Thursday, August 31, 2006

It's Pronounced Fwah Grah

A while back I found out that the city of Chicago, at the urging of animal-rights activists, has decided to ban foie gras. That's right, you can no longer order foie gras (apparently it's an expensive yummy dish made from duck livers) in Chicago resteraunts. The reason for the ban is because, in order to make the duck livers larger, the ducks are caged during the last couple weeks of their life, and force fed through a tube stuck down their throats. Not the must humane way to treat an animal, that's for sure.

So, in protest of this treatment, Chicago has told people they cannot eat foie gras.

I can't say I'm a fan of this law. There's something about it that just really bothers me. I've been thinking about it for a while, and I think I finally know what troubles me so much.

It isn't the subject matter. Which might sound strange, in light of the fact that this law seems absolutely crazy. I mean, it's a law designed to tell people that they can't eat a food, not because it's unhealthy, but because someone else feels bad for the animal it was made from. After all, what if the animal-rights groups were more influential? Would all meat be taboo? What if the vegans had all the power? Or what if there were a really strong raw-food lobby? (Yes, raw food. I had a professor who only ate uncooked foods.)

But it's not the subject matter that gets to me. I've always said the role of government is to make good citizens, and surely moral issues are proper subject matter. So even though this law seems crazy, I'm not going to be a hypocrite and say governments should never make this kind of law. The fact is, this is a law designed to serve a moral purpose, to make sure Chicagoan's aren't complicit in the cruel treatment of animals. And that's not such a bad goal. Especially when it's reduced down: ultimately, this is designed to protect animals from excessively cruel treatment, a perfectly legitimate purpose of legislation.

But I think there's still a problem or two with this law. First, it's too arbitrary. Just foie gras? Why not veal? Why not all meat? Why not all things from animals? Whether or not there was a reason only foie gras was banned, I don't know. It doesn't matter. Because ultimately this law appears arbitrary. It looks like animal-rights lobbyists got behind a single cause - banning foie gras - and pushed with all their might. And if that's how laws are being made, especially moral laws, then we've got a problem. You can't make ad hoc moral determinations based on the issue du jour. If we're focused on making good citizens we can't be swayed by "causes" - because then we'll only give attention to the loudest groups, we'll miss important issues, and too often be led astray. Is it immoral to eat meat? Some would say yes. If they say it loud enough, we could have a real problem. And it really looks like that's what happened here - it looks like Chicago lawmakers were giving the squeaky wheel the grease, not really caring about what makes their citizens good people.

And that's the second problem. This law isn't really designed to make citizens good people. This is just about hurting the foie gras industry. There's a ton of better ways to make sure people aren't complicit in cruelty to animals. A wide-spread educational campaign alerting people to the inhumane treatment of the ducks would probably work wonders in reducing the number of Chicagoans who eat foie gras. A law saying that resteraunts can only cook foie gras with animals that weren't force-fed would probably be even better. Then, people can still eat the food they want, but won't have the cruelty-to-animals bit attached. Heck, I don't even know if they banned the forced-feeding of ducks. For all I read, I didn't see anything about that. Odds are good, you can probably still be cruel to ducks in the city, you just can't eat the food made from them. So clearly, there are better ways to achieve this same goal.

The point is, this law wasn't really about the moral subject matter. There was the pretense of a noble goal: to make Chicagoans better people.

And then there was the reality: legislators cared more about appeasing a loud lobby group than they did about doing what was best for their citizens.

Destruction leads to a very rough road
But it also breeds creation


Ben said...

Couldn't disagree with you more.

I think there's a reason why this is banned and stuff like veal (which is also much more cruel than, say, hamburgers, in how the cows are treated) isn't. It's because, frankly, animal rights groups don't have much power. They would ban veal if they could (but not necessarily all meat...depends on the animal rights group) but the beef industry is more powerful than the foie gras industry. So it's not a matter of the arbitrary selection on the animal rights group's part. It's a matter of the arbitrary placement of power in our society.

Oh, and there's no such thing as foie gras without force-feeding ducks. I think it's a much more direct way to prevent cruelty to animals (at least this one form of cruelty) than an educational campaign.

Yes, I think animals have a claim to not be cruelly treated....apart from making sure people aren't complicit in it. As stewards of God's creation, we have a responsibility to not cause unnecessary suffering...entirely apart from whether the law makes people more moral.

Matthew B. Novak said...

I'm not sure where exactly you're disagreeing with me... You think this is a good law? But your first point is that the laws that are and are not exist because of "the arbitrary placement of power in our society." I totally agree with that. My arbitrary point wasn't that the animal rights group arbitrarily selected the cause, but more that by basically arbitrary forces their cause came across very loudly, and effectively.

Secondly, I'm not sure about the no foie gras w/o force-feeding thing. I'm seeing conflicting reports on that. For example, California has a law (that takes effect in 2012) that will still allow the production of foie gras if it comes from non-force-fed ducks. Also, it appears that there are natural times when the livers are enlarged in ducks, such as at the start of winter. Basically though, the impression I get, is that the force-feeding insures and increases the buttery flavor, but that it might possible to have lower-quality foie gras without the force-feeding. So the quality and amount would be greatly reduced, but it can still be done. Again, I don't know for sure, this is just stuff I'm reading on the internet at various sites. I've also read that it simply can't exist without force-feeding, but there's usually little more than "it wouldn't have the same buttery flavor." So I don't really know I guess.

Finally, I agree entirely that we have to care for God's creation as stewards of the Earth. (In fact, my senior thesis in college was 30 pages of Christian Environmental Ethics). But I think that is a moral dictate. To care responsibly for animals and the environment is moral. To abuse and exploit them is immoral. What's the non-moral part of caring for animals? I don't see any reason why a law would ever be passed to protect animals, except for moral reasons (unless they were protecting the investment and property of the owner, but that's a very different type of law). This law seems to reflect that. Apparently the lawmakers decided that the production of foie gras was immoral. That's a totally legitimate conclusion and appropriate subject matter for regulation. Unfortunately, they came to this conclusion because of a loud group with a cause, who probably gift-wrapped the legislation, and so instead of coming up with their own response to the immorality, the lawmakers just stamped their approval on the law suggested by the lobbyists. That, I've got a problem with.

Anonymous said...

it's banned because the process of making it calls for it to be creuly treated, force feeded. it is not considered foie gras in france unless the animal is force fed. while with other foods, it may be creuly treated in some places, but not a necessity elsewhere.

CRL said...

Like Ben, I couldn't disagree with you more, though for different reasons. It is your idea of the gov't's purpose "to make good citizens, and surely moral issues are proper subject matter," to which I take objection.

The intended purpose of government is not to create 'moral people' or 'good citizens' but to protect those rights outlined in our constitution. A gov't which focuses itself on legislating morality is very likely to produce unnecessary and arbitrary restrictions (Jewish dietary law, prohibition, etc.) because of our differing moralities. Seems to me, a gov't based on "rights" instead of "right" avoids these difficulties.

"I mean, it's a law designed to tell people that they can't eat a food, not because it's unhealthy, but because someone else feels bad for the animal it was made from."

Are you saying that unhealthy foods should be banned? Or that "it's unhealthy" is a more valid reason not to eat a food than "it causes another living thing pain." While we shouldn't ban any food for either reason, I think the latter is a much better reason to avoid foie gras. After all, murder is illegal not because it causes emotional harm to the perpetrator, but because it kills the victim.

(note: I am a vegetarian, but purely for environmental reasons. I in no way advocate the banning of meat, though I would like to see some more laws improving conditions in factory farms.)