I Can Has Cheezburger?

November 24, 2008

I’ve been asked by many people why I don’t eat meat. Those questions range from the curious to the mocking to the offended. Yes, offended – some people are genuinely offended and angered and put off by vegetarians, I suppose because their mere existence causes unconscious guilt, maybe not so much because they themselves eat meat but because they never really thought about eating or not eating meat as a moral issue, or never really bothered to understand it as one. Or just just love cheeseburgers so much that they dare not consider it a moral issue. Sometimes I wonder if it’s just one of those things – like recycling, riding a bicycle, using energy-efficient bulbs – that represent a general threat to their whole poorly considered worldview, a fear that if one moral imperative were acknowledged, then one’s whole way of life would crumble.

At any rate, I’m not really a vegetarian, in that I do eat meat. I just don’t eat certain kinds of meat, i.e., meat from certain animals. I don’t eat humans and never have. Ditto for other primates. I’ve never eaten a dog either. Or even a kitty (good w/ Tabasco I’ve heard). People, monkeys, apes, kitties, dogs – I’ve avoided them not just because I’d find it wrong (and during some parts of my life that might not have been enough to stop me) but because they haven’t been on the menu. And if I were trapped on the mountain a la Alive, I might reconsider the matter. So as I was saying, it’s not all meat. Specifically, I eat fish, mollusks, cephalopods, crustaceans, and turkey. I suppose I’d also eat insects, spiders, and a bunch of other animals, too, if I thought they tasted at all good. In other words, I have no moral objection to ant sandwiches. That’s just a matter of taste. So to put it in the simplest of terms, for reasons of ethics and taste, I restrict meat consumption to what can broadly be termed “seafood”…and turkey. I don’t have a moral objection necessarily to eating chicken, duck, or other birds. I just find their meat to be heavy, while turkey is lighter and tastier to me. So the bottom line is that I don’t eat other mammals. At a minimum.

So what’s my fucking tree-hugging problem that I don’t eat mammals? That’s the real question. Well, first off, let’s acknowledge that I don’t HAVE to eat mammals, i.e., there’s no real reason to do so apart from taste. In other words, it’s analogous to giving up ice cream. There’s no healthful reason to eat ice cream, and you’re not going to die eating it in moderation, but you’re probably better off without it in the long run. The only reason you eat ice cream is because it tastes good. Same with eating our fellow mammals. There’s nothing healthy about eating them, it’s not necessarily unhealthy if you eat them in moderation (yet, like ice cream, most people do NOT eat them in moderation but to huge excess), the only reason to eat them is because you like the taste of their flesh (and/or guts – e.g., liver, tongue, “headcheese,” etc. – but most people prefer their flesh).

But the biggest issue with me has to do with self-awareness. The reason I don’t eat humans is because I consider the act of killing another human for their meat and then eating them to be murder (and cannibalism). I say “murder” because I view such a killing to be unjustified. I see human life as somehow precious, and believe humans have an inalienable right to life that ought not to be taken away without strong justification such as self-defense. I don’t consider eating them, under normal (i.e., non-Donner Party) circumstances, to be justifiable. I feel this way about humans because they are sentient – they are self-aware. In other words – AND THIS IS THE CRUX OF THE ISSUE – they possess PERSONHOOD, the capacity to subjectively experience the world, and to subjectively experience pain IN A MANNER SIMILAR TO MYSELF.

Let’s be perfectly clear about this ‘personhood’ business. Let’s start with the easy cases. I don’t believe a rock, a bookcase, or my shoes have personhood. To be sure, I like my shoes and my bookcase, and I have nothing against rocks in particular, but I do not believe that they subjectively experience the world around them. They are inert. They are unfeeling. They are not like me. They HAVE NO SELF-AWARENESS. I consider these easy cases because if you argue that rocks, bookcases, and shoes have self-awareness, well, there are some nice people at McLean Hospital who would like to meet you. Likewise I consider humans to be an easy case. I believe that I am not unique, and that my fellow humans have the same capacity for self-awareness that I do. Not all of them, of course. If you’re a vegetable, or in a coma, or temporarily incapacitated with strong drugs, you likely do not have the same self-awareness that I do right now. But humans in general do, and like the rocks and bookcases cases (sorry), there’d have to be something really wrong with you (extreme solipsism, the belief that you’re the only real person in the universe and that everyone else is imagined or an automaton) to not acknowledge it.

So now we’re left with the issue of what to do with everything in between rocks and humans. For example, Moxie, the dog whose blog this is. Does she subjectively experience the world? Well, the name of this blog and its tagline certainly imply that she does. The broader question is, do dogs subjectively experience the world. Let’s put it this way: you cannot BE a rock, there is no such thing as experiencing the world LIKE A ROCK. Whatever it is like to be a rock, it’s just the same as being DEAD. You FEEL NOTHING. But what is it like to BE A DOG? Is it like being dead? Feeling nothing?

Some would argue it is. Descartes took this position, for example (and it was the dominant position in the Western world for many, many years). Decartes argued in the 17th century (and his view continues to hold sway into the 21st century) that ONLY HUMANS HAVE SOULS. What does that have to do with it, you may ask? Well, Descartes made the argument that our consciousness, our capacity for subjective experience, our PERSONHOOD, stems from our souls. This is, for example, the belief of the Catholic Church. Our bodies and brains, in other words, are senseless meat. They are no less inert, in and of themselves, than the rock and the bookcase. The only thing that separates us from the rock and the bookcase and the shoes is that we have SOULS. .Descartes told us that only humans have souls, and that the other animals do not. They have no subjective experience – they are like rocks and shoes.

Then why, you may ask, do dogs and cats and chickens behave so differently than rocks? I mean, rocks just sit there. Dogs seem to have the capacity for humanlike emotions, they want to play, sleep, eat, they cry, they jump around for joy, they pout, they don’t seem to be anything like rocks. Descartes argued that your eyes are deceiving you. Imagine a very complex machine. Remember that fucking goddamned talking bear from the 1980s, Teddy Ruxpin? It had eyes, a nose, a mouth, it moved, IT FUCKING TALKED! Very different from a rock, also. But no more alive, correct? I mean, you don’t think that it felt pain or missed its mommy or worried about dying or wondered if it left the iron on, do you? It’s INERT. It talked and moved because it was ROBOTIC. Descartes would say that dogs and kitties and squirrels and monkeys, everything except (CONVENTIENTLY) us, is likewise a deceitful piece of complex machinery that MIMICS personhood but IS NONETHELESS INERT. Teddy Ruxpin has no internal world, no subjective experience, and neither, by this reasoning, does Moxie.

Now I realize this my sound a little too clever by half. Teddy Ruxpin, to a thinking adult, isn’t all that complex. You wouldn’t be fooled – well, maybe if you were from the 17th century, but WE wouldn’t be fooled. It’s OBVIOUSLY a MACHINE. But dogs? Far more complex, far more convincing. But we’re just taking Teddy as an example. Imagine a very, very, very sophisticated machine, one that REALLY SEEMS ALIVE. Take HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now THAT fucker seemed ALIVE, didn’t he? The great English mathematician Alan Turing devised a hypothetical test (the Turing Test) to be applied to computer like HAL – if you were in a prolonged conversation with it, say on the telephone or via instant message or email, could you tell it was an artificial machine, or would you think it was a person? HAL 9000 would pass this test. If he called you on the telephone and you had no idea beforehand that it was a machine, you’d be fooled. There are other machines in the annals of science fiction that could pass this test – Cmdr. Data, the Terminator, the Robot from Lost In Space. All of them are convincing enough to pass for ALIVE. We don’t have any machines like that now, in 2008, but we’re close enough to doing so now that such an achievement is conceivable, and most believe it is only a matter of time (a short time). All the more amazing that Turing, who devised the test, died in 1954, long before such things were remotely possible (as a side note, Turing was gay, and was criminally prosecuted for being so; he was forced to undergo estrogen treatment, had his security clearances revoked, and finally killed himself; today he is acknowledged as a genius far ahead of his time, and one of the pioneers of the Information Age; a statue of him was erected in Sackville Park in his home city of Manchester, England in 2001; here’s a biography of Turing well worth reading).

So could dogs, pigs, cows all be elaborate hoaxes? Sophisticated, unfeeling machines that mimic our reactions to pain and other stimuli? Descartes thought so, and his thinking on the matter became the dominant one. Keep in mind that this is not all off-the-wall insanity, even though it may sound that way. Descartes lived during the era when the image of a mechanistic universe was born, and this view persisted as the dominant conception of the universe until the early 20th century and the advent of quantum theory. Einstein saw the universe this way (God doesn’t play dice, he said). Newton’s Laws suggested that everything in the universe, every motion of every particle, was explainable according to simple, immutable laws of physics. All matter is made up of tiny particles, so small we cannot see them. The motion of these particles are determined by simple, deterministic laws. Therefore, if you knew the location and trajectory of every particle in the universe, you could predict the future – all of it. It wasn’t until quantum mechanics that this was seriously called into question.

The problem, of course, is that a universe so ordered leaves no room for free will. And Descartes’s soul was the solution to that problem. Descartes envisioned a dualistic universe. On one hand, the universe was mechanistic and deterministic, following Newton’s Laws. This universe, the material world, is like a great, big clock. This is what Washington and Jefferson were talking about in their diaries when they would refer to the watchmaker or the clockmaker. They were Deists, and believed that God created the universe, but after that he left it alone to run like a clock. In other words, the material world is a vast and complex mechanism that runs according to a preset plan. It’s outcome is determined. On the other hand, however, humans have souls, which do not exist in the material world and are not subject to its laws. These souls are the source of our consciousness, our personhood. It is how we have free will. Dogs, kitties, squirrels, they do not have souls. They are machines – very complex and convincing machines, but machines nonetheless. They DO NOT HAVE FREE WILL and they DO NOT HAVE ANY CONSCIOUSNESS. They lack all subjective experience. They act AS IF they experience pain, but they DO NOT FEEL PAIN. They are, in essence, really sophisticated versions of Teddy Ruxpin.

Descartes believed that our souls interacted with the material world, which is how we with our free wills could move our bodies around and change the course of events. He believed (I shit you not) that this occured in the pituitary gland. We’re talking the 17th century here, folks.

So for Descartes, eating mammals was completely unproblematic. Humans were different, because they had souls and therefore experienced the world. Animals DID NOT. They were no different in that regard from rocks or shoes. They felt no joy or pain, they only acted as if they did. For this reason, Descartes promoted vivisection – basically, performing live dissection on animals such as dogs for scientific study. This practice persisted in Europe and America, as a result of Cartesian beliefs, until the 19th century. If the dog cannot feel pain but is only mimicking the response, then there is no problem with cutting it open, alive, with no anaesthetic. This would be done with medical-school students, for example, and the instructors would have great fun with the horrified responses of their students who were seeing the dog’s agony for the first time. They were taught to laugh at how convincing (but false!) the dog’s cries of agony were.

So you see, these beliefs had, and continue to have real consequences.

I do not eat these animals because I do not accept these arguments. I believe that dogs, for example, respond with cries of agony, and exhibit all the signs of emotions that humans also feel, because dogs DO INDEED FEEL THESE EMOTIONS. It is not an elaborate trick, it is not a hoax. I do not believe that dogs and cats and squirrels are dead inside. I believe that they have SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE.

This is not to say they are human. This is also not to say that their subjective experiences are the same as, or equal to, our own. Animals are different from one another. Some seem to have a more sophisticated internal experience, others less. Flies, for example, I would guess don’t have much of an internal experience. Ditto for worms. Dogs seem to have a profoundly sophisticated internal experience, with emotional reactions quite similar to humans. They are social, they show empathy, attachment, bereavement. They are also profoundly selfish and lack human qualities of justice and equity. They are not the same as us. But they are closer to us than they are to rocks. Flies, on the other hand, are probably closer to a rock.

I do not believe that the internal experiences of ourselves, or dogs, or chickens, are related to the possession of a soul. Whether or not our bodies can be described as “mechanistic” in any sense of the world, I believe that our internal experience does arise from the physical qualities of our brains. The brains of humans are profoundly complex, and our internal experience is likewise rich. A fly’s brain, while far more complex in organization than a rock, is nothing compared to humans, and it is therefore quite reasonable to suppose that their internal world is very limited, insofar as a fly even HAS an internal world.

Along these lines, by looking at the complexity of brains and the sophistication of behavior, we can create a rough linear progression from rocks and shoes up to humans. Closest to humans would be the other primates, especially chimpanzees. Chimpanzees are the most closely related still-extant species to humans (there were, of course, other more closely related species to humans that our now extinct). They share almost all of our genes. Their behavior is amazingly complex and sophisticated. And the size and complexity of their brains reflect this. It is reasonable to suppose that their internal world, their PERSONHOOD, is quite rich and complex. It is CERTAINLY reasonable to believe that they feel pain in a manner VERY SIMILAR to us. It is THIS FACT and THIS FACT ALONE that drives my ethical objection to killing and eating them.

So, in a nutshell, and after writing THE LONGEST BLOG ENTRY EVER, we’ve come to the conclusion: I believe it is wrong to kill and eat anything that has the sort of internal experience and capacity to feel pain and loss that I do. But where (and here’s the rub!) do you draw the line? Why is it wrong to eat a chimpanzee (or a hobo, or a baby, for that matter), but ok to eat a lobster? Where is the line drawn?

I admit that that line is quite arbitrary. Why is abortion ok at 5 months but not at 7 months? There is no clear and obvious line. If we acknowledge, however, that animals with sentience have a profound capacity to experience pain, then we should begin with the goal of minimizing that pain. I am influenced here by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer (it is Singer’s writing that influenced me to restrict my diet in the first place many years ago), who like me is a Utilitarian (a philosophy worthy of discussion at a later time!). From this, Singer concludes that because the killing and eating of animals causes such pain, and because the capacity for certain animals to experience pain is comparable to human infants (i.e., certain animals – especially mammals, but also birds, dolphins, and whales – have roughly the same degree of self-awareness as a human infant), we should therefore avoid killing and eating all of those animals. I do not go as far as Singer, which means I do not err on the side of caution. I acknowledge that certain animals – dogs, cats, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, whales, dolphins – have self-awareness and the capacity for feeling pain at a level that ethically prohibits killing and eating them. I am suspicious of this quality in birds. I outright deny this quality in insects and fish.

I am (as the above paragraph begins to suggest) not certain where the line should be, and I am in practice a hypocrite. For example, I continue to wear and use products made of leather, which is as morally objectionable as eating a cheeseburger. If my shoes were made from dog skin instead of cow skin (or made from human skin) I’d react much more strongly. This is not as ethically justifiable as it is an emotional fact. I also concede that the line I’m drawing – mammals – is rough and arbitrary, and from a Utilitarian point of view (minimizing unnecessary suffering) is questionable. If I gain no benefit apart from taste from eating turkey, and if there is any reason to believe that turkeys suffer, then perhaps I should not eat the turkeys. By eating them I am taking an unjustified risk.

There is also the question of activism. I do essentially nothing in the way of activism – e.g., I even tolerate others eating cows or pigs in my presence, even in my house (I wouldn’t tolerate them eating a dog in my house, and again, that’s more emotional than logical). This justification of such tolerance is questionable. The most I’ve ever done is to vote against dog racing on the Massachusetts ballot. I’ve never even given volunteered for an animal-rights organization. And, the truth be told, I rarely discuss my ethical aversions to meat-eating, as I am all to conscious that it is viewed as unmanly weakness worthy of mockery, at least in this country. I should be killing chickens with my bare hands and eating them raw, or – better! – half alive. Then smear myself with blood and howl at the full moon. Get some respect that way. Of course, I should take comfort that by acknowledging animal rights I’m in the same company as Plato, da Vinci, V.S. Naipaul, Franz Kafka, Spike Milligan, George Bernard Shaw, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Eve Ensler, Robert Parish, Bill Walton, Willem Dafoe, Danny DeVito, Anthony Hopkins, Leonard Nimoy, Carl Sagan, and Jacques Cousteau, just to name a few. And you can’t call Carl Sagan and Robert Parish wimps, can you? (yeah, the knuckle-draggers sure can…)

At any rate, there’s a lot more that could be said on this topic but I’ve already spent more time and space on this than is good for either myself or my (one or two!) readers. But it does help me reexamine my own ethics, which is always positive.

If you are interested, you should also read Peter Singer’s book.

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