May 2007

My smugness is a result of dealing on a day-to-day basis with a horde of people who could not care less about how their actions effect others. People seem to be far too content to be ignorant and asleep. They come out of stores and onto the sidewalk without looking to see if anyone’s coming. Co-workers will slack on their work, leaving it for others to complete so they can watch YouTube. They go to lunch directly from church and treat their waiter like a lesser being. The spit on ground in the immediate proximity of others. They cheat on their spouses and significant others instead of having the courage to communicate or divorce. They have a feeling that animals are abused, but they’d prefer not to see the evidence, because this would mean feeling guilty for participating in the abuse via their consumption. They don’t use their signal in traffic. They knock something over in a store and don’t put it back. They play their music too loud in their headphones on the subway. They slam doors instead of shutting them. They throw their litter on the ground when a trashcan is a few feet away. They leave their dog tied up outside at night, alone, and their cat in an apartment, alone, and their bird in a cage, alone. And they wonder why the dog mauls the neighbor’s daughter, or the cat pisses in the corner or knocks over a vase, or the bird chews off all its feathers. They support a war that has no justification but where hundreds of thousands die. They think evolution is a myth and can’t see somehow that we’re not the only ones with hair, fingers and teeth. I could go on and on.

What I don’t see nearly as often are people doing nice things for each other. Not even altruistic things, just simple things that require a very basic sense of decency and respect and little effort, things that, with a little bit of practice early on, become habit. So maybe I’m smug, but I’d prefer to call it frustration. I’m frustrated that I appear to be one of a pitiful few who appears to know the rules and does his best to follow them after several millennia of great spiritual and moral leaders preaching very simple but very profound lessons. And I realize that the way I phrase things doesn’t solve anything. I apologize. I haven’t arrived at that point yet, but I hope to someday.

Some answers to your questions; and comments: I would definitely eat meat if I knew the animals were slaughtered in a “humane” fashion. I used to enjoy meat very much. Meanwhile, during my time as a vegan I’ve learned a great deal about what is healthy and what is not. So if I were to go back to consuming animal products I’d be much smarter about it. But I don’t think I will, because I’m convinced I’m better off this way. Win-win. Relatedly: Sure, if one knows for a fact that the animal product one is consuming (e.g., eggs or meat from free-range chickens) then logically it’s okay. Humans are designed to eat meat, so if a way to do so benevolently is achieved – because unlike other animals, we have this choice – then I say go for it; and thank you. I will say that the whole milk and cheese industry is a farce, and is doing a great disservice to people, cows and goats. Unlike our consumption of meat, we are clearly not designed to consume the milk of another animal, and it has dire effects on our common health. Pain is pain. We should find ways to avoid it especially if it is not we who choose it, for one reason or another. Pain itself tells us this, as sentient beings. It says, and sometimes screams, “This is bad. Please try to stop this now, and avoid what is causing this in the future.” Just because the pain we inflict upon others is not our pain, doesn’t make it somehow better. So no, I don’t accept your example of a flu vaccine. I don’t believe that there need to be any remedies that cause pain for anyone. We’re smarter than that. Or should be, anyway. And it’s not our right to transfer our pain to others. It is obvious. It’s not more expensive to be vegetarian. It just takes more work, at least initially. This is the problem. Not health, finances or location.

I’m glad you see some free thought and tolerance in religion these days. I’ve someone managed to miss it. I see things like an evangelical having been elected to the most powerful position in the world – twice. I see various European countries electing staunchly religious leaders, even after they’ve seen what it has done to the United States. I see third-world countries killing millions for religious reasons. And I foresee a very long and very gruesome battle between Christianity and Islam this century. I see that a multi-million dollar creationist museum opened today in Kentucky, which will teach its children that humans existed among dinosaurs less than 6,000 years ago and that tyrannosaurus was a herbivore before Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden. Those same children will vote for a Bush-like president in the future. I also see that those who are most likely to go to church are most likely to “sin” because Jesus spends his time faithfully cleaning up after them. Thanks for being honest. I will do my best to be less smug in the future.

I think we’ve moved a bit here from smug to cynical. I agree that all of the problems you mention are epidemic (well, except for the ones about the war and evolution, which I think are a little oversimplified), and I agree that seeing them constantly is enough to test the resolve of even the staunchest optimist. But I think we have to take care not to let this make us cynical, like the police officer who sees so much crime day in and day out that she starts to assume that everyone is a criminal.

I agree that we don’t see enough basic courtesy and consideration around us, but we do see some. People hold doors for me or ask me if I need assistance when I appear troubled – not as often as I like, but not never, either. I agree that such simple niceties aren’t more widespread, and I think we’d agree that there seems to be too much focus on not committing big, easy-to-avoid sins (“don’t rob a bank”) and not enough on why you shouldn’t rationalize bad behavior (“stealing from a company is still stealing.”)

I’d say that the first step toward fixing this kind of problem is to set a good example. This means not only behaving morally and ethically (which it sound like you do), but also making it clear that this behavior makes you a happier person (which is the hard part). When you lash out at or condescend to immoral or unethical people, it may actually reinforce their bad behavior. That’s why I think we all need to guard against being smug, condescending, or haughty (not that you are doing any of these). Yes it’s frustrating and annoying and can feel like you’re banging your head on stone, but being good can be hard work – that’s why so many people don’t do it.

Your answer to the question about whether you’d eat humanely slaughtered meat was interesting. Currently there is research into growing meat without the associated animal, and I’m hoping that this soon becomes a reality and we can do away with killing animals for food entirely.

I disagree with the statement “pain is pain.” I’d say that personal pain or pain to one’s group gains an increase in value – it’s not always more important than other kinds of pain, but it at least wins in a tie. For example, most people would say that if Bob and Joe were lost at sea, it would be more moral for them to catch and eat 100 fish than for one of them to kill the other for food. (On the other hand, I am against catch-and-release fishing because the fun of fishing does not outweigh the pointless harm done to fish.)

When you say, “I don’t believe that there need to be any remedies that cause pain for anyone,” I wonder if you are being a bit idealistic. I agree that this should be a primary goal, but at this time in our history it is not possible unless we are going to let some serious diseases go untreated. For example, I don’t think that diabetics should have had to suffer (and perhaps die) without insulin until it could be derived from bacterial instead of animal sources. Scientists are working on ways to make flu vaccines without eggs, but until they do I think that the avoidance of a flu plague is probably worth the pain caused to chickens (but I’m more open to argument on this one). There are also medical tests that, I think, it is more moral to perform on animals than on humans – and ironically some of these will be necessary in order to develop drugs that can be produced without harming animals. Even so, I think such tests should be performed as little as practicable and that the animals should be treated as well as possible.

You say, “It’s not more expensive to be vegetarian. It just takes more work, at least initially. This is the problem. Not health, finances or location.” I am very skeptical about this being as universally true as you make it sound. Even though my family is vegetarian, I personally cannot be for health reasons (I have food allergies that severely limit my food choices). I am not convinced that it is globally true that vegetarianism is not more expensive, and I’m guessing that there are people – some Inutis, for example – who live in places where vegetarianism would be more than just inconvenient. It’s true that healthy vegetarianism takes research and initial work, and for some people this may be an insurmountable barrier. An inner-city single mother with two jobs may not feel like the additional inconvenience of vegetarianism is worth what little time she has.

My hope is that, as convenient, good-tasting vegetarian food becomes more common, that single mother will be able to be a healthy vegetarian without as much difficulty. This is one area in which I have a lot of hope, as there has been copious progress over the last decade. One thing I think vegetarians need to do is significantly encourage corporations to develop vegetarian alternatives. For example, when McDonalds introduced a non-meat hamburger, the vegetarian community’s reaction seemed to be largely negative. The criticism was not incorrect, but I think it also gave McDonalds the impression that they should just stay out of this market. Encouraging the company to do even more instead of berating them for not doing enough might have been more effective in the long run. Another example would be Disney, which is currently trying to associate its name more with healthy food. If people support this, then more companies will follow suit. (By the way, almost every restaurant at Walt Disney World has vegetarian food on the menu, and table-service restaurants will ensure that vegan food is available with advance notice.)

I agree that the religious landscape isn’t all honey and roses, but it’s not a potter’s field, either. You’re right that there is too much religion in politics today, and you’re probably right that there may be a major war or genocide involving religion in the not-too-distant future. I still see hope, though. That creationist museum you mentioned was largely laughed at in the press (at least out here in California), and I don’t think it’s going to teach children anything their parents weren’t already teaching them or convert anyone to Christianity. You’ll also note that attempts to introduce creationism into school curriculum have largely failed or been undone.

I disagree that church makes people more likely to sin – it may allow them to feel righteous, but I doubt it changes their behavior much because I doubt that many people actively think along the lines of “I’ll steal this bicycle and ask for forgiveness later”. At worst, religions of this kind likely just discourage people from thinking about morality by telling them that they are already moral, but then your average person doesn’t seem to think about morality much regardless of their theism or lack thereof. I also note that in religions where morality is more actively taught (such as Mormonism), there is more morality and less self-righteousness.

Religious intolerance breeds best in isolation, and the Internet is making that isolation more difficult to maintain. I am encountering more religious people who are willing to discuss their beliefs now than I did 20 years ago, and I’ve seen many of the religious people I knew back then grow into atheism. I also am hopeful about things like the “Come Let Us Reason” Christian apologist podcast, which encourages people to think about and discuss religion intelligently (even if I don’t think many of its arguments are very compelling). And, for all the hate mail I’ve received from religious people, I have received even more thoughtful, intelligent, honestly inquiring e-mail from religious people. That’s a good sign, and I find it more productive to focus on these small victories than on all the battles not yet won.

You are another good sign. I’m guessing that if you look through your family tree you don’t find it populated with people who think about morality as well or as much as you do. And if you can progress, then others can as well. I have a goal of facilitating that progress by making it attractive, easy, and welcoming. I think you may be the kind of person who could make a lot of progress with a similar goal. Just think of clear thinking as a virus – “infect” enough people, and you can change the world.

Posted on May 29, 2007 at 8:29 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: Discussion, Morality

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