The Philosophy of Nutrition: Animal Ethics

[Animal Ethics mp3]

[BONUS EPISODE: Puppies, Pigs, and People featuring Alastair Norcross mp3]

This episode is more about philosophy than science, so there will not be many references to scientific literature in this blog post. However, I do think areas of neuroscience can greatly inform us about topics like animal welfare and the ethics of eating animals because neuroscience can give us insights into sentience, pain, suffering, etc., but alas I am no neuroscientist so I cannot comment too intelligently on the matter. But what I can do is yammer-on about myself for a couple of paragraphs and link to some things that were discussed.

Last year I attended an animal ethics conference at Colorado State University. I didn’t even want to go. Mainly because it started at 8am on a weekend, but also because I didn’t really care too much for the topic. It’s not that I thought issues of animal welfare to be unimportant, but I guessed that the bulk of the conference was going to detail the conditions of animals in factory-farming conditions and explaining why you shouldn’t be eating animals raised in this way.1 Both of which I was already well-aware. I rarely eat red meat or poultry, but I do enjoy the taste of scrambled eggs in the morning and intensive egg-production conditions are among the worst in all of industrial animal agriculture.2 So needless to say I did not really want to get up early and schlep my audio equipment to campus only to be shamed and disgusted at my own behavior. But on the plus side there would be free breakfast at the conference and I knew that some of my friends were going to be there. Another motivating factor for me was that I was producing another podcast at the time and desperately needed some content to publish—hence the schlepping of the audio epquipment.3

I actually enjoyed the majority of the conference. The speakers that were chosen made for a diversity of opinion on several matters, so it was not any kind of pro-vegan indoctrination session that I had feared. One person, Dr. Norcross, stood out to me as being quite interesting, informed, and articulate about bioethical issues so after the conference I cornered him and asked for an interview. To my joy he accepted, and we conducted the interview at a nearby bar.

One thing that was mentioned was an article by the late David Foster Wallace titled Consider the Lobster that was originally published in the now-defunct Gourmet magazine.4 It’s very long for a magazine article, but typical length for a DFW article. I really enjoyed reading it, and I would encourage anyone else to do the same.

In the bonus episode Norcross discusses the fictional case of a man named Fred who has a problem enjoying the taste of chocolate. Here is Norcross’s paper where that story originally appeared5 if you want a more in-depth analysis of the metaphor with argument and refutation. I’ll warn you that it contains formal logic6 and Latin terms like modus ponens that you may not understand if you don’t have a basic background in philosophy.

  1. or even eating any animals in general
  2. Factory-farming is largely based on economies of scale. In other words, cram as many animals as possible into the smallest area possible to achieve the highest profit margins. When it comes to egg production hens are usually housed in what are called battery cages. It’s not a pretty picture. They are also subject to debeaking and other distasteful things.
  3. Yes, I re-purposed some of the content from that podcast. Here is the original episode it came from, although I used the Norcross interview in full. The second half of the original episode has some discussion with a philosophy PhD student about sentience, though, if you are so inclined. The bonus episode on the other hand is all new stuff.
  4. although the Gourmet website still seems to be churning out regular posts
  5. Norcross A. (2004) Puppies, Pigs, and People: Eating Meat and Marginal Cases. Philosophical Perspectives. 18:229-245
  6. Hell, I don’t even know what “formal logic” is! It may not contain any formal logic.

One thought on “The Philosophy of Nutrition: Animal Ethics

  1. His paper doesn’t contain any formal logic. Formal logic formalizes the types of arguments he makes into a symbolic language where (more-or-less) everything gets rigorously defined.

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