BBC News – Should we judge people of past eras for moral failings?
“It may well be that the young or middle aged people of today will, in future decades, look back at views they once held and feel horrified and ashamed. And just as we judge Kant’s century, and identify its moral defects, so it is inevitable that the people of the 23rd Century will detect flaws in ours, the 21st.
What might these flaws be? Our treatment of the environment? Our tolerance of poverty?
Philosopher Miranda Fricker thinks that in the not-too-distant future we’ll be shocked by the way that we, in the early part of the 21st Century, still treat animals. “I hope that some of the ways we currently still treat animals, the way that we factory-farm them, for instance, will seem completely unbelievable and unacceptable.”
That a 21st century academic philosopher of ethics would entirely overlook the considerable suffering of human beings at the hands of governments and the morally/legally sanctioned use of violence against children in most societies, and speak only of the way we treat animals reveals the true fundamental moral ‘defect’ of our age. Which is the almost universal belief that violent authorities make the world a better place. From a rational moral perspective it is quite astonishing that a philosopher of ethics could fail to recognise the numerous terrible consequences to humanity of this great moral flaw of our age, consequences such as: the deaths of millions of innocent people as a result of acts of military aggression in the middle east by the major western democracies; the ‘war on drugs’ in America, which has resulted in approximately one million people being incarcerated in state or federal prisons for the non-violent ‘crime’ of smoking or even just possessing the wrong kind of plants, i.e. for ‘drug offenses’; a world where the use of violence against children (i.e. corporal punishment) is deemed socially acceptable, legal and even ‘good’ for children in 83% of nations; a world where politicians use the future earnings of our children as collateral to borrow endless amounts of money in order to bribe votes out of the present population by offering them ‘free’ money/goods/services; a world where governments significantly reduce the purchasing power of money and people’s savings over time by consistently printing money and handing it to banks to benefit from at the expense of everyone else; a world where children are educated in schools which are effectively run like prisons; a world where the president of the most powerful nation on Earth who sanctioned the use of flying armed robots over foreign lands, which have kill thousands of innocent people, can win the Nobel Peace Prize…the list goes on.
But then again, when we consider that Fricker’s livelihood is entirely dependent upon government funding, perhaps it’s not so surprising that she would completely overlook all this human suffering resultant from the belief that violence can lead to virtue. It is rare indeed for any professor or senior academic at a government-funded institute to question the morality and virtue of government, for to do so would be to question their own.
If Fricker’s prediction turns out to be correct, then this will mean humanity has made no significant moral advancement at all in two centuries, which would certainly be a great shame from humanity’s point of view.
At this stage, the best reason and evidence suggests that on current trends the global monetary system and economies of the western world will collapse at some point in the near future and have to reconstitute after an inevitable period of significant social unrest. What kind of societies emerge from the wreckage of the unsustainable debt-ocracies of the previous few centuries will probably determine whether Fricker’s prediction is correct or not. If the irrational ideologies of statism and state socialism are only strengthened by the economic and social breakdown experienced by people and the propaganda of the political ruling elite, then Fricker’s prediction will probably be proven correct because the fundamental moral ‘flaw’ of the minds of most in today’s world will remain uncorrected in the minds of most in the 23rd century. If, however, the belief in violent authority as an economic and social force for good fades from the minds of the majority as the result of a combination of experience and a much greater social influence from the anarchist and libertarian movements, then state-less societies – the goal of some libertarians and all anarchists – will probably begin to form and Fricker will most likely be proven wrong.
Animals and rational morality
Fricker prioritizes animals over humans in her concept of morality, which is not only quite perverse, but also a misapplication of morality in general. Morality can only apply to rational consciousness due to the requirement for avoidability, i.e. choice. Where there is no capacity to choose there can be no such thing as morality. Fricker’s argument puts forward the moral proposition: it is evil to kill animals. However, in order for this to be rational in must be universal, which means it must apply to non-human actors too. This leads to the problem of inevitable evil because a dolphin, for example, cannot avoid killing fish because it doesn’t have the capacity to choose not to. Thus the moral proposition ‘it is evil to kill animals’ attempts to apply morality to non-moral situations, which logically just doesn’t work. Furthermore “animals” is too specific to be universally applied and so Fricker’s proposition must become ‘it is evil to kill living organisms’ in order to be a rational moral principle. But this again leads to inevitable evil because no human can live without killing other living organisms such as plants, viruses – or even animals, depending on the environment and/or circumstances.
Even if we try to force a square peg through a round hole and include animals in morality, ultimately it cannot be morally justified to use force (i.e. government laws) to prevent the mass consumption of animals in the same way it is to prevent rape. The non factory-farming of animals can never be elevated to the level of a moral principle, an enforceable universal preference, it must remain in the category of aesthetics, a non-enforceable universal or personal preference. Fricker isn’t ‘wrong’ to prefer that people don’t factory-farm and consume animals, she is free to have any preference she likes, refrain from any behaviors she wishes to and to try to convince others to share her preference, but it cannot be morally justified for her to use force against others to ensure her preference is met in the same way that she would be morally justified to use force to prevent herself from being murdered.
When people act to prevent what they believe is animal cruelty by, for example, ‘freeing’ animals from a farm or by forcibly removing them from cruel owners clearly there is a need for judgment by a group of peers or some kind of conflict resolution agency because the animal owners will certainly feel that they have had their property rights violated and may seek restitution, and even compensation in the case of farmers; whether they get this or not will depend on the degree to which society sympathises with the motivations of the perpetrators. For ‘grey areas’ like this there is no solution other than judgement by peers on a case by case basis, the results of which everyone agrees to abide by.
For example, if you broke into your neighbour’s house and took his dog to prevent him from beating it anymore, then any reasonable, impartial judge and jury would conclude that: though the owner was clearly an arsehole who gained sadistic pleasure from beating his dog and though you should have tried to reason with the owner first and find a voluntary way to obtain the animal, your actions were well-intended and did prevent further suffering of the dog, therefore you shall compensate the owner for the broken lock and pay him the value of the dog but the dog shall remain in your possession. But imagine if a group of animal rights activists broke into a farm one night and, after setting free all the animals, burned the farm down. In this instance they may find that society is not so sympathetic because unlike the sadistic dog owner the farmer was providing much value to society through his meat products, the people he was employing, and the wealth he was creating; and was ensuring his livestock were killed quickly and painlessly.
The future for animals
If at some point in the future in a world where synthetic or lab-grown meat alternatives are readily available, enjoyed just as much or more so than real meat products, and cost the same or less, then the problem, as perceived by those who believe factory-farming animals is cruel, will cease to exist because it will no longer be profitable to engage in it. Cows, pigs and sheep etc would be set free by virtue of human technological advancement in the same way whales were saved from extinction by the invention of the kerosene oil burning lamp, which was cheaper and lasted longer than whale oil burning lamps. Whether cows, pigs and sheep would fare better in the wild than being farmed by humans, which is an environment that guarantees the survival of their genes – a guarantee nature can never offer – is another question altogether. Whether this is a question that needs answering or not depends on whether the goal of animal rights activists is to ensure the survival of certain species or to ensure animals only suffer natural suffering, that is suffering at the ‘hands’ of other animals. A wolf has neither the interest in making a sheep’s death as quick as possible nor the ability to make it painless – and a wolf can’t be incentivized to achieve either of these things. Humans, however, can make a sheep/cow/pig’s death quick and painless, and be strongly incentivized to do so by consumers who can abstain from buying produce from those farmers who do not. That it’s impossible to make all humans care about how farms treat their livestock to the extent that they will abstain from buying from those that treat their livestock less well, I think, is the fundamental and unresolvable source of anguish of those who wish to ban mass consumption of animals.
Elsewhere in the article Fricker argues that:
“…you’d need to be a moral genius to see that a certain view or practice is wrong, because all around you are people who accept that the practice is alright…”
I don’t consider myself a moral genius or any other kind of genius, and so I don’t believe genius is required to see that certain widely or universally accepted beliefs are irrational, although I don’t doubt that being a genius could help. A certain level of intelligence and ability to think in principles is certainly required but much more important than this is a willingness to change your convictions when presented with superior reason and evidence. This, in my opinion, is the hardest thing for anyone to do because it often means losing your ‘tribe’; that group of people you identify and associate with, your friends. This is a significant loss and, being the social creatures that we are, almost universally undesirable amongst humans. The vast majority of people would rather abandon the truth, keep their friends and feel part of a group than act in accordance with the truth if doing so means being rejected by the herd.
In The Hobbit, the wonderful fantasy novel written by J.R.R. Tolkien, there’s a speech by Gandalf the wizard which goes:
“Saruman [the head wizard] believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love.”
Shakespeare declared “to be or not to be, that is the question“, but I say: to act according to rational moral principles or not to act according to rational moral principles, that is the question. To choose the former over the latter is to distance oneself from government and government action as much as practically possible and to refrain from using corporal punishment against children. These small acts of kindness and love require not genius but only courage, and are the only way to keep the evil of the belief in violent authority as a force for good from smothering human societies in a darkness that will take some time to lift.