Jonathan Safran Foer’s Modest Proposal: Finding Order in our Food Habits

Jonathan Safran Foer’s excerpt in The Wall Street Journal, I suspect, is much like Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, in that he isn’t actually endorsing the argument that he is making, but instead illuminating the irrationality of our behavior. He is correct to say that eating habits are often cultural; if we attempt to rationalize our feelings about the animals we do or do not eat, then we might as well break our backs twisting and contorting to avoid all of the contradictions endemic to our views, as they stick out like glass shards in our minds. And to think that we consider the manner in which we pick and choose consumable food to be moral imperatives, subject to the same vociferous and invective arguments we appropriate to acts of right or wrong.

And so the author of Everything is Illuminated has recently come out with a new book on vegetarianism, Eating Animals, told in an irreverent documentary/novel style. It often explores why we do what we do when it comes to our digestive tendencies. The excerpt, for instance, discusses why we eat pigs but not dogs:

Dogs are wonderful, and in many ways unique. But they are remarkably unremarkable in their intellectual and experiential capacities. Pigs are every bit as intelligent and feeling, by any sensible definition of the words. They can’t hop into the back of a Volvo, but they can fetch, run and play, be mischievous and reciprocate affection. So why don’t they get to curl up by the fire? Why can’t they at least be spared being tossed on the fire? Our taboo against dog eating says something about dogs and a great deal about us.

So who’s right? What might be the reasons to exclude canine from the menu? The selective carnivore suggests:

Don’t eat companion animals. But dogs aren’t kept as companions in all of the places they are eaten. And what about our petless neighbors? Would we have any right to object if they had dog for dinner?

OK, then: Don’t eat animals with significant mental capacities. If by “significant mental capacities” we mean what a dog has, then good for the dog. But such a definition would also include the pig, cow and chicken. And it would exclude severely impaired humans.

Dogs aren’t companion animals simply because it is convenient to keep them as companions, like a toy. They evolved to be companions, one of the more unique situations in the entire ecosystem. A current theory about their evolution is that they descended from a more pacified subset of wolves that began scavenging on human leftovers. Today most dogs breeds are quite reliant on subsisting with human civilization, having neither the aggressiveness nor resourcefulness to make them tenacious predators. It may not be entirely logical, but neither are a lot of social norms, and dogs have practically been bred to be part of the family. Other animals are likewise defined by domestication.

Furthermore, braininess has its place. Any creature with a heightened awareness of its own being is remarkable. They are not unremarkable because they happen to be one of dozens on a planet of millions of species. There are a steady group of animals that might as well be savants compared to the teeming masses of less intelligent organisms on Earth.

After all, we are beginning to recognize this group by enacting exclusive status for apes, as well as a specific focus on the conservation of whales and elephants, so we clearly put a premium on an advanced brain in our treatment toward animals. It is true, however, that this does not occur to us when pigs are bred for the slaughter; we do not see them as like-minded creatures. So why don’t we elevate pigs to the ineffable status of inconsumable?

Perhaps we do have a method of rationalizing the consumption of pigs, cows, and chickens for food; perhaps it is true that they are consumable because we see them as easy prey. We are less inclined to eat predators, or at least animals that resist predation; perhaps it is anathema to our pallet if they can put up a fair fight. It might be more palatable to think that it is merely a pig’s place to be immolated for our necessary sustainability and satisfaction because that is its place in nature on the lower rung of the food ladder. A lot of children used to mark their coming of age with the horrific realization that the prized cow was being led to the slaughter.

And so, it is not only intelligence, social/bond behavior, awareness, and classifications that matter, but the role of the organism in relationship to us and the environment. Perhaps we cannot have a totally consistent view on consumption, since it is based on something so primal – the need for energy – that it is a relative concept, resisting all attempts to impose necessary underlying precepts.

After all, we must ask ourselves whether it is right that an intelligent, sensitive animal also should earn in our eyes the status of prey. Are we simply rationalizing for the cultural norms thousands of years old that have morphed into an insatiable industry? Is it contradictory to esteem the one thing that separates some organisms from nature, higher consciousness, while bowing to something so elemental as the food chain? The dilemma certainly underscores the entire human contradiction.

But surely our tastes don’t distend completely from the bounds of reason. It is possible to impose some sense on the mad world of animal consumption, even if everybody may not agree. Just don’t ask about what we should do with the octopus.