You Are What You Eat

Days 23 & 24 Blog Post (Just in time for Thanksgiving!)

We are starting to become aware of the injustices inflicted on people through environmentally degrading forms of exploitation and how our economy perpetuates deep-seated roots of racism and the institutionalization of second-class citizens. But so far there has been another biotic group that has gotten less attention, and this group contains far more numbers than humans. The dependance of our and other economies on the severe injustice toward animals – fellow beings that feel pleasure and pain – is probably more atrocious than the economic injustices toward most people.

The traditional view that most cultures and societies of human existence is often called the “anthropocentric paradigm,” and we have used this to determine which things have moral standing. So, since human historical memories can trace, the appropriate criterion for moral standing has been mere membership to the group of homo sapiens. This is speciesism; and it’s the most historical and basic determining factor for moral standing, and thus not a sufficient condition of formulating an adequate ethical theory. I will try to make these points with as many helpful pictures of my dog, Noble, as I can.

Following this factor for moral standing is what and how we assign value to something. We have assumed that only the lives of human beings have intrinsic moral value. There is a difference between intrinsic and extrinsic moral value. When we say something has intrinsic value, its existence comes with being valuable. But when something has extrinsic moral value, it means that it only has value in its use toward something else. This is also known as instrumental value. Things with intrinsic value are ends in themselves, but things with extrinsic value are means to an end. For much of “civilized” human history, animals have had merely extrinsic value.

A number of criteria for moral standing have been proposed that should allow something to have moral standing. Throughout time, value has been given to: 1) personhood 2) potential personhood 3) rationality 4) linguistic capacity 5) sentience 6) being alive 7) being an integral part of an ecosystem 8) being an ecosystem. This is the historical anthropocentrically assigned rubric of value throughout time. It also stands to mention that at some point around the 17th and 18th centuries during the time of René Descartes and Isaac Newton there was a shift in the concept of the earth as being alive, of being a generous parent, to the concept of it being an object, or a wound-up clock to be tinkered with, by us. Unfortunately, Descartes believed that non-human animals lacked linguistic capacity and therefore “lacked a mental-psychological life,” a vestigial view of the moral standing of animals that lasts today.

(I know for a fact that my dog has intense dreams. He often flails his legs like he’s chasing something or makes chewing motions with his mouth, all while he’s sleeping. How can something dream and not have a mind?)

Today we have instated the existence of animal rights, which is based on the “the idea that some or all nonhuman animals are entitled to the possession of their own lives, and that their most basic interests – such as an interest in not suffering – should be afforded the same consideration as the similar interests of human beings.” This idea was heralded by Peter Singer, and it opposes making decisions on speciesist claims and advocates that animals should no longer be viewed as property or be used for clothing, food, research subjects, or entertainment, taking into consideration the welfare of the animals. Animal welfare, or the physical and psychological well-being of animals, is measured by indicators like behaviors, physiology, longevity, and reproduction. The term can also mean people’s consideration of the best interest of animals. Historically, different cultures have viewed the importance of animals differently. One famous example is the Egyptian reverence for their various local animals, and their love of cats – whom they believed embodied the spirit and intelligence of the god Bastet. The Greek historian Heroditus observed that if a domesticated cat died, the entire house would go into mourning “as if it were a human relative,” and that if someone killed a cat, even accidentally, the punishment was swift death. Cats were even mummified to ensure that they lived on in the after life.

Noble asserting himself as a part of the family

Many people and organizations today have argued on behalf of the animals in order to pivot our view of animals as things to be consumed, in the harsh ways we consume them, to a more humane position, and thereby bringing them into our moral community. One of these people is Joaquin Phoenix, who made the documentary ‘Earthlings” to show just how wickedly we treat animals whom we, by our actions, ascribe only consumptive value. The film opens with saying that there are three chronological levels to the truth: ridicule, violent opposition, and finally acceptance. There’s nothing I can say here that can possibly come close to substituting the message of seeing the film and the powerful images and footage it employs to make us understand the horrors of the institutions that exploit animals and the lowly, if not negligent, moral status we give them. What goes on behind the systems that give us animals for pets, animals to consume as food and clothing, animals for entertainment, and using animals for science research is truly comparable to a never-ending holocaust. It is becoming more mainstream knowledge the practices that give us our abundance of food – birds with food hoses shoved down their throat, cows pumped with hormones. One image I will never shake is seeing a dog (who looks a lot like my husky) getting its skin ripped from its body, alive, and then watching the dog panting, bloody, skinless, and in unimaginable pain. One more widely disputed topic is brought up in the film that was also discussed in another class of mine – vivisection. Some scientists argue in favor of testing on live animals for its benefit to people. Vivisection is subjecting living animals without anesthetic to torturous trials of experiments, such as injections, dissections, exposure to nuclear radiation, and even forcing blunt G-force trauma, usually to the heads of monkeys multiple times. I fail to see even the utilitarian benefit of inflicting terrible pain on countless bodies for the sake of a more comfortable consumer. And what kind of people deserve anything that comes from torturing fellow sentient beings? Joaquin Phoenix perfectly sums up our placement of animals in “our” world in one sentence: “The fate of animals is to be unwanted by man, or wanted too much;” and suggests that what we need is a stronger, more mystical view of animals, rather than the one our culture promotes now that instates complacency for commercial bliss. Our moral community needs to be extended to all the earthlings.

I recently watched another film for another class called “The Cove” by Louie Psihoyos. This truly heart-breaking documentary is an exposé about the atrocious abuse and exploitation of dolphins by the town of Taiji, Japan, for the lucrative business of dolphin use in aquariums, exhibitions, and food. The film was not only extremely informative and saddening, but also very intense due to the crew’s having to spy around the cove in Taiji at night and watch out for the constant surveillance that the Japanese government/fishing industry put in place. “The Cove” perfectly sums up our exploitation – our harvesting – of defenseless animals in our endless pursuit of commodification (“a dolphin in the right spot can make millions a year”). This industry is capitalization of nature at its worst. It has been noticed that dolphins are very human-like in their socialization and recognize each other in familial units, just like us. They also won’t leave a fellow dolphin being attacked or in trouble, which makes it easy for the fishermen to massacre most of the catch. They scare the dolphins by banging on the hull of their boats which disorients the dolphins due to their keen perception to sound (their main sense) and then assault entire groups with spears and harpoons once they’ve trapped the dolphins into the cove. It’s worth noting that dolphins are one of the many animals studied that we know engage in purely playful interaction, again, just like us. They’re also famous for being known to save human lives. In moral terms, is there no more innocent creature on the planet, and perhaps even more capable of morality and moral standing than us?

The fact that many humans take animal rights/welfare as a joke might say that we’re in the ridicule part of ultimately accepting the truth about the moral standing of animals. There’s probably still a ways to go before we release our grip on a constant supply of animals to fuel our society’s creature comforts. Logically, there really is no way around justifying it, and the strongest argument against giving moral standing to animals is that it is unappetizing. That’s just not good enough. Clearly I’m obsessed with my dog and personally think that some members of my own species deserve the same violent end they bring upon such gentle creatures for superficial and economic gain. But if we can’t treat simple – and not so simple – animals with the respect they deserve, how are we ever going to get that with people?

p.s. adopt from shelters!


Our Economy’s Dirty Laundry

Day 21 Blog Post

Any talk of the environment thus far has been unavoidably coupled with economics. Mention of environmentalism or “going green” would seem to be tangled up with either a diminishing of the economic system, loss of jobs, or – more rooted in actuality – revamping of the economic system. Our economic system is notorious for its adherence to corporations, “big business.” Corporations are driven by the vast engine of consumer satisfaction and are also responsible for big time environmental destruction. One need not even mention the Exxon Valdez spill in the Prince William Sound, or the American “hamburger habit” that lives off a continuous flow of South American beef acquired by the burning of millions of acres of ancient rain forests. The existence of these corporations depend on maximizing profits, which leads to continuous growth (the impractical golden rule of economics), which leads to the encouragement of more consumption, which we all know leads to larger landfills and more pollution and so on and so on.

Traditionally the environmental movement has sought to free the rain forests and protect endangered species, but a large group of disenfranchised individuals seems to have been overlooked. Our economic system perpetuates archaic forms of racism and injustice towards people of low socioeconomic status. A relatively new and equally as important sector of environmentalism comes into play – environmental justice. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states:

Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.

More recently corporations have been charged with generating environmental racism, the “deliberate targeting of people of color communities for toxic waste facilities.” It has been found that there is a pattern of placing hazardous facilities in black and Native American communities,” as well as dumping hazardous wastes in third world countries. Libertarian pioneer Milton Friedman claims the goal of corporations is to make profit, and that any other agenda would be spending someone else’s money “to promote a social objective.” Friedman also thinks that taxation is a form of unjust socialism, so that’s as far as his input can be valued. Despite how unpopular it might appear in a polity fueled by corporate aid, the job of government is to protect the people. So, our society has enacted laws and regulations to protect people from injustice – a concept that makes big business and libertarians cringe. But what’s twisted is that now the laws might not even be enough to keep corporations under control. Third world farmers are displaced from their homes via starvation or moved off by pressure or force from big business, a process that is further begotten by corrupted government in bed with such big business. Another huge problem in our solidifying global society is the psychological fear of falling down a class; and this quietly fuels the unsustainable system of “continued growth.”

What’s more is that in our country there’s the almost ignorant fluffing off of the idea that racism still exists. Racism seems like a problem that was tackled and conquered by Martin Luther King, a problem that our parent’s generation felt. My president is black, how can racism still be around? Surely racism doesn’t exist now, and if you are racist, then socially you’re weird, hateful, and out of the loop. To be accepting of all races and people is in vogue. This is all wonderful, but somehow the racism that does still go on is glazed over by this idea that racism doesn’t exist.

Atgeld Gardens is a housing project in Chicago where 10,000 residents, mostly African American, live surrounded by sources of intense pollution on every side. The area is plagued by one of the highest cancer rates in the nation, and atrocities like rampant disease, and birth defects such as babies being born without heads and limbs. This community is a testament to continued environmental racism. Statistically, three out of every five black and Hispanic Americans lived in communities with uncontrolled waste sites near by. The National Minority Environmental Leadership Summit met to develop a comprehensive and tangible national agenda of action that will help reshape and redirect environmental policy-making in the U.S. to fully embrace the concerns of minority Americans. A national pattern was found in which “race proved to be the most influential variable tests in association with the location of commercially hazardous waste facilities.” Companies dump in ethic neighborhoods to avoid the lawsuits they would incur if they dumped in white communities because the poor communities are figured to be legally and politically powerless, or they may not know they can do anything about their living conditions. The corporations perpetuate this institutionalized problem among lower income communities who come to believe that they can’t do anything about their situation. “Wherever you find working class, ethnic communities, you find environmental injustice.” Needless to say, this is one of the darkest corners of American civilization.

The sociological effect that our economy has on lower income people is just another reminder of direct how our relationship to the earth really is. They can’t “vote with their feet” and just move out, like first class citizens can. And even still, the proposition that people should just move out of a neighborhood that has a tainted ecosystem adds insult to injury. Should we even settle to see people land and homes be allowed to such degradation? Peggy Shepard, a leader of WHE ACT (West Harlem Environmental Action), says “we need to fight for environmental protection or the land we seek might not be of any real value once it’s returned.” Again adding more insult to injury, Indian reservations are seen as good dump sites by firms because “they are considered sovereign entities not subject to local or state environmental restrictions.” One Indian reservation near a nuclear waste producer in Oklahoma reports nine-legged frogs, four-legged chickens, two-headed fish, and babies born without brains or eyes. The fact that we let this occur without guilt or repercussion -just another externality – is horrifying.

There have been watershed events in the environmental justice movement. “Mother of the Superfund” Lois Gibbs’ triumph in getting national recognition for her battle against the state to get 21,000 tons of toxic waste removed from her town of Love Canal and her eventual creation of the Superfund Act. In North Carolina, 500 arrests for the non-violent civil disobedience of the 1982 protesting against a new toxic landfill and toxic soil laced with the carcinogen polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) in an African American community. Little by little, grassroots movements like these gain more attention and put more light on the issue that was once just seen as the trivial consequence of the big business system.

The remnants of historically institutionalized racism and oppression of non-whites and lower income people coupled with the massive expansion of the petrochemical industry since World War II churn out this social phenomena of the location of lower income, segregated communities to carry the burden of living in these sordid conditions. This is environmental injustice. It is unjust to the people, unjust to the environment, and also unjust to those who feel the effects that a contaminated ecosystem brings to other ecosystems and other areas nearby. Those people are you and I. The problem of environmental injustice may be coming to light, but it also illuminates the deep-seated root of unsustainable practices and an intrinsically faulty materials economy. The solution is, by initiation of grassroots movements (Majora Carter is a wonderfully inspiring pioneer in this field), more sustainable infrastructure, more community involvement, more education, more governmental involvement and restriction where needed, and better economic planning. The idea that it is “anti-American” to “impose morals and values” about the environment on business and other people might be the most toxic mentality of them all. This goes beyond any one person’s needs or wants or beliefs, but is rooted in science and reality. Too long has the top down approach reigned supreme, now it’s time to fix the problems it’s caused from the bottom up.

Sharing Is Caring

Day 12 Blog Post

Given the current conditions of the environment and how everything from rainforest health to economic policy is so tangled together, it is difficult to determine a course of action that is beneficial for everyone. But such is the struggle of humanity throughout the ages of our existence. How do we organize a world that’s fair for everyone? Justice for people and the environment? Is justice for the environment not a culmination of justice for all living things and the systems in which they function? How do we satisfy everyone’s livelihood? All these questions involve the application of ethics. But is ethics or morality relevant in discussing environmental policy? Why not? When the actions of one person, group of people, company, nation, or any entity affect another, the question of ethics will inevitably show up. The study of ethics can be very tricky, and there are so many different ethical theories on how to conduct ourselves. It might even be impossible to use one to satisfy all the planet’s nations and cultures. But something has to be done.

One way to start is with Aristotle’s practical syllogism. This is the use of premises and a consequent conclusion that arises soundly and validly. This is structured as so: general normative/ethical premise (ethical part) + particular factual premise (natural and social part) = conclusion about the particular thing specified in premise 2. The first premise states the ought, or what should be done and the second premise states the empirical fact, or what is known to be true. Here’s an applied example of the formula:

Premise 1: All endangered species ought to be protected.

Premise 2: The northeastern box turtle is endangered.

Conclusion: Therefore, we ought to protect the northeastern box turtle.

One ethical theory is the “two egoisms” and social darwinism. These are psychological egoism, which is the idea that every human act is motivated by self-interest, and ethical egoism, which is the idea that each person ought to act in such a manner as to promote or maximize his or her self-interest. The only difference between the two egoisms is that psychological egoism is the empirical statement that everyone does act in ways that maximize his or her self interest and ethical egoism is saying that everyone should act in his or her self-interest. Both of these egoisms see all actions as inherently selfish to some extent. Social darwinism draws on the normative conclusion of ethical egoism in that it is desirable that only the fittest survive. Social darwinism endorses the view that it is fitting to be indifferent to the interests of other human beings, and presumably the rest of the biosphere, so long as this does not adversely affect one’s own well-being.

The divine command theory considers that whether an act is right or not depends solely on whether god commands it. This theory’s approach to decision making involves the following assumptions: 1) there is a god, 2) god commands and forbids certain acts, 3) an act is right (or permissible) if and only if god commands it, and 4) humans can sometimes ascertain what it is that god commands or forbids. This theory is problematic because it removes scientific fact from reasoning and can be swayed to permit any act “if god commands it,” which can only be ascertained through human (technically rendering the decision anthropocentrically-based) means unless god comes down and says so himself.

The rights theory is one that has been employed by western culture but still a little difficult to universalize. For example, it is important to note the difference between saying “someone has a right” and “an act is right.” There’s also the notion that with rights come duties to uphold those rights. The rights theories all maintain that all beings within a certain more or less “natural” kind have the same rights. But the problem with this view is that rights are generally denied to any non-human, thus the critique of anthropocentrism is large. However, not all humans can have the same rights. Blind people don’t have rights to drive, right? Natural rights are held by human, sentient, rational beings. Also, sometimes rights are taken away in dire circumstances (like war or scenarios between life and death).

Utilitarianism is one of the most famous ethical theories. Proposed by Jeremy Bentham, it claims that we ought to do that which will bring about the greatest balance of pleasure over pain, or utility over disutility. The principle of utility states that the right thing to do is whatever maximizes the total amount of net utility; this is also called the greatest happiness principle. The rightness or wrongness of an act is entirely dependent on the consequences. Utilitarianism demands that the good and bad consequences for everyone affected by an action be taken into account and be given due weight in determining whether the action, among all the alternatives available, will maximize total net utility; implying that it’s not just the agent’s well-being that is significant. Utilitarianism is closely related to the task of cost-benefit analysis. Since the theory goes by maximizing and reducing pleasure and pain, then it applies to all sentient beings, such as people and animals. The term sentient in philosophy refers to any creature capable of experiencing suffering or satisfaction, in whatever forms they may take. Which animals and humans are sentient is an empirical question, there’s a yes or no answer (whether we know the answer is a different story). But utilitarianism isn’t fairness for all, there will always be a minority that will end up suffering for the end result of the benefit for the majority. And it says nothing about non-sentient beings (trees, rivers, natural entities), so technically the utilitarian would approve of (depending on how grand a scale of time one looks at) clearing a rainforest for the economic benefit of many.

Natural law theory goes by the “natural order of things,” and that what is good and right is a direct function of the way things are, in particular the way human beings are (this is based on their natural capacities, tendencies, and desires). That being said, certain norms are found in nature, and so it makes the assumption that the good of humans (and perhaps other creatures as well) is constituted by the realization of these natural strivings or natural tendencies; and the perfection of such capacities in humans constitutes human flourishing.  The natural law is often claimed to be an expression of the divine will and can be ascertained by reasoning. This theory is hard to use because the natural tendencies of all humans is a squishy subject. Human nature is something that’s widely disputed, and what’s “natural” for one person on one side of the earth in a nation and within a certain culture may not be so “natural” for someone on the other side, in another nation, of another culture. Its reliance on the divine will is also problematic. This theory is too reminiscent of Aristotle’s view of the natural hierarchy. Just because someone may make a good slave does not mean it is right for that person to be a slave. To say that the natural end of some species is to serve others has deep implications and has led to historically “immoral” acts and behavior. If this is true, then would the natural function of humans be to live at the top of the food chain and then feed the decomposers that take care of our remains when we die? In the end, this theory relies too much on inferring normative conclusions from empirical premises.

Kant says that one cannot determine the morality of an act solely by assessment of its consequences. Kant’s supreme principle of morality is the categorical imperative, and it has two versions. The first states that one should act only on those maxims of one’s actions that one can, as a rational being, will to be a universal law and obeyed by all moral agents. So, if the question be “is it ok to drive a car out of convenience?” The answer would be no, because allowing all rational people to drive out of mere convenience would cause further environmental disaster, which would not be willed by any rational person (hopefully). The other version is that we would never treat a person/rational autonomous creature as a mere means to an end. Kant’s reliance on the cognitive capacities to judge by fails the animal rights activists. He would see “shooting a dog when it’s no longer useful” as not morally wrong; however he suggests that we not treat animals cruelly because doing so makes a person less likely to care about people too.

The notion of environmental justice is something that has only started to make headway. It’s tricky to employ any of the above stated ethical theories in a discussion that would yield any type of environmental justice in part because environmental justice is something that strives to provide just living conditions for the widest amount of living things ever debated over in western culture (all of them). The major historical foundations we have in the social contract are tempting because it seems so basic to us that just acts arise from consent, but there are some participants who cannot consent. Young children and the severely retarded are just a small example. Many living things being affected by the contracts and consequences of human actions never agreed to such contracts. The ducks who drown in oiled waters, the polar bears who swim to their death looking for sturdy ice, the people who live near dumping grounds for toxic wastes – none of them agreed to such conditions. So, one radical and relatively new Theory of Justice suggested by John Rawls uses the imagined “veil of ignorance” to construct a bargaining situation in which we wouldn’t be aware of our economic class, race, nationality, generation, even personality in order to organize a system in which we would agree to the conditions of the lowest members on the totem pole in the chance that we were that person. This way of thinking encourages justice to future generations, or “intergenerational justice.” Even though Rawls designed this concept anthropologically – “for persons with a sense of justice” – it can easily be applied to design a social and political structure for all sentient creatures. Why not let the veil of ignorance also mask our species?

The idea of a unique environmental ethic is hard to pose, because the already difficult intrahuman conflicts are great enough, and to add non-human interests muddies the ethical waters. But simplicity must not again be bought at the price of reasonableness. Perhaps a movement from the old anthropocentrism to more of a biocentrism, in which all life is given equal moral standing. Boiling ethical theories down to their most basic trade-offs and then weighing them seems like a good idea. But sharing the limited space on a planet that comes with politically cut-up borders, standing traditions, and 6 billion new neighbors is no easy task. A revolution is in order.