The EATS Show: UNC-Chapel Hill and Animal Ethics

Last Tuesday I did my bi-annual speaking gig at UNC-Chapel Hill’s world famous EATS seminar. This multi-faceted “food studies” course encourages the university’s best-and-brightest undergrads to grapple with the multiple complexities of today’s broken food system. Students are not only deeply engaged in matters of the mind, but they pay equal attention to matters of the palate.  Questions of taste, texture, and refinement are just as critical to the classroom ethos as the inadequacies of the Farm Bill. Facing fifteen gourmand geniuses requires strong coffee, nerves of steel, and airtight arguments. All things considered, it was one of the most engaging classroom experiences I’ve had in 15 years of teaching.

It didn’t take long for students to bring the razor-sharp lucidity of taste to bear on the ambiguity of animal ethics. Several students made it perfectly and proudly clear that they ate animals because animals tasted good. So there. The underlying implication was clear enough: there’s no arguing with taste—it’s the ultimate arbiter, not only of pleasure but, one assumed, ethical legitimacy.

Needless to say, I was all over this assumption like bearnaise on eggs Benedict. For one, it’s a brand of fundamentalism no different than that espoused by the University of Texas student who just last week told me that he ate meat because The Book of Genesis said he could do so.  Fine, but this won’t do. What our food culture needs is an intellectually sound justification for causing unneeded suffering, not a reference to an arbitrary external “authority” such as Genesis, or taste.

Moreover, we don’t claim a customary right to experience an endless array of pleasure in other arenas of sensual life.  The pleasures of food are often compared to the pleasures of sex. Still, few of us live life under the impression that we can indulge every sexual desire that tickles the imagination just because it creates pleasure. We don’t have TV shows featuring figures such as Anthony Bourdain traveling the world sampling local and exotic sexual indulgences. To the contrary, we structure the quest for sexual pleasure within a framework of reasonable, morally bound regulations. Whether we adhere to these regulations or not isn’t the point–we generally assume that they serve an important societal function. As I see it, the only reason food gets a pass from this form of regulation is that animals cannot provide their consent.  Thus our quest for pleasure trumps their right not to be needlessly violated.

Another common justification offered for eating animals was that it’s an integral part of culture, ritual, tradition, and even religion. Two thoughts came to mind on this point. First, not to be flip, but so what? Culture, ritual, tradition, and religion change with the wind.  At the time of the American Revolution the forces of tradition affirmed the oppression of women, enslavement of blacks, and the decimation of Native Americans. Point being: the existence of a tradition is hardly proof of its ethical legitimacy. Second, for a generation hoping to reform the food system, an appeal to tradition, culture, and ritual is dangerously counter-productive by virtue of its inherent conservatism. Why support values that oppose change, especially when culinary “culture” and “ritual” for most Americans today centers on fast food and Twinkies?

A final point that evoked debate was the issue of sentience. The ability to suffer, I argued, transcends species differentiation. In fact, it’s the crucial commonality humans share with farm animals, the one that specifically nullifies any right to raise and kill them for food. This idea penetrated the group like a toothpick into a boulder. They wanted none of it. The primary objection was that varying levels of sentience justified the decision of higher order “life forms” to kill and eat lower order life forms. I joked with the class that I hoped, especially as I aged, that I never end up stranded with them on a desert island. My quip had a purpose: I wanted them to think of sentience differences within species as well as among them. Would they apply their sentience-differentiation-justification to mentally handicapped humans, humans living in a vegetative state, or humans wracked with dementia? Thankfully, nobody would admit to that.

I consider it a victory of sorts that, not only were there already committed vegans in this class, and not only was the collective discussion incredibly vibrant and respectful, but that we were having the discussion at all.  I told the class that I didn’t really expect to see any real progress toward a food system free of animal exploitation in my lifetime.  But, whether intentionally or not, the class gave me at least a spark of encouragement.

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About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

11 Responses to The EATS Show: UNC-Chapel Hill and Animal Ethics

  1. CQ says:

    Brave of you to enter that steaming kitchen, James. 🙂 Glad you not only endured the heat, but shed some light on the subject. I’m sure the vegans in the room felt validated by your arguments, and undoubtedly you were comforted by their presence. Yes, nerves of steel were required — as well as a heart of gold toward all creatures!

    Though I hung on to your every word, these two sentences, a summary of your comparison of two forms of fleshly pleasure, sunk in most deeply: “As I see it, the only reason food gets a pass from this form of regulation is that animals cannot provide their consent. Thus our quest for pleasure trumps their right not to be needlessly violated.” Of course we know that the real trump is, should be, the animals’ right to autonomy, self-determination, life, liberty.

    The fast-food-and-Twinkies line was a dead (live?) ringer, as was your cogent comment about the differences in sentience WITHIN a single species: namely, ours.

    Appreciation from this ethical vegan and fellow rebel for your valiant efforts to rouse slumbering minds and chip away at stony hearts.

    • CQ,
      Nice. Of course, humans can have a right to autonomy, self-determination, life, and liberty and, through their consent, sacrifice those qualities, however temporarily. Also, I would warn you against hanging on my words, as you could end up falling into the abyss.
      🙂
      Thanks for your kind response.

      • CQ says:

        Well, I prefer that abyss to the one into which Mountain throws animals! 🙂

        “Sustainable,” yeah right — especially for the killed-without-their-consent creatures.

        It amazes me that people publicly proclaim their LACK of empathy. I’d be embarrassed to admit it. I guess having the majority opinion — the status quo — on one’s side makes one brave, or masks the guilt, or something.

      • CQ says:

        Just read an Animal Blawg blog that describes the “hubris” of animal exploitation better than I ever could: http://animalblawg.wordpress.com/2012/04/21/the-men-who-prune-goats

  2. Mike says:

    “Culture, ritual, tradition, and religion change with the wind. At the time of the American Revolution the forces of tradition affirmed the oppression of women, enslavement of blacks, and the decimation of Native Americans. Point being: the existence of a tradition is hardly proof of its ethical legitimacy. ” – ——-James, you’re such a wonderful writer and brave thinker. I’m so grateful you’re so interested in this topic and helping us all better understand our instincts. Hooray for everything you’re doing because it’s wonderful. Mike

    • The Beet-Eating Heeb almost always agrees wholeheartedly with James, but in this case, BEH finds his casual dismissal of religion as inappropriate and wrong-headed.

      Speaking only for the Jewish religion, The Beet-Eating Heeb can tell you that the 2,500-year-old Torah clearly and repeatedly expresses a preference for veganism and a mandate for compassion.

  3. gena says:

    What Mike said.

  4. brian lindberg says:

    The full ethical scope of this discussion is much broader than the moral implications of eating animals. In our present context, eating animals is not sustainable…that is, this behavior, coupled with others, is suicidal, from the point of view of human evolution. Establishing that fact is easy. Ethically, if we are to move on, we must learn to live to benefit all life forms, man included.

    • CQ says:

      Indeed. And have you written about that full ethical scope in a blog or elsewhere, brian lindberg? I’d be interested in hearing more of your ideas for how “to live to benefit all life forms, man included.”

    • Mountain says:

      If you mean eating animals raised in what is currently the conventional way is not sustainable, then sure, you’re right. But eating plants raised in what is currently the conventional way isn’t remotely sustainable either. If, on the other hand, you mean that eating animals is inherently unsustainable, then you’re simply mistaken. An approach to food production that incorporates animals & recognizes their contribution is far more sustainable than any approach that attempts to exclude animals.

  5. Provoked says:

    As usual I totally agree with your slant on things… But that “we don’t claim a customary right to experience an endless array of pleasure in other arenas of sensual life” depends. It sure feels as if that is exactly the kind of world we live in. One where everyone is seduced into believing that their existence hinges on being entertained or satisfied 24/7. Regardless of consequences.

    I’m glad a small group of good thinkers gave you some hope at Chapel Hill. But more importantly that you were able to give them some reason to hunger for “ethical legitimacy”.

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