Professor Jesse Miller
English 110 H4
26 April 2017
The Troubled Middle
We tend to place ourselves above all other species. Perhaps it is because of our continued pursuit and excellence in technology, or our discriminating capacity, but we have placed ourselves at the top of every chain, overlooking every other species from high upon our self-made throne. With intelligence and power, there arises a conflict of whether what we do as a species is right or wrong. There are many traditions and ways of life which, for a very long period of time, have been practiced without thought, that are now being questioned. The ethicality of the many things we do as species is not clear cut, and thus the questions of whether it is right or wrong is not so easy to answer. In his essay, Consider the lobster, David Foster Wallace focuses his concern on current concepts of morality and their implications on the food we eat. He travels to the Maine Lobster Festival, where he questions not only if the preparation and consumption of the lobster is ethical, but also the many ethical questions regarding the suffering of other species for our own gustatory satisfaction. These moral ambiguities are very pronounced in the food industry, as the question of whether meat consumption is moral is one that is widely discussed and not easily solved. Hal Herzog shares his personal dilemma in regards to humans’ very complicated relationship with animals, and the irony between our love for certain animals and our mass consumption, and arguable abuse, of others in his essay, Animals Like Us. Not only is ethical complexity so prominent in situations such as these, but also in other areas, including the funeral industry, where, at least in the western world, there is a gruesome tradition of embalming the dead. In her paper, The Story of Service, Jessica Mitford picks apart the superfluous practice of preparing a corpse for an open-casket funeral and the moral dilemma of doing so. We, as a species, struggle to find a balance between right and wrong, but in trying to do so there arises many questions, and thus leaves a gray area where many of us hesitantly reside.
Ethics are often difficult to discuss because there is never an answer which satisfies everyone. We tend to be driven toward extremes, and in many arguments over integrity and morals, it is difficult to reach mutual common ground. The vegan cannot dissuade the meat eater from his or her omnivorous ways; the cremator cannot deter the embalmer from his or her engrained tradition. There is no easy way to prove one way more right than another. In his time at the Maine lobster festival, Wallace describes how the multitude of people line up to order their lobsters, seemingly unconcerned with the process of cooking them. Because the lobsters are better fresh, they are most often boiled alive which takes between thirty-five and forty-five seconds until death. One criterion used to determine if an animal suffers is whether the animal shows pain-related struggle (Wallace, 506-507). Regardless of whether one ignores the science that lobsters can indeed feel pain, Wallace remarks that, “it takes a lot of intellectual gymnastics and behaviorist hairsplitting not to see struggling, thrashing and lid-clattering as just such pain-behavior” (506). Thus, is not the process of boiling them alive cruel? Their apparent struggle to escape seems to be an obvious indication that there is some degree of suffering which only strengthens the argument that this process could be considered immoral. Even while many, including myself, know this to be true, it doesn’t stop us from cooking and eating lobsters. This purposeful ignorance is not just applied to eating lobster, but holds true for any food that is meat. In all aspects, the animal undergoes some degree of suffering, although some more than others. However, we tend to disregard this and justify it. We are not the only species that eats other animals and this makes it difficult to determine whether it is actually immoral. Because we like the food we eat; we do not want to think about what the process involves.
This becomes easier to do when we convince ourselves that the animal we are subjecting to torment is hardly even an animal, thus making it’s death and consumption justifiable. Herzog acknowledges the irony of this as he studies the human-animal relationship, explaining how a colleague was vegetarian, yet she ate fish, simply because they did not seem like animals (242). This reasoning is flawed, and one could argue wrong. If someone is going to give up meat because of the cruel treatment of animals, then that should apply to all species, no matter how distantly related to mammals they are. This way of rationalizing what we eat applies to both to the fish in Herzog’s essay and the lobster in Wallace’s. We create a way to protect ourselves from what we’re doing by distancing ourselves from the given species. When other animals, such as cows, lambs or pigs are killed for the purpose of being eaten, there is more debate as these mammals are closer to us than that of fish or lobster. Yet, even so, many of us continue to have meat as a large part of our diets.
Our muddled way of thinking about ethics applies to many more aspects of our lives than just food. While it is easiest to see the disconnect in regards to animal suffering, this moral ambiguity also falls within the walls of funeral homes. Although, seemingly distant from the aforementioned suffering of the lobster, the practice of embalming a body engenders just as much suffering. While the person is already dead at the time of embalming, the process is so invasive that the body itself is essentially taken apart and put back together with pieces that are biologically natural. The object of the procedure is not to make the body as human-like as possible, but rather to make “it presentable for viewing in an attitude of healthy repose” (Mitford 47). So even while the body cannot feel pain, the process is itself aggressive and unnecessary. The whole ordeal of one sending his or her loved one off to be cut open, drained of fluid and injected with chemicals before being painted with makeup in order to appear less-dead, creates a gap in reality. In trying to make our loved ones appear alive by taking away what made them human, we are, however unintentionally, trying to distance ourselves from death. In both this situation and when killing other species for our consumption, we are pushing away the reality that is death, and trying to justify our actions. We try to make corpses appear to be alive and youthful, when in reality there is nothing alive, and many times nothing youthful, about them. We justify eating meat by displacing ourselves from situations and conversations which could go against what we have done for so long without thought.
Cultural values often influence our ethics as well, although some are more confusing than others. In America, and parts of Canada, where embalming has long been a tradition for the dead, there is some degree of fear regarding death. We have been taught to be scared of death and cadavers. Death is hardly ever depicted as natural in the media and more often than not, bodies become associated with disease and horror. Instead of being a part of the process of dealing with the dead body of a loved one, “family members who might wish to be in attendance would certainly be dissuaded by the funeral director” (Mitford 44). This separation that is created by dissuading leads to people avoiding that which is natural, and living in ignorance. In place of doing something that may be harder emotionally and mentally, we turn toward the easier option. In his essay questioning the morality of meat preperation, Wallace poses the question, “do you ever think, even idly, about the possible reasons for your reluctance to think about it?” (510). For most of us, we do not participate in preparing our dead for burial or cremation, instead we pay large sums of money to look the other way while the bodies are injected with chemicals, sewn and painted. It is easier to not know what is being done. The same cultural ignorance applies to the food we eat as well. Instead of ensuring what we eat is killed in a humane way, we justify it, by either disregarding the fact that the animal can feel pain, or not participating in the slaughter, and therefore ignoring the fact that it even occurred.
This inconsistency in morals is what some would say makes us human. There is nothing wrong about living in this middle ground, because there is no strong evidence to prove one way right over another. “The troubled middle makes perfect sense because moral quagmires are inevitable in species with a huge brain and a big heart. They come with the territory” (Herzog 247). Most of us love animals; we treat our dogs and cats as though they are members of our family, we take them to the vet, we spend thousands of dollars ensuring their well-being, and yet we eat other animals that are hardly different from our adored pets for dinner. As Herzog states, most of us oppose the testing of cosmetics and cleaners on animals, but would “sacrifice a lot of mice to find a cure for cancer” (247). This reasoning isn’t necessarily wrong, as it is instinctive to want to protect one’s own species. Sacrificing other animals to feed or provide research that may save others is easy when we consider ourselves to be most important.
Perhaps, it is immoral to think one animal is more expendable than another, but perhaps, it is not wrong to want to serve our own species’ needs and wants above all others. This is representative of the complexity of being a human as well as our often skewed cultural values. We tend to do what we feel is right inside, and because we all have been raised differently and have different ways of thinking, there is no one right way to feel. This makes it difficult to argue that eating meat is unethical, as it is something we have done to survive and something that keeps many of us satisfied. The same could be argued for embalming. Even though it is an unnecessary cost, both in regards to price and resources, it is a tradition that is still being used because we think that we should continue with it as we have been taught that it is the best option. Culture, family and personal belief all influence what we believe to be ethical or not, and while there are many things which most of us can agree upon, there are more that are not. Thus, there is no black and white; no easy way to distinguish between what we believe to be right and wrong. And that is okay, as it is one of the many things which separate us from other species.
Foster Wallace, David. “Consider the Lobster.” Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. 2005. pp.
Herzog, Hal. “Animals like Us.” Emerging. Bedford/St. Martins. 2010. pp. 241-247.
Mitford, Jessica. “The American Way of Death revisited.” Vintage