Considering the lobster

After the usual hyper-observational riffs on the Maine Lobster Festival, DFW asks the question that sets the piece apart from most food/gourmet journalism: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” (243) This seems to be the most salient question, and is often referred to in books reviews that attempt to summarize “Consider The Lobster” or point out what makes it special. But DFW goes on to ask a set of related questions: “Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does “all right” even mean in this context? Is the whole thing just a matter of personal choice?” (243)

The last of the related question seems to engage in ethical theory: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals “thinks that the morality of lobster-boiling is not just a matter of individual conscience”. This led me to wonder what the immorality of boiling the lobsters consists in–that there is something intrinsically wrong in the act–as well as whether this vague sense of moral discomfort has to do more with how squeamish it makes us feel (individual conscience). The latter prompts (at least) two further questions: 1) Why does it makes us squeamish to think about what goes on when we boil lobsters? Is it because we feel pain and can therefore imagine how torturous it would be by projecting ourselves to be in a similar scenario? 2) What if someone is simply quite unperturbed and possesses an extremely limited capacity for such squeamishness? What if a lengthy explication on animal rights and the neural make-up of lobsters is met with a blank countenance and a “so what”? Thinking such a person to be morally regrettable would seem to blame the person for having a limited capacity for such moral squeamishness, but can someone be blamed for such a thing?

One of the reasons for abstaining from inflicting harm on others and to treat all other humans as ends in themselves rather than as means to an end is that we all share the capacity for rational thought. It is this rational nature that distinguishes us from animals. The importance of this fundamental similarity is that it provides us with a reason to treat others as we would want others to treat ourselves. Our rational nature affords us dignity and thereby forms the basis on which all human actions have to take as the supreme limiting condition. But I don’t think most of us would consider a lobster rational. What then, would the Archimedan point be, that would enable us to convince a blank-faced-shrug-of-the shoulders-lobster-afiocionado that there is indeed something morally repugnant about boiling a lobster in a pot? Or is there nothing intrinsically wrong about the act itself? Is it that all we can do is to express our distaste for such as act, which would then render PETA and the like sententious and even self-righteous for thinking something subjective to be objective, and wanting to impose (forcefully) what is essentially nothing more than an opinion on others?

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