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.”
[Read more…]

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.
[Read more…]

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. [Read more…]

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.
[Read more…]

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.)