Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Elaborating on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's comments on puppy farming

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recently stated that those who consume the meat of farm animals (e.g. pigs) are not in a position to object, in principle, to the organic farming of puppies for food. Predictably, many people entirely missed his point, concluded that he was advocating this in practice, and were accordingly outraged. Of course, he was not seriously suggesting that this is something that we should be doing; he stated that he would not eat such meat unless he was “on the point of starvation”. His actual argument is as follows:

“'You can't object, unless you also object to the farming of pigs. It's an artificial construct of our society, a cultural decision, to make pets out of dogs and meat out of pigs.”

In pointing out that the way in which we view dogs and pigs in Western culture is culturally determined, he is entirely correct. This view is not universal. In some cultures, pigs are not looked upon as food and dogs aren’t considered to make for welcome additions to the family home. In certain countries, dogs are killed and eaten, and even skinned alive for their fur. It is perhaps fair to say that, in those places, the dog has a similar status to that of the lowly pig or cow in Western culture. More broadly, the distinction between “farm animals” and “domestic pets” is culturally determined. It has no basis in objective reality – that is, outside of human thought, these categories simply do not exist.

On what basis, then, can those who happily eat meat from pigs, cows, and other farm animals, and therefore endorse the breeding and killing of these animals, object to the breeding and killing of dogs for food? Arbitrary, culturally derived classifications certainly shouldn’t be accepted as providing a basis for this seemingly hypocritical position, and nor should notions of the cuteness of dogs and their behaviour, their suitability as domestic animals, or their usefulness in other areas of human endeavour. Stripping all of this away leaves what we intuitively consider to be conscious creatures with the ability to experience pain, fear, distress, and discomfort. This raises the moral question of why it should be considered right that some of these animals should exist in factory farms and be brutally murdered while others are singled out for love, affection, and protection from cruelty.

For vegetarians and vegans, the challenge that Fearnley-Whittingstall presents is not a problem, for we would consider the farming of puppies for food to be wrong in the same way that we consider the farming (especially intensive farming) of animals such as pigs to be wrong. The fact that the former are cuter, fluffier, and more suitable as domestic pets than the latter does not cause us to apply our moral judgement inconsistently. For the meat eater, however, it is quite a problem. It is not possible for them to justify their inconsistent position in a sensible, rational, and objective way. They must remain hypocritical, or accept that puppy farming would be no more wrong than the farming of other animals, or else come to consider it all to be wrong. 

Some of the issues covered here are also covered in a previous entry entitled 'Reflecting upon arguments against vegetarianism". 

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