Pro-Human Extremist

Extremism in the defense of humanity is no vice

Against ethics

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No, I’m not a libertine, but I’m way more comfortable with morality than with ethics. What do I mean by that? Using the Oxford English Dictionary, we have:

morality: principles of right and wrong behaviour

ethics: the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles

As I see it, morality is intuitive and emotional—it’s a matter of felt preferences about how we should treat others. Groups of people feel their way to moral principles that they can agree on, that fit well enough with human nature and with the inner workings of the group. They teach these principles to their children, maybe with some justification but mostly as received wisdom.

Ethics, on the other hand, is knowledge about moral principles. It’s an attempt to think about what in my opinion should remain an intuitive process. Ethics is philosophers trying to rationalize the moral principles they grew up with, or some variation that they arrived at themselves because it feels right for them. Or worse—they don’t merely rationalize an existing moral scheme; carried away by the logic of their reasoning, they hit upon an ethical system they think we should embrace even though it doesn’t feel right intuitively. That sort of system seldom does justice to the splendid irrationality at the heart of human nature.

An example: how should we treat intelligent, non-human animals? In chapter 8 of The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt describes his own reactions to reading Peter Singer’s arguments concerning animal rights:

Singer’s clear and compelling arguments convinced me on the spot, and since that day I have been morally opposed to all forms of factory farming. Morally opposed but not behaviorally opposed. I love the taste of meat, and the only thing that changed in the first six months after reading Singer is that I thought about my hypocrisy each time I ordered a hamburger.

But then [while watching a videotape shot in a slaughterhouse, as part of a research project on disgust with Paul Rozin], I watched in horror as cows, moving down a dripping disassembly line, were bludgeoned, hooked, and sliced up. Afterwards, Rozin and I went to lunch to talk about the project. We both ordered vegetarian meals. For days afterwards, the sight of red meat made me queasy. My visceral feelings now matched the beliefs Singer had given me…For about three weeks. Gradually, as the disgust faded, fish and chicken reentered my diet. Then red meat did, too, although even now, eighteen years later, I still eat less red meat and choose non-factory-farmed meats when they are available.

That experience taught me an important lesson. I think of myself as a fairly rational person. I found Singer’s arguments persuasive. but, to paraphrase Medea’s lament (from chapter 1): I saw the right way and approved it, but followed the wrong, until an emotion came along to provide some force.

If we’re being reasonable about it, Singer’s arguments do make a certain amount of sense. Everything we know about non-human animals tells us that they are aware and they do feel. The same things that cause us pain must also be pretty unpleasant for our domesticated animals, even if they don’t experience self-reflective consciousness like humans do. Humans are animals, and most of the reasoning that justifies our respect for other human beings applies also to many other animals. As Singer argues, we can’t use differences in intelligence to justify being unconcerned about any other animals, while still respecting the rights of humans with severe mental disabilities.

But like Haidt, most of us just don’t feel as much responsibility to other animals as we do to humans. We may not like it that domesticated animals are kept in small enclosures until they are eventually slaughtered for meat, but we don’t in practice react to that with anything remotely like the outrage we would feel if humans  were treated the same way. We’re reasonable, but we don’t listen to our reason. Why is that?

I think it’s a matter of loyalty.  Humans feel the strongest loyalty to other humans, but we do feel some loyalty to other animals too. Most of us feel more loyalty to the warm and furry than to the scaly and slimy. Dogs and cats mean more to us than jackals and cougars, because we live with them, or our friends do, and because we have had friendly interactions with them.

For some people there’s a steep drop-off in loyalty going from humans to other animals, while for others it’s a more gradual decrease. The loyalties of people who feel more strongly about animal welfare embrace more animals to a greater degree. Compassion for the suffering of non-human animals seems so obviously right to them, that other people’s lack of concern must be terribly frustrating. But it’s not that other people are cold and uncaring—the difference is simply in how far their circle of loyalties extends.

But either way, the pattern of a person’s loyalties seldom matches up with the biology or cognitive abilities of different groups of animals. Our loyalties are more intuitive than reasonable. How much do you care about the welfare of crows and ravens? They’re really smart, you know—much smarter than those cute little chickadees.

Basing compassion on intuitively felt loyalties isn’t all good. It’s what lets people do terrible things sometimes to humans of other cultures and ethnicities, other religious and political convictions—even while they are good and decent to the humans who fall within their circle of loyalties. But it is how our species works through moral dilemmas. Trying to impose a structure of reason on something that is fundamentally irrational is not the answer.

If we want people to behave better, we should try instead to extend everyone’s circle of loyalties as widely as possible. At the moment, there are still far too many sub-divisions of loyalties within our own species. From those divisions come war, terrorism, crime, discrimination, and other vices. I light-heartedly call myself a pro-human extremist because I am convinced that we can help build a better world by embracing our common humanity, making that our primary loyalty rather than our nation or our religion. When we have succeeded, we may then be able to follow St. Francis’ example and broaden our love to embrace all living things.

© Joel Benington, 2011.


Written by Joel Benington

May 20, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Posted in humanity

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