Which Came First, the Chicken or the Avocado? (Ep. 164)

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(Photo: Phalinn Ooi)

(Photo: Phalinn Ooi)

This week’s podcast is about selective outrage — why we get so upset over some things, and then not over others. It’s called “Which Came First, the Chicken or the Avocado?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

We start with Marius the giraffe. Marius lived at a zoo in Copenhagen. Zoo officials said he was a “surplus” animal: too genetically similar to other giraffes, and therefore he couldn’t breed. It was kinder, they said, to kill him. So they fed him some rye bread (“his favorite food”), shot him in the head, and dissected him in front of a crowd of onlookers, including kids. Next they fed his corpse to the lions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the world reacted with outrage.

How did this compare to the outrage expressed over the killing of more than 146,000 people during the ongoing civil war in Syria? Not quite commensurate. Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York, noticed this disparity, and he talks about it with Stephen Dubner:

HIRSCH: If you recall there was saturation coverage of a Danish zoo that killed a giraffe in front of dozens of schoolchildren and fed it to the lions. And it struck me that that received so much attention and so much publicity — not that I’m in favor of killing giraffes, in general, or killing any animals, let alone in front of children — but it was at the time when there was such savagery around the word, and in particular, hundreds of people in that week were butchered in Syria, and there was such little coverage about that event, and so much coverage about the killing of one giraffe that it simply struck me that that probably says something about how we think and about the nature of our society.

Steve Levitt says that outrage over Marius’s death, and the increased level of compassion people have for animals, is overall a positive sign for society:

LEVITT: I think being nice to animals is a luxury good. I remember when I first went to China 14 years ago to adopt my daughter and we went to an open-air market. And the animals they had to eat and the circumstances of these animals were just, to a Westerner, outrageous… And then when I went back about five years later, to the same open-air market, what just amazed me is that suddenly they had a big section of the open-air market that was devoted to fish tanks. In just five years, China had boomed in wealth. [They went] from literally eating anything they could find, to deciding it was fun to have animals for pets.

You will also hear from Wall Street Journal reporter Jose de Cordoba, whose article about the Mexican avocado trade perhaps should have outraged people but didn’t. De Cordoba explains how most avocados eaten in the U.S. are “blood avocados,” made to pass through a criminal cartel that extorts, kidnaps, and kills.

And finally, big thanks to listener Rebecca Pearce. She wrote to us with a question that gets Levitt and Dubner wondering what’s more valuable: the life of a polar bear or the life of an economist.

Addendum: We made a mistake in this episode when we said Marius the giraffe was killed in front of a group of people. He was dissected in front of a crowd, but euthanized in private. We regret the error.


Eric Wolfram

I love you guys and the podcast, however, the moral confusion you display here is staggering and outrageous. Clearly a market does not absolve one of moral responsibility, just as a market for hit man won't get you off the hook for murder. It doesn't matter if you kill somebody or if you pay someone to do it. It's still murder at the same level, both legally AND morally. On the other hand, just because someone dies in the production of a product -- this is not murder. There is a difference in knowing that people will inevitably be harmed unintentionally in an industry, and knowing that a particular person will be killed on purpose as a result of your use of the product. To lump this all together with animal rights, as a sort of confused way to ease the discomfort you may have with your diet, is absurd.

Jmw

A good book on this theme: http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0199551162/ref=mw_dp_mpd?pd=1

Amal Douglas

In regarding boycotting "conflict advocadoes" it reminde3d me of a discussion I had a while back which I refer to in this blog post http://zakatpages.com/2011/07/12/muslims-in-support-marks-spencers-or-maybe-not/

Also interesting that some of the podcast was inspired by a Rabbi's sermon (perhaps in a synagogue) while this was a conversation in a Mosque. Interestingly enough there are also references to Syria.

In fact the new laws in the UK crminalising volunteers who go to fight in Syria is something I would like to hear discussed in a future podcast. Is there a precedent? Should all mercenaries in Iraq then also be criminalised? etc etc.

James

I wonder how much of the 'outrage' (if you can call it that) can be attributed simply to surprise at an entity acting otherwise than we expect it to. That is, we expect slaughterhouses to kill animals, zoos to preserve them. Likewise, we expect airplanes to either reach their destination or crash en route, not just disappear. And, lamentable as it may be, many of us have come to expect people, particularly in places with a significant number of Islamists, to go around killing each other without anything we can see as a rational cause.

iBluefoot

This was one of the worst, least focused episodes I have yet to hear Freakanomics. I usually expect some insight into an otherwise mundane or predictable presented through an economists perspective. This one just seemed to wander about poses ill framed moral questions.

Can we please just discuss scarcity for a moment? First off, there are a lot less giraffes than humans so the impact of their loss will be far more felt. There some thing like 1 giraffe for every 46,000 humans. Perhaps this is how many humans would have had to die that week to take a higher priority than that baby giraffe.

But this isn't necessarily about the scarcity of giraffes perhaps as it is about the scarcity of compelling stories to gossip about. War in Syria, as tragic as it may be, is commonplace in today's news. Killing baby giraffes is novel and shocking.

Why did you not explore these avenues Freakanomics?

And regarding the avocados, is it not a complete misuse of a boycott to refrain from buying avocados because the avocado growers profits are being extorted from? Perhaps if the growers conduct were questionable, but for being victims of organized crime? This proposal is absurd and takes precious minutes away from the episode to discuss anything sensible.

If we really want to explore the morality of avocados perhaps we could explore the northern Californian Salmon that die because of all the water diverted south to sustain the crops. This has always posed a huge moral dilemma for myself, but alas I still eat the avocados.

So for an otherwise amazing podcast delivering week after week of brilliant material please try to do better. Maybe by not to exploring a story of sensational journalism with a series of reactionary questions.

Thanks for the hard work,
~ Isaac

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Shlomi Israel

"The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic." this quote is often misattributed to Joseph Stalin, but whoever said it knew the power of a good story.

Tom

Mr. Levitt,

Do you honestly believe that individuals have no ethical obligation or logical justification for avoiding products or services that they know or believe to be causing harm to people or cruelty to animals because at the margin, an individuals choices in the market have no meaningful influence on the problem? If so, it would seem to be consistent with your position that the following actions also have no ethical or logical basis:

- Not littering.
- Not purchasing goods from South Africa when it was still operating under apartheid.
- Contributing $100 to a charity delivering disaster relief.
- Contributing to public radio or to your program.

Your position would make more sense to me if you acknowledged that these individual actions can have more of an impact if they become part of an organized movement.

In any event, I think your implied position was not based on any economic theory or evidence, but could nonetheless make a more than marginal contribution to increasing apathy among your listeners..

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Linda

The story about Marius makes us question if the people we trust are really trustworthy. He was killed by those he trusted. I think people are morally upset in proportion to how safe the act makes us feel in our own world.

If we hear an animal/person get hurt by those they don't trust, we are upset, but not to the same degree as if the animal/person is killed by someone they trust.

If an event makes us more concerned about the people we trust, we view that event as morally wrong.

Jack

I've spent a lot of time with little kids who can't distinguish "want" from "need." So they say, "I need some ice cream," or "I need to go on that ride again." I'm not accustomed to serious adults saying it. But when Levitt said, "I feel like if I am doing a market transaction, I don’t really need necessarily to feel any guilt about it," he meant "I don't want to feel any guilt."

It's convenient, and false, for him to treat every market transaction as having no further implications, despite his own writings which show otherwise. Dubner cited Ghandi as a counter example. More recently, and closer to home, I cite the grape and lettuce boycotts. In part because a great many Americans sympathized with the farm workers and participated in those boycotts, farm laborers secured a better life.

So, Levitt, you do "need" to feel guilt, because you seem to be lacking in conscience. If a guilt campaign can change your behavior, I applaud it.

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Crixus

I wonder how many people protesting again that zoo then went on to eat a hamburger the very same day.

The truth is there' s no way for human cognitive faculties to even approach these issues. I'm not advocating that we ought to all be cold-hearted but avocados and giraffes are really just scratching the surface. If we go back far enough in history there's no doubt in my mind that every human alive has descended from a long line of rapists and murders. More atrocities were committed for every breathe each of us takes than any of us could realize. Mother Nature has always favored the conqueror and always will, only today it's so well disguised that people can actually be self deluded enough to be outraged by the death of a giraffe.

Nicole L

This story has made me want to buy more avocados (not less as Dubner thought it might), to support the Mexican growers. I do not think we should abandon those farmers who are just trying to support their families, the same as most Americans are doing.

ERLW

Some of the language used regarding Marius's death (here and in the UK press) is a little too loaded.

Sentences like "dissected in front of children" conjures an image of the children being forced to watch, or accidentally stumbling across the dissection. How about saying "a publicized dissection, attended by parents and children" instead? If an animal in a zoo is to be put down, why not publicly dissect it? And why not invite children (under the supervision of their parents/guardians) to watch and learn?

Wesley H

I think an important (or perhaps relevant) consideration is what a perceived change in action means to the affected population; in this case, the avocado farmers.

Suppose American grocery shoppers and grocers agreed to boycott the avocado until sweeping changes were realized in Mexico regarding the cartels? How does that help to curb the issue? The reality may be that it causes more trouble for the local farmers and their families, not less.

Jared G

A reason there was little notice of the WSJ article might be that it is behind a pay wall.

Fatih

What does the zoo feed to the lions when there are no giraffes to kill? Surely not hay and oats and the occasional piece of fruit. http://formahane.com/

Guy In Denmark

Small mistake in one detail of the story. At least 3 times it was said that the giraffe was killed in front of the students. Actually it was not. It was killed in private. It was butchered in front of the students who were there by choice with parental permission. Both my Danish son and wife knew that fact when I asked them. It's a small detail but repeated for effect several time in your podcast as in "I wouldn't have done that", well that was also the opinion of the zoo keepers. They didn't do that.

Love the shows. I'm an American in Denmark. I have also tried to get my Danish friends to listen to the "Drunk walking" episode since that is a big problem here (people getting hit by trains and falling into the harbor etc) as people walk to get home from a night on the town.
The title of the site "freakonomics" makes it difficult to take it seriously but I do my best when I tell them about it.

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Josh

The moral compass for why it's easy to get outraged over animal deaths while being somewhat apathetic towards human death is quite simple:

Animals aren't capable of the same mass murder that humans are. Animals don't have the capacity to make the same moral choices that humans do.

In short, there are no guilty animals, but there are guilty humans.

When we hear about deaths of people that live far away and that we don't know, we can't evaluate those people as innocent victims or guilty criminals. We also can't always tell so clearly what the truth is in complicated foreign events, particularly when propaganda is so frequently used as a weapon. Are the rebels the good guys in Syria? Even if we agree with the cause, are all of the rebels the good guys?

With animals, it's much simpler. Animals don't hunt humans for sport, for religion, for pride, for greed, or for profit. If an animal seeks to harm a human, it's almost always entirely out of self defense or protection of its young. Humans have the power and the control to eradicate animals or to move them humanely to another place.

Humans have the choice.

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