By Vinaya Kurtkoti Nov. 11, 2016
Is it okay to eat a cow that wants to be eaten?
“Good evening, madam, and gentlemen. I am the main dish for the day. May I interest you in parts of my body? Something off my shoulder, perhaps, braised in a little white wine sauce?” The Ameglian Major Cow in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy appears on screen as oodles of talking flesh prostrated on a dinner table that could seat four. This grass-fed quadruped offers himself for consumption to the humans and aliens at the table.
The humans Arthur Dent and Tricia McMillan look bewildered, but the aliens Zaphod Beeblebrox and Ford Prefect seem unperturbed by the notion of a suicidal talking cow… like, this is completely normal, to acquire the verbal consent of your future meal. Zaphod even gets up and checks out the meat (he squeezes the cow’s ass) while the cow is inviting them to eat parts of his body.
“You mean this animal actually wants us to eat it,” Tricia asks, with a look of revulsion on her face. Arthur thinks it would be heartless to eat a cow who can talk and says he (yes, the cow is male) wants to be eaten. “Is it better to eat an animal that does not want to be eaten,” Zaphod asks.
At the heart of this problem, lies the slight inconvenience of the fact that most humans have a conscience. I was raised in a vegetarian household. My parents never forbade me from eating meat as a child, but they pulled the reverse psychology trick on me. Their strategy was to explain to me that I had the choice to eat meat, but “I should think about the fact that the chicken on my plate had a face and was alive until a few days ago” and to ask me “if I was really comfortable eating that”. Obviously, with such leading questions being asked, I realised that the right answer was, “No, please pass me the paneer instead.”
Now I cannot even eat paneer. I’ve gone from vegetarianism to veganism without all the hipster values attached to that phrase. Having found out what the cow has gone through, just so that I can eat myself into a food coma of cheesy and chocolaty goodness, has proved to be the biggest buzzkill since finding out the truth about Santa. It’s made me go down the slightly cuckoo path of being unable to eat a block of fine Swiss cheese or chocolate that’s clearly happy to be eaten.
This scene then poses the ethical conundrum: Is it okay to eat a cow that wants to be eaten? Is it cruel to not grant the cow’s wish to be eaten?
But this happily accommodating cow scene from the Hitchhiker’s Guide disturbs me. First, the cow looks like he has been lying on the dinner table for years without getting up in an attempt to fatten himself for the sensory pleasure of his future consumers. He even admits to force-feeding himself for months to make his liver rich and tender. He is, in effect, inflicting the same horrors on himself that the dairy and poultry industries inflict on unwilling cows and chicken. Second, he is talking. He is offering a sales pitch for his own body parts. Third, Zaphod gets up and checks the cow out like we pick up apples and check if they’re red from all sides.
This scene then poses the ethical conundrum: Is it okay to eat a cow that wants to be eaten? Is it cruel to not grant the cow’s wish to be eaten? The Ameglian cow is so disappointed that Arthur rejects his meat that he decides to humanely slaughter himself at the end of this scene.
Julian Baggini presents a similar thought experiment in his book The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher. The protagonist of this story, Max Berger, is a man who has been vegetarian for 40 years.
After all these years of groaking at meat, Max can now enjoy his meal of pork sausages, crispy bacon, and chicken breast without feeling guilty because the bacon and pork have come from a genetically engineered pig called Priscilla, whose instincts for survival have been genetically engineered to be replaced with extreme altruism, where she derives pleasure from the thought that she will someday be slaughtered and consumed by a human. Max met her on the day of her slaughter; she was looking forward to be eaten like humans look forward to slathering butter on toast and devouring it.
The chicken on Max’s plate was genetically modified to be exactly the opposite. Priscilla has been genetically engineered to be an anthropomorphised suicidal slaughter aspirer; the chicken lived the life of a vegetable. It didn’t really have a life. It didn’t understand or feel pain or pleasure.
Which is really really convenient for us. We don’t enjoy inflicting pain on animals (that is why we make machines do most of the killing, and enjoy our meat when it is neatly packaged). So animals that give themselves up voluntarily, happily, surely that’s ok?
There was once a man called Armin Meiwes who shopped on the internet for a man willing to be his meal and drove the world into a frenzy. Bernd Jürgen Armando Brandes volunteered to be cut up and consumed by Armin Meiwes. There was – that all-important word in today’s world – consent. And yet Meiwes was not let off the hook despite the fact that Brandes, his victim, had walked into Meiwes’s house knowing that he would not walk out. He was condemned for subjugation not cannibalism because we, as a race, believe that perhaps the worse kind of subjugation is where those subjugated are brainwashed into believing that they are volunteering to give up their rights. And yet we want to take away the survival instincts, the inalienable rights of animals and make that pig believe that it is indeed dying in service of a greater cause. I don’t know about you, but I’d feel more miserable than usual on eating such an honourable pig.
It’s the bane of my existence I guess – this curse of seeing animals as creatures with voice, opinion maybe even personality. (I’ve known some dogs with real swag!) My parents laid the pro-veganist foundation in my life by trying to get me to see meat not as food but as animals who had a life. Of course, the joke is on them now, because since I became vegan I ask them “Do you really want to drink that glass of milk?”
Vinaya Kurtkoti is anti-mohmaya, except when shopping online for tribal jewellery. And books. And glittery art supplies. To prove her true blue anti-mohmaya credentials, she now wanders from village to village listening to people's stories. She considers herself 'location independent'.