Some time ago, I took a course in the English department—Literature, Animals, and Society—that had us read the works of Alice Walker, Roald Dahl, Alice Munro, and others. While literature was emphasized, the main focus actually laid more on animals and humanity. The readings explored large ideas: animal rights, gender identity, feminism, Freud, sexualization of animals, and such. The course also dealt with more immediate issues, such as stray animals, pounds, and conservation of wildlife in Taiwan. The overarching theme was a simple question: how do we interact with animals? The answer, however, is a convoluted clutter of contradictions and emotions.
The following summer, my professor recommended a follow-up reading, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat by Hal Herzog. The book further reinforces the notion that we, the human species, are really inconsistent in our feelings toward other animals. Two examples from the book come to mind. The first is a variation on the well-known freight train problem from ethics—there is a freight train heading towards five unaware people, and the only way to save them is to push a stranger in front of the train; is it morally right to sacrifice the life of one individual for five? Whatever one’s answers may be to these questions, the opposite position can be argued. In Herzog’s variation, however, instead of five persons, the freight train is headed toward five chimpanzees, and to save them, one has to push one stranger chimpanzee. For most, the previous moral gray is removed, and it becomes entirely justifiable. The difference in these hypotheticals is that with animals, we treat them as mere objects—it is just a numbers game. However simple that explanation may be, our hypocrisy is revealed if we introduce intimate pet animals. Animals, thusly it seems, occupy an ethically confused space.
The second example is rooted in husbandry and cockfighting. Most cockfights are to the death; roosters with knives of gaffs tied to their claws attack each other in a bloody mess. (Knives or gaffs are used to make kills quicker and definitive.) Winners, if not disabled, continue to fight until they cannot anymore. On the surface, one is clearly a more humane practice. Yet, gamecock trainers make a convincing case for themselves. Gamecocks are treated like kings in the months leading up to their final five minutes. They run freely in large open spaces, are fed the best balanced meals, and, as one trainer admits, are raised with love. The same could rarely be said for poultry farming, where chickens often develop health and immobility issues from being strapped in place, overfeeding, and poor sanitation. One practice is illegal in many places; the other, we accept. One we consider as life; the other, we relegate to food, although both are chickens.
Silver Spoon exposes the odd aspects of our internal categorization of animals. In the main arc, Hachiken faces a similar dilemma—at Yezo Agricultural High School, he raises a cute piglet, which he emotionally bonds with at first sight, even while knowing its eventual fate as food. At the end of the season, Hachiken not only accepts that fate, but prepares and eats the piglet himself. Here, Hachiken has stood before a very real moral crossroad and makes the choice that, in an analogous case, many would condemn. We abhor those who eat kittens because they are beloved pets. In Hachiken’s case, the line between food and pet is blurred, but the sentiment remains the same. Porkchop feels more like a pet than a food; the piglet even has a name, albeit a name that reminds of its raison d’être. Then, is it morally wrong of Hachiken to eat someone he has raised and loved, however empathetically he justifies it? If not, then is it hypocritical of us to disapprove eating kittens?
Well, not exactly.
True, feelings and disgust do carry some moral weight. However, the disgust felt from the “eating of loved ones” (as opposed to death or killing) has little rational basis. The act of eating is not inherently bad. Yet, when we associate that action with certain things, it just seems deplorable. In this context, Silver Spoon continues to highlight the ethical quandaries involved with animals. Hachiken is not detestable nor are we hypocrites. We are all simply inconsistent.
Immanuel Kant, on our moral obligations to animals, holds the position that how we interact with animals reflects our own humanity. This resonates with what we see in Hachiken, Silver Spoon, and our own lives—we can be so illogical and emotional and also, most importantly, humane when it comes to animals, just as we can be with most everything.
- Recommended readings:
“Why Did the Balinese Chicken Cross the Road?” by Alice Walker
“Pig” by Roald Dahl
“Boys and Girls” by Alice Munro
- The term “animal” will be used to refer to non-human animals.