The Matter of Taste

Jonathan Safran Foer makes a powerful point about taste in the New York Times excerpt from his book "Eating Animals"--

... 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!


Faust said...

Can of worms.

Foer asks:

"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?"

This is a nice little intuition pump. But there is no reason to think that the primary reason behind legal prohibitions against animal rape is for the protection of the animal or out of concern for the animals. Historically it seems much more likely that such prohibitions emerged out of general sexual prohibitions, including for example sodomoy performed on other humans.

So one possible answer to Foer would be "there is no consistency problem here, if we were a extremely liberal society (where sex aesthetics and eating aesthetics were viewed as equal, as opposed to a society where many forms of sexual pleasure are viewed with deep suspicion) then it is likley that "animal rape" (not clear what this is exactly, are all acts of bestiality rape by definition?) would be perfectly acceptable."

But the general question seems to be: under what circumstances do we have the right to be cruel? If by abstaining from X I avoid cruelty to others but wind up being "cruel to myself" by depriving myself of things that make me happy, is this acceptable? Should I "torture" myself so that others need not suffer?

There are many cases where we would be able to obtain broad agreement that the answer is yes yes yes! For example if I get a lot of pleasure out of child rape then there will be broad agreement that no matter how difficult it is for me to abstain from this activity, I must still endure the suffering that results.

It comes down in the end to the value we place on animal suffering: how bad is it to be cruel to animals? Why is it OK to torture animals but not people? If it can be shown that animals are "equal" to humans in all the relevant ways then it doesn't matter how much it causes us to suffer, we still shouldn't allow ourselves to torture them. This equality or lack thereof is of course where the argument really lies in the end, regardless of how much pleasure we get out of eating them.

s. wallerstein said...

I tend to think that food tastes are mostly learned or acquired (very young children don't like meat in my experience for example), but habits are hard to change and if people can't stop smoking, which is clearly bad for their health, it's even harder for them to stop eating meat, which isn't so obviously bad for one's health. The trouble with the utilitarian argument, measuring pleasures against pains, is that it seems impossible to measure the intensity of someone's pleasure in eating meat against the suffering of the animal which he or she is eating. Concern for suffering, rather than utilitarian calculation, seems to me to be the basis for not eating meat.
However, as I said above, food habits (which are not only a question of taste, but also part of a shared culture) are difficult to modify, and perhaps a respect for others dictates that one is less relentless in condemning them for eating meat. A basic classroom or child-raising teaching technique is to praise and to reward small advances, step by step, and that technique should be used to praise and reward small steps by meat eaters on the long road (for some)
to giving up meat.

Jean Kazez said...

Well OK, that's the $64,000 question--whether inflicting a set amount of suffering is just as bad, whether we do it to human or an animal...but apart from that, Foer does make a nice point about how we typically exempt taste from ethical assessment. We actually respect someone who says they eat veal because it tastes good! Agh!

Foer is right to be appalled, but it's not easy to say we ought to discount taste altogether. It does seem to have some bearing on the way we evaluate Fred in the revised thought experiment.

Faust said...

I don't know if it's true that we exempt taste from ethical assessment. In my view sexual preferences are a matter of taste:

I find find women to be more pleasing to look at (and have sex with) than men.


I find men more pleasing to look at (and have sex with) than women.

As far as I can tell that's pure aesthetics. And yet there is a pretty major issue in our society as to whether or not having homosexual tastes is acceptable.

I think your question of sympathy with Fred is interseting and I didn't really adress it. But what if Fred was a child molester? Would people become more sympathetic after they realized that his unmet desire to rape children was really really difficult to deal with? I don't know if they would. People have powerful desires that are not necessarily "under their control" in the sense we tend to think of that term. But when people engage in activiites that we find utterly repulsive we are unlikely to be sympathetic no matter what the consequences for them might be for not doing it.

The irony is that I tend to think of morality in general to be a matter of taste since I (partially) subscribe to the Boo!/Hurrah! theory of ethics. Many people are against homosexuality because they find it "repulsive," which is itself an aesthetic judgment (though they swiftly confabulate reasons after the fact).

In my view what we should be up to if we want to increase the number of people who are not interested in killing animals for food/pleasure is to increase the number of people who find it repulsive. All the various strategies: logical, rhetorical and otherwise are really just getting people to develop a "boo" reaction to animal slaughter. As it happens the fact that many people say "Hurrah!" when they put animals in their mouths is a significant impediment to this project.

Wayne said...

Faust- I'm not sure if your example really does what you want it to do... If there is nothing wrong with homosexuality qua homosexuality, then its just the majority of americans that are wrong in attributing an ethical evaluation on a matter of taste.

Jean- Of course taste matters! Tasty things make us happy! You really should try stepping in the utilitarian boat more often.

I'm not justifying eating tasty things here, more to the point, I think we can easily justify tasty things as being somewhat morally relevant because they are a path to happiness. Consequently, they can't be simply discarded in ethical analysis. But they can be outweighed.

Although, I have to admit that I've been stuggling with a thought experiment that I came up with a while ago lately, that causes me to question my commitment to consequentialism in general.

s. wallerstein said...

Wayne: Do tasty things bring me happiness? I think not. They produce pleasure, and pleasure is not happiness. Happiness is much more complex than pleasure.

Faust said...

Hmmm what do you think I want my example to do? I don't think my example "proves" boo/hurrah ethics, if that's what you're thinking. Only that it can be explained in terms of it.

But then I don't think there is such a thing as being "right or wrong in an ethical evaluation" outside of making decisions that are downstream from basic commitments (which may or may not be "rational").

Jean Kazez said...

I should have quoted less of Foer, because all I was really interested in was his assertion that we make food-taste exempt from ethics. If X tastes good, then we can do pretty much anything to animals to get X. We shouldn't think that.

But it's not so simple to figure out what is the right weight to give to considerations of taste. That's why I'm bringing up these weird examples and Norcross's article (Wayne: have you read it? It works well for classes.)

If animal products give us a small taste benefit, then it's going to be easy to say it's wrong to eat them, considering the huge loss to animals involved in producing them. But with if they gave us a huge taste benefit? What if someone only enjoyed animal products, and everything else tasted like cardboard? How should we analyze such a case?

I suggested separately evaluating the person and the act. His consumption would be wrong, but we'd sympathize and not blame him. But Faust's point does cause problems. I'm just going to say I think the case is puzzling, and not insist on my "solution".

Faust said...

Well one difference that separates out the question of gustatory pleasure from other kinds of pleasure is that it is linked with something we MUST do.

If I only derived sexual pleasure from unacceptable sources, such as child rape, I wouldn't die if I refrained from doing it. It might be unpleasant, but not fatal.

Whereas...one has to eat. It's one thing to say you'll have sexual frustration...another to say that you'll suffer through eating cardboard 3 times a day. One can tweak the thought experiment to bring things more into alignment but the fact remains that in general day to day life eating is a major activity that we perform very regularly.

So gustatory pleasure is a "primary" pleasure. I don't think this solves all the problems. But it does explain why some people might feel that enjoying food is particularly important. We do it all the time. And as Amos is fond of pointing out...it's tightly linked to our social lives. So it's embedded in the fabric of life in a way that is deeper than many of our other activities.

Becoming chaste is a thing that some people deliberately pursue. But no one can fast forever.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust--I think we're close to being on the same page here. I think using animals as resources was once a necessity and remains a necessity in some part of the world and for some individuals(obvious "necessity" needs to be clarified...). That colors our judgment of people who participate in this "tradition" even though for them personally using animals is not necessary. Raping people or animals isn't a necessity for anyone.

Wayne said...

Jean- Yeah I downloaded it and read it yesterday. The thought experiment tickles me to no end! I love it, Dr. T Bud and all.

I teach a moral issues class, so we cover a bunch of issues in a semester. I already have 4 readings on vegetarianism (Singer, Hare's "Why I am a demi-vegetarian", My vampire essay, Engel's "Why you're commited to being a vegetarian"), so adding another would probably mean I'd have to delete one of them (probably mine). But I'm seriously thinking about adding it, because I like that it brings up the Doctrine of Double Effect and really gets into the marginal cases argument.

Faust: I thought you were using the argument to show that taste is relevant to ethical assessment. Since people make ethical assessments on partner choices, and that is a matter of taste... I simply deny that people are correct in making ethical assessments, especially in this case, because its a matter of taste.

If you're just pointing out that people DO make ethical assessments based on taste, then its not a terribly heavy point, since people make ethical assessments based on all sorts of irrelevant characteristics that wouldn't be rationally justifiable.

Faust said...

I see, that's much more clear.

I was making the "not terribly heavy point," and mostly as an aside. Something in the spirit of "not only do I think that taste is relevant to ethical decision but I think ethical decisions are mostly a matter of taste."

Obviously this is something that requires argument to support, and there is plenty of stuff out there to discuss it. I don't want to sidetrack Jean's blog by once again diverting to meta-ethics as a primary topic however.

Suffice it to say that your notion of "making ethical assesments using only relevant ethical characteristcs is one that I'm pretty suspicious of at the meta-ethical level. I don't think there is such a thing as "the ethical status of homosexuality qua homosexuality" that you implied above. I think the notion of such an "intrinsic moral quality of homosexuality (or murder for that matter)" that can be decided by "objective" criteria is problematic at best. But perhaps I will come to your blog sometime and pester you at length.

Jean Kazez said...

Wayne--The fact that the article is funny really helps.