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In Defense of Eating Dogs

photograph of strays dog on street

In Western societies, dogs are regarded as our companions. As such, the idea that one might ever eat a dog would strike us as abhorrent. This view stands in stark contrast to that of many Asian countries, in which the consumption of dog meat is a regular part of their culture. However, attitudes appear to be shifting. As younger generations increasingly regard the practice as taboo, the president of South Korea has recently suggested that the time has come for the practice to be prohibited.

But should it be? I suspect that many people would regard the consumption of dogs as not only taboo, but morally wrong. However, this attitude seems to be inconsistent with our attitudes towards other animals.

I want to suggest that if there is nothing wrong with eating cows, chickens, and pigs, then there is nothing wrong with eating dogs. Conversely, if it is wrong to eat dogs, then it is also wrong to eat cows, chickens, and pigs. Regardless of what direction one goes with the reasoning, my point is that there is an inconsistency in how most people view dogs, cows, chickens, and pigs.

Can We Draw a Line?

Why might it be wrong to eat a dog? One answer is that dogs are companion animals. They are honorary members of our family, so to speak. Indeed, some dog owners refer to themselves as “dog moms” or “dog dads.” As such, it would be wrong to eat a dog because of the special status that we have given them.

The problem is that this association is contingent. Perhaps you might view your dog as part of your family, but that doesn’t mean everyone else views dogs in that way. Indeed, that is not how they are viewed by people who consume them as food and in societies where this practice is prevalent. If dogs only have significant value because we give it to them, then they don’t have it inherently. If that’s the case, then while eating dogs might be revolting or disgusting, it isn’t wrong. And just because something is offensive to one’s own tastes doesn’t mean it should be legally banned for everyone.

Another answer might be that dogs are what animal rights philosopher Tom Regan called “subjects of a life.” Dogs are conscious: they can experience pain, pleasure, and other aspects of consciousness. These qualities generate moral value which makes it wrong to kill them purely for the sake of consumption. While this argument shows that dogs have inherent value, it also applies equally to cows, chickens, and pigs — animals that we commonly consume. After all, all of these animals can feel pain and other aspects of consciousness. So why wouldn’t it be wrong to eat them? It seems that any property we think of is going to be a property that these other animals have.

As such, someone who accepts this line of reasoning must also be committed to stopping the consumption of these other animals. But that’s a tough bullet to bite, as many people who are opposed to dog consumption engage in other forms of meat consumption.

The point is that it’s arbitrary to draw a moral line at dogs but not for, say, cows. Consistency demands that we either embrace the permissibility of eating cows, chickens, and pigs — and therefore the permissibility of eating dogs, or we embrace the wrongness of eating dogs — and therefore the wrongness of eating other animals.

Which Direction Should Consistency Take Us?

There are arguments to be made for either.  I have argued that since it is not wrong to eat cows, chickens, and the like, that it is not wrong to eat dogs. On the other side, Alastair Norcross has argued that since it’s wrong to eat dogs, most other kinds of meat consumption are therefore also wrong.

It’s worth taking a deep dive into the literature to build an informed view, but let’s table these arguments for a second. Most people lack the expertise, time, or willpower to confidently explore the academic literature. Indeed, unless you’re a professional philosopher you likely haven’t taken deep dives on many of the beliefs you have. In the absence of that, the next best thing is to work from our background knowledge and engage in critical and reflective deliberation on our beliefs. How might we do that in this case?

Suppose that you’re opposed to eating dogs. Ask yourself this: which is stronger – your intuition that it’s morally permissible to eat chicken, cows, and pigs, or your intuition that there is something wrong with eating dogs? I suspect that most people would answer the former — after all, even those who are opposed to eating dogs are generally OK with eating other kinds of meat. So if that intuition is stronger, perhaps consistency should weigh in favor of that intuition.

That is to say, if we are faced with a dilemma where both horns are counterintuitive (in this case, either we say that eating dogs is morally permissible, or we say that most meat consumption is morally impermissible), then we should go with the horn that preserves our strongest intuition. Our moral common sense is generally reliable, so if we are going to deviate from it, the smaller the deviation the better. In other words, if we are going to bite a bullet, we should bite the smaller bullet. Based on that rule of thumb, we should go with the view that it is morally permissible to eat dogs.

Of course, this isn’t the final say. We are just weighing intuitions, and intuitions and heuristics are defeasible. There are other factors we might need to consider. One might give an independent argument against meat consumption that is strong enough to override intuitions in favor of meat-eating that were not formed reflectively. On the other hand, one might enhance these intuitions by giving independent arguments to shore them up.

Note that I am not saying that someone who thinks it is OK to eat cows, chickens, and pigs must also be OK with personally eating a dog. There is no inconsistency in being willing to eat a cow but refusing to eat a dog, so long as the different attitude is not justified by an appeal to different moral status. The point is one about intellectual consistency.

Should You Eat Baby Yoda?

photograph of Star Wars shaped sugar cookies

Since it went live in November, Disney+ has cemented itself within the web of online entertainment streaming services, smashing already-high projections for first-wave subscribers by registering more than 10 million accounts in its first month. While there are many reasons behind such numbers, one strong factor is the tightly-controlled exclusive programming available only to Disney+ subscribers – in particular, stories based within various IP’s swept up by the Disney machine in recent years; if you’re a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Star Wars franchise, or The Simpsons (or just want to stream the highest-grossing film of all time), Disney+ is the only place to go. And with the breakout success of The Mandalorian, an eight-episode series set in the Star Wars universe about a bounty hunter protecting a mysterious child, this business model already appears to be paying off – particularly with the popularity (and profitability) of the adorable “Baby Yoda” character.

But what would Baby Yoda taste like?

This (hopefully) seems like an odd question: love for the powerful little Force-user is strong, both on-and-offline – and I don’t mean to suggest that I’m hoping for the season’s penultimate episode’s cliffhanger to be resolved with Giancarlo Esposito’s villainous character picking his teeth with a furry green bone. But the simple fact that a creature is cute is not typically enough for everyone to think that said creature should not be eaten. I’m guessing that, if you count yourself as a fan of The Child, two things are true:

  1. You recoiled in disgust at the thought of eating Baby Yoda, and
  2. You clearly recognize that Baby Yoda is not human.

So, given that many people are perfectly content to consume adorable cows, pigs, and other nonhuman animals (which all meet that second qualification), why aren’t more people bothered by the fact that farm animals are cute?

T.J. Kasperbauer suggests that our feelings towards nonhuman animals are, at least in part, a result of generations of our forebears categorically downgrading different species into lower social groups; in his 2018 book Subhuman: The Moral Psychology of Human Attitudes to Animals, Kasperbauer explains how the process of dehumanization has led many societies to stratify along speciesist lines. Although dehumanization typically describes the process of unjustly discounting a person’s moral value entirely, Kasperbauer focuses on a more technical variety called infrahumanization whose victims “are still attributed various key human qualities but are treated as inferior to some other group by comparison.” Adapting this concept to analyze cross-species relationships, Kasperbauer concludes that nonhuman animals have, as a category, been historically classified as a dehumanized outgroup, thereby (in theory) removing our feelings of moral obligations to care for nonhuman animals. However, because some animals (like dogs or horses) are more similar to humans than others (particularly in their apparent cognitive capacities), our psychological responses to different creatures have been similarly cultivated along infrahumanizing lines.

What does this thesis mean for sci-fi/fantasy stories where plenty of nonhuman species are involved in the narratives? Should humans (or apparent-humans) in a story necessarily treat Tolkien’s Hobbits or Roddenberry’s Klingons as an infrahumanized outgroup comprised of less-significant moral patients (or deny their status as moral agents altogether)? Certainly not: my simple psychological response to a creature (or the lack thereof) is not necessarily an indication of that creature’s moral status; whether we want to ground our obligations to nonhuman creatures (whether terrestrial or otherwise) in their experience of pain, their possession of rights, or something else, this is a fully separate matter than someone’s reflexive affective experience of an creature’s treatment. Kasperbauer’s point is neither a prescription nor a justification for the mistreatment of nonhumans – it is an explanation of our current cultural landscape designed, in part, to provoke arguments in animal ethics that can be believed by people not-already persuaded by things like logical anti-speciesist concerns. As he explains, “Ethicists who are interested in changing attitudes toward animals must consider whether the specific goals they promote meet minimal criteria for psychological plausibility.” Put differently, before we can argue convincingly about things relevant to Point 2, Kasperbauer thinks that philosophers should consider the role played by the psychological structures relevant to Point 1.

So, when it comes to The Mandalorian’s Child, despite the fact that the character has yet to speak, it – just as much as Chewbacca, Jabba the Hutt, R2D2, and, of course, Master Yoda – is clearly cognitively and emotionally similar to humans in many relevant ways. But we should take care not to confuse the ethical issue with the psychological one: if its similarity to humans is the only thing differentiating Baby Yoda from a baby cow, then that’s an argument for the Child’s less-infrahumanized status, not its actual moral status.

If, on the other hand, you think that it’s actually wrong to eat Baby Yoda, then you should probably work out why you think the Child deserves to live – and then keep thinking about what other sorts of nonhuman animals deserve the same considerations (even if you don’t feel the same disgust at the thought of eating them).

What PETA Gets Right about Animal Metaphors (and What it Gets Wrong)

Sign that reads "if dogs tasted like pork, would you eat them? What's the difference?" bearing a PETA logo

Earlier this month, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) accidentally sparked several days worth of jokes on the internet after its social media accounts shared an image recommending that English idioms relying on animal metaphors be retired. Rather than saying that someone is “taking the bull by the horns” when she faces a difficult problem head-on, PETA suggested that we say she is “taking the flower by the thorns;” instead of calling test subjects “guinea pigs,” the posts proposed a metaphor like “test tubes,” and so on.

To PETA, such metaphorical language is another example of the deeply rooted speciesism in Western society; the idea that humans are privileged creatures that deserve special treatment over other creatures simply in virtue of our DNA. Often compared to injustices like racism or sexism, speciesism is an explanatory mechanism undergirding the mistreatment of non-human animals in arenas ranging from industrial farms to domestic homes. When some animal species are eaten or experimented on while others are welcomed as members of the family, it is often nothing more than human perspective that differentiates the animals in question; such a subjective position is not, some argue, altogether different from subjective social preferences that allowed some-but-not-all genders to vote or some-but-not-all races to use the same drinking fountains (abuses that pale in comparison to still-persistent patriarchal norms or the continuing legacy of the African slave trade). In a follow-up tweet, PETA explained that “Just as it became unacceptable to use racist, homophobic, or ableist language, phrases that trivialize cruelty to animals will vanish as more people begin to appreciate animals for who they are and start ‘bringing home the bagels’ instead of the bacon.”

On one hand, the comparison of the current plight of nonhuman animals to the historical sufferings of marginalized groups threatens to trivialize the victories won by reformers in the Civil Rights movement or in the post-Stonewall era. Certainly, it is difficult to compare, say, pre-suffrage women to present-day factory farmed pigs without risking insulting confusion at exactly what the comparison is supposed to be. Moreover, such analogies risk implying that the mission to promote equality amongst groups with variable sexual orientations, genders, races, or other factors has been fully accomplished (as if “that’s taken care of, so now we can move on to the animal issue”) – clearly, any hints of such a notion are false.

On the other hand, some might retort that it is precisely this attitude that balks at human-animal comparisons that PETA and other groups seek to alter; if we immediately write off animal concerns as unimportant or such comparisons as impossible because “humans are not animals,” then we unavoidably reaffirm the very undercurrents of speciesism that PETA’s original post was trying to highlight. It is true that the language we use matters when shaping public perception of a topic; consider, for example, an idiom drenched in racist connotations, such as the one used recently by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue to some outcry. The power of diction to affect the discourse remains true, even if the subjects used as objects in such language cannot understand the words in question.

Of course, a common sticking point in this conversation is the role of PETA itself. Much of the criticism the organization fielded in response to its graphic revolved not around metaphoric language per se, but on PETA’s own draconian policies on euthanasia or other seemingly-inconsistent positions on animal death that the animal-rights organization appears to hold. For many, PETA’s claimed position of moral superiority is undeserved in the face of widespread evidence that they support the execution of animals for any reason; for its part, PETA argues that its policies are targeted only to preventing undue suffering (although, admittedly, it is hard to see how this actually plays out on the ground).

Nevertheless, this short episode can serve as a useful example of some ethical implications for our word choices when framing conversations about larger ethical issues. And when it comes to animal rights, whether we’re beating a dead one or feeding a fed one, this horse should be considered carefully when going forward.