18 May 2012

Man, beast, and the big lie

[I'm without much access to my own computer for a few days, and only on the internet sporadically, so I won't be posting much.  However, this post at Progressive Eruptions, about the ethics of meat-eating, led me to write a comment which I think deserves a post of its own.]

I've held for many years that the one great central error in all of human thinking is the belief that humans have souls. That is the original error from which all our other errors flow.

This question here -- the ethics of meat-eating -- is a good example. Most people's thinking about it starts from an unstated premise that there is a qualitative rather than quantitative difference between humans and other animals -- it's not just that we're more intelligent, more emotionally sophisticated, have more elaborate social organization, etc. than other species (just as some other species are "more" each of those things than yet other species -- we're at one end of a spectrum). It's that there's some kind of fundamental, un-bridgeable gulf of difference between, on the one hand, one particular great-ape species, and on the other hand, the other four great-ape species and all the other animals in the world. Everything from the chimpanzee to the dust mite is in one class, we're alone in the other.

This is biologically absurd, but it's taken deep root in our thinking, even in our language, as in the use of "humans" and "animals" as contrasting categories, as if the former were not a subset of the latter. "Humans have rights, but animals do not" is obviously a mere statement of dogma rather than a description of reality -- but beyond that, the more subtle error is in the very categories themselves. To state the same stance realistically -- "One animal species has rights, all other animal species do not" -- would at once force attention toward all the real questions that such a stance raises.

Today millions of people who would consider cannibalism (and certainly the systematic raising of humans to be slaughtered for food) to be an unspeakable outrage, have no qualms about eating bacon; many of those who would march in the streets to protest inhumane conditions in Guantanamo are unmoved by the far more inhumane conditions in factory farms. This is only possible because of that fundamental error in our thinking, that other animals are not just our inferiors in degree but are somehow fundamentally different, not the same "stuff" as we are, so that their sufferings -- and, yes, rights -- can simply be ignored as if they did not exist.


Blogger B.R. said...

I'm not sure how to respond to this post (though I do agree with you on the soul part). On the one hand, I love meat. But I still find the conditions of modern dairy farms abysmal. I think that as long as we eat lower animals, we should take responsibility and ensure that it's a painless process. I have to admit though, in regards to cannibalism, if overpopulation continues unabated, then that may be what we're reduced to in a few generations (think Soylent Green). But it wouldn't matter that much to me if there was no choice. Facing death by starvation, I think most of us would choose to live. As my mother says, "the difference between what you won't eat and what you will is about 24 hours".

Thanks for yet another though-provoking post.

18 May, 2012 09:59  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

BR: Thanks. Overpopulation is really yesterday's problem -- birth rates in most countries are below replacement level now, even in the Third World, even in Islamic countries (the one big exception is sub-Saharan Africa). The world now has far more severely-overweight people than malnourished people.

If I were desperate enough, I suppose I'd eat an animal if nothing else were available -- then again, if I were desperate enough I might well eat a human if nothing else were available. But for normal circumstances I can't eimagine doing either.

18 May, 2012 13:20  
Blogger B.R. said...

Perhaps eating (other) animals would be understandable if people had to hunt, kill, skin, and prepare them themselves. It wouldn't stop me, but it might cause a lot of people to become vegans like yourself, either because they're too 'overweight' to hunt or too squeamish to do the rest. An interesting proposition, no? Cut out the middle man and greatly reduce cruelty to animals in plants and such overnight.

18 May, 2012 14:50  
Blogger B.R. said...

By the way, you like Lovecraft, right?

18 May, 2012 14:51  
Blogger Robert the Skeptic said...

If I think about humans as simply another form of animal life, then I have no more of an issue with eating meat than I do with lions killing antlope or bears eating fish from a stream. It is all part of the cycle of energy; just like we learned in grade school - sun energy converted to carbohydrates by plants, animals passing on that energy by eating animals that eat the plants... I feel comfortable that I have evolved as everything else in that system. But I agree that I don't like to see human food production carried out through inflicting needless pain or suffering on animals.

18 May, 2012 22:42  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

BR: I think a lot of people would give up meat if they were merely shown the conditions under which it's produced, never mind actually having to do it themselves.

My own turn away from meat-eating was driven far more by visceral revulsion (as I learned more -- first glimmerings here) than by moral qualms. The moral issues are real, though, and are more the focus of the original Progressive Eruptions post -- hence the thrust of my comment.

There are certainly people who are quite comfortable with hunting animals and killing them for food, even if they're a minority nowadays. But the moral objections apply to them just as much as to anyone else. (There are some humans -- serial killers -- who feel comfortable with hunting and killing other humans, whether they eat them or not -- but we don't exempt them from moral judgment.)

Lovecraft? Yep.

RtS: Would you feel equally comfortable eating the meat of other humans, especially if farms existed which raised and killed humans for meat on a commercial scale? My point is, since the differences between humans and other animals are just differences of degree and not of kind, the difference between killing non-human animals for food and killing fellow humans for food is only one of degree and not of kind.

19 May, 2012 05:51  
Blogger Grung_e_Gene said...

Breaking down all religions via the scientific method to me Souls were just earlier man's attempts to quantify consciousness and self-awareness (possibly intelligence as well). As we've gained perspective and new information it's obvious that many animals share 1,2 and possibily all 3 of those attributes with us.

That is the problem. Most religions place man on a pedestal but, as knowledge has increased it's obvious that pedestal is shared.

Yet, instead of raising animals up what most bigoted religious fanatics do is proclaim those who don't recognize man's dominion recognizing animals tears men down.

19 May, 2012 05:53  
Blogger Leslie Parsley said...

I haven't eaten red meat for several years and am eating less and less white meat until it has become a teeny-tiny part of my diet. This includes fish and seafood as well; I've never even heard of most of what's being sold these days. In short order I will most likely knock it out of my diet altogether - especially after reading your previous article as well as the story about the pig farmer.

This is in part due to moral reasons as well as to health concerns (diabetes & high cholesterol). And to all the crap that is being injected into animals and food products all across the board.

My main problem with becoming a full-time vegetarian is that I can't find recipes that have less than 25 ingredients and that take an hour or more to assemble, chop and prepare. Too lazy for that.

19 May, 2012 07:06  
Blogger Jerry Critter said...

I find it interesting that most of the animals we eat are vegetarians.

19 May, 2012 09:44  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Souls are a superstition but morals are not?


They saw you coming.

19 May, 2012 10:10  
Blogger Robert the Skeptic said...

My response to your question: This thinking falls into the specious realm that the anti Gay Marriage people bring up: Why do we not then allow people to marry animals? You know the answer.

So then do we take this a step further and prevent animal predation? I have a hippie friend who tried to make his dog into a vegetarian. It was funny, but cruel to the animal.

There ARE instances of cannibalism; many, but not all, were forced due to the need for survival; and survival, both animal and human, is a basic need.

I have a heart valve pumping in my chest made from pig tissue. If that pig hadn't been raised for that very purpose, I wouldn't be typing this at this moment.

19 May, 2012 12:12  
Blogger B.R. said...

Just curious. There's a game out for iPhones and PC called Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land. It looks great, but I haven't played it yet because they still haven't released for Android.

19 May, 2012 16:38  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

Thank you for your thoughtful post, Infidel753. As I stated in my blog on this subject, I'm evolving toward being a vegitarian. It's a slow process, but I see it as inevitable, especially once I take to heart what you have so rationally set out in your post.

The way America factory-farms its meat is atrocious. There's no way any thoughtful person could enjoy consuming animals that have suffered such depravation and horrid deaths.

Cooking non-meat meals is very easy. I made a vegetarian onion soup the other night that was DEE-licious. Didn't even use cheese!

19 May, 2012 18:28  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

GeG: Like most theological "explanations", the "soul" is just a re-statement of the problem that doesn't explain anything.

My point in considering the concept an "error" is that it postulates that there is something "spooky" about the human mind that generates consciousness and self-awareness -- a "ghost in the machine", something "beyond" ordinary matter, physics, and chemistry. This deludes us into assuming un-bridgeable gulfs not only between humans and other animals, but between human intelligence and machine intelligence -- another crucial derived error I've discussed elsewhere.

LP: Glad to hear it! Aside from the visceral disgust I now feel at the thought of eating the flesh of a semi-conscious being, I do wonder at the health quality of meat produced under such conditions. I had stopped eating fish even before becoming vegetarian, due to the horrendous pollution of the oceans (not sure if this is true, but I've heard that the average fish swimming around in the ocean now contains about as much mercury as a thermometer). As for wild animals, they're usually infested with parasites. Yum.

Most of the food I get is pre-prepared so I can't help with recipes, but maybe Shaw can (see comment above this one).

JC: Farming carnivores has never been attempted on a large scale because it's so energy-inefficient -- you'd need to raise another supply of animals to feed them.

GSG: Morality is an evolved human trait produced by natural selection, just like all other human traits are. Souls, like gods, are an imaginary phantasm made up by primitive humans to account for phenomena such as consciousness which they were too ignorant to even begin to understand. No analogy.

RtS: Not analogous. I'm arguing that the nature of many non-human animals means they have rights lesser than, but analogous to, the rights of humans, and that eating them (except in cases of dire need) or otherwise treating them cruelly violates those rights in the same way that doing so to humans would violate human rights. Your analogy would only apply if animals normally desired to marry humans and our current marriage laws were cruelly preventing them from doing so (that is, we were cruelly denying other animals a right which we normally extend to humans). Obviously that's not the case. If anything, humans having sex with other animals could be considered a form of animal abuse since those other animals presumably have no desire for such acts. It's not nearly as severe a form of abuse as eating them is, though.

A life-saving heart valve is one of those rare examples of what I'd call animal exploitation justified by dire need.

BR: I know nothing of computer games, I'm afraid.

SK: Thanks, and welcome aboard! Your original post was certainly inspiring.

If the whole country could be made aware of what the production of most of its meat actually looks like, I think meat consumption would plummet overnight.

20 May, 2012 05:59  

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