Monday, March 28, 2011

Eating Animals: A Defense

My political philosophy class has been discussing Robert Nozick's ethical argument for vegetarianism (IMHO, the best such argument I have seen), so I thought I would repost this essay, which I posted when I was discussing the same argument, with another group of students, four years ago...

I didn't want to post on this question again until after I had finished talking about it in class. And the discussion went on for almost two fifty minute class periods -- way more than I originally intended. People had a lot more ideas about this than I thought they would! The other thing that surprised me was that no one (except for one student, who came up to me after class) tried to answer what I thought was ultimately the real question.

As you may not recall, Nozick asks us:
Suppose then that I enjoy swinging a baseball bat. It happens that in front of the only place to swing it stands a cow. Swinging the bat unfortunately would involve smashing the cow's head. But I wouldn't get fun from doing that; the pleasure comes from exercising my muscles, swinging well, and so on. ... Is there some principle that would allow the killing and eating of animals, but would not allow swinging the bat for the extra pleasure it brings?
I had thought this ultimately boils down to the question of how we should fill in the blank in this sentence: One may kill animals or impose unpleasant living conditions on them in order to provide _____ for humans.

Almost no one tried to answer this question directly. There were some attempts to reject the question. One person suggested, following in the footsteps of Descartes and Malebranche, that animals simply don't have mental states. (This is a philosophy class, after all!) Another suggested that since eating animals is an activity that rests on pain and death it is morally tainted and the question of whether there is something good about it that is good enough to justify the death and pain involved is simply inconceivable. Another wanted to divide the question (killing animals raises different issues from making them suffer). Others had skeptical doubts about whether we can know the kinds of things that would be required for answering this question. There was also a lot of discussion of side issues that popped up here and there. I declared that eating at MacDonald's is immoral, "unless the alternative is starving to death," and some wanted to defend MacDonald's. And so on.

I'm sufficiently impressed with the fact that almost no one filled in my blank that I offer my own attempt with some hesitation. I assume the reason for this is that it seems like an impossible task. Which of course is Nozick's point.

The one student who came up after class suggested trying to use John Stuart Mill's idea of higher and lower pleasures. Also, he suggested changing Nozick's question: What if hitting the cow is the only action you can ever perform? This is roughly the sort of approach I would take. I guess my question would be: What if, if people didn't do things like this to the cow, the game of baseball would be wiped off the earth? That of course involves values (and even pleasures) that are very different from the pleasure of swinging the bat.

Nozick's question (or more exactly his principled refusal to answer it) supposes that the value of Peking duck is simply a pleasure, conceived as a mere sensation, like the sensation in one's muscles while swinging a stick. It ignores the existence of cuisine. Cuisine is a rich, complex artifact of human history, like baseball. And like certain other rich, complex artifacts of history, it produces results that in some sense are like works of art. Results like Peking duck. The pleasure of eating it, I submit, is in a completely and qualitatively different category from the pleasure of swinging a stick. Peking duck is an ancient dish. Like all high art, it was originally meant only for the rich and powerful few but now, thanks to the miracle of democratic capitalism, is available to all. It originated during the Yuan Dynasty (coinciding with our High Middle Ages) and was perfected during the Qing Dynasty (late nineteenth century). I would say that it is a thing of beauty, except that for some reason we reserve this word for the sense-modalities of sight and sound, rather than taste, smell, and textural discrimination.

Of all the great cuisines on earth, only one of them as far as I know is "vegetarian" in any sense of the word. This is one of the cuisines of India (which has an ancient tradition of not killing animals). And it is very far from being vegan. It swims in milk, cream, butter, ghee (clairified butter), and yogurt. All of the other great cuisines -- French, Italian, Japanese, the regional cuisines of China and Mexico -- are very meat-centric.

If we all became vegans today, many of the great ideas of Escoffier, CarĂªme, and the achievements of thousands of unsung geniuses who have created the cuisines of the world, would be wiped out overnight. This would be a horrible loss to the human spirit.

Of course, something that you could call cuisine could continue to exist. But the loss would still be horrific. Consider again Peking duck. Recipes for Peking duck focus on the skin. Some call for inflating the duck's skin with air (one reason for leaving its head on). One often sees directions like "hang in a cool, windy place for six hours." The point is to achieve a certain level of crispness and in some cases a jewel-like glaze.

You just can't do that with a pumpkin. Or boiled barley. Or tofu. Forget it!

So I'm not sure exactly how I would fill in my blank, but it's obvious there are lots of ways that include eating Peking duck but exclude hitting the cow.

But there still is an important moral residue to the exercise that Nozick has let us into here. The way we treat animals does have to be justified -- which means we have to treat them in justifiable ways. And that doesn't include just any old thing. The chance that what we do to animals is justified is increased if we increase the probability that the bad of what we do to them is less than the good of what we get out of it. This probability is increased if we depress the badness of the bad. Which means treating animals more humanely. It is also increased if we enhance the goodness of what they do for us. There is a moral responsibility on us as cooks to make the most of our animal ingredients. The next time you bite into a bland, gray fast food hamburger, remember that some cow died so you can do this. Did that cow die in vain?
Post a Comment