Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Torrential Downpour

This blog is about "life in ideas." Sometimes that means attempting to write serious and developed analysis and commentary; often it is an informal diary of my own life in reading and ideas. I prefer to write the former, but find I still need the latter. I'll try to alert you when it is the latter, so you know what posts to skip.

Books and Reading
I was recently telling my wife how amazed I was at the ability of any novel, even a bad one, to entirely suck me into its world. While I'm reading a novel, I can visualize so much of it in detail. She pointed out that I'm a visual person, and that others do not necessarily read that way. And indeed, that's true: others may not visualize events of fiction clearly. Individuals' minds operate in very different ways--again suggesting to me that a solitary, objective method of reading is neither possible nor desirable.

I have so much unread fiction and drama around my house, it seems unnecessary to buy more such books until I put a bigger dent in what I have now (with exception: I still buy fiction and drama for professional use). But there is plenty of poetry and non-fiction out there that I'm still going to buy.

I have come to detest looking at my Riverside Anthology of Literature. I've taught from it for so long, and so next semester I'm giving it up. I'll teach short stories from an anthology exclusively devoted to short stories, and make my own poetry unit out of handouts, links, and attachments. It will be fun to choose utterly whatever poetry I wish.

I assigned Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" for this week, but didn't want to drag that detestably bulky Riverside Anthology of Literature home to read it. I left it in my office, assuming I had an anthology at home with the story in it. I did--an anthology of 50 Short Story Masterpieces. Now, I don't read a lot of short stories. When I read fiction, I prefer to get sucked into a novel's world, and I also read a fair amount of drama, poetry, and non-fiction. But opening up this book and looking at the table of contents, I suddenly have a desire to just sit with this book and read short stories for a while. It's something like serendipity.

rambing, undeveloped thoughts on reason, belief, animals, and rights
This is not intended as a developed argument, but an attempt to articulate some swirling thoughts I've been having.

I've become convinced that it is wrong to kill animals for our uses. I have not, however, become convinced that it is wrong to use animals for any human uses (but I can be convinced: I obviously made the transition from meat-eater to vegetarian over an idea, and a commitment to living according to convictions. If I am convinced, I would go vegan instead of mostly vegan). I became a vegetarian by reason: when learning about the intelligence of animals, I decided the animals' lives are worth more than the pleasure I could derive from eating them. But I haven't been compelled by the same reason to suggest that it is always wrong for humans to use animals.

Part of this is a matter of "faith." For what reason do we believe human beings have rights? Perhaps because a state grants human beings rights. Perhaps because a creator endowed all human beings with inherent dignity. But there is no act of reason that convinces me that human beings have rights--reason could just as easily lead me to an existential nihilism in which "everything is permitted" and nothing has any inherent value (see Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamozov for exploration of "everything is permitted," or for that matter Flannery O'Connor's Misfit). As it happens, I do believe all human beings are imbued with dignity--because of my religious belief. And it is my commitment to pacifism and vegetarianism that has led me to move away from existentialism--away from the belief that we should create our own meaning, and toward the belief in absolute moral principles.

It is not by reason that I am led to the belief that all human beings have "dignity" or, if you prefer, "value." And so by reason I am also not compelled to assign animals an inherent "value." Again, this is because by reason alone, I might be led to believe there is no inherent value in anything, and that "everything is permitted." If it is a self-evident truth that human beings have rights, that self-evident truth is a leap of faith. It is a belief that human beings have rights, dignity, value. So too is it a leap of faith to claim animals have rights, dignity, value.

Now, as it happens I do not believe that "everything is permitted," I do believe that human beings have inherent dignity and rights, and I do believe that animals have inherent dignity and should not be slaughtered for our purposes. And though I would consider myself an "animal rights" advocate, I am a little uncomfortable with the term. What "rights" does an animal have? Well, a right to live. A right to freedom? Perhaps--and if I can be convinced by reason that an animals has that right inherently, I would become vegan (well, I'm already "mostly vegan"--I eat cheese sometimes, but most days I am completely vegan. And I like that better).

What is my rambling getting at? Not, I hope, merely my own justification for eating cheese sometimes. It is that there is a tension between reason and belief even for the most secular of arguments. I think there is a tension between reason and belief in discussion of animal rights. Right now, I'm living in that tension.


  1. I greatly sympathize with your swirling thoughts in the second half of the post. Swirling of my own prevents me having anything much intelligent to say about it. But I really enjoy reading your thoughts on animals rights as it is an issue I struggle with as well.

    I'm also fascinated by visual readers like yourself. I've always had trouble actually visualizing the scene that's being set for me; visualizing what a character looks like I find particularly difficult. A lot of my conscious effort in reading these days is devoted to thinking about the visuals rather than just glossing over them mentally. It can really be a different experience.

  2. I think how people read is a quite interesting subject, and the problem is how difficult it is to convey to each other. Unless I'm a gifted visual artist (and I'm not), it is impossible to actually convey to another what I envision in my mind while reading a particular story. A place, a character, a scene of a novel--how it appears exists uniquely in my mind, looking different than it does in the mind of the author, looking different than the mind of another reader (or it may be so different in the mind of a different reader that it doesn't actually "appear," but is something else altogether).

    Not just reading, but THINKING, is so idiosyncratic.

  3. Anonymous8:02 PM

    Interesting thoughts. I think the idea of human rights or dignity really comes from our own experience. Except in cases of extreme mistreatment and brainwashing from birth, we all experience our own value, our own desire to be free from suffering. Whether or how far we extrapolate that outwards is the real question. Does it apply only to our nationality? Our gender? Our race? Our species? I think it depends on how much we think our own interests are threatened by the interests of others. In a way, those who oppress others are those who are most aware of the rights of others. If they weren't aware of those rights they wouldn't feel the need to defend themselves against them.