Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Fiat Voluntas Tua

' ...they forgot the tofu - that we just love to eat'
(*Not* a line from Starship's 'We Built This City', despite me remembering it that way for about 25 years)

When we look at the natural world, we see suffering. We see suffering that is intrinsic to life: wasp larvae burrowing their way into living caterpillars, cute furry animals being tortured to death by other cute furry animals, schistosomes boring into the walls of human bladders, etc. Historically, this observation has been a frequently used argument against the hypothesis of a benevolent God. Today I am not going to discuss this argument. Instead, I will discuss what the proper human response to this suffering should be and put forward some provisional operational guidelines for discussion.

A respectable philosophical tradition in Greco/Roman/Judaeo/Christo/Islamic civilisation is the comforting one that the suffering of animals is illusory. They appear to suffer, but they do not really suffer, since they do not have souls, so we do not have to give them any moral standing. If this is the case, we can sleep easily and carry on with our bull-baiting, cock-fighting, whaling, and KFC. This is Option 1. I would love to see someone stand up and offer a robust defence of this argument - which is of venerable pedigree, is self-consistent, and has a lot of day-to-day advantages - but am not going to do so myself.

Once we admit that the suffering of animals is real, we are in trouble. Since the whole natural world is permeated completely with suffering, is woven of suffering, cannot function in any meaningful way without ceaseless suffering. We cannot touch it individually. We cannot yet touch it collectively, except by the morally-objectionable ‘Judge Death’ strategy of exterminating all animals on the planet. Our human contribution to this mass of suffering is small. In aggregate, it is hard to tell whether it is positive or negative.

Confronted with this horrible spectacle, we can erect a flimsy barrier between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’. On that side is nature, where moral laws do not apply; on this side is culture, and anything that we bring (arbitrarily) onto this side of the line has to be treated by moral laws. This is Option 2. So we treat our dogs as honorary humans, and the whales in our oceans as honorary humans, and enforce laws on the ‘humane’ culling of some pest species while happily letting others die in agonies. The arbitrariness of the flimsy barrier is what bothers me about this option. No one can stand up and offer a robust rational defence of this option. There isn’t one.

We are part of this web of suffering, but we do not have to embrace it. Individually, we might decide to do what we can to avoid adding stones to this continent-sized landslide of dehumanising pain . Why should we do this, since our contribution is negligible? The best reason I can think of is that we are the first fruits of consciousness, we are the beginning of the manifestation of morality in the material realm, and in so acting we are beginning a redemptive work that will in some millions of years result in a more just and merciful biosphere. It is easy to avoid adding stones to the landslide of pain by commission, and I think it is incumbent upon us to do so. I think we ‘ought’ to avoid putting kittens in the drier, not swerve out of our way to run over cane toads, not snuff out the life of a being capable of suffering on the flimsy excuse that it tastes good. I don’t think it is incumbent on us to reduce the landslide of pain by avoiding sins of omission, since that opens a bottomless box. We *can* take in stray cats, or perform endoscopies on stray penguins, and these are intrinsically good acts, but I don’t think we are obliged to do them in the same way as we are obliged *not* to commit atrocities to animals. This Option 3 is rather bleak in its sisyphean stoicism, brightened only by a gleam from the far future, and I think it can only be made bearable if leavened with the realisation that suffering is not the greatest evil.

We can say, despite everything: life is good. Life is suffering, but it is also good. Minimisation of suffering is a good, but not the good. And here we come to a quote from ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’ that I was referring to the last time I had a discussion touching on these matters with Lexifab. I went to some trouble to look it up but it has turned out to be too disjointed and vast to quote.

If each creature in this world of suffering can pursue its own goals to the best of its ability and derive some enjoyment from its life, then does it matter so much that it must suffer along the way (as must we all) and eventually die in greater or lesser agony (as must we all)? The greater tragedy it seems to me is:

Not that they starve, but starve so dreamlessly;
Not that they sow, but that they seldom reap;
Not that they serve, but have no gods to serve;
Not that they die, but that they die like sheep.

(Vachel Lindsay)

Living things should be valued in as much as they blaze forth a glorious light of being in the darkness of non-being. Things that impede them from doing this are bad; things that empower them to do this are good...

And unfortunately, it seems that as I try to clarify what I mean and articulate something I can define as Option 4, the closer I come to talking myself out of my ideological commitment to vegetarianism. And to a philosophical position closer to my actual behaviour of eating fish and kangaroos. Bugger.


Marco said...

To start with, I really like the fish and kangaroo option, which is similar to my parents excercised option completely on the basis of the health and quality of the meat (essentially only eat what you catch and hunt yourself, which also includes chittle deer)

I think the observed overreaction by Australia recently is more a "Schrodinger Cat" style conundrum. It is very easy for people to tell themselves that animals are not suffering. If nobody (or at least nobody with any empathy for the animal) sees it suffer, then maybe it didn't.

Have you noticed how few nature documentaries dwell or even show any obvious examples of prey suffering at the hands of a predator?

This is an obvious ploy to stop the demonisation of predator species over that of herbivores.

So perhaps this is option five that regular naive armchair moralists actually live by without realising. If you don't see something suffer, then you have to assume that it didn't.

Dr Clam said...

I'm glad you like it. It is just how things have worked out... the kangaroo is to encourage the industry with an eye towards replacing soil-destroying hoofed mammals.

And yes... I heard the Northern Territory Chief Minister (I think) on the radio on the way home saying something along the lines of: 'Hopefully the problem will soon be fixed, and we won't have to see images like we saw on television again...'