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Welcome to December! If you’re in the northern hemisphere, the days are getting shorter, darker, and colder. Winter officially begins on December 21, which is the season when days start getting longer. That’s the optimist’s view, at least. In the meantime, snow is very pretty.
It’s been a busy month in terms of course announcements. Earlier in the month I launched my first self-guided course. An Introduction to Philosophy in Ten Dangerous Ideas is available for you to take in your own time and at your own pace, with or without one-on-one discussions of the material with me. And last week I announced this winter’s discussion-based course, Humans and Other Animals. Space is limited and this one is booking up fairly fast, so I encourage you to book your spot soon.
And gosh, did I mention that December is a month in which people often give gifts to one another? Good thing I have gift cards available for purchase! There’s nothing like the gift of wisdom for a loved one—whether or not they’re wise already. Wisdom is like hugs: it’s hard to get too much of the stuff.
We’re coming close to the end of our autumn course, Freedom and Its Limits. For the last two weeks, we’ve explored the theme of political liberty with the help of Isaiah Berlin and Nancy Hirschmann. Next week we turn to spiritual liberation and the Buddha’s famous simile of the raft: his teaching isn’t an end in its own right but, like a raft, the means to carry us to the far shore.
I’ve put a couple pieces of text out into the world in the last month. For the “starting points” section of my blog, I wrote about the importance of an open mindset to critical thinking. And for Culturico, I wrote a piece about why Heidegger would have been troubled by our increased use of “life hacks” to optimize efficiency.
I’ve had a couple nice hikes in the last month but some of the prettiest views are close to home. One advantage of living close to the sea is that I can start my day with a cup of tea looking out across the water at Vancouver’s downtown and the mountains behind it.
Let me tell you a story of three little pigs.
The first little pig is born under the care of a specialized breeder and sold as a pet. This pig is lucky. Not only is she showered with affection, but the couple that takes her in has done its research. They know how to feed and care for a pig and they’re prepared for her rapid growth—a “miniature pig” can weigh up to 150 kg (350 lbs.) when fully grown. Because they’re faddish pets, often bought on impulse, many pigs end up at rescue shelters when their owners get bored or are overwhelmed by the responsibilities of caring for them.
The second little pig is bought by a research team at a medical centre. The pig’s handlers provide him with a comfortable pen and feed him well. After a short time, they take the pig to an operating theatre and anaesthetize him. Researchers at this medical centre have been developing a novel procedure for heart surgery, and testing the procedure on pigs is an intermediate step between simulators and testing the procedure on human patients. Pigs are roughly the same size as humans and have a similar internal structure so they make useful models in experiments like this one. After the experiment has been carried out, this little pig is euthanized.
The third little pig is sent to a concentrated animal feeding operation, colloquially known as a factory farm. These meat factories house the vast majority of pigs in the industrialized world. She is a sow and destined to be a breeder. Upon her arrival, her tail is docked without anaesthetic. In the close quarters of a factory farm and deprived of earth to root around in, pigs frequently go insane and bite at one another’s tails. When she is old enough to breed, she is artificially inseminated with a “pork stork,” a raised catheter that makes economical use of a boar’s semen. Once she is confirmed pregnant, she is moved to a gestation crate too small for her to turn around. Her daily feed includes a dose of vitamin D because she will never see sunlight. Just shy of seventeen weeks, she gives birth to a farrow of piglets. The experience is painful for her because sows like her have been bred over generations to give birth to as many piglets as possible in a single pregnancy. The runt of the farrow is bludgeoned and binned while the remaining piglets draw milk from her from outside her tight cage so that she doesn’t crush any of them when she moves. The piglets are castrated, tattooed, and have their tails docked, and after a few weeks they are taken from their mother to be raised for meat. Pigs can live over a decade but these pigs are slaughtered after half a year. Our sow delivers three more farrows of pigs before she dies of a prolapsed womb, a common ailment among sows delivering such large farrows. Having been confined for her whole life, her meat is of low quality and used for sausage.
These three pigs are members of the same species—miniature pigs raised as pets are of a different breed from the swine raised for meat but they are all Sus scrofus domesticus—and all three spend their lives under the constant supervision of human beings. But the accident of their births destines them for dramatically different fates. The first pig is loved like a member of the family while the treatment of the third is guided at every turn by the cold eye of profit. It’s not just human attitudes that vary here. The three pigs are subject to different legal protections.
How are animals of the same species subjected to such different treatments? Part of the answer, I think, is that we humans don’t quite know what to make of creatures that are both so similar to us and so different. Pigs are intelligent and sociable animals, which is why they make for good pets. Their similarities to us in size and anatomy make them useful to experimenters—pig hearts and human hearts are similar enough that pig hearts have potential use in transplantation.
And yet pigs can seem like alien creatures. They don’t speak, they live on all fours and trot about on hooves, and many of their habits can seem strange, even disgusting. Their beady eyes don’t see as well as ours do but their whiskers and spade-like snouts are alive to sensations that we can scarcely imagine. As much as we feel kinship with them, animals are in some ways irreducibly other to us. We can only go so far in understanding them.
Long before the advent of factory farming, killing pigs for food was a fact of life for many. The people who did the killing lived alongside these animals and they weren’t unaware that pigs were intelligent and sociable and like us in many ways. “A peasant becomes fond of his pig and is glad to salt away its pork,” writes John Berger. “What is significant, and is so difficult for the urban stranger to understand, is that the two statements in that sentence are connected by an and and not by a but.”
That odd juxtaposition, and its perplexing and—this is part of what I look forward to exploring in my online course this winter. In calling the course “Humans and Other Animals,” I’m as interested in the human part as the animal part. How we think about and live with animals reveals a lot about how we think about—and live with—ourselves.