Josh Milburn (2022). Just Fodder. The Ethics of Feeding Animals. McGill-Queen’s University Press. Montreal & Kingston, London, Chicago. 232 pages (182 pages of text). Hardcover: 130 USD, Paperback: 37.95, Kindle: 36.05 USD.
Animal rights have many facets and many interesting questions are regularly overlooked. Josh Milburn, in this book, discusses the ethics of feeding the various animals that share the Earth with us. From pets to animals living in our cities, to wildlife, Milburn analyses the rights and obligations that arise in the context of feeding animals and of using animals as food for other animals.
“Lots of vegetarians and vegans keep dogs, cats, or other companion animals. But when it comes to the feeding of these animals, they face a dilemma. The received wisdom is that responsible guardians feed dogs and cats a meaty diet. But vegetarians and vegans, at least if they’re vegetarian and vegan for ethical reasons, will hesitate. Animals – perhaps animals not so different from their beloved companions – suffer and die to produce meat. And vegetarians and vegans think this is a problem; it’s such a problem for them that they no longer want to support it with their diet. If it’s wrong to support the meat industry to feed ourselves, is it perhaps wrong to support the meat industry to feed our companions? And what of the animals our companions might eat if left to roam?”
So begins Josh Milburn’s introduction to his 2022 book “Just Fodder. The Ethics of Feeding Animals.” This paragraph already demonstrates in a very condensed form all that we will be discussing today: the promise of the book, its style, its thoughtfulness, but also what I consider its main weakness.
Josh Milburn is a moral and political philosopher, lecturer in Political Philosophy based in the division of International Relations, Politics and History in the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough University. According to his homepage, he is interested in questions about human/animal relationships, food, liberal/libertarian political theory, and applied ethics. He has a podcast, Knowing Animals, and he is a member of the Research Advisory Committee of the Vegan Society. On his homepage, he adds:
“I live in York with my partner Becky and my dogs Hollie and Casper. Interests outside of academia include British wildlife, vegetable gardening, vegan food, reading, video games, board games, TV, and films.”
Just Fodder is his first book. He has a second one, Food, Justice, and Animals: Feeding the World Respectfully, which, according again to his homepage, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2023.
These credentials are important. Just Fodder is not just another academic philosophy book written by an early career philosopher in search of a topic. It is a work of passion, and, despite its overall thoughtfulness and attention to the details of arguments, it is also a pamphlet in disguise: a book that assumes a particular stance and then attempts to justify it. It is not the work of a detached analyst of arguments; the author is a vegan animal lover who is personally troubled by the perceived need to feed his dogs animal products, and who, being also a philosopher, tries to do what he can to clarify the questions and work towards a solution.
Just Fodder is not just another academic philosophy book written by an early career philosopher in search of a topic.
This is not in itself a bad thing – quite the opposite. Too many philosophy books and papers are written as if even their authors didn’t care what they were writing about. This book reminds the reader on almost every page that there is a whole host of urgent ethical problems to be solved, and that we all need to understand and address the issues that the author points out. One does not always have to agree with Milburn or with his proposals, but the treatment is always clear and well-thought out, and even if one disagrees, one will be able to disagree in a better and more informed way after reading this book.
But books from people who are on a mission also require more tolerance from their readers. Right at the beginning, for example, before we have had time to get into the arguments of the book, the author states (p.19):
I do not pretend that this book has captured all the relationships that we have with animals. In particular, it has not investigated the contours of the most important food-related relationship we have with animals: the fact that we farm them for our own food. Though the feeding of these animals raises a whole host of ethical and political questions, no chapter is devoted to this relationship for a straightforward reason. As will be explored in chapter 2, this is a relationship that should not exist. While there are undoubtedly important considerations for activists relating to the feeding of these animals, this is not a book about activism. It is a book about how we should relate to animals – I am going to offer no space to how we should conduct relationships that should not exist at all. (Emphasis by me)
I must say that this was the first moment where, reading the book, the author threw me off. I can accept that human vegetarianism is not within the scope of a book on the ethics of animal feeding. But the double emphasis that eating animal meat is something “that should not exist,” together with the refusal to even discuss why it should not exist, seems an extreme position. The aggressive-sounding “I am going to offer no space” is reminiscent of the vocabulary of activist deplatforming, and this is, arguably, opposed to the principles of philosophical discourse. I am not an advocate of meat-eating. I believe, in fact, that there are better arguments for humans to be vegetarians (or vegans) than there are in favour of eating meat. But I am disappointed when personal beliefs interfere with rational discourse, particularly within a scholarly book. Yes, it’s the author’s book, and he’s welcome to write what he pleases in it. I just wish that these sentences quoted above would have been phrased in a somewhat less confrontational way, inviting the exchange of arguments rather than stifling it.
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Thankfully, the tone we just saw in the quote above is an exception. Most of the time, the author is calm and thoughtful, presenting well-argued points and referencing the relevant literature on the topic. He clearly distinguishes different kinds of animal rights and their possible justifications, different types of human-animal relationships, “food ethics” from the philosophy of food and much more.
Just to give you a taste of what the author’s prose looks like, here are two random paragraphs from the end of chapter 3, page 80:
We have seen that our obligations concerning the feeding of animals depends upon whether we think of them as members of our family, members of other families, or something like our co-citizens; any of the three, depending on the circumstances, may be appropriate. We have a moral duty to feed our companions because of the nature of the relationship of vulnerability they have towards us, but this relationship of responsibility also grounds the kind of political responsibilities we have concerning them.
It is worth splitting what we should do as individuals from what we should do as societies. As individuals, we should feed our companions; to fail to do so is morally wrong. In providing food for them, we should be aware of issues of food justice, of our environmental obligations, and of what is good for the companions themselves. In particular, we should ensure that we do not overfeed our companions. As individuals, it may often also be appropriate and morally commendable to feed other people’s companions. This, however, comes with the important caveat that we must be wary of unduly interfering in the lives of others.
… and so on. These two paragraphs are quite typical of the author’s method of carefully analysing the issues and dividing them into sub-problems that can then in turn be analysed further. This method gives the book a very systematic air, but it never becomes tedious. This is primarily due to the liveliness of the prose and the palpable excitement of the author about his topic.
What I found most valuable about the book is the variety of arguments and problems discussed.
What I found most valuable about the book is the variety of arguments and problems discussed. On first seeing the title, “The Ethics of Feeding Animals,” one might wonder how such a narrow topic might justify a whole book-length treatment. But one soon realises how much there is to think about:
Thus, for example, my purchase of birdseed draws me into a network of producers, growers, and retailers, but also societal norms (laws, customs, etc.) around the feeding of birds, and laws about the marketing and selling of foodstuffs. My offering of birdseed to a finch draws her into this network, and her choosing to consume the seeds consequently creates a particular relationship between she and I – a relationship wholly different to the one I have with other animal neighbours whom I do not choose to feed. (p.86)
But “feeding animals” also encompasses the ways in which animals feed themselves, and for which we might still be responsible:
A more interesting sense in which our feeding of animal neighbours puts them at risk, however, is the risk they face of predation. Passerines entering a suburban garden, for example, are put at risk of becoming food – both food for other animal neighbours, such as passing raptors, and for companions, such as free-roaming cats. Our obligations towards our animal friends concerning these potential predators is worth exploring. (p.96)
The author concludes that we might have a moral duty to extend some degree of protection to animals to whom we extend hospitality in the spaces that are controlled by us. This sometimes can lead to what might appear to be quite extreme conclusions. Who is responsible, for example, when your pet cat kills and eats a bird?
Cats are not moral agents, and are thus innocent. Instead, the cats’ guardians, or the state/society that has created an environment in which cats can pose such a threat, is to blame. … The fact that cats pose a threat to animal neighbours is hardly a new observation (see Marra and Santella 2016), but what does have to be recognized – and seldom is – is that it is individual birds (and rodents, lizards, and other neighbours) who are the victims of injustice, and that the metaphorical blood of these animals is on the hands of humans, not the paws of cats.
Framing the injustice of birds’ deaths due to the actions of cats around the question of moral agency has a distinct advantage over an alternative approach. Donaldson and Kymlicka argue that cats, as members of our community, must be regulated to protect those animals they would harm: ‘part of our responsibility as members of a mixed human-animal society is to impose regulation on members who are unable to self-regulate when it comes to respecting the basic liberties of others.’ (p.99)
These two paragraphs show two things: First, the admirable depth of research that has gone into the treatment of these problems. Each one of the many thoughts that enter the discussion is supported by references to research, from classic works to recent publications. Still, the text always remains readable and does not become pedantic or overly academic in style.
Cats must be regulated because they don’t respect the basic liberties of birds?
Second, on a more critical note, it shows, I think, some lack of common sense. Cats must be regulated because they don’t respect the basic liberties of birds? I understand how this argument comes about, and Milburn has put a lot of effort into building it up and justifying it. Still, the conclusion seems almost comical. Birds have basic liberties that cats must be forced to respect? It is hard to take this seriously.
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The book is divided into six chapters, an introduction and a conclusion. The treatment of the topics is organised in concentric circles of the proximity of animals to humans and human society, from the closest to the most far away.
The first chapter deals with the issue of animal carnivory, and how we can nourish the animals we feed without the need to harm other animals. The author examines a range of solutions to the problem of feeding carnivorous animals: he proposes scavenging, feeding eggs to animals that can eat them, and using cultivated meat and other protein sources as a replacement for meat. While the author discusses these solutions in his usual, carefully argued and well-researched way, traces of unease remain: Are carnivorous animals really served well by a diet that avoids giving them what, by nature, is their preferred food? By forcing animals to abstain from meat, are we not placing human ethical norms, considerations and values above the natural needs of these animals, wronging them too? At some point the author discusses Nussbaum and the capabilities approach as a way to talk about animal dignity. But is forcing animals into a system of human-valued vegetarianism not threatening just these capabilities that healthy animals should be able to develop? Are carnivores that are fed only already dead roadkill or protein solutions, without ever being able to hunt and develop the related instincts and skills, really flourishing in the way they should?
In the following chapters, the discussion covers, first, our animal “family,” our pets. Then animal “neighbours,” animals that live in our cities and with us, without being part of our households. Here the author advocates a stance of “hospitableness,” for example towards birds in our gardens. Hospitality, he argues, is something that we can voluntarily extend to animal guests, so that we can, for example, make birds and butterflies welcome, while excluding rats and snakes.
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In chapter 5, Milburn discusses the treatment of “animal thieves,” animals that eat the crops that we cultivate for our own consumption. How to protect our crops without harming these animals? The author proposes indoor, vertical farming as a way to produce food for humans without harming wildlife through the use of poisons and pesticides.
Chapter 6 discusses “animal refugees,” animals that are helped in wildlife rehabilitation centres. Milburn argues that such animals should not be fed meat during their rehabilitation and that they should not be released into the wild:
This is because the involvement of rescuers in these animals’ lives places significant responsibility for the animals’ subsequent actions on the heads of humans. Released predatory animals will, in all likelihood, put significant (metaphorical) blood on the hands of rescuers – respect for the rights of the animals that these predators would kill and eat means that they should not be released.
Chapter 7, finally, discusses whether we have an obligation (or whether it is even permissible) to feed wild animals.
The book’s proposals
The book concludes with a summary of the author’s proposals on how to deal with the ethics of feeding animals. I won’t go into all the details, but here are some of the points that I found most remarkable:
“We should look seriously at switching our companion animals to a plant-based diet (if they do not already have such a diet).” (p.179)
“We should support the scientific (but not just scientific) exploration and development – in animal-friendly ways – of cellular agriculture, plant-based diets for carnivorous animals, and the farming of non-sentient animals (including exploration of which animals are non-sentient).”
“We have a duty to prevent our companions from becoming food, but so too we have a duty to prevent our companions from making other animals into food. We must take steps to ensure that our companions do not (successfully) hunt.”
“We need to move away from ideas of releasing ‘rehabilitated’ predatory animals. When we rehabilitate predatory animals, we help them to hunt and kill successfully. This makes us partially responsible for the harms that they go on to commit.”
“Remarkable” does not necessarily mean “convincing.” Some of these conclusions I personally find deeply wrong. It is clear that the author is well-intentioned and passionate about his topic, but there are many different reasons why his conclusions might be questioned. First, they have an absolutist air and they often lack common sense and practicality. They are, sometimes, just the thing that one expects a radical activist to come up with. This is not necessarily bad: radical activists have often been the drivers behind beneficial and even vital social reforms. But one must also approach such activism with caution. Depriving animals from the exercise of their natural skills and instincts, not releasing rehabilitated animals into the wild, feeding carnivores forcefully with plants and so on does not seem to be the right way to ensure animal flourishing.
Radical activists have often been the drivers behind beneficial and even vital social reforms. But one must also approach such activism with caution.
Second, it seems that the author sometimes looks only at the individual problems he deals with, with little consideration for the forest beyond the individual trees. For example, releasing animals that have been raised in captivity into the wild could be a valuable tool in re-establishing extinct populations and rewilding destroyed habitats. If we refrain from releasing these animals into the wild, we become complicit in their extinction. Or, is it really possible and practical to replace all the world’s agriculture with “vertical indoor” farming setups? The author not only fails to consider the economics of providing this kind of infrastructure at world-population scale; but also does not seem to be troubled by the considerable costs (both financial and ecological) of indoor farming in terms of energy for lighting, heating and cooling, water, fertilisers and whatever else is needed to sustain a highly artificial growing environment.
And here perhaps we arrive at the point which I personally find most disturbing. As a long-term advocate for a more natural lifestyle and social organisation, I cannot but see in Milburn’s proposals the vision of a highly artificial, fundamentally unnatural world, one that is almost perverse in its fixation on a single value: the prevention of animals being eaten by other animals. The author would happily sacrifice almost everything else, the well-being of the animals themselves, the natural development of landscapes and farming, the attempts at rewilding and preservation of nature, at the altar of an ideology that is fundamentally human-centred and divorced from nature. In his vision, as I see it, we will end up with animals living strictly regulated, unnatural lives under the control of humans, who will produce their own and their animals’ food in indoor factories and cell-culture facilities, while “wild” nature will be viewed with suspicion as something that is fundamentally immoral and that should be better “regulated” in order to conform to our activist sensibilities. In short: a nightmare.
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Despite my disagreements, to which I feel that I am as much entitled as the author is to his own proposals, I recognise that the book is a very valuable contribution to a debate that we must eventually have in our societies.
Instead of randomly and inconsistently embracing some aspects of vegetarianism or veganism while still feeding our pets animal products, we should engage more in discussion of the type that this book makes possible. We should clarify what our values are, what rights we think that animals have (or should have), and then design our responses to the issues of animal rights in rational and straightforward ways that satisfy our requirements and respect our values.
Books like Milburn’s are invaluable contributions to this process of clarifying where we want to go as a society, whether we individually agree with their conclusions or not.
Josh Milburn (2022). Just Fodder. The Ethics of Feeding Animals. McGill-Queen’s University Press. Montreal & Kingston, London, Chicago. 232 pages.
Milburn’s “Just Fodder” is a valuable (and sometimes controversial) contribution to a necessary discussion about the rights of animals in our societies. Amazon affiliate link. If you buy through this link, Daily Philosophy will get a small commission at no cost to you. Thanks!