The Pleasure Of Transgression: Foie Gras And Other Crimes

Two things people seem to like: duck liver and lawbreaking. Yesterday, in Chicago, diners and restauranteurs revelled in the transgressive pleasure of eating foie gras. They ate it on Connie’s pizza (and let me confess a profound soft spot for Connie’s, where my dad used to take me before White Sox games); they enjoyed it at Harry Caray’s; and they even chowed down at BJ’s Market & Bakery, a soul food joint on Stony Island (on the South Side, where I grew up.) But Chicago recently adopted an ordinance banning the sale of this fatty food product on the grounds that the ducks and geese that provide the delicacy are abused. The restaurants serving foie gras yesterday were breaking the law.

Both the Trib and the NY Times featured the story of the outlaws who ate the evil liver. (Curiously, these two stories covered remarkably similar ground. I’m thinking that either these reporters are copycats or someone put out a press release directing eager reporters to the same dining establishments.) It’s clear that restaurant owners and customers were downright happy to break the law. But wait a minute. This is the law here! That incredible institution that must be respected, lest the entire society be put at risk. Or not.

Law-breaking is a powerful source of pleasure for many people. We elect representatives to set speed limits, and routinely violate them. Those same legislators create open liquor ordinances which we flout at outdoor concerts, parades, and other festive occassions. They ban gambling, and we ignore them. Even Justice Rehnquist got into law breaking; his chambers sponsored the NCAA pool at the courthouse and he even he hosted an election night pool involving the ’92 Bush-Clinton race.

Crime isn’t the only transgressive pleasure. Take the briefest detour down the path of the Internet Porn Machine – or save yourself the effort, and read your spam folder – and you’ll soon discover a smorgasbord of socially-proscribed delights. Smoking cigarettes has become much cooler now that it’s prohibited everywhere. And let’s face it. Eating super-fatty meat products like foie gras has become a social violation in many quarters. But the truth is, people love actual lawbreaking. Sure, if nothing else is on the tube, we’ll watch the CSI team fight crime. But true TV pleasure comes when we root for Tony Soprano, cheer for the Hendrickson family on Big Love, or laugh with the 420-ready housewife on Showtime’s Weeds.

Many criminal laws are designed to protect society from serious harm. Others are less essential, and reflect the preferences of particular powerful groups. And in many respects, the best way to show opposition to the ruling majority – to take a public stand against the regulators and with our nation’s wild past – is to break a few laws. Or perhaps less dramatically, lawbreaking is one small way to assert one’s individuality against the rigidity of state regulation.

Over the years, I’ve met my share of self-described rule-followers. But scratch the surface and you’ll usually find these people have identified at least one offense that they deem unworthy of respect. Or simply well-suited to producing the pleasure of transgression.

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17 Responses

  1. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Much truth in what you say here, but I’ve noticed among some of my students an attitude which runs something like this: yeah, I know there is a rule against X, but that doesn’t apply to me, I’m special, I’m free to pick and choose what rules I want to follow. Rules are for suckers. I have a God-given right to break any rule I choose.

    I’m inclined to think an ethic of transgression suffuses contemporary culture in the United States of Affluence. Indeed, it’s ubiquitous!–well, at least here on the west coast. Notice how many commercials propagate something like rule-breaking/ignoring. It’s a frontier ethic that suits a culture obsessed with status, fame, celebrity, money, power….

    Something like an ethics of transgression has become an end-in-itself, with no rhyme or reason, its pleasures dulling with time, on the order of diminishing marginal utility…. I recall a seminar once by an otherwise sensible psychologist trumpeting the virtues of transgression; she invoked all the latest French philosophers and intellectuals on its behalf. It was there and then I realized this ethic transcends class distinctions, a truly democratic sensibility surrounds it….

    Although I remain, politically, well ensconsed on the Left, in some respects, or at least culturally speaking, I’ve grown rather fond of the Confucian emphasis on li (etiquette, propriety, informal social norms, etc.) as an antidote to the transgression stuff. Perhaps it’s by-product of the aging process (i.e., the musings of a man about to turn 50).

  2. Frank says:

    I take O’Donnell’s point, but I also think there is a role for conscience. As MLK said (quoting Aquinas), an unjust law is no law at all.

    That said, the process of making foie gras is pretty disgusting, and I have no sympathy for the offenders in Chicago. Reminds me of Nero dining on 10,000 sparrow livers.

  3. LM says:

    I agree that the process by which foie gras is made (force-feeding birds using metal pipes) is horrific. But if the process is the problem, why not outlaw the manufacturing practice itself, rather than the sale of foie gras? It seems like the true target should be foie gras farms, not restaurants. (Granted, I doubt there are many farms within the city of Chicago, in which case, I suppose the ban makes sense.)

    Drawing a parallel, though, couldn’t we say that all mass-produced animal products should be banned from sale/manufacture, since such processes could be considered inherently cruel to animals?

  4. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:


    I wholeheartedly agree with you. I very much believe in a role for civil disobedience in democratic societies, particularly a principled one along the lines of King (which of course was inspired by Gandhi). Indeed, from my bibliography on conflict resolution and nonviolence (some relevant titles):

    Bedau, Hugo A., ed. Civil Disobedience in Focus. New York: Routledge, 1991.

    Bedau, Hugo A., ed. Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice. New York: Pegasus, 1969.

    Bell, Inge Powell. CORE and the Strategy of Nonviolence. New York: Random House, 1968.

    Brown, Judith M. Gandhi and Civil Disobedience: The Mahatma in Indian Politics, 1928-1934.

    Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

    Cohen, Robert and Reginald E. Zelnik, eds. The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in

    the 1960s. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002.

    Cooney, Robert and Helen Michalowski, eds. The Power of the People: Active Nonviolence in the

    United States. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publ., 1987.

    Dalton, Dennis. Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

    Iyer, Raghavan. The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi. Santa Barbara, CA: Concord Grove Press, 1983 ed. (1st ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).

    Lynd, Staughton, ed. Nonviolence in America: A Documentary History. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966.

    McCarthy, Ronald M. and Gene Sharp. Nonviolent Action: A Research Guide. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

    Morris, Aldon D. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for

    Change. New York: Free Press, 1984.

    Moyer, William. A Nonviolent Action Manual: How to Organize Nonviolent Demonstrations and

    Campaigns. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Press, 1977.

    Musto, Ronald G. The Catholic Peace Tradition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986.

    Payne, Charles M. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi

    Freedom Struggle. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995.

    Piehl, Mel. Breaking Bread: The Catholic Worker Movement and the Origins of Catholic Radicalism

    in America. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1982.

    Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Civil Disobedience. New York, Penguin, 1986.

    Tolstoy, Leo. Writings on Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence. Philadelphia, PA: New Society

    Publ., 1987.

    Zinn, Howard. SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1965.

  5. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    I might have mentioned that my wife and I have been vegetarians for about 30 years now, as are our two ‘children’ (18 and 25 yrs.), so you can imagine my visceral response to the story.

    In any case, and in answer to LM: yes, indeed. For a recent and reasonable proposal that doesn’t go that far but would nonetheless represent progress toward the ends sought by such a ban, please see the article by Jeff Leslie and Cass Sunstein:

    ‘Animal Rights without Controversy,’ Public Law and Legal Theory Working Paper No. 120, University of Chicago Law School, March 2006. Available: and (forthcoming: Law and Contemporary Problems).

    And, as I mentioned in a comment to an earlier post by Dave Hoffman, I’ve assembled a bibliography (in Word) on the subject of ethics and law as it concerns nonhuman creatures. It contains a little less than 500 entries and includes a list of some relevant websites. I’ll send it along upon request: patrickseamus ‘at’ [i.e., use @ symbol]

    Peter Singer has recently argued that ‘non-compassionate omnivores’ possess an ethical burden of proof to justify their dietary regimen. Of course this implies, not unlike Roger Scruton has argued, that there exists ‘compassionate omnivores,’ what Scruton prefers to christen ‘virtuous carnivores.’

    For those willing to at least look at a couple of relevant books along these lines, I would recommend:

    Scruton, Roger. Animal Rights and Wrongs. London: Metro Books (in association with Demos), 3rd ed., 2000.

    Sunstein, Cass R. and Martha Nussbaum, eds. Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Taylor, Angus. Animals & Ethics: An Overview of the Philosophical Debate. Ontario: Broadview

    Press, 2003.

  6. Chris says:

    @ Patrick – I find it highly offensive that anyone thinks that they should be able to impose their moralality on others.

    I should not have to justify my actions via an “ethical burden of proof” to anyone.

    Isn’t this the same logic that pro-life advocates try to use to justify prohibitions on abortion? Ethics and morality are an individual issue and serve no purpose in the public sphere.

    Pontificate all that you want. Use any means that you wish to try to pursuade – stay out of the legal space.

  7. shamu says:

    being from california, i am familiar with the above-mentioned frontier attitude. however, also living in miami and new york city, i can say without reservation that not following rules has been raised to an art form in these east-coast cities as well.

  8. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:


    I’m inclined to suspect that you are neither a careful reader nor thinker and the tone of your reaction suggests I hit a nerve. Ethics by definition is not relative, so it may very well be the case that you have a burden of proof to justify what others call unethical. I am not imposing anything on anyone: you’re free to completely ignore the readings, etc. Morality has traditionally involved some measure of self-examination (at least since Socrates), and we’ve learned from ethics and moral psychology that self-deception and states of denial often prevent ostensibly normal folks from critically examining their moral beliefs and behavior (indeed, such phenomena are ubiquitous: ask Plato, the Stoics, Hellenstic philosophers in general, the rabbinic traditions, Buddhists, and so forth; hence the persistence of what Erich Fromm memorably termed the ‘pathology of normalcy’). There’s an ethical argument against eating meat: you can ignore or refute it, Singer would argue your refusal to confront it amounts to a prima facie endorsement of unethical behavior in (silent) word and deed.

    Ethics and morality are not necesarily confined to the ‘personal’ or intimate realms of daily life, indeed, because the boundaries between the individual and the collective are porous, permaeable, and often blurred, it’s not always tenable to draw sharp lines here. At most one can make a plausible case for differing ethical standards for individual and collective behavior (although, with Gandhi, I personally do not believe in this). ‘The personal is political,’ and the political and legal often overlap with the ethical. This is clearly evidenced with ecological questions, but feminists have compelling arguments regarding relations between the sexes which likewise demonstrate the trouble with confining the ethical to the individual.

    Laws are frequently passed with some measure of moral content or moral presuppositions and assumptions, and thus the moral beliefs of the majority are not infrequently imposed on others: live with it, you already do. I am pro-choice and vote for representatives who share my position here, but I am not opposed to those with contrary views being active in the public arena. If, however, there are laws the immoral character of which finds your conscience speaking out against, then you’re free to practice civil disobedience in the hope of persuading others of the moral strength of your convictions, convictions you believe others may come to share if only they would open their eyes, open their hearts, open their minds.

    I will not ‘stay out of the legal space,’ and in so doing I stand in good company….

    No small irony, that, you telling me what to do.

  9. Chris says:

    Patrick, you are incorrect. I am not telling you what to do – I’m telling you to stop telling me what to do, which is quite different.

    How I decide to confront my morality is really irrelevant to you, Singer or anyone else. As long as my actions cause no harm to others it should be outside the scope of governmental oversight.

  10. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:


    You wrote:

    ‘stay out of the legal space,’ that is indeed ‘telling me what to do.’

    And ‘telling you to stop telling me what to do,’ is not at all ‘quite different,’ it still means you’re still TELLING ME WHAT TO DO, namely, to stop telling you what to do (which I was not in fact doing in the comment, that you construed it that way perhaps points to a guilty conscience).

    But that’s the point, according to Singer and others, YOUR ACTIONS DO CAUSE HARM, to virtually countless others in the animal world, if you eat meat.

  11. Chris says:

    My eating meat is no more immoral than a lion killing and eating an antelope.

    Nature is fundamentally based on consumption, the stronger/larger eating the smaller/weaker. This is not harmful, it is a fact of life.

  12. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:


    The two cases are not identical: the lion, in the typical instance, kills and eats the antelope because it has to (I trust I don’t have to explain that to you). It cannot reasonably be said that the lion, as such, has a ‘choice’ in the matter. You, on the other hand, equipped wih the requisite knowledge and moved by the proper motivations, do have a choice. You can choose not to eat animals, and in virtually all cases such a choice will in no way be detrimental to your physiological well-being, indeed, it’s more likely the case your health will improve by eliminating meat (including fish) from your diet.

    Incidentally, it is not always the case in nature that the stronger/larger eat the smaller/weaker (e.g., parasites; in some instances a pack of smaller/weaker animals will bring down a stronger/larger animal, etc)….

    It might more accurately be said that nature is based on production, rather than consumption….

    This is getting rather tedious, so please pardon me if I refrain from further comments.

  13. Chris says:

    Patrick – What is a ban on foie gras or establishment of legal “animal rights” is not imposition of morality by governmental use of force?

    I’m also suprised that you are unable to see the difference between assertion of independence and an attempt to use coercion to enforce your own morality on others.

  14. LM says:

    (For some reason I’m unable to post anything. That is, my post has been queued. Site moderators, any ideas/suggestions?

  15. LM says:

    Correction: I can post things (obviously – the last post was successful), but I am still having difficult with successfully posting longer comments containing links. Not sure if some sort of filter has been set up by CO?

  16. LM says:

    I’ll give this post thing one more go…

    Patrick, the Leslie/Sunstein article is an excellent article! Thanks for recommending it. For those who haven’t yet read it, and who maybe don’t intend to, the basic premises are these: A) while most people agree that animals should be treated humanely, their actions do not typically reflect their ethical standards; and B) one way in which people might more easily bring their actions in line with their morals if by requiring food companies to disclose the standards adhered to in processing meat (and, I suppose, also disclose the conditions under which animals are kept?).

    On a personal note, I decided to become a vegetarian simply because I, myself, would never kill an animal for subsistence (save for extreme circumstances, perhaps), and it therefore didn’t make sense for me to pay others to do the dirty work for me. I can understand, though, the difficulty that most people might have in trying to bring their actions in line with their ethics. It’s not an easy decision to make (becoming vegetarian, that is), and it took me several years to finally get to the point where I could forego meat (and even then, I had a few false starts).

    Regarding the proposed disclosure law (discussed in the article), the only problem that I might foresee with this proposal is the incredible force of the food industry lobby in D.C. They probably wouldn’t readily accept a disclosure law (even if they are given the opportunity to portray their companies as ethical by disclosing their humane practices). That, plus the fact that certain well-known animal rights groups have been labeled terrorist organizations, thereby limiting the credibility of animal rights proponents, certainly stand in the way of advancing the cause for the protection of animal welfare.

  17. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Dear LM,

    I’m so heartened by the fact that someone, in this case you, has taken the time to read the article, and with the care it deserves!

    The personal part was touching and, if I may, I’ll share a ‘false start’ (although it was some time ago, I think I can still recall it accurately enough). When talking about having children, my wife and I decided it was important for our behavior to be consistent with our beliefs and we did not believe in eating meat for a number of reasons: political and economic most prominent (health reasons were secondary). Anyway, when we went out to dinner in town we often found ourselves ordering whatever ‘fish dish’ was on the menu, as in those days, there was rarely a main meal without some meat (unless you count salad as a main meal, which I did not, particularly in light of the sorts of labor intensive jobs I had in those days). We rationalized this choice of course by noting the lack of vegetarian alternatives. Well, it ended full stop when we said, ‘how can we explain to our child (or children as it turned out) that we don’t believe in eating meat, yet we’re willing to eat fish when dining out?’ From then on behavior matched belief, word fit deed, although we did consume meat several times when it was given to us as a gift by individuals who did not know about our vegetarianism (a language difference complicated matters). I understand Buddhist monks, who should be vegetarians, consume meat only when it is given as a gift in this manner. Fortunately, over time many restaurants began offering vegetarian alternatives and with the proliferation of ‘ethnic cuisine’ here in Santa Barbara (Chinese, Thai, Indian, etc.) it’s fairly easy to find vegetarian dishes on the menu. We avoid places that don’t have them (‘steakhouses,’ etc.; lest I leave the wrong impression, I should note that for some time now it’s the case that we rarely eat out, as it’s just too damn expensive; we make exceptions for birthdays and other important celebrations).

    I think you’re on target with possible problems with the disclosure law, and I’m thinking of the recent ‘controversy’ associated with the ‘organic’ label, which would seem rather straightforward, and was, until agribusiness saw the profit potential with a new market and attempted to easy the standards for what counts as organic. And the point about animal rights groups being labeled terrorist organizations is well taken. However I do wish some activists on behalf of animal rights would re-consider some of their more aggressive, law-breaking and violent tactics; which of course does not mean that they fall under the rubric of ‘terrorists,’ only that it makes it easier for the government to justify the appellation. It reminds me a bit of the ’60s when some groups started abandoning essentially nonviolent philosophies and strategies (in part egged on by informants planted by police agencies at every level of government). Many otherwise fine folks and groups got tarred with the brush of extremism owing to the actions of a few that increasingly garnered the most media attention.

    Anyway, again, thanks so much for taking the time to read the article and respond in such a thoughtful manner.

    I wish you all the best in your academic and other endeavors,