Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bumper Sticker Discordance

Yesterday I saw a car with a purple "Stop the Violence" ribbon on one side; on the other side was a yellow "Support the Troops" ribbon.

Today I saw a car with a bold "God is Pro-Life" sticker; it was joined with a sticker for the "U.S. Army."

Perhaps you see no inconsistency in these messages (most, I suspect, don't). I think even staunch opponents of war could make a solid argument that the messages are not incompatible. But I see in these messages a divided mind, a failure to see one form of violence as violence, to see one form of killing as killing.

Science and Values

On a topic relevant to an ethic of nonviolence

My first instinct on these matters is to say "Read your Dostoevsky, people." On the question of whether scientific knowledge can lead us to moral truth, start with Notes from the Underground, then try The Brothers Karamazov (along the way, you might find insights in Demons, The Adolescent, Crime and Punishment, and The Idiot). Dostoevsky was on it.

My second thought is to remember why I finally stopped eating animals. My wife forwarded me some articles regarding the mental, emotional, and social lives of animals. These articles were based on scientific research, providing scientific knowledge about animals. It was these facts about animals that finally led me to stop eating meat.

But then I remember that many people are aware of scientific facts about the mental and emotional capacity of animals, but still find little dilemma at all about eating meat. At best, science can inform our moral values (and it certainly can). Over the long movement of history, this informing of moral values might (usually in hindsight) resemble the source of moral values. But on that, I'm skeptical. There are still all sorts of irrational* sources of human values. Even when we are informed by scientific fact, we still use those irrational values to interpret how we are actually supposed to live in light of that fact.

*I don't use the word entirely negatively.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Happily, our age now has a firm grip on all truth, and our values are perfect in every way.

(reposted and revised from August 6, 2009)

In "Anachronistic Arrogance" in Religion Dispatches, Peter Laarman is critical of a tendency to dismiss the positive ideas, accomplishments, or art of historical figures because their social politics are not up to our progressive standards. I think of John Fowles in The French Lieutentant's Woman, speaking to his ages' sense of superiority over the Victorians:

"So much the better for us? Perhaps. But we are not the ones who will finally judge."

Happily, Laarman explicitly addressed the thought I had while reading his article (and often have when considering this problem of "anachronistic arrogance," as Laarman puts it):

"A little generosity and humility are called for here. I predict that the rap on this generation, and on even the most progressive among us, will end up being homo sapiens “species-ism.” And how will we feel when our good works and thoughts are dismissed because we disdained the sensibilities of whales and dolphins and horses and frogs and (yes) even that little piglet who contributed to yesterday’s breakfast?"

A further point is that those who have the greater knowledge, who should know better, have greater moral responsibility. Jonathan Safran Foer writes in Eating Animals:

We can't plead ignorance, only indifference. Those alive today are the generations that came to know better. We have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness. We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?"

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"The Outer Limits" and Authority

Watching The Outer Limits, one frequently finds themes of fear and distrust of the government, as well as the corruption and insidiousness of authority (and those in authority). But these themes often focus on the negative power of the military, the dangers of an oppressive security state, and the potential tyranny of a secretive government.

But today's conservatives that rail against big government and government takeovers don't seem to have concerns about these issues. There is also a trend among many conservatives to trust government officials implicitly on all sorts of matters. They trust the government to know who should be tortured. They trust the government to know who should be detained indefinitely. On matters such as this, they certainly trust the government to keep them safe, and are happy to give government officials power. And do some of these same conservatives that distrust the government continue to support the government's military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan? Where was the distrust of the government when the Bush administration was selling the Iraq war?

This is not to exempt a Democratic administration from criticism on these issues: see this, this, remember this, of course we still have this, and there's this, and this. But what is striking me (while watching The Outer Limits) is the ideological disconnect in a conservative distrust of government in general with a conservative faith in the government on military and security matters.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The moral challenge of normalized violence

David Brooks refers to

"the greatest moral challenge of our day: the $9.7 trillion in new debt being created this decade."

For Brooks, a massive debt is "the greatest moral challenge of our day." Not two wars/military occupations (that Brooks supported and supports) that have led to thousands of deaths and continue to lead to violent deaths for innocent civilians. Not government officials that tortured with impunity and continue to prance around the media bragging about and defending torture with no punishment. Not even climate change. Not even millions of Americans without health insurance. And of course not the gap between the richest and the poorest.

A giant debt is a serious policy problem, one that must be dealt with. But in a nation with a gigantic military budget and hundreds of military bases around the world and military occupations of two nations, a nation that continues military efforts that violently kill innocent people, a nation that has tortured people and because the torturers have not been punished, a nation that will torture again, it is obscene to call debt our "greatest moral challenge." To do so normalizes violence: such violence is so acceptable, so "necessary," so taken-for-granted-that-it-need-not-be-considered, that it is policy on debt that is our greatest "moral" issue.

And that is our true greatest moral challenge: the normalization of violence that allows people like Brooks to consider the problem of debt a more pressing ethical concern.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Meat and Environmentalism

At Vegan.com, Erik Marcus responds to Cheri Shankar at Huffington Post by arguing that one can be an environmentalist and eat meat.

As a practical matter--how animal agriculture affects "the environment" (contribution to climate change, damage to local environments near factory farms, etc.)--Marcus has a point. An environmentalist could significantly reduce meat consumption, could actively push for more sustainable, environment-friendly agricultural practices, etc. Plastic bags are bad, but I wouldn't claim you're not an environmentalist if you ever accept a plastic bag at a store. "Environmentalist" is not a term to define some inner essence, whereby you either "are" or "aren't"; different people may have different levels or types of concerns for the environment, may express these concerns in different ways, and may take different actions (personal and political) to protect the environment.

From a ideological or philosophical perspective, though, I think an environmentalist eating meat is problematic. It comes down to what we mean by "the environment." Eating meat, generally speaking, means not considering animals a part of that environment. Thus an environmentalism that allows for killing animals for food (something unnecessary, relating to pleasure, not survival) is a human-centered environmentalism. Such environmentalism is concerned with the global environment and local environments, but primarily how environmental damage affects humans. A meat-eating environmentalist may still want to save the environment (or environments), but to do so for humans. In that sense, even saving endangered species isn't about the animals, but about saving species so that human beings can continue to appreciate and enjoy them.

I also think, from an educational perspective, it is good to publicize the connection between current animal agriculture and environmental damage. In recent years I've come across articles and books highlighting this connection fairly regularly. It is good to point out to people that their choice to eat animals has environmental consequences. Even if a writer makes a claim some will take as extreme (i.e., that you cannot be an environmentalist and eat meat), such claims still publicize the connection and require people to think about it. Will exposure to this connection convert many individuals to veganism or vegetarianism? Maybe not. Will exposure to an extreme claim cause individuals to say "Well that's too radical: to hell with environmentalists, and to hell with the earth!" I doubt it. Hopefully, though, people will learn something, think critically about their own choices and lifestyles, and make positive changes.

So yes, "environmentalists" can express concern and take action for the environment in numerous ways; this concern may include abstaining from meat, or it may only include reducing meat consumption, or it may express itself in ways having nothing to do with food. But meat-eating environmentalists may be denying animals' place in and part of "the environment," and insisting that environmentalists refrain from meat can only help, not hurt.

Friday, March 5, 2010

When do wars end?

In order to win the Vietnam War, the U.S. is killing Laotians. Decades after the war ended (NPR).

If you are advocating for a particular war, you are advocating for something that will bring many long-term negative consequences, many which cannot be predicted before the war begins. Proponents of the Iraq War could not know that the specifics of Abu Ghraib would happen; however, they should have known that all wars bring about atrocities, and that something like Abu Ghraib would be likely to happen. Just as dropping bombs from the sky is likely to kill innocent civilians. In that sense, the many questions to ask before considering war should include: "Are the outcomes of this war worth the atrocities that are bound to occur?"

I think advocates of war must be forced to acknowledge the unknown, unpredictable, and largely negative consequences that large-scale violence brings about. If you use violence against a region, there are long-term consequences to the human beings living in that region. Many of these specific consequences may be difficult to predict at the time--but that there will be consequences, largely negative, is quite easy to know from the history of human experience.