Thursday, October 07, 2010

The King, The Clown, The Colonel: Axis of Evil?

There are debates about a few really important issues that have a tendency after a while to fade into a kind of white noise for me. I generally find this to be true about debates over capital punishment, abortion, the existence or nonexistence of God, and the legalization of drugs. It's not that I think those issues have become less significant or worthy of attention, only that it's increasingly harder to train my attention on them when I feel like I've heard every argument ad nauseum already. And so, regrettably, they become like cultural "elevator music"-- I don't feel any compulsion to listen closely anymore, because all there is to hear are better or worse iterations of a song I already know.

I tend to think the same way about the exhausted (but inexhaustible) debate over meat-eating. [FULL DISCLOSURE: I do eat meat, though I don't have any particularly principled reasons for doing so. I am not in any way unsympathetic to those who are opposed to eating meat for whatever reasons (or no reason at all). In fact, I find many of the arguments for vegetarianism and veganism quite compelling.] Like many people, I imagine, I tend to think of my decision to eat meat-- more an unreflective default position than anything that might properly be called a "decision" most of the time-- is rather settled. I've yet to hear an argument persuasive enough to convince me to make the rather dramatic change to my living and eating practices that vegetarianism/veganism would require, and so I find myself engaging in conversations about it, when I do, in a mostly pro forma manner.

So, I was actually quite exicted to hear the recent debate between Jonathan Safran Foer (one of my favorite authors) and Anthony Bourdain (my favorite celebrity chef and a really fine writer himself) on CBC Radio. Their conversation, "Should We Eat Meat?," pitted Foer (vegetarian and author of Eating Animals) against Bourdain (perhaps the most evangelical carnivore on the planet, as evidenced by the title of his memoir: Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook) and the resulting encounter was-- as is befitting the conviction, intelligence and imagination of its participants-- a remarkably novel contribution to an otherwise well-worn debate. They covered the usual ground, of course, including the standard arguments about the health benefits of meat-eating or not-eating, the moral status (or lack thereof) of non-human animals, the restrictions that poverty imposes on the diets of the impoverished, and the truly deplorable conditions that factory-farming creates for both human and non-human animals. What was most interesting to me, though, was the sometimes very subtle nuances that divided Foer and Bourdain in their convictions.

For example: both Foer and Bourdain (and myself) find the practices of what Bourdain calls "The King, The Clown and The Colonel"-- in reference to the commercial identities of fast-food triumvirate Burger King, McDonalds, and Kentucky Fried Chicken-- objectionable in every possible way. For Foer, these franchises' participation in factory-farming is a fundamentally ethical offense, creating as it does horrific conditions for the animals that are eventually slaughtered there. For Bourdain, the offense is more aesthetic-- factory farming produces food that tastes bad, that doesn't even taste like "food," and consequently serves to diminish our collective culinary palate-- though Bourdain clearly agrees with Foer that the conditions under which this bad food is produced create all kinds of other (political, moral, social) problems. The interesting difference between Bourdain and Foer is that on principle, as far as I can surmise from their conversation, how one prioritizes the moral and political objectionableness of The King, The Clown and The Colonel with regard to their aesthetic objectionableness is dramatically different.

Bourdain's position, in summary, is that there is no moral, political or even aesthetic reason that could supercede, as a matter of principle, the fundamentally social good of "eating [whatever one eats] together." Bourdain flatly says as much in his conversation with Foer (my emphasis added):
To me, the human experience, human communication and curiosity, trump any ethical concerns one might have with killing and eating animals... I can understand entirely why one would choose to live a certain way in the privacy of one's own home, making personal choices about what you eat. But once you go out the door, the notion that one would shut oneself off from communication with others and essentially reject a form of communication-- meaning food or bonding-- offends me.
Foer rightly objects that there are few, if any, situations in which the bond created by (humans') eating meat together could not be accomplished by other means. But the devil is in the details here-- "few" occasions is a long way from "none"-- a perhaps nit-picky cultural and economic point that I think Bourdain is justified in exploiting. Because the truth is, as Bourdain belabors, the privilege to NOT eat meat remains, as regrettable as it might be, a privilege. Bourdain is not morally defending the "Axis of Evil" (The King, The Clown and The Colonel), but rather questioning the privilege of placing that particular moral objection above other, arguably equivalent, social and cultural goods.

I'd like to say that I don't really have a dog in this fight (the moral permissability of eating dogs, which Bourdain and Foer also debate, notwithstanding), but I recognize that as long as I continue to eat meat, while at the same time ceding the many and severe ethico-political problems I see with doing so, is more than a bit of a bad-faith gesture. Interestingly for me, I find myself fundamentally disagreeing with Bourdain's argument on principle, even as I find myself agreeing with it in practice. That is to say, I don't think it is the case that cultural or aesthetic or social goods always trump "any ethical concerns one might have." But I do believe enough, I suppose, in the cultural or aesthetic or social goods that Bourdain advocates to find it very, very difficult to prioritize my moral objections over them. Oy vey.

At any rate, I recommend listening to the exchange between Bourdain and Foer if only because it offers a rare, and much needed, novel interruption to the tired carnivore v. vegetarian white noise.


anotherpanacea said...

I struggle with this one too: my commitments are counter to my practices. Bourdain's point is a version of my own hangup. In particular, I keep coming back to a concern about the role of meat-eating in development: China, for instance, has developed an insatiable demand for meat since the Chinese started to get rich. Protein is one of these things I worry that we're hardwired to want: we can be omnivores if we must, but what if we're making a major sacrifice of human flourishing to forswear meat?

I also share your general distaste for the common internet philosophy topics (my recent post notwithstanding) I think because these are debates I get a lot of papers on. I think they are the debates that really get undergraduates excited and the issues that first get them to focus on philosophy and philosophical reason-giving as something meaningful and relevant to their lives.

Professional philosophers tend to think a little like chess players, and so once we've seen "a move" we don't need to see it again: it's stored up in the database of moves somewhere. The moves that hold our attention are ones that we can't quite figure out how to combat. So, for instance, Bourdain uses the "privilege" move, and in this context it's a bit hard to handle, so it sticks with us. Or maybe it's more like a bad beat in poker: a hand we can't quite fold in our minds eye, since it ought to have won!

Scu said...

Out of curiosity, have either of you read JSF's Eating Animals?

DOCTOR J said...

@Scu: No, regrettably, I haven't, Though this interview has compelled me to do so post haste.

Scu said...

Tell me what you think. It was simply amazing. I read almost all of it on a long airplane ride. I really don't know what the person sitting next to me must have thought, considering I went from crying to total laughing out loud. It was powerful.

Scu said...

I know the conversation has sort of moved on, but I wanted to ask a question of Dr. J and AnPac if you two are willing.

Both of you expressed that certain debates fade into white noise for you after a bit of time. I totally understand, and agree that I have the same issue. Both of you also expressed that issues of eating animal flesh and other animal products are one of those debates. And that the JSF vs. Bourdain debate was interesting for both of you because you felt it was refreshing, different, etc. So, here's my question: What is your background on this debate?
Both of you are philosophy professors, both of you work in the field of ethics (among other things). Have either of you read any of the classic ethical works on eating of animals? I'm thinking here of Singer's Animal Liberation from a Utilitarian point of view, Regan's The Case for Animal Rights from a deontological point of view, Adams' The Sexual Politics of Meat from a feminist point of view? Or, if not the classic texts, any number of other major essays, articles, books, etc. on the issue?
I guess my question is what level of philosophical and ethical familiarization did you have before this debate became repetitive for you?
This is in no way meant as some sort of attack, I'm honestly just curious.

DOCTOR J said...

@Scu: Yours is a good question. I'll admit that I'm far less familiar with the seminal texts than you, but probably more familiar than others. (I've read Singer, but not Regan or Adams.) I don't want to speak for AnPan, but what I meant by the "white noise" reference in my post was that some debates-- like this one, for example-- tend to repeat the same positions and arguments over and over. That's not to say that there aren't more interesting things to say about it out there, as was evidenced in the JSF/Bourdain conversation, but those "more interesting" things seem not to make it into (what Heidegger would call) the "what-is-said-in-the-talk" about the issue.

Do you disagree?

Scu said...

Oh, I don't disagree at all. I mean, I honestly cannot tell you the last time I heard a new argument for eating meat. It's been a couple of years, at least. And this is a discussion I have all the time (sometimes because I want to, sometimes when I don't want to).

But for me there is the same general debate, which is kinda annoying and honestly I usually avoid unless directly asked. But there is a more philosophically driven debate, where I manage to have new or interesting conversations on a fairly regular basis (I think my dissertation work would be mind-numbing otherwise). So, I was being curious if it was the public debate that you have found repetitive, or more of the philosophical debate.

One of the things I like about JSF's Eating Animals is his ability to really bridge the gap between philosophical debate, empirical research, public intellectual, and literary style. I definitely never expected a best seller to cite Derrida, Benjamin, and Kafka on the question of shame.

Thanks for answering the question, it's something I was wondering the last couple of days.