Eating People

This is book review week, apparently. I recently read Animals, a novel by Don LePan about a future world where animals have gone extinct, and a growing subclass of mentally impaired humans serve as (a) pets and (b) meat. 

LePan's future humans are doubly prejudiced.  Their prejudices about mental disabilities convince them that the impaired are not human.  Then speciesism takes over.  "Not human" means "morally unimportant" in their minds.

The novel makes us see what a terrible thing it is to be prejudiced, and how that attitude can blind us to important truths.  Bravo.

[Pause for emphasis.  Really, bravo!]
The thing is, LePan invites us to go further--to see a moral equivalence.  The kids are kept in filthy pens, fattened up, castrated, tagged, etc.  We are to think "That's just what we do to animals!"

Is it the same? LePan's human livestock are impaired children, so presumably no more knowing than cattle. Yet he focuses on a boy who's been miscategorized.  He's just deaf, not mentally impaired. So he is aware of what's going on and suffers accordingly.  There's no way to equate the boy's plight with a farm animal's.

Most of the "childstock" in Animals don't understand what they're going through.  So there's a stronger case to be made for an exact equation.  Certainly lots of ethicists think so--the argument from "marginal cases" is ubiquitous in the animal ethics literature.  The novel is that argument in fictional form, with lots of "essaying" interspersed with a brief story. 

Myself, I'm not wild about the idea that animals and impaired children are morally interchangeable. In LePan's novel,  children can wind up being eaten by their own parents.  Surely that relationship matters.  If there's one duty we can all agree on, it's the duty not to eat your children!

To think animals and impaired children are morally interchangeable, you'd have to think it was morally irrelevant that impaired humans are "the weak among us"--not only children, but particularly helpless children.  Note: we have extra solicitude not just for impaired humans but for impaired animals.  Think about all those stories about beached whales being helped by humans that turn up in the newspaper periodically.

When we think "how terrible!" about the treatment of the childstock in Animals, there are lots (and lots) of factors that enter into that assessment.  (I explore all of this at length in my new book--see chapters 5 and 6). It's not inevitable that we must think exactly the same thing about eating childstock and eating livestock.

Animals is compulsively readable, but truly sickening (perhaps the author will take both descriptions as compliments).  After reading it, I decided to go on a people-eating diet.  No, I'm not cutting back on eating people, but cutting back on people-eating books and movies.

In the last year, I've read/seen an awful lot: The superb and amazingly creepy novel Under the Skin, by Michel Faber.  Cormac McCarthy's The Road.  The movie War of the Worlds.  In the end, nothing's really going to make us equate eating animals and eating people.  Cora Diamond makes that point very effectively in her memorable essay "Eating Meat and Eating People."  If you're going to get into this territory, I'd start with that.


Faust said...

Had not read that essay by Diamond.

I am in enthusiastic agreement with the main thrust of her argument. Interestingly, that thrust is nowhere to be seen in the bulk of AR literature (though I'm not an expert in this area). Would you say that's accurate? That here central contentions are largely ignored by the mainstream of AR thinking (including your own)?

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, I think the thrust of her argument is that human beings simply classify humans and animals differently--

Humans--cannot eat even those who died naturally, can't chow down on my amputated arm, makes sense to have funeral for 2 year old, etc, can have sexual relationships.

Animals--no problem with eating those who died naturally, can't have sex with them, no funerals for puppies.

Why is this? She says (roughly) it's built into what humans and animals are (to us) that different things are allowed. (Then she says she's a vegetarian--because there are different ways to do what's allowed, and we're raising animals for food in the wrong way.)

What I like about the article is the recognition that we do have these deep-seated, non-negotiable attitudes. That's an important part of the total story.

At the same time, I'm bound and determined to take reasoning as far as it can go. So I do want to explain why it's different eating mentally retarded children and eating pigs, and not just leave it as built into our sense of the world.

I guess while I find the article illuminating, I'm a little worried about the whole approach that says "there are x's and then there are y's." What next--there are women and then there are men? It's a little worrisome.

Wayne said...

Wait... we can't eat our kids? Are you sure about this? So imagine that your two children and yourself are stranded in the desert, you don't have enough supplies to last very long, but if you eat one of your children, then you and the other child can make it out safely. If you sacrifice yourself, the children will wander helplessly in the desert, unable to find rescue. If you don't eat your children, you all die.

And to avoid the Sophie's choice dilemma, you have one child that you love substantially more than the other, for whatever reason.

C'mon! You eat the kid!

I would agree that the deaf boy's plight is incomparable to animals' plight... I'm not sure if the disabled "childstock" are that much different than livestock though.

This is not to say that we should eat "childstock". I think we shouldn't eat livestock.

Scu said...

H.G. Wells' Time Machine presents a similar future. Oddly enough that is the part that tends to be left out in popular interpretations of that book.

Unknown said...

I confess to reading Cora Diamond's piece pretty quickly, but my response to her claims is exactly that of Jonathan Bennett's. (I also think there is nothing odd in vegetarians or vegans who eat cows hit by lightning or roadkill)

Part of the aim of any of these radical thought experiments is to shake up our intuitions, to unearth them, and to force us to subject them to serious scrutiny. Some of those intuitions will turn out to be really valuable and important. Others, may turn out to have been valuable and important - in our evolution as a species.

As Jeff McMahan points out, in the Ethics of Killing (and as I have, I think noted here once before) there are various possibilities faced with our divergent treatment of individuals with similar capacities but different species. We could try to bring non-human animals up to the level that we currently treat members of our own species. Or we could (as in the LePan story), treat some humans as we current do animals. Or, in the third instance we may revise our attitudes towards both - upwards for the non-humans, perhaps downwards for some humans.

Our relationships with our children, and perhaps with others of our species gives us special reason to favour them. These relationships may justify a degree of partiality. But they can't justify treating those who are not from our family or our species worse than they are owed by virtue of their interests.

Jean Kazez said...

In the novel, I think we are to equate eating animals and eating impaired children--they are as bad as each other. But there's some unclarity whether they are (both) to be seen as like eating normal people, or as not quite as bad. It's not quite clear how much of a Singer-ian he is. (Or so I recall--I read the book a little while ago.)

Diamond's response to Bennett is very nervous-making. It's not the suffering that counts (alone) but the appeal to pity, and that's read into the cow's face by us. (!!)

Wayne--I just have to say "hell no." If I were to really think it through and say why not, it would involve too many sickening images and weird points. Not only do I think it's wrong to eat your children, but I think it's wrong to wile away your time discussing why it's wrong, as if were within the realm of possibility. My children occasionally read this blog and no doubt will find my sensitivity on this issue reassuring.

s. wallerstein said...

People in emergency situations do eat other people. When a plane carrying an Argentinian rugby crashed in the Andeans mountains in the 1970's, the survivors ate the dead in order to survive and some did survive. They made a movie about it. So maybe Wayne's example makes sense.

Jean Kazez said...

They ate corpses. Wayne is talking about eating one's own live children. In any event, the issue is not what people actually do, but what they should do.

s. wallerstein said...

They were from Uruguay.


s. wallerstein said...

Actually, in such a limit situation, the question isn't what one should do, but what one actually would do. And what one would do in such a situation is not something which can be foreseen from a comfortable chair while sipping tea.

Jean Kazez said...

But wait--this came up in a certain context. The question is whether eating animals is morally equivalent to eating mentally impaired children. I pointed out that in the book, there's nothing stopping parents from winding up eating their own children. I said that ethically, that's out of the question...and then Wayne said...and then I said...

So the issue here is definitely ethics, not simply what people would (in fact) do in extreme situations.

Faust said...

Dom writes:

"(I also think there is nothing odd in vegetarians or vegans who eat cows hit by lightning or roadkill)"

That, I believe, is her point: that you do not have a (moral) problem with eating roadkill. Do you have a (moral) problem with eating people struck by cars? My guess is yes. Though, perhaps being disciplined as a philosopher, you say "no of course, not, it is morally acceptable to eat people struck by cars or lightning." Do you advocate for this position regularly? My guess is no. Her discussion addresses this disparity.

Jean writes:

"Diamond's response to Bennett is very nervous-making. It's not the suffering that counts (alone) but the appeal to pity, and that's read into the cow's face by us. (!!)"

I think this is on the right track (that Diamond is right).

I think a great deal could be said to elaborate on this point, perhaps I will give this an at length treatment if I have time, though frankly she starts the arguments well, though her style is not one I favor (I find her general rhythm to be needlessly difficult to follow, though not grotesquely so).

I want to say generally that I think Diamond's arguments are under-girded by a type non-cogntivism. Certainly a type of moral anti-realism. I don't know if she would agree to that assertion, but that is how her background assumptions strike me.

Consider her closing line:

"The mistake is to think that the callousness cannot be condemned without reasons which are reasons for anyone, no matter how devoid of all human imagination or sympathy." [emphasis mine]

Here the ways of moralists part:

Those who think we are "finding reasons for everyone" and those of us who do not.

s. wallerstein said...

I would never claim that eating mentally impaired children is equivalent to eating meat. However, I have just lived through a limit situation, an earthquake and presently, the national sport is criticizing President Bachelet for what she "should" have done, immediately after the earthquake.
So I ask people what would they have done if they were woken up at 3AM by an earthquake after maybe an hour of sleep (Bachelet arrived in Chile at midnight), if they rushed to the emergency center without their morning coffee, if they found that the communications were not working, if they received contradictory advice from scores of equally confused and sleepless advisors (call out the army; under no circumstances call out the army, etc.), and so on.
And many of those people who are so sure what Bachelet should have done admit that they spent the first hours after the earthquake paralyzed with fear, with absolutely no idea what was occurring or what to do.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jean

Many thanks for reading and reviewing the book (and for the "bravo").

I certainly never meant to suggest a moral equivalence of the sort that you think I'm suggesting. What I wanted to do was simply help humans who don't always think of the realities of factory farming to imagine them more vividly than they might otherwise be able to do. In your review you (rightly, I would say) suggest that when we read the novel "we are to think 'That's just what we do to animals!'" in factory farms. But is it the same as what we do to animals, you ask, and proceed to suggest that it isn't because a human is different from a non-human animal. I wanted the emphasis to be on the "that's" in "That's just what we do to animals" (just as it is if someone says on seeing a man beating his child "That's just how he treats his dog" without implying any moral equivalence between child and dog). Surely it is true that what is done to the creatures in the pens in Animals is very similar to what is done to cows and pigs in factory farms now. And surely it is true that it is wrong to treat any sentient creature that way. And surely it is therefore true that we should stop eating any of the products of factory farming. That's all I'm trying to say. Glad you found the story compelling, at any rate. All the best,
Don LePan

rtk said...

Jean, be sure to include both the book and the movie, *Alive* in this category. Pass just a small slice of thigh, please. No toes! Ugh.

Jean Kazez said...

Hi Don, I read your book in 24 hours--which testifies to its compellingness!

But, but, but....isn't the plot inspired by the marginal cases argument in Singer and others? And they do assert an equivalence! Would any kind of "peoplestock" have worked just as well in the novel--some subset of humans chosen at random?

Jean Kazez said...

rtk--But there the people eaten were already dead. That's a human of a different color. Which isn't to say it isn't an interesting book, and somewhat relevant (esp. to the Cora Diamond article I linked to).

Faust said...

I don't want to intrude too much on your response to LePan (since I haven't read the book), but isn't the cruical issue (as framed in your original post) the fact that a deaf child gets mistakenly placed with the fully "disabled" childstock? Isn't the deaf child supposed to serve as our vector into the action? Isn't supposed to be what helps us see that the childstock are "just like" the deaf child (except of course that they aren't). I don't know of course, but that seems the sprinboard for the rest of your commentary.

Jean Kazez said...

Well...I think that's exactly it. The deaf child is "our vector into the action." There's an extra layer of injustice there--he's been put where he doesn't long. He's like an innocent man on death row. But we're really supposed to be worrying about all the children, I think. I would have thought--especially the disabled ones, because they're more like animals, but Don says (above) that wasn't his intent.

Wayne said...

There is a pretty hefty yuk factor here, I'll admit. And if I were put into that situation (my scenario above), I'm not sure what I would actually do. My scenario forces the decision maker to assume all sorts of things that a person in the real situation would never be able to say they they know (that they will get rescued, etc.)

Eating an already dead human, I would agree, is definately an entirely different scenario than killing someone for food. I'm not entirely sure if anyone would really object to that in the case of necessity. In a real life scenario it might play out more like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krHu4E65khA (except without the understanding judge).

I think cases like these are really where ethics of care shines. There are some relationships that are valuable, and any action that endangers that relationship is morally wrong.

Jean Kazez said...

It's like thinking about whether devastatingly poor families may sell one girl into sex slavery to save the lives of her many siblings. I feel--we must just say no. That seems unphilosophical, but maybe it's for best to have that simple reaction... though it would take some doing to say why. Yes, maybe care ethics. But maybe just the "two layer" type of utilitarianism, where habits of thought and character traits have a role to play.

Anonymous said...

Re: "But, but, but....isn't the plot inspired by the marginal cases argument in Singer and others? And they do assert an equivalence! Would any kind of "peoplestock" have worked just as well in the novel--some subset of humans chosen at random."

No, is the short answer. I should make clear, to start with, that I am not a philosopher. I am a writer of fiction, a watercolor painter, and a book publisher. I'm happy that the book seems capable of inspiring philosophical discussion, but I had never even heard of the argument from marginal cases until after I had finished writing Animals. (I think I first ran into that argument through an excellent relatively recent Angus Taylor article in Philosophy Now, "Hunting for Consistency.") What I had gotten in the early 1990s from Singer's Animal Liberation was information about factory farming, and about the horrific suffering inflicted on farm animals through "intensive farming." If we eat the products of that sort of farming, we are consuming the products of torture--that is what sank in (though, I am ashamed to say, it took me some years after reading Singer before it sank in enough for me to change any of my habits.)

I'm afraid that personally I have little or no interest in whether there is or is not a "moral equivalency" of creatures here. Again, what am interested in is the actions, not the taxonomy.
The actions are horrific, whether they are carried out against a cow or a pig or a human animal; if we share anything with our fellow creatures, surely it is the capacity to siffer. (I don't apologise for the horrific passages describing suffering in the book; those who follow this blog may be already aware of the horrows of factory farming and be eschewing the products of its evils (whether by eating free-range or by going vegan). But more than 99% of North Americans continue to effectively condone the torture through their eating habits. Surely it is on that, above all, that our emphasis should be.
Don LePan

Jean Kazez said...

Don, I took this novel to be making an argument. I'm happy to read novels just as novels, and could discuss "Animals" in those terms, but decided to look at the argument instead. The way the book is written (with lots of non-narrative passages and an afterword about the message) invites that sort of response.

So--what's the argument? I took it to be one about not just the actions, but who they're done to. The argument is certainly much stronger, construed that way. Suppose someone objects to the spaying and neutering of dogs. (You could--it wouldn't be crazy!) So they write a novel that describes PEOPLE being hauled off in cages and sterilized against their wishes. Same actions, bad argument--because the nature of the "victim" does matter.

Or maybe, to get a closer parallel, they make it mentally impaired people being hauled off in cages and sterilized. Now the argument is much stronger. In fact, many philosophers might say that it's a good argument.

But there'd be a debate about it. Even if it isn't what you were trying to spur, I think the book does spur a debate about whether factory farming of animals is like factory farming of impaired children. The action is up for debate, but also performing that action on animals vs. impaired children.

FYI--there's a novel by Paul Auster (Timbuktu) that actually does explore the sterilization issue. We are invited to see the sterilizing of a dog as being tragic in somewhat the way sterilizing a human being would be tragic. Even when an analogy fails, it can make you wonder about the practice under examination. Ever since reading that novel, I've wondered more about sterilizing animals.

rtk said...

I know sterilizing animals is the right thing to do; everything points in that direction, so there really is no room for doubt. But I looked at those little round appendages on my puppy and I was gripped with self disgust that I would rob the little guy of what was totally his. I did it anyhow, but I occasionally still look wistfully under his cute little tail and feel pangs of remorse. His. Not mine. I trespassed.

Jean Kazez said...

Aw. Timbuktu gets you to think about what a dog loses by being sterilized. I think we tend to pretend it's nothing, such is the importance of keeping animal populations under control. People don't like to have the thought "bad, but necessary." They're rather think if something's right, it's completely problem free.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jean--thanks for yours. I would never suggest that Animals should be read "just as a novel"--it is certainly making an argument. I simply had not foregrounded in the way that you do the "who"--I had focused only on the "that." I'm fine with discussions of the "who," and I now take your well-made point that both matter--the spaying/neutering example is a good one. More generally, I welcome discussions such as the (very interesting) one you are leading here. I just don't want what I see as most important to be lost sight of: unless we are eating free range (and even then it's not absolutely certain), there is no question that we North Americans condone extreme cruelty when we eat meat and dairy products. Extreme cruelty; let's not put "victim" in quotation marks--the suffering is very, very real. (And much, much more horrific than anything I describe in Animals--Jonathan Safran Foer presents many more of the facts in his recent non-fiction book Eating Animals.) Let's keep talking about the interesting background issues--by all means. But let's also all try to spend at least as much time trying to stop the extreme cruelty as we do exploring the many areas of intellectual interest.