Coerced Morality

Is it good enough for a person to stop doing an immoral act at the request of another if he does not believe that the act is wrong? That is the general articulation of the following question that I came across on Facebook recently: my fiancé will stop eating meat because I have told him I cannot marry him if he doesn’t become vegan, but he says that he doesn’t agree that there is anything wrong with eating meat and is abstaining just for my sake. Is that good enough?

First, I want to leave out any considerations of whether he will resent his “sacrifice” and take it out in other ways because such possible consequences depend entirely on his personality and the dynamic of that relationship, which are not pertinent to the general discussion of the morality of doing something when your heart isn’t in it.

The first premise to establish is that giving up meat is a moral action: it is a refusal to participate in or perpetuate the misery, suffering, and terrifying death of conscious, sentient creatures who are animals just as humans are animals. Anyone who doubts the misery, suffering, and terrible death can easily come to understand that reality by the most cursory research and application of imagination.

Desisting from acts of cruelty is moral under any of the following notions of morality, deontological or utilitarian. As for the former, refusing to participate in cruelty constitutes doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, which is the Golden Rule.  Not participating in cruelty is also a maxim (in the terminology of Emmanuel Kant) that you would want as a universal law: you would want everyone, universally, to do the same action and therefore the action is moral. Also, another way of seeing the immorality of participating in the cruelty of meat and dairy production is by evaluating whether a powerful group is pursuing a self-serving action to the severe detriment of a less powerful one. Clearly that is the case because the meat and dairy industries benefit financially from the suffering and death of scores on nonhumans every day.  From a utilitarian standpoint, with its focus on the consequential amount of suffering, the enormity of suffering to nonhumans caused by the meat and dairy industries show the actions of those industries to be immoral as is perpetuating them by consuming  meat and dairy.

Therefore, the fiancé in giving up meat is willy-nilly acting morally; however, is that morality undermined by his state of mind? One response would be a resounding “no” from the Existentialist school of thought. According to Existentialists we are the sum of our actions—the only thing that matters is actions, thus the maxim, “existence before essence.” When applied to everyday examples, the truth of that position appears. If I sat around claiming that I cared greatly about the homeless, couldn’t sleep at night for thinking about them on the sidewalk, and with every bite of food wished I could share with them, but I do nothing at all, my state of mind is morally meaningless. I have to do something or abstain from something, not just think, because morality deals with actions (as seen from the above statements of how to judge morality). Conversely, if I sacrifice my time, money, and comfort to achieve some result that does not directly serve my aggrandizement I am acting morally. (Note, on the topic of whether an action can be moral if you derive some benefit, such as satisfaction, from doing it, Kant argued that any act that is motivated by the desire to achieve a result or is consistent with an inclination is not moral because the only really moral act comes purely from duty.  I think he then went on to conclude that there was no action in reality that could be divorced entirely from self-interest, so I won’t delve into the degree to which giving up meat and dairy is not self-interested in some way).  All of the above ideas about the necessity of an action finds expression in the adage: actions speak louder than words or, in this case more precisely, thoughts.

Last, the fiancé who foregoes meat upon request is acting morally as opposed to hypocritically. Peter Singer wrote that “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.”  That bit of philosophical poetry expresses the central fact of hypocrisy that the hypocrite knows what is virtuous and what is bad because he gives lip service to the first and acts in accord with the latter; thus, in Singer’s phrase, the hypocrite even while acting badly acknowledges verbally, i.e. pays tribute virtue to, the right action. Every hypocritical action entails words versus deeds, good words and bad deeds — it is never the other way around, bad thoughts or words and good action. The inconsistency between words and deeds runs only one way – why? Because words / thoughts are not important – actions are. In our example at hand, it would be hypocritical if the fiancé voiced his thoughts on animals to express his love for them and concern about their treatment and then ordered the cheeseburger.  It is not hypocritical to say or think whatever he thinks he might believe at some point in time while refusing to participate in animal cruelty.

That digression into the nature of hypocrisy brings us back to morality and the nature of it as something concerned with actions, doing to others, acting as you would have the world act, acting so as not to contribute to the suffering of others.  Where nonhumans are concerned, just get it straight who “the others” are—all sentient beings.

Philosophy aside, there is still the “Dear Abbey” aspect of the question, and in that regard, I have to say that I would like a fiancé who would give up meat and dairy for me. He is really smitten with me, flexible-minded, or maybe even Stoic enough not to think that his palette is of the highest importance; he possibly knows that far from being hungry, he will eat delicious food and be in better shape and health than before. Over time our tastes can change, and the action will become a self-fulfilling prophecy — a moral vegan will be born.

The New Yorker, Highbrow Ignorance

The New Yorker never ceases to amaze me in its split personality. On the one hand, the view of the magazine’s contributors (and the tenor of the thing as a whole) is hard core liberal of the most literate kind, suggesting that its staff and contributing writers are highly educated, reasonable, insightful, and compassionate. There is another side to this group of oracles of the erudite message, however, which is as backwater and uninformed as the hairiest yahoo. I first encountered the underbelly of the glorious beast in a restaurant review of Benoit Restaurant, in which the food critic delightfully described how the chef (aka Dr. Evil in my view) served up whole piglets to celebrate spring. To complement that are articles about barbecue that seem more suited to Redneck’s Home Journal than a magazine claiming itself as a spokesman of sorts for one of the most enlightened cities in the world.

Now we have one of the team, Nathan Heller, who apparently was absent from the discussion of morality during Philosophy 101 back at Old Ivy. Heller takes on the topic, couched as something more and making of it something less, of animal rights as a moral issue. His jaunty little piece, “If Animals Have Rights, Should Robots?” is an exercise in superficial, tired, pseudo questions on morality as it concerns non-humans. For one, he calls humans “omnivores,” an old wives tale of a justification for meat eating, so easily countered by the fact that many species do not eat meat, and we have more in common with those species that do not eat meat than the predators that do. And even if we had the teeth and digestive system of a meat eater (which we don’t) the confinement and killing of farm animals has no similarity to predation at all. He also goes over the old ground of differentiating between humans and non-humans on the basis of cognitive ability, when it is an easily discernible reality that there are many humans who are not “cognitive peers” (e.g. infants and the brain-damaged) who are not excluded from moral treatment. He pontificates: “Until we can pinpoint animals’ claims on us, we won’t be clear about what we owe robots—or what they owe us.”  We, or some of us, have “pinpointed” how we should treat nonhuman animals: we should follow the Golden Rule and abandon the maxim of “might makes right.” However, that does not address robots and what we owe them in the least because robots unlike humans and other species are not animals.

Throwing around hackneyed arguments in support of culturally endorsed cruelty only adds to the message that we don’t need to really think too long or too hard about what we do to animals. Tee hee, an animal, shoot, it’s kinda like a robot. Come on Nathan Heller, why not read more than a few lines for the purpose of your article of the authors whom you cite: Peter Singer, Johnathan Balcombe, Sherry Colb, Michael Dorf and Christine Korsgaard. If you do and you still come out with statements like you made in the article, then your education and intelligence failed to equip you to perform the most important kind of critical thinking—to question the forces of culture and self-interest.




Killing is the Answer

Under “The National Briefing” in the New York Times this week, appeared the news that Yellowstone National Park officials want to kill one thousand buffalo. The reason is that they might carry disease to livestock. This is a cycle of killing: kill the bison so that ranchers can raise cattle and kill them. Killing is so commonplace when it comes to nonhumans: we kill them to eat, to wear, to experiment on, even for trivial inquiries, and for entertainment.  With killing such an unquestioned part of the acceptable approach in our lives, small wonder we are violent in general. How many of the mass shooters at schools and in movie theaters were hunters; how many would have hesitated to kill an animal? It seems axiomatic that if we did not kill nonhuman animals, we would not so easily kill humans.

The argument that we should stop killing animals because it primes us to kill humans is well known in the animal rights debate and is disfavored by some activists for two reasons. It is easily impeached, and it is not the real reason we should not exploit and kill animals. Regarding the former, the counter argument is easily made that there are a lot of people who kill nonhuman animals who do not kill humans, so there is not a cause and effect relationship. To address that counter argument, I would point out that many people who eat animals or take advantage of them do not do it themselves and manage to keep it up only through complete ignorance or by turning the blind eye of convenience and expediency; that there is indeed a correlation and that animal killing is a gateway to human killing because, as pointed out in the opening paragraph, our mass shooters would not hesitate to kill a nonhuman; they generally did so and enjoyed inflicting suffering on them. On the second objection, I agree that it is more intellectually comprehensive and honest to stop killing animals for the reason that a difference in species does not abolish a moral obligation to have compassion for others. The realization of the evils of speciesism, as developed perfectly by Peter Singer, should change anyone’s outlook on our cruelty toward nonhumans on every level, at least for anyone who has a brain and a conscience strong enough to question culture. Culture—there’s the rub. A mental groundwork  must be laid before any idea like compassion can take root; the understanding, maybe even epiphany, that culture is not sacrosanct, that it is up for critique and needs to be questioned; that just because great grandpa did such and such does not make it right; that just because “everyone” is doing it, does not make it right.  Reaching that point centers the problem because people cling to culture to define themselves and gain a sense of identity.  They are lost having to think for themselves. If you can’t think for yourself, than how could you reach the conclusion that you are somehow better than the nonhumans you mistreat and eat.

Thinking About Thinking

Seneca gave advice on how to achieve tranquility through the use of reason, which means  thinking rather than feeling. We see from Seneca’s letters and essays, that there are various ways to exercise reason to gain tranquility depending on the situation.  For example, one can reason that there are things over which we have no control, and if we do not have control, then dwelling on those things is completely pointless.  Remember the axiom: there is nothing more pointless than pointless thinking. When faced with the really cruel strokes of fate (death of a loved one, disease, disaster, just to name a few), it might be useful to also think about the reality of suffering: we all suffer, suffering is the way of nature of which we are a part, and however horrible things seem to be, they could be worse.  Suffering also could be reckoned to have its benefits in improving us as human beings.  There is a Latin phrase that states, not to know what happened before you were born is to remain a child.  I would say that not to have suffered is to always remain a child.

Another bit of advice to maintain tranquility when tested by external events is to consider how trivial most of the things that we fret about actually are. Seneca unequivocally states that most things are trivial.  To support that statement, we need only gain perspective by comparing our modern day situation with that of other people struggling to survive in harsher places or even people in earlier times. Such a reality check with what the human condition can be like should help restore our tranquility when faced with trivial disturbances.

I have recently expanded that line of thinking to consider most of what affects us as trivial when considering the dire circumstances of other species. To me (post Animal Liberation) the human species is not the only one that counts:  it is not the only one that has interests, relishes life, or suffers. The human species is superior only in certain ways (other species are superior in other ways), but no aspect of human superiority justifies the principle of  “might makes right,” extending carte blanche to oppress because we can. Therefore, I need only think of the confinement and torture of nonhuman species to realize how trivial my concerns are. Unless I am a prisoner of a cruel tormentor who confines and tortures me and threatens me with a brutal death—and of course there are unfortunate humans in that situation—my life, as compared to that of farm animals, poses only trivial problems.

One difficulty results from reckoning how much worse life could be by looking at the miserable lives of others; to foster tranquility, that line of thinking requires a degree of selfishness. In contemplating the abuse of other species, I can realize how trivial my problems are, but at the same time, unless I am entirely self-centered, I become very disturbed.  Such a disturbed mind is antithetical to tranquility, particularly at night when trying to sleep.  I guess that Seneca would remind me, as I mentioned at the beginning, that the reasonable mind does not dwell on things beyond one’s control, and saving other species in one fell swoop, or even saving one pig (apparently from my experience), is beyond my control.  Seneca did address the idea that one could fall into a state of disgust with the world when taking a look at humanity at work.  I must advise myself (as Stoics are responsible for making their own additions to their philosophy) to reduce the pointlessness of such thinking by taking action, however little, and by thinking that the world has changed for the better.  There is the potential for the slaughter-house to close because it doesn’t take everyone, just enough people with a conscience. No great change ever saw unanimity, just a sufficient number. Someday, perhaps, one will wonder how we ever tormented fellow creatures with the revolting goal of cutting up their bodies into parts and putting their flesh, teaming with bacteria and on the way to rotting, into our mouths to chew and digest.

Most Influential Books

What books have had the greatest influence on your life?  That sounds like a prompt for a college admission essay. Many long years away from college applications, I can now easily answer that there are two books.  The first is The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, by William Irvine, which then led to another, The Essays and Letters of Seneca. (I might more correctly say I have three influential works, except those two I take together as responsible for revealing Stoicism to me).  The second is also in the philosophical genre: Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer.

What the two have in common and what makes them truly influential is that they caused me to question an entire way of living and to make me change for the better. They both also put together in a cogent and rational scheme disparate ideas that I had formed on my own, but which I did not fully understand or trust.  In particular, with regard to Stoicism, I discovered, as I had partly surmised, that no one was responsible for anyone else’s tranquility.  We are each responsible for our own state of mind and we can influence our outlook by resorting to reason over emotion.  Hence, I had, even pre-Stoicism, suspected that taking your troubles to a therapist or counselor, that complaining generally to others, that extolling and indulging your emotions, including the vaunted ones of joy and romantic love, were detrimental to my state of mind. I had wondered about the point of worrying and hoping—and indeed, discovered the Stoic view that nothing is more pointless or aggravating than ruminating over things beyond one’s control and that hoping causes us to live a life in suspense.  I had often thought that if any given day was my last, I should not want to live it differently than any other day –and right I was; Stoicism would counsel to live each day as your last because it could be your last.  Also, I had learned on my own the hard way how foolish and empty it is to seek notoriety or the good opinion of others, which Stoicism affirmed.  Last, in this cursory summary, I found in Stoicism a context for two axioms I had developed on my own: regret nothing because, if what you did was reasonable, you would do it again; and everything is an end in itself.  Culture, perpetuated mass ignorance, and the media had rendered such ideas the objects of a meandering, scavenger hunt in the dark.

Reading Irvine and Seneca transformed my outlook. I rethought a status quo that was not doing me any favors. Ditto for the second influential work, Animal Liberation. Another part of the indoctrination I received from culture, the media, and big business interests was eating animals and the attendant notion that the human species is somehow not an animal species like the others, but rather something special and above the rest. First, as for the eating of animals, I think children would have a natural revulsion to eating the flesh of an animal, but we trick them out of it by disguising what they eat in sight and name. Therefore, I ate cheeseburgers and bacon and poultry. Nonetheless, hints of what I was really doing crept up from time to time.  I decided, one type of animal at a time, not to be part of an animal’s slaughterhouse experience and began to see the animal not just the dish.  I was confused, however. Was there any justification to eating some animals based on their lower intelligence, on how they live and die, or on my own sense of necessity? How did we get to the point that practices that most people would recoil from in horror were commonplace and accepted?  I read Singer’s book, and all of those questions were answered.  The revelations had an impact on my daily life and outlook because the concept of speciesism made perfect, rational sense. An anti-speciesist attitude gave a daily voice to the basic moral axiom that disregarding the interests of others to serve your own interests at their great expense is not the moral or good way to exist.

The Stoic and the non-speciesist attitudes that I have acquired from reading do intersect. For one, Stoics denigrate affairs of the palate.  I had (even pre-enlightenment) felt that the momentary taste of bacon could not be worth an animal’s suffering or life; a momentary taste should not be accorded much importance. Stoics are not slaves to appetites. Epictetus, by the way, considered meat as appropriate for wild animals and not for humans. A Stoic outlook also encourages thinking and not accepting or following the mentality of the herd.  Seneca abhorred the slaughter of men and beasts in the Circus, although the “games” were considered a necessity for the Roman mob.  He thought that watching the shows constituted punishment. I would say the same for visiting a factory farm or slaughterhouse. Come to think of it, we might consider it as an alternative to jail for all but the brutally-minded (murderers and such who might find it right up their alley).

The Stoic attitude comes in very handy in facing the shortcomings of existence, and the knowledge of speciesism does underscore a vast human shortcoming.  To deal with that reality, I remind myself to do what I can within my control and to not torment myself with matters beyond my control. I can no more stop the suffering today than Seneca could in his time and my ruminating on it into the wee hours of night is pointless thinking. Ruminating can best be offset by some action in the daylight however small—a letter written, a petition signed, an animal not eaten. Another Stoic approach to achieving tranquility is to realize how good your life is by reckoning how much worse it could easily be; just by the subtraction of one hundred years, current daily life is an entirely pleasant prospect. I enjoy unimaginable comforts and privileges that make my life seem like an Eden compared to the typical or even upper class life of past centuries.  By the same token, if I include the existence of other species, my troubles are indeed trivial. How could I not feel tranquil in comparison? I am not crammed into a cage, at the mercy of strange other beings, cut off from my own kind, my young taken away prematurely, deprived of doing anything that comes naturally, and doomed to a frightful death. The insipid triviality of human affairs as compared to the suffering of other species strikes me forcibly all the time. The government can take my phone records; the price of something is going up – all the fodder of mundane human life is as nothing in comparison. Last, in the realization department, if I needed yet another proof of the non-existence of anything approaching a compassionate supreme being . . . but I don’t and no one really does.

I would not have written about these books on my college application essay. I would have had dinner with a friend to complain and eat some animal parts in a sauce. Better late than never and maybe even more to come.

Dear Reader

A reader raised several issues that I have considered, which has led to this post.

Dear Reader,

You noted three main issues in a response to one of my first posts on animals.  You stated that I was chiefly concerned with pain and suffering, but suggested that there were other issues and queried, “Do animals have rights?” You continued to link rights with the power to reason.  You also posited that the forces of evolution outweigh our ability to be moral.

After reading “Animal Liberation” by Peter Singer, I do have a response, which I will give here but not to the exclusion of the complete and convincing discussion of such questions in that book. If I could ask that anyone, at any time and place, to read only one book, that would be it.

Humans favor their species because doing so serves their interests, but to do so is as immoral as favoring one’s race over another or one’s sex over another. The notion of morality used in that statement comes from the notions of Jeremy Bentham and other Utilitarians, that the good of any one individual is of no more importance than the good of any other.  Or as Bentham put it: “Each to count for one and none for more than one.”   Now why should animals be included in “the one”? We are all animals and though we have the power to enslave them that does not mean it is the moral thing to do because they suffer and inflicting suffering on another creature runs against the most basic notion that keeps civilization together: we should consider another’s interests just as we would want our interests considered.  Our self- serving ideas of the special status of our species is in large part a product of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Whether to justify slavery or the subjugation of women, that good ol’ religion always has a part to play. Any question that we are somehow not animals was settled in the 19th Century by Darwin and others. Hence we have “speciesism:” the favoring of our species over all the others.

As for evolution corrupting our reason and compelling us to eat meat (if I read the thought correctly), alleviating the suffering of farm animals and even refusing to eat them does not put us at any evolutionary disadvantage. We are not in any event pitted against chickens, cows, and pigs in an evolutionary struggle to survive. I would say we improve, i.e. evolve, as reasoning and moral creatures by abstaining from meat eating; such abstinence also improves our health and would work wonders for the environment (read about the resources used and greenhouse gasses generated in raising animals for meat).

Some people innately have an affection for animals and find the thought of their suffering hard to bear and the idea of chewing their dead flesh repulsive; I am in that camp. However, beyond that,  I had always wondered how we thought what we did to them was defensible.  I thought for a time we had greater rights because we are smarter—irrelevant.  Various animals differ; we all have different abilities and traits (even among our own species that is true) but we all have the capacity to suffer and we humans have the gift of preventing it—if we just will.