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Ethical Episodes

Crazy (or What Is It Like to be Batty?*)

by Joel Marks

As people were getting up to leave the seminar, a colleague came over to me and simply stared at me. Then began the stream of “You’re nuts,” “You’re crazy,” “You’re insane.” On and on, over and over. That was all he could manage. He was simply incredulous. He had no argument to offer; this was beyond argument. You can’t argue with a crazy person.

This is hardly the first time I have been on the receiving end of such a tirade. Fortunately this was a friendly one, but had I been dealing with a non-acquaintance it could have turned ugly. Indeed, had I been of the wrong ethnicity in the wrong location or era, it could have been fatal.

Yet, to quote Joni Mitchell, I’ve looked at life from both sides now. For heaven knows, to quote Robert Heinlein (and Moses), I have been a stranger in a strange land. It came to me as a revelation not long ago that I know what it is like to live in a Nazi society, for I live in a society that is substantially similar. I am referring to the way the vast majority of my fellow Americans go about their daily lives in decent, even highly virtuous ways, all the while complicit in the most massive slaughter of the innocent ever perpetrated: the unnecessary eating of other animals.

But here at once I am on the receiving end again, for I know that many of my readers will stare at me incredulously … even take deep umbrage. “Are you comparing living in America to living in Nazi Germany?!” “Are you comparing the killing of animals for food with what was done to the Jews and others in the Holocaust?!” “Are you nuts?” “Are you crazy?” “Are you insane?”

Well, yes, I guess I am. And this is my accustomed MO. I elicit similar reactions on account of many of my philosophical hobbyhorses, such as the Three ‘A’s I discussed in a recent column (Issue 90): asteroids, amorality, and, again, animals. I explained what is probably going on. Since a philosopher’s job, or just plain inclination, is to critically examine fundamental assumptions, it is only natural to expect people who make those assumptions, and in many cases base their life or their career on them and hence cling to them, to react with discomfort, puzzlement, condemnation, etc. Thus it is that I go about my spontaneous questioning and continually encounter the range of responses as a result.

An earlier instance, when I was just getting my philosophical sea-legs, was the encounter with gay rights. It is an issue I had never given a thought to when I began to notice it in the news. Indeed, I had no idea it was an issue. I knew there were homosexuals, but I also knew there were blacks and Hindus and people with blond hair. So what? This was the curious result of growing up in a privileged section of New York City, where at one and the same time a child can become a sophisticated cosmopolitan and a total naïf about the real world of universal bigotry.

But even I was taken aback at first to hear about the drive for marriage rights for gays. “Are you crazy?” Everybody knows that marriage is between a man and a woman. For two men or two women to marry would be like giving a triangle four sides. But, being of a philosophical cast of mind, no sooner did I take a clear-eyed look at this fundamental assumption than I realized it had little support from values I held far more deeply. So that is how I became one of the crazies, whom people exactly like my pre-philosophical self considered nuts. Insane.

I now think of the general matter in this way. There are three components of our cognitive competence: belief, logic, and desire. A person who holds many false beliefs, or no beliefs at all, about commonly known facts is, as such, ignorant. A person who is unable to think logically is, as such, stupid. A person whose desires do not conform to those of the mainstream of his or her society (or humanity as a whole) is crazy. I use all of these terms – ‘ignorant’, ‘stupid’, and ‘crazy’ – as mere labels or at most descriptively. In other words, I do not mean to be attaching negative value to the persons so labeled, and even less do I mean to be insulting them. For one thing, I believe we are all ignorant, stupid, and crazy in one way or another. I am simply offering a suggestion about what these attributions are commonly taken to signify.

Thus, for me to desire that all meat-eating cease is to be a crazy person. I used to see other people in my society as the crazy ones for eating meat, but now I realize they are quite sane (by the definition above). But what they most likely are by my schema, I believe, is ignorant or stupid or both. For example, I am pretty sure that most people in my society do not have a clue about the actual ways in which so-called food animals are treated. I am even more sure that most people in my society have no idea how intelligent and captivating these animals are. And I am dead-certain that most of the population of the United States lacks the most elementary understanding of the mechanism of biological evolution and hence its implications for the very meaning of intelligence and sentience in other animals.

But if everyone were well-informed and thinking logically, I believe that few if any of us would support meat-eating. Maybe such wishful thinking shows just how crazy I really am!

© Prof. Joel Marks 2012

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. You would be crazy not to check out his website www.TheEasyVegan.com.

(* Thank you, Thomas Nagel.)

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