Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

Archive for the tag “Peter Singer”

Trump, Too, Had a Mother: On the Limits of Empathy

I, like a majority of Americans, am deeply disturbed by every aspect of the ongoing catastrophe that is the “Trump Presidency”. I am strongly opposed to everything Trump and the Republican Party stand for politically, but the most important issues we are now facing go beyond mere politics and policy. The issues that must be resolved one way or the other are no less than the biggest questions of philosophy come to life: What is truth? What is the good life? What does it mean to be good? What kind of society is best for humans? How should we act towards our fellow humans?

There is a deep political divide in America, the deepest since the Civil War, between factions called “conservatives” and “liberals”. Each has a set of policy positions that are now diametrically opposed, and which are all very important to the lives of real people. The biggest of these issues include foreign relations, immigration, tax policy, government regulations, environmental protections, educational funding, and very personal choices surrounding drugs, sexual orientation, and abortion. The problem we are facing does not revolve around any of these issues or the rival party platforms as a whole. The problem is that each faction views the other as a mortal enemy to be defeated rather than fellow citizens and humans to debate and ultimately compromise with. I do not like moral equivalence, so it needs to be said that while both parties contributed to this sad state of affairs, it is the Republican Party, a totally corrupt cesspool of hatred, bigotry, and spite, which bears most of the blame. This has not (yet) led to much actual violence, but a tragic, violent conflict to decide who holds power is becoming more and more plausible. Trump resembles a dictator in his authoritarian methods (as I have written extensively), and it is obvious at first glance that his preferred system of government would be a hereditary absolute monarchy (the type of government that the first Americans were fleeing and which the Founders sought to prevent). Ultimately, Trump is too inept and ineffective for anything like this to actually occur under his watch, but what he has done is made America a crueler place for a majority of its citizens.

While I have long been interested in history (past politics) and politics (present history), I have recently been converted to a more biological and scientific world view thanks to E.O. Wilson (whose books I reviewed here). Wilson convincingly explains the paradoxical dichotomy of human evolution that led to our survival and success. The two rival instincts at work were tribalism and altruism. The first is the older, more primitive instinct that is present in all primates. The second is a later and rarer development that arose only in Homo sapiens and explains how our species came to dominate the planet while every other is either on our menu or on the way to extinction (except the ants). Because of this deeply embedded tribalistic instinct, most humans in most communities are and have always been inherently conservative. This is a conservatism based on fear of outsiders and fear of change. Much less frequently have visionary leaders and relatively progressive communities been able to appeal to our less engrained but just as emotional altruistic instinct. While fear is the dominant conservative emotion, empathy is the dominant progressive one. Fear leads to cruelty, while empathy leads to kindness. Two opposing human behaviors that lead to two different views of human society.

Political theorist Judith Shklar defined liberals as “people who think that cruelty is the worst thing we do.” Richard Rorty seconded this remark, adding humiliation as a subset of cruelty. Indeed, cruelty and humiliation are gratuitous acts of violence towards other humans, or even to other living beings (animals are always forgotten in the litanies of human violence). Those who engage in such behavior make it hard for other humans to sympathize with them, but it is still important to try.

Sympathy is sharing feelings with someone. Empathy is feeling as another person. Both are important steps towards building better communities and healthier lives. I am the first to admit that it is hard to even imagine finding empathy for someone like Trump, a cruel narcissist and sociopath. A man who does not even care about his own children except insofar as they reflect well on his own image (or, with the daughters, in an almost unspeakably disturbing sexual banter). Yet, as a writer, a philosopher, and a self-improvement-seeking human, I can attempt to feel empathy for Donald Trump. Yes, he, too, had a mother. He even had a father (albeit one who was just as cruel and bigoted as his son became). 

If I can feel empathy for Trump, if I can imagine the environment he grew up in, the regressive ideology he imbibed his whole life, the feelings of inadequacy he felt towards his father, and the possible love he may have felt for his mother, I can help understand people better in general, and thus help to make the world a slightly better place. I will not personally change any of Trump’s cruel and bigoted pathologies, and as an individual citizen I will not make much of a difference on my own. What I can do is to seek understanding, even and especially in the most unlikely and difficult to comprehend places, like Trump’s heart (which must be like the Grinch’s–two sizes too small). If I can get somewhat of a grasp on that, it will be all the easier to extend understanding to people who are similar to Trump in their behavior (boorish, aggressive, or violent) or ideology (racist, sexist, or fascist). I am aware that those types of people do not often display their own empathy unless it is someone who is already very close to them. But the whole point of this exercise is that my behavior will be different from theirs, and based on Peter Singer’s idea of expanding the circle of altruism. This should be a peaceful protest, or mindful resistance, and, to my mind, a better strategy than stooping to the level of vulgar insult and ad hominem attacks. I will certainly continue to oppose everything Trump stands for and do my part to fight for his imminent downfall, but that does not mean that I will dehumanize him. He is, if anything, very human. All too human, as Nietzsche might say.

In my essay Why Black Literature Matters, I quoted an Egyptian writer commenting on the use of empathy in Dostoyevsky’s fiction. The key example was a single sentence, describing an otherwise unsympathetic character: “He, too, had a mother.” It is the job of a writer to imagine and enter the mind of any possible character, good or bad. Many people have also held that it is a role (or the role) of literature to build empathy in readers. This is a laudable objective, but I remain skeptical. After all, Hitler and Stalin were not altogether uneducated or uncultured, and the latter was astonishingly well-read. Reading is not a panacea, and it will not improve the world on its own. We take into what we read what we already believe or feel. In some cases literature does change us, but probably just as often it has no moral effect whatsoever. What most certainly has a real impact, however, are real-life interactions with other human beings. Despite the apparent rise of cruelty, humiliation, and tribalism in the USA, the best way to fight back is to do it with understanding, empathy, and kindness. But reading more couldn’t hurt either.

The Strong Case for Veganism

My objective for this post is to spread awareness about veganism and about the benefits that ensue from this philosophy. Therefore, it is necessary that I first reintroduce and build upon my earlier post on this website, Why I Am a Vegetarian in light of my evolution away from the use of animal products.

I still fully support everything I wrote in ‘WIAaV’, and I believe that my arguments are still valid. I listed four reasons, in ascending order of importance, why I am a vegetarian. It is cheaper, it is healthier for the body, it is healthier for the environment, and it is the higher ethical, or moral, position. I do not believe that any of these arguments can be refuted, and any one of them should ideally be enough to convince a rational person of abandoning a diet built around the consumption of dead animal flesh. There is only a growing body of evidence in support of each of these arguments, some of which I briefly outlined in the original post, and much more of which can be found quite easily on the internet. The only excuse for not adhering to a vegetarian diet at this point would seem to be ignorance of the benefits and costs, which cannot be claimed by any of the readers here. Basically, the issue with my earlier post is that I did not go far enough in stating the case for not using animal products of any kind. This is because, at the time of writing, I was still only a vegetarian, but not someone who rejected the use of milk, cheese, eggs, honey, and other things. In light of further information I have become aware of, and more thinking on the subject, I have completed the evolution from vegetarian to vegan–that is, someone who chooses not to use animal products of any kind.

What ‘awakened me from my dogmatic slumber’ (to use Kant‘s famous phrase about David Hume’s Enquiry) was a video by animal-rights activist, vegan, and motivational speaker Gary Yourofsky. This video, with over 1 million Youtube views, and available in 26 languages, is 70 minutes long, but I would encourage you to find time to watch it (and to pass it on to others). Also, in the ‘Links’ menu to the left you will find the website for Yourofsky’s organization ADAPTT–Animals Deserve Absolute Protection Today and Tomorrow–where you can find more videos, information, recipes, links, and much more.

Yourofsky is a dynamic speaker, and his 100+ annual speeches are aimed at a primarily American and college-aged audience. Nevertheless, his arguments are valid for peoples of any age and nationality. Though the factory farming excesses he discusses might be most widespread in America, they certainly exist in most other countries as well. In addition, the segment in which he presents vegan food alternatives is probably not as useful to people outside America, and is designed to be most convincing to university students who are already used to such typical processed and pre-prepared microwaveable-type meals. Living in Italy, for example, I have neither access to any of those brands or products, nor the desire to eat them. I do have access to a wide variety of grains, fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, legumes, and other basic ingredients to make delicious vegan concoctions.

One of the strongest points of the video is, in my opinion, his unmasking and debunking the myths surrounding milk and the dairy industry. It was this point that was most responsible for forcing me to complete the path from vegetarian diet to vegan philosophy. Obviously, the argument for not eating meat is strong and self-evident. However, the argument for not using other animal products, such as milk, is not as intuitive, and requires overcoming misconceptions and propaganda from the dairy industry. It is striking how Yourofsky emphasizes that the number one reason why vegetarians do not become vegans is cheese. We use cheese on everything, and most people are loathe to give it up. All cheeses contains a substance called rennin, which can only be obtained from the stomach of baby cows, because it is necessary for them to properly digest their mothers’ milk. Humans are only designed to consume human milk, and only until the age of one or two. After that, we have no need for milk of any kind for the rest of our lives. There are adverse health conditions that result from dairy consumption. For example, we are told that we need milk for our calcium needs and to have strong bones, but the highest rates of osteoporosis occur in countries, such as the US, were milk consumption is highest, while this medical condition is almost non-existent is many African and Asian countries where dairy intake is almost zero.

Besides the fact that we don’t need milk, and that it is actually not healthy for us, we need to recognize that most dairy cows eventually get sent to the slaughter-house to become ‘beef’ as soon as they are too old to produce milk. Actually, in America the majority of beef comes from old, worn-out dairy cows. The environmental question is just as clear-cut. There are billions of cows raised every year only in order to produce milk. These cows need massive amounts of grain, steroids, growth-hormones, and produce massive amounts of waste and methane gas. The amount of grain used to feed farm animals in America every year could easily alleviate world hunger. 90% of corn grown in the US is used for animal consumption (cows naturally eat grass, not corn, by the way). There is actually more than enough food produced in the world every year to feed every human, but there is not enough money to pay for it! One of the reasons for this is that such a huge percentage of food is used to raise unnecessary animals instead of humans. In this way, humans who eat meat or use animal products are only getting their nutrients second-hand, by way of an animal, instead of first-hand, by way of the plant material itself. Hundreds more examples and statistics could be summoned to continue building up this unassailable argument, but hopefully you are already convinced.

Besides the health, financial, and environmental reasons, there is of course the ethical reason. Is it correct that 70 Billion animals are raised each year only to become food for humans? The vast majority of these animals live lives of such unimaginable squalor and suffering as to dull the senses. There seems to be a widespread idea that animals, for some reason, don’t feel pain or suffering like humans, or that they only exist to feed humans. These are such juvenile ideas that they would almost be laughable if they weren’t so repugnant. Notwithstanding the active abuse dished out to untold numbers of animals and the horrible conditions that they inhabit during their short, sad lives, the worst part of this issue is the fact that most humans feel that there is nothing wrong in our very mentally which justifies the slavery and subservience of all other animals to our appetites and whims, and that humans are naturally superior and ordained to dominate and rule the earth because we are the most intelligent species. This is an example of an intelligence I want no part of. We are animals too, and this slavery and abuse is unacceptable and should not be tolerated or even allowed.

Once again, these arguments apply mostly to the huge industries of food production and animal exploitation, but, you might ask, “What if the animals are locally raised, cared for, and killed for food in a humane way when their time is up?” I will respond that we do not need to eat animals to live, and that there is no excuse for killing an animal merely because you enjoy the taste of its flesh. I admit that I like the taste of meat, and have eaten it for most of my life up to this point. It is not a question of taste, but of choosing not to eat it because we don’t need it, and because it is healthier and more ethical in so many ways. Finally, while I know that I will never eat meat again, I am not yet at the point where my veganism is absolute or dogmatic, and I don’t think it needs to be. I do not buy or use animal products, and try to avoid them at all costs, but understand that sometimes there is an occasion where it is too difficult to avoid something with a bit of cheese or egg or milk. For me, this could happen while I am traveling, or as someone’s guest, or another similar uncontrollable circumstance. Maybe I will eventually change my views, but for now I agree with Peter Singer, Australian philosopher and author of Animal Liberation, on this issue.

For more facts, you can find a very informative chart here. If for some reason you still have doubts, just remember that even elephants and gorillas are vegans!

How to End Poverty

One of the greatest tragedies on the planet today is the fact that there is an abundance of food and resources for every human to live comfortably, yet billions of people–half of the world population–live in extreme poverty while the richest 1% of the population own a full 50% of the world’s “wealth” (meaning: resources). I would never argue that the rich need to be deprived of their wealth, but surely we could find a way to alleviate the struggle for subsistence and survival of the poorest majority of our fellow humans without creating an undue strain on the rich. To borrow a phrase much-maligned in America, surely we could “share the wealth” a bit better. Even without considering the apparent ethical obligation to help those most in need, it would seem that helping eliminate as much poverty as possible would have a huge net positive impact on the political and economic stability of every country in the world, not to mention the rich individuals and private corporations that own a majority of the existing wealth. It is quite possible technically, but lacks only political will. In the USA, to name one prominent example, the annual defense budget (including expenditures which are not defensive in nature) routinely tops $1 Trillion if we figure in intelligence, “homeland” security, and off-budget war expenses. This figure is overwhelmingly enormous and bloated past any semblance of reasonable need. For a small fraction of this tax-payer money (say, 10%), we could end extreme poverty and provide free education to everyone not just in the US but in the world for at least 10 years. What amounts to a rounding error in the defense budget could instantly end the unnecessary suffering of countless fellow humans, a disproportionate number of which are children. Our first priority should be to elect politicians who care about things like income inequality and appear to sympathize with humans outside their own circle. Even when this is not possible, we can always take matters into our own hands with effective altruism.

In 1999, the United Nations announced the birth of the 6th Billion person, and 13 years later the 7th Billion person. All population forecasts predicts at least 9 Billion people by the year 2050, and possibly 11 Billion or more. For anyone interested in possible ramifications of such supposed ‘over-population’, there are many books, films, and articles all weighing in on doomsday scenarios and other predictions of catastrophe deriving from an overly-crowded planet. You will find nothing of the sort here. I have some ideas about future possibilities, including many worst-case scenarios, but I would rather think about what we can do to prevent these things from happening. In any case, I see no reason why the planet could not support 7 or 11 billion (or more) people quite easily if we allocated our resources much more efficiently and equitably. We might even create more total happiness in the process (or ease total suffering), which would seem to be a moral imperative.

Therefore, more than speculating on future outcomes, I would like to propose solutions for present reality. The most important thing we can do at the moment seems to be finding a way to relieve suffering and improve quality of life for the huge numbers of people in the world in extreme poverty. This is completely in accordance with both humanist and utilitarian principles, as well as politically and economically expedient as I have already mentioned. I will first propose a theoretical solution to poverty which remains, at best, a long-term project. Then, I will offer my opinion on the best immediately practical solution for relieving suffering and raising the total balance of happiness in the world.

First of all, there can be no doubt that there is a way to end poverty that theoretically works most of the time: the empowerment of women. There are certainly other ways to decrease overall poverty, but nothing can hope to be so successful as allowing women to have unalienable rights to control their own sexual reproduction, education, and participation in government and society. Though I feel that this would be the best single panacea we could hope to find, I have qualified it as only practical on a very long timeline, due to the complexity of implementing such profound social reforms in countries where they do not currently exist. In order to end poverty, women must have universal access to birth control in a stabile, relatively peaceful environment. This would imply a large amount of population control in the process, which would help to mitigate over-crowding, famine, disease, etc. The main point, however, is that when women can control their own sexual destiny, they can begin to avoid being reduced to a life following the animalistic pattern of being pregnant and giving birth from time of first sexual maturity in the early teenage years. The simple ability to choose when and if to have children will almost always lead to a woman having less children and at a later stage. This introduces more stability in the society, and also allows for more possibility for women to pursue personal development like education. There are myriad of benefits to a larger and more educated workforce that potentially involves 100% rather than 50% of a population, which are increased further with voting rights and political involvement for women. I could expound on this topic further with statistics and examples, but I would like to keep this point simple and straightforward: there is a natural positive feedback loop that results from the empowerment of women, which benefits society and gradually leads to increased prosperity (and, naturally, less poverty) for everyone.

What can we do to decrease suffering and help to end poverty to the best of our collective abilities with the resources at our immediate disposal? Is it better to volunteer your free time in your community soup kitchen or take a month-long trip to volunteer at a clinic in Africa, or simply to give money to charity and hope for the best? Well, it seems highly likely that the best use of your resources in most cases involves your money rather than your time. While there may be many personal benefits you may find from volunteering your time for an hour a week, or a week a year somewhere in the name of charity, the fact remains that you would be better served focusing more on making money in order to donate a bigger portion of your income to efficient and full-time charities of your choice. Any number of studies and analyses of charity effectiveness will inevitably confirm these findings, but you are encouraged to weigh the matter yourself accordingly.

Therefore, how much money should you give and how do you find the most effective and efficient use of your money? If you donated just 10% of your income to charity, that money could literally be used to save dozens of children’s lives over the course of a couple years, and it would decrease suffering and improve the lives of many more. Imagine how much more you could help with even more of your income. I know that it is easier to ignore the enormous level of suffering and poverty in the world, because it can be almost overwhelming, but there is no question that what I have proposed is the most just solution, and the only way we can really hope to make a difference. If only a handful of ‘bleeding hearts’ follow this course, it will not really make a difference (that is, if you count only a few hundreds of children’s lives saved ‘not making much of a difference’), but imagine if a majority of the rich world gave a small percentage of their (more than sufficient) incomes to effective charities to really start to end poverty.

The keyword I use is “effective”. So how do you find an effective, meaningful, and trustworthy charity? There are so many out there all seemingly doing good work, right? There are some organizations that measure and rank the most efficient charities based on a number of specific and verifiable criteria. The common way of representing ‘effectiveness’ can also be given as ‘amount of money required to save one child’s life’. Anything under $200 is very effective. You could send that relatively small amount of money right now to certain charities to literally save a child’s life and help to ensure a more fulfilled existence for a fellow human being. How much money would you spend to save your own life? How much money do you think you could be ransomed for, or would you sacrifice to save a drowning child (your own?) in a pool in front of you? The fact is, you can save someone everyday for a remarkably low amount of money, and improve the quality of life for many other human beings in this world right now. Can you think of anything better you can do with some of your extra spending cash?

Givewell is the name of one of the most respected organizations that rates charities, and you can assess their criteria for yourself and choose the charity that most appeals to you. They have studied hundreds of charitable organizations each year and give a totally transparent methodology to their ranking. Currently, they have given four groups their “top” status, which are Against Malaria Foundation, GiveDirectly (I find this one to be especially appealing and half of my giving this year has gone to them), Schistomiasis Control Initiative, and Deworm the World Initiative. They also list four more “standout” charities which are highly effective, though less so than the first four.

The philosopher Peter Singer has written a book called The Life You Can Save in which he argues for the rich world to help alleviate poverty and suffering in the rest of the world. He runs a website of the same name which also ranks the top 16 international charities according to different criteria. It is worth mentioning that their is significant overlap with some of the top charities at Givewell. I would recommend doing your own research and choosing ways to give which seem most important to you.

There is reason to believe that the most generous societies are also the happiest overall, as this article by the Guardian shows. The only question now is whether we will actually act upon what we know to be the best thing to do in order to make the world a better place. It is almost 2015, there are now close to 8 Billion of us on Earth, and we can control our own destiny as to what kind of world we want to live in.

Utilitarian Morality

Last week, I wrote about Kant’s position on morality, and some of its problems. Kant’s system of ‘deontological’ (duty) ethics still remains arguably one of the two most influential in the field of modern ethics– the other system is utilitarianism. I will briefly summarize the main tenets of Classical Utilitarianism as well as some of its more modern variations. I must also admit that this is not an unbiased post, as I will attempt to present a sort of justification for utilitarianism, as I understand it, as the most logically consistent and practical system of ethics that has been formulated. Though it has certain drawbacks, I hope to demonstrate how utilitarianism is a useful system in many circumstances, and is used by individuals and governments alike to benefit society.

Jeremy Bentham

Utilitarianism was first clearly articulated by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) with ‘the greatest happiness principle’: “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” ‘Happiness’ in this case is represented as a predominance of pleasure over pain. It is therefore a ‘hedonistic’ principle, but one that differs with ancient models such as Epicureanism because it deals with the pleasure of the whole society (“the greatest number”) rather than the individual. Bentham proposed a hedonistic (or ‘felicific’ or ‘utility’) calculus by which to classify and test the happiness of a given action. The variables he listed to measure the quantity of pleasure or pain were: intensity, duration, certainty, proximity, productiveness, purity, and extent. Bentham was more of a social reformer, especially in the area of criminal justice and punishment, than a philosopher. After Bentham, there were still refinements needed in order to strengthen the utilitarian theory.

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was the most important proponent of the theory. He was raised as something of a child prodigy by his father, who was a strong supporter of Bentham and wanted his son to be a genius intellect for the purpose of defending and implementing utilitarianism. Mill, who also became a member of Parliament, did this successfully, and much more. He was a tireless advocate for women’s rights, basic human rights, free speech, civil liberties, anti-slavery, environmentalism, free markets, and other liberal policies that have gradually been embraced as fundamental to modern progressive societies. In his book Utilitarianism, he makes one major change to Bentham’s theory: he argues that the ‘quality’ of pleasures is a more important criterion of precedence than mere ‘quantity’. Bentham rigorously states that an equal quantity of pleasure derived from push-pin (a children’s game) and poetry were equally good. Mill argues that intellectual and moral pleasure have higher value than merely physical pleasures. He goes so far as to say that “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” Following from this, Mill asserted that university graduates should have more voting power because they are in a better position to judge what is best for society. This is not to say that Mill did not place any value on the uneducated; to the contrary, he advocated universal education reforms and sending the talented but poor to universities as a way to improve the happiness of the greatest number (which would improve society as a whole, as well).

There have been many variations of the theory, both in its content and its applicability, and it would be time-consuming to attempt to do justice to them all. One minor distinction is between ‘act utilitarianism’ and ‘rule utilitarianism’. The former, favored by Bentham, states that we must first consider the circumstances of each situation to determine which likely consequence will produce the greatest pleasure. For example, a paramedic at the site of a car accident would probably decide to treat a pregnant woman before anyone else, since her and her unborn child represent the greatest possible future happiness. The latter, favored by Mill, states that there are certain general rules that tend to increase happiness if followed (or decrease happiness if broken). For example, it is against the rules to kill another person, but in the case of self-defense against aggressive attackers, the rule changes. It is probably best to use ‘rules of thumb’ as a way of saving time when decided more routine matters; these rules can be modified in more difficult questions to calculate likely consequences.

Another conflict arises between ‘total utilitarianism’ and ‘average utilitarianism’. That is, should the amount of happiness of a population be measured as a total figure or as an average. In this case, issues that could arise would be the relative worth of a small, but very happy population, versus a very large population with low relative happiness, but a greater overall amount of happiness. Some philosophers have argued that the measure of ‘utility’ itself should not necessarily be pleasure (or avoidance of pain). Other possibilities proposed include: it is the ‘intent’ or ‘motive’, rather than the consequences, that is good; it is the ‘interests’, rather than the pleasure, that is good (this has been called ‘welfare utilitarianism’); the nuanced opinion that it is only the ‘preferences’ of a person that should be satisfied (which takes into account rejection of pleasure or desire for pain).

It is important to note that utilitarian calculus is most often used to decide what is most ‘right’, not necessarily what is most ‘good’. In this way, it is generally a system of practical ethics to guide decisions about future possible outcomes, rather than a belief in any necessary absolute morality of an act. One criticism of the theory by Karl Marx is that it not actual a theory at all and adds nothing meaningful, since it is inherently true by definition. He was more concerned with the different conceptions of what is ‘good’ for different people in different circumstances (which led him to describe his views of how capitalism suppressed the best possible outcome for most people). It is likely that there is something inherent about utilitarianism that has been used since the time of the earliest humans in order to build and maintain orderly and cooperative groups, which helped to ensure their collective survival. Likewise, utilitarianism is implicitly used at all levels of political bodies to decide the best future courses of action for the welfare of the greatest number.

We all use some form of utilitarianism in our everyday lives, as well as when we must make big decisions. We automatically consider the pros and cons of a decision to weigh the greatest utility to be derived from the most likely possible outcomes, even if that outcome is in a more distant future (say, choosing to go into debt with student loans for a university degree in order to achieve more potential future happiness). As a society, we choose officials who are tasked (ostensibly) to make legislation and take actions that maximize the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens. We all know that it does not exactly work so smoothly in reality, but it is the stated purpose and goal nevertheless.

The benefits of utilitarianism are derived from its reliance, not on any absolute conception of morality (which is, in addition, only a matter of opinion and subject to change), but on rational and logical consistency in order to help us make practical ethical decisions. It treats everyone equally, not under the impossible ‘ends principle’ Kant proposes, but as a person with rights to happiness all the same. The proper use of utilitarian can ultimately lead to a more just, as well as a happier, society.

I have intentionally not given many examples of various practical applications. This is first of all in the name of brevity. But mostly, I would like to reserve specific examples from each different issue for individual future discussions here, so that they can be treated in slightly more depth. I am also aware of several criticisms to the utilitarian theory, but I have not yet seen anything that convincingly weakens the overall premise, in my opinion. In addition, I have not found any alternatives to utilitarianism that represent a more logically consistent ethical solution. This chapter is not closed, and I hope to work through the issue in more specifics way in future posts.

Why I Am a Vegetarian

Pythagoras was an early Greek philosopher and ascetic who made vegetarianism one of the central tenets of his ‘school’. His ideas were influential for centuries as the became adopted by Neoplatonists and Christian sects (and later, monks) alike. Socrates was possibly a vegetarian, saying in Republic that if meat-eating was allowed in the ideal society, there would be more need for doctors. Ovid in the Metamorphoses stated that human and animal lives are so entwined that to kill an animal is virtually the same thing as to kill a human (ancient precursor to Peter Singer’s modern ethical stance: see below). Leonardo da Vinci, Lev Tolstoy, and Albert Einstein were vegetarians, with the last saying that, “Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” While such august examples are interesting, they do not lend any actual evidence to the question at hand.

There are three reasons Why I Am a Vegetarian [I could also give a fourth reason regarding the financial benefits, but this is really just a ‘bonus’, and not required for me to make my case. Though I personally save money by rejecting meat, it is not necessarily given that everyone will save money, since there is a possibility to spend an equal amount of money on ‘replacement’ nutrients and calories that were previously spent on meat.] I include two ‘natural’ (or ‘common-sense’) reasons, and one philosophical (or ethical) reason. I believe that any one of these reasons could stand on its own merits to defend vegetarianism, and all three together are virtually unassailable. In ascending order:

1.  Personal health benefits

There shouldn’t be any debate about this. Vegetarians are shown to be healthier, happier, less obese, and longer-lived than meat-eaters in every study done on the subject. It is always possible that there are other factors that contribute to these findings (such as the fact that vegetarians are already more health-conscious, smarter, non-smoking, etc., in general, which could skew the results even more in their favor). Every vitamin and nutrient, as well as protein and iron, can easily be found in a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, grains, and even fortified cereals. This renders the high-protein content of meat irrelevant. Avoidance of meat also helps to minimize any number of corresponding health problems such as heart disease, cancer, obesity, hypertension, and diabetes, to name five. While there are occasionally food safety issues with plants (which can be mitigated by choosing local, organic, pesticide-free products whenever possible), there are clearly many more such issues with the process of making animals into meat. People might sometimes eat meat only because it tastes good, which I will discuss below. For me, all of the non-meat products that I listed taste just as good, with the added psychological benefit that I know that they are healthier while I am eating them, which makes me even more satisfied and energetic. There is much more evidence on this aspect that I need not detail– anyone who is interested can find all the sufficient data quite easily on the internet. However, if you are still not convinced…

2.  Healthier for the Environment

Now we are dealing with something more important. Any individual who chooses to eat meat can do so by his own free will, despite any known personal health effects. When it comes to the environment, there is much more at stake than the decision of any single individual. And when there are 7 Billion people on the planet, the effects caused by dietary habits such as meat-eating can readily be seen to be unsustainable at best, cumulatively disastrous at worst. If there were only as many people on the planet now as there were even 200 years ago, with vast unexplored forests, plains, and jungles all intact, this would probably not be an issue. But the population explosion has created a monstrous system of producing factory-farmed meat on a huge industrial scale. It is ridiculously bad for the animals (obviously), for the planet, and, accordingly, for humans as well. According to a United Nations initiative, the livestock industry is one of the largest worldwide contributors to environmental degradation, and modern practices of raising animals for food contribute on a massive scale to air and water pollution, land degradation, climate change, and loss of biodiversity. Animal farming (especially bovine) produces a huge increase of greenhouse gases, including methane and nitrous oxide, which have, respectively, 21 and 296 times more Global Warming Potential than carbon dioxide. There are somewhere around 70 Billion animals raised in the world each year for the sole reason of providing a source of meat for human consumption. These animals consume an ungodly amount of grains that could otherwise feed Billions of humans. In the US alone, animals consume 90% of the soy crop, 80% of the corn crop, and 70% of the grains. This requires half of the water supply, and 80% of the agricultural land of the United States. If there was an unlimited amount of fresh water available to every human and animal on earth, this might not be as much as a problem. Similarly, if there was no starvation on this planet, maybe these numbers wouldn’t be quite so shocking (though I’m still not sure). It requires 10 times as many crops to feed animals being raised solely to provide humans with meat than it does to feed the same number of people on a vegetarian diet. Even if we callously ignore the horrible condition of animals on factory farms and the disgusting nature of that mega-industry, the havoc wreaked on the environment by such practices should still be enough to make any thinking person think twice before downing another cheeseburger. There is much literature on this subject for the interested reader (or would-be convert), including the recent exposé of factory farms and commercial fisheries by Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals.

3. Ethics and moral justice

Most likely, anyone who is not convinced by the first two reasons will most likely feel no compulsion to see the reason in this third, slightly different perspective. That is a shame because it is, in my opinion, the strongest and most logically consistent argument. It is possible (if extremely hypothetical) to imagine a scenario in which the issues from the first two points were untrue: there were no added health benefits derived from the vegetarian diet, and there was no harm whatsoever done to environment because of the enormously damaging effects of the livestock industry. Even if that were true, the fact would still remain that humans eat animals only by choice-only because they like the taste of meat. OK, I know I am discounting the exceptions for the small percentage of people with anemia (who could still get iron from other sources), as well as remaining hunter-gatherer tribes in New Guinea, the Amazon, etc. Unfortunately, such exceptions are quite rare, and do little to disprove the reality of the current state of human meat consumption. Peter Singer, a prominent Australian philosopher and theorist of practical utilitarian ethics, wrote a book in 1975 entitled Animal Liberation. He is considered the father of the animal rights movement.  One concept he describes is “speciesism”, which is discrimination of one species (Homo Sapiens) against another (every non-human animal). We are all, in fact, animals, and there is no logically consistent way in which we should consider ourselves better than other animals. It is true that we are the most intelligent beings on the planet (and, so far, in the universe), and this has allowed us to finally establish and maintain dominance and control over every aspect of the planet’s life and resources, including all plants and animals. He argues that the ethical criterion should not be based on intelligence, however, but on capacity for suffering. There is no reason to believe that animals, especially higher mammals of the type that are raised and slaughtered for meat, do not feel the same level of pain and suffering that a human does. Cows have been shown to make lifelong friends, elephants are seen to mourn deceased relatives, all the great apes have social habits and even a certain morality that is not so different from humans (there are examples like this to be found in virtually every species). In this regard, there is no way to justify the immense suffering and anguish that is endured by billions of non-human animals each year only in order to feed human tastes. A cynic could point to supposed flaws in this argument, or even disagree outright that animals deserve the same justice as humans, who some people feel to be inherently morally superior to every other life form. I do not subscribe to these views. To be logically consistent, we must also admit that any animal that can be killed and eaten in a humane and painless way would not fall under the ethical prescriptions of Singer’s view. But I think we can also see that the number of animals who qualify for this exception is so vanishingly small as to not really affect the issue in any way. The only question is: Do you like the taste of meat so much to disregard personal health, the precarious environmental balance of the planet, and the unabated suffering of myriads of sentient fellow animals?

If you are a vegetarian looking for more ways to make your case and rhetorically defend yourself against interested interlocutors, this article has some great points as well.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: