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Cheesecake Truck Version of the Trolley Problem

In my Environmental Justice class today, I used the standard "Trolley Problem" to illustrate the fact that utilitarianism would require you to sacrifice one life to save five. The students then asked what utilitarianism had to say about the distribution of benefits. So I asked them to imagine that the runaway trolley was a cheesecake truck, and instead of killing people, it was dropping cheesecakes everywhere. In this case, a utilitarian would have an obligation to make sure the switch stays switched to the track with the five people, because it's better for five people to get cheesecakes than only one person.


Begging the question against vegans

Renee at Womanist Musings expands her eviscerations of PeTA into an attempt to take on veganism as a whole. The post is a mix of familiar and less familiar anti-vegan arguments, but taken as a whole they make a nice illustration of the way much criticism of veganism begs the core question: is it wrong to kill animals for food?

Renee sets up the issue when she declares that despite her anti-vegan stance she "would certainly not support intentional animal cruelty." But of course nobody supports animal cruelty -- cruelty is by definition unacceptable, so anything you think is OK to do to animals is not cruel. The real question is whether killing animals for food is a form of cruelty. Renee would say no, whereas ethical vegans (that is, people who avoid meat for animal rights reasons) would say yes. If killing animals for food is not cruel, that by itself is a sufficient argument against ethical veganism. But Renee's other arguments only work if you already assume that ethical veganism is unjustified. If, on the other hand, you start from the premise that killing animals for food is wrong, then Renee's arguments lead to different conclusions than the ones she tries to draw. Note that my purpose in this post is not to defend the premise that killing animals is wrong, but merely to show that other arguments don't have any purchase (at least in terms of showing why vegans should not advocate veganism to others) unless you can rebut that premise.

Start with the distinction Renee draws between vegans who "moralize," who are her targets, and vegans for whom not eating meat is just a "lifestyle choice," who she is OK with. The term "moralize" is a question-begging one, as in left/liberal discourse it refers to unjustified imposition of one's values on another. But whether vegans trying to get others to adopt their values is unjustified, and hence counts as moralizing, is exactly what's at issue. If there is a serious injustice in the world, then it is prima facie justified, and therefore prima facie not moralizing, to try to get others to stop contributing to that injustice. Therefore, once you accept the ethical vegan answer to the question of the wrongness of killing animals for food, you have established that trying to get others to be vegan (which would correct the injustice of widespread killing of animals) is prima facie justified (subject to tactical questions about appropriate time, place, and manner of pursuing said goal). To label this activity "moralizing" is simply to restate the fact that you disagree with the vegan answer to the question of the morality of killing animals. Vegans only "moralize" if veganism was unjustified to start with.

Renee then raises ethical concerns related to food other than animal rights, which can be summed up as worker rights and environmental concerns. In part, this is the old "you can't be perfect, so why even try?" rationale. But it also evidences the question-begging issue. Renee points out that industrial farming is bad for the environment and bad for farmworkers. I agree. I'll even grant her that the "human cost to veganism and or vegetarianism ... is rarely to never discussed" among many vegans. If you start from the premise that there's nothing wrong with killing animals for food, then this just points up an absurd hypocrisy among vegans. But if you start from the premise that killing animals is wrong, then it highlights the need to broaden our idea of justice with respect to the food system. And in fact many vegans -- from Noemi and other writers at Vegans of Color to notorious clueless-rich-white-guy Hugo Schwyzer -- have written about these very concerns. Renee proposes eating locally as an alternative form of food justice. But veganism and local eating are hardly mutually exclusive. I'd be willing to bet that the proportion of vegans at your average CSA pickup or farmer's market is higher than in the general population.

This is linked to a ridiculous factual error in the post. Renee charges that to be sustainably vegan, one would have to eat nothing but root vegetables all winter. Having lived in southern Arizona with a wonderful year-round CSA, I laughed when I read that. But in fact it's also false for people living in cold climates, like Renee does in Canada. Now that I've moved to Pennsylvania, I buy vegetables from local growers at a weekly farmer's market. And sure, there are lots of root vegetables right now -- but we also get fresh greens, presumably grown in greenhouses. And there's nothing unsustainable about canning or freezing vegetables to use when they're not in season.

Renee goes on to point out that the animal rights movement is white-dominated, which is bad on general principle as well as leading to strategic blunders such as attacking black women who wear fur without sensitivity to the role of fur as a form of resistance to de facto sumptuary laws. I agree. But this is only an argument against veganism if you have already dismissed the core premise, viz: killing animals for food is wrong. If a movement is fighting for something unimportant, then it is a deadly sin to also be racist in the way it fights for that unimportant thing. But if you agree with the premise of the movement, then it is absurd to dismiss it just because those fighting for it are doing so in the wrong way. If a movement with a good goal is trampling on other good goals, then you have two options: work from within the movement to redirect its strategy, or call for an alternative movement seeking the same goal in a more acceptable way. It's ironic that Renee explicitly compares racism in the animal rights movement to racism in the white-dominated mainstream feminist movement, since that confirms my point. Women of color's response to racism in feminism was not to conclude that sexism is OK. Rather, some fought to fix feminism from the inside, while others gave their loyalties to womanism and other movements that integrated gender and racial justice in a more appropriate way. I'm not saying that Renee has to dedicate herself to one of these forms of activism, but she should acknowledge that those are legitimate responses by which a vegan could address the criticism of racism in the animal rights movement without giving up the "killing animals for food is wrong, so everyone who can should stop doing it" premise. If these paths are available, then we once again return to the "is killing animals wrong?" question as the only way to condemn vegan advocacy as unacceptable moralizing.

Renee ends by pointing out the problems with comparing humans to animals, given the history of those comparisons being used to denigrate people of color. Again I agree, as I have written before. But such comparisons, while extremely common, are hardly inherent to vegan advocacy. Here's what I say when people ask me why I'm not eating meat: "I don't think cows (or whatever) really appreciate being killed, especially when there's so much other stuff I could eat instead." That's hardly an ironclad philosophical exposition, but it summarizes the key issue in terms of the animal's nature taken on its own terms. No "we're all animals" rhetoric, no dwelling on "marginal cases," no ever-expanding circle of concern predictions, no parallels between the meat industry and slavery or the Holocaust, or any of the other common arguments that Renee is (rightly) objecting to. If you start from the premise that killing animals for food is OK, then the oppressive implications of human-animal comparisons just add insult to injury. But if you start from the premise that killing animals for food is not OK, then Renee's points just emphasize the need for more careful thinking about the grounds for veganism and the strategies used to advocate it to others.

The final sentence of Renee's post is: "The next time you feel the need to moralize to an evil meat eater, perhaps you can pause momentarily and consider that your choices are far from perfect as well." I heartily endorse her call for vegans to be self-critical about the way their advocacy intersects with other social justice issues. But to state this as categorically condemning all vegan advocacy once again begs the question. It only makes sense to demand perfection on all other social justice issues as a precondition for vegan advocacy if you have already decided that animal rights is a lower-priority concern than those other issues -- that is, you have already decided that vegans are wrong on the core question of whether killing animals for food is OK.


The environmental implications of border-drawing

The particular boundaries of our existing 50 states of the US are in some ways irrational historical relics, so there's an argument to be made for re-drawing the subdivisions of the country, as places like England and France have already done (which is not to say there aren't plenty of arguments against it as well). Matthew Yglesias passes on one proposal, originally from FakeIsTheNewReal, that prioritizes keeping the states' populations equal*.

On the FakeIsTheNewReal map, the new state of Philadelphia is formed from the city of that name along with southern New Jersey. This combination is a common one on state boundary reform proposals (e.g. this one), as the differences between North Jersey and South Jersey are quite notable (Stephen Colbert once introduced a guest by saying "I'll ask him if he's from the part of New Jersey that thinks it's New York, or the part that thinks it's Philadelphia."). This was roughly the territory of the short-lived Swedish colony, and might have retained a united identity as a colony and later state had the Swedes not gotten into a fight with the Dutch. I'll refer to the reformed state as "New Sweden" to avoid the confusion between the city of Philadelphia and FakeIsTheNewReal's proposed state of Philadelphia. What strikes me about this proposal, though, is how the history of South Jersey would be different had the boundaries been drawn in this seemingly more logical way in the first place. Much of South Jersey is taken up by the Pine Barrens, a unique ecosystem that managed to remain relatively undeveloped until fairly recently despite being adjacent to the northeast Megalopolis. Underlying the Pine Barrens is a major, but ecologically fragile, aquifer. Its location means it has long been eyed by Philadelphia as a convenient source of water -- Joseph Wharton even purchased a huge tract of the Pine Barrens in anticipation of such a development. Luckily for the Pine Barrens, accidents of colonial history placed a state boundary down the Delaware River. This put the aquifer in a separate jurisdiction from the thirsty city. And that separation of jurisdictions made it easy to frame Philadelphia's desire for water as an attempt by one state to exploit another state's resources, prompting New Jersey to pass a law to ban the transfer of water to Pennsylvania -- and leaving Wharton's tract undeveloped and eventually to be converted into a large state forest. Had Philadelphia and the Pine Barrens been part of the single state of New Sweden, this sort of incidental environmental protection due to state-nationalism and the accompanying power of separate legislatures would have had less pull against the obviousness of the Pine Barrens as Philadelphia's hinterland (while perhaps creating complications in accessing Philadelphia's current water supplies from the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, which under FakeIsTheNewReal's reform plan run mostly through the new state of Susquehanna).

*The motivation for prioritizing equal populations here is to eliminate the disproportionate power of smaller states in the Senate and Electoral College. But with respect to those issues I think eliminating the Electoral College and doing away with the one-state-two-votes system in the Senate (in favor of proportional representation) would be more feasible and more effective than rearranging state boundaries. And if we did that, we could relax the equal population criterion in favor of other important factors in drawing state boundaries, like cultural continuity, ease of travel, and ecosystem integrity.


Environmentalism using obesity metaphors

Cartoon anthropomorphized Earth, flexing its muscles, with a tape measure around its skinny waistI was stuck by the imageat right, which is being used by Environmental Defense as part of a "how you can stop global warming"-type promotion. We see a cartoon anthropomorphized earth flexing its muscles happily while a tape measure is cinched around its quite unnaturally narrow waist. It's an interesting collision between the longstanding metaphor of environmentalism as seeking the "health" of the environment, with the modern idea of obesity as iconic of poor health.

Unpacking the idea of ecological "health" as the goal of environmentalism is something I'll mostly set aside here, except to note that it is a non-inevitable conceptualization (contrast the alternate framing of conservation/sustainability). The important thing to keep in mind is that the idea of ecological health involves conceptualizing the ecosystem, or even the entire planet, as a mega-organism -- and in particular, a mega-human-body -- for which health consists of an approximation to a particular ideal state. For a human body, health by this conception involves having all the normal parts (2 legs, both eyes, smooth skin, etc) functioning in the normal way.

What caught my eye about the ED ad was the change in the representation of what constitutes "health." A quick Google image search on "sick earth" brings up lots of examples of the old way of representing health. We get lots of earths suffering from common cold and flu type symptoms -- flushed, sweating, excreting mucus, and making use of thermometers and hot water pads. The archetype of ill health here is infectious disease, an invasion by microbes that upsets the system's functioning. The metaphorical parallels between viruses and pollution (including, in some cases, human beings) have been powerful for environmentalism.

But over the past few decades, we've acquired a new archetype for poor health: obesity. Being fat has become synonymous with being sick, and vice-versa. What I'm interested in here is not the scientific/medical question of how bad for you being fat really is (though I'll admit to skepticism of the obesity panic on these grounds), but rather the sociological question of how obesity became the key trope in our discourse about health. Thus, a healthy earth can be easily represented as one that has slimmed down, because we all know that getting skinnier equals getting healthier. The metaphor is extended in the "Low Carbon Diet Guide" that the ad encourages you to download, which talks about how "counting carbs" should apply to carbon dioxide as well as carbohydrates. Interestingly, the guide sticks to energy conservation tips, thus both continuing environmentalists' reluctance to address food habits as a contributor to climate change while mercifully avoiding blaming fat people for causing global warming by stuffing their faces.

An important element to the conceptualization of obestity as the archetype of ill health is the way it's tied to ideas of personal responsibility. While genetics and social conditions play a huge role in determining who gets fat, our discourse about obesity promotes the idea that on the one hand you can control your own weight, and on the other fat people can be blamed for their condition. This is reflected in the content of ED's Low Carbon Diet brochure, which is is a fairly standard compendium of personal behavioral changes that will make you a better, less-carbon-emitting, metaphorically slimmer person. Obviously this sort of thinking long predates the ecological-health-as-thinness metaphor, but there's a synergy between them in terms of the emphasis on the small scope of personal control within a larger issue.

This is not the first, or most extreme, time environmentalists have tried to link up with the concern over obesity. But it was striking to me that the thin = healthy idea is so engrained that it can be used as a metaphor by causes outside of the public health field.