Saturday, April 2, 2011

Moral Psychology

At the very interesting and lively “Thinking About Animals” conference this past week held at Brock University there was an ongoing current of tension regarding the animal welfare approach to improving the lives of non-human animals. There were in fact few if any pure “animal welfarists” at the conference; almost everyone there believed (as I certainly do) that the best solution to the horrors of factory farming is simply for all of us to adopt a vegan diet. Halfway measures (“freedom food,” “happy meat”) that try to improve the welfare of non-human animals while leaving in place the underlying paradigm of human animals raising other animals purely in order to kill them and eat them can at best be classed as constituting merely a lesser evil than that of factory meat production.

But is it possible that "halfway measures" are actually counterproductive? Many abolitionist vegans argue that by presenting humans with a seemingly more ethically acceptable alternative means of consuming meat and dairy products, advocates of animal welfare approaches are helping to perpetuate the underlying paradigm. If, on the other hand, the choice remains an utterly stark one in which humans must choose between veganism as one alternative and eating dead flesh (or eggs, or dairy products) from animals that have suffered conditions tantamount to torture throughout their lives, that stark binary may make it more likely that people will make an ethical choice, and that real change will happen.

I would like to think that the hearts and minds of most human animals operate like that. But certainly my own case argues otherwise. As I discuss in the Afterword to Animals, the move towards veganism has been for me a long and slow process. Looking back now, I very much doubt I would have started on that road had there not been way-stations available. For a number of years I ate free range beef and chicken and so on; if you had told me that I could give up meat and milk entirely and not miss them at all (as is now the case), I’m sure I would have been entirely disbelieving.

The reactions I’ve received to Animals from people who say the novel has led them to change are an absurdly small sample to go on, but it's a sample that goes to support the view that not all human psyches are alike in this way. (Interestingly, few people reference the Afterword when they say how the experience of reading the book has led them to change; they tend always to speak of the novel itself.) I have had some people tell me that they stopped eating meat entirely the day after reading the last page of the story; I have others (a larger number) tell me that reading the novel led them to significantly reduce the amount of meat and dairy products they consume, or to switch to eating free range meat and to start thinking seriously about the issues while they considered if they could go further than that. Like me, they found it impossible to contemplate an immediate, 100% change.

In many ways Animals itself provides a strong sense of the tension between abolitionist veganism and welfarism.* When I began writing the book my aim was simply to combat the evils of factory farming, not to present in imaginative form a more broad-ranging argument against humans eating other animals. But as I was writing the book I was changing, and by the time I had finished there was a great deal in it that undercuts the animal welfare position; Broderick’s arguments in defence of “free range yurn” as an option are hideously blinkered, and I think those who have argued that the novel reads much more coherently if it is taken not as an argument against factory farming, but as an argument against consuming other animals have a very good point. Of course the Afterword that appears following the novel itself takes a different tack; it emphasizes that the book's declared intent is to help turn people against factory farming, and it very much downplays any suggestion that the book might have a broader message. To undermine factory farming was indeed my main intent—but if the book does in fact convey a broader message I now feel very happy about that. And I would be overjoyed if, fifty or a hundred years from now, the Afterword is read (if it is read at all) as a historical curiosity in a world in which human animals have given up eating other animals.

Is it in fact the case that on average human animals are more likely to give up eating other animals if the choice is an entirely stark one—or is it the case that they are more likely to approach that destination in the way that I have, in slow steps? My guess is the latter; that’s not something that makes me happy, either about my own nature or about human nature generally. In terms of what I would like to see happen, I've become a fellow traveller in the abolitionist vegan camp. But my guess is that along the way we will stand a better chance of achieving wholesale change if we don’t try to insist that people must immediately choose veganism or the status quo, with nothing in between.

I want to emphasise that this is a guess; I don't think any one of us can really know what will work best on average with the human psyche. But one thing we we do know is that the forces defending the status quo when it comes to factory farming are very, very powerful, and that attitudes supporting it are deeply entrenched. If you put all the vegans and all the vegetarians and all the animal welfarists together, we are still badly outnumbered. That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to bring about change; those pushing for justice for women and for an end to slavery were also badly outnumbered at first. And in those cases too there were a wide range of approaches, with gradualists often at odds with absolutists on many points. But they managed at key moments to bridge those differences and to work together for positive change. In the same way, if we are to bring positive change for non-human animals, surely our best chance of doing so is to work together as much as possible. That doesn’t mean that we should ignore the very real differences (of which abolitionism versus welfarism is only one; the debate over whether we are defending the rights of non-human animals or their interests is another broad issue, and there are many other smaller ones). But it does mean that we may be well advised to try to find common ground as much as possible. We may strongly disagree, for example, as to whether “free range” is an adequate response to the cages in which battery hens are now confined, or to the cruelties of gestation cages for sows. But surely we can come together in common cause over the fact of these things being wrong; we can keep trying to publicize those wrongs, and we can keep protesting together.

*One interesting paper at the conference ("The Critique of New Welfarism in LePan's Animals and Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go" by Dru Jeffries and Emily Fraser-Jeffries) looked at precisely this point. Jeffries and Fraser-Jeffries suggest that the novel Animals makes an effective case against “a welfarist approach to animal agriculture reform”; they also argue, however, that the Afterword severely undermines this message, with the result that the book as a whole “embodies the moral schizophrenia underlying new welfarism as an approach towards advancing animal rights.”

I think they are right--on this as well as on many other points they make (both about my novel and about Ishiguro's) in their very intelligent paper.

In my January 4, 2010 blog posting “Words After an Afterword” I discuss the text of the Afterword as it was originally published (in the 2009 Canadian edition), and how—as I had just then been made to realize—the alternative ending in the Afterword to that edition does not connect coherently with the novel itself. At that point I also posted on my website a revised text of the Afterword, which became the basis for the text of the Afterword in the American edition. (It will also replace the original afterword in the Canadian edition on the first reprint of that edition.) I still find it an extraordinary instance of a moral/psychological disconnect on my part that I was able to write the original version of the “alternative ending” in the Afterword without getting that the alternative ending was advocating eating free-range human meat. Perhaps just as striking is that as many as fifteen others read the book in advance of publication of the Canadian first edition; none of them raised this as a problem either.

When the Afterword and the novel itself are treated as a whole, the brief alternative ending in the Afterword as originally published is the most striking pointer towards “moral schizophrenia.” But–as suggested above—I think it is arguable that something of the sort operates even with the revised Afterword. Certainly I've come to think that there is tremendous tension between the explicit message of the Afterword (even in its revised form) and the implicit message of the novel itself—and I thought Jeffries and Fraser-Jeffries explored that tension very perceptively in their conference paper.

Quite a few people in advance of publication advised against including an afterword—the novel should stand on its own, they suggested. I think that in fact the novel has stood on its own and that it will continue to do so. But I don’t apologize for having included an afterword between the same two covers. I’ve written in my blog about my reasons for doing so initially. I now have another reason; an afterword written at the time a novel is published can demonstrate wonderfully well just how wrong an author can be about what the underlying message of his or her own work really is!

No comments:

Post a Comment