May 04, 2002
Meaty Thoughts

Jeff Goldstein at Protein Wisdom (not to be confused with Ken Goldstein of The Illuminated Donkey or Al Goldstein of Screw) has an interesting post and accompanying thread called Vegetarians with Blood on their Hands. It has inspired so many various thoughts in me that they won't fit in his comments section. Besides, it's kind of fun to set up a double-helix-type double-thread on two different sites. A few weeks ago, my 'No Muslims on Star Trek?' thread (20 comments, one of them just yesterday) jumped over to Asparagirl for 22 more.

Anyway, Protein Wisdom starts from the observation that vegetable farming kills animals, too, just wild ones, and suggests, among other things, that it might help ease the moral qualms of meat-eaters if domesticated animals could be genetically engineered not to feel pain. My comments:

1. One of JG's commentators, 'Tiger Lily' (not her real name, I imagine), repeats, without endorsing, a common objection to meat-eating:

Truth is, if I had to slaughter the animls I've eaten over the years, I'd have gone hungry @ 99.9% of the time. So, it seems, my illogic knows no bounds.

I can't imagine how famished I'd have to be to butcher an animal--but I'm pretty sure i'd lose my appetite in the process.

This is nearly the same as one of the common objections to the death-penalty: how can you support sending criminals to the electric chair if you wouldn't be willing to pull the switch yourself? The hidden corollary is: if you would, what kind of monster are you? I've always found this line of argument singularly unpersuasive -- as apparently, does Tiger Lily.

My counter-argument is simple: I can think of no amount of money that would ever persuade me to become a proctologist, and I'm not sure even a gun to my head would suffice. However, I would not hesitate to consult one if I were ever to suffer any medical problems pertinent to that particular field of expertise. Is that hypocrisy? Or just a recognition that careers that most of us would find revolting are somehow acceptable to some people? It continues to amaze me that there are proctologists in the world, and that they are not paid ten times as much as, say, cardiologists. I guess it's true that it takes all kinds to make a world.

The original argument is used two different ways: (a) If you are against hunting or unwilling to work in an abbatoir, you must become a vegetarian. (b) If you eat meat, you can't be opposed to hunting, since you obviously have no objection to killing animals. The second version (pushed by Dave Lonborg on Jeff's thread) may be stronger than the first.

2. A tangential topic may be worth exploring: Should we be doing more to widen the range of animals eaten? Many societies have considered locusts a tasty snack. Would it be a good thing if the current plague of locusts infesting Afghanistan were seen as an opportunity rather than a threat? After all, a sudden plague of lobsters would not frighten most of us. Quite the contrary: we would be out buying new freezers to store the ones we couldn't eat on the spot. If there were a market for fresh or frozen locusts, we could kill two birds with one stone, feeding the protein-starved and reducing the damage to crops for everyone.

3. Breeding (for instance) cows that were immune to physical pain would be a very bad idea. They would spend all day leaning on the barbed wire fences, knocking down the electric barriers, and kicking each other without fear of being kicked back. At the end of the day, we would have a lot of bleeding, stunned, or seriously injured cows wandering all over the place, and we couldn't even use cattle prods to get them back in their pens: they would have to be moved around by brute force. Though unpleasant (I guess that's the point), pain serves a very useful function for carbon-based life-forms.

What we need are stupid domesticated animals, too unobservant to notice the freedom of their wild brethren, and too unimaginative to anticipate their imminent deaths. Don't we already have those? Is it true that wild turkeys are the slyest of all North American animals, but domesticated turkeys the dumbest of all God's creatures? It may be an urban -- sorry, rural -- legend, but they say that turkeys are so dumb that they drown if left out in the rain, looking up at the sky with their mouths open.

Then again, I've been told that modern Thanksgiving turkeys have been bred to be so fat that they can only reproduce by artificial insemination. Apparently they can't get close enough together to do it the old-fashioned way. This brings me to another point. Is it better for domesticated animals to live lives so boring and tedious and (in the case of turkeys and castrated veal calves) sexless that they might as well be dead? Or should we try to give them as pleasant a time as possible before killing them? The answer is not entirely obvious. Fans of free-range livestock certainly think that a pleasanter life means a tastier death, but then we're back to the guilt involved in cutting short a happy life.

Bracing for a wave of e-mails from angry vegetarians (hi, Alison!) . . . .

Posted by Dr. Weevil at May 04, 2002 12:30 PM