Stoicism: No Guarantee of Logic or Morality

I have on several occasions questioned certain authors, typically ones who write about nonhuman animals, about whether their discovery that non-humans are  intelligent, social, and emotional has led to the ineluctable conclusion that those creatures should not be abused, killed, and eaten. In response, I have encountered illogic and ersatz ethics to support the insensate continuation of culturally ingrained practices. I wasn’t expecting to come across yet another specious justification for participating in the meat machine when I picked up a book on Stoicism, but, as you will see from the letter I wrote to the author, he raised the topic, exhibiting  willful ignorance.  I have not included his response, but, like the others mentioned above, he has not yet found the courage to face facts.

Dear Mr. Pigliucci,

I have been reading your book How to be A Stoic. I consider myself a practicing Stoic, having got my start several years ago by reading William Irvine.  Then, I read Seneca, the Enchiridion, and Marcus Aurelius.  I was curious to see what practical application you were making of Stoicism. On that topic of ways in which Stoicism plays out in our daily lives, you raised the question of food.

On page 68, you say that one cannot calculate “just how many animals suffer and die when you take up a vegetarian diet, because large scale cultivation radically alters the environment of the planet depriving a number of wild animal species of ecological space.”   One underlying assumption is simply inaccurate: that a vegetarian diet would necessarily require more plant farming.  To the contrary, the existing footprint of cultivation would not become larger (maybe it would become smaller) because currently plants are cultivated for the consumption of animals that could be given to humans. Frances Moore Lappe in Diet for a Small Planet established many years ago that, if humans ate the plants under cultivation for animals, world hunger would cease. However, even if we imagine that more land would be cultivated with some effect on some species of wildlife, such effect could not approach the current suffering of farmed animals. To conclude otherwise suggests a lack of awareness of the suffering caused to produce all of the meat and dairy that is consumed: thousands of animals on a daily basis suffer and face terrifying and violent deaths.  That is simply the truth that you can discover for yourself if you choose to look into how chickens, turkeys, pigs and cattle are raised.  If you would care to take a look at the experience of animals put on a stock trailer and unloaded at the slaughterhouse and then look and listen to what goes on there and then magnify that into the millions, you could not question that, whatever else might result from “a vegetarian diet,” that spectacle should end.

Production of food like all human activities has an environmental impact, and, although my concern is mainly with ending suffering and killing of animals, there is no question scientifically that meat production is one of the worst producers of greenhouse gasses. (See

As a philosopher, you seem to have determined that morality extends only to humans. I assume you are familiar with Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. After Seneca, that book was the most influential I have ever read. There is no moral justification for cruelty to animals except the maxim “might makes right.”  Intuitively that rule strikes me as wrong; deontologically, it is a poor rule to serve as a universal maxim; my experience indicates it is not conducive to the general welfare.

I have found that Stoicism supports morality that includes nonhumans. Just as Stoicism made you think about not wanting to be part of a bank that had engaged in disreputable practices, it has influenced me to conclude that, despite the way I was raised or what my culture dictates, I can and should make the reasoned decision to not be part of a process that inflicts suffering and death—whatever other options might exist, easy or not, that one is clear.


Laura Inman

Dinner with an Animal Lover

I had dinner with a long-lost friend a few years ago. As I have experienced before and since, such reunions are exciting in anticipation and satisfying in the shared memories but do not typically demand a sequel.  The lack of further dinners is relevant to explain why I never got the chance to follow up on the most salient point in the evening, which arose from the following anecdote.  Why exactly she related this story to me, I can’t remember, but she told me that her daughter was on the verge of buying a house in the northwest, where she resides, but absolutely could not do so because there were some cows that lived very close by on the other side of a shared fence.  The rural nature of the property appealed, but the problem was that she knew that inevitably the cows would be taken for slaughter and would no longer be there.  Her daughter would find the daily reminder posed by their absence disturbing. I was quite impressed that her daughter was sensitive to the realities of farmed animals –that even those who live in the best of bucolic settings exist as a commodity and face the stock truck ride to the slaughterhouse, complete with all the terror that hell could ever hope to mimic.

The waiter appeared as if on cue after the conclusion of this story and took our order. With god as my witness, and I would not have the nerve to make this up, she ordered steak.  First, she asked if I minded. I did not eat meat and must have expressed that to her or else she would not have asked my permission, but I was so flabbergasted that I did not know what to say, other than to mumble something about ordering what she wanted.  Now, I would react differently.  Now, I would suggest that her ordering steak was incongruous with the concern for the cow, which, by the way, was not just her daughter’s sentiment but also her own. I would ask with genuine interest how someone could care for one cow and eat another. I missed an opportunity to encourage a meat eater to face her food.

She is not the worst offender when it comes to the hypocrisy of “loving animals” on the one hand and eating them on the other (the culmination of much suffering to the animal and in many cases its companions, not to mention loss of life). The category of the worst hypocrite goes to those who hold themselves out as scientists of some sort, who have studied animals and have concluded with much fanfare that lo and behold animals too have thoughts, social bonds, emotions, and are way smarter than “we” ever thought, yet they still relish a good piece of animal flesh to chew. Such scientists have found yet another way to exploit animals—this time for their professional aggrandizement. When called out on the disconnect, they reveal a stunning lack of thought, responding like robots programmed with certain data:  we eat animals, that is what we do. If they are uncomfortable with a mindless answer like that, then, even worse, they indulge in a pseudo-scientific response: “I have seen a lot of predation in nature, so I am part of that circle of life.”  How facile is this statement, let me count the ways: not all animals are predators, so if you are looking to nature for an example, why choose the lion over the giraffe? And if you align yourself with the lion, please don’t insult that creature who has to kill in order to survive by comparing it to yourself or the mighty modern-day hunter.  No one could say with any honesty that he has to kill deer to survive; probably step one of a hunting we go is a stop off at McDonald’s to maintain that paunch. Now let us strain our credulity to the max and consider how  predation in nature bears any resemblance to the farm — to the crates of confined chickens, the cruelly immobilized pigs, the mutilated turkeys, the transport truck to the slaughter house. I think the pseudo-scientists next area of study should be animal behavior when animals are separated from their young prematurely, when they lose their mind from overcrowding and confinement, when they confront the confusion of suddenly finding themselves crammed onto a truck, and when they hear, smell, and see death.



Happy Birthday Mary’s Son

As the bumper stickers clamor at this time of year (and actually year-round) to keep the Christ in Christmas, I will do so by pondering a question that no doubt Christian theologians have explored and probably argued about, and, if other differences of arcane matters are any indication, such arguments might have been the basis for several years of righteous religious war. The question is about the baby Jesus.  Is he to be considered half human because his mother was mortal, or was he a divine creature planted in Mary, who was merely a vessel, like a woman who has had the eggs of another woman fertilized extra-utero and then implanted in her.  Both positions, and I can’t come up with any other options, lead to curious questions.

The first view that Mary was actually a mother, in the sense that she gave Jesus half of his genetic material, means that god impregnated her with god-sperm. A mortal woman visited by a god is of course very common in Greek mythology whether the woman was willing or raped. In those cases, the baby is clearly only half immortal –a very special human certainly but not an Olympian.  Jesus is called the son of god, but Mary is also called his mother — but is he ever called the son of Mary?  I have never heard that phrase. In favor of the position that Jesus was indeed Mary’s son and inherited half her genetic material is that Jesus appeared very mortal. Even though he is purported to have done a few miraculous things, still he is not godlike during his life. His non-godlike status is after all a large part of his appeal: he was one of us in a sense and could suffer; there is no question he suffered and gods do not suffer.

As for the second explanation –that Jesus was all god, nonhuman planted in Mary — the most obvious question is why go to all that trouble? Mary and Joseph could have found an infant alongside the path to Bethlehem and simply acted as his adoptive parents.  One might counter that assertion though – since anything is possible, without regard to any biological reality — that god planted an entire organism in the earliest fetal stages to miraculously (yes that’s the operative word) grow to term inside the woman’s body in order to have a birth; a birth was necessary. A finding under a bush or elsewhere would not do because of the obvious symbolism of a birth: newness and the opportunity for redemption by that new life. We would have to celebrate the day Jesus was found by the side of the road and brought to live with Joseph and Mary, and that is just not as definitive and inspiring as the day of a birth. Odd in a way that this birth story wasn’t syncretized with the spring-time pagan rituals celebrating fertility and birth — someone wanted the celebration of birth near the advent of winter maybe as an archetypal-juxtaposition of birth with death, the latter of which is represented by the cold and dormant time of the year. To what end such an archetypal device might serve, god knows. Oh, I forgot, though, for springtime we have a sort of rebirth with the resurrection.

Of course, both story lines are unfettered by reality, and since one impossible story is no more or less impossible than another, we can feel free to pick one. I think that (for non-theologians at least),  the choice is a matter of esthetics. I would be strongly in favor of the first version, but I can see it suggests a kind of sexual act (or at least fertilizing of a female egg) that the Greeks didn’t mind but seem inappropriate in the Christian context. Nonetheless, in favor of this view is the following: if Jesus acquired, naturally, half of his genetic makeup from Mary, then, given the new research on genetics, Jesus’s humanness means that much of humanity has some relationship to him, just as we also on the flip side might have some relation to Nero or Attila the Hun. (See Adam Rutherford and A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived.)

Either way, patriarchy is lurking here. Mary goes to the trouble of pregnancy, gives birth in the cold, puts up with strangers who drop in, bringing nothing of use for a newborn (incense and myrrh), but her baby is “the son of god.”

Civics Quiz

Here is a civics quiz: which is the wording of the Second Amendment:

  1. In order for the people to feel secure in their homes, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
  2. A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
  3. The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

The answer is B.

Given that the American colonies had relied on a militia to overthrow the British government, having a militia would have seemed pretty important at the time.  Also, it was not at all clear that the new government would not be subject to tyrants whom the people would also have to depose in order to keep the State free: for example, there was a fear that the office of the president was the first step to establishing another form of monarchy. (Even now, I have felt a fear of the office of the president lately, so it is easy to imagine that the fear was reasonable at the time).

One of the mysteries is how the Supreme Court found in that wording, so precise and such a product of the time, a general right to keep guns, semi-automatic rifles, unlimited ammunition for any and all purposes: hunting, recreation, protection, delusions, and just for fun. The mystery is not dispelled by reading the Supreme Court decision, a  piece of work that gives the legal profession its due as capable of constructing an argument that effectively dispenses with common sense. Suffice it to say, the Supreme Court has blood on its hands; it missed an opportunity to establish the simple truth behind simple words, an exercise in responsibility that would have saved countless lives, prevented untold suffering and grief, and would prevent all the deaths and suffering still to come –because of course there will be so many more shootings.

What is as bad as the tortured arguments of the Supreme Court wrung out of a legal mind to achieve a desired goal in the guise of stare decisis analysis, are the puny and pointless measures proposed to address the misinterpretation of the Second Amendment and address the gun culture: background checks, limits of rounds of ammunition; banning a piece that turns a killing machine into a bit better killing machine. I heard on NPR, by a proponent of gun ownership, that not one measure that has been proposed would have had any effect on the shootings that have occurred. He is right of course. Just like Trump’s travel ban has no relevance to any terrorist attack we have ever known, those measures will not stop the carnage. Only dispensing with the Second Amendment, as erroneously and absurdly interpreted, will achieve the goal. Gasp!! Overturn something the founders wrote?  It has happened before that some 18th Century notions do not stand the test of time and amendments are in order –and in this case, it defies logic to think that any one of them would have countenanced the current state of guns in this country — at least there is no evidence that they had a particular tolerance for the mass murder of children.

All rights are limited in a society to the degree they run up against other rights –old idea to which I refer you to John Stuart Mill.  Sorry, folks, you want to own guns –semi automatics, Saturday night specials, Glocks, rifles, and high powered scopes, whatever your killing toy — but your joy is at the base of hundreds of dead children, untold sorrow and a creeping rational fear that we are not free to live with safety in the “free State.”

And the Winner of the Most Valid Protest Award Is . . . .

If you have taken even little steps into the world of activism for animal rights, you might have experienced, and likely will if you persevere, the opponent who challenges your actions on the grounds that you should be fighting for a different cause. I suspect that argument only arises when the activist’s cause is not focused on humans. Do anti- abortion activists encounter foes who, rather than asserting that the fetus is a sui generis dependent on another individual and that the woman has the right to her own body, clamor that the abortion protester should be taking on the lack of prayer in school, or the protection of confederate monuments, or the right to carry semi-automatic weapons into Whole Foods. Likewise, do the “black lives matter” activists fend off challenges that they should be supporting the LGBT community protest on the other side of town rather than gathering to protest police brutality?  I doubt it. The “there are more important things to protest” argument is unique to opponents of animal rights protests because the argument comes from the speciesism that gives rise to the protests in the first place. (Speciesism is the view that humans and human affairs are all that matter because our species is the best and the only one to which morality applies). Thus, for example, in response to my sidewalk protest against the production of foie gras, naysayers (including the restaurateurs selling the stuff) did not challenge my protest on the merits by claiming,  hum . . . let’s say, that force feeding birds until their livers nearly burst isn’t really isn’t so bad, or that the birds have no feelings, or that torture is okay as long as the human with gets his “delicacy,”  but rather by asserting that  I should be concerned with something else. For heaven’s sake!! There were black people in the community!! and therefore the only valid protest was “black lives matter.” (For the record, that was certainly not the view of the great majority of the people whom I encountered in that community that I had “infiltrated”). This sideways argument is really one of the most satisfying for the animal activist’s opponent because it skirts the real issue and veers into the impossibility of justifying a moral act objectively, given that in reality all morality is subjective. All notions or right and wrong begin with personal emotion: a person will determine that something is “right” or “wrong” because of an emotional response.  From there, the thinking human will develop a system, either rule based (deontological) or utilitarian, for determining his moral code that all should follow because we like to have people around us whose actions comport with our ideas of right and wrong (for our safety and comfort).   Activism is the product of morality of course because the activist has determined within his or her system of morality whether a practice is wrong and immoral and should change. Therefore, one protest cannot be defended as more worthwhile because that assumes they have objective value, which they don’t.

If proving that morality is subjective is too much for the sidewalk confrontation, here are some points to counter the argument that there are more important things to protest. First, advocating for one cause does not mean a lack of concern for another; there is no relationship between causes such that one is diminished because I have raised my protest sign for the other. Hypothetically, there could be two protests going one in one place at the same time, such that the one I choose would actually benefit from the addition of my voice to the detriment of the other; however, hypothetical is the operative word—no such situation is going to occur. Even if that fictional construct were to occur, the person who joins one protest rather than the other is doing more than the person who doesn’t show up for either (that is assuming one believes that activism makes a difference—a different and troubling question beyond the current discussion). Second, putting causes in order of intrinsic importance is like creating a triage of horribles.  Elie Wiesel, whom I heard speak many years ago, when asked if the plight of certain peoples was not as bad as what happened to the Jews, simply responded that you can’t compare horribles. Similarly, if you campaign to raise money for research to defeat breast cancer what does that say about your lack of concern for prostate cancer, lung cancer, Alzheimer’s, or leukemia, or . . . I could keep going. Can you say breast cancer is more horrible than those afflictions and more deserving of your efforts?  Would anyone try to attempt the justification that breast cancer is “worse” objectively?  Of course, not.  Probably the answer to “why breast cancer” would be that so and so whom you loved had it or you fear getting it—pure emotion.

Third, always putting human concerns first in the list of things to protest is a species bias, just as racism and sexism is a bias that advances the interests of one more powerful group over those of a less powerful group, making the maxim “might makes right” a valid moral code, something I am not comfortable with for my own safety and welfare. Also, Suffering and death are as close to being objectively horrible as anything could be. Such suffering and death, inflicted to an unimaginable extent on nonhumans, are unnecessary in every way and the willingness to inflict such torment and deprivation clings to us as a vestige of an unquestioned barbarity in our culture. Last, the victims are among the most defenseless and helpless because they cannot speak; if I were defenseless and mute, I would want help—I am just doing what I would want done for me.


Comfort Yourself

Many Stoic precepts have gained traction in our modern society, such as abandoning the quest for happiness through material goods, keeping in mind that each day could be your last, and valuing the present. However, the injunction in Stoicism against complaining and turning to others for solace finds no home in today’s world where, to the contrary, we are encouraged to visit mental health workers and share the vicissitudes of life with friends, both real and on Facebook.  Stoicism does not denounce unloading your emotional turmoil on others because it is in poor taste but rather because it does not help and indeed makes things worse.  Modern psychology has instilled in us the idea that “one must talk about it,” however, where is the proof that doing so helps?   In such a realm, anecdotal evidence reigns supreme, which does not count as proof.  I am as good of an anecdotal source as the next person, so I will not only describe how experience has taught that turning to others does not help but also explain why.

First, laying your troubles on others does not lead to getting over them; the talking constitutes rehearsing them and making them even more present in your life.  There is no real basis for concluding that by the act of talking you somehow expunge a sentiment from your life.  Of course, for psychologists, the idea of your talking to them is self-serving. I have talked to psychologists about various topics without one grain of improvement.  Instead, the fact that I was seeking professional help created righteous validation for my feelings and gave them more strength and traction. If you want to remember something and make it seem terribly important, rehearse it—go over it again and again.  Aside from the paid listeners, the same is true for friends, except they might grow weary and start to eventually resent hearing your hardship or decide that your complaining is an invitation to lay bare their grief, sadness, disappointment etc. After all, the person to whom you are unloading your parcel of trouble has his or her own hands full.  I must draw a distinction between seeking solace from others and seeking advice.  Asking someone for example:  should I take a trip to Italy this summer on my own after my spouse has just died.  I am concerned that I will feel lonely.  Any ideas?  To which your friend could suggest that you do or don’t go, or take a tour with others, or go with her to France instead. Or, you have suffered a severe setback and tell your spouse that you no longer find life to hold any joy.  He or she might be the kind to give you a helpful pep talk –just as likely he or she will pointlessly commiserate, or think “geez, I’m doing everything I can in this relationship.” If however, you seek advice on some proposal to improve your mood, then that gives the spouse something to work with.

With regard to grief, culture has recognized not the need to seek solace but the need to recognize the finality of death and bid farewell. After the ceremony has occurred, you are on your own to suffer your grief with your own resources simply because no one — no friend, no psychologist — will make it any better and reaching out for others is not only pointless for you but tiresome for them.  Does that mean that the suffering cannot be addressed?  Absolutely not.  There are ways that stem from bringing reason to bear. You can consider that your suffering is the common lot of all animals (and not just humans, mind you! Humans don’t even mate for life to a large extent, yet we like to think we have a monopoly on grief.) Consider grief as natural and loss as the way of things: you might as well shake your fist at the sun as rail against death. Second, meditation might quell anxiety.  Third, take action.  Even if you do something that you don’t enjoy, having it end and just getting back to home can bring solace whereas before the walls were closing in. Fourth, just give it up; just accept you don’t feel good; forgive yourself if that is part of the problem. In the end, a lot of sadness comes from expectations: turn down the dial on expectations and hoping. And, last, avoid people who foist their emotional narratives on others implicitly suggesting that they are special in their suffering.

Shame on Jane Smiley

John Keats criticized Lord Byron for treating serious things lightly and light things seriously. The latter is the lesser of the evils and not at issue here.  As to the former, Byron’s treatment of shipwrecked, starving sailors resorting to cannibalism in “Don Juan” is a good example.  There is nothing of the truth of the suffering, anguish, desperation, or horror of such a plight, but rather a jaunty rhyme with a humorous tone. The disunion of topic and style reminds me of certain songs where the lyrics address serious subjects like child abuse but are conveyed by a rollicking tune in a major key. There are two possible literary justifications for making light of horrible circumstances: satire and black humor. Serious and even horrible events are presented with humor fueled by exaggeration or understatement in order to expose human foibles, such as hypocrisy, ignorance, intolerance, and so many more. Candide comes to mind as the standout example of that.  Second, black humor has a deeper purpose than simply treating awful things in a funny manner. With a nihilistic bent, writers of black humor look at suffering as absurd rather than pitiful, purposefully turning away from the usual and natural emotional reaction to make a point about pointlessness. However, satire is not Byron’s objective or effect at least in those scenes such as the shipwreck, and Keats did not exculpate Bryon by considering him satirical rather than grossly insensitive. Not only does Byron not come across as a satirist, he does not qualify as a nihilist. He is too truly a Romantic to be a nihilist.

Keats’s criticism of Byron came to mind while I was reading a moderately engaging and alternately off-putting novel by Jane Smiley, Moo University, because I found myself reacting to her description of the life and death of a pig as Keats did to Byron’s shipwrecked sailors.  In this novel, horrible things are happening to a pig, but the author insists on treating the situation with levity suitable for outright comedy, tricking the uninitiated into thinking that there is nothing wrong with the treatment of the pig. The pig has a name and is taken out of commodity-status and made individual not only by having a name but by having thoughts that the omniscient narrator relates, just as she does the thoughts of the humans in the story.  Purportedly getting into the mind of nonhuman animals is something of a signature for Smiley but she betrays them at every turn in this novel and might not even be close to right about their thoughts in her other novels, such as Horse Heaven. In the novel in question, the pig is kept hidden in total isolation, inside, on a concrete floor without any contact except a student who shows up to clean out his stall and give him food, and such food is part of the abuse because he is overfed purposefully to the point of causing him pain throughout his legs and feet. A climax of one of the story lines occurs when the building in which the big has been imprisoned is bulldozed; the terrified creature runs across campus and drops dead. He then is butchered and eaten.  As I write those bare incidents, it would seem very difficult to portray any humor in that situation, so I suppose it is to Smiley’s credit as a writer that she can pull that off (assuming she does and readers join in the “fun”); but it is equally to her discredit if she does so succeed and that she uses her talents to that end. If Smiley thought that readers were insightful and thoughtful enough to see past her overtly light-hearted treatment of the pig to realize that she was actually encouraging readers to see the evil, she is wrong — there is no evidence to suggest she aimed at leading readers to conclude that treating pigs as commodities is cruel. If she intended some form of satire, she fails because most readers will take it at face value. In this novel, the abuse of the pig is nothing and it is merely mildly humorous how he gets free and runs despite how grossly fat he is and, hee! hee!, winds up as bacon!

Shame on you Jane Smiley. Anyone who has the ability to affect the way the ordinary person considers nonhuman animals has an opportunity—you not only missed it, you added to the ignorant immorality rife among us.

Another Fourth of July

Meat propaganda spikes at holiday time, as we have just witnessed with this 4th of July and the usual media barrage of meat-equals-celebration messages: you must consume heavily spiced scraps of dead pigs and cows formed into tubes (even have contests to see what cultural robot can eat the most), ground up cow flesh, and dead bird parts.

This particular holiday, in addition to encouraging the typical thoughtless consumption of stuff resulting from misery and death, also perpetuates thoughtless consumption of a cultural narrative devoid of any real thought about the reality of our history.  When considering our past, which runs up to the present, I think we could use a day of atonement more than a day of celebration: Atonement Day sales at Macy’s would work just as well.  With independence from England we were free to maintain slavery longer than any place else in the Western world; with independence, we denied anything close to equal rights or opportunities to women and never did pass an equal rights amendment; we broke treaties with and nearly annihilated the native Americans; we dropped two atomic bombs; we have so many horrific mass shootings with assault rifles that they have become commonplace. All the hoopla and glee about July 4th is based on a near mythical narrative and reveals a collective penchant for not thinking that is childlike. One kind of thoughtlessness deserves another, so as long as we aren’t thinking about history in any kind of accurate way, we can also not think about what we are putting in our mouths.  Nobody likes to think that pigs are born to live a life crammed in a crate unable to even turn over, forced to give birth only to have their young taken away at the greatest distress and misery; nobody likes to think about the cattle on the truck, crammed in and terrified and prodded to the killing floors of the slaughter house.  Nobody likes to think about geese kept immobile their entire lives so they can be force fed until their livers are near bursting.  The hot dogs you eat and the ribs on the grill and the burger on the bun were tormented creatures, not unlike our beloved dogs or even in many ways not that unlike ourselves. We relish and wallow in and exalt in not thinking. I would like to watch the fireworks display that celebrates a real revolution, one based on awareness and kindness for all.


Reading Wuthering Heights: An Appreciation

I just finished Wuthering Heights for the umpteenth time, leaving Lockwood poetically musing at the graves of Catherine, Edgar, and Heathcliff, those quiet sleepers in the quiet earth. Those final lines are the culmination of a poetry-infused final section of roughly twenty pages, in which Heathcliff’s character as the greatest mourner in literature comes to the fore as he wills himself to death in order to achieve his heaven, reunion with Catherine, the only person in his tormented life with whom he has ever known happiness.

Emily Bronte was first and foremost a poet, not a writer of prose, although she had blended storytelling with poetry, penning long story poems, harbingers of her great prose work; however, I sense that having gotten through writing most of Wuthering Heights, in the end, she relapsed into poetry, especially when it came to her favorite poetic topic, death. Thus, we have those mellifluous words, haunting words, sonorous and rhythmic phrases gracing the final pages.  Start reading where Nelly Dean tells Lockwood, when he happens to be in the vicinity of Gimmerton and returns to Wuthering Heights, how Heathcliff’s death came about; then, we are privy to Heathcliff’s previous eighteen year-long, unrelenting grief. It requires Bronte’s poetry for Heathcliff to explain the phenomenon of living with a dream of death so sustained that it finally consumes his existence, defeating even his desire for revenge.

I can read a novel more than once, indeed several times, although I must ration it so as to not to completely wear it out — but, who can wear out poetry? Lines of verse are like scripture for the religious. One can memorize them and refer to them and reflect and call them to mind when needed. Amen. That evergreen quality of poetry helps explain why I can read Wuthering Heights limitlessly, but that does not mean to discount the novelistic aspects that I enjoy undiminished by great repetition: I study how the plot fits together, particularly over the complicated temporal landscape of two generations; I cozy up to my old friends and enter the world of two remote houses in the 18th century. It is not a welcome or desirable world, but it has the comfort of the familiar. Of the two houses, I, as a spoiled native of suburban comfort, would prefer to live at the Grange, with Nelly Dean to make up the fire, bring me soup, and tell me stories. Despite those  elements of narrative, character, and setting that hold up well to repeated use, it is the poetry above all that will support and sustain the pleasure of having the novel in my hands yet again even now, right after putting it down. I know of no other book that I can say that about.  I know of no other book comparable to Wuthering Heights. I am still in the phase of coming out from under the spell. “Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish how will I seek the empty world again.”  Bronte wrote that in the voice of a mourner in a poem with the first lines, “Cold in the earth and the deep snow piled above thee.”  Yes, I have to seek the real world again.


The Morality of Horseback Riding

In considering the question whether horseback riding is wrong under an anti-specieisist morality, I have developed a two-part test. However, before applying it to that case at hand, I will briefly reiterate what an anti-specieisist approach to nonhuman animals entails. Peter Singer clarified that all animals have different interests, but that differences in interests are not the relevant consideration in determining how to treat nonhuman animals; the question is “do they suffer.” Humans are not morally entitled to regard their own species as the only species whose suffering matters — ethical concerns should not begin and end with the human species.  We are all animals, we all suffer, and, unless we want to embrace a philosophy of “might makes right,” our conscience should operate for other species, not just our own.  Such is his theory, or, at least, as I understand and apply it.

How an anti-speciesist viewpoint translates to the everyday is clear in many respects: vivisection, meat production, separating a mother from its young, hunting — all manner of treatment that is defended on the grounds that it is acceptable when done to “just animals,” but which would be abhorrent if perpetrated on humans. There are some areas of human / nonhuman interaction that require more thought. A case in point is horseback riding.

One might argue that demanding a horse to do the bidding of a human “uses” the nonhuman animal, which is per se immoral because we would not do such a thing to a human. First, in relying on what we do to humans as a guide for what we do to nonhuman animals, we must understand the degree to which we also use humans and how relevant our use of a human is as a point of moral reference in determining the morality of using a horse. Emmanuel Kant, the 18th century philosopher whose statements on morality make up most of Philosophy 101, established that people should not be a means to an end, i.e. we should not use humans. However, we do exactly that routinely. Think about hiring someone to do a job. Kant makes an exception when both parties freely agree to a mutually beneficial arrangement; in such cases the injunction against using people as a means to an end does not pertain. Is it possible, though, for a nonhuman (in this case, a horse) to agree to a mutually beneficial arrangement? One would say no because the two parties do not have equal bargaining power. Therefore, we cannot use a nonhuman because it cannot feely agree – such is the conclusion that follows in equating horses with humans. However, equines are not human, having, as Singer established, different interests. For example, horses do not mind and seem to enjoy standing in a large field at night in cold temperatures, whereas a human and many other species would not like that or even survive the night. Therefore, we cannot use a human standard about interests in evaluating everything that a horse does or might be asked to do. Also, there are even humans for whom Kant’s free- agreement paradigm does not apply.  Children do not feely agree to many demands put upon them, but it is not considered immoral to compel them to do a great many things. Further, to rebut Kant for a moment, it is debatable whether humans actually have the free will to make the choice to be in many of the “using” arrangements that occur in life. Factor in DNA, heredity, nurture, environment, and happenstance and the question of just how free our will is, just how freely we enter into “using” arrangements, is not at all so determinable in favor of free will. Whether we are freely exercising choice in life is certainly questionable.

We would not need a two-part test to answer the horseback riding question if the standard by which we judge is solely by equating horses to human: they cannot freely enter into the arrangement, therefore it is immoral. However, based on the fact that horses and humans do have different interests, I suggest that we need to go farther, and that is where the two-part test comes in. For the first part, we must ask: are we treating the nonhuman as an individual or a commodity.  To understand commoditization, I will relate an anecdote that brought home to me the evils of that practice. David Foster Wallace in an essay about his visit as a journalist to a Midwestern state fair,  tours the farm animal exhibits and brings the reader along with him. The  reality of the swine hall haunts me. He describes how one pig exhibited great distress, such that he thought the creature was suffocating.  He felt an innate alarm and looked around for the owner to alert him that the pig was suffering, maybe about to die –then he realized that the “exhibitor” could hardly be bothered about one pig’s suffering.  They were all going to be killed; were raised to be killed. Incidentally, after the “Swine Hall,” he felt great relief when he visited the equine hall and knew that the “winner” would not be hauled off to the slaughter house.)  What that anecdote from the essay shows is creatures viewed as commodities. That pig was not an individual; it did not have a name; no human was concerned about its individual welfare; any veterinary treatment it had ever received was part of a program not for its welfare, but for the mass; its death would either be a monetary loss or gain. It is born for profit, is kept alive for profit, and dies for profit.

Even creatures whom we name, give veterinary treatment, and recognize as having something of an individual identity might still not be anything more than a commodity. Race horses come to mind in this category; they certainly have names, the vet is called for any lameness, they have a groom and riders, and a great deal of attention paid to them; however, none of that counters the underlying view of them as a commodity.  They are like gladiators—well treated only to the degree that it enhances their usefulness as a money-making proposition. Of course, there are exceptions for the few famous horses.  But for each Seabiscuit or Secretariat or Barbaro there are thousands of thoroughbred horses put through the mill and discarded. That means that they are still viewed as a commodity.  All creatures raised for food are soundly in the commodity category, and some other nonhumans – such as horses and dogs used for sport —  might or might not be. Even if a creature does not fall into the category of a commodity, it of course can still be abused; hence the second part of the test, which asks: are we treating the nonhuman with kindness that approximates a golden rule-type principle befitting the interests of the kind of creature. Perhaps even more than our tendency toward commoditization, we have a great tendency to be abusive. We abuse many creatures who are often not viewed as commodities – children, spouses, elders, whomever is vulnerable. That reminds me, as an aside, that the movement for prevention of cruelty to animals sprung up in England in the 19th century after the publication of the novel Black Beauty; the leaders of that movement addressed cruelty not only to horses but also to children.

So, let’s apply the test – am I treating the nonhuman as a commodity and am I being cruel or kind to that creature. Here is one case at one end of the spectrum: the beloved family dog. No vegan or ardent animal rights advocate would question that having the company of a dog is morally wrong. Why? Because the last thing the dog is for us is a commodity.  The well-cared for dog has a name, which goes beyond identification like the name of a racehorse: its name expresses our view of the creature’s identity and his or her special place in our lives. The dog is well fed (sometimes clothed), given veterinary attention, love, and respect for its wishes.  When he or she dies, we mourn. We do not view his or her passing as an economic boon or as dinner on the way. Although there is always the potential for abuse, under the second prong of the test we would say that they are treated with kindness; we walk them, caress them, get them comfy beds, and care that they are living a good life. Now, there are dogs, however, who are “used” by humans.  They are educated from puppyhood to perform for human benefit; they are bomb sniffing dogs, police dogs, rescue dogs, sled dogs, seeing eye dogs, medical alert dogs, comfort dogs, guard dogs. Is that acceptable to an anti-speciesist morality? I think that under the typical vegan-animal rights evaluation, such uses of the dog would pass muster, assuming that the dog was well-treated.  It cannot pass muster on the basis that the dog agreed to perform any given role, which is the standard we would propose for a human in a using arrangement.  It must be, therefore, that application of the two-part test reveals that working, per se, in not inimical to vegan ethics. We humans are coerced in a sense to work.  We are not entitled to do nothing. I could regard putting on panty hose, carrying a heavy load of documents, navigating mass transportation to a day of confinement in an office with short breaks to maintain my sanity as less than my ideal way of life, but such was the work I had for many years and such is life. Let’s remember Darwin who observed carefully and came up with the all-encompassing truth that life is a struggle.  For me, then, I think that having a job is not repugnant, even if the dog did not request it; however, in that inherently unequal using arrangement the demands on kindness by the more powerful party are exceptionally high. Indeed, there is no situation in life that requires our kindness more than when dealing with a nonhuman because it is the most vulnerable of creatures.

The working dog example, in addition to suggesting that work imposed on a nonhuman is not necessarily morally repugnant nor so dissimilar from what humans do, also reveals the constructive quid pro quo defining the existence of the domesticated nonhuman animal — the arrangement of “this for that” even if not actually agreed to. It is true that the dog is acting at the behest of another without having overtly accepted the assignment, yet it cannot be said that he does not benefit from the arrangement. As lives go, he might and can be seen to exhibit every indication of content in his job. It is obvious when a creature is suffering and not so much less obvious when he is satisfied with the state of things. That situation describes the idea of the imputed contract of domestication—nonhumans lend humans a hand and humans give back in return with food, shelter, care, attention, affection and a home free of the harshest aspects of living in the wild. On that latter point, let us not forget that nature is very harsh.

From working dogs, we move to working horses, since a horse can be said to be working when it is ridden. To what degree does using a horse for riding equate to the uses listed for dogs? Is it moral under the two-part test? I posit that if using dogs passes muster, then, a fortiori, using horses for riding does as well because dogs have a place in the human world purely as companions that horses do not have. So, if we can accept using our idle companions, we can come to terms with using a creature that would not exist if not for use. (With regard to that last assertion, few are the people who have a horse just as a companion.  The requirements for land, the upkeep of at least one other horse to satisfy the horses need for equine companionship, and the cost of room and board are so great that they must fit into some other scheme than a companion creature.)

Positing a horse owner of the type that I am, I will proceed with applying the test. First,  the human who keeps a horse does not view the horse as a commodity. The horse is not owned for the purpose of monetary gain—as I write that I wonder if the gross understatement will be recognized (anyone who has a horse will get it). The riding horse is not kept to fetch a good price or to serve as a main course.  The horse has a name and a very distinct identity – what does the individual like to eat, how many blankets does he need, how often does he get shoes, what weather does he do best in.  The concerns for his welfare are too numerous to list. The death of a horse occasions some of the most intense grief I have ever witnessed, which attests to the strength of its individuality and the bond with the human. The foregoing itemization of individual needs also addresses the second part of the test: is the horse treated kindly in accordance with its equine interests. There the individual human makes a difference; there are abuses, but that a situation can be abused is not an argument against its existence.  That statement is a rather facile argument, however, which would not hold up if there were rampant abuse, such that even if some people could be kind, so many were not such that it would be best to abolish riding horses altogether. I am of the view that the abuses are not so great as to justify the end of riding on that basis alone, and would prefer combatting the abuses.  However, whether the abuse outweighs the ostensibly good aspects of riding is an empirical question for which I have no data, just anecdotal experience of my own.

Therefore, if the horse is not a commodity and it is treated kindly, riding him or her is not immoral unless, as with the dog, imposing a job on the horse per se is immoral. The job alone might be a problem for many, although I don’t know how such people would come out on the question of working dogs.  As for horses, there is a popular opposition to the carriage horses in New York City. Oddly though, I have not heard the same concerns for police horses. I would rather stand in the traces and saunter slowly around the park than stand around with a cop on my back.  Of course, as required by the second part of the test, these horses must be treated with kindness consistent with their interests, and that is where I see the problem equally for both of these working horses.  It is not that they work during the day, if the job is subject to reasonable standards as should apply to any worker human or nonhuman, but rather that the horses never get to enjoy a pasture or field where they can indulge their natural behaviors.  If they live in the metropolitan area, they live in a stall.

The horse whose job is carrying a human around for pleasure and sport, I would conclude, is not inherently treated immorally. It is not commoditized and is treated well –at least by me.  And it is my actions that concern me most in writing this analysis.  I don’t think for a moment that I am persuading anyone that riding a horse is or can be squared with an antispeciesist-vegan morality.  I know from experience that I am powerless to convince anyone of anything. If I can show a generally decent person how farm animals are treated and that person still feels okay with participating in that atrocity, then I certainly cannot convince anyone on a question having as much nuance as this one. In addition to not seeking to persuade, I do not need to mount a case to protect my continued enjoyment of my equine activity; no one threatens that. I have meandered through this issue for myself.  As the Stoic Seneca said, “Don’t ask why you learned this thing, you did it for yourself.”  Beyond Stoic self -sufficiency, I am wary of being the fish that does not know he is swimming in water.  I have for so much of my life, like most people, accepted whatever culture handed out as the way to live, only to finally realize that just knowing what part of culture to question is a huge first step.  I know not to think that just because we have ridden horses for centuries it must be okay to do it.  If something has been done for centuries it has all the indicia of very much needing to be questioned. I am open to the possibility that I will someday decide that I was wrong. So, I have questioned. Now I will quit cogitating and drive to the barn with my large bag of carrots, brush my horse, rub his face and behind his ears with a towel, show him my love and then respectfully request that he indulge me for an hour.