On our treatment of other lives

Torch-bearer of Ahimsa
“The notion that human life is sacred just because it is human life is medieval.”  —Peter Singer

Last night, Peggy and I visited some friends who usually lock their dogs in a kennel when they have guests because they view the dogs as disruptive. I am pained by this because I view an animal’s participation in social events as a right unless the animal is out of control.

The premise behind our treatment of animals is that they are property, and while they have a vague right to humane treatment, they are still animals while we humans occupy a higher estate. Religion tends to support this idea, but my friends are atheists, and upon what grounds could an atheist assign a lower estate to a dog except by the assumption of human superiority, by which I mean the arbitrary valuing of such assets as are common to humans over those that are common to dogs simply because they are common to humans?

My thought is this. If a person and a dog were drowning, and I could only save one, my efforts would go to the dog if I knew and liked the dog but didn’t know the person. If the person was a child, or I knew and liked both, I might choose differently, but any choice I made would be based upon subjective preference rather than a belief that human life is more valuable than non-human life. Certainly, accommodations have to made with non-human animals just as they do with human children, but these accommodations can only be justified inasmuch as they are necessary.

To view creatures as I do makes some difference in how I relate to them, yet I continue to drive a car although I know I will kill countless bugs and some larger creatures. I also kill spiders that get inside my house; own leather shoes and belts; step on slugs that threaten my flowers; spray herbicides on my lawn every year or two; and eat food that requires the destruction of animal habitat and the mass killing of plants. I also consume fish, eggs, and milk, all of which necessitate slaughter. I do these things because I want to, not because I can justify them. I have no reason but personal preference to think that, except in self-defense, my life is worth more than the life of anything else. I could at the very least reduce the amount of suffering and death that I bring into the world, but I don’t even do that except for the avoidance of eating meat and fowl and the occasional rescue of earthworms that are driven into the street by winter rains. If, upon reading this, you were to point out that, although a meat eater, you live in consistence with your ethical standards while I fail miserably by mine, I could but agree. I would question, however, whether your ethical standards were well-founded because I can
’t imagine how you might defend them aside from making the rather odd assumption that human life is worth more than other life.

Even vegans live by killing, their thought being that, since they have to kill, they should at least avoid the destruction of beating hearts. If I were a deeply moral person, I would have no choice but to be a vegan, but as it is, I pay others to kill bulls, roosters, and fish for me for no better reason than that I prefer the taste of foods cooked with milk and eggs and imagine myself to feel better when I eat fish.

As for those who do eat beef, sheep, swine, and fowls, I will readily admit that many of them are better people than I in all sorts of ways, yet when I observe kindly people eating a steak, I can
’t avoid the thought that they are less kindly than I had imagined based upon their willingness to cause misery and death for no nobler reason than that they enjoy the taste of meat. The best I can say for them is that they might not have thought the matter through. They probably grew up eating meat; almost everyone they know eats meat; and they’re so accustomed to cooking meat that they wouldn’t know what else to cook. Even so, they’re about animals like slave owners were about slaves in that if they try to justify their behavior at all, their rationale is self-serving.

Such is my species, and the most obvious difference between most people and myself is that I probably think more deeply. This might make me slightly more ethical, but it also puts me in the position of knowingly doing more evil. While most meat-eaters have at least some excuse, I have none, so I
’m on shaky ground when I congratulate myself upon my superiority. I would even go so far as to say that one small reason I’m not a vegan is that it would make me even more judgmental. The ultimate would be to live like Jains who go to such extremes to avoid harming other creatures that they breathe through masks; examine seats before they sit; avoid all means of travel other than walking; and look at the ground before every step. Their ethic is defined by the word ahimsa, and while I don’t accept their pacifism, I respect them.
It’s fair to say that I’m a misanthropist. Although I like and enjoy most people, I have no respect for my species, largely because of our double standard regarding other creatures. A predator must eat meat, and, so far as we know, lacks the capacity to feel empathy for his prey or the ability to examine his behavior ethically. We most certainly can feel empathy, and we most certainly do possess a moral sense, so we could easily make different choices without threatening our health (we would be more likely to improve it) but we nonetheless kill other creatures by the billions for no nobler reason than that their corpses please our taste buds. We might claim that they are less important than we, and therefore less deserving of life, but what is the rationale for such a belief?

While petting my friends’ dogs last night, I reflected upon the fact that joy, fear, need, and affection, exists in dogs as much as in me. It is said that Descartes considered animals to be living machines, so as some of his followers performed scientific investigations upon a dog (i.e. torture), they effused over how well God had endowed the animal with the ability to feign emotion. Surely, the better we are able to dismiss the feelings and deprecate the value of other creatures, the better we can rationalize mistreating them. But how do we make the leap from observing that an
animal’s ablilities are less than our own, at least in the ways we value, to concluding that the animal’s life is of less value than our own? But having done this, why don’t we go to the logical extreme and conclude that the same applies within our own species? For example, I have come to doubt that I possess any remarkable skills or intelligence, and since I’m getting up in years, I’m losing whatever skills and intelligence I once possessed. Surely, if my life is worth more than a dog’s life because of my skills and intelligence, then it is worth less than the life of another human who is more skilled and intelligent than myself.

This is not a popular way to think. While it’s easy for us to compare the worth of our species to that of other species without anyone but a few “nutcases” (moi) demurring, even atheists tend to maintain that, unlike the worth of nonhuman life, the intrinsic worth of every single human life is incalculable. Alas, it is but a feel-good statement that has little bearing upon how we actually behave. For instance, if by spending $100-billion dollars on airplane safety, or by lowering the highway speed limit to 40-mph, we could save one human life, would we? Given that we Americans, at least, allow our neighbors to die everyday because they can’t afford medical care, and send our young men and women to be killed and maimed in foreign wars without so much as bothering to vote on whether those wars are necessary, I would consider the answer obvious. We only
regard human life as more valuable than money or convenience when the expenditure of money or convenience is minimal.

We even speak of money as indicative of human worth as when we say that Warren Buffet is “worth” $72.3-billion while Donald Trump comes in at a mere $4-billion. Upon what basis can we claim that these are mere figures of speech? After the fine sentiments are out of the way, no exorbitantly expensive safety changes will ever be made, and the speed limit will never be lowered in order to save a single human life or even a great many human lives. That which we don’t value can often be discovered by reversing that which we say we do value.

I am better at learning vocabulary than my cat (for whom I buy kibbles made with meat), but he is my superior in dexterity and night-vision. If he and I were to argue over which of our lives is worth more, the most that either of us could accomplish would be to tally our abilities in the hope of outnumbering the other, but it would be a vain endeavor because even if one of us had twice as many abilities, the other could argue that his were of greater importance. Even if one of us possessed a thousand important abilities, and the other no abilities, the former could not prove that his life was of greater inherent worth as opposed to worth for given purposes. As I suggested earlier, to do so would be to imply that a gifted person’s life was worth more than a less gifted person’s life, and we would all be on shaky ground if this were the case. 

Feeling as I do about other animals is reminiscent of how I feel about religion in that almost everyone I know feels differently, and that in the interest of getting along, it is better that I keep my mouth shut. Because I hate going through life keeping my mouth shut, I rarely succeed in pulling it off very well, and have consequently lost more friends than I can count. It’s hard being the perpetual outsider, the one who is different, the one who either can’t or won’t (I’m not sure which) at least pretend to go along with what other people believe is right

I think that, for most people, ethics is a function of: (1) imitating our neighbors, and (2) being true to ourselves when we think we can get away with. If you live in America’s Deep South, you will probably say you believe in God, but if you live in Scandinavia, you will probably say you don’t, partly because our tendency to mimic our neighbors makes us more likely to be atheistic in a dominantly atheist society, and partly because those who would be atheists no matter where they lived know they won’t be penalized for saying what they really think. So it is with our treatment of animals. To continue the slavery analogy, most white American Southerners once believed that slavery was ethical and even charitable (it exposed slaves to Christianity); they now say it’s horrible and regret that their ancestors ever owned slaves. Does this mean that white Southerners of today are generally more moral, sensitive, and empathetic, than those of 150 years ago? I doubt it when I consider their behavior in general but especially in regard to other animals. We’re not creatures who think for ourselves; we’re creatures who mimic our fellows. Sometimes, this is for the good, and other times it’s for the bad, but in either case, our convictions lack depth. That which is easy to think and do is what we think and do, and this makes any claim to moral advancement a bit of a joke. 

Image credit: "Lord Mahavir Gold" by Sidparakh - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lord_Mahavir_Gold.jpg#/media/File:Lord_Mahavir_Gold.jpg