Archive for October, 2006

On Holocaust and Rape Analogies

Being a moral vegetarian is a phenomenologically weird affair. Sitting in a restaurant is to be, more often than not, surrounded by people complicit in a serious crime. Yet not only are these people unashamed and unabashed by their complicity, they are laughing, flirting and talking about inane matters. Walking down the street is to witness members of the public feeding themselves with bits of flesh; to see them discard the chunks that they no longer want on the floor or the bin; to see a shop full of carcasses, organs and lumps of congealed blood. On being invited to dinner or a barbeque, not only is one expected to attend, but to also refrain from discussing the issue for fear of impoliteness or of fostering a social dolorosa.

To the newly converted vegetarian these experiences often prove overwhelming. In her eyes the perpetrators will seem morally and epistemically deranged. How can they not see this wrong? Why, when the issue is brought to their attention, are they not interested in reflecting on whether or not what they are doing actually is wrong? Why, when asked to defend their position, do they brazenly churn out the same fallacious arguments they’d refrain from using in different contexts?

Having once shared in carnivorous exorbitances provides little interpretive comfort since your past self is also the target of the same questions. Moral conversion is accompanied by a shift in the phenomenology, and this shift piggybacks hermeneutical difficulties.

It’s the difficulty in bridging between these two perspectives that makes Holocaust and rape analogies philosophical tools for the moral vegetarian. Yet it’s often the case that the intention behind deploying these tools is misunderstood.

Most people have likely been subjected to, and offended by, the analogy between intensive farming and the mechanized murder of six million Jews. In fact, some academics have even gone so far to class the Holocaust as an ontologically unique or sui generis event, incomparable, in principle, to anything else. But these analogies offend, not because someone is making an ontological blunder in comparing them, but because they are taken to assume that animals are like Jews; because killing an animal is no worse than killing a Jew. In other words, even if the mechanized slaughter of billions of animals is wrong, it’s on a morally different spectrum than the Holocaust. Drawing the analogy confounds the different spectrums and it’s because of this that is offensive. With rape analogies it’s much the same. Their deployment is most often met by replies that “it’s not the same” or “you can’t compare rape to killing an animal” followed by the summary dismissal of the broadcaster as a kind of fanatic or extremist, ironically, as if there were something a priori and categorically mistaken about extremism, irrespective of what it is extremist about.

However, the purpose of deploying the analogy is not to suppose or argue that killing animals to eat is, in the relevant sense, the same as killing other humans or raping people, for this would be to blatantly beg the question. Rather, it’s simply a request that the non-converted attempt to see the animals issue in the same light as they would see cases of rape or of killing other humans; a demand that they shift phenomenological perspective. If those requested to affect this shift were successful in doing so they would see that life from the other side, with regards the issue in question, is exactly like life for them with regards the original target of the analogy. After all, one does not attend dinner parties where people are raped or feel constrained to not mention the issue for fear of generating social discomfort. In fact, most people would agree that someone’s failure to prevent such a dinner party would constitute their complicity in a serious wrong.

Finally, although the sharp end of the analogical wedge is a request that someone see in a different light, the blunt end forces on us the substantive issue, which, in this case, is the question of whether animals actually have moral value.

Deer Me

Here’s another strange and meandering article in the Guardian, “Happy Hunting” by Tristram Stuart. In fairness, he calls for a radical reduction in meat consumption and highlights just how environmentally destructive the meat industry has become. But he also says vegetarians should concede that the alternative methods of hunting and meat farming he espouses are ethically acceptable. Unsurprisingly though, I find that idea somewhat problematic.

With regards hunting, the idea is that animals killed during culls, even though the meat in question would seem rather uncustomary by today’s standards, should be served up to us rather than going to waste. And yes, if animals are being culled it doesn’t make much sense to refrain from eating them if we find the idea appetising, but the real problems arise when we start to question whether or not those culls are justified in the first place. This isn’t to say that culling can simply never be a legitimate practise, but the justifications on offer here seem dubious at best. For instance, he cites how we need to kill grey squirrels as they’re a threat to the native reds and a “pest to forestry”. Now I’m no ecologist, but that doesn’t sound like much of a need to me; I mean, how are red squirrels so preferable to greys that it warrants actually killing the latter en masse? And then killing the latter en masse again a few years later when their numbers reach the same point, and so on and so on. Furthermore, apparently, ethical vegetarians shouldn’t have too much of a problem with killing rabbits because, errm, well, there’s lots of them. As for meat farming it’s more of the same depressing point-missing stuff: As long as it’s sustainable – kill as much as you like.

Until meat is produced in [an ecologically] sensible fashion, vegetarians will continue to occupy the higher moral ground.If we could think past the idea that meat is murder, we would see that raising animals in this way actually reduces humanity’s heavy ecological footprint.

Well that’s key, and that’s just it. For one thing, as I’d have it, whether or not animals are being killed in a sustainable fashion a vegetarian diet would still be a morally preferable to an omnivorous one. Simply due to the fact that I consider killing animals to be morally unacceptable in itself, at least in circumstances like these where it’s just unnecessary for human survival and health. If you completely remove the idea that animals deserve any direct ethical consideration from the equation then perhaps these alternative methods, solely due to their ecological benefit, could be considered justifiable. But suggesting that ethical vegetarians should “think past” (which seems to be a slightly insidious way of saying “ignore”) the issue is a bit much to ask really – it’s absolutely central to why many of them (if not the vast majority) take issue with meat eating to begin with. In fact, Stuart only mentions animal suffering and death in any detail when vegetarians are to blame, indirectly, through their reliance on arable farming. When referring to his own involvement in animal slaughter, he switches to more euphemistic terms such as the rather mechanical “another way of turning waste into food” or skips the unpleasant parts entirely and talks only of “the resulting pork” and how “thoroughly good” it was. While I’d be the first to admit that we need to reduce our ecological footprint, if Stuart were to have his way, we would be repaying our environmental debt in animal lives.

How – when I gazed down my rifle-telescope at the exquisite animal grazing in the woods, twitching the flies away with its ears – did I manage to pull the trigger that ended its life? Although I have been culling deer for 13 years, it is still hard. But I did so by contrasting that one direct individual kill with the innumerable less visible victims of arable agriculture, and by remembering that at the last big party I attended there were barbecued prawns – farmed on bulldozed mangroves, fattened on over-exploited fish stocks, transported away from a hungry part of the world and served to an overfed elite. That I pulled the trigger no doubt came as a shock to some. But I hope that even the most dedicated vegetarian can withhold their fury, while hardened carnivores learn, as a matter of urgency, to limit their wanton destruction of the world’s ecologies

Well, I’m not all that sure I can withhold my fury. I think my fury is entirely appropriate given this depressingly real consequence of making such a basic logical mistake. “Hey, shall I kill this deer? Well, I’ve done a load of other bad stuff this week so, fuck it, why not?”

Another Great Example of Evolutionary Thinking

In a recent report, Oliver Curry, an evolutionary theorist at the London School of Economics, claims that the human species may split into two separate sub-species. There seems to be quite a bit of internet hoo-ha over this story, which often tends to be the case when someone makes outlandish claims about human evolutionary trajectories past or future. However, as far as I can tell the original report is unavailable, so there is no telling whether or not it was undertaken in all seriousness. Although, perhaps the fact that the report was commissioned by Bravo, who also brought us shows like “My God, I’m My Dad” and “Costa Del Street Crime”, should imbue us with a good measure of reassurance. After all, it would hardly be surprising to find out that Curry had taken this as an opportunity to feed Bravo a hammed up version of Gattaca and run off with a lump of cash. Furthermore – it’s not as if science journalism is free from shoddy reporting, so the clumsiness may well have been written in afterwards.

Anyway, Curry’s report claims that the human population will diverge into two sub-species, a genetic upper and lower class. Apparently, those lucky enough to be born into the upper class will be healthy, intelligent and attractive whereas those born of genetically plebeian parents will be dim-witted, short, ugly and unhealthy.

He also says that assortative mating will be the mechanism responsible for this speciation event (the evolutionary point at which two species diverge). Assortative mating happens when organisms select their mates based on certain characteristics. In this case, he’s claiming that a speciation event will result from the tendency of healthy, intelligent and attractive people to mate with other healthy, intelligent and attractive people and dim-witted, short and ugly people to, in turn, mate with their respective counterparts.

Now, this is a particularly surprising claim. And here’s why. All these traits are know as continuously varying traits, (i.e. traits that vary continuously between two extremes). This means that for assortative mating to lead to this kind of speciation event, those with intermediate trait values (niether especially attractive or ugly, dim-witted or intelligent, etc.) would have to somehow be prevented from breeding whilst those at the two extremes ‘got busy’, so to speak. By preventing intermediate phenotypes from breeding whilst encouraging the mating of those at the two extremes it’s possible we could see a speciation event in the far-future. However, unless Curry has reason to believe that some pretty weird eugenic policies are going to be implemented he has no reason to make this prediction.

The second outrageous claim is that in ten thousand years time our increasing reliance on technology will have caused substantial deterioration in our ability to communicate with other humans, as well as in our ability to love, trust and feel sympathy. Now, if this is simply a assertion about the causal relationship between technology and these human abilities then it is simply an empirical issue (albeit likely a false one) – for it could be the case, for example, that growing up with technology really does impede one’s ability to communicate, love, trust and feel sympathy. None of this, however, has anything to do with evolutionary trajectories, so if this is Curry’s claim, it is, at best, irrelevant.

If however, intead, this is a claim about the evolutionary relationship between increased use of technology and these human abilities then it’s particularly odd; he would be committing himself to the idea that those worse at communicating, loving, trusting and feeling sympathy will be those that tend to have more offspring. So unless this technology is technology to prevent loving, caring and trusting people from having children then Curry has given us no reason to believe his claim. But then again, maybe he has a patent pending.