Re: A talk I gave to some Honours students at the University of Sydney
I've read your talk to the Honour students 2 or 3 times and have been
contemplating how I might respond to it, or how well. As is usually
my habit, it probably won't be a point-for-point response, but more a
commentary on the premises I infer are behind or implied by it.
I don't know much about Aristotle or his Nichomachean Ethics, but I'm
guessing they would be in the broad class of "de-ontology", as
opposed to consequentialism. I doubt that the students are likely to
pay much attention to principled ethical arguments. Like most
people, they probably go by some adequate rationalization of some
sort of "greater good" ethic and may even privately fall back on a
sort of condescending "humane amoralism" when they're confronted with
your Nichomachean arguments for animal rights. But---I can't fault
you for trying to plant a few seeds. A few could take root.
I very strongly lean towards "the moral point of view" myself, but
the argument Thomas Nagel puts forth for it, using the "umbrella
situation" is a rather weak one. There are many, many "emergency"
or "lifeboat" situations far more urgent than "not getting rained
on". Your car won't start, you don't have a cell phone, there's
heavy rainstorm, and you've got to pick your 8-year-old up at school
5 miles away. Somebody's left his keys in the car, and that thunder
and lightning are horrifying. Nagel's moral-point-of-view argument
probably wouldn't get a glance.
With respect to animals, for instance, there's venom collection from
deadly snakes, spiders and other animals. I've read on forums here
and there, even from vegans, that they wouldn't by any means refuse
anti-venom, and I probably wouldn't either. Some have tried to make
a moral distinction between venom collection and other involuntary
uses of animals. But I have my doubts there really is a clear one.
Your comments about millions of fish being destroyed by damns is
interesting. Is putting your 2 cents worth in some activity that
accidentally but unavoidably results in the death of one or more
animals or human beings something that should be avoided? And
further---banned, regulated, or taken direct action against? Freely
engaging in many activities and indulging in many comforts that don't
deliberately kill, hurt, harm, exploit or even "humanely use" animals
may often, probably DO, inflict some "collateral damage" on not only
animals, but humans also.
However, trying to ban or regulate or interfere with this through
direct action (the anarchist response) MAY have OTHER consequences
JUST AS HARMFUL to both, and they may be more far reaching than we
ever imagined. A case in point---the Animal Liberation Front once
released a farm of minks. They just let them loose. What harm to
other animals did they do to other prey animals and what problems may
they have created by a sudden surge of minks in the population that
may be further increased through breeding? I'm not saying there may
not be a decent argument for their actions, but I suspect "the moral
point of view" would be a rather simplistic template for making it
from---AS MUCH AS I RESPECT IT AS AN INTEGRAL PART OF A LARGER
I read someone a few years ago, I can't remember who or where, how
even vegans in a modern technological world may ultimately cause
more "collateral damage" (including death and suffering) than
primitive hunter-gatherers and perhaps people living in modern
western societies living a low-consumption, subsistence animal-
husbandry lifestyle. It's very possible they could be right. I
suppose a vegan/vegetarian response might be that low-consumption
veganism would be better than the omnivorous equivalent.
However, even though there may be collateral damage in my
relatively "luxurious", materially comfortable and technological
lifestyle, I'm not terribly apologetic about it, and I think an ethic
that avoids THE DELIBERATE killing, enslavement, etc. of animals is
ethically superior to the low-consumption hunter-gatherer/subsistence
omnivorism. Even killing individual animals,
infrequently, "humanely, and "respectfully" is fundamentally inferior
to a materially comfortable and technological vegan lifestyle. NOW.
I guess I have to "prove" that, don't I? I'll work on it as time and
Consequentialism can be used for their own purposes by people with
widely different aims and motives. The vivisectionist can use it,
and so can "The Schmoo". Did you ever read any of Ayn Rands comments
about the schmoo? (I think she got it from the old "Pogo" comic
strip, whose creator I can't remember the name of). Vivisectionists
et al have brilliant and intricate arguments to justify
inflicting "unavoidable" pain and suffering on all kinds of animals.
The Schmoo, often an extreme eco-purist or Green, wants somebody
to "eat him" and the rest of the human race as well, because his very
existence does or MIGHT harm somebody else. I guess the schmoo would
be overcome with guilt if he even disadvantaged or inconvenienced
anybody----This .Unit .Must .Die.
I don't fault you for wanting to explore these ethical theories and
the dilemmas that seem to arise from them. Such intellectual
activity plays an important role in making a better world. But I
seriously doubt even the greatest philosophers will ever resolve
them. The "Great Conversation" is INTRINSICALLY unending. It goes on
and on and on. AT SOME POINT, based on our best and sincerest
understanding, WE HAVE TO ACT, even on imperfect knowledge and
theory. This is what I've come up with.
1. The non-aggression principle for man and animal. I would not
support a ban or regulation on dams nor direct action against them.
I would listen to voluntary alternatives to reduce or
minimize "collateral damage" to fish and other adversely affected
animals, and make what efforts I could, in my own unique situation.
But---maybe an obsessive desire to "eliminate" all collateral damage
may paradoxically make life on this planet even worse. Who knows?
At this point, my thinking seems to be an unfortunately less-than-
organized "dynamic" of "moral-point-of-view" de-ontology, rule-
utilitarianism, dialectic and heuristic.
2. Advocate, support, develop theories and strategies for, and
work toward a libertarian society, even one that sadly may not
acknowledge a de jure right to life, liberty (and perhaps, habitat)
for INDIVIDUALS of other species, because even a LEFTIST political
order run mainly or entirely by "pro-animal vegans" would be
inherently arrogant, controlling, coercive and oppressive, and would
rapidly break down and backlash into an even more bitter and
entrenched anti-animal culture, that would destroy more than a
century of progress. These things have to be done DELICATELY.
3. I'm very much interested in alternative communities---
voluntary collectivist, laissez-faire "capitalist"---the list and
variations are endless---as experimental tools for developing small
pro-animal libertarian communities---PHYSICAL communities, not just
theoretical communities on the internet. I hope to study the "free
state" and "free town" projects better than I have. We need to have
something to SHOW others, not just words, arguments and sermons.
Once again, I apologize for yet another ramble that might better have
been expressed more succinctly. I hope it did address some points in
James N. Dawson
October 25, 2008