Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Geese, guts, and gays

Kristof in the NY Times about his childhood on the farm:

Then there were the geese, the most admirable creatures I’ve ever met. We raised Chinese white geese, a common breed, and they have distinctive personalities. They mate for life and adhere to family values that would shame most of those who dine on them.

While one of our geese was sitting on her eggs, her gander would go out foraging for food — and if he found some delicacy, he would rush back to give it to his mate. Sometimes I would offer males a dish of corn to fatten them up — but it was impossible, for they would take it all home to their true loves.

Once a month or so, we would slaughter the geese. When I was 10 years old, my job was to lock the geese in the barn and then rush and grab one. Then I would take it out and hold it by its wings on the chopping block while my Dad or someone else swung the ax.

The 150 geese knew that something dreadful was happening and would cower in a far corner of the barn, and run away in terror as I approached. Then I would grab one and carry it away as it screeched and struggled in my arms.

Very often, one goose would bravely step away from the panicked flock and walk tremulously toward me. It would be the mate of the one I had caught, male or female, and it would step right up to me, protesting pitifully. It would be frightened out of its wits, but still determined to stand with and comfort its lover.

So, no more eating geese for me. The thing about it is, my feeling that it would be wrong to eat an animal that can behave like this, isn't an intellectual determination. By contrast, I can intellectually justify my general rejection of animal rights. I can also justify my acceptance of some level of rights for highly intelligent animals that the Great Ape Project supports, and even my squishy concerns regarding eating smart-but-not-sapient animals like pigs and some other mammals. But my reaction against killing geese is just a gut reaction.

Gut reactions aren't necessarily wrong though - I think any coherent ethical system could be used to justify horrible things, so a gut check is a good thing. On the other hand, I think it's exactly this kind of unthinking gut response that tells other people that gay behavior and gay marriage is bad.

So how do you reconcile gut instinct against intellect? I don't think you can, and I don't think you should really choose one over the other. But knowing that gut instinct can be directed by personal feelings that have nothing to do with morality makes me believe that my reaction to not eating geese is better than others' homophobia, because the consequences of being wrong are very different. If I'm wrong and eating geese is fine, then the world has not been badly damaged. Wrongly choosing to discriminate against a whole class of people, though, is a different ball of wax.

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