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A brief summary of what Hugh Fearnley-Whittinstall said can be found on the Guardian website, but for the sake of saving you a click allow me to paraphrase:
Let’s eat puppies.
OK, he didn’t say it like that – but what he did say was that there is no moral difference between the eating of puppies and the eating of pigs. After all, it is merely a social difference that we – on the whole – choose to eat to pork rather than puppy. You know what? He’s right. I rejoiced not because I particularly want to eat puppies (I would probably try it) but because it was a win for logic and reason (and it lets me cite my Master’s dissertation in an article).
For my Master’s dissertation I asked the question “Is survival cannibalism morally permissible?”, a question, seemingly, that had never really been directly asked. However, there were nuances of it when you looked at the works of philosophers who talked about the consumption of animal flesh, and I think I successfully teased out the best ones it my dissertation.
A common citation for those arguing for in favour of the abolition of meat-eating is the famous bioethicist, Peter Singer. Peter Singer is a vegan himself, supposedly so moved by the force of his own reasoning that he moved away from omnivory and his day job to focus on bioethics. His book, Animal Liberation, is an impressive, well-argued, accessible book that is worth reading by anyone who eats anything (so, no super models).
One of the key arguments in the book – one that he makes early – is that there is a sense of speciesism amongst meat-eaters where they make arbitrary demarcations between animals that are okay to eat and ones that are not. So, we say pigs are fine to eat but not puppies; chickens but not ravens. He examines numerous arguments that people might offer in defence but it always comes down to one similar argument – “but they’re pigs” or “but they’re chickens“.
This argument, he says, has been used countlessly in the past to justify other atrocities – the slave trade and racism (“but they’re black people“), the oppression of women (“but they’re women“), and in the case of cannibalism (“but they’re human!“). None of these arguments are based on any sort of facts or reliable evidence – they are just based on the values of “we are us” and “they are them”. One cannot help but feel inclined to agree with Singer on these points (at least when they are presented so generally).
Snips and Snails and Puppy Dogs Tails
Indeed, when you examine Fearnley-Whittingstall argument with this context in mind it’s hard to refute it. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised that I could not find an article of outrage on either the Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph website – one was neutral and the other (the Telegraph) conceded but said that there was evidence that it would be difficult to breed dogs for meat, as if that was the salient point.
The salient point is in our values. Values are things the ends that we find important; goals in life that we strive to accomplish; the things we want around us in our lives. Values are ‘arational’ in the sense that they can be rational, irrational or neither – we may value something for reasons that simply do not exist, and what is valuable to one person may not be to others. Think of something you like doing – do all people like doing it? Is it conceivable that there are people who hate it?
When we think about puppies, we might conjure up images of playful pets, certain television adverts, or simply an animal that you are apathetic to. You may, however, think of your next meal. You may think “I wonder what puppies taste like?” This is a valid and reasonable thought – it’s not disgusting or vile; it’s not something to be concerned about. In fact, if you were to substitute ‘puppies’ for ‘humans’ I may not even blink an eyelid at you.
All it is is culture – the values we are brought up to believe in and the ones that are reinforced daily by our peers, the media and society at large (like nursery rhymes).
Don’t kid yourself – there were cultures that believed in human cannibalism. Whilst my dissertation only covers cases of extreme hunger, there was a whole world that I simply didn’t have the time to delve into where our entire human history may have been built on the recycling of human flesh via direct consumption of the dead. In many places on Earth, protein would have been a rare commodity and the freshly slain body of an enemy would have made an excellent feast for your kin.
Furthermore, cannibalism was used as a psychological weapon to strike fear into the hearts and minds of rival clans. Could you imagine, being in the jungle with your hunting party knowing that any moment these demon warriors could leap out at you, capture you and then tear your friends’ flesh from their bones at eat it in front of you? These are not just myths – there is strong anthropological evidence of it. This was a cultural thing that ran right through the lives of some people. Don’t think children were spared either.
Any interesting case to consider with cannibalism is that in some cultures it was considered a great honour to eat someone. If they requested you did it, it meant that you were special to them and that they wanted their body and spirit to be united with yours forever. They would even go so far as to crush up their bones to a powder, mix it with liquid and then drink it. Bones are mostly calcium – what better way to get calcium in a civilisation that does not milk cows or an equivalent?
Really, then, there are many interesting ideas to consider. The most important one is that there seems to be good reason to distinguish between animals on the morality of eating them. While some may be repulsed by the idea – which is their right, no one would force them to eat meat – others are not so. They are simply curious and logically making the point that there simply is no good reason to arbitrarily say “it’s OK to eat pigs but not puppies”. There isn’t – attempts to do so will fail. In my opinion, at least, it is simply a matter of cultural values and the personal choice of individuals. If one is dead set against meat in all forms then the matter is already settled; if you’re a meat-eater then the choice is personal. Most will probably shy away, but at least they should have the choice and not some poorly reasoned “this is yucky”-type arguments.