- Flag: A woman is cleaning out her closet, and she finds her old national flag. She doesn't want the flag anymore, so she cuts it up into pieces and uses the rags to clean her bathroom.
- Promise: A woman was dying, and on her deathbed she asked her son to promise that he would visit her grave every week. The son loved his mother very much, so he promised to visit her grave every week. But after the mother died, the son didn't keep his promise, because he was very busy.
- Kissing: A brother and sister like to kiss each other on the mouth. When nobody is around, they find a secret hiding place and kiss each other on the mouth, passionately.
- Chicken: A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a dead chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it.
Yuck. And now here is the fifth story, which was called "Dog" in the original study, but was slightly changed and embellished by Baggini:
"Waste not, want not," was Delia's motto. She had a great respect for the thriftiness of her parents' generation, people who had lived through the war most of their lives with relatively little. She had learned a lot from them, skills virtually no one her age had, such as how to skin a rabbit and make tasty, simple dishes from offal.
So when she heard a scream of brakes one day outside her suburban semi in Hounslow, and went outside to find that Tiddles, the family cat, had been struck by a car, her first thoughts were not just of regret and sadness, but practicalities. The feline had been bashed but not run over. In effect, it was a lump of meat just waiting to be eaten.
The pungent meat stew her family sat down to that evening was of a kind not found on many British dining tables today, but Delia's family was used to eating cuts of meat that were no longer fashionable. She had told her husband what had happened, of course, and had always been direct with her children. Still, the youngest, Maisie, ate reluctantly and cast her mother occasional accusing glares over her steaming bowl. Delia was sympathetic, but the child surely had no reason to think she had done anything wrong.
Source: "Affect, culture, and morality, or is it wrong to eat your dog?" by Jonathan Haidt, Silvia Helena Koller, and Maria G. Davis in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 1973.
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 169.
The first two of the five stories listed above are designed to show disobedience or disrespect. The last three, including the one about the cat/dog, are designed to trigger feelings of disgust using unconventional food and sexual practices as triggers. But in none of the stories is anyone directly harmed according to traditional definitions of that term. After hearing these stories, however, test subjects were asked six types of questions to determine how moral or immoral the stories were. They were asked to give:
- an overall evaluation; (Is it very wrong, a little wrong, or perfectly okay.)
- a justification; (Why they answered the way they did.)
- a specific description of the harm; (Who was harmed and why?)
- their personal levels of bother; (How would you feel if you saw it directly?)
- judgments about interference; (Should the person be stopped?)
- judgments about universality. (What if country A does this, but country B does not?)
The details of the results across different demographics for each of the five stories are rather fascinating, and make the full paper well worth a read. Now that I've given the wider picture, however, I'm going to confine the rest of this blog post just to the story that Baggini chose for us. For the tale about eating the family pet, 45% of all adults surveyed said the family should be stopped from doing so, but there was a wide variation in that response. At the two extremes, 80% of people in Philadelphia from low socioeconomic-status backgrounds said eating the pet should be stopped, while only 10% of Philadelphians from high socioeconomic-status backgrounds thought the same thing. Those are practically polar opposite viewpoints! While writing about such variations across the entire study, the authors close their paper with this observation:
"If something disgusts you, does that make it wrong? In groups with a harm-based morality it does not, for moral condemnation requires a victim. Just as murder charges cannot be filed until a body is found, moral condemnation cannot be declared until harmful consequences are found or plausibly invented. The mere fact that one is bothered by something (e.g. heterosexuals bothered by homosexuality) does not give one the right to condemn it. In cultural groups with a non-harm-based morality, however, moral condemnation requires no victim, and one's own affective reactions may be considered relevant. Rules of discourse allow moral condemnation to be backed up by assertions such as "because that's disgusting," or norm statements such as "because you're not supposed to do that to a chicken." The role of affect in moral judgment may therefore be variable across cultures."
I don't believe that morality is or should be a matter of simple democracy. The section of the paper that discussed people's justifications for their evaluative beliefs showed (unsurprisingly) just how poorly most people actually reason about this subject. While psychologists who simply study the world as it is do a great service in reporting these facts, I don't think that cultural relativism is a resting place that philosophers should be satisfied with for morality. So, what principles can we use from evolutionary philosophy to try to clear up the matter? Given a natural, physical world with no evidence for souls; no means for the transmission of behavioural prowess through the digestion of another being; a long and shared evolutionary history of life eating life, and humans being omnivores; and an interconnected world where cooperation within and among species works better than competition over the long term; how might we best judge the morality of eating animals like Tiddles?
First, some basic facts. The wikipedia entry on cat meat lists over a dozen examples of nations from around the world that eat such meat. In the wikipedia entry on dog meat, the proliferation of such consumption is even higher. "It was estimated in 2014 that worldwide, 25 million dogs are eaten each year by humans." In the United States, "the term "dog" has been used as a synonym for sausage since 1884 and accusations that sausage makers used dog meat date to at least 1845."
Unlike cannibalism, the physical act of eating cats and dogs is at least as safe and nutritious as eating any other animal. We know that cannibalism--which "has been said to test the bounds of cultural relativism as it challenges anthropologists "to define what is or is not beyond the pale of acceptable human behaviour"--is not merely disgusting to most of us, it is unhealthy for the devourer. "Depending on what parts are eaten (the most infected include the brain, spinal cord, bone marrow, and small intestine), human cannibals run the risk of contracting a fatal prion malady, similar to Creutzfeld-Jacob disease (think Mad Cow), known as kuru." And yet, even cannibalism "was widespread in the past among humans in many parts of the world." So if that's the case, can eating pets really be that bad?
Serendipitously, I'm currently reading Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and there is an excellent passage in it about this topic. This sci-fi novel from 1961 with some philosophical touches is about a human named Mike who was born on Mars and raised by Martians where (according to the author) the belief that eating one another was considered a very high compliment. In one conversation (pp. 178-180), a character named Jubal who has thought about Mike's background, is trying to convince his employee named Duke that really, it's all relative. Check this out:
"But it is not a matter of free choice for me, nor for you—nor for Mike. All three of us are prisoners of our early indoctrinations, for it is hard, very nearly impossible, to shake off one's earliest training. Duke, can you get it through your skull that if you had been born on Mars and brought up by Martians, you yourself would have exactly the same attitude toward eating and being eaten that Mike has?"
Duke considered it, then shook his head. "I won't buy it, Jubal. Sure, about most things it's just Mike's hard luck that he wasn't brought up in civilisation—and my good luck that I was. I'm willing to make allowances for him. But this is different, this is an instinct."
"But it is. I didn't get any 'training at my mother's knee' not to be a cannibal. Hell, I didn't need it; I've always known it was a sin—a nasty one. Why, the mere thought of it makes my stomach do a flip-flop. It's a basic instinct."
Jubal groaned. "Duke, how could you learn so much about machinery and never learn anything about how you yourself tick? That nausea you feel—that's not an instinct; that's a conditioned reflex. Your mother didn't say to you, 'Mustn't eat your playmates, dear; that's not nice,' because you soaked it up from our whole culture—and so did I. Jokes about cannibals and missionaries, cartoons, fairy tales, horror stories, endless little things. But it has nothing to do with instinct....because cannibalism is historically one of the most widespread of human customs, extending through every branch of the human race. .... It's silly to talk about a practice being 'against instinct' when hundreds of millions of human beings have followed that practice."
"But— All right, all right, I should know better than to argue with you, Jubal; you can always twist things around your way. But suppose we all did come from savages who didn't know any better—I'm not admitting it but just supposing. Suppose we did. What of it? We're civilised now. Or at least I am."
Jubal grinned cheeerfully. "Implying that I am not. Son, quite aside from my own conditioned reflex against munching a roast haunch of—well, you, for example—quite aside from that trained-in emotional prejudice, for coldly practical reasons I regard our taboo against cannibalism as an excellent idea....because we are not civilised."
"Obvious. If we didn't have a tribal taboo about the matter so strong that you honestly believed it was an instinct, I can think of a long list of people I wouldn't trust with my back turned, not with the price of beef what it is today. Eh?"
Duke grudged a grin "Maybe you've got something there. I wouldn't want to take a chance on my ex-mother-in-law. She hates my guts."
"You see? Or how about our charming neighbour on the south, who is so casual about other people's fences and live stock during the hunting season? I wouldn't want to bet that you and I wouldn't wind up in his freezer if we didn't have that taboo. But Mike [the Martian] I would trust utterly—because Mike is civilised."
This is a discussion targeted squarely at the question of nature vs. nurture (or genes vs. the environment), with what I think is an excellent set of observations about the unconscious pervasiveness of culture upon our nurture. While it's possible for disgust mechanisms to become embedded in our genes (I think the aversion to blue or green mold is one of these), there has not been nearly enough time or selective force for the disgust of eating pets to be coded into our genetic instincts. In fact, the widespread practice of such "disgusting" behaviour confirms it has not been hard-coded.
I also particularly like Jubal's point that we may have taboos "for coldly practical reasons" concerning our fellow citizens. Relevant examples of why this is important for this week's thought experiment can be seen in Cambodia, Vietnam, and China where people's pets are being stolen, sold, and eaten, which causes enormous grief for the owners. In fact, in the Vietnamese story linked above, human victims of dog kidnapping have become so distressed that they are increasingly resorting to vigilante justice, violently killing dog thieves when they are caught. "Since 2012, at least 20 dog thieves have been beaten to death by community members fed up with having their beloved pets stolen." We've allowed domesticated wolves into our society for the help and companionship they give us only to have their instinctual trust of humans come back to haunt them. It's a disgraceful abuse of trust to our fellow animals, both human and non-human, and that loss of trust is badly corrosive to the project of building cooperative societies.
So, we have a lot of customs and emotions at play here, both individually and societally. It's a complex problem, but let's try to wrap this discussion up with some concrete decisions. There are essentially three options: 1) Eating cats and dogs is always okay. 2) Eating cats and dogs is sometimes okay. 3) Eating cats and dogs is never okay. As usual, I would have to come down on the side of finding balance between the two extreme positions. When might it be okay? That's difficult to say with precision. When trying to suss out the details for problems of applied ethics, the number of potential options to explore is myriad and changes to any of the preconditions can easily change the outcome of the final decision. But the choice for when it might be acceptable to eat cats and dogs could be informed by the following lines of inquiry, all of which could be greatly expanded during an exhaustive evaluation of this problem.
Which stakeholders must be considered in the decision? The individual eating the cat or dog? Yes. Humans with prior relationships to the cat or dog? Yes. The individual cat or dog? Yes. Other members of society who interact with the person doing the eating? Somewhat; their potential future actions must be considered. Other cats or dogs who may be eaten in the future? Yes; their ongoing welfare should be taken into account. Other non-human animals? Potentially yes. Since carnivores are impractical or very difficult to raise for food, cats and dogs are really only likely to be potential food sources if they have been raised as pets or if they have become feral. Once they are feral, cats and dogs can fall into the same discussions of regulating ecosystems that are used to talk about other hunted animals. For example, feral cats and dogs could quite justifiably be encouraged to be eaten in areas where they are a great danger to other endemic species, such as in Australia, New Zealand, or other isolated island habitats.
When should you not eat cats or dogs? If there is a physical danger to the consumer: there are none inherently, but environmental conditions where poisons or diseases are present may change that. If there is a mental danger to the consumer: future feelings of guilt and grief could hinder many people, although examples show this is relative and therefore able to be overcome. If it would harm the "spirit" of the pet who is dead: but they will be eaten by something eventually, so this is not a valid concern. If the pet is still alive: we should not be tempted to end their sentient lives prematurely while they still have something to give to others unless there is a much greater need, although current end-of-life considerations may remain unchanged. If eating the cat or dog would harm other people: certainly there is harm if the cat or dog belonged to someone else and they did not wish for their pet to be taken from them, but there is no harm if another person is merely personally repulsed by the idea of a cat or dog being eaten.
When could you eat cats or dogs? If there is a physical need: when there is little or no other choice for sustenance, such as in war-torn areas or places of extreme environmental poverty. There is no "need" though when the animal is eaten for mere preference because the animal is tasty to you, or because you have mistaken beliefs about the personal benefits the consumption will bring. If there is an emotional need: as long as other conditions allow it, eating the animal may be a celebration of its life. Currently, however, many people insist upon the opposite—a wilful ignorance about where their meat comes from.
Boy oh boy, this is not a comfortable discussion to try to reduce to intellectually precise terms. I'd love to hear other thoughts on this matter, including whether I've put my foot wrong, but please give me some benefit of the doubt because of my previous record of philosophically being a strong defender of animal rights, as well as personally being a very loving pet owner. I personally don't think eating my pets would ever be the best way to celebrate their lives (it's too temporary a pleasure), but I don't think I can justify stopping others who might want to do so under perfectly-designed harmless conditions like the fictional one that befell poor Tiddles.