John Stuart Mill famously maintained that “animal pleasures” — like enjoying good smells and tastes — are lower quality than the pleasures tied to higher cognition, like the pleasure of enjoying an opera or understanding a mathematical proof. This downgrading is particularly common in the ethical literature about eating animals. Peter Singer, James Rachels, Gary Francione, Alastair Norcross and dozens of other ethicists make quick work of defending vegetarianism by presuming that “gustatory pleasure” is trivial. But is it?
I used to think so, but in a paper I published a few years ago (“The Taste Issue in Animal Ethics” in the Journal of Applied Philosophy), I explored some thought experiments about taste and smell deprivation. What if all your food tasted like cardboard or oatmeal? Would that really be trivially bad? A priori it seems obvious that it would be bad, but it turns out I may have underestimated just how bad it would be. The pandemic has created a set of real people for whom food does taste like cardboard — because the coronavirus often causes a loss of smell (anosmia), which reduces or eliminates taste. The loss is persistent in a minority of cases.
According to a recent New York Times article (https://nyti.ms/2XUCSHv), those afflicted lose interest in eating, but may also lose interest in socialising. They speak of feeling cut off, like a part of themselves is missing, and even “like I don’t exist”. The loss is “extremely upsetting”, “discombobulating”, and “even debilitating”. In the oddest cases, the problem is not limited to absences. The afflicted experience phantom smells and tastes. One person reported constantly smelling corn chips.
But it’s just smell and taste! Evidently to many people smell and taste are quite important. It’s sort of strange that this is so. Other senses seem to do more for us, yielding more knowledge, more insight, perhaps more euphoria. To make sense of how much people value smell and taste you might be tempted by elevating interpretations. Food is connected to memory and culture. Specific foods bring us back to moments of childhood or tie us to a culture we want to be a part of. So it’s not really taste that matters so much, it’s culture or it’s cherished memories. Or there’s this thought: taste connects us to reality in a particularly intimate way. It’s nice to feel an apple in your hand or see it on a tree, but to put it in your mouth and taste it provides a closer sort of encounter. We lose that sort of contact with reality if we can’t taste the appleyness of an apple, or apples start to taste like corn chips. Again, it’s not taste that matters so much, it’s something more profound. There’s also the pleasing nexus of taste and health. We don’t keep our bodies alive and well primarily by injecting things into our veins or taking pills, but by satisfying appetites and cravings. Thus, it’s not mere taste that matters, but the way taste guides us toward health, or some such thing.
Deep reasons like these are probably among the reasons why it’s a major loss to have persistent anosmia and loss of taste, but I suspect the main reason is just because of food pleasures themselves. What those affected are missing is simply how good things used to taste!
Gustatory and olfactory pleasures shouldn’t be downgraded, but so what? What is the upshot? Obviously, people who have been robbed of smell and taste by the coronavirus ought to be receiving medical attention and therapy. It turns out “smell training” is moderately successful. There are also some implications for the way we treat people who can’t make food choices for themselves. It’s not a trivial matter when prisoners are given horrible food. It’s also non-trivial for old people to be given terrible food at assisted living centres.
But what about the issue in animal ethics I started with? Despite the significance of food pleasure, it could still be wrong to inflict suffering on animals, most obviously when the taste we want could come from kinder alternatives. In some cases the kinder alternative actually tastes better, and there’s simply no taste consideration pushing in the direction of animal consumption. Where things get far more perplexing is when the taste difference between alternatives is stark. In a class I teach on animal rights, I’ve heard people say some pretty terrible things about the taste of vegetarian or vegan food. On the view that food pleasure is trivial, it’s easy to say what they should do. They should choose the veggie burger anyway, because the extra pleasure of a beef burger is trivially good. Just around the corner is a harder question: how much that seriously and legitimately matters to us must we sacrifice out of respect and compassion for others — in this case, for other animals? What coronavirus-induced anosmia seems to show is that we do have to ask the harder question.