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MONTH: June 2007

Moral leadership, big groups, & the meat issue


Exemplifying moral leadership consists of departing from typical conduct to demonstrate standards of behavior which may never be fully met by most people, yet will be respected, appreciated, and emulated to whatever degree others find comfortable and practical.

This is risky business. To lead, one must step beyond the norms, taking the chance of ostracism that comes with being different. Trying to be "better" than most people incorporates the risk of being perceived as "worse," especially if the would-be moral exemplar is asking others to take the same risk.

Hardly anyone chooses to be considered a "deviate," a word which literally means only varying from routine patterns of conduct, but connotes perverted menace.

But mostly the behavior and qualities of moral leadership are not consciously chosen in the first place, and are not exhibited as the outcome of an intellectual process.

Despite the labors of moral philosophers--and editorialists--the study of behavioral evolution strongly suggests that the components of "morality" evolved out of the intuitive gestures and responses associated with social cooperation. Humans did not invent codified moral behavior to make ourselves different from each other; rather, the effort was to make behavior more standardized, more predictable, more conducive to social harmony.

"Thou Shalt Not Kill," "Thou Shalt Not Steal," and "Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery," for instance, all seem to have unwritten antecedents in the social norms of many species much older than humanity.
What is moral, for most people--as well as most baboons, dogs, and crows, among other species with a sense of "right" and "wrong" assessed in scientific studies--is whatever is socially acceptable. Social acceptance is the measure of right and wrong. Exclusion and rejection are the punishments.

Human social evolution amounts to the gradual extension of moral consideration to people who are not our immediate kin, often interrupted by reversions to sexism, racism, nationalism, and tribalism, which facilitate exploitation and abuse by re-narrowing the scope of ethical concern.

Extending moral consideration to animals requires widening the scope of concern to include others who may feel and suffer as we do, even if superficially quite unlike us. Either wholly intuitive empathy or completely abstract scientific reason could lead to the conclusion that as Jeremy Bentham wrote in 1780, "The question is not, Can they reason? Nor Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?"

Scientists from Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species (1859) to Marc Bekoff in The Emotional Lives of Animals (2007) have observed and documented that the traits we recognize as making us "human" actually exist along a continuum of species. Therefore, to extend human consideration to other animals is only logical.

Yet, because the moral impulse appears to originate mostly from feelings as basic as maternal love, empathy rather than the influence of scientific observation tends to predominate when humans reach out to help animals.

Because empathy tends to be most strongly felt toward those to whom one is closest, dogs, cats, and horses were the first subjects of humane work. Pigs may be as intelligent and as capable of deep feeling as most great apes, yet fellow great apes appear to be far more likely to be conceded legal rights. As great ape advocates emphasize, apes are our closest kin.

All of this comes into mostly subliminal play in asking humane societies to adopt progressive pro-animal food policies.

The request seems superficially simple and obvious, asking the organizations to do no more than live up to the ideals implicit in their names.

More than 99% of all the animals who suffer and die due to human activity are raised and killed, or fished and hunted, for meat. Thus, if a humane society is to effectively address animal suffering, it must address eating meat.

Reality is that even in India, where more than half of the world's vegetarians reside, about two-thirds of the population eats meat. Globally, more than 95% of humanity eats meat. Therefore, promoting vegetarianism or veganism as the ethically ideal diet may be unlikely to win majority acceptance for generations.

To win practical reforms reducing the suffering of the billions of animals who are raised, transported, and slaughtered with appalling cruelty, animal advocates must seek "stepwise, incremental" progress, as the late Henry Spira advocated.

A vegan himself, Spira devoted most of his last 15 years to opening the discussions and initiating the agreements under which the restaurant chains Wendy's International, Burger King, McDonald's, and others have agreed to enforce purchasing standards for animal products. This in turn recently obliged many of the largest producers of factory-farmed pigs and chickens to introduce changes to reduce animal suffering, such as phasing out farrowing crates and reducing the numbers of laying hens crammed into each cage.

Though far short of the humane ideal, each of these changes both reduces animal suffering and helps to establish the idea that animals should not be made to suffer, even if causing them to suffer is economically expedient. As basic expectations of the animal husbandry industry increase, the opportunities expand for introducing further reform.

Spira understood that not eating meat and not wearing leather increased his moral authority when he went to negotiate with animal industry representatives. He did not expect to convert any of them into vegans, or vegetarians, or even to persuade any to eat less meat. He did, however, seek to impress upon them that he lived his ethical beliefs. Daring to demonstrate his different outlook was part of his qualification for asserting moral leadership. Boldly and forthrightly done, it was respected.

Human leadership tends to be either moral or governing, represented at the tribal level by the shaman and the chief, and in developed societies by the institutions of "church" and "state." Though the roles may be combined, they represent different approaches toward achieving social stability.

The shaman, or church, wins a following by establishing a reputation for knowing great secrets, or possessing greater wisdom than other people. In secular societies, the roles of shaman and church may be taken by non-clerical intellectuals, including scientists and philosophers, but the leadership dynamic is the same: people choose voluntarily to follow the leader, because the leader seems to know something they don't.

The social welfare role of religion in a secular society may largely pass to other forms of nonprofit institution, including humane societies and food banks. The role of sacrifice in supporting a priesthood long ago gave way to collecting voluntary contributions of money. Whether supporting a church, a humane society, or any other nonprofit institution, donations represent the confidence of the donors in the role of the recipient as moral exemplar.

The chief, whether elected or self-appointed, holds position by dominance. Though some rule by force, most tend to represent the interests of the majority of their subjects.

Humane societies often err in sacrificing the opportunity to exercise moral leadership, at cost of being perceived as different, in the hope of achieving broader public support by representing rather than challenging community values.

Animal advocacy donors expect humane societies to advocate the highest practicable ethic of concern for animals, and to take positions that seek to improve the community norms--and throughout the world, the most economically successful humane societies tend to be those that present an inspiring challenge, on multiple fronts.

Although a humane society may hold government contracts, for instance as a community animal control agency, humane societies are not elected by the general public to represent the prevailing majority interests. Rather, humane societies are supported by donors to improve conditions for animals, not to preserve the status quo.

Big charities must set the example

Fulfilling the role of community exemplars on the subjects of meat-eating and the treatment of livestock and poultry would be considerably easier for local humane societies, worldwide, if the major national and multi-national organizations set a strong example.

For local organizations, like it or not, policy is often dictated by hometown economic considerations.
National organizations may draw support from millions of animal advocates, whose strength of commitment is relatively high. As far back as 1990, three separate surveys of U.S. animal advocacy group donors found that up to 85% of those supporting animal rights and antivivisection organizations were already vegetarians or vegans.

Though vegetarians and vegans were not then anywhere near becoming the majority of supporters of mainstream national animal welfare societies, they were the fastest-growing part of the animal advocacy donor base.

While a 1996 survey of animal advocates did not ask about personal eating habits, it did find that farm animal issues were identified as the issue of greatest concern by those who were then under 40 years of age.

The risk of alienating donors to national groups by taking a position against meat appears by now to be quite low. Witness the economic success of PETA, Best Friends, and the Humane Society of the United States, which represent three distinctly different tactical approaches to animal advocacy, yet have all taken positions against meat-eating.

But committed vegan and vegetarian donors are scattered all over, with relatively few concentrated among the potential donors to local projects.

Humane societies can only be expected to take a strong position on behalf of farm animals, including encouragement of vegetarianism or veganism, if supported by national and multi-national organizations--and not just in abstract.

Most of all, the nationals and multi-nationals need to stand up and say, "This is what we believe..."
Ironically, there are presently more labeling schemes promoted by U.S. and multi-national animal advocacy organizations to identify "humanely raised" meat than there are major organizations which actively recommend eating no meat.

Yet many of the most dedicated activists have asked the big groups to at least endorse vegetarianism as an ethical ideal ever since the 1824 formation of the London SPCA. The London SPCA became the Royal SPCA by charter granted by Queen Victoria in 1840.

Before royal patronage secured enduring economic strength, the London SPCA nearly went bankrupt in 1828. It was bailed out by Lewis Gompertz--who was expelled only four years later for the alleged offenses of being a vegetarian and a Jew. For many years the RSPCA defended itself against allegations of being anti-Semetic by asserting that Gompertz' vegetarian advocacy was the crux of the issue.

Gompertz went on to found the Animals' Friend Society, which he headed until 1848. The RSPCA went on to introduce the first major labeling scheme, called Freedom Food, in 1996.

"One in 20 farm animals in Britain is reared under the Freedom Food scheme," assessed Guardian consumer affairs correspondent Rebecca Smithers in March 2007, "but there are only 10 full-time officials to police it, which means that farms can go up to 15 months without an inspection."

In consequence, Freedom Food has been afflicted by one scandal after another. In November 2006, for example, three employees of a major egg company were arrested for allegedly mislabeling eggs from battery caged hens as "free-range." On March 13, 2007, the ITV program Tonight with Trevor McDonald aired videotape of abuse and neglect at Freedom Food-certified turkey and duck farms

The very first U.S. humane society was the American SPCA, founded in 1867. The founding president, Henry Bergh, was not a vegetarian, but he clearly included animals who were to be eaten within his scope of concern. In 1873 the ASPCA won passage of the Twenty-Eight Hour Law, to limit the time that any hooved animals could be kept aboard any kind of vehicle. This was the first national legislative victory for the U.S. humane movement.

Under current president Ed Sayres, the ASPCA has emerged as a dynamic voice for animal protection legislation at the state level nationwide, and recently introduced an ambitious effort to help humane societies in many parts of the U.S. to reduce killing homeless animals by improving shelter facilities and services.

The ASPCA has not neglected farm animals, as one of the major supporters of the Humane Farm Animal Care labeling program. But the ASPCA stops short of recommending vegetarianism.

"The ASPCA believes that whether or not to consume animals, and animal products such as milk and eggs, is a personal and private determination that must be left to each individual," states the ASPCA web site. "However, the ASPCA firmly believes that animals who are bred, raised and killed or harvested for human consumption, like all animals, are entitled to protection from distress and suffering during their lives and at the time of their deaths."

This is essentially Bergh's policy, rephrased somewhat but not substantively amended.

The late John Kullberg, ASPCA president from 1977 until 1991, did take a position against meat-eating, briefly. He lost his job within weeks.

The first national U.S. humane organization was the American Humane Association, founded in 1877.

American Humane was instrumental in winning passage of legislation strengthening the 28-Hour Law in 1906 and the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958. American Humane today operates an animal product labeling program, begun by longtime AHA Washington D.C. office director Adele Douglass, who left in 2002 to found Humane Farm Animal Care.

But, "American Humane does not have a 'food policy,'" president Marie Wheatley recently told ANIMAL PEOPLE publisher Kim Bartlett. "Not about meat, not about fish, not about dairy products or eggs. We do have a policy that animals that are raised for food should be treated humanely throughout their lifespan," Wheatley said.

This is similar to the position, or rather non-position, of many of the other major organizations which should be offering moral leadership.

Each opposes "unnecessary" cruelties to farmed animals, usually without defining "necessary" in any tangible way--and thereby ventures little, if at all, beyond majority public opinion in every nation where public opinion about cruelty to farmed animals has every been surveyed. Surveys demonstrate some differences in levels of recognition of what specifically is cruel, but not in basic agreement that farmed animals should not be caused to suffer.

The 521-word World Society for the Protection of Animals addresses 15 different aspects of meat production, but the WSPA positions are phrased to avoid controversy.

For example, WSPA holds that, "Farmed animals must be provided with shelter, exercise, food, water and care in a manner appropriate to their physiological and behavioral needs. WSPA is opposed to any methods of husbandry which do not fulfil these criteria."

Most factory farmers could endorse the same statement. Their difference of opinion would be over the definitions of "physiological and behavioral needs."

WSPA "is in principle opposed to mutilations which are carried out for non-therapeutic reasons," such as debeaking laying hens. This does challenge the agricultural status quo.

WSPA, based in Britain, further holds that, "it should be our declared aim and public demand to have all long distance transportation of animals for slaughter replaced by carcass-only trade." However, while Britain permits live animal exports, in compliance with European Union policy, this WSPA position is aligned with British public opinion, which for several years stopped the British live export industry, before the EU intervened.

The only point of the WSPA policy which significantly contradicts present British norms and public opinion worldwide is that "WSPA opposes the commercial practice of allowing anglers into fish farms to play the fish and then to throw them back. The handling, transport and slaughter of fish must comply with general humane principles."

Recognizing that fish should be subjects of humane concern demonstrates moral leadership. On this topic, at least, WSPA is well ahead of most of the humane community.

"We have no policy on vegetarianism/veganism," WSPA director general Peter Davies told ANIMAL PEOPLE, "and like Compassion In World Farming and the RSPCA, we are not a 'vegetarian Society.'
"We do have a policy for our staff, which can be summarized as, 'If we entertain as an organization or as individuals on a Society entertainment occasion, we serve vegetarian, vegan, and high animal welfare food such as Freedom Food or the Soil Association products. Where it is not possible to source high animal welfare food, we will only serve or choose vegetarian or vegan options. We believe that as a global alliance we will not dictate choice to our member societies or to our loyal supporters and donors,'" Davies said.

"At our June 2006 symposium the take up of our meals was 56% Freedom Food, 36% vegetarian, and 8% vegan--and these were all convinced and active animal welfarists," Davies added.

Dogs, cats, & venison

Some major animal welfare societies not only evade the meat issue but actively support meat consumption. For example, ANIMAL PEOPLE recently received complaints that ranched venison was served at the 2006 International Companion Animal Welfare Conference-- an event which had in several recent years served only vegetarian food, and in 2006 was held in Slovenia, a nation whose president, Janez Drnovsek, is a longtime vegetarian.

The International Companion Animal Welfare Conference is sponsored by Dogs Trust, Dogs Home Battersea, and the North Shore Animal League International.

Since their programs focus entirely on dogs and cats, an argument could be made that they do not have the same ethical obligation as a humane society serving all sentient animals to oppose eating all meat, on principle.

But an organization need not formally address either the treatment of farm animals or dietary choices to at least refrain from participating as consumers in industries and practices which are of focal concern to a large number of the people actively working for animal welfare worldwide.

As ANIMAL PEOPLE has often pointed out, even if the majority of the officers, directors, and employees of a humane organization personally choose to eat meat, public functions should be free of meat.

Pro-vegetarian food policies need not be complex. The PETA policy is simply, "Animals are not ours to eat, wear, or experiment on." Given that premise, almost anyone can deduce without further instruction that if one wishes to eat meat, wear fur, or perform vivisection, one must do away from PETA headquarters and PETA events.

PETA opposition to meat-eating was more implicit than an active campaign theme until the mid-1990s, but since then the PETA anti-meat efforts may be their most successful, based on media notice and donor response.

The Best Friends Animal Society has likewise always been pro-vegetarian, directed and run by longtime vegetarians and vegans. Although Best Friends has not actively campaigned against meat, nor on farm animal issues, visitors to the Best Friends sanctuary in Kanab, Utah see a consicientious effort to set a good example.

"At Best Friends we have a policy that all food served at the sanctuary is vegetarian," explains international community response manager Amy Hogg, "with an increasing preference towards vegan foods. Likewise any food presented by Best Friends at a fundraising, adoption or conference event is vegetarian and, in many cases, entirely vegan. While a lot of people participating in our events may not be vegetarian or vegan we believe that our meat policy reflects the Best Friends philosophy of 'Kindness to (all) Animals.'"

The Humane Society of the U.S., within six months after the mid-2004 election of current president Wayne Pacelle, introduced essentially the same policies with a comprehensive analytical statement which attempts to anticipate and answer all arguments, and makes clear that while HSUS offers vegetarianism as the ideal, it is more committed to incrementally reducing the suffering of farmed animals in any way that it can.

Notes the preamble, "The vast majority of meat, eggs, and dairy products sold in American grocery chains and restaurants come from animals raised in intensive-confinementSıliving creatures are being treated as biological 'machines.' HSUS is also concerned about commercial fishing and fish production practices," the statement adds. "The proliferation of massive fish farms raises basic questions about their welfare. And commercial fishing practices continue to deplete many fish populations in dramatic ways and result in the by-catch of extraordinary numbers of non-target animals, including marine mammals, birds, and other fish."

The conclusion is that, "Considering the foregoing abuses of animals, degradation of the environment, and detriment to human health, HSUS promotes eating with conscience and embracing the Three Rs: reducing the consumption of meat and other animal-based foods; refining the diet by eating products only from animals who have been raised, transported, and slaughtered in a system of humane, sustainable agriculture that does not abuse the animals; and replacing meat and other animal-based foods in the diet with plant-based foods."

Says HSUS senior vice president and chief of staff Andrew Rowan, "While this is a fairly bland statement when it comes to vegetarianism, HSUS no longer spends its (donated) funds on animal food products. Thus, the food at HSUS Expo," the largest humane conference worldwide, "is all vegan, and the food at any HSUS or Humane Society International event is now expected to be vegan. When HSUS employees are eating on expense accounts, they are expected to order vegetarian items."

Even the restaurant order becomes thereby a position statement, reaffirming the recently revitalized commitment of HSUS to providing moral leadership on behalf of all animals, not just a favored few species.