The EATS Show: UNC-Chapel Hill and Animal Ethics
April 20, 2012 11 Comments
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.