Quite Sick, Mike Vick

July 31st, 2007 | Category: Essays

Normally I wouldn’t comment on such things, but this strikes me as the perfect opportunity to bring up several things that are on my mind on a regular.

Having recently read Douglas Hofstader’s I Am a Strange Loop (Basic, 2007), I’ve been thinking about what he calls the “sizes of souls.” That is, the hierarchy we apply to animals. If you think about what separates us humans from the rest of the animals, I’m sure you don’t think of it as a distinctly black and white demarcation (this shades-of-grey attitude is, perhaps unintentionally in most cases, quite Derridian): dogs have bigger souls than mice, mice have bigger souls than roaches, and so on. Consciousness (or “souledness”) is meted out in an inverted cone-like manner (Hofstadter’s “consciousness cone,” from I Am a Strange Loop, p. 19):

Hofstadter’s consciousness cone

I don’t believe many of us would argue with the basic logic of such a view of animal life, but how do we manage this perception of living things? Why is one animal okay to eat and another is not? This poster exemplifies the conundrum to which I’m referring:

Which do you eat?

This is rather arbitrary — and culturally determined — distinction, but another one that most people wouldn’t argue with.

In no way am I trying to defend Michael Vick’s alleged behavior, but why is it okay to eat a cow and abhorrent to watch dogs fight? Or, to make the comparison more direct, why is it okay to eat a chicken and not to watch cock fights?

Did your food have a face?Emmanuel Levinas based his theory of ethics and his views on the animal question on an ethical relationship he called the “face-to-face.” That is, a close encounter with the Other that results in submission to the Other, a responsibility to the needs of the other (this latter distinction is what differentiates Levinas’s views with those of Martin Buber’s conception of the “I and Thou” relationship). Applied to an encounter with the face of an animal, Levinas conceded that the life of a non-human animal leaves no room for ethics, but that needless suffering was to be avoided. My friend, colleague, and Levinas scholar Peter Atterton has gone as far to say that the Levinasian model of ethics grants animals more respect than they are traditionally given. I agree. How could I not?

I never thought of myself as much of an activist or a political person, but now that I see the personal as inextricable from the political, I can’t help but bring it up whenever the opportunity arises: I don’t eat meat or wear leather, and I do my best to avoid most animal products (it’s all but impossible to avoid them all — even your TV and your computer have animal byproducts in them). By the same token, I do my best not to be preachy about it, but I can’t help but feel that we’re all being a bit hypocritical to condemn Michael Vick for his alleged cruelty toward dogs when we’re just as happy to inflict the same on other animals. I also find it funny that meat-eaters justify their dietary whims with both religion and evolution.

I agree with the fuzzy hierarchy. I mean, ants don’t have the same amount of consciousness (or as big of a soul, to keep it in Hofstadter’s terminology) as cats, but why do dogs have more consciousness than cows?

Further Posting:

7 Comments »

  • Jeff said:

    You’ve quite a gift for your writing. Bravo.

    I also have recently taken issue with the significant condemnation that we as a society are unfoiling for Michael Vick. I’ve never been a fan of his but have recently found myself coming to his defence, to a degree. My reasons are not based on the possible (perhaps I should say ‘theoretical’) consciousness of one animal over another. My reasoning is more along the lines of the conviction of Vick in the media, which creates a sense of pre-conviction within society, potentially ruining a man’s career before he gets a chance to defend himself. But, that’s another topic for another day.

    Why is one animal okay to eat and another not? At its heart, this question resounds throughout every culture and every “age” of time, as it really asks us to identify (as well as provide reasoning for) “ourselves.” While my answer, personally, is simple, it also comes across a bit “Pulp”-y: it’s all about personality. The movie was right: Dog’s got a helluva personality, Pig don’t. Therefore I can eat one and not the other, allowing my conscious to stay fully intact and free of guilt.

    I believe, fundamentally, it isn’t about eating something with a “face,” it’s about eating something that is more responsive (conscious?) to us (and our demands). This fairly easily translates into “personality” (the human understanding thereof).

    Though I am not a vegetarian, I don’t like most meats and so am often mistaken as one. Mine is a personal choice based on the fact that it’s just freakin’ gross.

    That said, I cannot buy into Hofstader’s cone, particularly when preceded by a dismissive, blanket statement such as “I’m sure you don’t think of it as a distinctly black and white demarcation.” Actually, yes, I do find it distinctly black and white. Therefore, I’ll follow one blanket statement with another: I’m sure most people do.

    We have souls. Animals don’t. I’m fairly convinced that most people see it that black and white. Sure we fall in love with our animals, we go to amazing lengths for them, but at the end of the day, as a society and as a world population, few would buy into the theory that an animal has a soul, be it a big soul or a small soul.

    It is easy to think that perhaps my perspective on this is based on a religious foundation. I won’t disagree since I cannot definitively say that isn’t the case. It doesn’t “feel” like my reasons are religious, but we never know what’s going on inside a being that actually has a conscious, and subsequently, a subconscious, now do we. Religious or not doesn’t really matter though since the thought of that is quickly dismissed simply as “funny,” in an otherwise excellent article; probably the only elementary statement in a perfectly intelligent piece.

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Thanks for your lengthy and thoughtful comment, Jeff. I will attempt to briefly clarify a couple of things, as my choice of terms seems spurious in light of your post.

    Perhaps “soul” isn’t the right word to use in this context, since I didn’t mean it in the Christian sense of the word. Though it’s the one that Hofstadter used, he didn’t mean it in the Christian sense either; he was using as a trope to talk about the unknowable quality variously referred to as “consciousness,” “I-ness,” a “sense of self,” or, in your response, “personality.” We could call the diagram above a “personality cone.” In any case, we’re all talking about the same phenomenon.

    I think my use of the word “funny” in this piece might have been misconstrued as well. I meant “funny/intriguing,” not “funny/ha-ha.” I was not meaning to be dismissive of religion (though if I did, I was equally dismissive of evolution), but I’ve defended my eating habits to both, and I just find it interesting that both have used their ontological beliefs to justify the systematic killing and eating of other animals.

  • Chris said:

    I didn’t know you watch football. Actually, I have a problem with what Michael Vick did or was accused of. I believe that if he was raising dogs for food then fine. But what he was accused of was cruel and senseless. I watched a show with one of my favorite celebrity chiefs recently. He was in Alaska and went Seal hunting with the Natives. They caught several and munched on them in the traditional style…raw. It was pretty nasty looking but that was a big part of their diet, and they enjoyed it. Point being, most people in the states would cringe at the though of eating a Seal. I have no problem with it. However if they were fighting Seals, that would be pointless, but interesting. :)

  • jim said:

    Well I don’t agree that the punishment fits the crime. Sure, it was not a nice thing to kill the dogs if they lost, but they were probably in bad enough shape that they needed to be put down. I also don’t think that it is a nice thing to ruin a human’s life of that of an animal. Animals should have no rights at this point in time. They are not allowed to vote and they dom’t contribute to society on a much higher level than that of a piece of property. The fact that law makers were able to create a law that is so harsh toward people over animals is the cruelest part of all. They were dogs! Dogs people. Fine the man and let it go! Don’t jail a person for how they use their property unless such use causes the injury or death of another human. Period. I think that it is interesting that a hobby such as dog fighting has become a felonious act when so many hard working americans actually participate in the spaort and were never really given an opportunity to make a case for allowing the event to remain around with safer rules and regulations. THEY WERE DOGS!!!!!!!

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Thank you, Jim, for illustrating the point.

  • Mark said:

    I don’t think it is wrong to eat an animal that has been raised in a natural environment and killed in a painless, dignified way. There are many producers who operate this way and I try to get my meat from them whenever practical. When I eat meat from other producers I am being a hypocrite (just as you are when you eat cheese). However, I don’t derive any pleasure from supporting producers that hurt animals. When I do it, I do it simply out of convenience. People who support dog fighting like to watch animals in pain–so much so that they risk possible fines and jail time. This is why Michael Vick is being condemned by so many (myself included).

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Thanks, Mark.

    You’re right about the cheese, and I do feel hypocritical about it.