The troubled middle: An exploration of our ethical obligations to animals in Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals, by Hal Herzog.
Website for the book: http://halherzog.com
Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat is a thoughtful and approachable summary of research into anthrozoology, the science of human-animal relations. With a self-deprecating humor and a humble approach, Hal not only shares his research with us, but thinks out loud about the implications for his own life and for our understanding of human nature as it relates to our ideas about and actions towards animals. I recommend this book to anyone interested in challenging their own assumptions about how and why we relate to the animals in our world.
I must say that I don’t agree with everything mentioned in the book. There are some facts and figures given about ex-vegetarians, and vegetarianism and eating disorders, that seem a little correlative rather than causative. And I can’t find any reference at all for the ex-vegetarian studies in the Notes (see my comment below on the Notes section). I can’t speak to the actual research, but I wish he had spoken with some knowledgeable vegan dietitians for an alternate perspective and case studies. Also, as several other reviewers have pointed out, he uses the case of a woman who considered herself a vegetarian while eating fish, and then after deciding to eat all meat again, as a case of a person who is now an ex-vegetarian. Obviously, she never was a vegetarian to begin with, so cannot now be an ex-vegetarian.
After many years of developing a successful research program around animal behavior studies, Hal Herzog made a shift from studying animal behavior to studying animal people:
I found myself thinking more about the paradoxes associated with our relationships with animals and less about my animal behavior studies. … there were only a handful of researchers trying to understand the often wacky ways that people relate to other species. … Since shifting from studying animal behavior to studying animal people, my research has largely focused on individuals who love animals but who confront moral quandaries in their relationships with them. …
I have attended animal rights protests, serpent-handling church services, and clandestine rooster fights. I have interviewed laboratory animal technicians, big-time professional dog-show handlers, and small-time circus animal trainers. I’ve watched high school kids dissect their first fetal pigs and helped a farm crew slaughter cattle. I analyzed several thousand Internet messages between biomedical researchers and animal rights activists as they tried—and ultimately failed—to find common ground. My students have studied women hunters, dog rescuers, ex-vegetarians, and people who love pet rats. We have surveyed thousands of people about their attitudes toward rodeos, factory farming, and animal research. We have even pored over hundreds of back issues of sleazy supermarket tabloids for insight into our modern cultural myths about animals.
Hal is not vegan (or even vegetarian), but I like his considered and logical approach to examining these important issues. It is admittedly hard for me to understand how anyone could do this sort of research and have their eyes opened to so many animal abuses, and not become vegan, but I also understand that everyone is on their own journey and that not everyone is going to come to the same conclusions that I have. In the introduction, Hal states:
Like most people, I am conflicted about our ethical obligations to animals. The philosopher Strachan Donnelley calls this murky ethical territory “the troubled middle.” Those of us in the troubled middle live in a complex moral universe. I eat meat—but not as much as I used to, and not veal. I oppose testing the toxicity of oven cleaner and eye shadow on animals, but I would sacrifice a lot of mice to find a cure for cancer. And while I find some of the logic of animal liberation philosophers convincing, I also believe that our vastly greater capacity for symbolic language, culture, and ethical judgment puts humans on a different moral plane from that of other animals. We middlers see the world in shades of gray rather than in the clear blacks and whites of committed animal activists and their equally vociferous opponents. Some argue that we are fence-sitters, moral wimps. I believe, however, that the troubled middle makes perfect sense because moral quagmires are inevitable in a species with a huge brain and a big heart. They come with the territory.
Even though I clearly make different choices than Hal, I also see everything in my life in many shades of gray rather than in absolutes. In spite of not agreeing with all of the conclusion in this book, I believe that this is the kind of conversation that we should be having across disciplines and communities.
I will do several posts about this book in the coming days, so stay tuned.
(Be sure to check out the Notes section in the back for extra commentary. One thing that does bother me about the book is that the Notes are numbered but not broken down by chapter, nor are there footnotes within the chapters, which makes looking for a particular reference a bit maddening. Why make it hard to find a reference? For instance, in one section he references a CBS News survey, and yet for the life of me I can’t find a reference for it in the Notes. At first I thought it was the result of some weird Kindle formatting, but no, it’s like that in the hard copy of the book as well.)