time in history. The idyllic family farm—where, by the way, there was a great deal of pain and suffering—has vanished and been replaced by intensive agriculture—’factory farms’—where cows, pigs, chicken, and fish are kept in crowded conditions, subjected to severe confinement and mutilation, and generally lead miserable lives from the moment they are born until the moment that they die.

But the ‘animal rights’ movement, rather than focusing on the plain moral fact that using animals for food at all is inconsistent with what we say we believe about our moral obligations to animals, has enthusiastically embraced Bentham’s position that animals do not care that we use them but only about how we use them and the solution is simply to make animal welfare standards better.

Australian philosopher Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation and regarded by many as the ‘father of the animal rights movement’ is also the patriarch of another movement: the ‘happy’ meat and animal products movement. Singer, like Bentham, maintains that most animals do not have an interest in continuing to live and that it is morally acceptable to kill them as long as we do so in a relatively painless way. Singer criticizes factory farming and argues that we should improve welfare standards so that we raise animals in a reasonably pleasant way and kill them in a relatively painless way.

Popular writers such as Jonathan Safran Foer, Michael Pollan, and an endless parade of celebrities and environmentalists join Singer in condemning factory farming and in calling for larger cages, ‘free-range’ conditions, and what are, in the grand scheme of things, minor modifications of a most horrific process.

Large animal protection organizations promote various ‘happy’ meat labels, which supposedly guarantee that the animals whose corpses or products have the particular label were treated better. These animal organizations form partnerships with large institutional animal users and campaign for ballot initiatives that require that at some point in the distant future, animals will get an extra bit of space in their crowded prisons or get some other supposed welfare benefit that, in many cases, will actually result in an economic benefit for producers.

But no one is really kidding anyone here. The most ‘humanely’ raised animals are treated and killed in circumstances that would constitute torture were humans involved. The standards required to get ‘happy’ certifications are insignificant; they are analogous to requiring padding on water boards at Guantanamo Bay, or nicely painted walls or pleasing music in a torture chamber. There is precious little difference between conventional battery eggs and ‘cage-free’ eggs, where thousands of birds are, in effect, crammed into one large cage. And companies who are certified to use at least one ‘happy’ label have already been found to be violating even these minimal certification standards.

All of this talk about ‘happy’ animal products is about us; it’s about making us feel more comfortable about doing something that nags at us. It’s about keeping us from having to recognize that we are all Michael Vick. But it’s really got nothing to do with the animals. They continue to suffer horribly irrespective of what ‘happy’ label is slapped on their corpses or the products we make from them. Having Singer and other animal advocates claim that it is morally acceptable to consume ‘happy’ meat or eggs or dairy is the modern day equivalent of selling indulgences.

Sure, it’s possible in theory that we might all be willing to pay a great deal more for animal products and standards could improve in meaningful ways. But that’s just theory. Very few people could afford animal products that were produced in a way that provided significantly more protection to animal interests and anyone who would care enough to pay that significantly higher cost probably would probably care enough so as not to eat animal products at all.

Moreover, given economic realities and ‘free’ trade rules, even if welfare standards were raised significantly in one place, demand for lower-priced, lower-welfare products would force the higher-welfare producers out of business except, perhaps, to serve a very small and affluent niche market.

The reality is that as long as animals are property, welfare standards will necessarily stay very low. And as long as we continue our institutional use of animals for food, they must remain property.

Eating People With Amnesia

The second problem with the animal welfare position is that it rests on the notion, which we would all recognize immediately as completely crazy if we were not so invested in continuing to eat animals, that animals do not care about their lives; that they don’t have an interest in continuing to live but only have an interest in not suffering.

Why did Bentham think such a silly thing 200 years ago? Why does Singer and so many of us think that now?

Part of our conventional wisdom about animals is that they occupy an ‘eternal present,’ that they don’t have memories of the past or thoughts about the future. They don’t plan vacations or think about what movie to see this weekend or which restaurant they want to eat at (or be eaten at) tonight.

Any of us who have ever lived with animals surely recognize that position as factually wrong. My partner and I live with five rescued dogs and the notion that they are not self-aware and have memories and future desires is as absurd as the notion that they don’t have tails. All you need to do is watch them. There is simply no way to explain their behavior without attributing some sense of self-awareness to them.

But let’s not get stuck in the morass of trying to determine the nature of animal minds. Since we are the only animals who use symbolic communication, we will probably never really understand what it is like to be a bat or a chicken or a cow or any other animal. Let’s assume that Bentham, Singer, and everyone else is right: animals are perceptually aware and can suffer but live in an ‘eternal present.’

So what?

There are humans who have a form of amnesia in which they have a sense of self only in the present. They have no memories and they do not think about the future. Is such a condition morally relevant? It might be. We might not want to appoint such a person as a history professor. But would we say that such a person has no interest in continuing to live and that death is not a harm to that person? Surely not.

So why do we say that about animals? The short answer: because we want to continue to eat animal bodies and animal products and we don’t have any interest in eating humans with amnesia. We tell ourselves that death is not a harm and the trick is to do it all ‘humanely.’ But we can’t do it ‘humanely’ and, in any event, death is a harm that we should not impose—however ‘humane’ our treatment and method of execution—if we don’t have a good reason.

Pleasure is not a good reason. That is why we got upset with Michael Vick. And that is why it’s time to get beyond all the ‘free-range’ and ‘happy’ animal products propaganda and see that we simply cannot justify the use of animals for food.

On one hand, that’s a very radical conclusion. On the other hand, it isn’t radical at all; it flows from moral ideas that we all already claim to accept. What is remarkable is that a species that prides itself on its rationality has allowed the desire to eat animals and animal foods to cloud our judgment to the point where we can criticize—and even hate—Michael Vick, and not see that he is really no different from the rest of us.

The Vick matter does not, of course, answer questions about the morality of animal use when the reason for that use is not merely pleasure, amusement, or convenience. But the only thing that falls into that category is the use of animals in experiments designed to find cures for serious human illnesses. Although I reject completely any use of animals in vivisection, this issue at least presents a (slightly) more complicated question. But our other uses of animals, including for food, our most numerically significant use of animals, are all, like Vick’s use of dogs for fighting, transparently frivolous.

Gary L. Francione is Distinguished Professor of Law and Nicholas deB. Katzenbach Scholar of Law and Philosophy at Rutgers University School of Law in Newark, New Jersey. His books include The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation? (2011) and Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation (2008), both published by Columbia University Press.

©2011 by Gary L. Francione.

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