Tony O’Neill, head chef of the Merchant Hotel in Belfast, was absolutely mauled by Andrew Tyler, a representative of the organisation Animal Aid, during a debate about the culinary delicacy foie gras on Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence Programme. The mauling was brutal and bloody. It was real tiger and zebra stuff. O’Neill was, put mildly, blown away by a thoughtful and relentless barrage of vegetarian reason, which he simply wasn’t intellectually equipped to deal with, or wasn’t quick enough to think on his feet. The veggie won. No contest. In fact, so lop-sided was the debate that the programme’s producers should feel ashamed of themselves. This was the kind of debate you might expect at a vegetarian gathering, with a highly articulate buddy-in-ethos up against a lame-duck, to build up the resolve of the faithful and banish their doubts. As much as I admire William Crawley as a presenter I detected just a smidge of deference in his treatment of Tyler over O’Neill.

Anyhow – foie gras. Foie gras is the fattened liver of a duck or a goose that has been force-fed well beyond the natural appetite. In many cases it leads to the devastation of Donald’s liver. The procedure has been banned in Chicago as tantamount to “torture” and many countries are under pressure to follow suit. In Britain it is legal to import, buy, sell and consume foie gras, but illegal to produce it. One of the main gripes of the broccoli-brigade is that this policy is inconsistent, and therefore foie gras itself should be banned. And there’s that word again – “banned” – the bane of libertarians everywhere. And, surprise surprise, there’s that tired old justification of the ban: the view that if something is immoral then it should be illegal.

Time and time again I have watched, or listened, helplessly as my meat-loving buddies take a steak-knife to their own throats by buying in to the premises of our tofu-consuming opponents. O’Neill done just that on Sunday. He agreed, implicitly, with the logic that if something causes suffering to an animal, then it is immoral, and therefore it should be banned. He also implied that he agreed that the pleasures of the palate do not over-ride considerations of animal welfare. He didn’t stand a chance after this, despite forwarding an “argument” that went something like this: “well, if you ban foie gras then you should ban virtually all forms of animal farming.” He was trying to suggest that since the animal-lobby’s logic leads to such a conclusion then their position must be absurd. Unfortunately for his efforts he got a new arsehole ripped for himself. The argument backfired spectacularly. Andrew Tyler’s eyes must have lit up at this one: it was like a retarded buffalo to a ravenous lion. And oh how Tyler feasted. He simply said well, yes, we should abandon animal farming and we should all be veggies. O’Neill obviously wasn’t prepared for this. And every listener must have cringed with embarrassment. I snorted so strongly at him my morning coffee came flying out on my nostrils, mildly singeing my nose hairs on the way past. This was a special moment. A lesson in self-defeat. The intellectual equivalent of an anti-gay campaigner walking into a gay bar, pulling down his trousers and bending over. O’Neill had nothing. All he offered in riposte was a few fickle, apologetic, comments about how he and many of his customers enjoy foie gras, which was met with the retort that putting one’s palate before the suffering of an “innocent” animal was “degenerate.”

So, what should O’Neill have said, and how should he have said it? Well, first of all he should have grown himself some balls and bit of backbone. His limp-wristed, whining apologetic for meat eating was embarrassing. Secondly, he should have agreed that the policy of the UK was indeed inconsistent. To ban the procedure without banning the produce is about as blatantly inconsistent as it gets. However, when two policies are inconsistent with each other, why presume that there is only one way to resolve the matter – in this case the banning of foie gras in addition to the ban on production? The inconsistency is just as well dealt with if the ban on producing foie gras is lifted.

Most importantly Tony O’Neill should have pointed out that because some people believe something is immoral is not sufficient grounds for banning it. There is only one justifiable grounds for any government to ban any activity: to uphold the fundamental rights of the citizens. Banning murder is right for this reason. Banning theft is right too. But, banning the over-feeding of a duck? It might not be “nice” to do such a thing, but why should it be banned? Animals do not have rights. They are not citizens. The concept of a “right” relates to the boundaries of government interference into the lives of its citizens. It has no wider application than that. Ducks have webbed feet, beaks, feathers, eggs: they do not have rights. The government has no business making laws which pertain to the animal kingdom.

Now, while this settles the matter politically it doesn’t settle it morally. While force-feeding a duck to make a culinary delicacy should be legal, it doesn’t mean it is moral. So, what should O’Neill’s next line have been?

Well, O’Neill could have went on the attack here and questioned Tyler a bit more about morality generally. The debate never got this far, and rarely does, so we’re never quite sure about the basis on which groups like Animal Aid consider certain forms of treatment of animals to be immoral. Whatever answer they give to this question it must ultimately rest on some general theory of ethics. If I was to guess which theory of ethics it is I wouldn’t go for virtue ethics, natural law theory, divine command, or deontology. I would bet, judging from the animal rights literature that has crossed my path in the past, that their ethical roots are based in consequentialism – more specifically, in the utilitarian family, and to pin-point even more accurately, it lies within that view that sees suffering – or the infliction of it – as morally wrong. I’m fairly certain Andrew Tyler would have argued this. It’s a line made classic by the animal rights philosopher Peter Singer, and the rest of the animal lobby have danced to Singer’s tune ever since.

O’Neill could have had some fun here. Firstly, if suffering is the problem then would the moral indignation of the tofu-herd be placated by animal slaughter that had no suffering whatsoever? They would certainly admit that this would be better, but they would most definitely still object to the killing of animals for food. But on what basis? Not on the basis of suffering. What other grounds could there be if this is your ethic? The only possible grounds is if killing animals adversely affects other human beings, and such an argument would be difficult to construct and virtually impossible to sustain.

Furthermore, O’Neill could have asked whether or not such a theory is itself coherent and rational. As a sub-division of utilitarianism it suffers from many of the same logical problems, vagaries and practical difficulties – not least of which is just how to quantify something like “suffering” and balance it against “pleasure.” Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, came up with a hedonistic calculus which is generally laughed at these days, but utilitarians have never came up with anything better. Even Peter Singer has thus far failed to give any indication as to how we quantify suffering and pleasure for the purposes of having a practical and logical moral guideline. Just what is the basic unit of suffering? How many of these units should we assign to a force fed duck and why? How many units of pleasure are there when a person enjoys foie gras? There is little by way of objective guidance here, and the problem is compounded by the fact that we are dealing with different species and have no access to their inner mental life. Too often we read human emotions and intellect into the lives of animals in a crass exercise in anthropomorphism. Animal rights groups tend to create animals in their own image. But, are we to suppose that animals have similar concepts and emotional life to human beings? Surely not. We simply can’t empathise with a duck or any other animal. Because we can’t and because there is little objectivity in any utilitarianian calculus what we end up with is a little other than intuitive ethics – something is right or wrong on the basis that we feel, or have a “sense,” that it is.

O’Neill could have gone on the offensive in another way. One relatively easy point of attack is the very existence of animal charities and lobby groups – supported by people who put the lot of animals before that of human beings. With so much human suffering in the world, why should we focus on over-feeding ducks? If, as animal groups constantly trumpet, suffering is what should guide one’s ethic, then isn’t it highly questionable that animal suffering be pushed to the fore? Tyler referred to O’Neill as “degenerate” for enjoying foie gras, but in truth Andrew is degenerate for putting the considerations of animals before those of humans beings: a key tenet of every animal rights group I’ve ever come across.

As it was, none of this occurred to Tony. But, I guess, why should it? He’s not an ethicist. He’s a chef. Even so, he could have provided a better defence than his logical bullet to his own brain followed by a semi-apologetic, gutless expression of how he enjoys foie gras. Perhaps he should adopt a bit of the Gordon Ramsey spirit (Ramsey being Britain’s top chef, for the non-UK readers). Last Christmas as part of his “The F-Word” series, Ramsey hand-reared some turkeys. During the penultimate episode it was slaughter time. The camera followed Ramsey as he picked up “Nigella” and carried her to the slaughter van. As he walked he looked at the camera with a pained expression and said “do I feel just a little bit guilty?” at which point his countenance changed to a devilish grin as he answered his own question with: “Do I fuck!” Utterly shameless. Fantastic. His view was that these birds had lived an excellent life and were about to be killed very clinically, so as to provide his diners with delicious food. Fair enough. The turkeys had no concept of their own death. And, in fact, they wouldn’t even have enjoyed their lives half as much were it not for the fact that they were to be slaughtered for food. Vegetarians like Tyler might label this kind of attitude as “degenerate” but so what? Why should this rattle us? If “degenerate” is a label I get landed with for enjoying the pleasures of meat – which requires that I put my palate before the life of an animal – then so be it.

Pass the gravy.

Stephen Graham