The Frontal Cortex

Vick and Animal Cruelty

For me, the most depressing aspect of the Michael Vick dog-fighting case is that I can’t draw a bright moral line between his acts of sadism and the publicly acceptable forms of animal cruelty that we all support in the supermarket. (I’m talking about the cheap meat from big poultry farms and slaughterhouses.) Why is one illegal and the other condoned?

Honestly, I want to be able to distinguish between killing dogs for sport and confining chickens to inhumane living conditions, or farming veal, but I can’t find any good reasons, apart from the obvious “puppies are real cute” argument. Isn’t it strange how the legal rights of various kinds of animals largely depends on the cuteness factor? Is there a better way? Obviously, the most ethical form of omnivorism would include not eating any flesh from creatures with a well-developed central nervous system. (Sea scallops OK, cows not so much.) But that approach doesn’t seem particularly realistic.


  1. #1 Mark P
    August 28, 2007

    This is the kind of observation that does neither the dogs nor the cows any good. First, it has the effect of excusing one bad act because of a different bad act. Second, it equates eating meat with cruelty. Whether you believe meat eating is bad, saying it in this context is obviously not productive. Humans have eaten meat for as long as there have been humans, and we’re not about to stop now. The idea that humans should not eat meat and the idea that humans should not be cruel to animals that we raise for meat are two entirely different issues. Conflating them weakens the arguments against both.

  2. #2 Dennis
    August 28, 2007

    Does it not seem particularly realistic because you envision difficulty in convincing others that such a diet is more ethical, or would you yourself find it hard to follow such a diet?

    The only problem I have is that it’s difficult to convey to others — especially those who don’t know much biology. I constantly have to explain to family members not only why I don’t eat mammals, but exactly what the heck mammals are. I’ll go through the whole rigmarole about cows having advanced nervous systems, being rather closely related to us, etc., and the next question out of their mouths is usually, “Well, how about pork?” *Sigh*

  3. #3 ukko
    August 28, 2007

    How about calamari and various other yummy cephalopods? I hear they are quite bright after their own fashion. 😉

  4. #4 lauram
    August 28, 2007

    And of course the wing-nuts are conflating Vick’s actions and the moral outrage it provokes to abortion and the lack of moral outrage it provokes, causing me to try to reiterate the differences between dogs and fetuses: here

  5. #5 Epistaxis
    August 28, 2007

    Why is one illegal and the other condoned?

    Well, because the individual is personally involved in the brutality in one case, while in the other case everyone does their best job not to think about it. Even a vegetarian can agree it takes a different, worse kind of person to kill several dogs with his own two hands rather than simply do like everyone else does and eat the hamburger without talking about where it came from.

    But that’s personality, and you were looking for an answer more related to ethics. At least from a consequentialist point of view, wrangling a few dogs to death yourself and buying enough meat to have required the slaughter of the same number of animals in a distant abattoir are equivalent.

    So the answer is unsatisfyingly historical. In a sense, Vick is a victim of the justice system’s inconsistency – if it extended the same indifference to a few dogs as it did to billions or trillions of livestock, he’d still be happily strangling Fido or prying open Rover’s jaw. PETA’s signs aren’t saying “Free Vick;” there are forces tugging at the law in opposite directions, and that’s why it seems (and is) schizophrenic.

    Obviously, the most ethical form of omnivorism would include not eating any flesh from creatures with a well-developed central nervous system. (Sea scallops OK, cows not so much.) But that approach doesn’t seem particularly realistic.

    Is this so obvious? It’s what Peter Singer does, but it’s easy for him because he clearly ties the ethical status of a being to its ability to experience “interests.” (Unfortunately I don’t have a link, because I gathered this from a lecture of his.) I think he does draw the line at mollusks – except cephalopods, which are surprisingly intelligent, as ukko notes – but I don’t know for sure. Of course, there are other good reasons not to eat the various crunchy creatures of the ocean, e.g. sustainability and the environment, but those aren’t the same kinds of reasons.

    The idea that humans should not eat meat and the idea that humans should not be cruel to animals that we raise for meat are two entirely different issues. Conflating them weakens the arguments against both.

    This is only true if killing an animal for its meat is not considered an act of cruelty in itself. For example, a free-range, well-treated, painlessly euthanized cow wouldn’t be a victim by that thinking. Unless we’re talking about roadkill (and maybe even then), the other side wouldn’t concede that point, so it doesn’t really help clarify the terms.

  6. #6 The Ridger
    August 28, 2007

    I don’t think “cuteness” has anything to do with it. Bunnies are cute, but they’re slaughtered and eaten. There may be a certain amount of emotional linkage between “man and dog” that isn’t there for the others – which may be why some cultures eat dogs and others don’t, and horses – but I think it’s simpler than that. I think it’s because nobody finds slaughter or poultry-keeping entertainment. We don’t make the cows fight each other to death while betting on them; we just kill them – have them killed for us – and eat them. We aren’t perfect, but we have gotten to the point where actually watching animals kill each other for our jollies is distasteful to most of us.

  7. #7 Nic
    August 28, 2007

    The obvious distinction is that factory farms allow us to produce more meat at less cost than less cruel methods. I would claim that it is a lesser evil that chickens should suffer so more poor people, especially those in my own country, can have better nutrition and complete brain/muscle development. Cruelty-free food is a luxury for those who can afford it.

    Dog fighting, however, requries us to put the pleasure of sadists ahead of the welfare of dogs, a much harder ethical case to make.

  8. #8 Mark P
    August 28, 2007

    “This is only true if killing an animal for its meat is not considered an act of cruelty in itself.”

    Exactly. That is one of the main questions facing not only meat eaters but scientists who use animals for research. If you conclude that the act of killing an animal is in itself cruel, then how can you justify killing animals for research as opposed to killing them to eat? And oh, by the way, there is one point that is often raised – what are you going to do with 10 million plus beef cattle and far, far more chickens once people stop eating them? Let them go, or euthanize them? Or perhaps set aside Illinios for let them live out their lives in peace?

    However, that does not change my original point, which is that vegetarianism is a different issue from animal cruelty in practical terms. Arguing against what is virtually universally viewed as cruelty is an easier sell than arguing against eating meat. If you argue that eating meat is equivalent to dog fighting, you have lost your argument at the beginning.

  9. #9 harold
    August 28, 2007

    I strongly support differentiating between different “rights” for different species.

    Any differentiation must involve arbitrary distinctions. Yet such distinctions must be made. Otherwise we would be faced with the ludicrous standard that intestinal parasites or disease-carrying mosquitoes, which are animals, be afforded full “rights”, or else that no other non-human animal be afforded any protections. (Even arguing that only animals that “harm” humans not be afforded “rights” would lead to inevitable arbitrary distinctions.)

    Cockroaches, and also relatively intelligent wild rats and mice, are not only rarely protected, but are required by law to be exterminated in many jurisdictions, and for reasons of public health I support that.

    Food animals enjoy only a very low level of protection from cruelty; arguably, almost none at all (although if a non-professional were to torture or slaughter them animal cruelty laws might be invoked). This is more problematic from an ethical (as opposed to legal) point of view. Yet anyone can see, as has been mentioned above, that a person who works at a chicken processing plant for a living and/or eats meat out of a cultural or gustatory preference, is not behaving as unethically as a person who chooses, in their free time, to harm animals out of sadism.

    Fortunately, there is an easy answer to the dilemma posed by food animals. The law does not require anyone to eat chicken, and if no-one ate meat, there would be no meat industry (and non-dairy food species would go extinct, or be preserved in small numbers as inhabitants of zoos). Those who oppose meat consumption can and should refrain from it, and legally proseletyze for their personal ethical view, as well, if their conscience so moves them.

    Companion and work animals, and some types of wild animals, are the subject of fairly strong anti-cruelty laws in many countries. I strongly support this, too. There is no conceivable economic or health rationale for harming these animals, so therefore, we can protect them very strongly.

    It is also clear that the terrestrial animals chosen as companions and workmates by humans are, not coincidentally, relatively large-brained and social, as are most of the wild animals that humans protect (although so are a couple of species that we eat, and some species fill both roles). While no-one can know whether a cockroach has as intense an emotional life as a dog, most of us think they don’t (based on our understanding of nervous systems), and in a democratic society, we are able to pass laws that reflect such opinions. Many of our society’s laws, such as which days are government holidays, which side of the road to drive on, and so on, are just democratically determined arbitrary consensus.

    I very strongly support the use of animal models in legitimate scientific research. I do agree that the use of animals in research should be subjected to very strong ethical guidelines. But I am intensely puzzled by the special opposition of “animal rights activists” to this most justifiable and controlled of all human animal usage.

    My respect for the compassion and sensitive consciences of vegans and like is considerable and sincere (I’m an “animal lover” myself and was a vegetarian for several years). But it is sometimes tempered by my impression that a sheltered upbringing can lead to an intolerance for the the dirty work that must be done by some to provide the food, clothing, sewage disposal, and so on that others, who contribute differently, may not need to involve themselves with directly. Social class bias and accustomization to extreme shelter from the natural environment may sometimes contribute to the more strident “animal rights activist” phenotype.

  10. #10 ron
    August 28, 2007

    dogs have special rights in this culture that other animals dont have. most people think of them as furry little children that crap in the backyard, not domesticated wolves.

    2 or so weeks ago in south dakota 1000+ cows were broiled alive in their feedlot and the article was all about how much money was lost. if the same rancher drove to the store and left a single dog in the car to slow roast in the back seat only then would he get in trouble.

    the reason dogfighting is seen as so horribly, horribly evil is because it has no billion dollar industry behind it and its the easiest thing in the world for all these self minted “animal lovers” to rail against. who is going to oppose them? but if you bring up the miserable lives of factory farmed animals along with those raised for fur and dare mention that those animals are electrocuted and then executed just like Vick’s dogs, get ready for a bigger shitstorm of indignation. Why? Because they are now personally effected and you just called them a hypocrite. show them a video of a dogfight and they get rightfully get mad at the people doing the dogfighting. show them a video of how livestock are treated and killed and they get mad at the person showing them the video.

    another good way to get in a heated argument is mention that meat production is probably worse for global warming than all the vehicles in the world (google “meat production global warming”). no one likes to hear that one either.

  11. #11 Daniel
    August 30, 2007

    I pretty much agree with Ron’s comments, above. Our regard for different kinds of animals is arbitrary. It is based on our cultural inheritance, which may differ alot. From this cultural inheritance, we have entrenched ways of thinking, that it’s ok to eat chickens, while keeping a beloved canary in a cage next to the dining room, or eating pork, while reveering dogs. Thumbs up; thumbs down; it basically comes down to doing what most people do, and what we think people have done before us. And much of this cultural entrenchment is supported by conventional financial interests, not open to ethical reflections. This is a topic that I really don’t like to think about, very much.

  12. #12 Daniel
    August 30, 2007

    I have another thought along these lines. (Maybe Jonah will post something on this sometimes).

    A week or two ago, I saw news coverage on CNN that 8 guerillas had been killed by a marauding band of soilders. (I guess it was big news because guerillas are endangered). On the news piece, they showed the 8 dead guerillas. They were laid out on plank boards, all in a neat row, with their hands folded over their chests, with their untroubled faces and closed eyes like maybe they were sleeping. I was touched by how much they resembled human beings, laid out for viewing at a funeral. I even felt a little teary, that maybe a priest should say something over them. It was a strange feeling.

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