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December 26, 2004

Moral Duties to Our Food

What moral duties do we owe to our food?

Alex Tabarrok hints that he believes our duties are few and limited:

Marginal Revolution: Politically Incorrect Chef: Here from Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook is the glossary entry for foie gras.

Foie Gras: The fattened liver of a goose or duck.  Unfortunately, an endangered menu item with the advent of angry, twisted, humorless, anti-cruelty activists who've never had any kind of good sex or laughed heartily at a joke in their whole miserable lives and who are currently threatening and terrorizing chefs and their families to get the stuff banned.  Likely to disappear from tables outside France in our lifetimes.

I find myself believing I have a (weak) moral obligation to try to cause the chickens whose eggs I eat to have lives that aren't spent entirely in their cages...

Posted by DeLong at December 26, 2004 10:27 AM

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Even if you don't believe you have a moral duty to your food (and my opinion on that lines up pretty much with the one you expressed), consider that more and more information is becoming availble which indicates that it's healthier to eat food that's not "factory farmed". Cows, chickens, and pigs that are grassfed have a different nutritional composition (particularly in Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids) than (for example) chickens who spend their entire lives in cages. And it's even true for the eggs of those chickens.

As an extra bonus, since we've been buying our meat from local farmers and eating only grassfed meats at home, I've discovered how much better it tastes. I'm consistently disappointed with "normal" meat at this point.

Posted by: Mike Jones at December 26, 2004 11:46 AM

"angry, twisted, humorless, anti-cruelty activists"

Hmmmm. Does that mean that if those activists were friendly, linear and droll Boudin would concede their point?

Posted by: Strange Doctrines at December 26, 2004 12:31 PM

I confess I care more about having chicken that doesn't taste like cardboard than chicken raised humanely (chickenly?). On the bright side, that probably puts me in Brad's camp. I find that most store-bought produce and meat is severely lacking in taste now. That might be an artifact of living in the Midwest now, as opposed to Seattle, where at least the WA grown chicken is delicious.

Posted by: marky at December 26, 2004 12:43 PM

One of the other good things about living in Canda is that you can get fresh foie gras at a decent price in just about any reasonably stocked epicerie in Quebec. It takes the courage one one's conviction to cook it (super hot cast iron pan, 30 seconds a side, no more no less), but worth the risk, and worth way more than the cost. We're smuggling some down to the States next week to help out deprived friends on New Year's eve (don't forget the sauternes).

Posted by: knut wicksell at December 26, 2004 12:54 PM

Since much of Bourdain's memoir encompasses adulteries committed by him, any reasonable assumption about what he means by "good sex" would exclude any "moral values."

There are few greater wastes of the animal than the production of foie gras, which these days consists of force-feeding the goose until its liver bursts--making much of the rest of the animal unusable. One would imagine, if Bourdain were the chef he claims he is--and, having eaten at Les Halles, I would have to say that a reasonable jury would rank him well behind, e.g., Alice Waters--that he would spend more effort making more of the goose a delicacy, and less complaining about the greatest waste of a potential four-star meal since buffalo were skinned and their corpses left to decompose.

Shame on Alex T. for not examining the margins to find the potential for the revolution.

Posted by: Ken Houghton at December 26, 2004 01:40 PM

That's a rather absurd way to phrase the question: "What moral duties do we owe to our food?" It already assumes that we even have the right to consume animals and animal products as food.

Any serious discussion would tackle that first issue, and give a better-thought-out answer than "but meat tastes good" or "animals can't feel pain."

Alas, most people cannot handle the psychological dissonance and so they avoid logic altogether. Because, as Einstein, Thoreau, Schweitzer, Rousseau, Pythagoras, and Emerson have realized: vegetarianism is not only viable, it's healthier and more moral that the alternatives.

Posted by: Macneil at December 26, 2004 02:23 PM

Interesting, isn't it, that Bourdain uses "anti-cruelty" as an expletive?

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw at December 26, 2004 03:09 PM

Someone obviously got up Anthony Bourdain's nose pretty effectively. Argument by pre-emptive insult shows that he is basically just a whiner with a cute turn of phrase.

But seriously, I think a starting point would be that people see what they eat, not just the prepackaged end result. It might satisfy Bourdain's desire for blood & guts, and might turn off some of those who choose not to know where their food comes from.

Posted by: Tom Slee at December 26, 2004 03:22 PM

I find it amazing that even in the preliminary reactions to the thread, the words "vegan" or "vegetarian" have not yet cropped up in discussion. I wonder if it speaks to the general absence of these in the Brad DeLong weblog-browsing community (which is a little hard to swallow given a co-incidence of views and opinions in almost every other regard) or if it hints at a general dissociation of vegetarianism with ethics.

Posted by: Anonymous Coward at December 26, 2004 04:17 PM

Some living thing has to die for you to live. If you don't like it, kill yourself.

Posted by: killme at December 26, 2004 04:23 PM

One reason, or maybe I should say one more reason, to be concerned about the conditions of the animals you eat is that the more stressful the conditions under which they live the more antibiotics are needed to keep them alive long enough to reach slaughter. These chemicals do make it into what you eat.

An analysis of the diets the healthiest, longest lived populations on earth shows that they have little in common. Vegetarianism is notably not it. If there is any commonality it is the absence of processed foods not the absence of animal foods. Native Americans who, arguably, have the most earth/nature centric religions tend to eat a lot of meat but they are careful to give thanks for the animals that they eat. And if I wanted to get snarky about self righteous vegetarianism I would say you must really hate Jesus for the way he fed all those people fish (and used a miracle no less to do it).

Posted by: Dubblblind at December 26, 2004 05:32 PM

I suppose if I had kill animals to eat, I’d be a vegetarian, unless I had no choice. Moreover if I had to witness the slaughter of what I ate, I might very well stop consuming animal products. Is a pig any less deserving of protection than an ordinary house cat? It’s a felony to abuse a cat, but not a pig. To me it’s a moral contradiction, one that I have yet to resolve. So in the meantime, I buy only range fed beef and chicken, and I try to keep my meat consumption to a minimum mainly for health reasons, but there’s a moral bonus too. So as far as I’m concerned the answer to Brad’s question is an unequivocal “yes.”

Posted by: A. Zarkov at December 26, 2004 05:33 PM

Think of the chicken! Will someone *please* think of the chicken!

Posted by: a at December 26, 2004 05:57 PM

A possible compromise, for some at any rate, on the issue of foie gras:


CALEDONIA, MINN. -- "Hey guys, what's up?" said Christian Gasset in his heavily accented English, affectionately greeting a flock of snowy-white Muscovy ducks as they pecked through the mud on a drizzly winter afternoon. Gasset produces Au Bon Canard foie gras, and yes, he talks to his birds (all males; the female liver is too veiny for ideal foie gras). In fact, every thoughtful action Gasset takes -- from the quiet way he speaks to the newly arrived newborns to their expeditious, low-trauma slaughter four months later -- is focused on maximizing their comfort. The payoff is a superior-quality foie gras -- a result of what Gasset considers to be a more humane way to produce the culinary delicacy.

In the quest to create what is French for, literally, fat liver, many consider the traditional practice of force-feeding ducks and geese to be an unseemly one. The issue recently caught fire in California, where the legislature passed the nation's first law banning the production and sale of foie gras; the statute takes effect in eight years.

That had to come as bad news to Sonoma Foie Gras, the California mega-producer that is one of the country's two principal foie gras sources (the other, New York's Hudson Valley Foie Gras, is the world's largest). But it wasn't a complete surprise to Gasset.

At his tidy farm in the far southeastern corner of Minnesota -- Wisconsin and Iowa both seem to be lurking just over the next hill -- the native Frenchman has started producing an extraordinary foie gras, in an extraordinary fashion. With kindness.

"Making foie gras is a funky thing, like making art," said Gasset. "It's not complicated, but it doesn't take much not to succeed. You have to be gentle, all the time." ...

Posted by: David W. at December 26, 2004 07:57 PM

FWIW, I bought "organic" (ie, non-factory farmed) beef on a self-righteous whim; and discovered it tasted worlds better than less-expensive, cruel-farmed, mass produced beef. Better texture, too: much less sinew and gristle-fat. So I've decided not to buy anything else from now on.

But that points up a paradox for environmentalists, doesn't it? "Free range" beef is from cattle that are permitted to free roam and graze on national park lands. Cattle on national park lands has been anathema to the environmentalists, because it (allegedly) damages grazing areas needed by elk, moose, antelope, et al.

My understanding is that cattle grazing actually doesn't cause all that much damage. The real culprits are sheep, which graze right down to the roots and kill off the plant altogether.

Does anyone know if that's true?

Posted by: Palladin at December 26, 2004 09:51 PM

I am a vegetarian and reader of Brad's weblog.

On one level I don't want to be vegetarian - meat tastes good and I miss it. But eating meat is essentially placing my most trivial interests(i.e. my desire for marginally better tasting food) above the most important interests of animals (i.e. their interest in avoiding the most severe forms of physical and emotional torture).

If you think animals raised in modern factory farms aren't living lives of unrelenting torture, you are simply unaware of reality. We all have that quaint notion of Mama Farmer going out to milk the cows and collect the eggs. Well, that's just not how it works any more. I'll spare you the painful details here.

When people ask my why I'm vegetarian, I have begun answering, "would you kick a dog?" I think it's just that simple. Animals raised for us to eat are every bit as social and intelligent as dogs, but we allow them to be treated unspeakably.

I don't normally preach on this topic but I thought my view might be of interest on this thread. Best!

Posted by: snaktime at December 27, 2004 08:08 AM


You can't graze cattle in the National Parks. I bet you mean National Forests.

I'm not an expert in range management, but I bet the amount of damage done by grazing cattle or sheep depends on the # of animals per acre.

Posted by: Emily at December 27, 2004 10:38 AM

Re the "What Would Jesus Eat" debate, my take has been that creatures with a nervous system more complicated than a fish are above the "probably immoral to kill and eat" threshold. Though there are some fish species that have disturbingly complex behavioral repertoires. I'd like to know for sure when conciousness begins along the creature nervous system complexity scale, and am fuzzy about exactly what is meant by complexity.

Ruben Bolling layed out the Western mainstream view in a nice table in a "Tom the Dancing Bug" cartoon in 1991, text version here:

Posted by: Bill Arnold at December 27, 2004 11:16 AM

My system is something along the lines of "When at college, I'm a vegan, but when I'm at home, I'm a plain ol' ovo-lacto vegetarian so my mom doesn't go crazy. It makes no moral sense. Then again, I'm a Humean moral sentimentalist, so my morals don't have to make sense!

And don't ask me about my moral sentiments and views of human freedom with respect to abortion.

I think there are some situations in which eating meat's fine. Let's say all of the predators -- humans, dingos, eagles, etc -- were removed from Australia. Because kangaroos are irresponsible when it comes to birth control, the result would not be a paradise for kangaroos. It would be sigmoidal growth to the point of carrying capacity, at which point life-long, Malthusian misery and starvation would keep the population in check. The same might by said of many K-type animals, such as birds and mammals (with r-type animals, it's worse: they grow even faster, well BEYOND carrying capacity, and then die off in droves). With the social/technological ability of humans to defeat pretty much any predator, this is what humans did to themselves (except a small elite that lived off of Ricardian rents) from the neolithic development of agriculture until the industrial revolution.

I think that the food production I find objectionable is where you 1) take arable land, and plant crops on it, 2) get a bunch of animals, and feed the crops to the animals, and 3) eat the animals, or their eggs/milk.

I don't find the harvesting of wild game objectionable, nor the ranching of grazing animals on semi-arid, unfarmable territories (though ranching on national forests leased for a pittance I do find wrong, but that's the free-market economist in me talking, not the animal welfare ethicist), nor harvesting honey from bees (they get their food from agriculture, but not in a rival manner: on the contrary.) Actually harvesting wild animals (especially fish) sustainably is more easily said than done, but a good license-auction, combined with a lot of research, could do it.

Up next on the crank blog commentator ethics debate: is prostitution wrong?

Posted by: Julian Elson at December 27, 2004 12:57 PM

Err... oops. I think I gave the impression that my main objection to eating animals is that it's too high a trophic level, and thus requires an excessive environmental footprint. That was just an off-topic rant that I went into for reasons that are, in retrospect, fuzzy: my objection is plain ol', boring, animal cruelty grounds. The kangaroo example of hunting isn't wrong because it doesn't have a bad environmental impact: it isn't wrong because the alternative (growth to carrying capacity) is as cruel as a bullet to the pancreas, whereas I can't imagine nonexistence (the alternative for, say, factory-farmed chickens) is as cruel as being a factory-farmed chicken.

Posted by: Julian Elson at December 27, 2004 01:03 PM

Tom Arnold,
Truth be told, I am not religious and find Christianity to be abstruse more often than not. I threw in the Jesus comment to give those vegetarians who feel superior and pass judgment on others some gray area to think about. Ultimately we must consume some type of life form in order to survive. The Native American approach of honoring all life, and in particular that life which made the ultimate sacrifice so that we can continue ours, solves the complexity issue and creates it's own morality and balance (in my view).

Posted by: Dubblblind at December 27, 2004 01:45 PM

Bourdain has made other ill-reasoned attacks on vegetarians; in _A Cook's Tour_ he mocks California vegans for errors that I know aren't committed by Asian Buddhist vegetarian cooks: and he had just toured Southeast Asia, so should have known.

It seems obvious to me that gusto and manliness and not worrying about ethics are fused in his psyche; in _Kitchen Confidential_ he sort of admitted this and made allowances for it.

Posted by: clew at December 27, 2004 08:23 PM

Call me wacky, but I think humans need to learn to crawl (treating humans humanely) before they need to learn to walk (treating animals humanely).

Posted by: Hamilton Lovecraft at December 28, 2004 09:04 AM

One might, perhaps, wish to consider the effects of treating animals cruelly on humans. Killing and eating is part of being human. And, after all, every living thing has appetites--even plants. But there are degrees. It's one thing to raise a food animal in reasonable conditions and kill it quickly and cleanly, another to torture it throughout its life. And--I don't trust people who torture. Even chickens.

Posted by: Randolph Fritz at December 29, 2004 02:14 AM

It is immoral to eat cute animals.

[So anything that looks more than some amount X like a human baby should not be eaten?]

Posted by: a at December 31, 2004 04:42 AM

[and yet another comment spam makes it through...]

Posted by: at December 31, 2004 02:59 PM