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Moral Moments

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Thought For Food – Re: Veal

by Joel Marks

Life is so simple. I know somebody who complains about being overweight. She also keeps ice cream in her freezer. I suggested that she might stop stocking the stuff. “Oh, but I don’t eat it every day.” I mean, what more is there to say?

The good life, as I conceive it, consists in perceiving the truth by rational means and then acting accordingly. Does that make me a robot? Well, no, because I don’t always live up to that ideal. (Maybe rarely!) But is my ideal robotic? I’m not sure. I could think of worse models to emulate in life than Lieutenant Commander Data of the starship Enterprise.

But is everything really so simple? I don’t mean that the right thing is always easy to do. It can be difficult to give up a habit, resist a temptation, stand up to evil, etc. I am talking in the first instance about knowing what to do to achieve these aims. (Although there is abundant testimony from those who say that a clear perception of a truth does go a long way toward motivating, and hence facilitating, the implementation of that truth.) But is that simple – to know what to do? Can one just ‘perceive’ the truth of living, as one can see if it is daylight by opening one’s eyes (indeed, even through closed lids)?

I think it often is. (Perhaps if I were wiser I would think it always is; or would I think it hardly ever is?) But there is a method to it, which must be learned and practiced. Walking is simple too – put one foot in front of the other – but not at first. The rational method involves procuring and assessing reasons for what one believes. The process inherently involve dialogue because reasons are subject to criticism and because there can be reasons on the other side. A dialogue can take place within the confines of one’s own head, but it obviously makes sense to publicize the debate in order to maximize input. The assumption is that truth will then emerge, or at least the best justified conclusion.

Of course, proper conditions need to be observed, and things can go wrong. Dazzling rhetoric could blind spectators, who may be the judges: conversely, the pressure of onlookers has the power to weaken one’s commitment to clear thinking. Inadequate research of the relevant facts or a poor understanding of logic could also invalidate the outcome. But there are analogs to these things even in everyday sensory perception. The late psychologist J.J. Gibson was forever insisting, for example, that the proper way to use the eyes is to keep them in motion; this will dispel most visual illusions.

The stakes are raised in reasoning when the issue is a moral one, by which I mean something that significantly affects others. The kind of case that comes most readily to my mind is the human treatment of other animals, who as a group are probably both more innocent and even more abused by us than the members of our own species. Take the notorious case of veal. The calves are raised in pens so small that they cannot even turn around… for their entire lives! The purpose is to produce a tender meat for human pleasure. I cannot conceive of any good justification for such a practice. It strikes me as wrong pure and simple, indeed criminal (in the moral sense; but I would also make it so in the legal sense). The argument is simple: To inflict tremendous suffering on innocent creatures for a purpose that is ultimately frivolous, is very wrong. The production of veal does this. Ergo Q.E.D.

It is true that livelihoods depend on the production of veal and the like. Does this make the issue less simple? In a sense, of course the answer is “Yes.” But the morality of the case remains utterly straightforward: Veal is an abomination, so stop the eating and stop the production. No doubt livelihoods were also at stake in the maintenance of slavery, the construction of gas chambers, and so on; but the right thing to do (in a broad brush) was as clear as a bell. To quote Naida Zecevix, a refugee during the Yugoslav Wars, “Yes, this is a complicated situation, but there is a right and a wrong to it” (Newsweek, March 8, 1993.)

I view the popular conception of philosophers as having their heads in the clouds to be quite the opposite of the truth. True philosophers are precisely those who have their feet planted firmly on the ground; they are not dealing with airy abstractions, but with reality, while unreflective folk flit about among the appearances. And what better example than veal? The suffering is real. The ‘pleasant’ dining experience is sheer illusion. (By the way, the production of veal is not really exceptional; for an exposé of the entire meat, poultry, fish, and dairy industry, see Peter Singer and Jim Mason’s new book, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter.)

Certainly there are phantasms designed especially to beguile philosophers. An occupational hazard is to think that one is more in tune with truth than anybody else. But right at the very beginning of the enterprise in the West we had Socrates to remind us that the fool is precisely the one who thinks he isn’t a fool. Somehow the balance must be struck between strength of conviction and the wisdom of humility; between judgment and compassion; between forceful action and tolerance; between the clarity of a moral vision and the devilry of forgetting that God resides in the details.

Reason itself dictates that one should not always carry out the conclusion of a cold calculation. But I am content to argue mainly on behalf of the arguments, and for the life that accords with reasoning directly through to resolutions. Thus, there is not only a right way to live, but also a right way to figure out what that is.

© Joel Marks 2007

Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. Others of his essays can be found at http://moralandothermoments.blogspot.com

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