[Note: Since its a holiday—and because I can't find much else to write about—I thought I'd post another thought experiment.]
In his collection of thought experiments, The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, philosopher Julian Baggini includes the following excerpt from Douglas Adam’s sci-fi novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:
After forty years of vegetarianism, Max Berger was about to sit down to a feast of pork sausages, crispy bacon and pan-fried chicken breast. Max had always missed the taste of meat, but his principles were stronger than his culinary cravings. But now he was able to eat meat with a clear conscience.
The sausages and bacon had come from a pig called Priscilla he had met the week before. The pig had been genetically engineered to be able to speak and, more importantly, to want to be eaten. Ending up on a human table was Priscilla’s lifetime ambition and she woke up on the day of her slaughter with a keen sense of anticipation. She had told all of this to Max just before rushing off to the comfortable and humane slaughterhouse. Having heard her story, Max thought it would be disrespectful not to eat her.
The chicken had come from a genetically modified bird which had been ‘decerebrated’. In other words, it lived the life of a vegetable, with no awareness of self, environment, pain or pleasure. Killing it was therefore no more barbarous than uprooting a carrot.
Yes as the plate was place before him, Max felt a twinge of nausea. Was this just a reflex reaction, caused by a lifetime of vegetarianism? Or was it the physical sign of justifiable distress? Collecting himself, he picked up his knife and fork…
While the passage is ostensibly about the ethics of vegetarianism, I believe the questions it raises can be extended to other interesting areas. Specifically, I want to explore a theme that I believe is parallel to human experience.
Claim A — If one of the teleological purposes of pighood is to be eaten, then Priscilla is simply aligning her attitude with her reason for existence. Berger would arguably be doing nothing morally wrong by eating her. That point seems rather uncontroversial, at least to us carnivores.
Claim B — If pigs have no teleological purpose, then Priscilla’s desire to be eaten may be beneficial to her psychologically (if not necessarily physically) but her state of mind would not necessarily be the determining ethical consideration. The moral concern would shift to and be determined by other relevant factors and/or principles. For example, is Berger doing anything wrong in killing a creature that has no purpose? That question cannot be resolved simply by saying that the pig has a desire to be killed.
Claim C — Another variation, and the one that I am most interested in discussing, is the consideration that pigs might have a teleological reason for being that has nothing to do with being eaten. If this is the case, and fulfilling the purpose of the pig life requires its continued survival, then Priscilla’s desire to be eaten will prevent her from being a fulfilled being. Berger, as I see it, would clearly be wrong in eating her even though this is what she would choose of her own free will.
Am I wrong on this point? If so, what moral principle have I failed to consider?
Also, what are some of the parallels between Priscilla and humans? Is there a conflict between what some people freely choose and our moral obligation to reject their desire in favor of treating them according to their reason for being?