Challenging the sacred

Author Salman Rushdie recently reflected on an aspect of his own education, in opposing an attempt by the British government to pass legislation for a ban on incitement to “hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds.”

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.

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Thanksgiving and Christmas musings

(Because I am taking a break from blogging for the holiday, this is a repost from Thanksgiving of last year, slightly changed and updated. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!)

For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to the class of things that one has to get adjusted to at an early age in order to really enjoy. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as part of learning the history of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have to learn US history in school or did not have the experience of visiting my grandparents’ homes for this occasion, this holiday initially left me unmoved.
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Stupid young men tricks

As readers of this blog must have gleaned by now, I tend to be very wary of blanket generalizations and stereotyping. These tend to be harmful because the differences within groups are usually vastly greater than the differences between groups, making comparisons between individuals in different groups largely meaningless. But there is one generalization of which I am getting more and more convinced and that is the following: All men between the ages of 15 and 25 are idiots.

Ok, that may be a little too strong. But it definitely seems to be the case that men within that age range they have very little idea of the possible negative consequences of their actions.

Recent events have cemented this view. Here are some examples:

Exhibit A:

Howard McFarland Fish, 21, a U.S. citizen from Connecticut and a college student LaFayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania “was detained Friday after customs agents found what they suspected was dynamite in his checked luggage.”

He was returning from Buenos Aires. In addition to the dynamite, he had a blasting cap, a homemade fuse and a quarter-pound of ammonium nitrate. And why did he do this?

“The passenger said he had been exploring mines in Bolivia and purchased the dynamite as a souvenir.” (my emphasis).

Although the authorities feel that Fish is not involved with terrorism, he has been charged with breaking security laws and could face up to 10 years in prison and fines up to $250,000.

How can any one in their right mind, in these days of almost paranoid fear and security, even think of taking dynamite on board a plane as a souvenir? The only explanation is that Fish is an idiot by virtue of age.

Exhibit B:

A 20-year-old grocery store clerk who authorities say amused himself by posting prank Internet warnings of terrorist attacks against NFL stadiums was arrested Friday on federal charges that could bring five years behind bars.

Jake Brahm of Wauwatosa, Wis., was accused of writing messages that said terrorists planned to set off radioactive “dirty bombs” this weekend at football stadiums in seven cities, including Cleveland. He admitted posting the threat about 40 times on various Web sites between September and Wednesday, authorities said.

Apparently Brahm was having some sort of contest with a friend to see who could post the most scary notice on the internet.

Exhibit C: Myself.

I cannot help but feel a sense of empathy with Fish and Brahm because when I was in that same age range, I was also an idiot. (Some might argue that I still am, but that does not negate the point I am making here.) I recall doing things at that age that now horrify me.

For example, when I was in high school, my friends and I repeatedly went out on a nearby lake in a small leaky rowboat. The boat did not have any life jackets and we could not swim. None of us were even experienced oarsmen and spent much of our time going around in circles. The lake also had snakes and alligator-like monitor lizards that could be up to five feet in length and there were occasions when some in the boat were alarmed by their presence nearby and rocked the boat violently, trying to get away. It would not have taken much to capsize the boat and we would all have been done for.

When I was in college, I also recall how three of us would ride on my friend’s Vespa scooter, which barely had room for two, or two of us would ride on my other friend’s moped which really could only seat one, with the passenger sitting on tiny rack over the rear wheel. We did not have helmets and Sri Lankan roads were notorious for being congested and full of bad drivers. An accident could have easily happened that could have either killed or maimed us.

Why did I do these things which, looking back, were indubitably crazy? I have no excuse to offer and can only plead insanity by virtue of age.

What is worse was that I did not even think of the things I did as particularly dangerous. I suspect that Fish and Brahm, like me, never gave the slightest thought to the possible dangers of their actions and its adverse consequences.

And the behavior gets worse when young men are in the company of other young men, which seems to have a multiplier effect on stupidity. As someone once said, if you look closely, just before a young man does something particularly stupid, his words are likely to be “Hey guys, watch this!”

Do men have a special idiocy gene that gets turned on at 15 and then gets turned off at about the age of 25?

Maybe this is why military recruiters target this age group. They are the ones who are willing, even eager, to sign on to risk death by being sent to wars at the whim of older men, and to even think of this as ‘adventure’. If armies were restricted by international treaties to not have soldiers under the age of 25, we might have far smaller armies and fewer wars.

POST SCRIPT: Bizarro cartoon

The Tuesday Plain Dealer had this funny Bizarro cartoon, illustrating the point I was making on that very same day.


Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us-4

(Continued from yesterday.)

Strong allegiance to a tribe, and the belief that one’s tribe is better and more virtuous than others may actually cause members of your own tribe to act in worse ways than they might otherwise do. First of all, people who have a high sense of self-righteousness and an inflated sense of their own virtue are capable of committing the most heinous of crimes because they think that just because they belong to a good group, the acts they commit for the benefit of that group must be in the service of good too. They lack the questioning doubt and self-reflection that lies behind truly ethical behavior.
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Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us-3

(Continued from yesterday)

Learning to apply the same standards of judgment to actions, whether done by ‘them’ or ‘us’, is important if we are to get beyond tribal ways of thinking.

Take the actions of Hezbollah. Since they are part of the ‘them’ group, their rocket attacks into Israel are portrayed as deliberate attempts to kill Israeli civilians. If this was indeed their goal, it has been a massive failure. After all, we are told that they have been firing rockets at a rate of over one hundred per day, which means that about three to four thousand have been fired so far. But National Public Radio reported on August 6, 2006 that the number of Israelis killed as of that date was 94, of whom 58 were soldiers and 36 were civilians. If the goal of Hezbollah is to kill Israeli civilians, then on a purely callous and cynical cost-benefit analysis, this is an extraordinarily ineffective way of doing so, since it works out to about a hundred missiles for each civilian death.

Lobbing low precision munitions into cities is not the best way of inflicting large numbers of civilian casualties because most of the time they will land in empty places causing property damage and perhaps fires but few deaths. It is more likely that the goal of this barrage is to terrorize the civilian population by showing them that the Israeli military cannot protect them. Of course, when some Israeli civilians inevitably die due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, some Hezbollah supporters will rejoice, just as some of ‘us’ do when Arabs and Muslims are killed.

But what if a Hezbollah spokesperson were to say that they regretted the death of civilians, that it was an accident, that they were not targeting them but were merely trying to show that they had missiles that could reach these towns? Such an explanation would be rejected summarily, as it should be, because when you lob bombs into cities, you are displaying a callous disregard for civilian life. But why it is that we uncritically accept that same rationale when offered by US or Israeli government spokespersons?

Joseph Palermo makes as similar point, commenting on the fact that Fox News commentators like Michelle Malkin were saying that the Qana bombing was not such a big deal and the world-wide outrage over it was being deliberately manufactured by those seeking to discredit Israel:

What would be the response if Hezbollah fired a rocket into a shelter killing fifty-six Israeli civilians ranging in age from a ten-month-old baby to a 95-year-old woman as happened in Qana? What if Hezbollah apologized, saying it was a “mistake,” but had made a similar “mistake” ten years earlier in the same Israeli village, killing 106 civilians? Would Ms. Malkin and others like her be on the public airwaves spewing forth such brutish views of the innocent dead?

In modern warfare, the majority of casualties are civilians. While this is perhaps not deliberate, it is also not an accident. This pervasive callous disregard for civilian lives has, I suspect, arisen as a result of the advent of air power and long-range missiles which enables governments to rain destruction on enemy populations with minimal risk to themselves.

There are ways in which civilian casualties can be minimized and that is by having ground troops engage in close-range combat, where you can actually see the person you are fighting against and are less likely to kill children and other innocents. Police forces, for example, are trained to never to fire their weapons until they are sure that the target is who they think it is, in order to minimize the risk to noncombatants.

But this approach has a cost. It puts your own soldiers in harm’s way and runs the risk of having them being killed and injured. This might make the public less supportive of wars, which is what governments really fear the most. What government and other non-governmental warring agents have determined is that civilian casualties of the ‘other’ side are much preferable as a policy option to the deaths of ‘our’ soldiers, and so using air power and long-range missiles have become the preferred mode of warfare. A cynical calculation has been made that ‘we’ can live with casualties, as long as they are not ‘ours’.

In order to do this and still retain a sense of ‘our’ own nobility, ‘they’ have to be dehumanized, made to look as if ‘they’ do not share the same noble values as ‘we’ do and thus either deserved to die or that their lives are somehow worth less than ‘our’ lives. And we see this happening over and over again. I remember General William Westmoreland, commander of the US forces in Vietnam where about 500,000 Vietnamese civilians were killed. He downplayed these deaths and casually ‘explained’ in front of cameras why this was not so bad. He said, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” Once again, we see the ‘we/they’ formulation of tribalism, used to justify our actions but condemn the identical actions of the opponents.

(If you ever get the chance, see the Oscar winning 1974 documentary Hearts and Minds where the Westmoreland clip can be seen. I saw it decades ago and that chilling scene of casual racism still reverberates within me, especially since immediately afterwards the film cut away to a scene of a Vietnamese village woman sobbing uncontrollably over the death of a loved one.)

This is why I am skeptical of the regretful apologies that are made by ‘our’ leaders whenever ‘their’ civilians are killed, the pieties that ‘we’ do not target civilians, and the aggrieved attitude that is adopted if anyone should think otherwise. ‘We’ may not have targeted the particular individual civilians who happened to die as a result of ‘our’ actions, but the decision to wage long-range warfare by planes or missiles ensured that large numbers of civilians would die just as surely as deliberately lining them up and shooting them.

The idea that by dropping leaflets from the air urging civilians to leave an area (as Israel has sometimes done) one has absolved oneself from guilt for their subsequent deaths from bombing attacks is another argument that has no merit. For one thing, as the events of Hurricane Katrina showed, telling people they should leave their homes does not mean they can leave even if they want to. There are whole host of reasons why people, especially the poor, very old, very young, or infirm, do not leave, even if you accept the dubious morality that it is acceptable to order people to abandon their homes so that they can be bombed later. As Juan Cole points out:

The Israelis don’t say, however, how desperately poor hardscrabble farmers including the aged and infirm and children are supposed to travel to Beirut over the roads and bridges that the Israelis have bombed out, and on what they are supposed to live when they get there.

Turning the argument around, what if Hezbollah said that all Israelis must leave Haifa and other cities in northern Israel because they are targeting the city with their missiles. Does that mean the deaths of Israeli civilians due to subsequent rocket attacks is justified? What if Hezbollah claims that since it is obvious by now that the northern towns of Israeli are targets of their rockets, that all civilians should leave those areas and that they are not responsible for the deaths of any civilians still remaining? Would we accept that? The answer to these questions is obviously no. Telling people who are living in their own homes, in their own communities, minding their own business, that they must leave or risk being killed is wrong, irrespective of who does it to whom.

The power of tribal allegiances is so strong that those who are determined to see their own side only in a virtuous light will not agree with me. Those with a tribal allegiance to Israel will find a way to justify the killing and displacement of Lebanese civilians, while similarly those with a tribal allegiance to Hezbollah will justify the killing and displacement of Israeli civilians.

I forget who it was that said that the hardest thing for any one of us to accept is that we are just like other people. This is not to deny that there exists diversity or certain distinguishing characteristics for individuals and even groups. But it is hard for many people to accept that no single individual or group has a monopoly on either the virtues or the vices. And yet, the sense of tribal allegiance is so strong that people desperately want to find some way to believe that their own tribe is morally superior to other tribes. It is as if they feel that their own sense of self-worth is inextricably linked with that of their tribe. They can feel good about themselves only if their tribe is also seen as good.

As examples, we find people who say that some things make them ‘proud to be American’ or ‘proud to be an Arab’ or ‘proud to be an Israeli.’ Statements such as these seem to me to be exceedingly meaningless. I am an ethnic Tamil and the nationality of my birth is Sri Lankan. Am I proud to be either? No. Conversely, am I ashamed to be either? No. Attaching those emotions to such labels is absurd, and is as meaningless as saying that I am proud to be brown-eyed. One’s ethnicity, nationality, and religion are accidents of birth, and I could just as easily have been born a Tibetan or an Inuit or a Swede. These labels provide a shorthand description of one’s history and all they indicate is which cultures one has grown up and is familiar with. There is no deeper significance, however much we may wish there was.

There is no particular virtue to be acquired because of the tribe one belongs to. It is what one does with one’s life, how one treats others, what kind of steward one is for the Earth, that determines one’s worth and value.

To be continued. . .

Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us-2

(Continued from yesterday.)

Examples of people’s willingness to believe the best about their own tribe and the worst about the tribe opposing them are not hard to find.

For example, I remember when the Iranian airbus civilian plane was shot down by a US navy warship in the Persian Gulf in 1988. Some people in the US went so far as to suggest that this was a diabolical plan by the Iranians, that they actually ordered a plane full of civilians to pretend as if it were a fighter plane dive-bombing a US navy cruiser so that it would be shot down and thus cause the US to look bad. The only reason such a story would be believed (or even proposed) by anyone was if they started out with the view that Iranians were completely evil and diabolical and viewed their own citizens as expendable.
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Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us-1

(I have been thinking a lot about the violence that is engulfing the Middle East and the horrific loss of life and homes and other property that is taking place. What follows is a long essay that reflects my thoughts and feelings on it. I have serialized it into four parts and will post one part each day for the rest of this week.)

As the ghastly events in the Middle East keep unfolding, it becomes imperative that we need to radically change the way we view ourselves and others if we are to have any hope of saving the world from an endless cycle of death and brutality.

Robert Burns’ poem To a Louse contains a much-quoted passage that is a good starting point for such a transformative approach.

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us

It wad frae monie a blunder free us

An’ foolish notion

(My feeble attempt at a translation into modern English that loses the charm, appeal and rhythm of the Scottish dialect of the original is:

O for a gift that God would give us
To see ourselves as others see us
It would from many a blunder save us
and foolish thoughts.

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Driving etiquette

Now that the summer driving season is upon us, and I am going to be on the highway today, here are some musings on driving.

Driving means never being able to say you’re sorry

We need a non-verbal sign for drivers to say “I’m sorry.” There have been times when I have inadvertently done something stupid or discourteous while driving, such as changing lanes without giving enough room and thus cutting someone off or accidentally blowing the horn or not stopping early enough at a stop sign or light and thus creating some doubt in the minds of other drivers as to whether I intended to stop. At such times, I have wanted to tell the other driver that I was sorry for unsettling them, but there is no universally recognized gesture to do so.
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Precision in language

Some time ago, a commenter to this blog sent me a private email expressing this view:

Have you ever noticed people say “Do you believe in evolution?” just as you would ask “Do you believe in God?” as if both schools of thought have equal footing? I respect others’ religious beliefs as I realize I cannot disprove God just as anyone cannot prove His existence, but given the amount of evidence for evolution, shouldn’t we insist on asking “Do you accept evolution?”

It may just be semantics, but I feel that the latter wording carries an implied affirmation just as “Do you accept that 2+2=4?” carries a different meaning than “Do you believe 2+2=4?”

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that by stating something as a belief, it opens the debate to the possibility that something is untrue. While this may fine for discussions of religion, shouldn’t the scientific community be more insistent that a theory well supported by physical evidence, such as evolution, is not up for debate?

It’s a good point. To be fair, scientists themselves are partly responsible for this confusion because we also say that we “believe” in this or that scientific theory, and one cannot blame the general public from picking up on that terminology. What is important to realize, though, is that the word ‘believe’ is being used by scientists in a different sense from the way it is used in religion.

The late and deeply lamented Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who called himself a “radical atheist” puts it nicely (thanks to onegoodmove):

First of all I do not believe-that-there-is-not-a-god. I don’t see what belief has got to do with it. I believe or don’t believe my four-year old daughter when she tells me that she didn’t make that mess on the floor. I believe in justice and fair play (though I don’t know exactly how we achieve them, other than by continually trying against all possible odds of success). I also believe that England should enter the European Monetary Union. I am not remotely enough of an economist to argue the issue vigorously with someone who is, but what little I do know, reinforced with a hefty dollop of gut feeling, strongly suggests to me that it’s the right course. I could very easily turn out to be wrong, and I know that. These seem to me to be legitimate uses for the word believe. As a carapace for the protection of irrational notions from legitimate questions, however, I think that the word has a lot of mischief to answer for. So, I do not believe-that-there-is-no-god. I am, however, convinced that there is no god, which is a totally different stance. . .

There is such a thing as the burden of proof, and in the case of god, as in the case of the composition of the moon, this has shifted radically. God used to be the best explanation we’d got, and we’ve now got vastly better ones. God is no longer an explanation of anything, but has instead become something that would itself need an insurmountable amount of explaining…

Well, in history, even though the understanding of events, of cause and effect, is a matter of interpretation, and even though interpretation is in many ways a matter of opinion, nevertheless those opinions and interpretations are honed to within an inch of their lives in the withering crossfire of argument and counterargument, and those that are still standing are then subjected to a whole new round of challenges of fact and logic from the next generation of historians – and so on. All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.

When someone says that they believe in god, they mean that they believe something in the absence of, or even counter to, the evidence, and even to reason and logic. When scientists say they believe a particular theory, they mean that they believe that theory because of the evidence and reason and logic, and the more evidence there is, and the better the reasoning behind it, the more strongly they believe it. Scientists use the word ‘belief’ the way Adams says, as a kind of synonym for ‘convinced,’ because we know that no scientific theory can be proven with 100% certainty and so we have to accept things even in the face of this remaining doubt. But the word ‘believe’ definitely does not carry the same meaning in the two contexts.

This can lead to the generation of confusion as warned by the commenter but what can we do about it? One option is, as was suggested, to use different words, with scientists avoiding use of the word ‘believe.’ I would have agreed with this some years ago but I am becoming increasingly doubtful that we can control the way that words are used.

For example, there was a time when I used to be on a crusade against the erroneous use of the word ‘unique’. The Oxford English Dictionary is pretty clear about what this word means:

  • Of which there is only one; one and no other; single, sole, solitary.
  • That is or forms the only one of its kind; having no like or equal; standing alone in comparison with others, freq. by reason of superior excellence; unequalled, unparalleled, unrivalled.
  • Formed or consisting of one or a single thing
  • A thing of which there is only one example, copy, or specimen; esp., in early use, a coin or medal of this class.
  • A thing, fact, or circumstance which by reason of exceptional or special qualities stands alone and is without equal or parallel in its kind.

It means, in short, one of a kind, so something is either unique or it is not. There are no in-betweens. And yet, you often find people saying things like “quite unique” or “very unique” or “almost unique.” I used to try and correct this but have given up. Clearly, people in general think that unique means something like “rare” and I don’t know that we can ever change this even if we all become annoying pedants, correcting people all the time, avoided at parties because of our pursuit of linguistic purity.

Some battles, such as with the word unique are, I believe, lost for good and I expect the OED to add the new meaning of ‘rare’ some time in the near future. It is a pity because then we would then be left with no word with the unique meaning of ‘unique’, but there we are. We would have to say something like ‘absolutely unique’ to convey the meaning once reserved for just ‘unique.’

In science too we often use words with precise operational meanings while the same words are used in everyday language with much looser meanings. For example, in physics the word ‘velocity’ is defined operationally by the situation when you have an object moving along a ruler and, at two points along its motion, you take ruler readings and clock readings, where the clocks are located at the points where the ruler readings are taken, and have been previously synchronized. Then the velocity of the moving object is the number you get when you take the difference between the two ruler readings and divide by the difference between the two clock readings.

Most people (especially sports commentators) have no idea of this precise meaning when they use the word velocity in everyday language, and often use the word synonymously with speed or, even worse, acceleration, although those concepts have different operational meanings. Even students who have taken physics courses find it hard to use the word in its strict operational sense.

Take, for another example, the word ‘theory’. By now, as a result of the intelligent design creationism (IDC) controversy, everyone should be aware that the way this word is used by scientists is quite different from its everyday use. In science, a theory is a powerful explanatory construct. Science depends crucially on its theories because they are the things that give it is predictive power. “There is nothing so practical as a good theory” as Kurt Lewin famously said. But in everyday language, the word theory is used as meaning ‘not factual,’ something that can be false or ignored.

I don’t think that we can solve this problem by putting constraints on how words can be used. English is a wonderful language precisely because it grows and evolves and trying to fix the meanings of words too rigidly would perhaps be stultifying. I now think that we need to change our tactics.

I think that once the meanings of words enter mainstream consciousness we will not be successful in trying to restrict their meanings beyond their generally accepted usage. What we can do is to make people aware that all words have varying meanings depending on the context, and that scientific and other academic contexts tend to require very precise meanings in order to minimize ambiguity.

Heidi Cool has a nice entry where she talks about the importance of being aware of when you are using specialized vocabulary, and the need to know your audience when speaking or writing, so that some of the pitfalls arising from the imprecise use of words can be avoided.

We have to realize though that despite our best efforts, we can never be sure that the meaning that we intend to convey by our words is the same as the meaning constructed in the minds of the reader or listener. Words always contain an inherent ambiguity that allows the ideas expressed by them to be interpreted differently.

I used to be surprised when people read the stuff I wrote and got a different meaning than I had intended. No longer. I now realize that there is always some residual ambiguity in words that cannot be overcome. While we can and should strive for maximum precision, we can never be totally unambiguous.

I agree with philosopher Karl Popper when he said, “It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.” The best we can hope for is to have some sort or negotiated consensus on the meanings of ideas.

Changing notions of death-4: Implications for animals

(See part 1, part 2 and part 3 of this series.)

If asked, any one of us would say that we value life, that we consider it precious and not to be taken lightly. While the specific phrase “valuing the culture of life” seems to have been co-opted by those who are specifically opposed to abortion, the general idea that it encapsulates, that life should not be taken casually or at all, is one that all of us would subscribe to.

But of course there are contradictions. People who say they value life often see no problem with supporting the death penalty. Another hypocrisy is with those who support killing in wars, even of civilians, and even in large numbers. We try to rationalize this by saying that civilians are killed inadvertently, but that is a false argument. Civilians are inevitably killed in wars, often deliberately, and we often do nothing to condemn it when it is done by ‘our side.’ To support wars is to support killing and absolve killers, however much we try to sugar coat this unpleasant fact. As Voltaire said, “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”

In his lecture, Peter Singer pointed out that killing and eating animals, while opposing the withdrawal of life support of those in a persistent vegetative state, poses an ethical problem for people who say that they value a “culture of life.”

He gave as an example the fact that while the 3,000 or so victims of September 11, 2001 were deeply mourned, no one mourned the fact that millions of chickens were killed on that same day and every day before and since. But we do not mourn them the same way. Why not?

If we define death as heart dead or brain dead, then the chickens are as alive as any of us. Even when we lower the bar to thinking of someone in a persistent vegetative state as being ‘effectively dead’, that still does not get us off the hook since, as Singer argued, chickens and other animals have higher levels of consciousness than people in a persistent vegetative state. Free range chickens seem to show signs of happiness, curiosity, anxiety, fear, and the sense of self-awareness that, if present in humans, would definitely bar us from killing them. If that is the case, then if we oppose the withdrawal of life support systems even from those in a persistent vegetative state, then how can we justify killing chickens, or any other animal for that matter?

He posed the question of why the killing of human beings is deplored but that of chickens is not. He said that appealing to species chauvinism (“We are human, and so are justified in valuing human life over non-human animal life.”) was not really an ethically justifiable defense, though many people used it.

After all, if we allowed that particular chauvinist line of defense, where do we draw the line? What if I say that because I am male, I am justified in thinking that the lives of women are worth less than that of men? We would reject that line of argument as rank sexism. What if I say that because I am brown skinned, I am justified in treating non-brown people as inferior? We would reject that argument as rank racism. So why should we think that the argument “I am human so I am justified in valuing human life over animal life?” is acceptable?

Singer’s point was that as soon as we shift our definition of death from that defined by the complete lack of heart or brain function, and to judgments about the nature or level of the consciousness involved, we have gone into ethically tricky territory for those non-vegetarians who argue that because of belief in a “culture of life,” human beings must be kept alive at all costs. Because you cannot argue that people in a persistent vegetative state should be kept on life support while arguing that perfectly healthy animals can be killed.

People of certain religious traditions (like Christians, Jews, and Muslims) perhaps can find justification for this discrepant behavior by appealing to their religious beliefs that include species chauvinism as part of their doctrines. In the view of these religions, humans are specially favored by god and thus fundamentally different from, and superior to, other animals so valuing human life and disregarding non-human animal life is allowable. It is noteworthy that Buddhism and Hinduism do not assert such a species chauvinistic attitude. They seem to treat human and non-human animals on an equal footing and vegetarianism is advocated by both religions.

But if we leave out religious sanction and argue on strictly ethical grounds, it becomes hard to justify opposing the withdrawal of life support systems to people who are in a persistent vegetative state on the grounds that such people are still ‘alive’, and square it with the killing of healthy animals for food, as we routinely do.

Singer made a cogent argument that none of us can really ethically justify the killing of animals for food, when it is not necessary for survival. Singer himself is a vegetarian.

I am not sure if Singer was able to resolve some of the ethical issues of what constitutes death by the end of his talk, after I had left. But his ideas were very thought provoking.


Good jugglers are amazing. For a fine example of this art, go here and then click on “Watch Chris Bliss.”