I am not what you’d call a vegetarian, unless if by “vegetarian” you mean “person who eats meat on occasion, especially shrimp, because she loves shrimp and would be unhappy if she never ate it again (p.s. also salmon and chicken)”, and most people that I know don’t define “vegetarian” in anything like this fashion. Which is too bad, because it would probably ease a lot of tension in a lot of quarters.
But anyway, I just finished reading an essay by the late David Foster Wallace called “Consider the Lobster”
and I’ll tell you right now that if you are not a vegetarian, you might consider becoming one after reading this, and if you are
a vegetarian, you’re going to feel proud of yourself for being one, and if you don’t care one way or the other, you should still read the article, because it raises lots of interesting questions and observations.
The article depicts the author’s experience of attending the Maine Lobster Festival in 2003, and gravitates in what appears to be inevitable fashion toward a reflection on the moral implications of eating lobster. Consider the following passage:The truth is that if you, the Festival attendee, permit yourself to think that lobsters can suffer and would rather not, the [Maine Lobster Festival] can begin to take on aspects of something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest.
Does that comparison seem a bit much? If so, exactly why? Or what about this one: Is it not possible that future generations will regard our own present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way we now view Nero’s entertainments or Aztec sacrifices? My own immediate reaction is that such a comparison is hysterical, extreme—and yet the reason it seems extreme to me appears to be that I believe animals are less morally important than human beings;20 and when it comes to defending such a belief, even to myself, I have to acknowledge that (a) I have an obvious selfish interest in this belief, since I like to eat certain kinds of animals and want to be able to keep doing it, and (b) I have not succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient.
Now, the truth is that I am not nearly as interested in debating where on the scale of moral importance a lobster should fall than I am in the method Wallace employs in determining where his own predispositions lie. So what I’d like to do is show how Wallace’s reasoning can effectively be applied to what is, for me, a far more compelling idea: the question of the nature of God (assuming he exists, which, at this particular moment and for the sake of my argument, I do).
Just the other night I was out to dinner with someone when, over the course of the meal, the talk turned theological. He remarked that he simply couldn’t believe in a God who would ask a man to sacrifice his son, as God does in the ancient Genesis story of Abraham and Isaac. “What kind of psychotic God would that be?” he said. I didn’t answer, because frankly, that story bothers me, too, sometimes. So do a lot of the stories in the Bible. But the question being begged when someone says, “I can’t believe in a God like that” is simply this: What if he is
like that? Do we refuse to entertain the possibility out of selfish interest; that is, the desire to preserve a belief that makes our relationship to God comfortable for us? And because we haven’t worked out a way to defend such a God to our personal, let alone others’, satisfaction?
Of course the blade of logic on this point cuts both ways. I know this. Besides, one could just say, "No, we reject that belief on the grounds that such a God is morally repugnant." But in the end, that's still a dodge. So I’m simply throwing the question and all of its attendant implications out there as an invitation to a sort of Damoclean banquet, if you will. No R.S.V.P. required.
One thing I can promise: We won’t be having lobster.
*The title of this post is a quote from "Consider the Lobster".
Labels: david foster wallace, lobsters, morality, philosophy, theology, vegetarian