Not So Humble Pie

The NYT has just announced the finalists for its essay contest on the ethics of meat eating (here). Alas, my entry is not there, so I may as well stick it up for people to see (here).

This is one of those topics on which people are even more liable to disagree with me than usual, and even potentially to take offence at my opinions, so I should probably add a few qualifiers. The piece is very short (600 words), which is a very small space in which to express an argument. If you think it’s glib, well, that’s the reason. It also makes appeals to a few important notions: action, value, beauty, art, freedom, that I have almost no space to define adequately, though I give it my best shot. They’re all used fairly precisely, so, if in doubt, read it a couple times (it is short after all!). Finally, although I’m arguing for the ethical soundness of eating meat, I’m arguing for a general principle, not for the specifics of its application. There are all sorts of exceptions and qualifications that could usefully be added to what I say, but again, there’s no space for them.

Those points aside, I’m fairly pleased with the piece, and rather enjoyed writing something short for a change. May try more of it once my current standing commitments are out of the way. Till then, enjoy!


4 thoughts on “Not So Humble Pie

  1. Great essay. i think i’d say created rather than art, ie a person is created, and I’m not quite sure why value has to be one thing. Can’t pain be bad in one way, and freedom be another source of something different? Can’t it both be better if animals don’t suffer and for it to be ok to kill and eat them? I think so.

    By the way, if it had been longer and more precise I wouldn’t have read it.

    • There’s an important distinction between different things being valuable for different reasons, which I’m totally happy to accept, and there being different sources of value, which I’m not. So, there might be good reasons to treat animals in certain ways, but I think that they’d be importantly different from the reasons we have for treating persons in certain ways. There are lots of complex arguments to be had here, but my core point is that they shouldn’t be utilitarian ones regarding overall quantities of pleasure or pain. I wrote about this stuff in a bit more depth in a couple posts a while back, but I don’t know if you’d be willing to read them!

      In order of length, try:-

  2. I will just give a fly by the seat of my pants response here. It really looks like a recapitulation of Descartes who ceded that animals had emotions, and had the sensations of pain, but that those had no sense of sense of an animal. I find it personally odd that in an era of increasing developments in cognitive ethology that people still push this dichotomous view of humanity and animality. Value is a just a special form of signification, and all animals engage in signification, even insects. The behaviorist can not accept this but it can be shown that different registers of semiosis are play for the animal. At bare minimum two of the registers which Peirce considered emblematic of the core regimes of semiosis are at play: animals make use of indexicality and representation or likeness. We might even say symbolization (the von foerster interpretaton of pavlov) since what, afterall, did pavlov’s experiment show other than that animals were capable of associating an arbitrary sign, a bell, with an arbitrary referent a dog biscuit. They could come to take the bell as signing the a priori unconnected item, the biscuit. Arbitrariness of association of the association of the sign to it’s referent is precisely the defining feature symbolization. Animals may not have the same capacity to spontaneously engage in symbolization, but the degree of world openness in relations is a separate issue; the core point is that animals are engaged in processes of semiosis, of which “value” is just a special case of.

    And we could add that pain and pleasure don’t force responses. On the sensation of a pang of hunger my dog will spontaneously refuse a piece of tavern ham and opt instead for a piece of boiled chicken– yet when dying of starvation she’d probably choose the ham if there were no chicken available. Freedom or the capacity to value things differentially is not a unique human ability.

    We could even go further by invoking autopoiesis to show that all animals are constitutively involved in their own production of themselves. It’s a matter of choice to not call it as art, when as you ceded, the production often ends up being beautiful. And here I’d expect a dualistic injunction. But creation is creation, regardless of whether it’s effectuated by organic causes or by “mental causation” involving complex concatinations of symbolization or whatever else.

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