... taste, the crudest of our senses, has been exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses. Why? Why doesn’t a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to confining, killing and eating it? It’s easy to dismiss that question but hard to respond to it. Try to imagine any end other than taste for which it would be justifiable to do what we do to farmed animals.I've been thinking about taste lately because of a surprising experience I had during my recent trip to New York. When we travel we like to eat at vegetarian or vegan restaurants, since they're so rare. So we went to a highly recommended vegan restaurant called "Angelica's Kitchen." We started with a soup and some appetizers that were totally delicious, but then we moved on to a dish called "barbecued seitan" that was, er, aesthetically challenged. It would not be going too far to say that it both looked and smelled like crap--literally. This was not good. The other entrees were not as awful, but not good. Instead of taking a chance on dessert we fled to another restaurant, where we had yummy non-vegan concoctions.
Now, vegan food can be much better--don't get me wrong. My local vegan restaurant in Dallas will serve you a very satisfying meal, nine times out ten. But let's suppose vegan food were always really bad. Then would we still have an obligation to eat it, and not animal products, because of what's done to farmed animals?
A really interesting argument by Alastair Norcross tries to convince us that taste doesn't justify us in eating animal food by means of a thought experiment. A guy named Fred has had an accident and has lost his ability to enjoy the taste of chocolate. He obtains a necessary restorative substance called "cocoamone" by torturing puppies in his basement, doing to them more or less what's done to animals in factory farms. We are invited to share Norcross's intuition that inflicting all that suffering just to enjoy chocolate again can't be justified--and I do.
But after eating at Angelica's Kitchen, I got to thinking--what if the accident had not just knocked out Fred's ability to enjoy chocolate, but his ability to enjoy all food? Suppose that without that hormone, all his food tasted like cardboard. Or more to the point, suppose that without the hormone, all his food tasted like the food at Angelica's. What would that supposition do to Norcross's argument?
To answer my own question--I think it would not change the outcome. Fred would still be wrong to torture the puppies, even if he was doing it to avoid having all his food taste boring or terrible. Yet we would have much more sympathy with him. We would think he was committing a crime, but we'd find it more understandable. We would still judge his action wrong, but wouldn't think as negatively about him.
Now, what does this have to do with the real world? In fact, I think there's a taste-loss involved in switching from an omnivorous diet to a vegan diet. The loss is greater than what Fred suffers, when he loses just his ability to enjoy chocolate, because animal ingredients are ubiquitous. The loss is less then we'd suffer if we had to eat cardboard all the time, or dine daily on barbecued seitan. There's some significant loss there, smaller to some (my husband and daughter don't especially like meat), larger to others (I do like meat).
The sympathetic reaction we have to Fred---in the scenario where everything tastes like cardboard or barbecued seitan--has to be extended to people who experience a lot of loss from not eating animal products. I'm not going to castigate you if you sometimes prioritize taste, and I'm not going to castigate myself for jumping ship from Angelica's to another restaurant for dessert. Foer is right that taste is not exempt from ethical rules, but there's no point in denying that it's a deep and powerful motivator. At least it comes into play when we decide how much sympathy to feel for ourselves and others when we do less than we really should.
That's part of what I was thinking about when I wrote a recent letter to the New York Times encouraging tolerance for people who give up some animal products for ethical reasons, but not everything they really should. Those who think I'm being too "nice" (toward others and myself) really ought to think more about Cardboard Fred, or Angelica Always Fred. At least where sympathy is concerned, we can't ignore issues of taste.
Note to RH: Don't worry. It was a cool place and an interesting experience--and the appetizers were fantastic!