Friday, May 23, 2014

Guiltlessness and Cheeseburgers

In this modern age of constantly hearing people express indignation about things they find offensive it’s easy to get sick of people being on Mount Pious. In fact, even considering how important I think they are, I don’t often talk about my moral views concerning animals (at least not in person) because I know people can be turned off by those who talk about the same subjects over and over, especially subjects of a moral nature. I think this primarily because people don’t like feeling guilty, nor do they like feeling like they are being told how to live their lives, however, while I understand those attitudes, it seems to me the solution to the problem of feeling guilty is to make an effort to lead a life that isn’t worthy of guilt, not just to keep our minds free of the subjects that might make one uncomfortable. We need to be sure we have well-reasoned justifications for the principles by which we live our lives.

In an effort to have those proper justifications, I have developed an argument that, while I’m sure isn’t entirely original, shows why eating animals is wrong.

Before I break down the argument I think it is important to figure out what it is that really provides people the foundation for morality, so we have an idea of what it is that feeds our notions of what it is for something to be moral or immoral. From what I can tell there are three basic sources from which people get a basic sense of morality. The first of which is religion and holy books. While it’s possible to derive principles that promote the wellbeing of others from these books, it’s often the case that the rules of these religions are just copied and pasted in to the minds of its followers and the justification behind the rules are simply the will of the deity. Even if you go fundamentally to the principle of the rule itself (say, kindness), when asked about why it is good to be kind, the answer you often get is because it is “what [insert deity] wants for us”. So as far as this method of cultivating a moral outlook goes, I think this really comes up short in completing the picture of how we think (and should think) about morality in our daily lives.

Some people (and on some level, all people) derive their principles from the norms of the culture they grow up in. But acceptance of this as the primary and recommended means of developing morality paves the way for a kind of relativism that I think if we’re honest with ourselves we can’t be comfortable with. People use their culture as a protective catch-all, and because of past and current transgressions committed  by certain peoples of one culture against those of another, it’s become another thing on a list of many things people are offended by if you question it. For example, there is a large amount of people (particularly online) that have coined the term Islamophobia for anything that calls in to question the tolerability of certain practices in Islamic culture, even things like requiring women to be covered nearly head-to-toe so the men don’t feel compelled to rape them. This practice would not be acceptable if it were not veiled under the guise of culture, and yet there are people who defend the act simply because it is part of one. This is not to say that culture or cultural diversity are bad things in themselves, but there are certain practices that have to be off limits no matter the culture you come from. The only thing that gives these practices any argumentative weight is an argument from tradition, which is a fallacy.

Despite the prevalence of the previous two foundations of morality, I think the most basic method of developing moral sensibilities, and the way people respond to moral situations in their day-to-day lives is through empathy. Empathy, even without our consenting to the feelings it provides us with, gives us an immediate sense of what it must feel like when someone else suffers, and at the very least makes us sad about the fact that they do suffer, even if we are not already suffering in the same way. When we see someone threatened we instantly are unsettled and perhaps angered or saddened because we implicitly understand why the impending death, serious injury, or some other kind of harm is so serious. I think by no means is it a stretch to say that suffering, harm, and death provide the ultimate foundation for nearly everything we consider to be right and wrong (I say nearly because there are other things like “fairness”, “honesty”, and so on that play in, but ultimately when we consider the most grievous moral violations we are considering suffering and death primarily). We know there are cases where it may be necessary to harm someone, for example in a case of self-defense, so I think we can establish that the implication of what is largely meant and accepted about whether something is immoral is “an intentional act of causing unnecessary suffering, harm, or death, or taking the type of action that will likely cause unnecessary suffering, harm, or death”.

Given we accept (and I think in general most people do) that the unnecessary causing of suffering, harm, or death is immoral, I have a fairly simple argument as to why eating animals is immoral. If you don’t know, a valid deductive argument is an argument in which if the premises are all true, the conclusion follows by necessity. This means that if all premises are true, we can know with 100% certainty that the conclusion is correct. A deductive argument that has this status is "sound", which is what you’re aiming for, and I believe the following deductive argument fulfills the criteria of being both valid and sound.

          P1: When unnecessary, increasing the amount of suffering/harm/death in the world is immoral.

        P2: It is entirely possible to get the nutrients you need without eating animal products (see the approximately 2% of vegan Americans)

       P3: In most cases, eating a meat/animal product contributes to the unnecessary suffering/harm/death of a mind.

         .˙. Eating meat/animal products in almost all circumstances is immoral.

There are a couple of points of contention that are often brought up in opposition to anti-meat arguments, and I’ll try to keep them brief, since this post is already very long.

“We can’t know for certain that animals have minds.”

Solipsistic arguments hold no weight for multiple reasons. Animals interact with the world and with other beings in the same way we do, and have all of the same sensory apparatuses we do, so it’s difficult to think that those senses and states of consciousness wouldn’t translate as well; they just don’t happen to have language. If you have spent any time around any animals or even seen a video online, I think it would take extreme cognitive dissonance to believe other people have minds, but animals don’t. (I assume the person raising this point of contention isn’t a solipsist about humans because if they’re trying to convince me of something there’s an implied belief that someone is on the receiving end of the communication.)

“Animals don’t have souls.”

This is a religious argument which we already established is not a good method for developing a moral framework, but even still I think it’s largely a moot point, because, for one, as we just said it’s already very clear that animals have minds, so if the soul is something extra that is irrelevant to experience or if an animal can suffer, I don’t think it pertains to a conversation about morals. Second, I agree that animals don’t have souls, because I don’t think humans have souls either, but I’ll save the reasoning for another post.

“Human suffering is wrong; we should be looking out for our species.”

I don’t deny that we should be looking out for our species, and possibly even primarily so, because humans can probably suffer on deeper levels (and experience richer joys) than likely every other animal, due to our sense of ourselves through time, anticipating the future, and our ability to use language, however, what makes suffering and death wrong is their unavoidable agonizing and terrible experiential characteristics, not the fact that a it's happening to a human. We also don’t ever think it’s permissible to forsake others for our own benefit, unless dire circumstances call us to. Animals are others, so they shouldn't be exempt from not being forsaken for our benefit.

“Animals try to eat us, so why can’t we eat them?”

Unlike the other points of contention, this one doesn’t even contest the soundness of the argument, but I will address it anyway. People like to point out that humans are “on top of the food chain” as a reason for us to eat whatever we want, however, that fact works against the point they’re trying to make in this situation, because the reason we’re on top of the food chain is because we have no natural predators. When it comes to animal attacks, there are isolated incidents, but for the most part animals tend to leave people alone. I’m not trying to argue against defending yourself if you are attacked by an animal, I’m trying to defend animals from unprovoked attacks.

I don’t think most people who eat meat are doing so out of spite, or because they get joy out of the pain or death of animals (though indirectly they technically do), but most people, many of whom are self-described animal lovers, feel shockingly guiltless when they eat meat and somehow the fact they are eating animals doesn’t even cross their mind when doing so. This compartmentalization of mindsets is part of what is preventing more people from fully acknowledging the weight of their actions every time they buy a cheeseburger. Perhaps if people were forced to kill their own food they would at the very least have a better appreciation for what it means for something to die for your sake, though clearly I don’t think that’s ultimately the answer to the problem.

I also think it’s important to make a point here that is kind of the antithesis of Solipsism, and that is we as humans capable of empathizing rationally need to do so in a more intense way. In saying that what I mean is that we need to meditate on the fact that lives of others are just as real and present to them as ours are to us. If we were to really accept this in a profound way it would help us have a more clear understanding of what it means to cause suffering/harm/death in beings other than us, and I think we would take one more step toward being a more moral species.

Whew. That was long. I can’t promise my other philosophical posts will be any shorter, but I do hope they are interesting to read. Unrelated to this, I saw the band Nothing play at the Aquarium on Monday and their album Guilty of Everything (ironically enough) is one of my favorites of the year. Below you’ll find their video for “Bent Nail” and I strongly encourage you to check it out.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jarferama

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