The ethics of food-4: Are humans privileged in some way?

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

Our current attitudes towards nonhuman animals seem to be based on two assumptions. The first is that all humans are believed to be equal in some sense and one person has no right to exploit another. The second is that nonhuman animals are somehow inferior to humans and thus have lesser rights and can be used for our benefit. But how do we justify this distinction?

Philosopher Peter Singer points out that people are manifestly not equal in all kinds of ways, some important and some trivial, and this realization has important consequences.

Equality is a moral idea, not an assertion of fact. There is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to their needs and interests. The principle of equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans; it is a prescription of how we should treat human beings. (Italics in original. From his book Animal Liberation, excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 31)

Of course, meat eaters can always take ultimate refuge by invoking speciesism, by just arbitrarily deciding that other members of our own species deserve more consideration from us than other species.

But this is not a moral argument. It is just as arbitrary as earlier rules that we now despise as racist or sexist, that argued that other races or women were intrinsically inferior and thus did not deserve the same rights. As Singer argues, “To exclude the chimp from moral consideration simply because he’s not human is no different than excluding the slave simply because he’s not white.” (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2006, p. 308)

To avoid pleading guilty to the charge of naked speciesism, those who feel that humans have some property that entitles them to be privileged over nonhuman animals have looked for at least one quality that humans possess that animals don’t (or at least possess to a significantly lesser degree) that would justify such differential treatment.

But finding such a marker proves to be remarkably elusive. Although human beings do possess certain features that are unique it is hard to argue that those features give us the right to kill those animals that do not possess that feature, any more than the fact that the elephant has a unique trunk gives it the right to kill and eat other animals. One has to make the case why that quality matters in a morally significant way.

Animal rights philosophers like Peter Singer have squarely targeted the various candidates proposed for this privileging property and come to the conclusion that no such marker exists.

What about intelligence or language, something that humans undoubtedly possess? The problem is that it is not the case that all humans possess more intelligence or language than all nonhumans. For example, an adult chimp or dog or horse could well have more intelligence, or communicate better, than a newborn infant, and yet we accord the infant full rights while denying them to the animals.

A chimpanzee, dog, or pig, for instance, will have a higher degree of self-awareness and a greater capacity for meaningful relations with others than a severely retarded infant or someone in a state of advanced senility. So if we base the right to life on these characteristics, we must grant these animals a right to life as good as, or better than, such retarded or senile humans. . . . What we must do is bring nonhuman animals within our sphere of moral concern and cease to treat their lives as expendable for whatever trivial purposes we may have. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 45)

So “If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans for the same purpose?” (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2006, p. 307)

The argument that the infant has the potential to develop into a fully intelligent human being does not work either because there are a few sad cases where an individual, due to birth defects or injury, is severely retarded and will never develop much. In fact, any quality that we can name that has the possibility of being used to give preferential treatment to humans runs into the problem that we can always find a few humans who, due to a host of reasons, have less of that quality than some nonhuman animals. And yet we always give preference to the ‘inferior’ humans over the ‘superior’ animal.

This kind of argument against giving privileged status to the right of humans is called the ‘argument from marginal cases’ and is a powerful one.

Next: The role of pain and suffering

POST SCRIPT: Pointless

Since I am known as someone who follows politics, I am sometimes asked to comment on who I think will be the likely vice-presidential picks of Obama and McCain. This is a topic about which I feel it is useless to speculate. What’s the point? When the candidates are good and ready, they will pick someone on the basis of criteria that they deem important. Since those criteria are kept secret from us, any name is as likely as any other.

Of course, there are people that I would prefer and whom I think would help the candidate. But those are based on my criteria and there is no reason to think that the candidates are using the same criteria.

So why don’t we just forget about this topic until the candidates are ready to tell us?

The ethics of food-3: Evolutionary implications

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The theory of evolution has, of course, implications for the question of whether we should eat meat. One popular view of evolution lends support to the perceived superiority of humans over other species. This view sees evolution as a ladder-like hierarchy, rising ever upwards to higher and higher forms: as a sequence: amoebas→ sponges→ jellyfish→ flatworms→ trout→ frogs→ lizards→ dinosaurs→ anteaters→ monkeys→ chimpanzees→ Homo sapiens. (Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, 1994, p. 352)
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The ethics of food-2: Religious implications

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The role of religious beliefs on the question of meat eating can take people in different directions. As far as I know, Hinduism is the only major religion that unequivocally advocates vegetarianism. Surely it is no coincidence that the tastiest vegetarian meals can be obtained in the homes or restaurants of Hindus. Hindus really know vegetables.

Buddhism seems a little more equivocal because there are many variations of that religion. While it says that individuals should not kill anything, even insects and pests, some Buddhist philosophers assert that it is acceptable to eat meat from animals that were not specifically killed for you for that purpose (Writings on an Ethical Life, Peter Singer (2000), p. 68). In other words, buying and eating a hamburger from a store is acceptable because that animal was not killed specifically to meet your needs, is now dead anyway, and your not eating the hamburger is not going to bring it back to life.
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The ethics of food-1: Confessions of a meat eater

I am an omnivore. I eat everything. Of course, ‘everything’ is not quite as inclusive as it sounds. Like all people, there are some foods that I dislike for their taste and there are others I avoid simply because I have not grown up with them and so they do not form a part of my usual diet. Since I am also not adventurous in terms of food, preferring to eat familiar foods over the unfamiliar, the range of things I eat is rather small. But there is nothing in the normal diet of people around the world that I could not and would not eat in principle.

In particular, I eat all kinds of meat. At the very outset, I might as well admit that I feel guilty about this aspect of my diet. The moral and ethical case for vegetarianism has for a long time seemed to me to be unassailable, and the fact that I have not adopted this diet can be put down, at least partly, to addiction to the taste of meat. Human beings have been carnivores for a long time in our evolutionary history, and our bodies seem to have evolved to both like the taste of meat and be able to absorb animal protein and make it a part of our diet.

Meat eaters who worry about this try to find ways to justify the practice. One argument for justifying meat eating is that we are who we are because we ate meat for so long in our history. Thus eating meat is an important part of our heritage as it were, and is thus ‘natural’. To abstain from eating meat is to deny our essential nature as carnivorous animals. After all, other species of animals also kill and eat other animals, so that way of life is part of nature. If eating meat is an important part of how we came to be, why should we deny that heritage?

But that evolutionary history does not justify the practice. There are many things in human evolutionary history that we share with other animals and though many animals do kill other animals and eat them, that in itself is no justification for us doing so since there is no imperative that we must take our moral cues from other species.

This is especially true now, since we know so much more about food and have available so many nonmeat alternatives to our diet that can provide us with the same nutrients that meat does. Not eating meat does not pose an insurmountable hardship for people in the developed world where a variety of food is available in abundance.

Another reason that I eat meat is sheer laziness. Being a vegetarian takes more effort than being a carnivore. The buying, preparing, and storing of vegetables, fruits, and cereals for a balanced diet that gives the same range and amount of protein as a meat-based diet takes more thought and effort. But laziness is hardly a noble reason for continuing this practice.

So vegetarians win the moral case over meat eating quite easily. The argument for veganism (avoiding even dairy products like milk and eggs and other foods that can be coaxed from animals without killing them, and avoiding the use of animal hides such as leather) seems to be more debatable. If you are not harming the animal, is there anything morally wrong with eating what it produces?

The argument can be made that even with milk and eggs we are still exploiting animals, using them for our own ends irrespective of their own needs. That is true, but one wonders how far one can take that exploitation argument. Is the use of animals for labor also a form of exploitation to be condemned? Is the keeping of animals for pets for the pleasure that gives us also exploitation?

It is sometimes argued that to be a true advocate of animal rights and avoid any form of exploitation, then one should also avoid the use of all animal products, such as wool amd leather, not use any pesticides, and not use animals and animal products even for research.

This argument is sometimes used against vegetarians and vegans, to suggest that to be fully consistent as demanded by them is to be unrealistic, that in the normal course of our lives that we cannot avoid killing animals. It is pointed out that all agriculture, especially modern large scale agriculture, cannot take place without the killing of animals, either directly because they are considered pests that destroy crops or accidentally by ploughs and combines running over small animals that happen to get in the way, or indirectly by commandeering the habitats used by them causing them to eventually die from lack of food. And what about killing vermin that cause disease?

But this is a weak argument, pitting the perfect against the good. To accuse vegetarians and vegans of hypocrisy because even they cannot completely avoid some complicity in the killing of animals is an ad hominem argument that merely seeks to avoid conceding to them the moral high ground, and serves as a device to assuage the meat-eater’s guilt and to avoid feeling morally inferior. The fact that vegetarians and vegans may not be able to live up to the extremely high standards that they themselves set does not lessen the force of their argument that eating meat seems like an avoidable wrong. It cannot be used to justify the deliberate killing of animals to satisfy our needs. Even if we cannot eliminate animal killing, at least reducing the scale of it is a good thing.

But while the case for veganism is debatable, there was no question in my mind we can all live without killing animals for meat and would probably be much healthier to boot. But while that conclusion still holds true in almost all cases, I have come across other arguments (to be discussed later in this series) that suggest that under certain very limited conditions eating meat might be morally justifiable.

POST SCRIPT: Health care in Europe

Last week, NPR ran a good series of stories comparing the health care systems in individual countries in Europe with what is offered here. It is incredible to me that Americans put up with such an awful system whose main beneficiaries are the health insurance and drug companies and select physicians.

The puzzle of one god but many religions

There is a puzzle that arises from the idea of there being just one god and many religions for which religious people might be able to give an answer: Why do the people of one monotheistic religion fight with or try to convert people of another monotheistic religion?

We know that there have always been conflicts between the followers of the different religions, each calling the other heathens or heretics or infidels or apostates and the like. A vast amount of blood has been shed by people in the service of their own particular god. Why is this?

If you think about it for a minute this just does not make sense. If you are a devout Christian, you presumably believe there is just one god and you pray to that god. If there is only one god, then there can be no possibility of worshipping a ‘false’ god. So logically, any other person who also believes in one god and prays to it (whatever they may call their own god) must be praying to the same god that you are praying to, since you are both sure that there is no other god. Since Christians and Muslims and Jews all believe that there is only one god, they must all be praying and worshiping the same, identical god. In other words, all religious people who believe in a single god must be effectively members of the same religion, though they give different names to their gods.

So why would religious people fight wars over religion? Why would they discriminate against people of other religions and proselytize and convert members of other faiths? Why care at all what the names of the other gods are? Why not treat people of other religions the same way that (say) Christians treat Christians in other countries who worship in other languages. They might have a different name for god in their own language but it is still considered to be the same god. Those people are not treated as if they belong to a different religion.

It is true that the forms and rituals are different for different religions. It is also true that people use different religious texts and thus, in addition to giving different names, also give their god different properties and believe that their god seeks different things. But if there is only one god, then all revelations of that one god must be equivalent at some deep level, and the differences merely superficial.

The Baha’i religion is one of the very few major ones that takes this truly inclusive attitude, and teaches that all major religions come from the one god and thus there cannot be a ‘false’ god or religion. They believe that Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and others are all messengers of the same god, and that their own founder Bahá’u’lláh (who was born in what is now Iran in 1817 and died in 1892) was the latest in that line.

I can understand religious people thinking that god must be annoyed at us atheists because we find the whole idea of god to be ridiculous. But religious people want to believe in god. Assuming that god wants to be worshipped (which is a really odd idea when you think about it), then all these people are worshipping that one and only god, since there is no other god. If he wanted them to worship him in a specific way using a specific name (which seems a little petty, if you ask me, like some people who get offended if you do not address them by their titles) based on a specific book, why would he allow people to be led astray by providing them with charismatic prophets and religious books that make them worship in a different way? It seems like a cruel trick to play on people, no? Surely god cannot care what name people use when they pray or worship him or what properties they ascribe to him or what books they use?

All the different trappings of the various religion are due to the so-called prophets of the various religions (Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, etc.), who claimed to speak on god’s behalf and say they know how god wanted people to concretely show their devotion. If only one religion can be the true religion, then at least all but one of these people must have been delusional. Otherwise one would have to think that the one god deliberately told the different prophets different things to tell people. But surely god cannot want to blame ordinary people because of the prophets’ divergent messages. If Muslims (or Christians or Jews or Hindus) worship the “wrong” way to the “wrong” god, then it must be the one god’s fault for creating this confusion.

Salman Rushdie reads a terrific passage from his book The Satanic Verses that describes how ‘holy books’ get written and how it might be possible for the prophet’s message to get distorted. For this blasphemy, Rushdie received a death sentence from the Ayatollah Khomeini that, fortunately, was not carried out.

The hostility between religions, or the widespread idea that one religion is right and the others wrong, makes sense only if you accept the idea that there are many gods in competition with each other to maximize the number of their believers.

Or perhaps people think that there is one god but that he deliberately creates rival religions and prophets as a kind of IQ test, to see which people are smart enough to select the ‘right’ god to see who gets admitted into heaven. This seems unbelievably cruel to people the world over who have a simple faith in the god they learned about as children from their families.

I must admit that this question never occurred to me while I was a believer. One of the disconcerting things that I discovered after shifting from belief to atheism is how so many questions that should have been obvious for me to ask never even occurred to me until I stopped believing. It is as if religious belief shuts down that part of your brain that thinks logically and would ask the kinds of questions that expose the contradictions.

In that sense, religion is antithetical to a scientific approach. This does not mean that religious people can’t be good scientists. It is just that they have to keep separate that part of the brain they use for religion from that part they use for science, and use different standards of reason and evidence for the two spheres.

POST SCRIPT: Jesus the racist?

The BBC comedy series That Mitchell and Webb Look puts the Good Samaritan story in a different light.

Was Mother Theresa evil?

All of us get a little disconcerted when we discover that someone we like turns out to be an admirer of some public figure whom we think is awful.

For example, take those well-known authoritarian rulers who unleashed immense cruelty on their own and other peoples, subjecting them to arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and death. Hitler, Stalin, Suharto, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, and Duvalier are among the many names that come to mind. Most people do not admire these tyrants and do not hesitate to label them as evil.
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Are people in the US too sensitive?

British actor and writer Stephen Fry recently had an interesting take on the difference between arguments in social settings in England and the US.

I was warned many, many years ago by the great Jonathan Lynn, co-creator of Yes Minister and director of the comic masterpiece My Cousin Vinnie, that Americans are not raised in a tradition of debate and that the adversarial ferocity common around a dinner table in Britain is more or less unheard of in America. When Jonathan first went to live in LA he couldn’t understand the terrible silences that would fall when he trashed a statement he disagreed with and said something like “yes, but that’s just arrant nonsense, isn’t it? It doesn’t make sense. It’s self-contradictory.” To a Briton pointing out that something is nonsense, rubbish, tosh or logically impossible in its own terms is not an attack on the person saying it – it’s often no more than a salvo in what one hopes might become an enjoyable intellectual tussle. Jonathan soon found that most Americans responded with offence, hurt or anger to this order of cut and thrust. Yes, one hesitates ever to make generalizations, but let’s be honest the cultures are different, if they weren’t how much poorer the world would be and Americans really don’t seem to be very good at or very used to the idea of a good no-holds barred verbal scrap. I’m not talking about inter-family ‘discussions’ here, I don’t doubt that within American families and amongst close friends, all kinds of liveliness and hoo-hah is possible, I’m talking about what for good or ill one might as well call dinner-party conversation. Disagreement and energetic debate appears to leave a loud smell in the air.

I think Fry is on to something. There does seem to be a hypersensitivity in social settings in the US to not say anything that might be seen as contradictory to what someone else has said or might feel on highly charged topics, or if one does feel compelled to say something, to say it so carefully and genteelly that the listener sometimes does not even realize that she is being disagreed with, or if she does, takes it as a cue to drop the topic entirely and move onto something that is uncontroversial. I am guilty of this too. I have been in social situations where people have said things that I strongly disagreed with but have hesitated to express my opinions for fear of causing offense or creating tension. Have any readers of this blog had a similar experience, where they have held their tongue at the time and regretted it afterwards?

I am trying to overcome this tendency and more directly challenge people because being silent is not a good thing since this means that the ideas that people care about most passionately, and which may have important consequences, are never exposed to critical scrutiny. Readers may recall an earlier posting when at a dinner party I created a minor flap when I said to a group of very religious people that I was an atheist. At the end of the evening, I felt obliged to apologize to the hostess if I had caused any discomfort to those guests.

But looking back, why should I have felt bad about saying what I honestly felt and which was not a personal attack on any one? I had not called anyone an idiot or punched them in the face. All I had said to a group of religious people was that I did not believe that god existed.

If someone says something that I think is silly or wrong or bigoted, am I not doing the right thing in challenging that view? Surely social niceties should not trump honest expression of views? It is perhaps time to reject the conventional wisdom that one should not discuss politics and religion in social settings. Instead we should learn how to discuss those things calmly and reasonably.

I have quoted this passage titled Defend the right to be offended by Salman Rushdie before, and it is perhaps appropriate to do so again:

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

I am more and more inclined to think that we should follow the advice of Rushdie and Fry. One should not be rude or speak in anger or make ad hominem attacks on people. But I think one should express one’s opinions on issues forthrightly, and people should learn to treat direct challenges to their views as the normal give-and-take of conversation.

POST SCRIPT: Synchronized motorcycling

The Italian police sometime in the 1950s.

(Thanks to Progressive Review.)

Scientific consistency and Conservapedia loopiness

One of the drivers of scientific research is the desire to seeking a greater and greater synthesis, to seek to unify the knowledge and theories of many different areas. One of the most severe constraints that scientists face when developing a new theory is the need for consistency with other theories. It is very easy to construct a theory that explains any single phenomenon. It is much, much harder to construct a theory that does not also lead to problems with other well-established results. If a new theory conflicts with existing theories, something has to give in order to eliminate the contradiction.
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Seeing evolution in real time

Evolution opponents tend to try and dismiss the evidence in its favor, as a last resort often resorting to the argument that no one has actually seen evolution occurring and a new species emerging, with all the intermediate stages clearly identified. One reason for this is, of course, that evolutionary change occurs very slowly, not visible in the transition from one generation to another. The emergence of a new species is almost always a retrospective judgment, made long after the fact, of a process that often takes thousands, or tens of thousands, of generations. By that time, most of the intermediate forms have become extinct and left no trace, since fossilization is such a rare event.
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The propaganda machine and climate change

Some time ago, in one of my posts in my series on climate change, I pondered on why there seemed to be such a vehement opposition to the idea that human actions might be causing an irreversible and disastrous change to our planet. After all, this seems like largely a scientific question that, unlike (say) evolution, has no religious or partisan political implications.

But somewhere along the way, the word seems to have spread amongst right-wing political and religious types that the warnings about possible irreversible global warming represent some kind of deep plot being advanced by leftists and scientists and atheists working together, and this has resulted in a union of right-wing think tanks and politicians and Christians to oppose the idea. How did that happen?

Evidence for the organized nature of the opposition to the ideas of global warming coming from a particular ideological perspective is not hard to find. A new study looks at how the so-called ”Conservative Think Tanks’, (CTTs) play an important element in the propaganda machine by underwriting those who are skeptical of the dangers of climate change.

Our analyses of the sceptical literature and CTTs indicate an unambiguous linkage between the two. Over 92 per cent of environmentally sceptical books are linked to conservative think tanks, and 90 per cent of conservative think tanks interested in environmental issues espouse scepticism. Environmental scepticism began in the US, is strongest in the US, and exploded after the end of the Cold War and the emergence of global environmental concern stimulated by the 1992 Earth Summit. Environmental scepticism is an elite-driven reaction to global environmentalism, organised by core actors within the conservative movement. Promoting scepticism is a key tactic of the anti-environmental counter-movement coordinated by CTTs, designed specifically to undermine the environmental movement’s efforts to legitimise its claims via science. Thus, the notion that environmental sceptics are unbiased analysts exposing the myths and scare tactics employed by those they label as practitioners of ‘junk science’ lacks credibility. Similarly, the self-portrayal of sceptics as marginalised ‘Davids’ battling the powerful ‘Goliath’ of environmentalists and environmental scientists is a charade, as sceptics are supported by politically powerful CTTs funded by wealthy foundations and corporations.

The movement to undermine the environmental movement is largely underwritten by corporations and their supporters who want to prevent having to comply with environmental regulations that might limit their profits. Some of the CTTs are funded by companies (like ExxonMobil) that have a stake in preventing any regulations that limit their profits, and even have their CEOs on the boards.

But even that still does not answer the question of how this opposition became so widespread and vehement. This is why I found this blog entry very interesting. It is by someone who has pondered this same question and, tracing this phenomenon back in time, finds that there is a family of conspiracy theories that have caused this situation. He has created an entire genealogical tree of the theories.

He said it started during the Cold War in 1962 with the labeling of Rachel Carson as a Communist sympathizer. She is often considered the founder of the modern American environmental movement with her book Silent Spring, warning of the dangers of DDT. That allegation became expanded to suggest that some environmentalists may even be Soviet agents seeking to undermine capitalism, and that they were suppressing the work of enviroskeptics.

Meanwhile, on a different front, those who were unhappy with the scientific opposition to Reagan’s Star Wars missile defense shield plan started accusing scientists of being Soviet stooges.

With the end of the Soviet Union, the story has shifted and the target of opposition has changed. Instead of the environmental movement being merely a tool to advance communism by advocating measures that will increase the costs of business and raise taxes, the environmental movement has now replaced communism as the main foe of capitalism.

Of course, since the religious right has always viewed ‘godless communism’ with alarm, they tend to sign on to anything that seems to oppose or restrict the workings of capitalism in any way, even if means allowing unregulated industries unbridled freedom to pollute and destroy the environment.

Thus emerged the coalition of big industry, conservative think tanks, the religious right, and their political allies, all working to discredit any science that seems to suggest that we are doing irreparable harm to our environment.

Although the article is not a scholarly one and not an authoritative source, it is interesting and thought-provoking.

POST SCRIPTS: Amazing back flips