Saturday, August 18, 2007

Animals and morality

Apparently it has been a central problem of philosophy to explain "morality" as a uniquely human attribute. Philosophers, however, are keen to show that they are still equal to scientific thinking, so it has been hard to reconcile a unique human morality with related behaviors among other animals, i.e., with morality necessarily being an evolutionarily derived characteristic and not so unique after all.

And so reason is evoked as the essence of morality. Reason, we reason, is uniquely human, so everything that involves it must also be uniquely human.

This is, of course, a fine example of circular reasoning. Reason is uniquely human, morality requires reason, therefore morality is uniquely human. Neither premise is proven and exists only for the benefit of the other.

How much reasoning must we expend to justify what most people would inarguably see as a moral act, such as helping someone who is hurt? Reason, it seems, is more necessary to rationalize immoral acts, such as torture, the bombing of civilians, or ignoring from a seat of relative comfort the economic plight of others.

It is immorality, it seems, that is uniquely human and requires human reason.

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I have written before in this space about Michael Pollan's confusion of morality with appetite. His dilemma, as it is sometimes said about taste, is in his mouth. For him, being an omnivore is what makes one human, and therefore he is committed to being the most conscientious omnivore he can be without denying his humanity.

But just because we can kill and eat anything we want doesn't mean that we should. We don't eat each other, for example, and it is generally not acceptable behavior to kill or even assault one another either. So what seems to make us human is the ability to deny our appetites, not gratify them, no matter how refined the gourmet. There is, of course, a balance -- we ought to enjoy what we eat and the communion of meals -- but one thing that is uniquely human, as Michael Pollan makes clear, is to recognize the immorality of one's actions and, instead of curtailing such behavior or even accepting it as a weakness or imperfection, to write whole books to justify it as right and necessary.

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The first section above was written after reading an article by John Gray in the May 10 New York Review of Books, reviewing a couple of books about the evolution of morality.

The second section comes after reading an incisive and very readable review in the September Atlantic of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma: "Hard to swallow: the gourmet’s ongoing failure to think in moral terms" by B.R Myers.

And while we're on the subject of treating animals decently as fellow creatures on this earth (not as potential meals), the American Vegan Society has a good article by Dale Lugenbehl in the Summer 2007 American Vegan about the massive impacts on the planet from raising animals to eat. It is available on line here. That issue of American Vegan also includes the report from the U.N. about animal husbandry's substantial contribution of greenhouse gases (more than transport) and other related material.

environment, environmentalism, animal rights, vegetarianism