Selected Minor Works: Taxonomy as a Guide to Morals

Justin E. H. Smith

There is a long tradition in philosophy, going back at least to Epicurus, of allowing examples drawn from the domain of sexuality to serve in the analysis of eating, and vice versa. Sometimes this amounts to sloppiness, but often one can gain insight. Consider the photographs of peaches or cherries that make their way onto the covers of books in the erotica genre. These might tromper l’oeil, for an instant, but when we see what the photo is actually of, we are inclined to think: how clever, that peach looks like a naked woman from behind. Yet publishers of erotic literature dare not attempt the same trick with a suitably ambiguous photograph of a goat’s haunches. An erotic experience caused by a cherry is a fundamentally different sort of experience than one caused by a goat. This difference might, on its own, lead one to think that, similarly, a culinary experience with a cherry and one with a goat are two very different things as well. It is also interesting to note that in poetry allusions to fruit work well as erotic metaphors, while mention of ‘meat’ in the same context would be not erotic, but pornographic.

But it is zoology, and not phenomenology, that informs the dietary rules of contemporary ethical eaters. Most vegetarians today seek to index their dietary rules to Linnaean taxonomy. A moment’s reflection will show this to be an odd project. To eat corn and mushrooms, but not beef and mussels, only because, as we inhabitants of the post-Linnaean world know, cows and marine invertebrates are grouped together in the kingdom “animalia,” whereas plantae and fungi are different kingdoms altogether, is, one might think, to put a bit too much faith in the ability of scientific taxonomy to reflect reality, and, what’s more, to serve as a guide to practice. When it comes to dietary decisions of this sort, surely folk taxonomy is a more reliable guide. The Karam of the New Guinea Highlands, to cite one of many examples available from the anthropological literature of kingdom-mixing in folk taxonomy, class certain mushrooms with animals, in virtue of the texture of their ‘meat’. nd what folk taxonomy tells us is that cows are more like humans than they are like scallops, and scallops are more like corn-on-the-cob than they are like cows– the intuitive appropriateness of the phrase ‘frutti di mari’ has, after all, survived three centuries of taxonomic precisification.

The relevant likeness, again, has nothing to do with arguments for or against moral status based on neurophysiological evidence. Rather, it has to do with the instruments and methods employed to kill the creature, the amount of blood spilled, and the sense of the relative specialness of the meal that results from this killing. Though the taxonomies are very different, in all cultures, in addition to the class of entities that cannot be killed and eaten under any circumstances –pets and people (at least the friendly ones, again, as we will see below), and usually negatively social creatures such as rats—, there appears to be a certain class of entities cordoned off from the rest, distinguished by the fact that members of this class cannot be casually killed and eaten. They can be killed and eaten, but this will require some kind of communal to-do by which their sociocosmic significance –or what we would call their ‘moral status’– is acknowledged.

We are led astray not just in trying to index ‘moral wrongness’ to the innate cognitive and sensitive capacities of the beings in question, but that we are led astray even in thinking that the question of what we are and are not to eat has much to do with ‘moral wrongness’ in the sense in which philosophers understand it. Rather, rules about what can be eaten, and under what circumstances –never social animals like pets or rats, sometimes large game, fruits and nuts more or less anytime—seem to involve a few basic, evolutionally ingrained, cross-cultural rules, and on top of these a good deal of culturally variable rules that nonetheless within the culture feel as inexorable as the basic ones. Eating, as the Epicureans suspected, thus parallels sexuality in significant ways—the mother-son incest taboo is universal, but whether sex with your second cousin, or your second wife, or outside of marriage, or during menstruation, is ‘morally wrong’ will differ from place to place. All of these practices are capable of being morally wrong, but only in the etymological sense of ‘moral’: pertaining to the practices of a group.

The classicist and philosopher G. E. R. Lloyd has argued in his Magic, Reason, and Experience (Cambridge, 1979), that often it is not just difficult but impossible to determine when, in ancient texts, some reference to “purification” or “cleansing” is meant in a medical, and when in a moral-religious, context. He notes that the ambiguity arises only because we ourselves are intent on separating the two usages, whereas the Greek writers themselves may not have seen any need to do so. He cites Mary Douglas’s work in a more general anthropological context, which shows convincingly that “notions of the ‘clean’ and the ‘dirty’ usually reflect fundamental assumptions concerning the natural, and the moral, order.” It would be useful to bear in mind the ease with which naturalistically understood rules about ‘what one does’ and moral proscriptions are elided, and not to assume that we are radically different from the ancient Greeks or the Lele of the Congo in this regard. And for us, as for other cultures, there are presuppositions about what one may fitly do with an object that serve to constitute our very concept of the object, and that these must precede any explication of our moral commitments vis-à-vis that object. On Douglas’s approach, the moral proscription against eating something would be nothing more than an ad hoc rationalization of the fact that some potential food item belongs to the class of things that are ‘not to be eaten’. Yet the tendency in philosophical discusssions of vegetarianism has been to presume that we can meaningfully distinguish between ‘hygienic’ and ‘moral’ considerations that might give form and meaning to a person’s vegetarianism, as though hygiene had nothing to do with morality, as though the pretheoretical perception of an entity’s belonging to the class of edibles or inedibles had nothing to do with the way we subsequently give reasons for why we eat the things we do and not others.

I do not know if meat-eating is something humans ‘ought’ to be doing. I suspect the answer to this question has more to do with primatology than with moral philosophy: are we the sort of primate that eats meat? And with anthropology: are there human cultures that class all of what zoology places under the heading ‘animalia’ under the heading ‘inedibles’? The unwillingness of people on either side of the debate to consider the question in these terms surely is not doing any animals any good.