Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

David Foster Wallace and Dean R. Koontz

I think I mentioned once the article for Gourmet magazine by David Foster Wallace on the Maine Lobster Festival in which he questions the ethics behind the killing of the lobsters - Consider the Lobster. Well today I saw a post at The Thinking Reed about a National Journal article which goes into interesting detail on the politics of food industry advocates vs animals welfare advocates. Lee made this comment about the article ...

What’s striking to me is the contrast between the modesty of the goals of organizations like the Humane Society and the rhetoric of their opponents. Somehow, giving farm animals enough space to stand up and turn around will lead to a wholesale devaluation of human life! You might think that human beings would try to justify our much-vaunted moral superiority by treating compassionately the animals over which we exercise virtually unlimited power. Surely it’s just a coincidence that there’s so much money at stake in preserving the current system.

As I read the article I saw what he meant, and I was surprised to see this quote by horror writer and Catholic Dean R. Koontz, someone I once liked to read (the book of his I liked the best was about an intelligent dog) .......

Dean Koontz, the best-selling novelist whose supernatural thrillers are informed by his Catholic faith, writes that if the "antihuman" animal-rights activists "ever succeeded in their goals, if they established through culture or law that human beings have no intrinsic dignity greater than that of any animal, the world would not be a better place for either humankind or animals. Instead, it would be a utilitarian nightmare in which the strong would destroy the weak." As far as Koontz is concerned, "Not being God, we cannot grant rights to animals any more than we can grant ourselves the right to take our neighbors' property or their lives."

What a bunch of flapdoodle :(

Here instead for your consideration are the last few paragraphs from Wallace's article on the lobster ....


Consider the Lobster

[...] In any event, at the Festival, standing by the bubbling tanks outside the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, watching the fresh-caught lobsters pile over one another, wave their hobbled claws impotently, huddle in the rear corners, or scrabble frantically back from the glass as you approach, it is difficult not to sense that they’re unhappy, or frightened, even if it’s some rudimentary version of these feelings …and, again, why does rudimentariness even enter into it? Why is a primitive, inarticulate form of suffering less urgent or uncomfortable for the person who’s helping to inflict it by paying for the food it results in? I’m not trying to give you a PETA-like screed here—at least I don’t think so. I’m trying, rather, to work out and articulate some of the troubling questions that arise amid all the laughter and saltation and community pride of the Maine Lobster Festival. The truth is that if you, the Festival attendee, permit yourself to think that lobsters can suffer and would rather not, the MLF can begin to take on aspects of something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest.

Does that comparison seem a bit much? If so, exactly why? Or what about this one: Is it not possible that future generations will regard our own present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way we now view Nero’s entertainments or Aztec sacrifices? My own immediate reaction is that such a comparison is hysterical, extreme—and yet the reason it seems extreme to me appears to be that I believe animals are less morally important than human beings; and when it comes to defending such a belief, even to myself, I have to acknowledge that (a) I have an obvious selfish interest in this belief, since I like to eat certain kinds of animals and want to be able to keep doing it, and (b) I have not succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient.

Given this article’s venue and my own lack of culinary sophistication, I’m curious about whether the reader can identify with any of these reactions and acknowledgments and discomforts. I am also concerned not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I really am is confused. Given the (possible) moral status and (very possible) physical suffering of the animals involved, what ethical convictions do gourmets evolve that allow them not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands (since of course refined enjoyment, rather than just ingestion, is the whole point of gastronomy)? And for those gourmets who’ll have no truck with convictions or rationales and who regard stuff like the previous paragraph as just so much pointless navel-gazing, what makes it feel okay, inside, to dismiss the whole issue out of hand? That is, is their refusal to think about any of this the product of actual thought, or is it just that they don’t want to think about it? Do they ever think about their reluctance to think about it? After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet? Or is all the gourmet’s extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be aesthetic, gustatory?



Blogger PrickliestPear said...

I like that piece by David Foster Wallace.

That quote by Dean Koontz, on the other hand, is rather perverse. I've never encountered the idea that acknowledging animal rights is somehow anti-human. One doesn't have to be God to recognise that other beings have rights. Where does that idea come from?

On the other hand, groups like PETA do not help the cause by being so over the top in their ridiculousness.

I'm not a vegetarian, and therefore not intrinsically opposed to the killing of animals for food, but acknowledging that animals can and do suffer, and that we should endeavour to mimimise the suffering that we inflict on them, is hardly anti-human. On the contrary, it seems anti-human to do otherwise.

7:57 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi PrickliestPear,

I guess there are some Christians that feel the specialness of people is threatened by considering animals worthy of compassionate treatment, but I hadn't thought that was a particularly Catholic view. And I had just been considering reading Koontz latest book - no longer :)

Yeah, PETA has had some really bad ads - many of them also offensive to women .... Onion video on this :)

2:34 AM  

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