Sunday, August 29, 2010

Eating Things That Annoy Us

I've been working my way (too slowly) through Mary Midgley's Animals and Why They Matter. Overall, it is an excellent book, very accessible, very sensible, as is to be expected from what I've read by Midgley.

The following passage, however, must have slipped past the sensibility monitors. A little context: Midgley is making the point that common experience shows us that sympathy and understanding generally extend beyond the species barrier--we have relationships with pets and other animals, and attribute various states to them--such as pain and interests--without much ado (until behaviorists come along and trip us up with theory). Even people who use animals as beasts of burden and treat them more or less as property generally do not treat them the way they do inanimate tools; indeed, such treatment would not work. Thus, Midgley writes:
[W]e should notice a similar arbitrariness often appearing in the treatment of human dependants, so that we can scarcely argue that there is no real capacity for sympathy towards animals. In the treatment of other people, of course, our natural caprice is constantly disciplined by the deliberate interference of morality. We know that we must not eat our grandmothers or our children merely because they annoy us. Over animals this restraint is usually much less active; caprice has much freer play. (p. 114)
Of course, I think it would be silly to read Midgley as suggesting that we eat animals because they annoy us. But what a strange example and transition! In fact, I would suggest that I know no such thing as what she suggests. What I "know" is that grandmothers and children are not to be eaten. Perhaps then, by addition, I know that grandmothers and children are not to be eaten merely on the grounds that they annoy us. But if it is not ok to eat grandmothers and children merely because they annoy us, perhaps there are stronger reasons that would justify eating grandmothers and children? (Have you seen The Road yet, or read it?) At any rate, I have trouble understanding what the relationship is between being annoyed by something and thinking that I can or ought to eat it...


  1. I don't understand her first sentence, which makes it hard to follow the rest of it. Is she saying that we ought to notice this arbitrariness, or that if it existed then we would notice it?

    Anyway, I imagine she's thinking of times when people are so annoying that it might be tempting to kill them. This would be fairly easy in the case of children and very old people, which might be why she mentions them. (Or perhaps these are the most frequently annoying people in her view.) Morality tells us not to kill them. If we did kill them, there would be fresh meat available, and, again, morality tells us not to eat this meat. So I think she's combining the moral rules "Don't kill people just because they are annoying" and "Don't eat human flesh" into one, but I'm not sure why she's doing this, nor whether she's right.

  2. I think the first sentence refers to the thought that we don't treat dependents as "rational agents" or members of the adult community, and this licenses various forms of paternalism, etc. I suppose there might be a parallel drawn between that and the "dominion" some would say we have over animals...but M's point is that in both cases, sympathy extends over these differences of category.