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Letters to the Editor
Capital Idea • Vegetable Rights • Meaningless Experience? • Naturally Right • Drop the Dead Dogma • The Horsemen Cometh?
Seeing that Liz Mabbott (Issue 10) has so conclusively proved that eating animals is equivalent to cannibalism, surely it is high time we introduced capital punishment or at least life imprisonment for any animal that takes the life of another animal?
Mrs. T.G. Winkle
UK Chair: Small Animals Liberation Front
In her article ‘Big Ears, Meat and Morals’ (Issue 10), Liz Mabbott condemns eating meat as immoral on the grounds that the division between the human animal, which we don’t eat (at least in general), and other animals which we do eat, is arbitrary. Hence, if it is immoral to eat people (which is generally granted), it is immoral to eat animals. She suggests that ranking the value of different lives is ‘speciesist’.
However, she seems to find no moral problem placing a dividing line between the plant and animal kingdoms. Biologically speaking, this line can be drawn (as can many others) by, for example, using the criterion of ‘the ability to synthesise cellulose’. Does this ability of plants really give us moral grounds to eat them?
An alternative way of dividing ‘organisms we can morally eat’ from those that we cannot could be based on the ability of the organism to feel pain. However, this approach also leads to difficulties: is it the actual pain involved that is morally objectionable? If so, this tends to imply that it is morally acceptable to kill and eat an anaesthetised animal or human being. The claim that it is the potential to feel pain that is important is similarly problematic, inasmuch as it is not clear how the ability to feel pain is to be defined. If we define it by specifying that an organism has to possess certain physiological structures, we are again in danger of speciesism. For example, if we stipulate that the possession of a central nervous system guarantees the moral right to life of an organism, we exclude animals like sea anemones and worms, organisms which demonstrably react to unpleasant stimuli in a manner easily definable as ‘pain’. If we take the line that responding to unpleasant stimuli demonstrates that an organism is suffering pain, we exclude no living creatures. Just because plants respond to stimuli too slowly for us to notice does not mean that they are insensible.
Another argument which is offered in the article is that we should consider the preferences of the animals themselves (as opposed to our preferences). No reason is given as to why this should not be extended to plants, even though it is admitted that animals may not be capable of preferences, and the somewhat anthropomorphic suggestion is made that we should attempt to “reasonably suppose” what those preferences might be “if they were capable of preference”.
We accept Liz Mabbott’s argument that it is philosophically dubious to distinguish between humans and other animals when discussing the morality of meat-eating. However, we maintain that dividing animals from plants is just as arbitrary a basis for justifying the morality of vegetarianism.
Emma Hibling and Andy Jones
Re Dan Hutto’s discussion of analytical philosophy, it seems to me that if “meaning cannot be grounded on experience”, it must follow that I cannot extract any from my experience of reading his article, and also that their experience of reading this letter (assuming it’s printed!) must be equally meaningless to other readers of Philosophy Now.
But hold on! Doesn’t what I’ve just said amount to a meaning? And where did I get it? From reflecting on my experience of his article. What a thing means to us is the effect it has upon us.
We humans may discover some meanings – as in this case – only through the roundabout route of reflection, but do other animals need it? When Brer Fox smells a chickenhouse, does he have to think about it? Try telling him that “meaning cannot be grounded on experience”!
Re Christopher McKnight’s letter on the ethics of abortion, what is the point of debating that subject? When people in more primitive times ‘exposed’ unwanted infants, or the Eskimos pushed incapable oldsters out to sea on an ice floe, it was because they had no choice. Given our planet’s perilous overpopulation, we shall soon have no more choice at either end than they did. Better get used to it!
Peter Lorden Calgary,
I enjoyed Mr. Chudnow’s article in the Autumn 1994 issue (‘Natural Rights’, p.22). He quite rightly raises the questions, “What makes a natural right ‘natural’?” and “What makes a right a right?” Whether any answers may be reasoned through drives his essay. His analysis is more descriptive than dogmatic, and he manages to suggest certain difficulties and helpful thoughts associated with various theories.
He passes over Locke rather swiftly: “The idea of a ‘natural’ right provided by a God, an entity, by definition, outside of nature, is inconsistent.” (p.22)
Mr. Chudnow states that it “seems inappropriate to label rights derived using theology as natural.” (p.23) I doubt that he would be happier if, instead, Mr. Locke had referred to ‘natural rights’ as ‘supernatural rights’. Jokes aside, I would propose that the idea of natural rights deriving from God is not inconsistent for the Bible-believing philosopher. For said individuals, the created universe (i.e., natural) is created by God; and man, also created, has been given dominion over nature(see Genesis, chapters 1 and 2).
Given the premise that life is created by a creator, life is held inalienably. Given the premise that “the truth shall set you free”, and there is liberty in Christ who is “the truth, the way, and the life”, then liberty, coming from and in and through God is inalienable. Lastly, the right to property control (‘dominion’) is not culturally specific, i.e., it is not simply a legal arrangement that obtains in our culture, but is absent in some other. That right has Divine sanction. Therefore, in primitive societies where there is wholly common ownership or no ownership, we do not find an arrangement that is simply different from ours, nor an arrangement that is morally superior to ours. Rather, it is an arrangement less in keeping with the Divine mandate than our property arrangement. We are not primitive. We are living closer than they to the Divine mandate. Therefore, unashamedly, we may say property rights are indeed inalienable.
Thank you for this opportunity to tweak cultural relativists.
Also, let me state in conclusion, a point that is the exact opposite of Mr. Chudnow’s. I believe you cannot have a ‘natural right’ unless it be provided by God.
All the best,
Edward J. Ludwig
New York City
Drop the Dead Dogma
It has become a commonplace for religious apologists to claim that without religion life is meaningless. Since the traditional justifications resting on alleged miracles and feats of magic many years ago are found less convincing today by a populace who understand more of the scientific world-view, some apologists have given up on the supernatural claims and try to corner the market in meaningfulness instead. Piers Benn makes a typical bid for it in his article ‘Shackles of Superstition’ (PN Issue 10). He never actually drops the supernatural (those shackles might come in handy some day?) but he says that magical ingredients are not essential – religion is about making sense of experience and giving life meaning.
What is this meaning that religion is supposed to deliver? It cannot be the promise of life after death. If a finite life of the everyday sort is meaningless, as is claimed, then an infinite life in the hereafter is infinitely meaningless. You do not provide meaning simply by increasing the quantity of life to infinity. Nor can it be the existence of God herself. That existence, if it were true, would only add another being to the totality of things in the world, which again is an increase in quantity, not an introduction of meaning. There are of course the social aspects of religion: the cosiness of group activity, the pleasure of ritual and the satisfaction of supporting charity work. But those apply to many social organisations,e.g. political parties, Oxfam, Greenpeace. There is no need to invoke any theology in that case and no reason to think that religion has a monopoly of meaningfulness.
In the late Middle Ages painters realised that paintings did not have to be religious to have meaning. They found that scenes from everyday life were just as meaningful as the endless series of Nativities and Crucifixions that had dominated art until then. Likewise, poets and musicians realised that their arts did not need religious significance. Literature and music can make their own meaning too. Eventually even the philosophers came round to the idea that theology was not the whole story and so another secular domain of meaning was established. Is Piers Benn really saying that this was all a mistake and that the religious monopoly of meaningfulness should be restored?
Religion would be harmless if it was a purely private matter. There would be no need to comment on other people’s half-baked notions if they kept them entirely to themselves. Beliefs in a flat Earth, virgin birth, unicorns, astrology and heavenly choirs, separately or in combination, would be tolerated in a liberal society as long as they were private matters. But religions are not like that. They are public institutions with influence and authority based on tradition. That is why there is apartheid in the schools of Northern Ireland, with Protestant and Catholic children segregated throughout their formative years. That is why millions of people in the Third World have no access to family planning despite the best efforts of the Cairo Conference, because the leaders of Islam and Catholicism have agreed that God herself dislikes contraceptives. That is why millions of women across the globe are oppressed, because the traditional religions are male chauvinist ideology writ large.
Our best hope for the future, on this beleaguered planet of ours, is to agree on the facts of our situation, agree on the values we hold and work together for the common good. The divisiveness of religions, and their irrational content, make them more of a hindrance than a help. It is better to drop the dead dogma.
Les Reid Co. Antrim,
The Horsemen Cometh?
It took me some time before I realised what was wrong with Dr. Chappell’s article (‘How to be Car-Free’, Issue 8). It is yet another example of a green – if I may so describe him – concentrating on the mote rather than the beam.
All animals damage their environment to a greater or lesser extent. Rabbits will increase in an area until they have eaten all the grass that the spoil from their burrows has not smothered – whereupon their population will crash from disease and starvation. After a while, the grass will grow back and the population revive to crash again eventually.
I am no zoologist, but I understand that cyclic populations in the animal kingdom of this kind are the norm. They used to be for human populations – but recently this has changed.
Modern humans will not just gather all the fruit, they will cut down the forests for fuel and farmland, kill off the wildlife, and fish out the local lakes and rivers as well.
More seriously, our depredations are not localised, but are now global. Rich societies who are not self-supporting will buy food from abroad – poor ones are given it. The current food aid to Africa comes from places like East Anglia, and is produced by cutting down woods, ripping out hedges, draining wetlands, turning heaths into dust-bowls destroying wildlife and overfishing the North Sea. This postpones local crashes at the expense of ensuring that when one does come it will be global. This raises the real questions.
One answer is to do nothing and leave it to the four horsemen. This has the advantages of simplicity and maximising individual freewill. All other solutions involve controlled population reduction, which, in many cases, would need to be compulsory. This in turn raises any number of philosophical points, as does the question of what to do about our animal competitors – fewer wild animals means more people.
Also, more people can be fed by lowering the standard of life in other directions. Starving children could be saved for the cost of the Proms. Should we maximise the population by taking this road, or go for a smaller number with maximum cultural opportunities?
Solve the population problem and you solve everything – cars versus bikes would be a nonquestion if our population were a more sustainable 20 million rather than 60.