Open thread: question for discussion

Paging Professor Volokh, Ronald Bailey, and other libertarian bloggers: On what principled grounds can one distinguish between a ban on foie gras and a ban on dogfighting? If one accepts limits on the libertarian principle for animal cruelty, does that not imply that a democratic society can rationally choose to bar production of foie gras? I’m happy to have dogfighting outlawed. I’d prefer not to outlaw foie gras. Do I have any argument for the distinction besides my personal preference? Is it just the intelligence difference between dogs and geese? If so, why do we allow bacon? (Or does Deuteronomy have that last question right?)

Update: I’m late to the discussion apparently. Jim Henley, Julian Sanchez (who takes the hard-line view), and Megan McArdle (and Part 2); McArdle points to vegetarian libertarian Robert Nozick’s take.

Update from Alex Tabarrok: “After attending dogfights it’s rumored that on some nights Michael Vick would continue his bloody activities by dining on cow’s flesh. No word yet on whether prosecutors will be seeking additional prison time.”


  • Libertarian justification for the distinction, no, but there is a cultural/sociobiological/evolutionary one, I think. In European/northern cultures, dogs were valued as hunting assistants, guards and companions, i.e., having dogs around enabled survival. Same didn’t apply to pigs and geese: they were the stuff eaten. So we came to cherish and value dogs, but not the geese and pigs. These cultural values came to be enshrined in laws and mores. And for good reason: they’ve helped keep us alive. Upending all this via abstract political philosophies is what I think the real “cruelty” of man has been.

  • I love bacon. Please don’t take it away.

  • I see no distinction between dogfighting and foie gras. Therefore, I do not think dogfighting should be illegal.

    On the other hand, I would probably not knowingly associate with someone involved in such an activity.

  • Megan McArdle just happened to address just this question a few days ago:

    That’s not really an argument for failing to ban dog-fighting–surely we can perfect some of the laws while we wait for our perfect state. But it is a call to come up with a better justification for our reasoning than “puppies are cute”. Personally, I’d find it hard to construct an argument that bans dogfighting but allows veal–which is why I don’t eat veal.

  • The primary intent of a dog fight is entertainment. This puts it in the same class of activities as bullfights, cock fights, fox hunting, and yes, any kind of sport hunting and fishing. While the end result of these activities may end up feeding humans or animals, this is only a byproduct of the activity.

    This is morally very different from the activity of raising, feeding and slaughtering farm animals for human or animal consumption. The question should be: “Do libertarian principles allow the government to regulate farming practices in order to improve their health”?

    Geese raised for foie-gras have hyper-developed livers, which results in some health problems for the poor geese. But last time I looked it seemed to me that every pig in this country is overweight as well. Are we going to force farmers to put their pigs in a strict diet and daily turns at the treadmill?

  • Easy. Geese aren’t dogs.And vice versa.

  • To me, the difference is gratuitous torture of a being, that while certainly not entitled to human rights, does clearly have the ability to feel and should be granted some rights because of that.

    The production of bacon requires raising and killing pigs, but not torturing them. If you want fatter pigs, you don’t have to forcibly overfeed them, you just put out more food and they overeat naturally, and appear to be much happier than a wild pig who had to hunt and dig for food would be.

    The forced feeding allegedly involved in the production of foie gras sounds rather torturous to me, but it’s not gratuitous. There’s a definite goal other than watching the geese suffer. I don’t eat foie gras, but until someone demonstrates a more humane method of getting the same effect I’d be inclined to leave this practice alone.

    Dog-fighting as allegedly conducted in the Vick case is torture mainly for the point of torture. There’s no excuse for it. I don’t know if all dog-fighting has to be like that, but if the reports are accurate, that crowd should be locked up.

  • I will be the first to suggest we begin promoting underground Goose Fighting. My gaggle will whip the daylights out of anyone’s gaggle. Bring it on. (Happy Friday)

  • Geese aren’t dogs to you. I have fond memories of my grandmother’s pet gander. They aren’t as smart or emotional as your average dogs, but neither are the dachsunds I keep as pets now (which are in fact dumber than your average goose dropping).

    Just saying geese aren’t dogs is a weak justification for a distinction.

  • Some of the libertarians discussing this issue have argued that rights exist on a continuum, based on the organism’s level of sentience: a bird has more rights than a roach, but fewer than a dolphin. Under that scheme, fois gras may be acceptable because geese are stupider than dogs. (Pigs, of course, are smarter, which would militate against bacon.)

    There is also some disagreement about whether fois gras necessarily involves pain and cruelty to the bird (there were statements by some farmers that their geese come running for gavage).

  • The idea that cruelty has to be an “all or nothing” standard is simplistic.

    Boxing Legal – Streetfighting Illegal
    Hunting Legal – Hunting so as to deliberately maim and injure animals – Illegal.

    With dogfighting, society has chosed to label the activity as having no redeeming quality or purpose. (Rightfully).

    With foie gras, society has determined (for now) the production methods are not “over the line.”

  • This is another version of the question “where do you find the right to drink water in the Constitution”? On what principled grounds can you argue that the State can prohibit children from drinking alcohol but not water?

    If you accept that the State can prohibit some animal cruelty but that complete animal freedom is impossible, you have to draw the line somewhere. Most rational people can agree on the two extremes, but no two people will draw the line in precisely the same place.

  • These are extremely tough issues, and really do test our ability to find consistency and to live a life of intellectual honesty.

    I eat meat, though for four weeks I didn’t. Those were the worst four weeks of my life. I need meat to function. If it’s between me and the animals, I’m choosing myself.

    That said, I don’t believe in causing suffering or pain. There is enough of that in the world without my contribution. So I don’t eat foie gras, veal, or factory-produced chickens.

    I want the animals I eat to live the best possibles lives – until their throats are slit.

    It’s not perfect, and I truly wish I did not have the need to eat meat. But I do. Since I don’t have the need to eat veal and other indulgences that are produced by causing extreme suffering to a living being, I don’t.

    But it’s an odd case. Usually something is morally wrong qua morally wrong. I don’t abuse children and I won’t associate with those who do. Yet I don’t judge the people next to me who order foie gras or veal.

  • Given that within the many cultures of this planet almost every creature that one culture finds objectionable another finds tasty, rationale is trumped by rationalization and where and who you grew up with counts for most of our culinary choices. And anyway as we learned at the movies, when it comes to pigs it’s really all about personality.

  • “I see no distinction between dogfighting and foie gras. Therefore, I do not think dogfighting should be illegal.”

    Got to go with that one, myself. I don’t care for dogfighting, but I care for invasive government less.

    There is actually a fairly long list of things and behaviours I wish would end that I would nontheless not wish the government to prohibit.

  • In regards to meat production, remember that animals eat each other. A hog would eat you if he got the chance. And they rarely kill as cleanly as a slaughterhouse does, or even as a skilled hunter aims to.

    OTOH, when humans decide to torture something, we can be far more cruel than any animal.

  • The tit-for-tat argument suggests we should be eating dogs, but leaving cows alone.

    Not that I have a better rationalization.

  • I’ll take a stab at it. There really is no good distinction. Animals are chattles, and while we should not condone animal fighting for entertainment, we also shouldn’t tell other people what to do with their property. The idea that there needn’t always be a law for every evil is somewhere very near the core of libertarianism.

  • Isn’t there a difference between a ban on foie gras production and a ban on foie gras consumption? The former is comparable to a ban on dogfighting; the latter is more like a ban on buying dogfighting videos.