Creature Comforts

To follow up yesterday’s post about my growing troubles with eating animals, I want to put three solid pieces of argument out there for you to look at, which end up being three parts of the same argument. One from a person I would not normally agree with on anything much.

1. Crustacean Cruelty

Let’s start with the sadly late David Foster Wallace’s excellent title piece from his second essay collection Consider the Lobster. It was published to great acclaim in Gourmet magazine in 2004. It’s still online. It’s still a spectacularly insightful piece. It starts as an appreciation of the lobster festival in Maine, a review of lobster culture, lobster biology and ecology, and then this observation comes in and changes the direction of the piece:

Notice the taped claws.

A detail so obvious that most recipes don’t even bother to mention it is that each lobster is supposed to be alive when you put it in the kettle. This is part of lobster’s modern appeal: It’s the freshest food there is. There’s no decomposition between harvesting and eating.


So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the U.S.: Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?

What follows is a beautifully argued discussion of the nature of animal suffering, made interesting not just by the fact that the lobster’s more desentralised nervous system offers some opportunities for discussing where certain ethical and anatomical boundaries lie, but also by the fact that it is the only food that the consumer largely kills ourself, right in our own kitchen

The basic scenario is that we come in from the store and make our little preparations like getting the kettle filled and boiling, and then we lift the lobsters out of the bag or whatever retail container they came home in … whereupon some uncomfortable things start to happen. However stuporous the lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster’s fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming). A blunter way to say this is that the lobster acts as if it’s in terrible pain, causing some cooks to leave the kitchen altogether and to take one of those little lightweight plastic oven timers with them into another room and wait until the whole process is over.


Still, after all the abstract intellection, there remain the facts of the frantically clanking lid, the pathetic clinging to the edge of the pot. Standing at the stove, it is hard to deny in any meaningful way that this is a living creature experiencing pain and wishing to avoid/escape the painful experience. To my lay mind, the lobster’s behavior in the kettle appears to be the expression of a preference; and it may well be that an ability to form preferences is the decisive criterion for real suffering.

The logic of this (preference p suffering) relation may be easiest to see in the negative case. If you cut certain kinds of worms in half, the halves will often keep crawling around and going about their vermiform business as if nothing had happened. When we assert, based on their post-op behavior, that these worms appear not to be suffering, what we’re really saying is that there’s no sign that the worms know anything bad has happened or would prefer not to have gotten cut in half.

And remember, he wrote this thing in Gourmet. Not preaching to the choir, exactly.

Anyway, if you read only one of these pieces, I definitely recommend this one. It’s the finest piece of writing for a general audience about some really heavy questions on animal welfare that I know of.

Pretty damn dystopian. Most pictures of factory farms provoke in me the feeling that I am agent Smith from The Matrix. Photo:, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

2. Ethical Ethicists

So the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel has done some really interesting work that came to my attention by accident today when I heard a wonderful interview with him on Philosophy Bites, here. He has studied the ethical behaviour of professors in ethics. How does working with moral philosophy and spending your days thinking professionally about ethics affect your behaviour? Not much, seems to be the conclusion. And here, once again, comes the eating of animals:

Just as an aside: Philosophy Bites is currently unfunded and needs your money. Go on, donate. I think it would be morally right of you, and I still haven’t done so for reasons that will soon become clear.

Josh Rust and I have found, for example, that although U.S.-based ethicists are much more likely than other professors to say it’s bad to regularly eat the meat of mammals (60% say it is bad, vs. 45% of non-ethicist philosophers and only 19% of professors outside of philosophy), they are no less likely to report having eaten the meat of a mammal at their previous evening meal (37%, in our study, vs. 33% of non-ethicist philosophers and 45% of non-philosophers; details here and also in the previously linked paper). So we might consider the following scenario:

An ethicist philosopher considers whether it’s morally permissible to eat the meat of factory-farmed mammals. She read Peter Singer. She reads objections and replies to Singer. She concludes that it is in fact morally bad to eat meat. She presents the material in her applied ethics class. Maybe she even writes on the issue. However, instead of changing her behavior to match her new moral opinions, she retains her old behavior. She teaches Singer’s defense of vegetarianism, both outwardly and inwardly endorsing it, and then proceeds to the university cafeteria for a cheeseburger (perhaps feeling somewhat bad about doing so).

Isn’t that just the most unsettling finding you’ve heard in a while? What if really thinking and reflecting about your life and your actions, taking time to consult your deepest moral convictions and the soundest principles from the greatest thinkers just doesn’t make a difference? What if ethics and moral reflection are all just part of a system of justification for the opinions we hold anyway, even for the people most engaged in that kind of thinking? Maybe rationality isn’t as rational as we think it is?

Some have argued, in fact, that ethical deliberation is actually just a way of finding rationalisations for actions already decided upon. On my darker days, I think that.

In fact, the situation these ethicists find themselves in, is the situation I described yesterday: I find that I rationally believe eating animals is unethical. And I also find that I made a really nice pizza with crispy bacon today. In fact, I’m going to go finish that pizza right now and come back.

Mmmm. It’s all about the dough and the baking temperature.1

So now I just ate some dead animals, killed by an industry I find depraved, and I played it for a cheap laugh. None of these actions are appropriate to my feelings about who I want to be, and what I think is right. So why did I do them? Well, that brings us to the third link.

The chicken or the egg? Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

3. Facing Suffering

So if you had to invent from scratch the one person in the universe least likely to agree with this pinko loonie leftie socialist communist dirty fucking eco hippie right here (me), well, making him a former speech writer in the last six presidential races for the GOP would be a damned good place to start. Matthew Scully, a former G.W. Bush aide and speechwriter to the people who have cast a political shadow over a big chunk of my adult life, is about as far from me as you get, politically.

He has written one of the most challenging pieces I’ve read in the past week, in the National Review:  “Pro-Life, Pro-Animal — The conscience of a pro-life, vegan conservative“. It’s an argument against the suffering of animals as seen from the standpoint of a very anti-abortion conservative.

Now, before you go off on me: I’ve been pro-choice, as the phrase is, for as long as I’ve had an opinion on abortion. I support the right of agency of women to determine their own lives and whether or not to have children. I also have fair grounds for believing that the fetus does not have rights or feel pain in any advanced way until far enough into the pregnancy that I don’t find the moral case of the pro-life side convincing. Still, I find it hard to say that they don’t have an argument. I find the question difficult, challenging and worth pondering — but not, at least not until a good ways into the term, that difficult. But I would never not acknowledge their case.

I also believe that one should always read the best arguments of your opponents, read the texts that fundamentally speaking aren’t written for people like you. Scully really does make an incredibly densely interesting case here that overlaps tightly between his pro-life and his pro-animal stance. The two-part argument ends up being a powerful argument for the dignity and right of independence of all creatures with the ability to feel pain, and life itself. It’s well-researched and powerfully argued. I think no matter where you stand, this a challenging piece that you need to read and engage with. And the interesting thing is that in making the argument that pro-life and pro-animal is connected, he somehow manages to slip something of the assertion that humans are animals through the cracks to a pro-choicer like me: Why shouldn’t the feelings I have towards pets and fellow humans be directed towards a chicken or a pig?

The theme I want to focus on, and the one that puts Scully in a different place from all the professors of ethics, is that he is determined to engage with the suffering of the creatures he talks about:

[The meat industry doesn’t] want anyone coming near, least of all anyone with a camera, because when the pictures and videos get out, they never quite capture the industry as it sees itself. The whole routine of bluff and sanctimony doesn’t work any more, as people see for themselves what the choices really are. At public events and stockholder meetings, factory-farm executives from Tyson, ConAgra, Smithfield, and all the rest complain of being harassed by zealots and do-gooders holding up pictures of their victims, images often so heartbreaking that the news media won’t show them. Many of the men and women who see those pictures are changed by the experience, their conscience awakened, never again able to talk around the matter in polite generality or comfortable cliché, while others react in rage and bitterness at the “emotional pressure” of being asked even to look. Does any of this sound familiar?

Talk about “avoidance behavior.” Here we have two industries avoiding judgment by the same deceitful means. National Review’s Andrew McCarthy not long ago described a Colorado case in which “pro-abortion activists filed a lawsuit against anti-abortion protesters, claiming that the display of graphic images of first-term abortions amounted to an actionable nuisance.” “Imagine,” writes McCarthy, by way of comparison, “if we had told the anti-war Left that photos of the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison could not be publicly displayed. You know, ‘We’ll just describe the whole thing as “enhanced detention” — or, maybe, “choice” — no need to get more graphic than that.’ How long do you suppose that would have been tolerated?”

It’s a great point, but there is an even better parallel, requiring no imagination at all. In dozens of states right now, a major American industry — as central to life as any can be — is trying to use the law to limit free speech and, with that, public knowledge of its routine inhumanity. And this suppression of evidence has been tolerated by the conservative press and by nearly every major media outlet. Outside of animal-welfare circles, it hasn’t received nearly the attention that such a scandalous abuse of power warrants, much as factory farming in general has spread across the earth with only occasional journalistic scrutiny.

The piece is long, and I’m too tired to get all the bits out and line them up, but the impression that emerges over the long piece is of a man who has seen what animal suffering is, who tries to empathise with the clinging to the pot, the clanking of the lid. And he just doesn’t understand why the rest of us don’t see the same things he sees. And the answer might quite simply be that we don’t see it. Or if we do see it, do we engage with it?

After having actually seen a chicken farming factory or a slaughterhouse, it’s hard to square that unbelievable suffering and disrespect for the dignity of living things with the bland banality of McNuggets. And that disengagement between the shapelessness of the McNuggets and the actual, dead animal is vital to maintaining the industry that provides living things for consumption.

Maybe this is what moral development really is: the human engagement and compassion for the suffering of others. Maybe it doesn’t happen first and foremost through moral reflection and abstract ideals. Maybe, as the American philosopher Richard Rorty argued repeatedly over several books, the expansion of the circle of empathy and solidarity is the only shape moral progress really ever takes. And that expansion maybe isn’t something generated by rational thinking. It is embodied, warm, creaturely. It happens in the closeness to and understanding of fur, teeth, eyes, nerves, carapace.

And that’s why I have very little excuses anymore. I’ve had friends that were animals and I’ve met and played with hundreds of animals closely over the course of my life. If you were to kill my cat, I know how I would feel about that. Maybe we shouldn’t so much be considering the lobster, or the chicken. Maybe, if we can think the thought without it seeming ridiculous, we should be looking it in the eye and trying to feel what this warm-blooded, living, creature, this bundle of nerves, awareness and sensations — feels like. Maybe it ends up just being this: we shouldn’t eat animals because we are animals. The things we empathise with are like ourselves.


1. Things it might not be about: that it has dead animals on top. Although it is hard to run from the fact that bacon fat rendered at high heat sure is delicious at a deep level.

  1. Fantastic post. You have my brain thinking because I so enjoyed how you expressed this topic. The disengagement and moral development… all so true.

  2. When I see these is stores I make quite ugly remarks and turn and walk away. I find it disgusting and cruel.

  3. Emy Wilhelm said:

    We can live so well without harming animals in any way. The fur industry is particularly abhorrent as it farms and kills wild animals in horrendous conditions and all for human vanity!

  4. FEWbar said:

    Damn, I saw that pigabuse video and twice read ‘Pingbacks’ as ‘Pigbacks’.Really sad. But what is sadder still, and perhaps borderline disgusting, that I am going to pass a street food stall and start salivating again when I smell the kebabs.

    • Release said:

      Right, but that’s the thing in a nutshell, isn’t it? This is our food culture. It’s as natural to us as breathing. Leaving the habit requires a conscious decision and hard work. It’s hard not to go for the kebab when it presents itself to you and everything in you is telling you to go for it.

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