Monday, March 28, 2011

Eating Animals: A Defense

My political philosophy class has been discussing Robert Nozick's ethical argument for vegetarianism (IMHO, the best such argument I have seen), so I thought I would repost this essay, which I posted when I was discussing the same argument, with another group of students, four years ago...

I didn't want to post on this question again until after I had finished talking about it in class. And the discussion went on for almost two fifty minute class periods -- way more than I originally intended. People had a lot more ideas about this than I thought they would! The other thing that surprised me was that no one (except for one student, who came up to me after class) tried to answer what I thought was ultimately the real question.

As you may not recall, Nozick asks us:
Suppose then that I enjoy swinging a baseball bat. It happens that in front of the only place to swing it stands a cow. Swinging the bat unfortunately would involve smashing the cow's head. But I wouldn't get fun from doing that; the pleasure comes from exercising my muscles, swinging well, and so on. ... Is there some principle that would allow the killing and eating of animals, but would not allow swinging the bat for the extra pleasure it brings?
I had thought this ultimately boils down to the question of how we should fill in the blank in this sentence: One may kill animals or impose unpleasant living conditions on them in order to provide _____ for humans.

Almost no one tried to answer this question directly. There were some attempts to reject the question. One person suggested, following in the footsteps of Descartes and Malebranche, that animals simply don't have mental states. (This is a philosophy class, after all!) Another suggested that since eating animals is an activity that rests on pain and death it is morally tainted and the question of whether there is something good about it that is good enough to justify the death and pain involved is simply inconceivable. Another wanted to divide the question (killing animals raises different issues from making them suffer). Others had skeptical doubts about whether we can know the kinds of things that would be required for answering this question. There was also a lot of discussion of side issues that popped up here and there. I declared that eating at MacDonald's is immoral, "unless the alternative is starving to death," and some wanted to defend MacDonald's. And so on.

I'm sufficiently impressed with the fact that almost no one filled in my blank that I offer my own attempt with some hesitation. I assume the reason for this is that it seems like an impossible task. Which of course is Nozick's point.

The one student who came up after class suggested trying to use John Stuart Mill's idea of higher and lower pleasures. Also, he suggested changing Nozick's question: What if hitting the cow is the only action you can ever perform? This is roughly the sort of approach I would take. I guess my question would be: What if, if people didn't do things like this to the cow, the game of baseball would be wiped off the earth? That of course involves values (and even pleasures) that are very different from the pleasure of swinging the bat.

Nozick's question (or more exactly his principled refusal to answer it) supposes that the value of Peking duck is simply a pleasure, conceived as a mere sensation, like the sensation in one's muscles while swinging a stick. It ignores the existence of cuisine. Cuisine is a rich, complex artifact of human history, like baseball. And like certain other rich, complex artifacts of history, it produces results that in some sense are like works of art. Results like Peking duck. The pleasure of eating it, I submit, is in a completely and qualitatively different category from the pleasure of swinging a stick. Peking duck is an ancient dish. Like all high art, it was originally meant only for the rich and powerful few but now, thanks to the miracle of democratic capitalism, is available to all. It originated during the Yuan Dynasty (coinciding with our High Middle Ages) and was perfected during the Qing Dynasty (late nineteenth century). I would say that it is a thing of beauty, except that for some reason we reserve this word for the sense-modalities of sight and sound, rather than taste, smell, and textural discrimination.

Of all the great cuisines on earth, only one of them as far as I know is "vegetarian" in any sense of the word. This is one of the cuisines of India (which has an ancient tradition of not killing animals). And it is very far from being vegan. It swims in milk, cream, butter, ghee (clairified butter), and yogurt. All of the other great cuisines -- French, Italian, Japanese, the regional cuisines of China and Mexico -- are very meat-centric.

If we all became vegans today, many of the great ideas of Escoffier, CarĂªme, and the achievements of thousands of unsung geniuses who have created the cuisines of the world, would be wiped out overnight. This would be a horrible loss to the human spirit.

Of course, something that you could call cuisine could continue to exist. But the loss would still be horrific. Consider again Peking duck. Recipes for Peking duck focus on the skin. Some call for inflating the duck's skin with air (one reason for leaving its head on). One often sees directions like "hang in a cool, windy place for six hours." The point is to achieve a certain level of crispness and in some cases a jewel-like glaze.

You just can't do that with a pumpkin. Or boiled barley. Or tofu. Forget it!

So I'm not sure exactly how I would fill in my blank, but it's obvious there are lots of ways that include eating Peking duck but exclude hitting the cow.

But there still is an important moral residue to the exercise that Nozick has let us into here. The way we treat animals does have to be justified -- which means we have to treat them in justifiable ways. And that doesn't include just any old thing. The chance that what we do to animals is justified is increased if we increase the probability that the bad of what we do to them is less than the good of what we get out of it. This probability is increased if we depress the badness of the bad. Which means treating animals more humanely. It is also increased if we enhance the goodness of what they do for us. There is a moral responsibility on us as cooks to make the most of our animal ingredients. The next time you bite into a bland, gray fast food hamburger, remember that some cow died so you can do this. Did that cow die in vain?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Why are Government Workers So "Entitled"?

Align Center

Government workers in Greece, faced with austerity measures, rioted and firebombed a bank, burning to death three human beings trapped inside. In New Jersey the Governor responded to a severe recession by denying government school teachers their expected annual raise (a raise, during a recession) and the reaction from public sector unions was screaming, white-faced rage. Here in Wisconsin, the Governor is trying to limit the collective bargaining rights of state workers -- a measure that would leave them with roughly the same rights that federal workers have -- and the reactions from the unions was three weeks of demonstrations, illegal obstruction of the legislative process, and an unprecedented flood of death threats and obscene phone calls.

Clearly, these people sincerely believe that they have rights that people in the private sector do not have. Why?

I mean this seriously as a question. I am struggling to understand. In my moral universe, the income of the government worker is more, not less, ethically dubious than that of a private worker. If you are flipping burgers in the private sector, every penny of your income comes from people who like your burgers enough to pay for them. They are glad to do so. In government work, every penny is extracted by force from somebody like the burger-flipper, someone who produces goods and services sold in the marketplace. How can anybody think this is a right, let alone collective bargaining for more money to be collected by force?

Part of the reason, obviously, is that these indignant government workers do not see things this way at all. They are simply "workers," and their public sector union is simply "a union." Thus the reasonable sympathy that people feel for the producers of goods and services is extended -- fallaciously, I say -- to them.

Another reason is the one suggested by Louis C. K. in the above video: people just naturally tend to think that whatever the have right now, regardless of where it came from or how obtained, is a "right." Also fallacious, of course, but understandable. I get it.

But there must be more to it than that. Haven't we learned in the last year or so, that government workers feel more entitled than others? After all, starting about 3 or 4 years ago, families in the private sector started to behave as if family members would be laid off or cut back. And they were, and they did the best with it that they could. When private sector workers lose economic ground they do not scream, demonstrate, or riot.

I can think of two special factors at work here. One is the law. Here is a fact that will amaze government workers: People in the private sector do not generally feel that they have a right to their own jobs. One main reason is that, legally, they don't. Most of them can be fired at any time and without cause. It's called "employment at will." Government work is not like that. Those people do have "rights". It's a different culture, and I suppose it leads to a mindset of entitlement.

The other factor is the profound difference between markets and taxation. The burger-flippers of the world know very well that their income is paid by the customers, and if the customers stop liking their burgers, there will be no money to pay them. Period. They will have to go, and there is no use whining about it. The insecurity of their income stream is brought to mind every day.

The opposite is true of government workers. Their income, being collected by force according to rigid rules, seems absolutely secure. There is no reason to think about it at all. And so they don't. Thus the effect of the Louis C. K. principle is enhanced, squared, cubed. If whatever I have at the moment is a right, then whatever I can't fail to have must be an absolute right, a human right, a natural right!

This, too, is an illusion. Government money is indeed less insecure than private money, but it is not absolutely secure. In bad times, tax money dries up and belts must tighten. This however comes as a profound shock to many government workers. Hence the indignation and the explosions we have seen.

This anyway is the best explanation I have come up with so far.

[Special note in response to the hate mail I am likely to get for writing the above: I myself am a government worker. So if you think that I am saying that government workers are bad people, or that the never do fine work and provide essential services, then all I can say is take a deep breath and read this post again.]

Thursday, March 17, 2011

R & R

For sheer entertainment value, surely one of the greatest pieces of music. Okay, it's not exactly profound, but it is inspiring. And here you see it performed in Notre Dame de Paris (which is also the title of a novel by Victor Hugo). Pretty cool! J. C. Casadesus directing.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

School is Prison

I found this on Youtube, posted by someone who calls him/herself RjWeapon. Speaks for itself.

When I was a student at Lottie Grunsky Grammar School back in the fifties, I often noticed a chain-link fence topped topped with barbed wire separating the school grounds from the sidewalk on E. Harding Way. At the time I thought the barbed wire was there to keep bad guys from climbing the fence to perform unspeakable enormities on our tender little bodies. Years later I realized that, of course, it was there to keep us in.

I was slow, but I did catch on eventually.

Friday, March 11, 2011


My thoughts go out to the people of Japan. Nature is beautiful, but brutal and indifferent.

Civilization is good.

"Cruelty is a part of nature, but it is the one thing that seems unnatural to us."

-- Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962)

(Reuters photo.)

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Is the Government "Broke"?

Screaming debates now raging about fiscal matters raise an interesting question: are the various governments in the US - federal, state, local - broke? Underlying this is a deeper conceptual question: does a concept like "broke" even apply to governments?

As to the idea that the US is indeed broke, the New York Times has said:
It’s all obfuscating nonsense, of course, a scare tactic employed for political ends. A country with a deficit is not necessarily any more “broke” than a family with a mortgage or a college loan.
Admittedly, the mere fact that the feds have a "mortgage" amounting to approximately $14 trillion in debt does not, independently of any context whatsoever, mean that they are broke. But of course, neither does any other single number. You need at least two numbers to figure that out. But the deficit does involve two numbers. Why aren't they the right ones? A family that spends more than it takes in, that is going into debt just to meet living expenses would be "broke."

In finance, solvency is the fact that current assets are sufficient to meet current liabilities. If you are going further into debt to meet those liabilities, you are broke. (This simple point is well made by Bill Anderson here.)

What are these people thinking? Probably something like what Michael Moore is thinking in the video below: there is a lot of money out there that the government has not taken yet. In the memorable words of Cuffy Meigs, "There's plenty of pickings left" (Atlas Shrugged, 1st ed., p. 947). The government is not broke until there is nothing left for it to take.

That means, they are thinking, that governments can't go "broke." This may be true, but in that case their fallacy is in concluding that governments are eternally solvent.

"Solvent" only applies in the context of property rights: you are solvent if your assets are sufficient. The fact that I have assets that you haven't taken from me is irrelevant. Of course, you can't take my assets, whereas the government can. Should we therefore think of my assets as the government's assets?

The truth of the matter is that governments are radically different phenomena from private organizations and have to be understood with radically different ideas. If governments can't be broke, they can't be solvent either. Neither idea applies. We need different ideas.

In a way, we already do think of governments as being radically different: we naturally tend to think of them as magically immune to the shocks of destiny, unlike every other organization on Earth. Governments mean absolute safety and security.

We are now waking up to the fact that they do not. They are not different in that way.

The powers to tax and to inflate the money supply are indeed financial wild cards the government can play whenever it wants, but they are not magic. Even the Meigs-Moore theory has to admit that there is an absolute limit to what the government can take: the surplus above the producers' survival level is all that is available for taking. But long before it reaches that fatal level, government will face horrific consequences.

What governments are now doing is bringing these consequences closer and making them worse. This is the fundamental, undeniable fact of the day, and talk about not being broke only covers it up.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Who is Charlie Sheen and Why is He Exploding Before Our Eyes?

I once shocked Noel Carroll by telling him that I never, ever watch a movie just because I like some actor in it. Apparently, even Noel, one of the most brilliant film theorists around today, suffers from the delusion that actors are artists.

I think of them as sock puppets that certain artists -- writers and directors -- use to express their passions, their ideals, and their visions. It is true enough that the great actors -- Garbo, James Dean, the early John Barrymore -- are also brilliant at expressing passions and ideals, but they are the exceptions. And look at Sheen's IMDB page. Take away the movie sequels, the voicework, the TV sitcom, and there isn't much left. This is not Barrymore we are looking at here. This is an ordinary person -- but with one huge, fatal difference.

I've always been a freak-fancier myself and before I became a professor had more than my share of insane friends. (Professors aren't allowed to be insane.) Watching Sheen's interviews this week brought back a lot of old memories. They are not pleasant memories. We are seeing a sight I have seen before: a human mind disintegrating before our eyes.

If Sheen had a boss who terrifies him and $10,000 in credit card debt, he would be in better shape than he is. Unfortunately for him, he has infinite amounts of everything. There are no hard constraints on his behavior. He has all the ordinary appetites and urges, and for all practical purposes an unlimited capacity to satisfy them. So instead of merely disintegrating, he is exploding.

I think this is why so many highly successful actors have such screwed up lives. They are ordinary people, with no more wisdom and insight than most have, but with no constraints on their behavior. Most actors -- the ones who are not hugely successful -- are not like that at all. But their life-circumstances are like yours and mine and not like Sheen's. They have to get along with others. They have to figure out how to pay their bills and taxes. We are always under a certain amount of pressure to figure out what the right thing to do is and do it. The pressure is so constant that we don't usually even notice it -- until we see a life in which it is virtually absent, such as Sheen's.

Note also that, compared to other lines of work that involve rare skills and talents, acting requires very little self-discipline and self-control. If you have a basic knack for it, it is a very easily-acquired skill. Learning to play the violin, or mastering calculus, are incomparably more arduous. Even professional violinists must spend many lonely hours, week in and week out, in front of a music stand, developing and maintaining their skills. Actors don't have to do that. If actors learn self-discipline, it probably won't be from the "work" they do.

I think what is happening to Sheen is sad, and that the proper reaction is not laughter or even anger, but pity.