Archive for the ‘exploitation’ tag
The most common rational defense of oppression is that it is “natural”, part of “natural law.”
The Grain Chain of Being, caste system
In the West, this idea was influenced by Aristotle’s Great Chain of Being, and in the East through the caste system. Both were used to enshroud class and race-based prejudice in unassailable religious belief-systems, to protect the self-interest of those who constructed them: anyone who objected that it was wrong to harm others was said to be against God.
Today we see a new generation of environmentalists who like the taste of meat trying to justify to themselves something they know to be environmentally inconsistent and morally problematic. So they revert to the naturalistic fallacy, based on speciesism – which as a philosophy is morally indefendsible, rationally (as Tom Regan has expertly shown in The Case for Animal Rights). Slavery of animals is being justified as as natural, just as slavery of humans was — and they are both wrong for the same reasons.
Of course, there was also a tension within those traditions: Jesus’ own teachings advocate non-harm and in the East there is the similar idea of “ahimsa”. I will get back to ahimsa shortly.
A modern secular version of the naturalistic fallacy is social Darwinism.
Regarding the oppression of animals we see the natural argument still prevalent, as though factory farms or even selective breeding or hunting using modern technology could somehow be considered “natural.”
The fact that something exists in the material world does not make it “natural.” The naturally existing world, the world of nature, is the world unaffected by human technology, which has radically altered it.
At what point in human evolution did humans separate themselves from natural processes? There are two answers: 1) 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture and civilization; and 2) more recently with the advent of the industrial revolution.
The world people create from nature is itself not natural. It creates a set of conditions apart from the the natural world (the wilderness) — what is sometimes called a built environment — based on ideas, which have actually disrupted naturally occuring evolutionary behaviors. Rural landscapes are built environmentas, like cities, but with more greenery.
As a result we are now in the midst of the sixth great mass extinction on Earth and the only one created by one species. How can anyone call this “natural”? Not for two billion years has there been a mass extinction on this scale.
The “Venus Syndrome” (worst case scenario for climate change) speaks of the eradication of ALL life on Earth if temperatures get to 450 degrees C. Is the eradication of all life on a planet by a single species in any way “natural”? If you think it is, then I suppose you could also declare nuclear weapons and biochemical warfare natural.
These things are not pre-determined but are chosen through the use of free will. They are thus outside the natural schema, even though the human actor exists biologically within it. In the same way, artificial selection and farming are un-natural. For this reason, we cannot reasonably justify them as natural, or determined by nature. We choose these things; we could well choose another way. Is every way that we choose ‘natural’ also? Clearly not, because our imagination are shaping the reality of the world around us, by means of technology which we invent. If there is choice involved we cannot justify one way as natural and the other not. It is a logical contradiction!
No lower or higher in evolution
Similar to social Darwinism, used to justify social oppression, is idea of biological evolution to justify a hierarchy from “lower to higher” species, with man on top. This is a distortion because humans are just one species among many, not higher or lower than others. We are just more complex than most, due to our imaginations. Darwin himself rejected the lower-higher view of evolution.
Evolution simply refers to the changes that occur in a species in order to adapt to an environment, to survive. There is no moral hierarchy implied by the idea.
Free will instead of evolutionary adaptation – a new set of conditions
As long as we exist we never stop evolving. To exist is to evolve. Sometimes evolution results in successful adaptation; sometimes it does not. It looks as though the capacity for technology is not, in the long run, a good adaptive mechanism.
As stated above, humans have placed themselves outside the framework of naturally-occurring evolution by creating built environments, issuing from their imaginations, according to their desires, and this brings with it a certain power and new set of responsibilities not faced by other species.
We have free will and exercise it and then call the results “natural” or “normal.” This is a logical contradiction, since two opposing courses of action could be chosen. Which one would be “natural” and which “unnatural” according to this view? Both cannot be natural, in the sense of what ought to be – what is in accordance with natural law – if they oppose one another.
For example, a man has before him a choice to walk or take a car. One is sustainable and other unsustainable in the long run (since cars run on fossil fuels which are running out). Which is natural and which not? Rather, the question should be which is most just, sustainable and practical? That is, which is most in accordance with what Kant calls “practical reason”?
The natural-unnatural dichotomy is just not helpful for decision-making because it is too maleable, according to subjectively determined views of what is natural or not.
In contrast, practical reason follows an iron-clad rule: do that which takes into account the well-being of everyone else, universally.
Living sustainably is the most practical way to do this, if everyone’s life, now and into the future, depends on living in a stable and clean environment.
Kant gave us the tools to see beyond religious dogma; these same tools can be applied to the question of environmental sustainability and practical ethics.
Is does not imply ought
The “normalization” and “naturalization” process are identified by sociologists (e.g. Peter Berger):
people will create conditions that would not occur in the natural world and then begin to believe that it represents the world as it naturally occurs, and from that infer an “ought” where only an “is” exists. But as Hume stated, “is” does not imply “ought.”
Agriculture and civilization
Humans, though evolved as omnivorous primates (but depending more a plant-based diet than meat), do not require meat to survive or prosper, since the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago. This led to the rise of civilization. As civilized people we conform to a social contract not to kill one another and to live peacably.
Our inner conflicts
Sadly, this social contract exists in tension with our aggressive drives. As Freud showed, this creates an inner conflict in the human psyche.
He hoped for a more enlightened society, where we acknowledged our drives and aggressions, consciously and did not repress them, where they become autonomous and erupt as violence.
The violence against animals is a legacy from the past, which no longer has a proper place in the world of technology.
I would not dispute the right of Aboriginal peoples who live through subsistence hunting, but this should not apply to rest of us. Culture and tradition is not a good defence for a morally wrong practice because any sort of evil can be justified this way.
If Aborignal peoples do not need meat to survive, is it rational that they continue to eat it? Such a question seems politically incorrect, given the legacy of colonialism against Aboriginal peoples (that continues to this day in various ways), so it is prudent to avoid the question.
But in an historical context free from that consideration (colonialism) we could clearly say that meat-eating by ANY culture is not morally justified solely on the basis of culture and tradition.
A moral evolution required
Our moral evolution requires a shift from war and slavery and oppression of animals to a peaceful, egaliatarian society dedicated to the principle of non-harm towards all senient beings.
This is actually consistent with the survival of humanity, which cannot continue to be sustained if we continue to kill animals wholesale, because such a practices is unsustainable environmentally.
Even grass-fed beef is not environmentally friendly. This must also be pointed out (I write on this elsewhere in this blog).
Psychologically, it is also unsustainable, as it creates a cognitive dissonance in us, whereby we deny the source of what we ingest — just as slave-holders thought of themselves as good people.
Humanity’s war against itself and other species and against nature is all tied together, one contributing to the other.
If we are to oppose war and murder and rape and slavery, on the grounds that harm to others is wrong, morally, then the next step is to understand that it is wrong to harm other animals for the same reasons.
Sadly, many human beings still feel that war and murder are necessary, however. They are motivated by unconscious aggressive drives, which Freud referred to as “the death instinct.”
Humans are animals who construct reality for themselves and in their minds “naturalize” that which is constructed. In human society many ways of being are possible, including ways that do not require harm to others.
An Enlightenment view is that humans can construct a society based on universal (i.e. trans-cultural) principles of egalitarianism and social justice.
Non-humans now included
This has traditionally been inclusive only of human animals, but since the 19th century many philosophers have started including non-human animals within the scope of those who warrant our concern.
While not “rational” beings in the same way that human are, many are nonetheless feeling, emotive, thinking beings, and as we have no need to harm them to surive, the thinking is that we ought not to.
Remarkably this same moral evolution from harm to non-harm occurred in many world religions many centuries previous, when it was no longer deemed necessary to sacrifice animals during rituals. Yet somehow, though many religious practitioners grasped this crucial point, it was lost on the society at large.
Ritual sacrifices continue in secular guise
Strangely, we see the idea of ritual sacrifice of animals migrate over to ritual murder at the termination of scientific experiements. The researchers actually call the killing a “sacrifice.” Is this also considered “natural”, even though it occurs within the purview of science?
Farming is not “natural”
Perhaps the most receptive forum for the naturalistic argument is among pseudo-environmentalists and defenders of traditional farming methods.
They all condemn factory farms, in principle — though many still patronize the factory farm products unthinkingly — but continue to defend meat-eating as “natural” – and invoke the example of the small farmer or the Aboriginal culture.
This is a specious argument if ever there was one, because both selective breeding of domestic animals and hunting using rifles and crossbows and trucks and snowmobiles relies on techniques produced within the context of civilization.
In any case, the naturalistic argument is not a good one, for reasons stated above. If we can choose two paths, and call one “natural” and the other not, this already suggests the poverty of the argument.
Rather, it is important to determine our course of action according to practical reason.
See this clever video rebutting the naturalistic argument:
That crucial historical shift to an agriculture based society thousands of years ago allowed human socieities to morally evolve to not kill animals because plant-based diets were made possible then.
Some communities made that transition more fully than others. We see this among some Hindu and Jain peoples, based on the universal principle of ahimsa.
Of course “rights” and “ahimsa” are constructed ideas too, but if one must choose which construction to adhere too — one that causes unnecessary pain and suffering for others or one that respects others — why would we willingly choose the path of pain and suffering, based on self-interest?
Whenever you hear the naturalistic defense of meat-eating remember that it is a constructed idea, like all other human ideas, and is no more “natural” or necessary than human slavery is.
A possible objection, and reply to it
A possible objection to this thesis is that the idea of moral evolution is objectionable because it is no more than another constructed worldview, no better than any other. There could be many versions of moral evolution, one could say – so why this one which protects animals?
The answer is that if we wish to be morally consistent and if we believe that women and people of different colours should have basic rights, then it stands to reason that the same rights should be extended to animals who have the same basic traits as humans.
The idea of moral evolution is not a hierachical worldview, nor even a progressivist worldview, but rather a response to the flagrant abuse of power that we see daily against animals. To hide this behind a pretense of naturalism is self-delusional.
We cannot jusify the morality of ahimas and non-violence against other species (and our own species) as “natural” but we can justify it on the basis that it is rational and practical — that is rationally coherent. It is rationally incoherent (or irrational) to extend rights to one group but not another. Rights must be universal to be coherent.
For all these reasons the naturalistic argument fails, within the context of human civilization — and there is not a single person among us who is outside of that context.
An Email Exchange
As an outspoken animal rights activist online, I get many comments. Here is perhaps the most interesting one I’ve ever received as well as my response to it.
The email is from a First Nations woman and relates in part to the disingenous rhetoric by the Canadian Federal (Harper) government in defense of the seal hunt when they invoke the Aboriginal / First Nations people. The government argues that First Nations people in Canada rely on the seal and fur trade and that animal rights efforts to hinder this trade hurt First Nations people. Some First Nations activists have lumped opposition to the seal hunt under the ”environmental racism” heading and thereby created a huge divide between animal rights advocates and environmentalists, on one side, and First Nations advocates, on the other.
I believe this approach is nothing more than opportunistic “identity politics” and is morally wrong for the reasons stated in my reply.
First Email: A Question Presented to Me
To: Paul York
Subject: Wonder what you might think?
Date: Tue, 5 May 2009
We’ve never actually met, however I know u from my facebook… and agree with most of what you post. I was wondering what u might think of the statement below… A friend of mine wrote this [below] and I wondered what you might think or people of your mindset might think. I myself am an animal lover yet not a vegetarian. More recently another distant friend of mine… (non-native) posted pictures of coyotes and deer that were hunted down for sport and for food somewhere not far from ________ I believe… it sickened me… I couldn’ t sleep for a few nights after that… and still would like to post a comment to her husband, “the hunter”, knowing that I won’t be a very popular friend if i do… still i really don’t care… the coyotes were shot everywhere… clearly they suffered. Yet I myself have a collection of moccasins and don’t feel as bad knowing the natives that hunted them used everything from that kill to sustain themselves. I don’t collect moccasins anymore, and have worn all of the ones that I do have at some point. The following is from a friend on facebook that will remain anonymous. Please, if you would let me know what u think. I am very interested in your thoughts.
“Please also mention to not to confuse this with the sustainable fur trade and Aboriginal/Indigenous People, where am from they slaughtered the Buffalo and put us into prisons now referred to as First Nations, up north they are doing away with the Seal Fur, the Inuit rely on this for both food and resources even clothing it is there Buffalo, the anti fur trade is funded indirectly by the financiers behind big oil and mining companies, this way they can move in an exploit the land after the people are reliant on food flown in from down south. Look at the salaries all the executives of anti fur animal cruelty organizations are getting, always remember that animals are innocent and should not be wasted or farmed period, look at the farmed salmon on the west coast 20 yrs from now when there is no wild salmon and the Native people will have to rely on Government or maybe than oil and Gas exploration will open up, probably when the last wild Orca washes up on shore… Thnx _______ 4 post!”
Second Email: My Reply
From: Paul York
Sent: Tuesday, May 05, 2009
Subject: RE: Wonder what you might think?
I think the person who wrote that paragraph is deluded. Those who are against the fur trade are 99% volunteers who love both animals and human beings and believe there should be no cruelty to either. How very ironic that the Harper government, who work for the fossil fuel companies and who do defend the seal hunt by invoking the welfare of First Nations people (whom they otherwise care nothing for), are not blamed; rather, the animal rights activists are demonized and scapegoated in your friend’s statement.
What’s also missing in this statement is that some of those against the fur trade are Aboriginal people themselves! I know a lady who is of First Nation origin who opposes the seal hunt and advocates animal rights because these positions are consistent with love of Mother Earth. One must distinguish between industrial murder of animals and sustainable traditional hunting for subsistence. Mass murdering marine mammals with high-powered rifles, powerboats and skidoos and then selling the fur and oil for industrial processing and consumption by wealthy white people hardly represents a traditional way of life.
The Harper government is using Aboriginal people to support the industrial sealing industry, an industry which does not really benefit the Aboriginal population. The fur trade is the beginning of the exploitation of the First Nations in Canada through the Hudson’s Bay company; to call it ”traditional” is wrong.
In a similar way, the oil and mining industry is also using and exploiting Aboriginal people in Canada; take a look at the tar sands issue and the rhetoric over “traditional environmental knowledge.” The oil and mining companies pay First Nations to accept resource extraction concessions on traditional lands while other First Nations resist and die. Divide and rule tactics.
First Nations people are the original environmentalists; many still resist industrial development and rape of the land and animals. Others (like Assemby of First Nations leader Phil Fontaine) are selling out for as much as they can get. Some environmental NGOs and some animal right NGOs do lack understanding of First Nations issues, and they themselves have sold out in their own way (e.g., WWF), but to characterize an entire movement negatively is ignorant and prejudiced.
Many people—including myself—are strongly FOR First Nations rights, human right, animal rights and the rights of nature and see no contradiction between these causes. To create divisions where none ought to exist does play into the hands of the oil and mining cartels and their servants, the Stephen Harpers and George Bushes of the world. The fur trade does not help First Nations. . . . If all the seal and animals are dead from over-exploitation to provide fur coats to rich white people, I do not see how Mother Earth is served.
Third Email: Reply to My Reply
To: Paul York
Subject: Re: Wonder what you might think?
Date: Tue, 5 May 2009
Paul York is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto. In addition to caring for animal rights, he is an environmentalist, human rights activist, and community organizer.