The Philosophical Traveler

When we travel we see what we normally ignore.

Posted Oct 07, 2017

I spent most of September traveling all over Australia, so please, dear reader, forgive the absence of posting and the fact that today I'm posting as a philosophical traveler instead of a philosophical parent. I'll get back to regular programming soon! 

Traveling provides a nice break from whatever you normally do, but if you're a philosopher, it doesn't provide a complete break. Being in new surroundings prompts reflection—the more so, the more exotic your destination. Australia is pretty exotic (while also very manageable). It's especially exotic when it comes to animals.

Jean Kazez
Source: Jean Kazez

We saw lots of koalas, kangaroos, a whale, and all sorts of amazing birds on the south coast of Australia before heading to "the red center" and seeing camels and emus. It was then we noticed something we found remarkable. The very same animal can be presented as fascinating, iconic, and beautiful, but also as edible.  For example, between Uluru and King's Canyon, just about the only place to stop is a former cattle station with camels and emus to observe. Cool. We observed. Then we noticed a little restaurant on the property with camels and kangaroos on the menu. When we went further north, to the Kakadu National Park, we found it unsettling to spot crocodiles by day, but to be offered them as food at dinner time.  

Jean Kazez
Source: Jean Kazez

It turned out there was nothing singular about this.  By the time we got to the east coast—Port Douglas and then the Atherton Tablelands—we had come to expect that we would see kangaroo meat for sale at supermarkets.  Apparently it was a commonplace to both admire the national beast, which is even pictured on Qantas jets, and enjoy its flavor.

How fascinating, these Australians!  But then I got to thinking. If you go to an aquarium in the US, you'll probably find fish on the menu. There are petting zoos on country roads in Texas where you can let your kids first pet a calf and then enjoy a beef burger. People in Pennsylvania stop and admire a deer crossing the road, but also enjoy venison. In Yellowstone National Park there are herds of buffalo that tourists find delightful and there's also buffalo on restaurant menus. The combination of beholding and appreciating an animal and later consuming members of the very same species isn't peculiar to Australians. It only (briefly!) seemed that way because traveling makes you pay greater attention. You notice what, in your own country, seems routine and not very interesting.

So what of beholding and appreciating, but also eating?  It's certainly not literally inconsistent to do both. We are not guilty of saying or thinking "P and not P." But is there some tension between the two attitudes. Is it sort of weird to both admire and devour?  Well, when we admire we don't necessary feel compassion for what or whom we admire. Admiration can be a distant attitude, not one bound up with caring or concern. It's also probably true that the admiration people feel is for the species, not the individual. So as long as there are more of those most people are comfortable killing and eating this particular one.

But should we care about this particular one and not just about the species?  In my last book, Animalkind, I argued that we should care, though in a paper I just recently published I am more respectful of people's taste preferences. Is kangaroo (or camel, or emu, or crocodile) a "can't live without it" food?  Seems unlikely. The restaurants that served these foods seemed more oriented to giving a special kind of thrill-of-the-local to tourists. And the kangaroo meat in supermarkets has to do with the excess number of animals, which is a problem for farmers and drivers. 

Beware of thrills that necessarily presuppose pain and death. Surely that's a sensible imperative. And there may be other solutions to the kangaroo glut problem. We ate none of these local animals while on our trip, but sure found the living ones amazing and delightful!  


Jean Kazez, "The Taste Issue in Animal Ethics." Journal of Applied Philosophy, forthcoming (online now).