Sunday, April 12, 2009

Torrential Downpour: scattered thoughts on pacifism and vegetarianism.

Unpredictability of War
David Samuels' "Why Israel Will Bomb Iran: The rational argument for an attack" in Slate illustrates one of the problems of war. Samuels makes a lot of predictions about what would happen if Israel bombed Iran. Most of these results appear as positives. But almost any act of war can seem sensible when justifying it by predicted results (especially if the war proponent is the one predicting such results). But nearly every act of war brings about unforeseen, unpredictable results. It is the unpredicted results that are often longterm negative results of acts of war.

Orwell against Tolstoy
In James Wood's "A Fine Rage: George Orwell's revolutions" in The New Yorker (abstract), Wood recounts Orwell's opposition to Tolstoy. The matter seems to be about "soft power:"

"The distinction that really matters is not between violence and non-violence, but between having and not having the appetite for power." The example he appends is an interesting one: when a father threatens his son with "You'll get a thick ear if you do that again," coercion is palpable. But, Orwell writes, what of the mother who lovingly murmurs, "Now, darling, is it kind to Mummy to do that?" The mother wants to contaminate her son's brain. Tolstoy did not propose that "King Lear" be banned or censored, Orwell says; instead, when he wrote his polemic against Shakespeare, he tried to contaminate our pleasure in the play. For Orwell, "Creeds like pacifism and anarchism, which seem on the surface to imply a complete renunciation of power, rather encourage this habit of mind."

Surely the problem of Orwell's argument is obvious. In a free society, if Tolstoy tries to badger me into hating King Lear, I'm free to resist. In fact, I have two forms of "soft" resistance at my disposal: I can either argue against Tolstoy, or I can ignore him. But if Tolstoy starts punching and kicking me because I enjoy King Lear, that is another thing altogether. The key distinction is, in fact, between violence and non-violence.

Sanctity of Life
Today at the church I attended for Easter service, there was a prayer that included a desire to embrace a "culture of life," followed by some specifics, including concern for the unborn. And I wondered: if everybody in America that opposed abortion on the grounds of the sanctity of human life, also opposed war on the very same grounds, we might not have any more aggressive foreign wars. The same thought could probably extend to the death penalty.

That's the problem of this "culture of life" business--which life, in fact, is of concern? Opponents of abortion usually don't share the same political (or cultural?) affiliations with opponents of capital punishment or opponents of militarism/warfare (and I'll limit to a parenthetical the observation that in most contexts, when people argue over "life," the concern is limited, of course, to human life).

Paradigms of Thought: Animal Rights
When I read articles about animal rights, I consistently come across the word "suffering." It is apparent that for many animal rights advocates, "suffering" is the paradigm which grounds their beliefs. Many of the arguments against humans using animals for our benefit are framed around the animals' suffering (arguments for the animals' capacity to suffer, or arguments on the conditions which lead animals to suffer). It is certainly not the only paradigm (the question "do humans have a right to use animals?" is not dependent on animal suffering), but it is a significant one.

I must admit that the suffering paradigm does not ground my vegetarianism; for me the paradigm is personal moral integrity. It is not the suffering of animals that motivates me precisely. I attempt to avoid moral complicity in the deaths of animals. I've suggested in the past that it is the religious thrust of my mind that made me a vegetarian: it is a religious desire to live a compassionate life and a religious desire to preserve personal moral integrity (it is not with mock humility that I note my constant failure in both these areas).

I make these observations on paradigms of belief without intended judgment. These are some of the thoughts that arise when I ask myself why I am vegetarian and not vegan. It is possible that either paradigm will, at some point, push me toward a strict veganism. At the moment, however, they have not.

Moral Arguments on Meat
I have been thinking of developing a post with the sentence "I've never heard a good moral argument for eating meat." But I think I could take out the "good," and simply say "I've never heard a moral argument for eating meat." Certainly I've heard many "defenses" or "justifications" for animal consumption. But nobody can really raise the argument that consuming meat is a morally superior choice to abstaining from consuming meat. I come back to a rational claim: if you eat meat, you are choosing your own pleasure over the life of the animal. It is difficult to make this choice and still claim it as a moral choice.


  1. The key distinction is, in fact, between violence and non-violence.Yup (or coercion and noncoercion, which amounts to pretty much the same thing). I find it ridiculous that Orwell would complain about "contaminat[ing] our pleasure in the play"--that amounts to saying that any kind of persuasive writing whatever is some kind of power grab. I mean, maybe it is, but is that bad or even particularly relevant? No, I definitely agree with you on that one.

    I attempt to avoid moral complicity in the deaths of animals.But, don't you attempt to avoid moral complicity in this precisely because of the suffering argument? Or is it only the death that is significant, and for some reason other than suffering? Just curious.

    I come back to a rational claim: if you eat meat, you are choosing your own pleasure over the life of the animal. It is difficult to make this choice and still claim it as a moral choice.Well, unless you are a hedonist, in which case it might be exactly your moral argument for eating meat. I don't think it's a particularly good one, of course, but certainly a moral system in which mere pleasure is more important than not only animal suffering but also death is possible. The vast, vast majority of meat-eaters, however, are certain not to actually have that moral system.

  2. nicole,
    Thanks for the comments. Yes, in my own behavior I see a distinction between death and suffering (thus I'm unwilling to be complicit in death, but am willing to be complicit in suffering--I'm not sure it's reasonable and in the longterm may not be a tenable position for me).

    Regarding Orwell, the weird thing is that he's a rather hectoring and preachy writer himself!

  3. he's a rather hectoring and preachy writer himself!Exactly what I was thinking!