Sunday, February 3, 2013

Battle Hymn of a Tiger Lover - The War on Pets Begins

When I wrote a diatribe over a year ago lamenting the sorry state of animal ethics, it was a headshake-and-sigh toward a lost cause. As a society our moral generosity has seemingly stagnated on big issues like global poverty and climate change. So I had all but given up hope that collective introspection on our relationship with dogs and cats would happen any time soon.

But recently, a slate of articles and studies have sounded what I can only hope are some initial battle cries in a war against pets. Or at least, the war for us to think more seriously about how we treat pets. Again, I don't think all human-pet relationships are wrong. But I'm troubled by the general phenomenon, and feel heartened that others share my qualms.

So, what's my big problem with pets? Here's a quick summary of my stray thoughts and arguments:
  • When cuteness vs. annoyingness are our rationales for abandoning or exterminating some animals while rescuing others, we've abdicated all pretense of moral authority and have veered into sentimentality.
  • Pet ownership leads to the extermination of wildlife - that must be killed for their food, that serve as their prey when we walk them, whose habitats are destroyed when we provide for them. 
    • I find it telling that most of the resources we devote to animal rights are aimed not at wildlife, but to the animals we've most shaped in our own image. Whose interests are we really serving? That of the animals, or our own mawkishness?
  • The dark underbelly of the pet-industrial complex: puppy mills, abandonment, and abuse. The majority of all Americans own at least a cat or dog. But how often do we hear about these issues? While these practices are frowned upon in the rare instances they are acknowledged, they're also generally tolerated. Paradoxically, our strong emotional attachment to these animals seems to blind us to their suffering. Another red flag for a morally underdeveloped attitude.
  • Do you think it's ok to have sex with an animal? Then why is it ok to cut his balls off? Genital mutilation, fingertip amputation, vocal cordectomy, solitary confinement. To me these commonplace practices are horrific and barbaric violations of the physical and psychological dignity of animals, scarcely justified by our desire for them to fit more conveniently into our busy industrialized lifestyles.
  • Also troubling is the fast-growing trend toward pet medicalization. For whose sake is Fido getting chemotherapy - yours or his? Are we really trying to minimize their suffering, or assuage our own anxiety and delay our feelings of loss? Issues of consent are tricky even for human patients. It's not clear to me that the animals would prefer aggressive medical treatment rather than natural death, nor what that even means for animals to give consent.

: A run-down of some of recent studies and articles:
  • To me, the most indelible image from 2012, from an NPR story about Chinese dog activists: A young rescuer feeding a dog pork sausage.
  • The Kitty-Cam Project: Authors of the 2012 study that put webcams on domestic indoor-outdoor cats and found that 1/3 of them killed wildlife, at an average of 2 kills per week.
  • The Oatmeal illustrates the Kitty-Cam project's findings:
  • An article in Aeon Magazine runs through an alien invasion thought experiment satirizung the moral blind spots of veganism and pet ownership:
    "Vegan aliens could justify keeping humans as pets ...  but the downside is that they could spay and neuter us, as even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says [we should]. Of course, the aliens would say this was for our own good, as we tend to overpopulate when left in charge of our own reproduction."
  • Scientific American writes up a recent study from Nature Communications estimating that Felis catus kills 10-20 billion birds and mammals in the US every year.
    "I love my cat and she gives my life meaning. But I also can admit that the science is staring us in the face. We can’t bear to talk about euthanizing cats because they are so friggin’ cute–but, if we’re honest with ourselves, the best solution to this problem is to kill cats. Kill them, with their cute little faces, their soft fur and their snuggles. Some of the cats need to be dead."
  • Slate reports on New Zealand's proposed cat ban to save its endangered species: "You know what animal makes a good pet? No animal."

Lest the nascent revolution be viewed as a conspiracy fomented by dog-lovers, I'm hoping 2013 will bring some research on how canines are driving mail carriers to extinction in Papua New Guinea.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Review: Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Debt: The First 5,000 Years
Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A mind-popping work of scholarly virtuosity, finished with a splash of dry humor. Graeber explains the origins of money, the genesis of patriarchy, the provenance of capitalistic angst, and other modern mysteries. All of this would sound like the ravings of a madman if not for his mastery of the literature and the sheer tensile strength of his logic.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Voting is Not Irrational: Why Economists Are Wrong

Voting is a very personal activity. Whether and how we vote are deeply imbued with our values, self-image, cultural upbringing, and national identity. So I'm not going to argue that everyone should feel compelled to vote. In fact, I think it's probably not the best use of a few hours of time today for most people.

What I oppose is the virulent argument propounded by many economists and other social scientists contending that it's irrational for anyone to vote. When confronted with counter-arguments, some concede that voting can be rationalized by the "warm glow" citizens get from an essentially useless activity. But the whiff of condescension remains.

I dislike the irrational voting argument for two reasons. First, it represents the co-opting of the term rationality to denote only the most narrowly self-interested and materialistic thinking. This terminology then allows the easy dismissal of any framework outside of narrow self-interest, e.g. morality or cultural norms, as idiotic and hysterical (i.e. irrational). Second, it represents a dangerous boundary-crossing whereby the positive becomes the normative. This sleight of hand has a long and venerated history within economics, among thinkers so convinced by their own logic that they begin to advocate for it instead of trying harder to understand human behavior.

Without any pretensions to a systematic take-down, here are three reasons why I think the economists are wrong, and why ballot-huggers should come out of hiding and take back the rational vote.

Doing something only if you individually decide a matter of global importance isn’t rationality. It’s megalomania.

I don't know the history behind the irrational voting argument. But I can see why it became viral. Economists enjoy clever arguments that go against conventional wisdom. But cleverness can blind us to larger truths, and the choice of outcome in this argument smacks of cherry-picking.

Whether or not one's individual vote affects the outcome of an election is a rather extreme value metric that exaggerates voting's unimportance. Voting connotes value in many ways that deserve more consideration than simply being lumped into "warm glow." For instance, one person's voting is likely to impact other people's behavior in their social network. The information gathering and civic engagement that go along with voting are likely to spill over into other actions a person takes.

Economists don't apply this extreme metric to all areas of life. They don't think buying an Audi instead of a BMW is irrational, or feel the need to attach a belittling label to such a preference, even though neither choice would change the world. Acts based on personal preference are likely to be deemed rational if they involve material consumption, but irrational if they involve cultural norms or morality. I can't think of a rational basis for this prejudice.

If we were to judge all of our actions by whether they have a large impact on the world, we'd have little reason to do anything. Why would we ever treat a stranger fairly? We'd only impact 1/7 billionth of the world's population. Why not throw trash on the street? We'd only be contributing imperceptably to the aggregate cruft. Of course, some might argue that these and all other areas of social responsibility are irrational too ...

It's not just the outcome that matters, but the process.

Voting has value not just because the "right" candidate wins, but because the outcome is the result of every citizen's engagement in the decision. Thus, looking only at the outcome is the wrong metric to begin with.

Most of what we do has little importance. But it’s important that we do it.

Gandhi said something like that. In other words, I think that the kind of strategic and instrumentalist thinking embodied by the irrational voting argument is a poor basis for a moral life.

Most of life is composed of very small actions that affect very few people - mostly of them only ourselves. But my understanding of the evidence from the social sciences is that humans are not very good at compartmentalizing. The way we behave when no one is looking, and when it doesn't matter, goes a long way toward predicting what we do when it does matter.

In a way, voting is analogous to smoking. One cigarette has little impact on our future health, so an addict could easily argue that it doesn't matter. But one cigarette, as a single step in a consistent series of actions, takes on much more significance. Thus, small actions establish habits and neural circuits that lead us toward either a small and selfish life or a moral and generous one.

For most of us, nothing we do will ever truly matter, in the grand scheme of things. But for a few of us, a few of the things we do will matter. The rub is, we don't know beforehand who will be important and which of their actions will be important. I believe that those who rise to greatness are usually buttressed by a lifetime of small actions, taken in obscurity.

This is the logic of integrity, a form of rationality, in its own way.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Review: Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not as funny or sharply observed as Lewis's excellent Vanity Fair pieces, but mildly readable. "XXing baseball YYs is just like trading stocks/bonds/derivatives!" Groan.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Review: Super Sad True Love Story

Super Sad True Love Story
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Better than Freedom. A hilarious and poignant satire of a future/present where "teening" is a verb and banking is at AlliedWasteCVSCitigroup. I listened to the audiobook, which I especially loved for the voice of an immigrant Asian mom as imitated by her daughter.

View all my reviews

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Review: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every liberal should read this book.

Haidt employs a number of smart techniques that elevate The Righteous Mind above your typical pop social science bestseller. While maintaining a scholarly tone, Haidt weaves in the story of his personal moral awakening and intellectual journey. Each section centers on a core metaphor that serves as a mnemonic device and narrative tool, and each chapter concludes with a summary that consolidates its message.

View all my reviews