Ethics: June 2006 Archives

Second thoughts about lobsters


I love eating animals of any kind -- there's no such thing as an "unclean" animal that Christians can't consume (c.f. the book of Acts). And whether it's jellyfish in China or lamb brains in Kuwait, when I'm in an ethnic restaurant or foreign country, I love to try new animals, or parts of animals I've never eaten.

That being said, I have some sympathy for Whole Foods' decision to end the sale of live lobsters and crabs. Maybe you will tell me they did this because their management is a bunch of secular left-wing pinko commies, and they are trying to appeal to the pale, squeamish upper-middle-class yuppies who patronize their stores. I'll take your word for it.

Have you ever stuck a metal skewer through the length of a lobster's body? In one of the restaurants where I was employed, that was part of my job. I did it a few times, and the things reacted...pretty much as you would expect: they tried to curl up and defend themselves, but their claws were banded and there was little they could do. So I had to pry their tails down, ram the skewer as straight as I could up their bodies, and out through their heads, with bits of their innards oozing out through their faces. Then I threw them into a steamer where they cooked for a while and died at some point. We served their tails cold and with three kinds of sauce on the side.

Unhappy with this cooking method, I thought I would euthanize the lobsters before skewering them. I did some research, and found out that if you stick a knife between two of the plates near the head, it would sever something important (I forget what) and the things would die instantly. I tried this a couple of times, but botched it and ended up with pissed-off crustaceans.

After that, I refused to use the skewer. Patiently, the sous chef explained that a straighter tail made for a better presentation. I politely told him that I didn't care if people ate lobsters, but I saw no reason to make another living creature suffer just to make its lower half look better on a bed of ice. He shrugged and said he'd get somebody else to do it, and that was the end of it.

I am not the least bit squeamish about the use of lethal force against human beings. If someone broke into my house tonight, I wouldn't think twice about shooting him (it would fill me with disgust, but not remorse.) But there is something uniquely repulsive about causing unnecessary suffering to an animal when the end is the carnal pleasure of consuming its flesh. Lobsters and crabs are luxury foods; practically nobody relies on them for sustenance. Even if these creatures were a significant part of the food supply, they could be killed and their flesh preserved through refrigeration or freezing, just like other animals.

Crab meat doesn't take that well to freezing, and lobsters even less so -- true gourmands would shudder at the thought of eating a frozen lobster tail (though the Safeway near my house sells them). The only reason to sell them in tanks is to keep them completely fresh. If catching, processing, transporting, and displaying live animals causes pain, then it isn't necessary to preserve human lives, and the practice should be abandoned.

That's where the case against Whole Foods' prior practice breaks down. Kids tapping on the lobster tank glass is not torture (except perhaps in Mark Shea's world.) The CEO's comment about "the importance of humane treatment and quality of life for all animals" is risible. What does "quality of life" mean to a lobster or crab? Maybe they prefer being in a big glass tank with no predators.

But even though the management of Whole Foods is probably made up of morally silly people, avoiding pain in animals isn't morally silly per se.

On Thursday, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it was responsible for the flooding of New Orleans, because of bad design decisions in the city's levees and floodwalls. As you will recall, the mainstream media had blamed the Bush Administration, but CNN and the BBC could not be reached, and so it is not known if they will issue formal apologies to the president.

I haven't read the 6,000-page report issued by the Corps, but it sounds like they're being a little hard on themselves. New Orleans has been slowly sinking into the earth for a long time, and it will continue to do so. Hurricanes will keep forming in the Gulf of Mexico, barring some drastic change in the Earth's climate. Those two facts militate against any "solution" to the city's long-term survival.

But it isn't "nice" to ask whether it's prudent to spend tens of billions of taxpayer dollars on rebuilding a doomed city. In the past, the Corps has occasionally asked whether a proposed project made economic sense. It shall repent from this violation of the Gospel of Nice:

Thursday's report urged the Corps to shift its formulaic cost-benefit approach on how it decides what projects are worthwhile. The agency was urged to look at potential environmental, societal and cultural losses, "without reducing everything to one measure such as dollars."

There are certainly cultural landmarks that are worth spending an "irrational" amount of money to save. If the Washington Monument were about to topple over, it would be worth spending millions to fix it, but surely that shouldn't be the normative way to decide if a public-works project is worthwhile.

According to the Gospel of Nice, we are supposed to ignore such scruples. Once you start measuring flood losses by "societal and cultural losses," get out the Federal checkbook and don't put it away. Nevermind that by the time New Orleans is rebuilt and the flood defenses are strengthened, the Feds could have bought a new house on high ground for each of the displaced families. No, President Bush has already pledged "whatever it takes" to rebuild, and Congress is always happy to spend obscene amounts of money.

This Gospel abets so many evils in the world -- and this is a comparatively minor evil of misusing public money. Members of the Church are certainly not immune to it. Niceness dictated that bishops should not punish priests for heterodoxy or homosexual molestations. It continues to damage the Body of Christ by encouraging Christians not to live lives of heroic virtue, but rather embrace a fuzzy, non-judgmental credo of never giving offense to anyone.

What? Who?

On life and living in communion with the Catholic Church.

Richard Chonak

John Schultz

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unless you state otherwise.


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This page is an archive of entries in the Ethics category from June 2006.

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