Coerced Morality

Is it good enough for a person to stop doing an immoral act at the request of another if he does not believe that the act is wrong? That is the general articulation of the following question that I came across on Facebook recently: my fiancé will stop eating meat because I have told him I cannot marry him if he doesn’t become vegan, but he says that he doesn’t agree that there is anything wrong with eating meat and is abstaining just for my sake. Is that good enough?

First, I want to leave out any considerations of whether he will resent his “sacrifice” and take it out in other ways because such possible consequences depend entirely on his personality and the dynamic of that relationship, which are not pertinent to the general discussion of the morality of doing something when your heart isn’t in it.

The first premise to establish is that giving up meat is a moral action: it is a refusal to participate in or perpetuate the misery, suffering, and terrifying death of conscious, sentient creatures who are animals just as humans are animals. Anyone who doubts the misery, suffering, and terrible death can easily come to understand that reality by the most cursory research and application of imagination.

Desisting from acts of cruelty is moral under any of the following notions of morality, deontological or utilitarian. As for the former, refusing to participate in cruelty constitutes doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, which is the Golden Rule.  Not participating in cruelty is also a maxim (in the terminology of Emmanuel Kant) that you would want as a universal law: you would want everyone, universally, to do the same action and therefore the action is moral. Also, another way of seeing the immorality of participating in the cruelty of meat and dairy production is by evaluating whether a powerful group is pursuing a self-serving action to the severe detriment of a less powerful one. Clearly that is the case because the meat and dairy industries benefit financially from the suffering and death of scores on nonhumans every day.  From a utilitarian standpoint, with its focus on the consequential amount of suffering, the enormity of suffering to nonhumans caused by the meat and dairy industries show the actions of those industries to be immoral as is perpetuating them by consuming  meat and dairy.

Therefore, the fiancé in giving up meat is willy-nilly acting morally; however, is that morality undermined by his state of mind? One response would be a resounding “no” from the Existentialist school of thought. According to Existentialists we are the sum of our actions—the only thing that matters is actions, thus the maxim, “existence before essence.” When applied to everyday examples, the truth of that position appears. If I sat around claiming that I cared greatly about the homeless, couldn’t sleep at night for thinking about them on the sidewalk, and with every bite of food wished I could share with them, but I do nothing at all, my state of mind is morally meaningless. I have to do something or abstain from something, not just think, because morality deals with actions (as seen from the above statements of how to judge morality). Conversely, if I sacrifice my time, money, and comfort to achieve some result that does not directly serve my aggrandizement I am acting morally. (Note, on the topic of whether an action can be moral if you derive some benefit, such as satisfaction, from doing it, Kant argued that any act that is motivated by the desire to achieve a result or is consistent with an inclination is not moral because the only really moral act comes purely from duty.  I think he then went on to conclude that there was no action in reality that could be divorced entirely from self-interest, so I won’t delve into the degree to which giving up meat and dairy is not self-interested in some way).  All of the above ideas about the necessity of an action finds expression in the adage: actions speak louder than words or, in this case more precisely, thoughts.

Last, the fiancé who foregoes meat upon request is acting morally as opposed to hypocritically. Peter Singer wrote that “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.”  That bit of philosophical poetry expresses the central fact of hypocrisy that the hypocrite knows what is virtuous and what is bad because he gives lip service to the first and acts in accord with the latter; thus, in Singer’s phrase, the hypocrite even while acting badly acknowledges verbally, i.e. pays tribute virtue to, the right action. Every hypocritical action entails words versus deeds, good words and bad deeds — it is never the other way around, bad thoughts or words and good action. The inconsistency between words and deeds runs only one way – why? Because words / thoughts are not important – actions are. In our example at hand, it would be hypocritical if the fiancé voiced his thoughts on animals to express his love for them and concern about their treatment and then ordered the cheeseburger.  It is not hypocritical to say or think whatever he thinks he might believe at some point in time while refusing to participate in animal cruelty.

That digression into the nature of hypocrisy brings us back to morality and the nature of it as something concerned with actions, doing to others, acting as you would have the world act, acting so as not to contribute to the suffering of others.  Where nonhumans are concerned, just get it straight who “the others” are—all sentient beings.

Philosophy aside, there is still the “Dear Abbey” aspect of the question, and in that regard, I have to say that I would like a fiancé who would give up meat and dairy for me. He is really smitten with me, flexible-minded, or maybe even Stoic enough not to think that his palette is of the highest importance; he possibly knows that far from being hungry, he will eat delicious food and be in better shape and health than before. Over time our tastes can change, and the action will become a self-fulfilling prophecy — a moral vegan will be born.

I, Animal

It is a well-established fact that language perpetuates the agenda of the powerful because the group in control creates language just as it creates society. Take, for example, men as the group in control. Our language reflects male dominance at every turn. “Man” is the name given to the species; alternatively there is “homo sapiens” and “homo” itself denotes the male not the female. I will not go into gender in language, as that topic could support a symposium of essays. My quarrel is with the speciesism of our language that serves to continue in the most pervasive and insidious ways the ideas that human beings enjoy a special privilege and have moral obligations only to other human beings. Just as euphemisms allow humans to hide their atrocities behind words, as George Orwell pointed out in “Politics and the English Language,” so do terms and phrases support our depraved treatment of nonhuman animals.

The first and overarching instance of human bias comes with the use of the word “animal.” There on the front page of the New York Times today is a statement “They Are Slaughtering Us Like Animals.” Clearly there is something horrible going on (and of course I would say that no creature should be “slaughtered”), but the linguistic subtext is that humans are not animals. Has anyone disproven the validity of Carlos Linnaeus’s taxonomy of animal, vegetable, and mineral? There, in that first category is the species homo sapiens. Does anyone doubt that we are animal? Why is that derogatory?  Our language has made “animal” a handy insult.  “You are acting like an animal” is so common that it reinforces the idea that humans are not animal and that non-humans are depraved and beneath “us.”

Then there are the euphemisms, which are as bad as the political ones that Orwell denounced. We do not have a dead cow for dinner, or ground up cow, or the flesh of a pig for dinner, we have beef and pork.  The worst of all is the marketing phrase, “grass feed beef.” Beef does not eat grass, cows do. Also, there are a slew of colloquial expressions like, “I have my own fish to fry,” “There is more than one way to skin a cat,” and “Filthy as a pig.”

Culture, informed by religious tradition and a myriad of insecurities that lead to the human need to feel superior by all means to something, have subjugated animals and created a language to support that endeavor. The more we identify ourselves in our speech accurately, as animals, the more difficult it would be to accept the atrocities that we heap upon them.

We are animals. We do have instinct. We are mammals who are born, suffer, and die just like all the other animals. Why must we feel the need to be above?  Why the recurring drive to put things in a hierarchy with the most powerful at the self -designated top, giving license for any kind of deplorable behavior?

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the parent of modern Stoicism, classed humans and the other species as one in considering that we all have a special talent. Man, he said, has a special talent and so do each of the other species. Seneca said that Man’s special talent was reason. With all due respect, I beg to differ (which questioning Seneca would endorse because he did not think anyone should follow the views of others without applying one’s own power of reason). I think, and the many recent studies of “animal” (non-human) cognition support my view, that other species do have reasoning ability even if it is not identical to Man’s. As a second basis to differ, sadly, there is more evidence of hypocrisy and cruelty as Man’s unique talents.

The New Yorker, Highbrow Ignorance

The New Yorker never ceases to amaze me in its split personality. On the one hand, the view of the magazine’s contributors (and the tenor of the thing as a whole) is hard core liberal of the most literate kind, suggesting that its staff and contributing writers are highly educated, reasonable, insightful, and compassionate. There is another side to this group of oracles of the erudite message, however, which is as backwater and uninformed as the hairiest yahoo. I first encountered the underbelly of the glorious beast in a restaurant review of Benoit Restaurant, in which the food critic delightfully described how the chef (aka Dr. Evil in my view) served up whole piglets to celebrate spring. To complement that are articles about barbecue that seem more suited to Redneck’s Home Journal than a magazine claiming itself as a spokesman of sorts for one of the most enlightened cities in the world.

Now we have one of the team, Nathan Heller, who apparently was absent from the discussion of morality during Philosophy 101 back at Old Ivy. Heller takes on the topic, couched as something more and making of it something less, of animal rights as a moral issue. His jaunty little piece, “If Animals Have Rights, Should Robots?” is an exercise in superficial, tired, pseudo questions on morality as it concerns non-humans. For one, he calls humans “omnivores,” an old wives tale of a justification for meat eating, so easily countered by the fact that many species do not eat meat, and we have more in common with those species that do not eat meat than the predators that do. And even if we had the teeth and digestive system of a meat eater (which we don’t) the confinement and killing of farm animals has no similarity to predation at all. He also goes over the old ground of differentiating between humans and non-humans on the basis of cognitive ability, when it is an easily discernible reality that there are many humans who are not “cognitive peers” (e.g. infants and the brain-damaged) who are not excluded from moral treatment. He pontificates: “Until we can pinpoint animals’ claims on us, we won’t be clear about what we owe robots—or what they owe us.”  We, or some of us, have “pinpointed” how we should treat nonhuman animals: we should follow the Golden Rule and abandon the maxim of “might makes right.” However, that does not address robots and what we owe them in the least because robots unlike humans and other species are not animals.

Throwing around hackneyed arguments in support of culturally endorsed cruelty only adds to the message that we don’t need to really think too long or too hard about what we do to animals. Tee hee, an animal, shoot, it’s kinda like a robot. Come on Nathan Heller, why not read more than a few lines for the purpose of your article of the authors whom you cite: Peter Singer, Johnathan Balcombe, Sherry Colb, Michael Dorf and Christine Korsgaard. If you do and you still come out with statements like you made in the article, then your education and intelligence failed to equip you to perform the most important kind of critical thinking—to question the forces of culture and self-interest.




Shelley, Wish You Were Here


Vegetarian or vegan statements in literature are rare, just as they are rare in everyday life (which does not include Facebook where like-minded people seek each other out). Reading literature frequently serves up one dead animal after the other, akin to the quotidian reality of driving down the road and passing the meat truck and turning on the radio to hear that politicians are cramming down dead pigs in Iowa. Case in point is All Quiet on The Western Front, where hardly a page goes by without canned meat, a dead fowl, some occasion to find and kill an animal as if vegetables and grains do not exist. Maybe there is a thematic link between the ubiquity of animal slaughter and the horrors of WWI, as the novel depicts to the veganistically aware reader the notion that one insensate carnage deserves the other.

How thrilling then to meet the anti-speciesist philosophy of Percy Bysshe Shelley inhabiting the lines of his lofty poetry. Over two hundred years before Peter Singer helped us out by clarifying speciesism, Shelley had the concept down pat: he saw all animals (humans included in that category) as kindred and abhorred the cruelty of raising animals for slaughter whether in the name of religion, sport, or food. He gave up meat, as did Mary Shelley, his second wife. Mary Shelley, by the way, created one of the most famous characters in literature, the creature in Frankenstein, who is a vegetarian; existing in a natural and childlike state, he is innately good and therefore does not eat animals. He only turns to vengeful acts after suffering cruelty and isolation.

In Shelley’s philosophical poem “Queen Mab,” a fairy leads a spirit on a tour of humanity — past, present, and future. (I wonder if Dickens got the idea of his various ghosts taking Scrooge on tours from this poem.) The future constitutes his utopia of which one feature is that animals are no longer subjected to the cruelty of Man.

“. . .no longer now
He slays the lamb that looks him in the face,
And horribly devours his mangled flesh,
Which still avenging nature’s broken law,
Kindled all putrid humours in his frame,
All evil passions, and all vain belief,
Hatred, despair, and loathing in his mind,
The germs of misery, death, disease, and crime.”

Also, in “Alastor,” the narrator/poet avows that he has not injured any “bright bird, insect, or gentle beast . . .but still loved and cherished these my kindred.”

Aside from the feeling of serendipity that discovering such lines brings, can any importance attach to the fact that one or two random literary geniuses from the past share in my beliefs? Shelly’s veganism has importance to some degree as inspiration for others, those English majors who take a course in Romantic poetry and pay attention to what Shelley says. For me personally, Shelley’s magnanimity of spirit endears him to me, attracting me even more to his work. However, just as I have to associate with nonvegans in daily life, I still must and will read non vegan writers and will still revere my household gods, Emily Bronte and John Keats, who were not vegan. (By the way, I do believe that Emily Bronte would have been if circumstances had been different.)

Beyond serving as possible inspiration to the select few and a kindred link to my world, his conviction against cruelty to nonhuman animals illustrates what I, as a Stoic, value most among Stoic ideals: self-sufficient thinking and the application of reason. How odd he was at the time, not eating meat (and not believing in god, an avowed atheist). He knew of Pythagoras as a vegetarian forerunner, but his decision to quit meat made him a renegade and activist facing a culture notable for an extremely callous attitude toward nonhuman animals, fueled by a religion that insisted that Man, of all the species, was the only to have the all-important soul. He arrived at his principles through the exercise of his own reason and he had no qualms about living in accordance with his principles.  Although I might value my own independent judgment and don’t need Shelley’s example to endorse what I know is right, I suppose there is nothing wrong in harboring a hero or two and feeling slightly smug that I am in good company.


Science According to Frans de Waal

Frans de Waal for some reason was featured in a sort of interview piece by Kate Murphy in The New York Times Sunday Review, July 31, 2016. By way of background, Kate Murphy was the author of an editorial in The New York Times a few months ago entitled “Eat What You Kill,” notable for its lack of research and inaccuracies. De Waal is a “scientist” who wrote Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are, finding yet another way to exploit animals.  He writes about them for his own professional and financial aggrandizement — the purposes of his research begin and end there.  He exalts that animals are intelligent, have amazingly rich emotional lives, use tools, and have empathy; they are more like humans than we ever thought. Yes! And . . . and . . . . (drumroll). . .the conclusion is …let’s confine them and eat them!

When I asked de Waal how his results square with treating animals like insensate commodities he replied that in nature there is predation; as a scientist he has seen a lot of predation. Does he really think that the confinement, abuse, and slaughter of animals by the meat industry has any similarity at all to a carnivore in nature hunting down and killing the most vulnerable in a herd in order to survive? If he says he does, we are left to wonder if he is mendacious or foolish. If by citing predation he wants to assert that humans are carnivores like the lion, he is wrong and could just as easily find support for our non-carnivorous behavior among a plethora of species—many of whom we resemble much more than the carnivores.  Even if humans had two- inch long incisors and carnivore intestines, it is a fact that humans do not need meat; it is a fact that forcibly impregnating an animal, cramming it into a cage, modifying its genetic size and mass to its detriment to make it bigger and fatter, snatching away its young, and driving it into the terror of the slaughter house has absolutely nothing in common with predation in nature.  That meat producing process is not natural, it is not necessary for survival, and it is a manmade, money making machine from start to finish.

Now de Waal, in this odd piece by Kate Murphy, is taking the opportunity to undermine the reality that animals suffer by hinting that trees do too.  He says somehow there is “a sentience around us” and is impressed by some book in German that he says takes the position that tress are sentient. For a scientist he should be embarrassed to utter such ludicrous things. Did he ever learn there are three categories: animal, vegetable, and mineral?  Will he next find that rocks and boulders have an eerie sentience about them too? Plants do not have brains; plants do not feel pain. He smirks in an aside that “vegans don’t want to hear” his plant-sentience statement. Indeed he is correct there–who wants to hear a scientist stooping to say something so baseless with a hidden agenda. True, vegans do not like to hear someone who purports to have scientific training sound either ignorant, gullible, or intellectually dishonest.

For some reason, de Waal is so threatened by the prospect of facing the truth about what we do to animals in raising them for food that he is willing to associate himself with groundless notions with an ulterior motive of undermining the legitimate and scientifically based moral concerns of vegans, further questioning whether he is in any way a scientist and not just a culturally-bound, hypocritical opportunist.


Discovering Cosmic Consciousness

Most nights I resort to my Transcendental Meditation mantra to help me sleep – not that meditating is supposed to be a sleep aid.  The purpose of TM, as I recall from the instruction and group meditating sessions of years ago in high school, is to bring tranquility and to further one along toward cosmic consciousness. Nonethless, I am making good use of  my mantra. Each night, I plump up my two dense tempurpedics and lie on my left side for starters. I hear my mantra in my mind; then I ease onto my back. As I exercise my mantra, I am continually amazed at how quickly and constantly it slips away and I have to start it up again. Finally I fall asleep because, even with the digressions from the mantra, by forcing myself to keep it going in my head, I do avoid thinking  about the sleep-depriving topic that plagues me.

Usually, when intrusive thoughts over which I have no control crop up, I can reason with myself to dispense with them. I tell myself like a Stoic coach that things could always be worse, that I cannot know what other bad thing might have occurred, that an outlook of acceptance and emotional detachment actually feels good, that I can give myself permission to not engage with such a topic or to forgive myself, that everything is pretty trivial, and that the brevity of life puts things in perspective, etc.  However, that rationalization approach falls short of mitigating my monolithic concern that creeps in with the night; I cannot reason away the thought of the constant and extreme suffering of farm animals. Why does this disturb me? The simple fact (understood by anyone who rejects “speciesism” or is otherwise an ethical vegan) is that we are all animals (there are three categories: animal, vegetable, and mineral). Humans are a species of animal. There are differences among species, but all species of animal have interests, innate behaviors, emotions, a love for life, and the ability to suffer.  If anyone doubts this, he should consider the family dog who gets upset when left alone, has joys and sorrows, feels pain and loss, and suffers when hurt; such a rich emotional life and ability to suffer applies to other animals as well. So, getting into bed is clicking on the video, and I must imagine all of the innocent peaceful animals subjected to cruelty on a daily basis and killed in a storm of terror.

The thought of all this suffering has another layer that adds to its centrality in my life: the nagging question about why other people, assuming they are aware, don’t find such a heinous reality too horrible to condone and participate in.  If nighttime is reserved for images of suffering baby pigs and other horrors, day time prompts that human aspect of the question, as I must face at every turn the results of human action: dead animal parts (aka food), the finished product of the assembly line of cruelty, ground out relentlessly by the money-meat machine. I feel a divide between me and all the dog-loving, animal eaters.  However alienating that divide might be or disturbing the images of suffering, I embrace the truth with devotion. It is a boon to know that, as Leonardo Da Vinci said, my body will not be a tomb for other creatures.

The gurus of TM might or might not have been right about meditating as a way to achieve cosmic consciousness. Regardless, they had some good ideas about repetitive words and enlightenment. I use my mantra for sleep, and I revel in achieving the certain first step to cosmic consciousness – the knowledge that we should be kind to all sentient creatures.

Three scientists walked into a saloon . . .

A New York Times editorial last weekend by Johnathan Balcombe discussed his new book, “What a Fish Knows.” Balcombe’s book made the third instance that I have heard about recently of scientists publicizing their research about animals. All three books make the same observation: animals of all kinds are more intelligent, social, and emotional (more like “us”) than most people suppose. The other two are Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina and Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals are by Frans de Waal.

When I hear about these books, I first must ask: what is the point in proving that nonhuman animals have a greater intellectual and emotional life than one might have thought.  There is one whopping big use that can be made of that information, which is the only real valuable point of this research: if animals are “surprisingly” intelligent, social, emotional, empathetic, capable of thinking ahead, and making tools, etc., how, then, can we justify treating them as if they are so very different from humans and abuse, confine, kill, and consume them? If that question does not present itself with great urgency as the scientist’s conclusion, then his or her research has no value other than satisfying some idle curiosity and advancing his or her academic career.

In differentiating the three scientists making the most recent forays into this area of animal research, I can’t get out of my mind as particularly apt the title to the classic Clint Eastwood Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly because such are the following scientists in that order.

Jonathan Balcombe reaches the conclusion that understanding nonhuman animals should lead to greater compassion for them, and he is a vegan. Interestingly, the article in The Times did not highlight his veganism, and I asked him by email to find out. Rather cryptically, he implied that he had to say less than he might have wanted on that topic, as he was subject to “filters” in getting the article into print.

The “bad” science-slinger is Carl Safina, who is enthusiastic about the wonderful inner life of animals, but, because he studies “wild” animals, can’t equate anything he has learned to domestic ones and hasn’t sorted out any cogent approach to eating them.  He eats and even catches and kills fish, and eats meat sometimes, and slaughtering animals to eat them does not bother him. He justifies all of the above because there is “predation” in nature, and he studies “nature.”  Although a discussion of “predators” looms large as well in discussing below our third man of science, I have to ask here: what difference does it make if there are predators among animals?  There are also a lot of non-predators.  Why would we feel obliged to be like one group of animals more than the other?  Some scientists have found that our digestive systems and teeth put us more in the herbivore than carnivore category, and, of course, we do know now that meat is not good for us.  In any event, what the lion must do to survive bears no similarity to the human experience in the grocery store. Further, what goes on in nature does not generally determine what we do: we don’t think that we have to live in a nest because birds do; we don’t think we have to drink from streams, although deer do. Maybe he is saying that having watched a lot of Wild Kingdom episodes he has become inured to watching animals die.  I would not like to watch nature in action “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson wrote, but I could watch lions kill old antelopes, knowing that it is for those animals nature’s way and do or die, and not find that at all preparation for watching hundreds of kind, domestic animals forced in terror to the hell of a slaughter house.  Mr. Safina does not win last place in this line up, however, because he does acknowledge an element of the “wishy-washy” and “hypocritical” in his approach. Such hypocrisy is not acceptable, but in realizing the flaw in his approach to eating, there is some slight indication that he might feel compelled to give the matter greater thought someday.

On to Frans de Waal, the “ugly” and Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are.  On the Diane Rehm radio show, where I first heard of him, he came across as a very great proponent of the view that animals of all kinds are possessed of qualities that have in the past been reserved for humans—they use tools, they plan, they have empathy. It was quite heartwarming.  He gushed in response to callers’ anecdotes about their hyper-smart animals. However, before we get to his gross inconsistencies, I must first pillory him to the best of my ability for studying animals in zoos and laboratories. One of his favorite chimps, whom he studied, died recently—in a zoo. He was sad.  How touching that he was moved by her passing; he should have been moved by her life of incarceration. This brings me back momentarily to my first point—what use will be made of the research. It is particularly unacceptable to do this research on caged animals and do it only for personal aggrandizement. The logical conclusion to be made of his findings eludes de Waal. This man of science has no qualms about eating any animal at all.  He does think that knowing about the intellect and emotions of animals has helped fuel movements to treat them better in circuses and Sea World—not that any such effect was his goal. So how does he square eating the very creatures that he acknowledges are not so very different from the exalted human being? He is a scientist, and in science “organisms eat organisms.”  I charge him with reckless and irrelevant use of a scientific term, devoid of any attempt at intellectual honesty or thought, much less compassion. The statement doesn’t even make sense on its face. The term organism includes plants—plants do not eat plants or animals, except for the anomaly of a Venus flytrap, and being anomalous has no relevance to the understanding and use of the term “organism.”  Is he suggesting that we consider plants as predators? What he is trying to invoke with his pseudo-scientific air is, in the vein of Carl Safina, that there is predation in nature. Then he moves on to consider raising and killing animals for food, which we don’t need in the least need to survive or thrive, as “part of the circle of life.” Oh Rafiki! “The circle, the circle of life.” He is characterizing a very much man-made machine as “natural” and equating what we do to torment and kill needlessly with what goes on in nature among some species. By the way, the circle of life is living and dying and doesn’t necessarily include killing at all. Even knowing that, for some animals the circle involves being eaten, does that mean that we want to design such a circle? Is this a good circle of life: forcefully impregnated, crammed in a cage, bred to abnormal proportions, deprived of natural behaviors, young and social interactions, and hauled away to a terrifying death? Don’t say that there is some natural process captured in that machine. Next, de Waal, abandoning science and Disney, punts–eating animals is a “cultural choice.” Giving content to that buzz phrase, he must mean that despite what science can teach us and what we can learn, we cannot think through layers of ignorance to come up with a kind and sensible way of living. What use are you as a scientist if it all comes down to not thinking, but taking what was handed down. Oh, our organism professor! You are ugly above all because you revel in making such pathetic and self-serving use of your knowledge and influence.

Along the Appian Way

I believe that I saw my first crucifixion when I was ten, getting a pretty close look at the arresting spectacle as I rolled past in the family ox-drawn cart that was taking us from our villa in Apulia down the Apian Way to visit Uncle Antonius at olive picking season.  My first experience gave me a lot of bang for my buck because there had been a little slave revolt in a neighboring town and a hundred of the rascals were all nailed up along both sides of the road at intervals of about an arm’s length. One could hardly miss taking in every detail with the crosses lining the road at no more than a man’s height from the ground, but my gaze stayed the longest on the ones that were most alive. We did whip up the ox a bit to get through quickly because the flies were really annoying.   I asked my father how come I had never seen a crucifixion before, given that they were common; I heard all about them and had thought about practicing one for myself on a cat, but he got away and then I lost the nails.

“Well, figlio mio,” Pater explained, “crucifixions are for the vilest kinds of criminals, like slaves and traitors. So you wouldn’t see one every day.”

“But it seems like a waste when they could have gone to the Colosseum as entertainment.  I’m sure we would rather see them trying to run from a hungry lion and then get ripped apart one limb at a time rather than hanging there groaning and making faces.”

“I guess there is no shortage of folks for the games, and the Tribune needed to make a lingering example. For some reason slaves keep trying to revolt; they don’t get it that there will always be slaves and that is their lot in life.”

“Maybe a revolt will succeed one of these days and there will be no more slaves?”

“No, no, figlio, there have always been slaves; that is the way of the world.  It is human nature to take captives from a conquest. Look at the example of history.  Everyone has done it. I think it is in our genes as humans to subjugate other weaker individuals. Some day we might evolve to be able to take another creature’s perspective, but as of now our credo is, “If it’s good for me, then it’s good.”

“But slaves are sort of like us.”

“No they are of an entirely different sort—not Roman at all; so we can do whatever we please.”

Pater’s way of looking at things has stuck with me for a long time and has worked out all right as my approach to living.  However, there have been moments of doubt . . . when I think of our conversation I also remember the distorted bodies and anguished cries and at times I wonder at my feeling a vague sense of unease and dislike for crucifixions.  However, I just cannot get over the immutable truth that both slavery and severe punishment are part of our culture, that Rome’s culture is the best, and that such practices have gone on for thousands of years.  Who am I to question something that Pater and his pater and so on have done?  We couldn’t live without slaves and my needs are perfectly served by the suffering of other creatures. Well!  Glad I settled that.  I’m off to the games to for some rollicking good entertainment. Wild beasts are on the schedule today; then off to a pig roast.

The Meaty Family Reunion

I had planned the Memorial Day weekend trip to Oklahoma for the big family reunion for several months, working out the logistics of taking my parents, who at 86 and 91, make travel challenging. Little did I know that the trip would coincide with my fervent conversion to animal activism. Various ideas that had floated around my mind for years about animals and meat- eating coalesced just a few weeks before the trip when I read Animal Liberation by Peter Singer; that book explained that “speciesism,” i.e., favoring the human species to the cruel detriment of other species, is immoral, just as other self-serving and oppressive views, also ending in “ism,” are immoral.

One material way I expressed my epiphany was in donating to organizations and acquiring pamphlets and tee shirts.  One had the message “Compassion Over Killing,” with a paw print.  I began to consider the trip as an opportunity for activism. I was headed for a gathering of people who did not even consider questioning the culture of animal production for meat or of hunting. Some of my cousins had grown up on a farm and had raised “prize” animals for the FFA without any qualms about the animal’s destiny at auction.  Maybe I should wear my tee shirt. I debated with myself at some length about wearing it on the plane and to the first night’s potluck dinner. When I dressed for the flight, I wore a silk shirt and tossed the tee shirt in the suitcase.

We gathered Saturday evening for dinner, which, according to tradition, included milling and chatting before dinner and a time for each family representative to update the group on the latest news.  Amidst a lot of hugs and nice-to-see-yous I nailed my cousin Andy, who works for the Department of Agriculture, wanting to ask him if he had any experience with factory farms.  He did. To him, some were okay and some were “pretty bad.”  Then, changing the subject, he wanted to show me photos on his phone of two pigs that his son Luke had bought as part of an entrepreneurial project. He thought that it would show initiative and look good for college applications. I told him that pigs are smarter than dogs.  He agreed, adding that they have lots of personality and loved to have their bellies scratched.  I suggested that he keep them as pets and not sell them.

After dinner where every dish was laced with meat, we took turns standing to update the group. Hungry, I talked briefly about my husband and kids and, for myself, I stated that I had become very interested in animal rights, particularly opposing the cruelty of factory farming. Next to speak, sitting right beside me, was my cousin by marriage who focused, as mothers will, on her son, who plays soccer, football and… he hunts.  She proceeded to graphically describe his prowess at shooting the squirrels and harmless trundling armadillos in his backyard, “right between the eyes.” At that point she did realize rather suddenly that I might have found her anecdotes offensive; I chuckled and said that the slaughterhouse anecdote was no doubt next.

The next day I wore my tee shirt. We reconvened for breakfast and for a repeat pot-luck at the cemetery where we met to put flowers on the graves. I appreciate my cousins.  I have fond memories of things we did as kids; I remember their kindness at my brother’s funeral at that same cemetery, and I believe I will count on them to help me out when I show up there for my parents. But I think they can stand the challenge of a new idea without taking offense — or they might take offense.  It’s an offensive world, especially for people with ideas outside of the mainstream like not treating animals like commodities. It turns out that a couple of cousins that last day did ask my about my vegetarianism because they were truly interested.  Maybe my expression of concern for animals, either spoken or worn on my tee shirt, will be one little notion that, added with others, will someday make them question the practices of our culture towards other species

The Practice of Not Thinking

I heard on the radio that there is a movie coming out about David Foster Wallace. I have read very little by him, but I always take notice of the name because he was my brother’s favorite writer. I am not drawn to his style of writing, but my opinion will stop there pending better acquaintance with his work. I am, however, very drawn to his essay “Consider the Lobster.”  I can relate to his experience at a lobster festival, having had to endure a Maine lobster dinner on a large scale at Bowdoin College.  It was impossible to look away; the boiled creatures were everywhere. How do we engage in such cruelty?  We simply don’t think, just as Wallace points out in this excerpt I have reprinted below. How many of the ills of the world can we attribute to a lack of thought and a reliance on that self-serving substitute for thinking, culture? Countless, no doubt. I would be curious to know if Wallace’s depression arose, to any extent, from a sad disgust with the practices of human beings such as the one he describes here. I also wonder if anyone did shy away from eating lobster after reading his essay in “Gourmet Magazine” or elsewhere.

“However stuporous the lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into a steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster is fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming). A blunter way to say this is that the lobster acts as if it’s in terrible pain, causing some cooks to leave the kitchen altogether and to take one of those little light-weight plastic oven timers with them into another room and wait until the whole process is over.

Given the (possible) moral status and (very possible) physical suffering of the animals involved, what ethical convictions do gourmets evolve that allow them not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands (since of course refined enjoyment, rather than just ingestion, is the whole purpose of gastronomy)? And for those gourmets who’ll have no truck with convictions or rationales and who regard stuff like the previous paragraph as just so much pointless navel-gazing, what makes it feel okay, inside, to dismiss the whole issue out of hand? That is, is their refusal to think about any of this the product of actual thought, or is it just that they don’t want to think about it? Do they ever think about their reluctance to think about it? After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet? Or is all the gourmet’s extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be aesthetic, gustatory?”