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On Cannibalism

When we left off, the New York Times' Roger Cohen had eaten dog while in China, and wasn't thrilled about it emotionally. Logically, he admits it does make perfect sense to eat dogs if you eat pigs and cows. He writes:

There is a rational, and for some people a spiritual, case for being a vegetarian: Killing animals is wrong. However I cannot see a rational argument for saying eating dogs or cats is barbaric while eating pork or beef is fine. If you eat meat you cannot logically find it morally or ethically repugnant to eat a particular meat (I’m setting cannibalism aside here.).

I'm intrigued by his mention of cannibalism, even if to set it aside. Why? Because his previous paragraph is:

But do pigs have any more or less of a soul than dogs? Are they any more or less sentient? Do they suffer any more or less in death? Are they any more or less part of the mysterious unity of life? I think not.

It's a bit difficult to take on the soul question for human or nonhuman animals, particularly for an atheist. I'm not sure what soul means or whether it can be physically located anywhere so . . . I'll set it aside here. But the other issues–sentience, suffering, being part of the "mysterious unity of life"–Cohen's own criteria for lumping anyone into one category, are all equally true for humans. His aside demonstrates how self-conscious he is about attributes shared by pigs and dogs, which he knows is also shared by humans.

What Cohen doesn't say, which is the real point of his quasi-lament over dining on dog, is that we don't eat humans because they are human. But in the nonhuman world, there's simply no reason to make any distinctions.

If sentience and suffering and "the mysterious unity of life" are really your concerns, you aren't going be eating anybody.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. I've located the soul: it is in the opposable thumb. The nonhuman animals with such thumbs have "less of a soul," to quote Cohen, however. Spread the news.

    February 7, 2010
  2. Everyone I know is vegan when it comes to eating other humans and everyone I know personally is vegan when it comes to eating dogs and cats.
    It's easy…anyone can Go vegan and stay vegan. People just need to extend the same refrain that inspires them in the above vegan situations to all the other animals as well. It's pretty simple. Flesh is nasty and it hurts everyone you bite!

    February 7, 2010
  3. With all the progress made in science, specifically physics, cosmology, and biology over the past 50 years, I can't believe educated people in papers like the NYT still use the word "soul". It is the same level of ignorance that led people in the 1600s to believe that there were "animal spirits" running through our veins. It's the same level of ignorance that causes people to believe in fairies, goblins, voodoo, witches, ghosts, and….. souls.

    And there is no important difference (and no moral difference) between cannibalism or consuming the bodily fluids of humans versus eating the flesh and bodily fluids of other species, except diseases might be more likely with widespread cannibalism.

    February 7, 2010
  4. jean #

    "There is no important difference"???

    Wrong. There are massive differences. Suspend for just a moment any kind of normative judgments here and consider only purely practical considerations, please: Humans are endowed with a large array of hardwired communication capabilities shared with all other humans, including language, facial expressions (study up on Paul Ekman's research in the psychophysics of facial expressions and the Facial Action Coding System (FACS)) and other capacities which they do not share (or share only to a far lesser degree) with animals.

    Given the emergence of these commonalities within the human species, it was probably inevitable that we would eventually develop something like a planetary culture, together with an emerging planetary level of cooperation and negotiation of shared agreements in the form of legal instruments protecting human rights, ending cannibalism, etc.

    The materialist basis for any kind of extension of the social contract to include animals is far weaker, in an objective sense, since it would really depend mainly on the refinement of human ethical sensibilities towards animals. A fine thing to dream about, in principle, but actually getting there is still a ways off, for innumerable practical reasons.

    February 23, 2010
  5. Massive differences?

    Name one. So far, you haven’t named any important differences between cannibalism or consuming the bodily fluids of humans versus eating the flesh and bodily fluids of other species.

    “Hardwired communication abilities”. So what? First, why does that matter? Second, even if it did matter in the slightest, other species have hardwired communication abilities as well, in addition to many abilities humans do not have. Many can fly in the air. Others can breathe under water. Yet others can run vary fast?

    “Planetary culture”. Again, so what? Why does that matter more than anthill culture, pack culture, herd culture, or school culture?

    “Cooperation”. Again, so what? Why does that matter? Many nonhumans cooperate better than humans do. But even if that wasn’t the case, so what?

    Is a social contract the only way to think of moral behavior toward others? Why don’t you kill humans, Jean? Is it because of some secret contract between you and other people you see? Personally, I don’t refrain from killing other humans because of a “contract”. Nor do I refrain from killing other humans because they communicate with me. Nor do I refrain from killing other humans because they are part of a “planetary culture” or because they "cooperate".

    My reason for not killing other humans is that they are fellow sentient beings who, through their sentience and ONLY their sentience, have an important interest in their lives and well being.

    I am a vegan for precisely the same set of reasons that I am not a cannibal.

    February 23, 2010
  6. jean #

    Despite my initial caveat that I tried to preface my statements with, I believe that every single response you made to each point I identified as a "significant difference" was a "normative" as opposed to purely pragmatic one. "Normative" means "right vs. wrong." ("Normative" pertains to rules that get established by customs over a long period of time, and that can evolve, and that in some cases are different from one culture to another.) I will agree that there is no reason in principle why our ethics, ie, our normative rules, could not evolve to fully include codes of conduct towards animals. In fact, we already have at least a few.

    The point I was trying to make is that there are very practical hard-nosed reasons why it is more challenging and slower going to establish these rules vis a vis animals than between humans. Because of our hardwired human-to-human communications capabilities, we can find out much more easily what other humans are thinking, feeling, and needing, than we can with animals. Not to say that there isn't some interspecies communication possible, too. In fact, we are cultivating that increasingly, through the work of people like Jane Goodall.

    If you look at the history of human rights, there has an been an extensive historical evolution. A lot of this boiled down to communication. Just think: the Greeks even referred to any people who didn't speak Greek as "barbarians," somehow less civilized. Today, most people would consider this a very provincial and foolish sort of bigotry. But it is because we understand more widely today that all humans are capable of learning any spoken language at all. And a person who speaks one language can still learn to communicate their thoughts and feelings in great detail to others, even without being fully fluent in the spoken language of the people they are communicating with. Again, it is because we have many, many hardwired INTRASPECIES (within our own species) communications faculties, especially such things as facial expressions, which are indeed universal and not culturally relative.

    The ability of humans to communicate with each other in great detail and subtlety has been an immeasurably important factor in the evolution of shared agreements around principles like human rights. The more I study the history of these things the clearer it becomes.

    As we more fully develop our abilities to communicate with other species, I think we will inevitably start to take their interests more seriously. The communication element is immensely important, if for no other reason than, without such communication, how do we even know what those interests are? One has to listen, and understand. It will take time. And it will probably still be imperfect, because our interests and those of other species will not necessarily always align in simplistic ways (the interests of different human groups often come into conflict, too!).

    The thinking that inspires animal rights activism and ideology often seems to be inspired by the belief that we can take a direct shortcut past any such pragmatic considerations altogether, and base our attitudes towards animals on a perfect mirror image analogy with human rights. Again, there are innumerable stumbling blocks that this kind of thinking ignores.

    (I'm not making any observations here that specifically address "cannibalism," simply because that term, as understood by vegans, could subsume practically all animal existence for hundreds of millions of years up to the present, and going forward into the future, at least until we've developed methods for producing edible foodstuffs directly out of strictly inorganic materials. You could choose to limit the term to apply only to organisms that have a central nervous system, and argue for developing codes of conduct around eating only organisms that, say, do not have nerve fibers, on the grounds that this better respects the interests of those animals to avoid pain and prevents unnecessary suffering. In that case, you would be intuiting something about the sensory experiences of those animals, and making an ethical judgment based on that. Maybe human beings will increasingly choose to do that. Obviously, though, the more similar that a species seems to us, and the more obviously analogous their responses are, the easier and more compelling that such a way of thinking is liable to be for people. At a distance, a mewing cat sounds almost indistinguishable from a human baby, etc. This just reinforces the observations above about the great significance of "communication.")

    February 25, 2010
  7. Thank you for clarifying, Jean.

    Before this clarification, I viewed your focus on communication as providing an “excuse” (having strong normative/evaluative implications) for people to continue on as patently speciesist. I now see your focus on communication more as explaining, as an empirical matter, why we are collectively so bigoted against other species, similar to how one might explain empirical reasons for genocides. I agree that a lack of communication with sentient nonhumans explains a lot of our collective bigotry. If they could speak our language clearly, or we theirs, things would be more clear to even the most obtuse of us. I would add some evolutionary psychology to the mix (particularly the tendency toward kin selection in primate species like humans) in explaining our collective bigotry in general, toward both humans and nonhumans.

    Importantly, however, while these explanations are all well and good for the limited purpose of explaining behavior at the collective level, they do not serve to excuse the prejudice of individuals, except to the extent that individuals have been molded in an extremely speciesist society. In other words, we can understand and excuse those who, through lack of exposure, have simply not thought about or have not been educated on the issue. But for those of us who have been exposed to relevant facts and well-reasoned arguments (including overwhelming evidence of the interests of sentient nonhumans in not being exploited and killed), none of the empirical explanations one can provide (e.g. communication, evolutionary psychology) provides any justification for continued speciesism at the individual level, even mild speciesism, but especially the strong speciesism common in our society.

    Of course, we can get into the thick brush of the various capacities of individuals for self-determination versus social determination. I’ll admit that there are many “normal adult humans” who have a profound and unfortunate lack in the capacity for self-determination (i.e. they have genetics and environmental factors overwhelmingly favoring mindless conformity to dominant culture, no matter how immoral the culture is), but there are also many who have plenty of capacity for self-determination and have been exposed to relevant facts and well-reasoned arguments, and are therefore blameworthy to the extent they hold or condone speciesist attitudes, thoughts, speech, and behavior.

    Finally, I will modify the statement I made which provoked your original comment and limit it to a statement that there are no *morally significant* differences between breeding, exploiting, slaughtering obviously sentient nonhumans versus, say, orphaned human children, for the level of benefits (e.g. food and clothing preferences) people receive for doing so. Yes, I realize that there are empirical explanations for extreme speciesism, but it is all morally deplorable regardless of why or how it came about. We could go into empirical explanations for various genocides as well, but we should be clear that such explanations aren’t meant to excuse or “rationalize” those genocides.

    February 25, 2010
  8. jean #

    The takehome lesson I get, based on my reading of history, is less a sense of moral opprobrium towards "clueless people who dont get it yet" and more a sense of humility in the face of both how much weve learned, and how much we still dont yet know. I dont consider myself morally superior to the Greeks who referred to other peoples as "barbarians" (wouldn't that be kind of ironic in itself?!), because I know that I just have the advantage of hindsight, being born in a different era with an awareness of a whole dizzying train of historical events, which no one could have guessed at before they happened.

    Erich Fromm, in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, maintains that the results of the infamous Milgram experiments on "obedience" have been grossly misinterpreted. The common misunderstanding of those experiments is that most people carried out orders to torture and kill other experimental subjects like automatons, with hardly a murmur of opposition. In fact, though, most people, while they did comply with the orders given to them, in most cases did so under duress, with visible signs of distress, and eventually only after repeated harsh commands by the person playing the "authority" role. He maintains that these observations should be cause for hope, rather than despair or cynicism.

    Although people are commonly conditioned to obey authority, conventions, and customary expectations, that doesn't mean they are devoid of conscience, nor that they might not be activated under the right conditions to let conscience guide them, in spite of the threats by authority figures. Instead of conducting experiments that confirm a misguided cynicism towards humanity, we ought to be asking what kinds of conditions will be most conducive to the full development and flourishing of our autonomy and moral capacities.

    February 25, 2010
  9. My sense of moral opprobrium towards “clueless people who don’t yet get it” varies widely depending on the person, my knowledge of them and their background, and especially their attitude toward the issue of animal exploitation generally.

    Everyone I encounter as an individual starts out with a tabula rasa, and then proceeds to blemish it or keep it spotless (or crap all over it, as the case may be), depending on what they say or write, and especially how they respond to calm reasoning. I have encountered the whole spectrum, from people who are completely new to the idea of animals as persons, but nevertheless respond very positively to it (keeping a spotless slate), to the other end of people who are seasoned animal exploitation advocates (and soil the slate immediately), and a lot in between. And yes, I estimate their moral character accordingly and have no problem at all doing so.

    I think we can distinguish moral character in a non-relative sense from moral character in a relative sense. In the non-relative sense, we ignore genetic and environmental factors and look only at the collective attitudes, speech, and behavior as they are. In the relative sense, we consider genetics and background as determining factors and estimate that, had the person been born into much different circumstances, their attitudes, speech and behavior would be much different (better or worse) than it is now.

    It is in the non-relative sense that I generally estimate moral character, although the more familiar I am with someone’s relevant background, the more I incorporate relative factors in an estimation of their character.

    Unsurprisingly, people’s concern with their own moral character usually varies in direct proportion to the quality of their moral character. Therefore, and ironically, those toward whom we have the greatest sense of moral opprobrium are generally least bothered by it.

    February 25, 2010
  10. Absolutely.

    Philip puts it well, too: "Everyone I know is vegan when it comes to eating other humans and everyone I know personally is vegan when it comes to eating dogs and cats."

    February 26, 2010
  11. jean #

    I look at ethical veganism as a form of spiritual discipline. In a nonfundamentalist spiritual discipline, one doesn't claim to know and follow absolute truth, nor to impose it on anybody else. Rather, one follows the discipline to stay true to higher aspirations, such as avoiding the infliction of suffering, cultivating compassion for all sentient beings, and so on. That is not to say that everyone will have the same aspirations, nor even that everyone will necessarily realize those aspirations in the same ways.

    When veganism becomes primarily a political agenda, rather than a spiritual discipline, it takes on more of the character of other competing political agendas, including petty squabbles, and all kinds of potential violence and nastiness that have nothing to do with compassion for sentient beings.

    March 3, 2010
  12. Not sure if your comment is meant to be relevant to the comments immediately preceding yours, Jean, but just to contrast our perspectives as representative of the vastly different perspectives people have about veganism, I’ll present mine.

    I doubt have a spiritual cell in my body, but I wouldn’t know it if I did, since I’m not even sure what spiritual means.

    My veganism comes from a combination of my senses of empathy and reasoned justice, with reasoned justice playing the overwhelmingly dominant role (visceral disgust, probably similar to most people’s aversion to cannibalism, has also played an increasing role over the years). As I wrote earlier in this thread, I am a vegan for precisely the same set of reasons that I am not a cannibal. I find animal products disgusting (morally and otherwise). The exploitation and killing necessary to obtain all animal products is clearly unjust. The willingness to participate in such exploitation and intentional, unnecessary killing reflects a serious lack of empathy with the victim and a lack of understanding or behavioral acknowledgement of justice.

    I see veganism as a political agenda in the same way that I see the opposition to legalized genocide, chattel slavery, and rape as a political agenda. If we cannot have justice in these matters, we cannot have peace, or as the old saw goes: Know justice, know peace; no justice, no peace.

    Compassion has become a vacuous, meaningless term that means everything, and therefore means nothing. When I see the word “compassion”, I see the blood and guts of the innocent all over the place. That’s exactly how compassion resonates with me. It has become a word of the exploiters who want to make themselves feel good. I think vegans should avoid it like the word “fuck” in a monastery or polite company.

    So yes, there are very different ways of seeing the importance of and reasons for veganism.

    March 3, 2010
  13. jean #

    at one time I was more of a political activist, however, i found i had to largely give it up. in my case, the problem was that, i found it was impairing my ability to constructively relate to other people.

    there is a strange, seeming paradox, i found (but really it is not paradoxical, but very logical): when i became obsessed with a certain political analysis of the world, that divided things up into opposite poles lying in a single plane, then it was like rubbing two magnets together. i had to assume the opposite polarity of the thing i criticized, but because of my "magnetic" alignment with my opposite, i largely could not see or relate to all the dimensions lying entirely outside this limited plane that i found myself stuck in!! i was lucky enough to somehow perceive that there were other planes out there, and became determined to escape the limited one i found myself stuck in.

    i realize i'm speaking in metaphors here that might seem vague to people, but from which i hope others can somehow intuit some meaning.

    March 4, 2010
  14. A-Fuckin-Men sister!!! I LOVE this kick ass scntae of yours and that you used the F-Bomb [so not what I’m used to from you, tee hee]Your clear passion for animals is apparent in your COMPASSION you are an absolute delight doll and I’m proud to be in the vegan team with ya xxx

    October 19, 2012

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