The Ethicist: Would You Eat Your Cat?

I recently explored an intriguing thought experiment with my students.

As we saw several columns ago, thought experiments are employed by philosophers because they offer us a way of making difficult philosophical concepts both accessible and concrete, changing them, in the process, from abstract ideas into ones that we can easily understand and recognize the practical importance of.

The thought experiment — “Would You Eat your Cat?,” found in a book of the same name by Jeremy Stangroom — asks us to imagine a young woman, Cleo, who has a close and loving relationship with her cat, Hector. She feels Hector is more like a sibling than a pet, and they enjoy many activities together: he rides in her shopping cart as she stocks up on the gourmet foods she loves; they watch TV together; he curls up at the bottom of her bed at night; she reads to him – sometimes a gripping murder mystery, sometimes poetry featuring the adventures of brave felines.

Poor Hector, however, is shortsighted, and one day is run over by a lawnmower he mistakes for a mouse. Cleo is heartbroken and decides that, as a kind of memorial to Hector, she will eat him for supper. Through this kind of secular communion, she feels, they will be permanently united. In addition, she has heard that cat meat is very tasty, and she is eager to give her taste buds a new treat. Consequently, she cooks Hector up and eats him on toast, accompanied by a robust red wine. She tells no one what she has done, and lives to a ripe old age. At the end of this paradoxically charming and repulsive narrative, Stangroom asks the ethical question:

Was Cleo wrong to eat her beloved cat as if he were just a bedtime snack?

 

As regular readers of the column know, I, too, recently lost a cat I was very fond of. His name was Pepper and although I never took him to the grocery store with me or read poetry to him, he snuggled with me when I was reading books, greeted me with seeming pleasure when I returned home and offered both company and affection. In short, he was a perfect companion animal and I hope that I was (from his perspective) a good animal companion. I cannot under any circumstances imagine doing what the (hopefully entirely fictional!) Cleo did. So I want to answer Stangroom’s question with a resounding “Yes! Of course she was wrong!”

What is intriguing about this thought experiment – and why it offers me such a useful teaching tool – is that, while I suspect most (if not all) readers of this column would agree with me that Cleo’s action feels morally reprehensible (not to mention nauseating), it is very hard to explain why what she did was wrong. It’s not as though she killed and butchered Hector so that she could enjoy her cat-on-toast, or mistreated him in any way while he was alive; indeed, he seems to have been an exceptionally fortunate cat to have had her as his caregiver. In short, ending up as her supper did not harm Hector in any way. Moreover, because we are explicitly told that Cleo never told anyone what she had done, we also can’t easily assert that what she did harmed anyone else, either.

So, what is so morally troubling about Cleo’s action? As I thought about this with my students, it became clear that one of the things that makes her decision to eat Hector ethically challenging is not simply that she choose to eat a cat – an animal that most of us don’t think of as a natural foodstuff – but the circumstances in which she did so. If she had made this choice in the midst of a famine, and it was eat Hector-on-toast or die, we might still feel nauseated, but we would be less likely to think what she did was somehow morally wrong. It is her comfortable life, and the role he played in it, that makes her decision to see if cat meat is tasty when he reached his untimely end that makes us feel not only physically queasy, but morally queasy as well: surely we would not want to eat any of our companion animals for the reasons she gives for eating Hector? But this feeling that there is something very wrong with what Cleo did is hard to put into an argument – at least for those of us who are willing to eat other kinds of meat.

 

Interestingly, of course, if one is an ethically committed vegetarian or vegan, one will have no difficulty articulating why what Cleo did was morally wrong: if it is wrong to eat animals, period, then it is just as wrong (and for many of the same reasons) to eat cows, lambs and chickens. Those of us who would never knowingly eat cat meat but choose to eat these other kinds of animals find ourselves at a loss to make our case: we feel something strongly, but can’t consistently apply those feelings to our own behavior.

In next month’s column, I will continue to explore the place of feelings and arguments in ethical discourse; in the meantime, I ask readers to think about how you would answer Stangroom’s question, and whether you can translate those feelings into an argument. Bonus question for those who eat meat: what makes eating Hector different, morally speaking (if anything) than enjoying a juicy steak or tender lambchop from an anonymous animal?

 

Rachel Haliburton

 

Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. She is working on a book that explores the ethical dimensions of detective fiction.

 

 

 

 

 

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