Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Vick Ethics

As I've been contemplating it, and as the story has remained in the news, now that Michael Vick has pled guilty to the dogfighting charges he faced, I have a few more thoughts.

I think Gregg Easterbrook, who has the same type of dog I do, nails much of what my reaction is:

The disgusting thing about dogfighting isn't that animals battle and die -- after all, animals fight to the death in nature, tearing each other's flesh with heartless violence. The disgusting thing about dogfighting is that supposedly intelligent members of Homo sapiens add sadism to the natural equation by starving dogs to make them extra aggressive, filing their incisors to make the fights bloodier, and engaging in other acts unbecoming any man or woman of ethics. What Michael Vick confessed to Monday ought to disgust you, regardless of whether you are a dog lover. Include me. [My dog] -- a Chesapeake retriever, noble state dog of Maryland -- slumbers happily near my feet as I write this.

But the punishment expected to be imposed on Vick -- one to two years in federal prison, and perhaps never playing in the NFL again -- seems out of proportion to his actions and his status as a first-time offender. The situation is confusing because the federal crimes to which Vick pleaded guilty turn as much on gambling and racketeering as dogfighting; gambling and racketeering concern federal prosecutors because of their relationship to organized crime. Racketeering can lead to jail terms even for nonviolent first-time offenders not involved with drug sales, such as Vick. The NFL, for its part, has very strong reasons to detest gambling, and elaborately warns players they will be harshly penalized for associating with gamblers. Yet I can't help feeling there is overkill in the social, media and legal reactions to Vick, and that the overkill originates in hypocrisy about animals.

Thousands of animals are mistreated or killed in the United States every day without the killers so much as being criticized, let alone imprisoned. Ranchers and farmers kill stock animals or horses that are sick or injured. Some ranchers kill stock animals as gently as possible, others callously; in either case, prosecution is nearly unheard of. As Derek Jackson pointed out last week in the Boston Globe, greyhound tracks routinely race dogs to exhaustion and injury, then kill the losers, or simply eliminate less-strong pups: "184,604 greyhound puppies judged to be inferior for racing" were killed, legally, in the past 20 years.

Hunters shoot animals for sport. They do so lawfully, while the manner in which Vick harmed his dogs was unlawful. But from the perspective of the animal, there seems little difference between a hunter with a state game license zipped in his vest pocket shooting a deer as part of something the hunter views as really fun sport, and Vick shooting a dog as part of something Vick views as really fun sport. In both cases, animals suffer for human entertainment. The animal-ethics distinction between Vick's actions and lawful game hunting are murky at best. A first-time offender should go to prison over a murky distinction?

Much more troubling is that the overwhelming majority of Americans who eat meat and poultry -- I'm enthusiastically among them -- are complicit in the systematic cruel treatment of huge numbers of animals. Snickering about this, or saying you're tired of hearing about it, doesn't make it go away. Most animals used for meat experience miserable lives under cruel conditions, including confinement for extended periods in pits of excrement. (Michael Pollan, who enthusiastically consumes meat and fowl, describes the mistreatment in his important new book The Omnivore's Dilemma.) Meat animals don't magically stop living when it's time to become a product; they suffer as they die. One of Vick's dogs was shot, another electrocuted. Gunshots and electrocution are federally approved methods of livestock slaughter, sanctioned by the Department of Agriculture for the killing of cows and pigs. Regulations under the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958 give federal sanction to shooting cows or pigs, or running electrical current through their bodies. Shooting and electrocution are viewed by federal law as humane ways to kill animals that will be consumed. Federal rules also allow slaughterhouses to hit cows in the head with a fast-moving piston that stuns them into semiconsciousness before they are sliced up. Being hit in the head with a powerful piston -- does that sound a bit painful, a bit cruel? It's done to tens of thousands of steers per year, lawfully.

Don't say "eew, gross" about how meat animals are butchered, then return to denouncing Vick. If you're eating a cheeseburger or BLT or steak or pot roast today, there's a good chance you are dining on an animal that was shot or electrocuted. You are complicit. You freely bought the meat, you did not demand Congress strengthen the Humane Slaughter Act. Livestock can be calmed and drugged before being slain. A few slaughterhouses do this, but most don't because it raises costs, and you, the consumer, demand the lowest possible price for your meal. Now about your turkey sub or coq au vin. Federal slaughter regulations apply mainly to large animals, leaving considerable freedom in the killing of fowl. Many poultry slaughterhouses kill chickens by slashing their throats rather than snapping their necks. Snapping the neck kills the bird quickly, ending suffering, but then the heart dies quickly, too. Slashing the throat causes the bird to live in agony for several minutes, heart still beating and pumping blood out of the slash -- and consumers prefer bloodless chicken meat.

Further, the Humane Slaughter Act exempts kosher and halal slaughter. In both traditions, the cow or lamb must be conscious when killed by having its carotid artery, or esophagus and trachea, slashed. The animal bleeds to death, convulsing in agony, as its heart pumps blood, which is viewed as unclean, out of the slashed openings. The delicious pastrami we consumed at a kosher deli, or the wonderfully good beef we could buy at a halal butcher, comes from an animal that suffered as it died.

Yes, Vick broke the law; yes, he arrogantly lied and refused to apologize when first caught; and yes, his actions before and after the dog killings indicate he is one stupid, stupid man. But Vick's lawbreaking was relatively minor compared to animal mistreatment that happens continuously, within the law, at nearly all levels of the meat production industry, and with which all but vegetarians are complicit. There is some kind of mass neurosis at work in the rush to denounce Vick, wag fingers and say he deserved even worse. Society wants to scapegoat Vick to avoid contemplating its own routine, systematic killing of animals. We couldn't all become vegetarians tomorrow: that is not practical. But American society is not even attempting to make the handling of meat animals less brutal, let alone working to transition away from a food-production order in which huge numbers of animals are systematically mistreated, then killed in ways that inflict terror and pain. We won't lift a finger to change the way animals die for us. But we will demand Michael Vick serve prison time to atone for our sins.

Legal note: Vick might be compelled to repay the Falcons a huge amount of bonus money, and will lose $25 million or more in endorsement income. I have no sympathy for his loss of endorsement income: Vick was hired to bring Nike and other companies he endorsed good publicity, and instead brought them bad. But think about the income loss in the calculation of overpunishment of Vick. One or two years in federal prison, and perhaps state prison time if state charges are filed as well; plus $25 million in lost endorsement income and, oh, $50 million in lost or returned NFL income. That's overkill! Often the indirect financial consequences of legal proceedings are worse than the official ones, in the same way that a speeding ticket might cost you $75 but add $1,000 to your annual insurance bill.

In effect, the federal indictment of Vick is resulting in him being fined around $75 million, which is far too much retribution. The legal hang-up is that since 1984, federal courts have been forbidden to consider monetary loss in private life as counting toward punishment. But a year of banishment from the NFL, a guilty plea with suspended sentence and probation (meaning the sentence is imposed if probation is violated), seems plenty of punishment for a first offense by someone who has not harmed another human being. Prison time and a $75 million fine? What Vick did was indecent, but now excessive punishment is being imposed, and two wrongs do not equal one right. Justice, after all, must be tempered with mercy. That's what you would think if you stood in the dock accused.

Here's what I think. Not only is the punishment Vick is facing an overreaction, but this is an illustration of the typical inconsistency that people have in discussing animal rights. In my mind the reactions to this Vick story are only a part of what is a larger societal discussion of the animal rights movement. And the saga got me thinking about it...

First, let's get a couple definitions out there. Animal rights is a broad term that really encompasses a couple items. Animal welfare is care that is given an animal such that it does not suffer unnecessarily. Animal liberation is a push to give animals equivalent rights to humans. Most animal rights 'activists' likely yearn for animal liberation while taking sometimes extreme measures attempting to push for animal welfare. Yet, animal welfare only focuses on the morality of human action (or inaction), as opposed to making deeper political or philosophical claims about the status of animals.

Truly, the perspective one has on what rights an animal has boils down to theology in my opinion. Is an animal the moral equivalent of a human or are humans in fact a special creation set above the rest of the animal world? This past Sunday in church, the sermon was actually on Genesis 1 and 2, in which God gives man dominion over all the animals. Thus, a Christian could not consider any animal as having equal status with man. That does not mean, however, that our actions to them do not matter. We are called to be stewards, and great care should be given to treat animals well--so that they do not suffer unnecessarily. This does not also mean that we imbue animals with special rights equivalent to what we as humans deserve. Do you believe animals were given to humans to use for work, food, and enjoyment?

With the perspective of your own moral basis, why do you treat animals the way you do? Do you consider the indirect actions your interaction with the products of animals may have? In establishing one's own position on animal rights, moral consistency is important. Do you think eating beef is wrong? How about eating horse? How about eating dog? What's the difference? If one is okay with eating meat from one animal, it seems they should be from another.

Don't be too quick to judge Michael Vick before we have contemplated our own actions. Learn where your food comes from, watch Fast Food Nation, and happily still eat meat, as I do, knowing all the facts. I would call all of us to judge what our own action or inaction says in regard to the issue of animal rights. Are we being morally consistent? What should we be advocates for in this discussion?

1 comment:

Greg said...

When I was in Caribou Coffee today, they had a pamphlet explaining the process in which their coffee is grown, delivered, and so on. Every step of the way, Caribou claims that they care for the environment as well as workers' conditions/wages, etc. That gave me a good feeling about Caribou.

Regarding Vick, yeah the public seems to have overreacted, especially when one considers all of the other "outrages" that exist in today's world. But I don't think law enforcement has overreacted. I also don't think the NFL or Arthur Blank (Vick's previous boss) have overreacted either.

If you're making a lot of money, and then do something that results in the loss of your job, then naturally you're out a lot of money. (So when people say Vick is losing $75 million or whatever, that number doesn't faze me. Losing your job is losing your job.)

Furthermore, while my initial inclination was that it was "overkill" for Arthur Blank to try to recoup past payments to Vick, I guess it will come down to what was in the contract that Vick signed. As bad as I might feel for Vick's situation, the Falcons' owner has the right to review all aspects of the contract and see what he can get back to re-invest in the franchise.