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David Bain's Brain Strain Refrain

14:22 UK time, Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Is eating children worse than tucking into a fry-up? Having set out this philosophical conundrum in his most recent column, David Bain responds to a selection of readers' comments:

This month's Brain Strain concerned the fictional Mr Cronus who, like his Titan namesake, kills and eats newborns.

Only two centuries ago, remember, some thought it was okay to enslave one group of sentient beings (black people) but not another (white people). Yet none of them could cite a difference justifying their contrasting attitudes.

Many of this month's contributors face a parallel challenge. They think that it's okay to kill for food one group of sentient beings (pigs) but not another (human newborns). Are there differences they can cite to justify these contrasting attitudes?

Some said it's riskier to eat humans than pigs. But sky diving is riskier than golf yet no less permissible. Nor do we (unlike Eskimos) need to eat any meat. We're only after the taste.

But taste is just the point, says DisgustedofMitchum, who tells us, with slightly alarming authority, that newborns don't taste as good as bacon. But they do to Mr Cronus, and remember it's his actions that were at issue.

Squaremind mentions the afterlife. But, as Naomith asks, if only humans have an afterlife, isn't that a reason to be more careful of pigs' lives, not less? But some will say that God allows us to eat pigs, but doesn't want us to eat newborns. But it's hard to tell what God wants without first deciding what he should want. Hence we're back where we started, looking for justifications of contrasting attitudes.

BlackIsleJag and others invoke more human purposes. Pigs are bred and farmed in order to be killed and eaten. They owe us their lives. But (as HappyHippyMabel suggests) think how this argument plays out in other cases. Was slavery less bad in the case of slaves born into it? Would you be happier with Mr Cronus if he "bred" newborns to eat?

If God's no help, what about Darwin? Eating newborns, some readers who left comments warned, would threaten the species. But not, surely, if it were properly managed. Perhaps the idea is that natural selection is responsible for the widespread urge to eat meat but not humans. But urges are neither permissions nor obligations. That many feel an urge not to copulate with their own sex doesn't make it wrong for homosexuals to do so.

PerfectCookieJar reminds us that our species has evolved so that most of its adult members are self-conscious, highly intelligent, and future-oriented. But, remember, some humans lack these features. Tragically, as a result of the most profound brain damage, a few will never have them. The Cronus challenge is about them.

But they are not "them" but "us", some will say. They'll suggest we have special obligations to our immediate families simply because family members are "us"; and they'll extend some similar moral notion of "us" to all humans, but not to pigs. But the worry with such strategies is avoiding brute tribalism, avoiding leaving an open door for racists or sexists to justify discrimination by deciding that the relevant "us" is actually whites or men.

Suppose, finally, that the challenge we've been grappling with, of justifying killing pigs and not (orphaned) newborns, cannot be met. That would leave two options: that killing either is permissible, or (as Smallrabbit and other vegetarians claim) that killing neither is.

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