Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Rights of Fetuses and Animals: Who Really Believes in Them?

George Carlin has a routine I heard once years ago, and have been thinking about ever since. The people who say that a fetus is a person just like you and me, and that abortion is therefore murder: do they really believe that? Why aren't fetuses counted in a census? If a fetus is a human, why do people say we have two children and one on the way instead of saying that we have three children? Why is a funeral not given when a woman has a miscarriage?

I would add some more questions, ones that I admit would be out of place in a comedy routine. If the pro-lifer's expressed opinions are true, then abortion as it is practiced here in the US is an evil akin to that of the Holocaust. In that case, why aren't these poeple bombing abortion clinics and murdering doctors? Why don't most of them even go so far as to favor laws that impose penalties on women who have abortions? Haven't these women paid someone to commit "murder," like the clients of Murder, Incorporated? Of course, there are a few people who do draw these seemingly logical conclusions, but they are regarded as obviously insane, even by other right-to-lifers.

Similar questions can be asked about animal rights advocates. Hugo Schwyzer, in a vegan blog I enjoy visiting, poses a thorny problem. He recently invited some friends to dinner at a restaurant of his choice and picked up the tab afterwards, even though some of the friends had eaten steak and lobster. What should he do in situations like that, he wonders. After all, he tells us, he believes animals have rights. I appreciate the moral bind he is in, but I also think that if he really believed that animals have rights in the sense that we do, there would be no conflict at all. That belief would logically imply that eating a steak is wrong in the very same way that cannibalizing humans -- humans, moreover, who had been killed in specifically in order to be eaten -- is wrong. Paying someone to do that would be, once again, morally on a par with patronizing Murder, Inc. It would simply be off the menu. So, no moral conflict.*

There is another thing that vegetarians often do that does not seem to fit their declared beliefs at all. They frequently eat foods that are obviously designed to resemble meat products. They put hamburger-like soy protein crumbles in their chili, they eat breakfast links that are meant to resemble pork sausage, and so on. I eat these foods myself for health reasons, but if I seriously believed that pigs have the same right to not be killed and eaten that you and I have, I would avoid them with horror. If you were a reformed cannibal, would you eat foods that were designed to resemble human body parts? "Mm. Try one of these. They're just like real human toes. Crunchy!" I don't think so.

This is a very interesting phenomenon, one that deserves to be studied and explained. I don't know what the full explanation would be, but at minimum it must include the supposition that these people do not actually hold the beliefs they claim to hold. Surely, there has to be an element of behaviorism in any conception of what a belief is. If it's a belief, and not a hope or a hunch, you act on it. These people, I admit, surely must believe something that is different from what I believe, because they act differently than I do. But their actual behavior is far, far from fitting their beliefs as they describe them. Something else is going on here. What it is, I can only wonder.
* As with the pro-lifers, the animal rights movement does include a tiny minority whose actions are actually consistent with their declared beliefs. These are the ones who blow up science laboratories and commit other acts of violence. But they are generally regarded as crazy, even by other anti-vivisectionists.


Anonymous said...

These people could just not be too dogmatic; if they have friends with differing beliefs, for instance, they will be pulled in the opposite direction to some extent. Thus they move to the edge of a sphere willfully within the society that they live in and the company they keep.

Lester Hunt said...

They are avoiding dogmatism, you are right about that (though I'd rather call it tolerance, myself). I should have said how glad I am that this is true. (Can you imagine what a world it would be if all these people actually acted as if their alleged beliefs were true? In the US, a large segment of the population would be seriously dangerous to the rest of us! We'd have to move to France or something.) But surely if it is a matter of something like the Holocaust, or murder-plus-cannibalism, then this is not an occasion for tolerance at all. Un-dogmatism would be evil, like being a "good German." It would be completely off the menu. So their very avoidance of dogmatism is inconsistent with their declared beliefs, I would say.

Anonymous said...

Possibly close to one million people died in Myanmar from the storm but most people in this country don't find that gut wrenching unless it was some of your relatives who died there.

Likewise a fetus is not a human being that we make an emotional connection with until it is born, however the parents feel great emotional pain from a miscarriage.

Fo many people, if they can avoid funerals they will.

Lester Hunt said...

Well, that would mean that these people, the majority of vegans and right-to-lifers, are simply being inconsistent, and on purely emotional grounds. That might well be part of it, but I don't think it gets us all the way. I think it makes too much rest on emotional bonds. Nobody gets the warm fuzzies about fetuses, true enough, but vegans often do seem to feel bonded to animals. On the other hand, it would take an awful lot to get you or me to kill a stranger in Myanmar. Suppose all it would take was the push of a button, and no one would ever know about it. A million dollars? And yet you aren't bonded to them at all. In other words, we pretty consistently give rights-possessor status to some being to whom we are not emotionally bonded, and fail to consistently give it to some beings to whom we are bonded. (I hope that makes sense.)

"Q" the Enchanter said...

I think your argument underestimates how generally acquiescent we are under peer-pressure. If cannibalism were as widespread as (noncannibalistic) carnivorism is, my guess is that most people who objected to cannibalism would go along with it roughly to the same degree vegetarians go along with carnivorism. (Cf. the Milgram experiments, etc.)

Regarding the perseverance of our taste for meat, for instance, the intuitions you trade on are those flowing from our common, extended psychological development in a culture where disgust for consuming human flesh is ambient. There's no reason a priori to suppose that a person reared in a cannibalistic culture who later came to view cannibalism as immoral would cease craving foods that taste like human flesh any more than "born again" vegetarians in our culture cease craving foods that taste like animal flesh. (SIDE NOTE: Many vegetarians I know in fact are revolted by the idea of eating anything remotely meat-like. Meat substitutes are a (very distant) next-best alternative for those who have an inchoate sense that there's something wrong with the status quo and so would want to wean themselves off meat. Disclosure: I'm a lapsed vegan-vegetarian.)

A separate issue, which I'll just flag, regards the behaviorist bent of the argument. It seems to me at least plausible that believing that something is deeply, morally wrong by itself isn't necessarily going to provide an overriding motivation for behavior that is all and only consistent with that belief. If that's right, then behavior inconsistent with the belief isn't disproof that the belief is insincere or self-deceptive. It might only be proof that there are overwhelming countermotivations.

Anonymous said...

well, nobody can be completely "consistent" in this sense. That means, to be frank, a yen to BECOME abstract, the force that drives ascetics to so much self-denial, it ignores and tries to circumnavigate the thousands of forces which pull us in every direction and ascetics, as much as they wish it were not so, are still bound to their fleshy husks of "unrighteous" and "illogical" desire

and yes these people are avoiding dogmatism, that's obvious, I don't question that, but just mentioned it as a means of compromising a way of equilibrium between the mind's "nostalgia" (in the Camusian sense) for a logic-bound world (according to their internal sense of logic, their internal sense of how things should be) with their human "faults" and desires

Anonymous said...

My point about Mynamar and your's about getting bonded to fetuses are well taken except for the fact that many people do get bonded to the unborn which is why it becomes an emotional issue.

BTW George Carlin is a great cynical comedian and his Catholic upbringing really shows at times. If the Church teaches the purpose of life is to lead a good life and get into heaven, but everything we do is sinful so our chances of making it there are slim, maybe Carlin thinks the unborn are the lucky ones! Of course the church used to teach about limbo or you had to be born and baptized before you could "play the game" to make it to heaven.

BTW if you like a good cynical comedian, catch Lew Black, there are alot of clips of him on YouTube.

Will S. said...

I don't understand your being baffled at people not behaving in a manner which you hold to be the logical course of action most consistent with their beliefs, taken to their ultimate conclusion. Since when have people ever acted fully, completely, consistently with that which they claim to hold to? And aren't most people inclined to value other goods, such as the rule of law, as also being important, perhaps more than trying to coerce others to quit doing things they consider morally evil? Wouldn't most people, even if they might possibly, under certain circumstances, be inclined to consider vigilante action (which I doubt many would), recognize that society in general, and more importantly, the State in particular, has little tolerance for rogue individuals trying to coerce others to adopt their POV through violent means, and that such would only bring disrepute to their cause?

Even if one supposed such people were guilty of moral cowardice, does it need follow that they don't actually hold what they claim to hold? Or could it just be that their fear of consequences or sense of futility, compels them towards silence and inaction, despite their deepest feelings?

And why should the fact that a food tastes like another food which one doesn't eat anymore because of certain scruples, mean that one ought not to enjoy the second food which resembles the first? Why must it needs be inconsistent for a reformed cannibal to eat human-toe-flavoured snacks? Is taste a matter of right and wrong, or just personal preference?

I agree with you regarding a vegetarian paying for someone else's steak, as being inconsistent with their professed beliefs. But apart from that, I don't think you're giving people enough credit.

Anonymous said...

I am totally for abortion and eating fetuses and what not :).

But I AM vegan and animals DO have rights. Humans are animals, you know. I would NEVER pay for some one's meat dinner, make meat or animal product dinner for any one, etc.
I do eat fake meat, but I don't think it's wrong to eat fake meat products. It is not killing an animal to do so, plus they don't really taste that much like meat (depending). I can't taste they blood in it, so I'm good. Plus, real meat smells nasty.

And so you know, every human being on this planet is a hypocrite. Every one is unoriginal. Every one is fake. It's our nature.

Lester Hunt said...


I have been wondering for some time why this post had such a powerful tendency to piss people off. I suspect that your last paragraph contains a clue: people think I was saying people who claim to believe certain things are hypocrites. That's not what I meant at all. I meant that these mental states are not really beliefs. I'd say that the categories of belief, unbelief, and disbelieve seem way too crude for what we are talking about here. Maybe I should post about this again to clarify. (For the record it sounds like you might be one person who really does believe that animals have rights.)