04 January 2010

An Animal Too: On Eating and Wearing Animals

I am not a vegetarian. But I have been thinking about becoming a vegetarian. I understand my "natural" imperative to survive and my theoretical place in the food chain, although there are probably a lot of tigers who could take me. I feel something like what Scrubb and Puddleglum seemed to feel in C.S. Lewis' The Silver Chair when they found that they'd eaten a talking stag: "Puddleglum, who was Narnian born, was sick and faint, and felt as you would feel if you found you had eaten a baby."

I do not find guilt a satisfactory reason to hold a moral position, however. I need a an-overarching ethical plan, planted only in principles I can respect--something like actively loving, or at the very least, not causing pain.

There is something else, though--pleasure. I never feel as warm, as cozy, as safe, or as human as when I am wrapped up in some animal substance--under a pile of fleecy down, sheathed in leather, cozy in a yak-hair coat. And I've always been against fake--in idea and in substance: fake flowers, fake wood, and fake leather deaden my soul. There is something about being connected to the real and the animal that affirms that I am an animal. I feel wrapped in the embrace of the world, in the embrace of my planet. I remember the green things more when I eat leaves and berries. And I remember the mammals more when I wear their skins. I also remember the crucial role they played in the survival of my ancestors.

I cannot take a position because it is popular. And I cannot take a position because someone tells me it is "right." I have to feel the rightness inside of me. But these are things that I am thinking about. I have made a point of eating less meat because I little desire it, because I don't really need it, and because I might decide that it's wrong. And I haven't purchased any new leather products, because I don't need them, though I do desire them, and because I might decide it's wrong.

I am for pleasureful living, but not when my pleasure suspends that of another, or worse, harms another

(October 2014:  So in way of an update, I have had periods of complete vegetarianism and even complete veganism, or as my brother would accuse, complete flexitarianism, in the intervening years.  This may be one of the slowest transitions in the history of humanity, but you're welcome to join me.  I suppose I'm of the school that some change is better than no change.  I've pretty much given up eating mammals, unless my Grandmothers make it, and then I eat it because I won't always be able to eat food that my Grandmothers make, because this food connects me to the past, and because when my Grandmothers cook food made from animals they knew a different sort of farm.  I'm still debating internally the fish question.  I've eaten some poultry, more out of perceived need for protein.  I do not have at present much in the way of a grocery budget nor do I have my own kitchen.  My parental hosts have been very kind to purchase cage-free eggs and to accommodate my gluten free diet, and buy the occasional Boca burger.  I want to explore the dietary merits and demerits of veganism--chiefly my ability to obtain the nutritionally essential amino acids from non-animal sources, and will share my thoughts when I get around to doing that.  I have had some considerations on veganism and poverty.  For instance, there are parts of the world, even parts of the United States, where veganism seems a nutritionally dubious option.  I would like to explore this further.  Also, there are parts of the world, like the part where I live, where prolonged exposure to the cold can actually be dangerous.  It has been my experience that evolution has prepared animal materials well to handle climate conditions.  Persons without personal vehicles and the luxury of moving from heated garages to heated car seats, may be much benefited by having winter gear of these better materials.  Aside from the fact that moving away from factory farming is imperative for the health of the planet and thus all life, I am inclined to think that veganism is a luxury for those with nutritional options.  It is my perhaps naive belief that addressing human poverty is prior, and my hope, that when our species no longer suffers from regular food, housing, educational, and healthcare insecurity, we may do a better job of looking out for the suffering of others.  Look for the "all creatures" label for posts pertaining to animal ethics.) 


  1. Anna, excellent topic! I could literally write a book on this subject (and I probably will some day), though for now, some thoughts:

    -The food chain argument is one of the most common defenses I've heard over the years, though obviously it fails on several levels. If we are indeed at the top of the food chain, then it wouldn't be the case that humans are occasionally eaten by other predators (lions, sharks, crocodiles, bears, etc.) under normal circumstances. As you mentioned, though, I'd be no match for something like a hungry crocodile, and many people are eaten by crocodiles every year.

    More importantly, though, is that such an argument commits an appeal to nature/naturalistic fallacy. Just because something is natural, doesn't mean it's morally acceptable.
    The omnivore defense is convenient because people can say, “Well, we have sharp teeth like lions, so naturally we're meant to eat meat, like lions. Since it's not wrong for lions to kill animals for food, it must be acceptable for humans to do so.” However, there's no connection between why lions (or other animals) doing something makes it acceptable for humans to do it, too. Male lions invade other prides and kill cubs that are not their own, and attack pregnant females so that they miscarry, all so that the invading lion impregnates the females and ensures the survival of his genes. Just as when a lion kills for food, we can't say anything is immoral about his brutal mating habits, though just because we don't disapprove of his behavior can we say that human males can act in the same way. Clearly, a human who did behave in such a manner would be a moral monster, or a psychopath at best. Humans are moral animals, though as Stephen Jay Gould once wrote, the rest of nature is "nonmoral".

    -I agree that guilt is not an adequate basis for morality. I don't think guilt is always bad or unnecessary in moral deliberation, though it alone seems impotent in guiding moral actions. I do think guilt can provide helpful motivation for future action, and I think it cultivates a humble disposition which will make us more inclined to act rightly in the future.

    -“I am for pleasureful living, but not when my pleasure suspends that of another, or worse, harms another.”

    Did you hear that gust of wind soaring towards you? 'Tis not the winter chill, but the sound of me swooning. ;)

    Seriously, I couldn't agree more. I have a rough formulation of the argument:

    P1.) Unnecessary suffering is bad.
    P2.) Consuming animal products (e.g., leather, fur, meat, etc.) contributes to a great deal of animal suffering.
    P3.) Consuming animal products is unnecessary for our well-being, at least under normal conditions.
    P4.) Since consuming animals is unnecessary, the suffering caused by doing so exists for no good reason, i.e., such suffering is unnecessary.
    P5.) Consuming animal products contributes to a great deal of unnecessary animal suffering. (from P2 and P4)
    C.) Therefore, we ought not consume animal products. (from P1 and P5)

  2. It's going to be a little difficult for us to continue discussing this issue, because it is apparent that we have different understandings of the foundations of morals. I will not give you premise 1. It is not supported. I will recognize terms like "psychopath" only as representing the will of group. I think that normative morality is potentially very harmful for human beings. Human beings have suffered a great deal because at various times in history because it has been decided that they belonged to a "wrong" or "inferior" group. Let us assume that their oppressors thought they were "right." While I make decisions every day which give some assent to normative moral standards, I will never endorse one in philosophical argument, without calling it "popular sentiment" or my "personal feeling."

    I am not a biologist, but I imagine that "guilt" is quite natural. Lots of non-human animals use shaming to promote correct behavior in members of the group. I think it is a psycho-social-biological phenomenon. I think it reflects power relationships--within churches, family, nations, peer groups.

    Here's something else I've been thinking about. It seems that perhaps intelligence is an important component in capacity for suffering. (Everyone eats plants.) The idea of eating a fish bothers me much less than the idea of eating a mammal. What do you think about this?

  3. -Agreed, premise 1 will not be without controversy. We can debate metaethics (as well as the issue of guilt and pre-normative values) after the semester starts, though we will require the LOTR soundtrack playing in the background. One of us will be Gandalf and the other Saruman... I'll give you first pick. ;)

    -The intelligence issue is tricky when assessing suffering. Theorists like Mill qualify suffering while others only quantify it, though the issue of marginal humans brings up problems. Perhaps a highly intelligent person may experience a different kind of suffering than a severely mentally impaired child, though I've yet to be convinced that the intelligent human experiences greater or more profound suffering than the marginal human.

    Intelligence seems to be one factor that brings us greater empathy towards an animal (e.g., many arguments against using chimps in research stem from how intelligent they are), though I think with fish and other types of aquatic animals, the main issue is that they don't look like most animals we normally encounter in the world. Many types of aquatic animals do experience pain and have basic problem-solving levels of intelligence, though their odd body shapes and soulless, unblinking eyes are almost reminiscent of alien life, and so it's hard to empathize with such foreign creatures. Dolphins and seals are obvious exceptions, since they're intelligent AND cute. Though octopodes, while being very intelligent, are not very cute, and I'd say are downright creepy. In contrast to the massive protests against seal hunting and dolphin slaughter, relatively little attention is given to people killing octopodes, and I don't think it's because they're not intelligent, but rather they just look so foreign to our fellow land mammals.

  4. These correlations between familiar appearances of some animals and our eagerness to aid them is interesting. I wonder if there's a correlation with humans as well. (I was starting to think of groups to insert as examples. I was going to say something about adopting cute kids, but our adoption system isn't what it needs to be. And I was going to contrast them with Vietnam Vets, but they're beautiful in their own way. And we don't take good enough care of them either.)

    With the intelligence thing, I do think that from a pragmatic standpoint, society as a whole stands to lose more by the ill-education and deprivation in other respects of more intelligent people. Not only do we lose out on some potentially valuable human capital, but I imagine that intelligent people make the best criminals. I tend to favor a sense of justice such that society rewards and demands of each, according to his or her needs and abilities. I don't know how you would assay differences in individuals' capacity to suffer. I don't think it would go along with many of our fundamental principles of law to have anything other than an equal standard. Although this, I think, leads to the question of whether we are not already sanctioning many unequal standards of suffering,simply by not better ensuring that our citizens get the health care and the education they need. (Humans are my favorite animals.)

    It sounds like I could learn a lot from you about ethics, which is exciting. I'll let you be Gandalf.