Archive for the ‘Animal ethics’ Category

Anthropological Musings on the Painfully Hot Ghost Chili

Last Wednesday, the Hub and I ventured over to Inman Square’s East Coast Grill for their legendary Hell Night. For four days out of the year, the talented chefs at East Coast prepare a menu to tantalize and terrify the taste buds. Habenero-infused vodka, Chile Chimichurri steaks, oysters drenched in hot sauce, and a dozen other spicy options ranging from one to nine chili peppers grace the menu. The star of the night, however, is the pasta from hell. This pasta, made from the world’s hottest ghost chilies, has been featured on the craze foodie hit Man vs. Food, where even the daring Adam Richman could only take about two bites. This pasta is hot. And I ordered it.

You are required to sign a waver before you dig in, which is all part of the fun. But after the first bite, the most excruciating pain sets in, the kind of pain that sends tears down your cheek as you dig your high heel into your calf to distract your dendrites from the horror taking place in your mouth. Now, don’t get me wrong. I live for spicy food. I eat sriracha on everything. I nibble on raw jalapenos while I cook spicy Mexican food. I have successfully taken an adolescent dare to drink an entire bottle of Tabasco. And by the time reached the half-way mark on my pasta from hell, I was doubled over in pain and had to stop. But I took it home, and the next night suffered through the rest (armed, of course, with a full bottle of antacids for the heart burn that came later that night).

When I recovered, I started wondering why in the world I freely and intentionally chose to do something so painful, not just once, but two nights in a row. Everydaythomist that I am, I toyed with the question of whether my actions constituted daring, one of the vices against fortitude that inclines the appetite toward danger in ways contrary to reason.

Turns out, scientists are doing research on this very question. A few months ago, the NYTimes featured an article on the pleasure and pain of chili peppers based on the research from Dr. Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania:

[Rozin]has evidence for what he calls benign masochism. For example, he tested chili eaters by gradually increasing the pain, or, as the pros call it, the pungency, of the food, right up to the point at which the subjects said they just could not go further. When asked after the test what level of heat they liked the best, they chose the highest level they could stand, “just below the level of unbearable pain.” As Delbert McClinton sings (about a different line of research), “It felt so good to hurt so bad.”

Rozin disagrees with theories that argue for an evolutionary advantage to eating hot peppers, say, for example, by arguing that they lower blood pressure or provide some other such advantage in health. In fact, Rozin thinks there actually is not an evolutionary advantage at all to such acts:

No one knows for sure why humans would find pleasure in pain, but Dr. Rozin suggests that there’s a thrill, similar to the fun of riding a roller coaster. “Humans and only humans get to enjoy events that are innately negative, that produce emotions or feelings that we are programmed to avoid when we come to realize that they are actually not threats,” he said. “Mind over body. My body thinks I’m in trouble, but I know I’m not.” And it says, hand me another jalapeño.

One of the key observations here is that no other mammal likes hot peppers. And from this observation, Rozin and others draw an interesting conclusion: the human taste for painfully hot peppers says something important about what it means to be human:

[A]s Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist, puts it, “Philosophers have often looked for the defining feature of humans — language, rationality, culture and so on. I’d stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce.”

That’s from Dr. Bloom’s new book, “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like,” in which he addresses the general nature of human pleasure, and some very specific, complicated pleasures. Some, like eating painfully spicy food, are accidental, at least in their specificity. A complicated mind is adaptive, but love of chilies is an accident.

And that is what I celebrate behind my respirator as my son and I dice habaneros, accidental pleasures. A taste for chilies has no deep meaning, no evolutionary value. It’s just a taste for chilies. I might add, though, that since it takes such a complicated brain and weird self-awareness to enjoy something that is inherently not enjoyable, only the animal with the biggest brain and the most intricate mind can do it.

Take heart, chili heads. It’s not dumb to eat the fire, it’s a sign of high intelligence.

I find this a fascinating and largely compelling contribution to philosophical anthropology. Whereas for most animals, pleasure is a function of biology, humans have a lot more flexibility. They can, in many ways, choose what it is that brings them pleasure, even things that go against biology or evolutionary advantage. That is, human beings are masters of their actions largely because they are masters of their pleasure.

This means that for human beings in particular, morality cannot simply be a matter of examining nature and drawing normative conclusions. Human beings are greater than the sum of their biological parts, and the objects from which they draw pleasure cannot be reduced to merely a biochemical neural reaction.

When it comes to chili peppers and roller coasters, the human ability to find pleasure in biologically unpleasant things may not have much moral consequence, but in other areas the question may be more serious. For example, a friend sent me an Atlantic article on porn addiction which also examines the recent prevalence of anal sex. I hesitate to even quote the article on my blog due to how explicit it was, but I do think the following revelation from the author is significant:

Never was this made plainer to me than during a one-night stand with a man I had actually known for quite a while. A polite, educated fellow with a beautiful Lower East Side apartment invited me to a perfunctory dinner right after his long-term girlfriend had left him. We quickly progressed to his bed, and things did not go well. He couldn’t stay aroused. Over the course of the tryst, I trotted out every parlor trick and sexual persona I knew. I was coquettish then submissive, vocal then silent, aggressive then downright commandeering; in a moment of exasperation, he asked if we could have anal sex. I asked why, seeing as how any straight man who has had experience with anal sex knows that it’s a big production and usually has a lot of false starts and abrupt stops. He answered, almost without thought, “Because that’s the only thing that will make you uncomfortable.” This was, perhaps, the greatest moment of sexual honesty I’ve ever experienced—and without hesitation, I complied. This encounter proves an unpleasant fact that does not fit the feminist script on sexuality: pleasure and displeasure wrap around each other like two snakes.

If anal sex is unpleasant, why do it? Human intentionality, that is, human choice, can transform unpleasant actions and unpleasant objects into pleasure. In Dependent Rational Animals, Alistair McIntyre made the somewhat surprising claim that ethics could not be separated from biology. Ghost chilies and anal sex remind us that morality also cannot be reduced to biology. Human intentionality transcends what we are biologically conditioned to do.

Natural law scholars, especially those rooted in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, debate whether natural law should be grounded in a “metaphysical biology” which assumes that the normative “ought” can be drawn from the biological “is.” The more we learn about biology, the more important biology becomes in our moral reflections, and this, I think, is a good thing. Biology reminds us that we are creatures, not just spirits. It reminds us how much we share with our non-human animal cousins. But, while biology can tell us what it means to be “animal” (which humans are), it cannot tell us what it means to be human. In Aristotelian parlance, our human species is derived from our genus (animal) and differentia (rational). And that differentia does a lot to separate us from our non-human animal cousins. It does not totally separate us, but it separates us enough to give us pause as we realize that our animal nature cannot explain the many perplexing questions regarding why we do what we do. Now, if you will excuse me, I need another antacid.

Freedom of Speech Debates Prompt Us to Question the Nature of Freedom

The Supreme Court has been wrestling with a lot of First Amendment questions on the nature of free speech. In January, the court ruled 5-4 in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, No. 08-205 that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections on the basis that the government had no right to regulate political speech.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court considered the case of the Christian Legal Society at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law which wants recognition as an official campus organization with school financing and benefits whilst maintaining its first amendment right to ban “unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle,” including “all act of sexual conduct outside of God’s design for marriage between one man and one woman, which acts include fornication, adultery and homosexual conduct.” In a similar vein, next week the court will consider Dove v. Reed, No. 09-559 on the question of whether Washington State’s open records law violates the free speech rights of people who signed ballot petitions, especially against gay marriage, by requiring their names to be made public.

The case the court considered today was particularly surprising, ruling 8-1 to strike down a federal ban on the creation and distribution of videos depicting animal violence and abuse.

The case arose from the prosecution of Robert J. Stevens, an author and small-time film producer who presented himself as an authority on pit bulls. He did not participate in dogfights, but he did compile and sell videotapes showing the fights, and he received a 37-month sentence under a 1999 federal law that bans trafficking in “depictions of animal cruelty.”

Dogfighting and other forms of animal cruelty have long been illegal in all 50 states. The law applied not to the underlying activity, but to recordings of “conduct in which a living animal is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded or killed.” It did not matter whether the conduct was legal when and where it occurred; under the law, what mattered was whether the conduct would have been illegal where the recording was sold.

The government argued that such depictions were of such minimal social worth that they should receive no First Amendment protection at all. Chief Justice Roberts roundly rejected that assertion, saying that “the First Amendment means that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter or its content.”

Roberts was asked to compare this case with the case of trafficking child pornography, which the court ruled in 1982 deserved no First Amendment protection. Roberts declared that child pornography is distinct because the market for it is “intrinsically related to the underlying abuse.”

Besides the fact that videos of animal abuse also seem “intrinsically related to the underlying abuse,” these cases of first amendment freedoms prompt us to question what we mean by “freedom.” Servais Pinckars, the recently deceased Dominican moral theologian who helped bring the Bible back to Catholic ethics, provides a useful distinction for considering this question. Pinckaers distinguishes between “freedom of indifference,” which is the freedom to choose generally between two contraries, with the “freedom for excellence.” This latter form of freedom is the capacity and power to choose wisely, to choose those things which are both consistent with truth and goodness and which are conducive to the happiness–or eudaimonia–of human beings. Freedom of indifference is, in a sense, the power to do whatever you want. It is freedom for the sake of freedom, freedom which is an end in itself. Freedom for excellence, however, is a teleological notion of freedom in which freedom has a purpose (a telos) beyond its mere exercise. We are free for the sake of something.

Accordingly, law is inextricably linked with freedom. According to a “freedom of indifference” mindset, the law is in place to keep any unnecessary barriers away from a person having the ability to do whatever they want. This is the idea that “as long as I am not hurting anybody, what I do is none of the government’s business.” However, in a “freedom for excellence” mindset, law is a pedagogue in freedom. That is, the law teaches us how to be free. Good laws help human beings achieve the good which they naturally desire by pointing to the telos–human flourishing or eudaimonia–in which all choice ought to be oriented.

The law ought to point us to the good, not just give us the maximum space in which we may do whatever we want. Accordingly, when we look at laws like this one which the Supreme Court struck down today, we ought to ask ourselves what the purpose of the law is. In this case, it seems that the purpose of the law against trafficking videos of animal abuse is to prevent people from indulging in products that in no way contribute to human flourishing. Watching videos of abuse and violence towards animals is in no way an expression of freedom understood teleologically. There is no good goal (telos) of the production and marketing of such films, and to claim that a person has the right to engage in such actions as part of her “first amendment freedom” is yet another illustration that the Supreme Court’s notion of freedom does little to advance either the individual or societal human good.

Reducing Animal Pain Is Not Equivalent to Reducing Harm

An op-ed in today’s NYTimes addresses new advances in neuroscience that could reduce the pain experienced by intensively-farmed animals:

Neuroscientists have found that by damaging a laboratory rat’s anterior cingulate cortex, or by injecting the rat with morphine, they can likewise block its affective perception of pain. The rat reacts to a heated cage floor by withdrawing its paws, but it doesn’t bother avoiding the places in its cage where it has learned the floor is likely to be heated up.

Recently, scientists have learned to genetically engineer animals so that they lack certain proteins that are important to the operation of the anterior cingulate cortex. Prof. Min Zhuo and his colleagues at the University of Toronto, for example, have bred mice lacking enzymes that operate in affective pain pathways. When these mice encounter a painful stimulus, they withdraw their paws normally, but they do not become hypersensitive to a subsequent painful stimulus, as ordinary mice do.

Prof. Zhou-Feng Chen and his colleagues here at Washington University have engineered mice so that they lack the gene for a peptide associated with the anterior cingulate gyrus. Like the animals given brain lesions, these mice are normally sensitive to heat and mechanical pain, but they do not avoid situations where they experience such pain.

The editors argue that we are stuck with intensive farming and factory farms, but such technologies may reduce the unpleasantness of the lives of the animals destined to live and die for our consumption.

But to me, this totally misses the point. The harm caused by factory farming is not merely the fact that it causes animals physical pain but rather that the animals’ entire lives are degrading, exploitative, and contrary to nature. Locking a chicken in a cage so small it cannot move surely causes the animal displeasure, but not in a way directly related to physical pain. The chicken’s displeasure comes from the fact that it cannot move, has no exposure to the outdoors, and can’t do all the other things that chickens are supposed to do.

Obviously, its not a direct analogy, but imagine a human being in the same situation. If you were to confine a human being to a tiny closet, with no access to light an poor ventilation, stuffing him with food to fatten him up for an early slaughter, would the inhumanity of the act be lessened because you took away his ability to perceive pain? Of course not. If anything, it might increase the inhumanity of the imprisonment. Taking away the capacity to feel pain, the capacity to suffer physically due to an injustice, seems to me to be taking away something critical from humanity, and by extension, intensively-farmed animals.

Decreasing the amount of pain experienced by factory-farmed animals makes it that much easier to justify their exploitation. Most of us feel a twinge of empathy or concern when we hear about the suffering these animals experience. This empathy (or maybe guilt if you are a regular consumer of intensively-farmed meat) is a good thing. It indicates an injustice. The solution is not to reduce the pain consequent to the injustice, but to end the injustice itself.

It seems to me that underlying the editors’ argument is a utilitarian assumption, namely, that decreasing pain and suffering is equivalent to increasing happiness or utility. This is why utilitarians like Peter Singer justify infanticide of severely handicapped infants–surely, they reason, it is better for the infant to not exist at all rather than to exist in pain. The same reasoning is behind the widespread support of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.

Eudaimonistic ethics, on the other hand, virtue ethics included, views happiness much more comprehensively as flourishing. That is, happiness is living in the way in which God has ordained that you live. For chickens, this includes a long life out of doors, roaming and clucking and brooding and chasing grubs. Cows too are ordained to flourish by munching on grass, roaming the fields, and mooing with their friends in some mid-day shade. Pigs, perhaps the most intelligent of the bunch, flourish in a much more dynamic way than their domesticated companions in lives that include highly-developed social relationships, curiosity, and compassion (pigs are thought to be as intelligent, if not more so, than dogs).

These animals can achieve a eudaimonia suited to their constitution and the order of nature, but not under the conditions in which they find themselves in factory farms. Reducing their physical pain does nothing to address the fact that our exploitative farming techniques deny these animals their God-given telos, or purpose. These new neurotechnologies are just another way to continue exploiting animals to suit our desires, and specifically, the unrestrained appetite to eat meat with a clean conscience.

*Admittedly, I took a cheap jab at utilitarians and Peter Singer in a naive and simplistic way. My apologies in advance to Charlie Camosy and other utilitarians I am hoping to convert to a virtue-ethics frame of mind.


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