Saturday, September 18, 2010

Pufendorf, Animals, and Necessity

Reading Pufendorf for my class on "The Philosophers & The Animals" has led me to wonder what even thinkers who, in the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas, argue that we have dominion over the animals would think of contemporary industrial farming and so on (things like bacon double-cheeseburgers, which I used to thoroughly enjoy).

Pufendorf makes the usual claims that our dominion over animals is a function of our reason, our special place in God's order of things, and also follows Hobbes in pointing out that we are in a "state of nature" with animals since we cannot make covenants with them (i.e. we are in a state of war with them). He mentions that some thinkers have worried about the suffering of animals, and the inevitability of suffering during slaughter, but suggests that since the consumption of animals is not explicitly forbidden by God, it must, generally speaking, be permissible. But at the end of all of this (in The Law of Nature and Nations (1688), Book IV, Chapter III), he writes:
Yet that the abuse of this power [of human dominion over animals], and especially such as is attended with foolish cruelty and barbarity, deserves to come under censure is beyond dispute. For, as it is the interest of particular states, that no person squander away, or waste and spoil his possessions; so it turns to the prejudice of the universal society of mankind, and to the dishonour of God, the giver of so great gifts, to consume them idly and wantonly, without promoting any benefit or advantage of life.
This is a bit more expansive than similar passages (of which I'm aware) in Aquinas or, say, Kant, where the basic claim is the well-worn, "be kind to animals, since cruelty to animals might lead to cruelty to humans" (with the reminder that cruelty to the animals doesn't harm them, but harms ourselves). The judgment that one should not waste animals does seem implicit in a few things Aquinas says, so perhaps Pufendorf isn't saying anything essentially new. But he is quite a bit more explicit in his emphasis that the use of animals is limited only to those which promote a clear "benefit or advantage of life." What we know about diet and nutrition now certainly suggests that one doesn't need much (or any) meat to have a good diet, and it certainly--as I suggested to my students--makes bacon seem pretty unnecessary. (Though perhaps Pufendorf would suggest that it would be wasteful not to cure the bacon if we're going to slaughter the pig for its much more nutritious loins?) For some reason, I find myself thinking back to Epicurus' reminder that many, perhaps most, of our desires are vain.

One more fascinating tidbit from Pufendorf, for your consideration. He reports that a writer named Rochefort wrote of a people in Peru who abstained from meat, "and that if desired only to taste any, their answer is, they are not dogs."

I also learned this evening that traditional cheeses are made with rennet, which coagulates the milk, and rennet is traditionally obtained by extracting the enzyme from the salt-cured stomachs of ruminants, often veal calves. First, yuck. Second, who the hell figured that out?


  1. According to David B. Fankhauser: "Presumably, the first cheese was produced by accident when the ancients stored milk in a bag made from the stomach of a young goat, sheep or cow. They found that the day-old milk would curdle in the bag (stomach), yielding solid chunks (curds) and liquid (whey). Once they discovered that the curd-chunks could be separated out and dried, they had discovered a means by which milk, an extremely perishable food, could be preserved for later use. The addition of salt was found to preserve these dried curds for long periods of time.
    At some point, someone discovered that the most active portion of the young animal's stomach to cause curdling was the abomasum, the last of the four chambers of the stomach of a ruminant animal." (see

    He suggests that it's much cheaper to use artificially-produced rennet, and Wikipedia says that the nasty traditional method is only used in central European countries such as France(!). So most cheese is probably OK for vegans and vegetarians, I would guess, although there certainly used to be "vegetarian cheese."

  2. Good work, Duncan! (I was sure it had to be an accident, but had no inkling what sort of accident it might be. But that makes a lot of sense, since other organs played a similar role.)

    My impression is that vegetarian cheese is "cheese" and not cheese--that is, something the color and consistency of cheese, but not really the same thing. (And some of my stricter vegetarian friends tell me that it's terrible...) Of course, cheese isn't vegan b/c of the milk. I say now, because of that, I could never be vegan. But I'm pretty sure I once said that about bacon and vegetarianism...oh well.

  3. Oops! Of course, there is no vegan cheese. I hope there is real vegetarian cheese, but I guess I'll have to investigate. Not sure I want to try eating "cheese."

  4. these are totally things you learn quickly if you're among enough non-quietist vegetarians and vegans.

    the 'pizza luce' chain in the twin cities (and one in duluth) offers several vegetarian and vegan cheese alternatives on the menu, some of which are reminiscent of cheese on some pizzas and some of which are an insult to the word 'cheese'. apart from that, since they know what they're doing, it's a good place to try out non-cheese, if you make it to the central apa this year.

  5. Thanks for the tip, j! Yeah, we're just picking things up as we go (and I guess we're technically "semi-vegetarians"). Whatever one thinks about animals as food, it still can seem surprising, I think, just how pervasive animal products are in foodstuffs.

  6. gelatin was always an irksome one for my friends back in the 90s.