Monday, May 25, 2009

Pensées on pork

Did the Herald publish this opinion piece by Dr Mike King, an anatomist at Otago University, simply because, in a hilarious coincidence, he shares the same name as the comedian whose undercover infiltration of a pig farm started this whole controversy? Because, honestly, I can't see much else to recommend it.

King's main conclusion seems to be that the coverage of 'Porkgate' is far more complex than it is being portrayed:
What is unfortunate about this pattern is that there is little time for members of the public to consider the issues carefully and clearly, and arrive at a reasoned judgment.

Why is this? The aim of those involved is to gain public support - in terms of votes, viewership or consumers. The quickest way to do this is to appeal to the sympathies of the public, and things proceed much like an exercise in advertising.

Indoor-housed pigs are presented as variously suffering, mad, depressed, unclean, unhealthy, or dead. Outdoor pigs are presented as variously happy, perky, well-balanced, healthy, and alive.

The pork industry (board and farmers) are presented as defensive, uncaring, insensitive, and profiteering.

Mike King and SAFE are presented as quite the opposite. It's like the public is in a cartoon with a little devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. We've all seen those cartoons - when is the devil ever right?

Actually, as I tried to argue last week, there things have hardly been presented like that, at least in the Herald. The amount of crap thrown at Mike King (the funny one ... oh wait...) for changing position has been amazing, and was taken to another level on Sunday by a (seemingly untrue) HoS claim that he tried to solicit extra money from the Pork Board "just months" before this scandal erupted. Meanwhile, articles have continually emphasised the increased prices of pork that would result from the scrapping of sow crates and the fact that the farm in fact met legal requirements, rather than the fact that the legal requirements are rather dodgy indeed.

But that's as may be. Dr King's main 'philosophical' point in this piece revolves around the meaning of the word exploitation, and this is where it gets really interesting. By 'interesting', of course, I mean interesting in the sense that the posse of first-year philosophy students who sit in the corner at a party talking about what 'real' means is interesting. Apparently, New Zealanders aren't against exploiting animals, because we exploit all animals, including pets, all the time. Your dog exploits you for food and shelter; you exploit it for cute puppy cuddles. Clearly, then, the practice of putting pigs permanently or semi-permanently in a crate so small that they can't move, or even lie down, let alone live anything that might be considered the normal life of a social animal, is very complex, and requires much chin-stroking and cod philosophy.

But in intensive farming perhaps the bargain has lost its fairness. Farmers and consumers benefit financially, but what do the pigs get out of confinement, poor hygiene, barren environments, and so on?

Unfortunately it's not this simple. We might agree on some idea of fairness in our dealings with animals (no easy thing in itself), but there is no guarantee this will divide the pig industry into the unfair intensive farmers and the fair outdoor farmers. Each of these has their own welfare advantages and disadvantages and a well-managed indoor farm may be preferable to a poorly managed outdoor one.

Christ. Sure, and a well-managed concentration camp might be preferable to people rough-sleeping in the streets - but that's hardly an argument for gas chambers. Dr King is so excited by his musings on the meaning of exploitation that he seems determined to muddy the waters further:

SAFE is not in favour of the farming of animals for food at all, which means they do not support the farming of pigs for food in free-range systems either. They clearly prefer it to indoor farming, but for them it seems this is a change from wrong to less wrong, not wrong to right. After all, even in the best outdoor, free-range farm, pigs are managed to optimise productivity.

This means lots of pigs born, weaned early, and fattened quickly on high nutrient density diets, then slaughtered, hopefully with low backfat levels to appeal to health-minded consumers.

I'm a vegetarian, so you know what I think. But the fact that even free-range pigs are exploited seems desperately uninteresting to me in the context of the grave exploitation of pigs on industrial farms. To use another metaphor, it's like saying that feeding the starving is a complex issue because there's quite a few other people who could use a bit more to eat as well - I'm a bit peckish as I write, for example.
So where does this leave the debate? Unfortunately, the debate is complex.
No, Mike, this is one case where it's not. There seems to have been a genuine emotional reaction - however ephemeral - on the part of ordinary people to what they saw in that video. The treatment of pigs in sow crates is disgusting enough that there's no need for these relativist musings. Of course there should be further debate on the treatment of animals in this country, as there should be about dozens of other issues. What that doesn't mean is that we sit down in the corner of the party, stroking our beards and talking about meaning while everyone else is dancing.


  1. Good post James. This King (not the funny one?) seems like a bit of a twit. Relativistic ethics? Hmmm. Pigs in unnatural and cruel conditions, versus more empathetic free-range? Hmmm, complicated. Well I suppose by logic the declaration of human rights are out the window now too, far too complicated and relative of an issue. Add to that the 50 cent increase in price you might perhaps maybe have to pay for non-tortured pork and, gee wizz its just not worth it. Doesn't matter if our animal welfare laws are a bit medieval. gezuz.

  2. Anatomist? Or Analrapist?

  3. So much for sticking to commenting on the quality of journalism in the Herald - you're just criticising the writer's opinion because you disagree with it (you being a wannabe vego, provided someone else actually cooks it for you). But then you bitch about the Herald including commentary on consumer items and not being weighty enough. Make up your mind.

    Schizo-socilaist scum. And stop telling me what is or is not acceptable - what are you, the Herald?

  4. You have invoked Godwin's Law while arguing with yourself, and therefore your argument is invalid.

  5. No, no, last Anon, Godwin's Law (approximately) states that the longer James discusses the Herald, the more likely he is to invoke Nazi Germany as an argument.

    It does not state anything about the legitimacy of the argument, just that the likelihood of it appearing approaches 1.

    Invalidation FAIL.

  6. I'd like to see some ethicists printed in the paper. The University of Auckland has some of the top ethical philosophers in the world, less than a kilometre from the Herald's offices. I'm sure it wouldn't be hard...

  7. I think he was talking about the 'Concentration Camp' argument when he mentioned Godwin's Law. That could be construed as a Nazi reference.

  8. I'm sorry, Anonymice. I didn't know that the Herald Opinion page was off limits as of mid-May.

    I don't think that it's his opinion I differ with, just his arguments. And the Herald printed it... so... I guess I'm 'happy' that the Herald printed something on Porkgate. But I'm sure they could have got (like George says) an 'actual ethicist' rather than someone with a degree in 'Animal Science' musing like one of my first-year students.

    As for Godwin's Law - it could not have made my argument invalid, as it was not a deductive argument in the first place. Marks off.

  9. Comparing gas chambers and concentration camps to something as absurd as the life of farmed pigs is not only deeply offensive, it is a clear invocation of Godwin's law

  10. Godwin's law is when you call the person you're arguing with a Nazi, because you can't think of a less histrionic analogy. It doesn't fall under Godwin's law unless James calls Dr King a Nazi, which he didn't.

    And seeing as he only used the holocaust as a counter-example and wasn't even comparing pigs and concentration camp inmates I don't see how you can find it offensive.

    Anyway James, blog on, on whatever friggin topic you feel like. It's not as if a title like "Editing Censored Due To Litigious Corporation Survey" limits your brief... or even makes sense any more...

  11. For God's sake - when did I compare the 'absurd' life of farmed pigs to the Holocaust? Jesus, people need to learn basic argumentation.

    Some people must walk out of the house in the morning waiting to get offended. Other people just pick up the newspaper...

  12. Sorry about all the blasphemy, y'all.

  13. I thought it was a pretty valid argument (the actual one in the post I mean), though I am but an engineer.

    Anyway, perhaps one of you could tell me what is the name for this type of false argument?:

    Blog reader disagrees with James. Blog reader argues that James is somehow technically straying outside his self-imposed terms of reference and therefore his entire argument must be invalid.

    We have seen it a few times and I find it quite interesting that so many people have jumped to it. I know blogs are pretty strict in this way - you have to state clearly what you are going to write about when you apply for your annual blog licence, but still.

  14. That would be a 'straw man argument' - creating a false point, then directing arguments against it.

    Also, as above

    Godwin's law "as a [usenet] discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparision involving Nazis or Hitler approaches "
    This has NO bearing on the appropriateness, merely the likelihood.

  15. This is such a beautifully ironical comments chat stream. Let the neck beard stroking continue!

    Personally, I would happily buy free range pork products. I just dont seem to have that option at the moment.

  16. For free range bacon, most supermarkets have Freedom Farms now, it costs a bit more (and is never on loss-leader special) but you can taste the freedom.

    For pork and sausages you need a butcher that does free range or Nosh (Glen Innes & Ponsonby). It's not *that* much more expensive than the standard supermarket prices but again never on the mad specials that supermarkets do.

  17. Oh also I think Anonymous repeats his "big lie" straw man argument so often he must have learned rhetoric from Goebbels.

  18. Captain James T. Kirk/CoeMay 26, 2009 at 2:07 PM

    If you're gonna dump on an "animal scientist" (now there's a sight), then the rest of us can dump on philosophy students/graduates. Physically. With pig shit. Caged-pig shit.

  19. Thanks for the heads up on the freedom farms gazzaj, I'll look out for it next time I'm wandering the aisles of Foodtown Glenfield. While I have the luxury of being willing to pay for ethical foods, I lack the luxury of time to enable me to indulge my epicurean tastes and shop at fine outlets such as Nosh. Thats the problem with many people like me, we are happy to buy the ethical foods, we just cant or wont go out of our way to do so...

  20. ~Some people must walk out of the house in the morning waiting to get offended. Other people just pick up the newspaper...

    knowing - just KNOWING - they will be offended, even if they have to manufacture said offence...

    Godwin's law states that length of discussion is proportionate to the probability of reference to Nazism, Hitler and/or related atrocity.

    Its invocation immediately renders a debate invalid, especially if said debate regards entirely unconnected matters.

    Pig farming.

    Thank you.

  21. Anonymous? Or Analrapist?