Monday, January 31, 2011


It came to me today that, when it comes to eating dead animals, everything I eat these days would be classed by many people as disgusting. Clams. Oysters. A lot of people find clams and oysters disgusting; slimy is a word that’s often used.

What’s so bad about slimy? Why are some people who love sex disgusted by oysters? Maybe oysters and sex are both gross, but sex is delightful, and--to me at least--an oyster tastes wonderfully good. And (much much more importantly) eating an oyster isn't unethical--at least, so far as I know.

Leave aside cows and dogs and wolves and cats and pigs and parrots and eagles and chickens—and what they think and feel when we are killing them so we can eat their dead flesh (it isn’t always a quick process, the killing). Think only of what they may think and feel when they are being bred for slaughter—tortured, essentially, according to the principles of modern intensive farming. Those non-human animals are, as most of us do know, fully conscious beings, capable of both thought and feeling—capable in many cases of something very like our own thoughts and feelings.

(The surprise for me has been that shrimp are sentient too. That’s why I no longer eat them.)

The fact is that disgust doesn’t connect with ethics as it should. No matter how horrifically a pig or a calf or a chicken has been mistreated in confinement awaiting slaughter, no matter now horrendously it has been slaughtered, most of us have made ourselves immune to disgust. To my unending shame, I did this myself for more than half of a life.

In a very good book that I’ve recently discovered,* Melanie Joy points to something very interesting: “what is most striking about our selection of edible and inedible animals is not the presence of disgust, but the absence of it. Why are we not averse to eating the very small selection of animals we have deemed edible?” This goes to the heart of the matter. As children we react with the same level of repulsion to the mistreatment and eating of a pig or a chicken as we do to that of a cat, or a dog, or a robin. But as a society we have trained ourselves to lose our disgust. Along with that, as Joy points out, we have trained ourselves to lose our empathy. And, it seems fair to add, our moral compass.

* * *

Animals events next week: I'll be joining classes for discussion on Monday at the University of Toronto, and on Tuesday at York University. On Thursday I'll be at the Happy Endings bar in Manhattan as part of the Animal Farm Reading Series--"dedicated to promoting the best writing, in any genre, that has a satirical and/or critical point of view on the world." If you are reading this and will be in New York next Thursday, please come.

* Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism

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