This title is taken based on a book by Julian Baggini entitled The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten (2006). The book is a series of thought experiments that serve as a rudimentary introduction to philosophy, with the main thought experiment surrounding the moral status of eating a pig that wants to be eaten. In the same style as the book this article will not provide you with an answer but instead explore some different viewpoints, issues and variables that might affect the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of this action and others.
To begin this investigation, we must give some consideration to the experience of the pig in the Utilitarian sense of pleasure and pain. In other words, can the pig suffer? And if so, is it going to? This is an important distinction; just because the pig has the capacity to suffer, it is not guaranteed that it will have a painful death. For example, abattoirs have ‘humane’ provisions to limit the suffering of animals such as stunning them before slaughter. Presumably giving the pig an unnecessarily painful death whether eating it or not makes the act immoral. Although rarely formalised, the reason that humans have traditionally given animals moral consideration is that they are also sentient beings who have the ability to experience pleasure and pain. If the pig does not, does its method of death matter as much, and if so why?
Another issue we must tackle is consent as it is explicitly stated that the pig wants to be eaten. For many, the mere fact that the pig has given consent is enough to clear us of any guilt; but on closer inspection, we can see this should not be the case. In Baginni’s book, the pig has been ‘genetically engineered to be able to speak’ but if consent was given another way it may have different implications. If the pig had not chosen to ‘opt-out’ of being eaten, like many online services that we ‘consent to,’ would it hold the same moral status?
Similarly, we could ask whether the pig knows what it is going to experience. Consent is somewhat void if it is not informed. This principle explains the age restriction on numerous goods and services in society ranging from cigarettes to movies. We must be of significant moral age and properly informed about the consequences of our decisions to be able to act responsibly. If the pig does not know that it will experience an excruciatingly painful death, then its willing consent is based on misinformation and we could view this as morally invalid.
Naturally leading from this is the obvious inquiry as to why the pig wants to be eaten. It could be that the pig is extremely self-confident and knows that it will taste good and therefore unselfishly wants humans to enjoy a delicious meal after its eventual death. But this is ethically different to the religious pig who believes that it will go to heaven if and only if it is eaten by a person. Equally, the pig could be an extreme masochist excited to experience an extremely painful and premature death. It seems that in some of these cases it would almost be more immoral not to eat the pig than to eat it.
Imagine for a second that you are a vegetarian and have a prior moral commitment to not eating meat because you believe that animals are worthy of high levels of moral consideration. Does the moral status of this dilemma change if you are hungry? It is possible to argue that killing an animal for sport or when we do not require its death is gratuitous or even evil. By contrast, when we are hungry this label is potentially no longer applicable. But what if you hadn’t eaten for a week? Or you need to kill the pig to feed a hungry family? Is it right for the needs of humans to supersede those of animals? And if it is your own family does the situation change again? Many would hold that the closer we are to people, the more we prioritise them in our moral decision making.
What society thinks about the dilemma also has a considerable impact on our decision. A pig is an interesting choice of animal; in many cultures, pigs are viewed as dirty and so eating them is forbidden or ‘sinful.’ This allows us to question the extent to which social norms influence our moral compass and decision making. Would those of us who think it is moral to eat the pig still hold such a view if we were in a different society such as Saudi Arabia or Israel.
A final crucial moral enquiry can come from separating the acts of killing the pig and eating it. Numerous moral concerns introduced earlier stem from the assumption that the killing and eating processes are separate, yet both specifically performed by us as the moral agent. However, the situation may change if we see the pig and it communicates its desire to be eaten; then later, by coincidence, we are served roast pork and we are somehow able to certify that it is the same pig. Does this have a different moral status?
Meat eaters are often fine when strictly removed from the killing process but are horrified at the videos found in documentaries on the meat industry. Maybe we are not as fine with killing as we like to think. Perhaps we should even be surprised that this is a moral dilemma in the first place, as we readily eat animals that presumably don’t want to be eaten on a regular basis.
© Duro Adebayo 2020
Baggini, J. (2010) The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten: And 99 Other Thought Experiments, London: Granta