A few days ago in the Wall Street Journal, novelist-turned-vegetarian activist Jonathan Safran Foer offered a modest proposal.
Despite the fact that it's perfectly legal in 44 states, eating "man's best friend" is as taboo as a man eating his best friend.... unlike all farmed meat, which requires the creation and maintenance of animals, dogs are practically begging to be eaten. Three to four million dogs and cats are euthanized annually. The simple disposal of these euthanized dogs is an enormous ecological and economic problem. But eating those strays, those runaways, those not-quite-cute-enough-to-take and not-quite-well-behaved-enough-to-keep dogs would be killing a flock of birds with one stone and eating it, too.
It's an intriguing argument, and one that, for this reader at least, completely backfired. Foer's tongue-in-cheek argument against the dog-eating taboo is intentionally well-reasoned, designed to fail simply because the irrational taboo is so strong. His intended, as opposed to stated, goal is to persuade readers to adopt a similar taboo against eating any animals.
Food is not rational. Food is culture, habit, craving and identity. Responding to factory farming calls for a capacity to care that dwells beyond information.... And despite it being entirely reasonable, the case for eating dogs is likely repulsive to just about every reader of this paper. The instinct comes before our reason, and is more important.
The problem is, I am not a teenage girl who fetishizes my own "capacity to care" above all else. Do I put instinct before reason when it comes to not eating dogs. Sure. But just because I can't reason my way out of that, it doesn't follow that I should unreason my way into vegetarianism. (Besides, I can certainly envision trying dog were I traveling in Thailand or something. After all, I hate horse -- raw, no less -- in Japan.) Foer's satiric argument is much stronger than his genuine one.
Interestingly, Foer's satiric argument does include one genuine one that is persuasive.
This need not challenge our civility. We won't make them suffer any more than necessary. While it's widely believed that adrenaline makes dog meat taste better--hence the traditional methods of slaughter: hanging, boiling alive, beating to death--we can all agree that if we're going to eat them, we should kill them quickly and painlessly, right?... There is an overabundance of rational reasons to say no to factory-farmed meat: It is the No. 1 cause of global warming, it systematically forces tens of billions of animals to suffer in ways that would be illegal if they were dogs, it is a decisive factor in the development of swine and avian flus, and so on. And yet even most people who know these things still aren't inspired to order something else on the menu.
I know the point he's supposed to be making: banning cruelty and factory farming wouldn't be enough to get you to eat dog, so we shouldn't accept such half measures when it comes to killing and processing other animals. At least I think that's his point. It also seems possible that he's making a genuine case against factory farming as a stand-alone target, thereby muddying his case for vegetarianism -- in which case I'm totally with him. (I'm less sold on the environmentalism angle.) Just as I would want dogs to be humanely raised and killed, I do want the same for pigs and cows. And while it's true that I frequently fail to live up to my highest asperations here, I do make an effort to account for such things when buying food.
But even if I would eat dog, I'd still be a "selective carnivore" as Foer mockingly puts it. Unfortunately, though, when he tosses out, and dismisses, the supposed criteria selective carnivores use, he misses the one where I think ethics, rather than culture, actually can draw the line: sentience.
Although, confusingly, I mean the word the way it's used in sci-fi, connoting self-awareness, as opposed to the diluted definition preferred by the animal rights community, which has to do simply with ability to suffer.