Sunday, April 05, 2009

Foie Gras Ethics

I came across an excellent essay from Mark Pastore at San Francisco's Incanto, entitled Shock and Foie. Despite being a renowned Italian restaurant dedicated to local, sustainable, and underused cuts of meat, the owners received threatening letters, videos and calls from Foie Gras protesters. Executive Chef Chris Constantino described this as "their Alamo" and they have refused to stop serving it. Foie Gras protesters have become an active and extremely vocal minority in recent years, frequently picketing restaurants, pressing state governments, and even threatening chefs in an effort to ban the process. For example, last month Seattle's local artisanal Lark restaurant was targeted by NALN, a vegan animal rights organization.

Pastore's essay pretty neatly encapsulates my feelings on the subject, and it is interesting how he frames the debate to be about personal choice, rather than based on any kind of food-chain argument or addressing the protesters on their own Animal Rights ground.
We respect the right to oppose the production and consumption of foie gras. We relate to many of the reasons that some choose to do so. However, we no more cede control over our morality than we would presume to compel someone else to conform to our notions of how they ought to live their life. We do not grant permission to someone who has no legal, moral, or spiritual authority to impose their beliefs upon us, whether that person is demanding we adopt their point of view regarding foie gras, abortion, or what books we should read. These are all personal choices and should remain so.
While I agree with most of what Pastore says and his conclusions, his juxtaposition of the problems of automobile accidents and foie gras production is simply a red herring. Though we may be unable or unwilling to address a large problem does not mean that we are unable or unwilling to address a smaller one, if it is indeed a problem as the activists claim. There are millions of problems in the world, and we as a country are capable of multitasking. And just because a solution may not solve the whole problem does not mean the solution should be scrapped. This pops up in Administrative Law all the time, where opponents to a regulatory scheme claim that it doesn't fix the whole problem. Time and again the Supreme Court has upheld those regulations.

The debate over the regulation of foie gras is a moral one. The safety of the end product is not in question, it is the treatment of the ducks during the process that causes concern. At its heart this debate addresses how we as a society wish to treat animals, and whether this should be up to the state or informed individuals to decide.

What I think is interesting about the Foie Gras debate is how the sides seem to be talking past each other. It comes down to a difference in world views, and the basis for their assumptions. To argue that Foie Gras is wrong an opponent must ground the basis of his argument in some form of Animal Rights theory, generally coupled with an appeal to empathy. "Ducks feel pain/can think/are alive/are also one of God's creatures and deserve the same rights as you do! Look at those poor ducks, you wouldn't want to have a tube down your throat would you?"

This of course brings up the physiology debate about duck esophagi, and a false anthropomorphic conception of their experience, etc. etc. but I am not a fowl physiologist or, indeed, phenomenologist. (How can we really know what it's like to be a duck?)

On the other end you get a sort of libertarian foodie freedom of choice mindset. "If it can be eaten, I should be able to eat it if I chose to." What is interesting is that there is an implied assumption that the choice to eat or not eat includes a self-derived moral component regarding what is right for me, the individual. The people who take this debate seriously, on both sides, have thought hard about the kinds of food that it is safe, sustainable, and indeed moral for them to eat. They live their lives by the results of those decisions. The difference lies in prostelyzation. On the foie gras opponent's end it is "It is wrong to eat, therefore you should not eat it" versus the proponent's "It is right/wrong to eat, therefore I will/will not eat it."

Ultimately I side with the foie gras fans because I trust myself to make a moral decision about my consumption habits more than I trust someone else. This is also why I still eat meat, even after knowing all that I now know. I trust my own food morality compass more than Congress, PETA, Monsanto and the McDonalds. Of course compasses need orientation, and that is where the government and PETA should be focusing their efforts. Information, not intimidation. And of course it doesn't hurt that I'm still a poor grad-student and Foie is well out of my price range, relegating it to a rare and wonderful treat.

Which most really good things should be.

Finally here's a great video of Anthony Bourdain talking about Foie Gras for


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