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Two Pigs; a response, a parody, and analysis

Monday, October 29, 2007

On October 25, 2007, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg entitled "Two Pigs" about, as Klinkenborg puts it, "taming" two pigs and then having a farmer and his son come over to kill the pigs while Klinkenborg and his wife watch (kill them because, as Klinkenborg says, "That's part of the job").

Whenever I read about intellectual folks like Klinkenborg or Michael Pollan [1] raising an innocent nonhuman being to be killed or hunting an innocent being and writing an article rationalizing the ordeal, I imagine a similar rationalization is probably what goes through the mind of a person with a calm, rational plan to kill an innocent human being. Not that Klinkenborg or Pollan would ever remotely think of killing a human (they are very well-socialized); but the detachment, indifference, and morally vacuous rationale are probably disturbingly similar regardless of the species of the innocent victim of the deed.

To demonstrate this parallel in detachment, indifference, and moral vacuity in more detail, I've re-written Klinkenborg's article as "Two Orphans", penned by a fictitious character named Will Killjoy. I've used orphans in this re-write to eliminate the issue of the emotional suffering and pain endured by those left behind, whether those left behind are human or nonhuman. [2]

My changes consisted almost entirely of turning phrases like "stop eating pork" into "avoid cannibalism" and "pigs" to "orphans" and if you read the NYT article, you will see how very little I've changed it. Although this re-write is satirical, cannibalism is an unpleasant reality in human history; it's where meat-eating is taken one more step closer to kin, and in some human cultures, kin is also why it is done (although "kin-cannibalism" doesn't generally require killing since the relatives wait until [insert choice of relative here] dies naturally). The idea that Killjoy is a human cannibal is not as remote in history or the world as it would seem to our culture. In fact, we can think of the progression of human civilization as going from uncivilized and violent cannibalism to a slightly more civilized but still intentionally violent diet of flesh and bodily fluids excluding those of human origin to the most civilized and non-violent diet by far (i.e. the only civilized and morally adequate diet): a vegan diet.

One more note: Killjoy moved from where he adopted the orphans to a rural area remote enough that nobody knows about the orphans ' Killjoy's actions are beyond the reach of the law. Like for Klinkenborg and modern meat-eaters in general, there are no social consequences against Killjoy's behavior in this article. Now, on to Killjoy's article'

October 25, 2007
The Rural Life
Two Orphans

by Will Killjoy

Very soon, I will kill my two adopted orphan children. If that sentence bothers you, you should probably stop reading now ' and you should probably avoid cannibalism. The orphans are 3 years old, fat and happy, and killing them is the reality of cannibalism. I treat the orphans very well, and ever since June, I've been building their trust in me, reading children's books to them and tucking them into a comfortable, warm bed. There are two reasons. I truly love being with the orphans. And building their trust in me will make it that much easier to kill them swiftly, immediately. If I had no more foreknowledge of my death than these two orphans will have of theirs, I'd consider myself very lucky.

The questions people would probably ask (after they called the police) would make it sound as though I should be morally outraged at myself, as if it's impossible to build a relationship of trust with the orphans and still intend to kill them. If I belonged to a cannibal tribe that performed human sacrifices ' one that has elaborate killing ceremonies for burnt offerings to the gods ' I would get to celebrate the ritual in it all, the sudden blessings of the gods bestowed upon us and the succulent pork-like flavor of human bacon. It's hard to act that out when it's just me in the backwoods silenced by the solemnity of what I'm about to do.

Because I do carry it out. That's part of the job. It's how we come to understand what cannibalism itself means. And to me, the word "cannibal" is at the root of the contradictory feelings the orphan-killing raises. You can add all the benefits you want ' that the orphans were well-fed and cared for ' and yet somehow the fact that I'm doing this for meat makes the whole thing sound like a bad bargain. And yet compared with the various genocides of the 20th century, this is beauty itself.

Knowing that you're doing something for the last time is a uniquely human fear. I thought that would be the hardest thing about killing these orphans. In fact, it's not so hard, though it does remind me that humans have trouble thinking about who knows what. One day soon I'll read the orphans a story, gently tuck them into bed, and say good night. They will have the pleasure and comfort of feeling safe and having a good night sleep. It will be the last time. I will know it, and they simply won't.

WILL KILLJOY

_______________________________

Analysis

Now there's some rock solid moral reasoning, eh? It seems that replacing a few words here and there makes salient to non-vegans just how empty, calloused, indifferent, and detached Klinkenborg's rationale is (it was already quite salient to vegans before the re-write).

"I will know it, and they simply won't." In that statement, we see that Klinkenborg and Killjoy seem to apply the ancient Greek vegetarian philosopher Epicurus' teaching that "death is nothing to us." Only instead of using Epicurus' teaching to reduce worries about their own death, they use his thinking to ease their worries about unnecessary killing and someone else's death. I wonder what we might think about that rationale turned around ' if a stranger in a dark alley considered our death "nothing to us."

But what is death? Epicurus was right when he indicated that we won't care at all about our death after dying. But then why is unnecessary killing wrong? If we don't know we're going to be killed and our killer kills us painlessly, there are literally no consequences for us that we can know. We can't object that we had plans for the future, because after our death, not only will we not care, but we cannot possibly care. So is killing wrong only because of the emotional suffering of those with whom we had connections in life? If so, then painless, unnecessary killing is okay as long as the emotional connections to others are weak or non-existent?

Oh, wait. Is it because we're human that killing us wrong? But why should that matter? Humans know no more than pigs after death and humans can be killed painlessly and without their knowledge just as pigs can be. It seems unnecessarily (or preferentially) killing humans without their knowledge is fine, at least by Klinkenborg's reasoning about the insignificance of death.

Is it because of social cohesion that killing humans is wrong ' a kind of social contract? If so, then the unnecessary killing of humans isn't wrong per se, it is just wrong because of unpleasant consequences to ourselves that we must live in the cutthroat, low-trust society that is created by random killing. I suppose that reason might fly with egoists and amoralists, but it is false for those of us who live within a moral worldview.

Is it because humans aren't food? What if humans are food to a certain culture and what if those cannibals experience humans as delicious and as an important ingredient in a festive meal? Would that make it okay for them to kill humans, perhaps from other tribes? No, it wouldn't. Cultural prejudices and strong, sacred traditions that serve injustice are things to be overcome, not accepted, revered, or admired.

Most importantly, what is the relevant characteristic that all and only humans have which distinguishes us from pigs or any other nonhuman being such that our pain and death matters and theirs doesn't? The fact is that there are no such differences. Stop and think about it. And if you come up with such a "relevant difference," please email it to me. If it is not too ridiculous, I'll post and evaluate it in this blog. (Caution: you may want to evaluate it carefully yourself before emailing it for public scrutiny. There simply are no adequate answers to my request. It is as if I asked you for an even integer between 2 and 4.) If killing human orphans painlessly for whatever desirable, but unnecessary reason is morally wrong; then killing pigs for whatever desirable, but unnecessary reason is also wrong.

Unnecessary killing is wrong because of 1) the depravation of life in such an unnecessary act which, under ordinary circumstances (i.e. excluding comas, torture, etc), severely harms its victim and 2) the strong and very primitive desire to survive that is innate in all sentient beings, such survival which is of crucial importance to that being (human or nonhuman) regardless of how unimportant it might be for any other being or group of beings. I see these two reasons as self-evident, beyond reasonable doubt, and standing each alone by itself as sufficient reason for the wrongness of unnecessary killing. Whether the potential victim (human or nonhuman) of an intentional unnecessary killing is unaware or not of their fate is irrelevant. Whether they have spun grand plans for the future in their mind or not is irrelevant. Their capability or incapability of achieving grand plans for the future is irrelevant. Their potential longevity is irrelevant. The size of their ego is irrelevant. And what DNA they share with what specific species is irrelevant.

It's not that intellectuals like Klinkenborg and Pollan can't comprehend this; it's that they blow as much smoke as they can to avoid acknowledging it and to avoid cultivating an appropriate level of empathy toward nonhuman beings.

If we are to have adequate form and content in our moral reasoning and not fall into the detached moral nonsense of Klinkenborg, Pollan (in The Omnivore's "Dilemma"), and Killjoy, we must go vegan.

___________________________

Notes:

[1] Michael Pollan, a professor of journalism at UC Berkeley and author of the overrated book The Omnivore's "Dilemma" (quotes are mine) falls into this category of intellectuals behaving bizarrely with respect to their current moral pseudo-qualms about killing nonhuman beings. Hopefully someday the pseudo-qualms will become genuine and more serious and appropriate qualms: Moral progress is beautiful.

[2] Contrary to the general public's misinformed views on the grief of animals over lost companions, such grief can be significantly more severe than human grief over lost companions. The bond between a cow and a calf while the calf is young and between certain species whose members mate for life can be stronger than human bonds and the grief in separation is emotionally devastating for them. Claiming that their emotional devastation doesn't matter because they're not human is the same as saying that a certain ethnic or racial groups' emotional devastation doesn't matter because they are that certain ethnic or racial group. Such claims are our 21st century bigotry and such claims are just as nauseating as the 19th century bigotry.


Two Pigs

By VERLYN KLINKENBORG

Published: October 25, 2007

Very soon, a farmer and his son will come to the farm to kill our two pigs. If that sentence bothers you, you should probably stop reading now ' and you should probably also stop eating pork. The pigs weigh nearly 300 pounds apiece, and killing them is the reality of eating meat. I talk to the pigs whenever I'm in their pen, and ever since June I've been slowly taming them, getting them used to being scratched. There are two reasons. I truly love being with the pigs. And taming them means it will be that much easier for the farmer and his son to kill them swiftly, immediately. If I had no more foreknowledge of my death than these two pigs will have of theirs, I'd consider myself very lucky.

The questions people ask make it sound as though I should be morally outraged at myself, as if it's impossible to scratch the pigs behind the ears and still intend to kill them. If I belonged to a more coherent, traditional rural community ' one that comes together for pig-butchering in the fall ' I would get to celebrate the ritual in it all, the sudden abundance a well-fed pig represents. It's hard to act that out when the cast is a gruff farmer and son, and my wife and me, who have been silenced by the solemnity of what we're watching.

Because we do watch. That's part of the job. It's how we come to understand what the meat itself means. And to me, the word "meat" is at the root of the contradictory feelings the pig-killing raises. You can add all the extra value you want ' raising heritage breed pigs on pasture with organic grain, all of which we do ' and yet somehow the fact that we are doing this for meat, some of which we keep, most of which we trade or sell, makes the whole thing sound like a bad bargain. And yet compared with the bargain most Americans make when they buy pork in the supermarket, this is beauty itself.

Knowing that you're doing something for the last time is a uniquely human fear. I thought that would be the hardest thing about having pigs. In fact, it's not so hard, though it does remind me that humans have trouble thinking carefully about who knows what. One day soon I'll step into the pen and give the pigs a thorough scratching, behind the ears, between the eyes, down the spine. Their tails will straighten with pleasure. It will be the last time. I will know it, and they simply won't.

VERLYN KLINKENBORG

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