Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

A Case for Vegetarianism

May 26, 2009

For me, it all boils down to one question: do animals feel pain in a way that I and others would recognize as pain?  That requires a nervous system and especially a functioning brain, so for fungi, plants, and lower and immature animals, the answer is no.  Even with this definition there is plenty of meat I think most of us would pass on in most situations, including dear Rover who just died of old age, developed embryos of most species (as opposed to eggs), and senile Granny.

But if an animal can feel pain, if I owe it any rights at all, I owe it the right not to have pain inflicted on it by me or on my behalf.  Ok, so admittedly, we could confine ourselves to eating those higher animals that died of old age—but that would immediately cut down the supply of meat and dramatically increase the price.  To have a mass market in meat, we will have to kill animals in their prime.  Is there, then a pain-free way to kill an animal?  “Sure,” you reply, “when Coco was dying from cancer last year, we took her to the vet, who gave her a couple of shots and she just went to sleep; we all cried a lot, but Coco didn’t suffer!”  Nice try, but those chemicals would make an animal unfit to eat.

Historically, the “best” way to kill larger food animals like cows and pigs was to hoist them up by their rear legs, slit their throats, and let them bleed to death, since meat tastes better with the blood drained out of it.  Nowadays the food industry uses putatively more humane methods, such as inserting an electrified needle into the animal’s brain, which is supposed to kill it almost instantly.  “Supposed to,” of course, since it doesn’t always work, which is why they have to keep baseball bats handy….  I don’t think even the meat industry claims their methods are absolutely cruelty free (if they were so terrific, why don’t we use them for human executions instead of our current methods), but simply as humane as possible.  Is that much consolation, you think, to the animal in pain?

Of course, the cruelty is not limited to end-of-life issues in agribusiness.  Take a sheet of writing paper and fold it in half.  That’s approximately the size allotted to the average chicken on a typical chicken farm, that is to say, very nearly the size of the chicken itself.  The chickens are kept in wire mesh cages their entire lives, seldom or never seeing the sun.  As you know, birds’ feet by default curl, so as they grow, it’s not uncommon for the immobile chickens’ feet to grow into the wire mesh.  To keep the birds from pecking each other to death, the farmers often amputate their beaks.

Cows are fed mainly a diet of corn, which their digestive systems were not designed to handle.  Among other side effects, this leaves them with weakened immune systems and vulnerable to infections, so they are commonly given antibiotics (and bovine growth hormone to fatten them for market faster, too).  Tip: those routine antibiotics are a major part of the reason we’re seeing the growth of super bugs like MRSA that won’t respond to most antibiotics.

In breeding pigs to grow as fast as possible, a genetic defect was introduced such that when the pigs panic, their flesh begins to melt down and becomes unfit for human consumption.  Anyone who’s owned a pet pig can tell you that they are very intelligent.  Apparently quite a few of them figure out what’s happening on the way into the slaughterhouse and there’s enormous waste.

A normal, healthy human adult can get all the protein and every other nutritional need from plant sources with an eye on nutrition; it’s even easier if you allow animal products like eggs, cheese, milk, honey, or even shellfish, etc.

Eggplant lasagna, anyone?


Green Morality

March 3, 2009

As we seek to do the good and avoid doing evil, rather than going over much of the same territory as as the Ethics 101 post, I’d like to start with what I think is the strongest definition historically of what evil is and see where that takes us. By all means–feel free to disagree with me and tell me why!!!

St. Augustine proposed that evil is the lack of good, much as cold is the lack of heat. By good, of course, he had in mind a theocentric concept, but what if we replaced it with a hedonistic concept? Specifically, let me define “good” as that which reduces pain and increases pleasure, for the individual and for the species. I’d also like to throw in the caveat that we should sometimes defer a lesser good for a greater good.  So, chocolate is good. No chocolate is bad. Enjoying a good book is good. Having a migraine is bad. So what if I take narcotics to relieve the migraine–that’s good right? The narcotics relieve the pain AND induce a certain euphoria of their own, a two-fer! So I should take them all the time right? Hold on, cowboy, that MIGHT long-term get me in trouble with Johhny Law, but it WILL cause brain damage resulting in a de facto chemical lobotomy, which is bad.

Likewise, speeding in my car will get me to my destination faster, which is good, but risks trouble with the police, bad, not to mention increased risk of an accident, additional wear and tear on the car, increased fuel consumption, and increased greenhouse gas emmissions, all bad.

Living intentionally as part of the human species, IMHO, is less about manners and more about reducing your carbon footprint, especially if you’re living in Western, industrialized democracy. Global warming is spiralling beyond worst-case scenarios and if humanity is to endure beyond the next couple of generations, it will be because of choices we make NOW.

So especially when we add the consideration of other people and living in a lawful society, so far our green morality doesn’t seem too far removed from any conventional morality. Maybe it would be easier if I found some counterexamples where my green morality might differ from what you might otherwise expect most people in most cultures to do nowadays.

*Get off your fat butt and exercise!  Once you get used to regular aerobic and strength training, it actually feels good, and you’ll feel better generally.  And while your friends are having their first heart attacks, your doctors will be looking at your lab reports and saying to you, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it!”  That also means walking instead of driving for short trips, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, etc.

*Reduce your carbon footprint. Seriously. For most of us the most practical way to do that is to reduce our meat consumption.  Electric cars, LED lights, and other technological marvels as they become available will be wonderful, too.

*Only have the number of children you can nurture well. For most of us, that means one, and never more than two.
*Technology is fun and useful and planety-friendly–use it. Going for a walk in the park is fun and good exercise and planet-friendly, too.

*Chicken is several times more energy-efficient than beef or pork, so those few times a week when you do serve meat, emphasize chicken.

*Be aware of “energy vampire” appliances that continue to suck current even when turned off, such that you have to unplug them when not in use.

*Spend some time with your family every day possible–if it’s not for them, what’s the point?

*Your spouse is your only love and your only sex partner; the infidelity rate is about 50% and the divorce rate is about 50%, too–see a connection?

*Never raise a hand to your child in anger–you’ll only teach brutality. Perhaps sometimes physical punishment is called for, but your child should be able to see that it pains you more than it does him or her.

*Don’t save fine china, fine crystal, fine wines, etc., for “some day” that never arrives. Enjoy them with friends and family at the next festive occasion.

*If you’re single (or it’s just the two of you and you’re not expecting or planning to have a baby soon) and you’re not responsible for anyone else and you’re not going to be driving and you’re willing to take the risk that comes with breaking the law and want to try some of the milder drugs out there froma trusted source, take precautions, but don’t be afraid to explore. You could open up whole new vistas in your life. Remember that all drugs have side effects and you should NOT take drugs if you have some major, unresolved issues or stresses in your life.

Ethics 101

January 7, 2009

Most of us are concerned to some degree with right behavior: ethics.  Whether at a conscious or unconscious level, we tend to stay close to certain families of ethical theory.  While there are hundreds of candidates, I want to briefly examine one religious ethic, Divine Command Theory, and two philosophical ethics, Utilitarianism and Kantianism.

(Gen 22 NIV) Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. {2} Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” {3} Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. {4} On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. {5} He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” {6} Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, {7} Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” {8} Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.{9} When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. {10} Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. {11} But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. {12} “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

To me, this is the most gruesome story in the Hebrew scriptures (known to Christians as the Old Testament).  Abraham was called by a supposedly good God to sacrifice not only his son, but the son through whom his descendents were to be promised the land.  Even though the deed was putatively morally repugnant, Abraham (the superhero of the faith) obeyed God and was prepared to murder his son.

This is an example of Divine Command Theory: whatever God commands is good, whatever God forbids is evil.  When asked to explain their opposition to gay marriage, for instance, most of my students cite biblical prohibitions on homosexuality, often using the biblical term “abomination.”

How, then, do we know what God commands and forbids?  If, for instance, I heard a voice booming out of the sky, “SAM, GO YE FORTH AND SLAY THE CHAIR OF YOUR DEPARTMENT, FOR I, THE LORD, COMMAND IT!” I would more likely check myself into a psychiatric facility than commit murder, since I would strongly suspect some part of my brain would be broken, not that God had spoken to me.

OK, so why not restrict ourselves to what is written in our religion’s canonical scriptures?  The problem then is that there are plenty of other things in the Hebrew scriptures called “abominations” that most people knowingly and repeatedly violate, such as eating shrimp and pork, and wearing blended fiber clothing.   We cannot consistently pick and choose which of God’s commandments to obey.

Divine Command Theory therefore is not a rational ethic.  That’s not necessarily to dismiss it, for perhaps (as some would claim) the desire for right behavior is fundamentally not rational.  But it does mean that our rational skills to evaluate, prioritize, dismiss, or contradict certain behaviors are limited or non-existent.

So how about a rational ethic?  One historic way to approach ethics rationally is on the basis of consequences: do consequences matter or not?  If you answer yes, you are some form of teleologist (telos is Greek for end or point).  If you answer no, you are some variety of deontologist (deon is Greek for duty or purpose).

The most famous teleological family of ethics is Utilitarianism (note there are several varieties of such).  At its base, Utilitarianism is concerned with maximizing the hedonistic good: pleasure is good, pain is bad.  We often summarize Utilitarianism as the greatest good for the greatest number.  It’s as if goodness could be quantified into units and you seek to maximize that number of units: perhaps a small good multiplied over many people, or a vast good for one person.  This offers many advantages, for instance that you can quantify the possible ramifications of a decision and draw a decision analysis tree, yielding the decision that will statistically most likely most benefit the greatest number of people (or what will most benefit you as an individual, too).  Much of our medical practice is based on such a cost-benefit analysis.  Yet this approach can yield some results that make our skin crawl, like harvesting all of the organs and tissues of a perfectly healthy person–killing her–in order to save the lives of fifty other persons who will die without the transplant.  More broadly, within Utilitarianism, the end justifies the means, which would seem to justify behaviors that most other ethical systems would condemn.

Again, this does not mean that we should necessarily throw out Utilitarianism.  Perhaps our exposure to other ethical systems has simply blinded us to what is genuinely right such that if we’d been raised purely Utilitarian, we would have no objections.  On the other hand, other people have tried to tweak Utilitarianism, for instance differentiating between acts and rules, to remove the worst of the objections.

The most often studied of the deontological systems is Kantianism, with his famous Categorical Imperative: that we must only do those behaviors that everyone else could also do, and that we must always treat people as valuable in and of themselves and never only as a means to an end.  For Kant, the only criterion for evaluating the morality of an action is intention: if you intend in good faith to help someone especially someone you would not ordinarily be inclined to help (since we reflexively tend to help our friends), then your act is good, even if it has terrible consequences.  Likewise if you have malevolent intentions towards someone, your act is evil, even if it accidentally has good consequences.  For instance, if you are driving your car, sober and paying attention and your car in good mechanical condition, and a stranger towards whom you have no malice, but only equanimity, happens to step in front of you and dies from the impact, Kant would say you have done nothing wrong, it was a simple accident.  If you were not paying attention, or not sober, or had let your car lapse into undependable mechanical condition, and these things contributed to or directly caused the accident, you bear some responsibility.  And, obviously, if you intended to hit the person, your act was unequivocally evil.  We see this reflected in our legal system, wherein you would respectively be held innocent, be liable for manslaughter, and be guilty of murder.  Kant did not go back to the Categorical Imperative to evaluate every moral act; rather he generated “maxims,” sayings or rules, to guide life, that were consistent with the Categorical Imperative, such as “Never tell a lie.”

The duties given to us by Kantian maxims are simple and straightforward, yet perhaps they are too inflexible for real life situations.  For instance, what are you to do when you have conflicting duties, such as to tell the truth or to save a life and you cannot do both?  Kant held you could only have one duty at a time, but did not leave us an unambiguous way to sort out our duties–and our great temptation would be to evaluate them based on consequences, which would strike at the core of deontology.

If you’re confused now, that’s possibly a good sign, that you understand the complexities of what’s at stake.