In “Consider the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace provides a comprehensive overview of the Maine Lobster festival, then presents historical and cultural context for the practice of lobster consumption. Finally, he tackles important dilemmas surrounding the ethics of lobster killing, such as whether lobsters are able to feel pain considering the anatomy of their nervous systems, and whether certain means of killing lobsters are perhaps more ethical than others (Wallace 63). Wallace contrasts the neurological experience of pain with “actual suffering, which seems crucially to involve an emotional component, an awareness of pain as unpleasant, as something to fear/dislike/want to avoid” (63). Wallace provides several compelling arguments as to why killing lobsters is morally inappropriate, which extend to other sentient beings that humans consume. Overall, I believe that eating any animal is morally inappropriate, and will use lobsters, cows, pigs, and chickens as my main examples to build a case for why humans ought not to eat animals since it is morally unjustifiable.
Humans have a tendency to look for ways to morally justify to themselves the consumption of animals, because this justification is easier than having to change their behavior by omitting animals from their diet. One way many people do this is by telling themselves that animals are “less morally important than human beings” (64). However even Wallace acknowledges that he has “not succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which this belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient” (64). The two main criteria that ethicists use when considering suffering are the physiological capacity of the animal to feel pain and whether the animal acts as though it is in pain (63). In the case of mammals that humans kill, both of these criteria are clearly met, since pigs, cows, and chickens all have central and peripheral nervous systems, meaning they have mechanisms to register pain including nociceptors (pain-receptors), prostaglandins, and neuronal opioid receptors (63). In addition, they can make sounds that denote suffering when they are in distress/pain, such as whimpering, squealing, and moaning.
There are other behaviors associated with pain exhibited by mammals that are also present in lobsters, such as struggling and thrashing. In terms of the physiological mechanisms of pain, lobsters have an extremely refined tactile sense, partly due to the fact that they are covered in tiny hairs that penetrate their outer shells (63). What this means is that “although encased in what seems like a solid, impenetrable armor, the lobster can receive stimuli and impressions from without as readily as if it possessed a soft and delicate skin” (63). Even though they are invertebrates, they do possess “nociceptors, as well as invertebrate versions of the prostaglandins and major neurotransmitters via which our own brains register pain” (63). Furthermore, lobsters do not have an endogenous opioid system, which is the body’s way of decreasing pain intensity, and is present in many other animals. This lack of natural painkillers means that lobsters’ perception of pain may actually be heightened (63).
Given that the animals that humans kill for consumption have the capacity to feel pain and to suffer, I believe that they do have moral status, meaning that humans should not have the right to inflict pain and suffering on them simply for their culinary experience. Inflicting pain on animals in order to kill them for human consumption is morally wrong because this killing is currently unnecessary for human survival, and therefore avoidable. Although society is more removed from the killing of mammal livestock, which are killed in slaughterhouses and factory farms instead of in people’s kitchens as lobsters are, the former death is not more justifiable or any less cruel than the latter. Due to the way cows, pigs, and chickens are killed and sold, it is easier for people to eat these animals “without having to consider that they were once conscious, sentient creatures to whom horrible things were done” (62).
In conclusion, pain is a complex experience involving a neurological component as well as a subjective component, which is manifested externally through behaviors indicating extreme discomfort and a clear desire to avoid the painful stimulus (63). The subjective experience and feeling of pain is unique to every individual, whether it be an animal or a human, and is a critical determinant of sentience. As a general premise, killing animals for human consumption is morally unjustified because they are subjected to unnecessary, avoidable pain and suffering, whether that be in a factory farm, a slaughterhouse, or in a pot of boiling water. Furthermore, given that the reasons humans have for consuming animals are primarily selfish in nature (63), humans continuing to kill animals for consumption is not truly necessary, therefore it is unethical and unjustified.
Foster Wallace, David. “Consider the Lobster.” Gourmet, August 2004, pp. 50–64.
- Athena Milios is a Greek-Canadian psychiatric researcher and writer based in Nova Scotia, Canada. She holds an undergraduate Degree in Medical Science and a Master’s in Psychiatry Research, both from Dalhousie University. She is passionate about psychology and mental health. Athena has been living with mental illness since the age of fifteen. She strongly advocates for mental health in her community. She is the author of several psychiatric publications as well as some creative writing pieces, including poetry and short stories.
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