Ethics of atheists

Via Machines Like Us, I came across this article by researchers Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman that challenges the view among some religious people that atheists have poor ethics.

A growing body of social science research reveals that atheists, and non-religious people in general, are far from the unsavory beings many assume them to be. On basic questions of morality and human decency — issues such as governmental use of torture, the death penalty, punitive hitting of children, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, environmental degradation or human rights — the irreligious tend to be more ethical than their religious peers, particularly compared with those who describe themselves as very religious. [My italics]

As individuals, atheists tend to score high on measures of intelligence, especially verbal ability and scientific literacy. They tend to raise their children to solve problems rationally, to make up their own minds when it comes to existential questions and to obey the golden rule. They are more likely to practice safe sex than the strongly religious are, and are less likely to be nationalistic or ethnocentric. They value freedom of thought.

Atheists may not be the most ethical people around but we can make a strong case that we are much more ethical than a certain prominent Christian theologian who likes to claim that without a god there can be no objective morality, and then proceeds to justify genocide and rape because his god commanded it.

If that is where objective morality takes you, then I am really glad to be a moral relativist.

Eating more humanely

In response to my earlier post on the hostile response that vegetarians and vegans experience, commenter Mary Jo said she became a vegetarian but later returned to eating meat but with a renewed sensibility, saying “I still feel really sorry for the animals I eat. I eat meat that is certified to be humanely raised and slaughtered by the Humane Farm Animal Care organization.” She gave a link to Certified Humane, an organization whose label on products certifies that it “Meets the Humane Farm Animal Care program standards, which includes nutritous diet without antibiotics or hormones, animals raised with shelter, resting areas, sufficient space and the ability to engage in natural behaviors.”

But Mary Jo added that despite taking the care to eat certified humane meat, “I have been really mocked about this because, of course, suffering is still involved.”

Peter Singer is one of the foremost ethicists of our time who has written voluminously on the topic. He is someone who in all areas of his own life tries to meet the principles of ethical behavior. He is a vegan but he argues that what is important is not absolute purity but the willingness to minimize the suffering of other sentient beings. In his book The Ethics of What We Eat co-authored with Jim Mason, they take a non-judgmental approach and try to provide people with all manner of diets a way to eat ethically within the framework they have chosen or been forced into. They look at three families, one fast-food based, the second consisting of concerned omnivores (like Mary Jo), and the third being vegan, and for each family they provide practical suggestions for eating more humanely.

In the section titled Food is an ethical issue-but you don’t have to be fanatical about it (p. 281-284) they point out:

[I]t is important to avoid the mistake of thinking that if you have ethical reasons for doing something, you have to do it all the time, no matter what. Some religions, like Orthodox Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, have strict rules against eating particular foods, and their adherents are supposed to follow these rules all the time. If they break them they may feel polluted, or disobedient to their god. But this rule-based view isn’t the only possible approach to ethics, nor the best one, in our view. Ethical thinking can be sensitive to circumstances.

Amanda Paulson, writing in the Christian Science Monitor about “One woman’s quest to enjoy her dinner without guilt,” describes the ethics of Daren Firestone, a Chicago law student who won’t buy meat, but will eat the remnants of a big Thanksgiving dinner before they get tossed out. Whether or not you agree with that view-don’t eat meat unless it will otherwise be wasted-there is nothing that disqualifies it as an ethical principle. Yale philosophy professor Shelly Kagan takes the same view about airline meals. A vegetarian in his everyday life, he orders meatless meals when he flies. Airlines, however, sometimes fail to deliver on such requests. If that happens, and he is offered a meat meal that he knows will be thrown out if he doesn’t eat it, he’ll eat it. In these circumstances-in contrast to buying meat at the supermarket-his consumption of meat seems to make no difference to the demand for it.

How relaxed can we be? Firestone’s dietary rules also include what she calls “the Paris exemption:” if she is lucky enough to find herself in a fine restaurant in Paris-or, very occasionally, in a truly outstanding restaurant elsewhere-she allows herself to eat whatever she likes. We wondered whether she believes that on these rare occasions, the pleasure that she gets from eating meat outweighs the contribution her meal makes to animal suffering. When we contacted her, however, she readily admitted that her “Paris exemption” is “more self-indulgence than utilitarian calculus.” But that doesn’t mean that her general opposition to eating meat is not ethical. It is, but she gives more weight to what she wants to do than she would if she were acting on strictly ethical principles all the time. Very few of us are in any position to criticize that, and most of those who do criticize it are deceiving themselves about their choices when their own desires are at stake. A little self-indulgence, if you can keep it under firm control, doesn’t make you a moral monster, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you might as well abandon your principles entirely. In fact, Firestone believes that by allowing herself to satisfy her occasional cravings-maybe once every three months-she has been able to be faithful to her principles for many years, while other vegetarians she knows have given up the whole practice because one day they could not resist the smell of bacon frying.

Singer has a utilitarian philosophy that seeks to minimize the suffering of sentient beings. It is not always easy to carry out the calculus (whether it is ethical to use animals in research that could lead to cures for diseases is one difficult question) but some ethical lines can be more easily drawn. Other things being equal, when it comes to minimizing suffering via our food choices it is surely better to be a vegan than a vegetarian. It is surely better to be a vegetarian than an omnivore. It is surely better for omnivores to eat less meat than more meat. It is surely better to eat meat from animals that have been raised humanely than those that have been raised in factory farms, and so on. The mockery that Mary Jo receives for not being 100% pure is entirely unwarranted.

Singer and Mason also realize that financial hardship poses some restrictions on the ability to eat ethically and healthily. They say that if you are forced to choose, avoiding factory-farmed food is a higher ethical principle than eating organic.

Food that is both more ethical and more economical is available in every supermarket. Buying organic food without incurring extra expense, on the other hand, is usually not possible. Taking that into account, and considering that there are more powerful grounds for avoiding factory-farmed products than for buying only organic food, it is reasonable to limit the obligation to buy organic food to what one can afford without undue hardship, while seeing the obligation to avoid factory-farmed products as more stringent.

The Ethics of What We Eat is an excellent book that I can strongly recommend. It not only provides a good understanding of the ethical principles involved in our food choices, it also provides practical advice for those who want to eat ethically but are not sure how best to go about it.

The hostile response that vegetarians and vegans experience

I recently had lunch with a group of people including one young woman who was a vegan. She said that she often received negative, even hostile, receptions from people she worked with or others in social settings when they found out she was a vegan, even though she was not a proselytizer about it and even if she mentioned it only in passing during casual conversation and it was relevant to the conversation.

I had noticed this before. For some reason, some omnivores seem to view vegetarians and vegans as a threat to their own values and often try to convince them that meat eating is better for them. Playwright George Bernard Shaw, a vegetarian who lived a very long and healthy life, amusingly described this odd response (quoted in Bernard Shaw: His Life and Personality by Hesketh Pearson (1961), p. 171):

When a man of normal habits is ill, everyone hastens to assure him that he is going to recover. When a vegetarian is ill (which fortunately very seldom happens), everyone assures him that he is going to die, and that they told him so, and that it serves him right. They implore him to take at least a little gravy, so as to give himself a chance of lasting out the night. They tell him awful stories of cases just like his own which ended fatally after indescribable torments; and when he tremblingly inquires whether the victims were not hardened meat-eaters, they tell him he must not talk, as it is not good for him.

Some people tell vegans that human beings have evolved as omnivores and thus eating meat is ‘natural’, and that vegans and vegetarians are therefore going against nature. Others argue that a healthy diet requires some meat products, and that a vegan diet runs the risk of not providing some essential nutrients. Yet others argue that plants also have feelings and that eating them is as bad as eating meat. Yet others try to find contradictions in the vegan lifestyle, by arguing that if they are to be consistent, they should not wear leather products or use insect sprays or antibiotics, since these also harm living things.

All these arguments are unconvincing.

It is true that humans have evolved as omnivores in that our bodies are capable of extracting nutrients from animal products, but that does not mean that being an omnivore is the preferred state. Just because something occurs in nature does not automatically make it desirable. Our evolutionary history has resulted in many features (the ability to use violence to satisfy our needs, for example) that we try to suppress in the name of civilized behavior.

It is true that being a vegan requires closer attention to what one eats to make sure that all the required nutrients (such as iron, zinc, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids) are in one’s diet but these can be easily dealt with by taking supplements if one does not want to go through the bother of carefully balancing one’s meals. While some studies indicate that there can be negative health risks of a vegan diet, the consensus is that a vegetarian diet is superior to a meat-based diet for overall health.

The idea that plants are also living things that may have feelings and that vegans are hypocritical for eating them and not meat is really quite silly. The key issue is whether we are causing unnecessary suffering in other living things by using them for our purposes. Suffering requires a minimal central nervous system. Where one draws the line on what life forms can suffer is not easy but plants (and even bacteria and jellyfish) seem to not have the kind of system we think is necessary to experience suffering.

The idea that unless one is 100% consistent in one’s actions, then one should not be a vegan at all is not tenable. If the ethical goal is to minimize suffering, then the fact that a vegan wears leather shoes or kills bugs does not take away from the fact that they cause less suffering than someone who eats meat.

The arguments that vegans encounter have little merit. But what interests me is why they face this kind of gratuitous hostility at all. If people want to be vegans, why not simply let them be? After all, they are not harming anyone else. Why does it bother some meat eaters to discover a vegan in their midst?

I think that it is because we all realize deep down that when it comes to ethical behavior, the vegans (and vegetarians) clearly occupy the ethical high ground. It is more ethical to be a vegan than it is to be a vegetarian, which in turn is more ethical than it is to be an omnivore. Some of us accept this even if we do not convert to veganism.

For example, I am an omnivore. I know that I should be a vegan, or at least a vegetarian, and that it is only weakness and laziness that prevents me from overcoming my life-long addiction to a diet that includes meat. My efforts to minimize suffering are limited to merely reducing my level of meat consumption and opposing factory farming practices. I freely concede that vegans and vegetarians are doing a lot more. But others seem not to be able to accept this and feel the need to claim that they are morally equal (or even superior) to vegans and thus attack them, using the weak arguments above. I think they realize deep down that the vegans are right and it makes them feel uncomfortable to feel ethically inferior.

In some ways this is similar to why saying one is an atheist also seems to arouse antagonistic responses in some people. It could well be that deep down these people realize that atheists are right and that there is no god but cannot come to terms with it. They cannot accept, even to themselves, that there really is no reason to believe in god and that they believe in god purely for emotional reasons or out of habit or because society, at least in the US, expects one to. The presence of atheists makes them uncomfortable because it brings them face to face with a reality that they wish to suppress and so they too concoct weak arguments to justify their belief.

The stem cell issue-2: The ethics

Yesterday, I discussed the science involved in stem cell research. Today I want to discuss the ethics.

The ethical problems associated with stem cell research occur because although the fertilized eggs were not created for the purposes of research but to help infertile couples, since the method of in vitro fertilization for the treatment of infertility has not been perfected, more fertilized eggs are created than can be used to actually generate pregnancies, and the question of what to do with these extra frozen stored embryos is problematic.

If the extra ones are not needed for future implantation in a womb, then the options are to destroy them, preserve them forever, or use them for research. Those favoring stem cell research argue that preserving them forever is not realistic, that they will have to be thrown away eventually, and that using them for research is better than destroying them without any benefit being obtained, even though the resulting blastocyst must be destroyed in order to produce the stem cell lines,

Those opposed to stem cell research (and abortion) have a simple and clear argument: Life begins at the instant when an egg is fertilized, and no human action is permissible thereafter to prevent that egg from being eventually born. So once an egg is fertilized, whether in the uterus or outside, then we have a human life and using a blastocyst for research is effectively destroying life. This is a secular argument, even though many, or even the majority, of those who support it may have religious reasons for their stand, such as the idea that god inserts the soul at the moment of conception when the egg is fertilized. They argue that if such a position requires the preservation of unused embryos indefinitely, then we should do so, however impractical that might be.

Those who support a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy and/or the use of embryonic stem cells for research have more difficulty in justifying their position because drawing a clear line as to when ‘life’ begins or a clump of cells becomes ‘human’ is hard. One thing they are agreed upon is that a human being is much more than a fertilized egg or a bunch of cells such as a blastocyst. But where does one draw the line?

One line is that until such time as the fetus can exist independently outside the womb, it is not a human being. Right now that time corresponds roughly to the third trimester of the pregnancy. But as technology improves, that is likely to shift to earlier times. Others argue that any organism (human or otherwise) must have some higher level of capacity, such as a brain, before its life becomes worthy of protection from harm. After all, when it comes to question of death, society seems to have decided that when the brain stops functioning one is effectively dead and one no longer needs to take steps to keep the body alive. And as the Terry Schiavo case tragically illustrated, what we mean by a functioning brain is more than just brain stem functions that maintain basic body processes and some reflexes. It means that the part of the brain, such as memory and cognition, that gives us our personality and makes us who we are must be functioning. Once a person has reached the stage of being in what is known as a ‘persistent vegetative state’, that person is considered to be effectively dead.

In this debate, both sides usually ignore the need for consistency across species. Why should only human life be so valued? What makes us superior and worthy of special consideration? If life is precious and life begins with a fertilized egg or with higher brain function, then what about the lives of other species? After all, we kill animals, even though they are fully functioning living things with a level of brain function that we would undoubtedly value if a human had it. We even think nothing of eating them after killing them. Why should we have one standard for humans and another for nonhuman animals?

One can take a speciesist position and simply assert as a given that human beings are superior to others and so we have a right to do what we like to other animal forms while treating human life as sacrosanct. But that is hard to justify on general moral or ethical grounds. There is no clear marker that justifies treating humans as special, unless you throw in ideas such as that humans have a soul and other animals do not. This is an argument based on a particular religious viewpoint and should have no place in determining public policy, which should always be based on secular arguments.

In my opinion, the position taken by ethicists such as Peter Singer is the most consistent moral and ethical one, that does not give humans special privileges. They take a utilitarian position, that what one should seek is the minimization of suffering. Since suffering involves sentience, this requires that an organism must have at least some primitive brain function and the development of a nervous system before it can be said to have the possibility of suffering. So it would be acceptable to destroy any system of cells (whether from a human or non-human animal) as long as it has not yet reached the stage where it has the ability to suffer, or it has passed that stage at the end of life.

Even if we do not achieve the high level of consistency that it requires of us, the utilitarian argument that says that what we should aim for is a net reduction of global suffering seems to me to be a workable ethical principle on which to base decisions like these. Hence it is ethically allowable to use embryonic stem cells from a blastocyst (before the cells themselves have reached the capacity to suffer) in order to do research to reduce the suffering of actual living organisms.

Of course, this raises other potential problems that are sure to come down the road. Is it ethical, for example, to deliberately produce blastocysts purely for the purpose of research, as opposed to using those that are the by-products of infertility treatments? If, for example, one wanted to study the early development of a disease that had a genetic basis, would it be ethical to take an egg and sperm from people who have that disease and create a fertilized egg purely in order to study the early onset of that disease or to develop treatments for it?

These are very tough questions but ones that are going to come at us thick and fast in the near future as science and technology inexorably advance.

POST SCRIPT: God will decide if and when and how the world will end

Two days ago, I suggested that religious people make unreliable allies in the battle to save the environment because of their belief in god’s plan. Right on cue, we have a member of the US Congress during hearings last week on cap-and-trade policies to reduce carbon emissions, quoting the Bible (Genesis 8:21,22 and Matthew 24:31) to support his belief that the future of the Earth is part of god’s plan. Yes, god has our back, based on what he supposedly told Noah after the flood. So don’t worry, burn those fossil fuels because Jesus has it covered!

Taking advantage of people’s poverty

(Due to today being a Labor Day holiday and being ontravel, I am reposting an old item, edited slightly because I can never stop tinkering with what I have written. New posts will begin again tomorrow.)

I read in the paper recently of an incident where the wealthy son of industrialist and his friends were about to enter a Los Angeles restaurant. Outside the restaurant was a homeless person and the youth offered the homeless person $100 to pour a can of soda over himself. The homeless man did so and the crowd of rich people laughed uproariously at this, paid him, and went on their way.

This story infuriated me, as I am sure it will to most people who hear it. It seemed that these people were humiliating the man, taking advantage of his poverty for their warped sense of what is amusing.

But at some level, I feel that I am not being consistent. In earlier postings I have said that we should not concern ourselves and interfere with what consenting adults do. And in this case we have what seems, at least on the surface, to be a purely consensual transaction between two adults. The homeless man was not forced to pour the soda over himself. He did so because he wanted to obtain $100. So on one level, one can view this incident as saying that he was paid for a job. And as things go, there are a lot more disgusting things that one can be asked to do than pour a soft drink over oneself. In fact, as a society, we pay lots of people do things for us that we would shrink from doing ourselves. We pay them to go into sewers, to execute people, clean public toilets, etc. and we do not feel repelled by this. So why did I find this particular story so repellent?

Perhaps it was because we consider the homeless man is in too weak a position to freely give consent. After all, $100 was a lot of money to him. To offer very poor people what is to them a lot of money in return for doing acts that we would not do seems to offend our sense of fairness. But it is not only poor people who can be tempted in this way.

Many years ago, I saw the film The Magic Christian starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr, with the former as a millionaire who enjoyed seeing what he could get people to do out of greed. The point the film was making was that people at any level of society would do almost anything, even wading through a disgusting mixture of urine and excrement, provided the price was right.

At that time I thought that the film was an overly cynical representation of human motivation but now I am not so sure. Some of the reality shows on TV seem to indicate that money and fame (however fleeting) are enough for many people to overcome their normal sense of propriety and self-respect. It is a disturbing thing to ask oneself the question as to what one might be willing to do if the price were high enough.

This is why I feel that it is so important that everyone be paid a living wage and have the minimum living requirements of food, clothing, and shelter, so that they are not forced to trade their dignity in exchange for these basic necessities of life. If they do have the basic necessities and are yet willing to do things in exchange for further riches, then that is up to them.

But clearly the homeless man was not in that position and perhaps the reason we are so repelled by this story is that there was no redeeming purpose at all for the action, unlike the situation where people do jobs that society requires but which we might find personally distasteful. Here the whole point seemed to be to flaunt rich people’s power over the poor and to gain enjoyment from the humiliation of another human being.

But what constitutes humiliation is also tricky. What for one person is a humiliating act is for another person a chance to proudly flaunt their lack of concern for society’s expectations and mores. If the homeless man thought there was a market for his actions and decided to be entrepreneurial and launch a career by offering to pour soda over himself to anyone who would pay, would the action now become respectable, just another job that many of us personally would not do but is otherwise acceptable?

After all, some comedians are willing to have pies thrown in their face as part of their act. And reality shows like Fear Factor show that people are willing to do the grossest things just to be on TV. The only difference between these things and the homeless man story seems to be that the homeless man was destitute and the event was spontaneous, not planned and scripted.

It seems like all these questions come back, in some essential way, to the issues of justice as fairness as the only sound basis for constructing society. Under those conditions, the only power that one person has over another is that freely yielded.

But the soda-pouring episode still angers me.

POST SCRIPT: The world’s cheapest car

The Tata company of India introduces their $2,500 Nano. Its engineers show off the car and explain how they managed to obtain a nice looking and seemingly safe car for such a low price.

The etiquette of food

After grappling with some heavy moral issues involving the treatment of animals and the eating of meat, I want to look at a related but lighter topic: the etiquette of food restrictions in the host-guest relationship.

Sometimes I wonder if we have gone too far in being accommodating of people’s food restrictions, to the extent of creating a sense of entitlement. As someone who organizes meal-based meetings at work where I feel obliged to ask people in advance what restrictions they have, I am sometimes surprised by the specificity of some requests (“I would like wraps”, “I would like fresh fruits and vegetables”, etc.).

This raises an interesting question that I have been thinking about: How far we should go as both guests and hosts in specifying and meeting dietary restrictions or preferences?

Michael Pollan says in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) that during the time he was a vegetarian, he felt that he had in a subtle way become alienated from other people.

Other people now have to accommodate me, and I find this uncomfortable: My new dietary restrictions throw a big wrench into the basic host-guest relationship. As a guest, if I neglect to tell my host in advance that I don’t eat meat, she feels bad, and if I do tell her, she’ll make something special for me, in which case I’ll feel bad. (p. 314)

Whenever we invite people to our home for a meal or as house guests, we always ask them whether they have any dietary restrictions. We get the usual spectrum of requests: no pork, no beef, or vegetarian. But there are more severe restrictions that we have not had to deal with as yet: vegan, strict kosher, no wheat products, allergies to specific foods such as peanuts, salt or sugar free diets, etc.

These restrictions can be split onto four classes: Those that are based on medical reasons, those that are based on religious reasons, those that are based on political/ethical/moral/environmental reasons, and those that are based on personal preferences. The etiquette question is this: which, if any, of these categories of restrictions is it appropriate for a guest to request accommodations and which ones should a host be obliged to meet?

As a host, I feel obliged to ask people what restrictions they have and try to accommodate them, irrespective of the class of restrictions to which it belongs. But I realize that I am laying myself wide open to a potentially awkward situation. Suppose someone says that they have some restriction that would require very elaborate and unfamiliar food preparation on my part. What should I do? Go to extraordinary lengths to meet them, such as preparing a separate meal? At what point does a food request become so onerous that I can feel comfortable declining to meet it?

Similarly, from the point of view of a guest, what is a reasonable request to make of a host to accommodate your preferences? Should people who have very specific and restrictive needs simply decline invitations because they feel that they are imposing too heavy a burden on their host?

Pollan says that, “On this matter I’m inclined to agree with the French, who gaze upon any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners.”

Perhaps this is the way we should go. Hosts should stop asking guests what restrictions they have and prepare whatever the host wants. Guests who choose to attend should decline their host’s offer to specify dietary limitations, and simply eat and drink what they can from whatever is offered, even if it ends up being just some vegetables and fruit and water. And neither party should feel offended or put out.

(Of course, this suggestion only applies to single-meal events. The situation with houseguests who are staying for some time is different and then some accommodations must be made.)

Some might feel that it is easy for me to advocate this policy since I am an omnivore and thus can eat anything, and that I might view this differently if I were someone who had strong food restrictions and might be faced with having a very restricted choice of food items to eat at a dinner party.

But I have had to deal with something roughly equivalent. In Sri Lanka, dinner parties would often start late, say around 9:00 pm, and they would sometimes serve dinner close to midnight. (Unlike in America where the meal forms either the beginning or the middle of an evening of conversation, in Sri Lanka the end of the meal often signifies the end of the party.) Although I get very hungry by that late hour, I did not tell the host that I would like my own dinner to be served early. Instead, if I suspected dinner would be served late, I got in the habit of eating at home before going for the party. That way, I did not care when the meal was served or even what was served. I simply ate what I felt like from whatever was offered whenever it was offered.

Those who have dietary restrictions or preferences that will likely result in them not being able to eat much from what is offered might consider doing the same thing.

These kinds of etiquette issues may have arisen because we have forgotten that the only reason to accept an invitation to someone else’s home is to enjoy their company and the company of their other guests, not to treat their home as a restaurant to obtain food that is acceptable to you. The refreshments on offer should not be a consideration.

I wonder how Miss Manners might respond to this question.

POST SCRIPT: Interesting graphic designs

How to tell if you are in the right place. (Thanks to Progressive Review.)

The ethics of food-10: Minimizing suffering

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

The theory of evolution says that we are all connected in the tree of life. So humans are not only related to apes and other animals, we are also related to plants and even to the ‘lowly’ fungi. But no one is arguing that therefore we should stop eating vegetables too.

Clearly to survive we have to draw at least some lines as to what species we include within our moral community and what species we exclude. Such lines are necessarily arbitrary but need not be without some justification.

If we are going to use suffering as the measure of whether we are justified in killing and eating animals, then that implies that sentience is a key marker. But what level of sentience? Peter Singer and other animal rights philosophers argue that some level of sophistication of the nervous system is necessary to include the species within our moral compass. They draw the line at the nervous system of scallops, so that anything with an equal or more primitive nervous system than a scallop can be eaten.

Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) points out that a purely vegetarian diet does not solve the problem of killing animals.

Killing animals is probably unavoidable no matter what we choose to eat. If America were suddenly to adopt a strictly vegetarian diet, it isn’t at all clear that the total number of animals killed each year would necessarily decline, since to feed everyone animal pasture and rangeland would have to give way to more intensively cultivated row crops. (p. 326)

From this he draws a surprising conclusion:

If our goal is to kill as few animals as possible people should try to eat the largest possible animal that can live on the least cultivated land: grass-finished steaks for everyone.
. . .
Indeed, it is doubtful that you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients and support local food production. If our concern is for the health of nature – rather than, say, the internal consistency of our moral code or the condition of our souls – then eating animals may be the most ethical thing to do. (p. 326)

It is undoubtedly true that in the competition for land, food, water, and other resources to maintain life, humans are unavoidably, even if indirectly, causing the death of other animals, whether we eat them or not, and even causing damage to the planet as a whole. (There is a group called The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement that argues that to reduce suffering and for the health of the planet, humans should choose to not have any more children and thus eventually become extinct.)

While the above arguments can be used by meat eaters to justify their continued practice, we should be wary of being too easily persuaded by them. It is always the case that people can usually come up with reasons to justify whatever we want to do, and meat eaters are no exception, especially since the desire to eat meat is so strong. Benjamin Franklin pointed out that “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

Singer cautions that it is hard for meat eaters to really understand the case against eating animals. He warns that we meat eaters cannot really be objective about this question because of the strong rationalization tendencies that come into play. “We have a strong interest in convincing others that our concern for other animals does not require us to stop eating them. . . . No one in the habit of eating an animal can be completely without bias in judging whether the conditions in which that animal is reared cause suffering.” (Pollan, p. 313)

Singer’s argument about the danger of self-deception impressed writer Pollan so much that he became a vegetarian while studying this question so as to try and increase his objectivity. He reverted to eating meat afterwards, though. (As was pointed out by commenter Dave to an earlier post, those who decide to adopt a vegan, or even vegetarian, diet need to find ways to supplement their diet with the essential vitamin B12, which is normally obtained only from meat and dairy products.)

Wherever one finds oneself in the debate of whether it is ethical to eat meat or not, I think that we can probably all agree that animals should be treated well while they are alive and that if they are to be put to death for whatever reason, it should be done in as humane way as possible in order to minimize suffering.

But it is clear that even this very limited goal is not being met. Our present industrial-scale food production system (more on this later) not only treats animals extremely cruelly, it pollutes the environment, destroys the soil, and poisons everything.

When I was very young and passing through my phase of infatuation with all things cowboy, my parents gave me an air rifle for my birthday. Excited, I wandered through my aunt’s backyard in northern Sri Lanka, shooting and missing at all kinds of targets, while imagining myself as one of my cowboy heroes. Seeing a crow in a tree, I aimed and fired, never dreaming that I would hit it. To my surprise, the bird dropped like a stone, dead. Soon after, the sky was filled with other crows making a terrific racket, which I took to be them rebuking me for this wanton act of destruction. My horror at the experience of having personally killed an animal and causing what seemed like great grief to other birds resulted in my only shooting at inanimate targets in the future.

There is a person who works for the maintenance department at my university who once a year gets a license to hunt deer and spends a weekend in the woods to shoot an animal. He has described his experiences to me. There was a time when my childhood experience with killing an animal would have resulted in me considering this a blot on the character of an otherwise decent person, treating him as the equivalent of the killer of Bambi’s mother. But now I realize that by buying meat that is produced by the industrial farming production system, I am guilty of more inhumane behavior than he is, because the animal he kills and eats has likely lived a far better life than the ones that I buy from the supermarket freezers.

POST SCRIPT: Free screening of award-winning documentary Peaceable Kingdom

Peaceable Kingdom is an inspiring story of personal redemption, compassion, healing and hope. Propelled by the eloquent testimony of animal farmers questioning the fundamental assumptions behind their way of life, Peaceable Kingdom gives a riveting portrayal of human and animal lives caught in an out-of-control industrial machine.”

You can see a preview here.
“Peaceable Kingdom is a masterpiece.” ~ Dr. Jane Goodall
Where: Talkies Film & Coffee Bar, 2521 Market Avenue in the Ohio City neighborhood in Cleveland (across from Great Lakes Brewing Co.)

When: Friday, August 15, 2008, 6:00 p.m.
For more info about this screening, contact Sunny Simon at 216-291-8773.

For some reason, the film is not showing on the Talkies website but Sunny Simon assures me that the event will take place.

(Thanks to commenter Mary for this information)

The ethics of food-9: Does a good life compensate for an early death?

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

In trying to arrive at some ethical consensus on how humans should treat nonhuman animals, I think we might all agree on a minimal condition: that once born, every animal deserves to have a good life while they are living. So that means that the inhumane treatment of animals that currently takes place in the industrial farming system in the US and other developed countries cannot be justified under any circumstances. Those animals are kept in cramped, feces-filled conditions, force-fed with food that their systems are not designed to digest, and treated with drugs to combat the problems arising from an inappropriate diet and awful conditions. The very fact that such places are hidden from public view and guarded to prevent observers entering is a telling indication that those animals are being treated badly.

But if we did have cows and pigs and chicken raised in healthy natural environments where their interests are met while living, would that justify them being killed and eaten, if the alternative is that they never lived at all? In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), Michael Pollan describes the way that animals are reared at Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms in Virginia where the animals are raised in as good conditions as any farm animals could be. He said his experience threw the argument for eating animals into a new light.

To many animal people even Polyface Farm is a “death camp” – a way station for doomed animals awaiting their date with the executioner. But to look at the lives of these animals is to see this holocaust analogy for the sentimental conceit it really is. In the same way we can probably recognize animal suffering when we see it, animal happiness is unmistakable, too, and during my week on the farm I saw it in abundance. (p. 319)

In fact, it is likely the case that the death that these animals experience in such farms is far more humane than what they might experience naturally in the wild. The philosophical father of animal rights and utilitarianism philosophy founder Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), who was himself a meat eater, said that a happy life and merciful death can be used to justify meat eating since “The death they suffer in our hands commonly is, and always may be, speedier and, by that means a less painful one, than that which would await them in the inevitable course of nature.” (p. 328)

Since utilitarians like Bentham and Singer focus on increasing net happiness and reducing net suffering, and since the slaughter of an animal with no comprehension of death need not entail suffering, Singer tells Pollan that “I agree with you that it is better for these animals to have lived and died than not to have lived at all . . . I would not be sufficiently confident of my argument to condemn someone who purchased meat from one of these farms.” (p. 327) The problem, he points out, is that farms like Salatin’s form an infinitesimally small part of the nation’s food production system, which is dominated by the inhumane methods of the industrial farms run by agribusiness.

Not all animal rights philosophers will agree with Singer’s concession on this. Some animal rights advocates argue that the extinctions of domesticated species that would likely result from everyone ceasing to eat meat are in fact a desirable result, since these animals exist simply to be eventually eaten by others. There are some, like animal rights philosopher Tom Regan, who feel that we should always focus on the well being of the individual members of a species and not on the species as a whole and that the right to life of individual animals cannot be bargained away on utilitarian grounds.

In other words, once born, the right to life trumps all other considerations.

The ultimate test, again, is whether we would apply the same consideration to human interests that we apply to animal interests. For the sake of avoiding the charge of speciesism, would we humans also be willing to accept a healthy and happy and carefree life in exchange for a painless death at a definite time?

Thinking about these arguments made me recall Aldous Huxley’s futuristic novel Brave New World (1932) where, thanks to advances in medical science, people in the future have the looks and full unimpaired capacities of youth until they reach the age of sixty. They then die abruptly.

I wonder how people would respond if they were offered such a deal at the age of (say) twenty. Would they accept it? Would they want to negotiate a higher age of death? Or would they find that the very idea of a certain date of death is too high a price to pay, however good a life is offered in exchange?

POST SCRIPT: The conflict in South Ossetia

Out of the blue, there is suddenly a major conflict going on between Russia and Georgia. As usual, it is almost impossible to find in the US media any explanation of the history of the conflict and the proximate cause of the flare up that is not highly colored by the anti-Russian/pro-Georgian sentiment of the US government.

Anatol Lieven, a professor at King’s College London and a senior Fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC, gives a fairly concise account. In 1990-96 he was a correspondent for The Times in the former Soviet Union, including Georgia.

This conflict bears a lot of similarities to the one over Kashmir between India and Pakistan and, like that, could go on for years.

The ethics of food-8: Interests of species versus interests of individuals

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

I wrote before that the theory of evolution, by giving all animals equal standing in the evolutionary tree of life, provides a strong argument against the exploitation of one sentient species by another. There seems to be no defensible criteria by which we can prefer the interests of an individual human over that of an individual nonhuman animal, because they each have an interest in avoiding pain and suffering.

This seems to imply that killing animals in order to obtain meat for eating is wrong under all circumstances. But in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), Michael Pollan suggests that this need not necessarily follow.

The argument is a tricky one that involves disentangling the interests of a species from the interests of individual members of the species. Recall that it was argued that we could not and should not give preferential treatment to our species as a whole over other species as a whole because whatever marker we might use for doing so (intelligence, language, consciousness, etc.), we would find at least some individual members of our species who had less of that quality than some members of other species.

But if we keep the argument at the level of species, a case can be made for eating meat.

One argument says that if the human species as a whole possesses some significant quality (say intelligence or consciousness) that other species either do not possess or possess at a lower level, that entitles all members of the human species privileged treatment, even those who may possess less of that particular quality than some members of other species. In other words, this argument rejects entirely the premise of the argument from marginal cases. But this line of argument has significant consequences if applied within the human species. If, for example, we discovered some important quality that (say) females possessed on average more than males, would we then be willing to privilege all women over all men?

Another argument says that being domesticated for the purpose of being eaten or otherwise exploited by humans has benefited such species of animals. The domesticated species we eat (cows, pigs, chickens, etc.) would most likely become extinct if we ceased to eat them. After all, the reason that their numbers are much greater than their wild cousins is because they have benefited from the protection that humans have given them. At some point in evolutionary history, these animals showed signs of being amenable to living alongside humans, adapted to doing so, and as a result they have experienced an explosive growth in numbers.

“[D]omestication took place when a handful of especially opportunistic species discovered, through Darwinian trial and error, that they were more likely to survive and prosper in an alliance with humans than on their own. Humans provided the animals with food and protection in exchange for which the animals provided the humans their milk, eggs, and – yes – their flesh.” (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, p. 320) This language is somewhat misleading in that it implies that both sides were equal and conscious partners to this deal and that the animals voluntarily submitted. In fact, it is humans who unilaterally set the terms.

But as a result of this ‘bargain’, it is undoubtedly true that many of the animals we don’t eat like wolves, lions, and tigers are in danger of extinction, while dogs, cows, chickens, and pigs have flourished, at least in numbers. If we all became vegans and released domesticated animals into the wild, the numbers of these domesticated species would dramatically decrease and may even perish entirely within just a few generations.

The problem here is how to decide between what is good (at least numerically) for (say) the species of chicken (which favors domestication and the consequent meat eating) and what is good for an individual chicken (which clearly has an interest in not being eaten). The issue is further complicated by the question of whether the individual chicken has an interest in being born at all, if the price for that opportunity is to be killed and eaten later.

Answering such questions involve difficult, even impossible, metaphysical calculations. Is it better to have not lived at all or to have lived a good life even if that means being eventually killed to be eaten by others? Does the life of a single chicken that lives a long life result in more or less net happiness and suffering than two (or more) chickens whose lives are cut short? And so on.

Next: How do we weigh the benefits of a good life against a quick and painless but early death?

POST SCRIPT: This Modern World

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow on stupidity in politics.

The ethics of food-7: Increasing the rights of animals

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

In addition to the morality of treating all animals humanely, the arguments of the animal rights philosophers and activists that animals should have more legal rights are slowly gaining ground. It is clear that over time, humans are slowly expanding our circle of consideration to be more inclusive of other species.

For example, Spain’s parliament on June 25, 2008 gave rights to Great Apes, the family of animals that includes chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and humans.

Spain’s parliament voiced its support on Wednesday for the rights of great apes to life and freedom in what will apparently be the first time any national legislature has called for such rights for non-humans.

Parliament’s environmental committee approved resolutions urging Spain to comply with the Great Apes Project, devised by scientists and philosophers who say our closest genetic relatives deserve rights hitherto limited to humans.
. . .
Keeping apes for circuses, television commercials or filming will also be forbidden and breaking the new laws will become an offence under Spain’s penal code.

Keeping an estimated 315 apes in Spanish zoos will not be illegal, but supporters of the bill say conditions will need to improve drastically in 70 percent of establishments to comply with the new law.

Philosophers Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri founded the Great Ape Project in 1993, arguing that “non-human hominids” like chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans and bonobos should enjoy the right to life, freedom and not to be tortured.

Of course, the idea that we extend our protections to just those that are close to us on the evolutionary tree can still be criticized as just an extended form of speciesism.

Broader protections have been extended to vertebrates in Britain due to legislation passed in 1986.

In Britain, such considerations have already led to legislation that restricts the use of animals in education. Scientific procedures that cause ‘adverse effects’ such as pain and stress to living vertebrates are regulated by the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, and are allowed only at undergraduate level and above. The act specifically prohibits such procedures in primary and secondary schools. The restrictions extend to fetuses, including hen’s eggs, from halfway through gestation or incubation, and larval forms such as tadpoles from the time they become capable of feeding independently

To reduce or refrain from eating meat is not asking a lot from people. Restricting the use of animals in research is much more problematic because the cost/benefit balance swings much more to the benefits side.

It is true that in the past we have been too cavalier in the way that animals have been used, sometimes allowing animal experimentation merely to develop commercial products such as cosmetics and perfumes, or simply to give students dissection experience that may not have been necessary or could be obtained other ways. While those kinds of abuses are now becoming less common, the question of where to draw the line is not easy.

While few are arguing for a total ban on animal experimentation, there is an increasing awareness that for such experiments to be allowed, a strong case must be made that the benefits are considerable and important and cannot be obtained in any other way.

[I]t is not necessary to insist that all animal experiments stop immediately. All we need to say is that experiments serving no direct and urgent purpose should stop immediately, and in the remaining fields of research, we should, whenever possible, seek to replace experiments that involve animals with alternative methods that do not. (p. 48) . . . [W]henever experimenters claim that their experiments are important enough to justify the use of animals, we should ask them whether they would be prepared to use a brain-damaged human being at a mental level similar to that of the animals they are planning to use. (p. 52) . . . Since a speciesist bias, like a racist bias, is unjustifiable, an experiment cannot be justifiable unless the experiment is so important that the use of a brain-damaged human would also be justifiable. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 53.)

Singer argues that the pursuit of knowledge, however beneficial we might claim it to be, is not an unfettered right.

[T]he ethical question of the justifiability of animal experimentation cannot be settled by pointing to its benefits for us, no matter how persuasive the evidence in favor of such benefits may be. The ethical principle of equal consideration of interests will rule out some means of obtaining knowledge. There is nothing sacred about the right to pursue knowledge. We already accept many restrictions on scientific enterprise. We do not believe that scientists have a general right to perform painful or lethal experiments on human beings without their consent, although there are many cases in which such experiments would advance knowledge far more rapidly than any other method. Now we need to broaden the scope of this existing restriction on scientific research. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 56.)

Singer is saying that such experiments are not allowable unless they are crucial enough that we would be as willing to do the experiment on a severely brain damaged human (who also has no friends and relatives) instead of a chimpanzee.

This is quite a high bar and it is on this point that Singer is likely to lose people, even those who otherwise support his views about the way we should treat animals. While we do allow human experimentation currently in the form of clinical trials and other forms of experimental treatment, it is only after the case has been made that there is only a small risk of harm. As far as I am aware, the standard is lower for experimentation on animals.

Finding a common standard that would meet the needs of scientific researchers and animal rights activists is likely to be the biggest obstacle.

(Note: One of the commenters to the previous post (Cindy) actually does some of this kind of medical research and her thoughts on this topic carry the weight of actual knowledge.)

POST SCRIPT: CSI-Stone Age