Pain & Pleasure: The Lobster Reconsidered

Mind Shadows Pain & Pleasure: The Lobster Reconsidered

Recently I read about George, a 140 year-old lobster that did not wind up on somebody's dinner plate. Instead, he was returned to the ocean at Kennebunkport, Maine. Lobster age is calculated by weight and this one weighed 20 pounds. George would have provided a dinner at over $100 in a good restaurant. Because of his age, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals asked the restaurant, City Crab and Seafood, that the lobster be returned to the ocean. After holding George in a tank for ten days, restaurant management released him to the animal-humane organization. That news item led me to some thoughts about pleasure and pain.

René Descartes is called the Father of Modern Philosophy and is also known for his Cartesian Coordinates. In his Meditations, Descartes argued that animals can't feel pain. Nor can they reason, think,or suffer. They are pure physical entities rather like an animated banana. They have no mental or spiritual substance. Pure matter, they are. In his separation of consciousness, the "I" from the body, Descartes also split animals into the physical. They are machines. Burn a dog in a fire, and its howls are merely responses from the mechanism. A dead canine is like the ashes of a banana.

Though few human beings agree with Descartes about animals and pain, all of us have a remarkable capacity to inflict pain on others. In famous experiments, Stanley Milgram argued that there is a torturer in everybody. (See my The Genetic Predisposition to Violence.) As authority figures in scientists' white lab coats, Milgram and others pretended to conduct experiments on the effects of electrical shock. Actually, the experiments were about the volunteers who did the shocking. Under instruction of people in white coats, volunteers repeatedly turned up the voltage to shock others (actually actors feigning pain). So long as the man in the white coat said a higher shock was necessary for the "experiment" the volunteer complied, although with frequent protests ("can't you see he's in great pain?). Few simply got up and walked out. Sympathy for the supposed pain of another was tuned down because the volunteer deferred to the authority of the person in the white coat. Often, if the scientist accepted full responsibility, the volunteer continued turning up the "voltage."

We have problems with pain, not our own but others'. The problems are that pain and morality get mixed up, so we don't always get clear-cut answers as to right behavior. In Milgram's experiments the volunteer could cede responsibility to the authority figure.

In our cerebral cortex we have mirror neurons, recently discovered, which do not simply copy what another does, but also "mirror" the feelings of the other, be they pain or pleasure. These neurons help make us human. Over-ridden by selfish impulse, they do not prevent us from evil. Fortunately, we also have the ability to reason, which can take a moral shape. This is where we encounter the problem of no clear-cut answers.

Morality also helps make us human, but we draw lines in the sand for our moral behavior. As a boy spending summers on an Iowa farm, I took chickens out to the tree stump and chopped their heads off. I didn't like doing it, but on the farm I learned that food does not come in clean containers as it does in tidy grocery stores. If we were transported back in a time machine to their day, our hunter-gatherer forbears would laugh at any one of us so-called modern men and women. We would starve unless they showed us how to cope. We would learn to kill in order to have food for the fire. Morality draws the line at survival.

I thought about George the lobster because people draw the line at what they eat. If we do know how it's done, we simply don't want to think about how an animal is killed or prepared for a meal. We don't want to think about the suffering and pain an animal endures in order to satisfy our hunger. We thus keep intact our sense of ourselves as moral beings.

If you have thought about it, if you have investigated, you found that, for example, cows are expedited humanely, with a pneumatic pellet shot into the brain. On the other hand, maybe you became a vegetarian knowing that. As for lobsters? Boiled to death.

Do lobsters feel pain or don't they? They can't talk or communicate to us, so the humane, the moral, thing would be to come down on the side of affirmation. Yes, they do feel pain, probably extreme.

There are scientific studies that suggest as much. Lobsters and other decapod crustaceans react to injury when painkillers such as morphine are applied. Their systems as well as their behavior reflect stressed response to noxious (painful) stimuli. Sensing pain is crucial to the survival of human beings and all animals. You yank your finger back from a fire immediately. Drop a lobster into a boiling pot and it will scramble, apparently frantically, to get out.

As to pleasure and pain, then, (re)consider the lobster. I refer you to a celebrated piece about the Maine Lobster Festival done by one of our finest writers, David Foster Wallace, (Infinite Jest, among other novels) for Gourmet. The title of his article is "Consider The Lobster."

Here is an excerpt from Wallace's piece, particularly about the pleasure/pain issue, and with a link to the full article. Bold face emphases are mine:
"Before we go any further, let’s acknowledge that the questions of whether and how different kinds of animals feel pain, and of whether and why it might be justifiable to inflict pain on them in order to eat them, turn out to be extremely complex and difficult. And comparative neuroanatomy is only part of the problem. Since pain is a totally subjective mental experience, we do not have direct access to anyone or anything’s pain but our own; and even just the principles by which we can infer that others experience pain and have a legitimate interest in not feeling pain involve hard-core philosophy—metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, ethics. The fact that even the most highly evolved nonhuman mammals can’t use language to communicate with us about their subjective mental experience is only the first layer of additional complication in trying to extend our reasoning about pain and morality to animals. And everything gets progressively more abstract and convolved as we move farther and farther out from the higher-type mammals into cattle and swine and dogs and cats and rodents, and then birds and fish, and finally invertebrates like lobsters."

"The more important point here, though, is that the whole animal-cruelty-and-eating issue is not just complex, it’s also uncomfortable. It is, at any rate, uncomfortable for me, and for just about everyone I know who enjoys a variety of foods and yet does not want to see herself as cruel or unfeeling. As far as I can tell, my own main way of dealing with this conflict has been to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing. I should add that it appears to me unlikely that many readers of gourmet wish to think hard about it, either, or to be queried about the morality of their eating habits in the pages of a culinary monthly. Since, however, the assigned subject of this article is what it was like to attend the 2003 MLF, and thus to spend several days in the midst of a great mass of Americans all eating lobster, and thus to be more or less impelled to think hard about lobster and the experience of buying and eating lobster, it turns out that there is no honest way to avoid certain moral questions."

"There are several reasons for this. For one thing, it’s not just that lobsters get boiled alive, it’s that you do it yourself—or at least it’s done specifically for you, on-site. As mentioned, the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, which is highlighted as an attraction in the Festival’s program, is right out there on the MLF’s north grounds for everyone to see. Try to imagine a Nebraska Beef Festival at which part of the festivities is watching trucks pull up and the live cattle get driven down the ramp and slaughtered right there on the World’s Largest Killing Floor or something—there’s no way."

"However stuporous the lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster’s fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming). A blunter way to say this is that the lobster acts as if it’s in terrible pain, causing some cooks to leave the kitchen altogether and to take one of those little lightweight plastic oven timers with them into another room and wait until the whole process is over.

"There happen to be two main criteria that most ethicists agree on for determining whether a living creature has the capacity to suffer and so has genuine interests that it may or may not be our moral duty to consider. One is how much of the neurological hardware required for pain-experience the animal comes equipped with—nociceptors, prostaglandins, neuronal opioid receptors, etc. The other criterion is whether the animal demonstrates behavior associated with pain. And it takes a lot of intellectual gymnastics and behaviorist hairsplitting not to see struggling, thrashing, and lid-clattering as just such pain-behavior. According to marine zoologists, it usually takes lobsters between 35 and 45 seconds to die in boiling water. (No source I could find talked about how long it takes them to die in superheated steam; one rather hopes it’s faster.)" More.

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