My son came home for Christmas from his freshman year of college with his head full of new ideas. One of them has driven a wedge in our holiday feasts: the issue of eating animals. We’ve always enjoyed burgers, roasts, ham and turkey during the Yuletide season. But not only does my son refuse to partake of the hard labor of his poor mother, he also glares at all of us during dinner like we’re committing some kind of crime. Last night, he told us that cows were beautiful creatures that deserve our respect. How do I respond to him?
– Fed Up in Indiana
Dear Fed Up in Indiana,
The function of an animal is to serve the needs of human beings. This is both natural and expedient. Your son’s point, that animals which are beautiful should not be eaten, is a valid one, as beautiful animals fulfill our desire for beauty. However, the statement that cows are beautiful is false. No animal that is very small or very large can be beautiful. I’ve already covered the matter in On the Generation of Animals:
Beauty depends on size as well as symmetry. No very small animal can be beautiful, for looking at it takes so small a portion of time that the impression of it will be confused. Nor can any very large one, for a whole view of it cannot be had at once, and so there will be no unity and completeness.
A beef steer is about 750 pounds; a butcher pig is about 400 pounds. They are both too difficult for a human to look at all at once. (You’ve got to walk around it a few times.) A broiler chicken weighs about five pounds and therefore also cannot be beautiful, because looking at it takes too small a portion of time. Your son can only call animals beautiful that are approximately more than a third of his weight or less than twice his weight. We can say that a dog, gorilla or leopard is beautiful, but we cannot say that a turkey, beef steer or giraffe is beautiful. It follows that it is not good (that is, not useful) to eat dogs, gorillas, or leopards, but it is good (that is, useful) to eat turkey, beef, or giraffe.
My father has been very sick for quite a while, and has put quite a lot of strain on me and my sister to care for him. He refused to go to a retirement home, and, after we finally convinced him, he was often hostile and unpleasant despite the excellent amenities and nursing staff. (It better have—it is setting us back $5K a month!) He doesn’t seem like the same person at all. My sister no longer wants to drive the two hours into town to visit him, and my daughter cries every time I take her to visit, complaining about grampa’s funny smell and “dry kisses.” I’m also a little sick of making the journey, and all the sacrifices I have made. Frankly, I’d rather just watch the ball game. Am I a bad son?
Your daughter’s innocent complaint about your aged father’s “dry kisses,” gets to the heart of one of your misconceptions. Your father is literally not the same person at all. Instead of writing to me, you might have consulted my work, On the Longevity and the Shortness of Life: “We must remember that an animal is by nature humid and warm, and to live is to be of such a constitution, while old age is dry and cold, and so is a corpse.” Your father, insofar as he is already sick, meaning neither humid nor warm, is already much more dead than alive, hence barely in substance the father you formerly knew.
You are, however, right to worry that you are a bad son. In the Nicomachean Ethics, I explain that happiness or flourishing (eudaimonia) is always stable. It does not depend on fulfilling a set of conditions, such as the comforts of home and baseball, nor does it produce conflicting feelings of guilt or exasperation. Only virtuous people are happy, and only virtuous people can be good sons.
Your understanding of your father is rife with categorical misconceptions. You also lack virtue. These factors might even have contributed to your father’s unpleasantness. As Hesiod puts it, “whoever happens to raise ungrateful children lives with unending pain.”