Quotes for the day.

If I had been in a position to design and create a world, I would have tried to arrange for all conscious individuals to be able to survive without tormenting and killing other conscious individuals.  I hope most other people would have done the same.

Jeff McMahan, stating what should be obvious. And even more bluntly:

Our factory farms, which supply most of the meat and eggs consumed in developed societies, inflict a lifetime of misery and torment on our prey, in contrast to the relatively brief agonies endured by the victims of predators in the wild.  From the moral perspective, there is nothing that can plausibly be said in defense of this practice.  To be entitled to regard ourselves as civilized, we must, like Isaiah’s morally reformed lion, eat straw like the ox, or at least the moral equivalent of straw.

These both form part of an Opinionator essay which concludes that we “have reason to desire the extinction of all carnivorous species”.

The ‘meaning’ of life?

John Horgan has quite a philosophically messy post full of meta-reflections on this classic question over at Scientific American (hat tip to Zack Beauchamp). But that’s okay – there’s enough there to work with and take as a platform to spur further thought. What struck me most is the way he – at least at first – interprets the question about the meaning of life as a request for an explanation of what makes life valuable for you. So insofar as I’d be inclined to answer the latter question by listing a variety of sources of goodness which bring me enduring happiness – philosophy, film and cooking; friendship, love and altruism – I’m also implying that these things are the key to the meaning of life.

That would be a conveniently simple analysis that allows me to answer the question quite naturally. It also fits a few basic linguistic intuitions insofar as we say things like ‘this gives my life meaning’. But the suggestion sadly seems like quite a stretch to me. To ask what the meaning of life is isn’t to ask what gives life meaning. The former question seems to have far deeper metaphysical presuppositions. It’s asking what is true for all, not what you’ve personally decided fulfils you. Normally, such questions are surely trying to request some far grander explanation of what our purpose is that is ‘written in the stars’, so to speak, that we’re obliged to somehow discern and follow. And that question is, for me and surely most non-religious people, pretty unintelligible. I don’t think any such answer exist, nor do we need or should we want one to. We should instead be content with a more modest account of happiness that Horgan hints at, without getting carried away and thinking we’ve discovered any special facts about the operations of the universe. Phrases like ‘the meaning of life’ seem to lead people astray like that. In that respect, we’re probably better off rejecting the question altogether.

None of this is to say, though, that we thereby can’t rationally debate what the stable sources of happiness are, instead being left alone as individuals to disagree and pursue our own paths. The fact that we’re all similarly constituted with shared experiences, emotions and social conditions means that we should expect a significant and perhaps surprising amount of agreement about what works best, irrespective of whether this reflects any great Truth. And once more, that should be sufficient to intellectually satisfy us.

Chickens, vegetables and badgers.

I’ve got to rush off to a practical ethics class shortly and there’s a few things I intend to post on soon at greater length. But in the meantime, a few things left over from the weekend to quickly clear off my to-note list:

  • Another week, another Nick Kristof column in the NYT which basically amounts to chastising the moral bankruptcy of our current attitudes and actions towards animals before conceding he’s complicit and will continue to be anyway. It was only a few months ago that he used his prestigious platform to practically say the same thing, and he said it in 2008 too before that. This guy has got almost as much gall as Andrew Sullivan, who similarly blogs on a regular basis, and with apparent passion, about our unforgivable treatment of pigs, despite confessing that he has no intention of letting such facts redirect his diet. Here’s a hunch: most people will think your claims ring hollow if the person espousing them isn’t even willing to live by them. The easiest way to dismiss otherwise credible claims is to casually point out that they’re predicated on hypocrisy. It would be nice if we had prominent journalists with more integrity on this issue.
  • Also in the NYT, Tara Parker-Pope explores the literature on whether we should boil, blanch or bake vegetables when aspiring to maximise vitamin absorption. The upshot? Raw foodism is a radical fad that hits on some truths whilst missing significant others. Stick to folk wisdom and social norms by adopting a mix – fresh salads, but also Sunday roasts – and you’ll do just fine. But your grandparents could have told you that. We didn’t need nutritional science to verify it.
  • It seems that the British government didn’t murder enough badgers quick enough, and now faces legal challenges to the entire program. My position on this remains as defiant as before. It reeks of ad hoc utilitarianism and exploitation. Again, I eagerly await the day that the legally-mandated mass shooting of everyone with gonorrhoea is deemed socially and morally acceptable. It seems quite a way off.

Alison Howarth RIP.

I was shocked to learn today of the death of my former politics teacher at the ripe age of sixty, entirely unexpected after a few weeks of non-critical bad health. I posted something roughly like this on Facebook, and it’s really true: I think it’s probably far too easy to underestimate and under-appreciate the impact teachers can have on us during our formative years. All I know is that her teaching me coincided with my rise from being utterly politically ignorant and indifferent to having the knowledge and passion (especially of and for the often infuriating United States) that I do today. Who knows how many seeds were sown and which flowers blossomed out of those very early days. My successful admission to Oxford? My eventual deep affection for Springsteen? I’m sure I’ll be more subtly indebted to her influence than I’ll ever know.

I saw her for what turned out to be the final time outside Waitrose one afternoon this August, and she was keen to hear of my career plans. If I’d known I wouldn’t see her again, I would have conveyed what I’ve written here. It really shouldn’t take death for us to explicitly recognise our appreciation of people. I hope that I learn from this regret.

Artistic defects in “Forrest Gump”.

There are plenty, I’m sure, and I say this as a huge fan of the film. But when it was trending on Twitter last night whilst being shown on TVa friend made an observation that shone new light on a major moment and really recoloured my possible perception of things. She was referring to the scene in which Jenny climbs into bed with Forrest, they make love and their son is conceived before her death from cancer follows in due course. In light of Forrest’s evident mental limitations, is there not at least something mildly disturbing about the ease with which Jenny – and the film – decides it’s perfectly permissible and natural and loving for her to come onto him in that way? Yes, they have a deep historical bond of friendship, and if there’s anyone he romantically loves it is her. But that’s what might make it only the more exploitative. A significant impression is created throughout the film that Forrest is an inherently asexual being, most probably incapable of processing the meaning of such intimate activity. I’m not looking for a probing philosophical analysis here of the necessary conditions for the exercise of consent and whether the mentally handicapped qualify. Nor do I expect such insights from any film. But the way an event so essential to the narrative and the audience’s emotional responses is passively portrayed, not provoking us to wonder about the ethically ambiguous terrain here, is undoubtedly a defect. I’m amazed that, from a quick Google, nobody seems to have explored this before.

Too much for too few.

Mark Bittman grapples with how we manage to live in a world where people still don’t get the food they need:

The world has long produced enough calories, around 2,700 per day per human, more than enough to meet the United Nations projection of a population of nine billion in 2050, up from the current seven billion. There are hungry people not because food is lacking, but because not all of those calories go to feed humans (a third go to feed animals, nearly 5 percent are used to produce biofuels, and as much as a third is wasted, all along the food chain).

The current system is neither environmentally nor economically sustainable, dependent as it is on fossil fuels and routinely resulting in environmental damage. It’s geared to letting the half of the planet with money eat well while everyone else scrambles to eat as cheaply as possible.

While a billion people are hungry, about three billion people are not eating well, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, if you count obese and overweight people alongside those with micronutrient deficiencies.

Paradoxically, as increasing numbers of people can afford to eat well, food for the poor will become scarcer, because demand for animal products will surge, and they require more resources like grain to produce. A global population growth of less than 30 percent is projected to double the demand for animal products. But there is not the land, water or fertilizer — let alone the health care funding — for the world to consume Western levels of meat.

And what’s staggering and so frightening about this is that, as a friend noted, in the short-term the current system is perfectly viable. And that strikes at the heart of the problem here. Something is just far too fucked up about the global economic system we’ve constructed when it makes rational sense for corporations to gut the earth of natural resources and pollute the planet to such an extent that future people will most probably face insurmountable climate-related problems, all in the name of cheap meat. The sooner the global political will is found to legally mandate the internalisation of the costs of carbon within traditional market mechanisms, ensuring the harms are finally penalised and thereby sensibly avoided, the better our chance of not being the greedy generation that played Russian roulette with humanity’s future for too long. Unfortunately, the chances of things changing soon enough currently seem as slim as the likelihood that pigs will be politically empowered with representatives and rights, enabling their simultaneous suffering in all of this to be finally recognised and remedied.

Owen Jones at the Union.

My friends were reasonably suspicious of sarcasm being expressed on my part when I left the Union the other night claiming the problem with Owen Jones is that he’s far too conservative. But I was, believe it or not, being sincere. On the one hand, there’s a sense in which he’s the sort of public thinker on the left that aggravates me for appearing too naively ambitious, eager to endorse proposals for overhauling socio-economic set-ups with no apparent eye for feasibility. How, exactly, the democratic socialist ‘solution’ of collective ownership and management of public utilities by workers and customers would pan out seems entirely without historical precedent, and so remains simply beyond me. But on the other hand, there’s something frustrating about the way his otherwise intricate understanding of types of oppression and exploitation seems totally limited to creating concern only for conditions within Britain’s borders. There is certainly a place for analysing and opposing the socio-economic inequality directly around us, and Jones has that arena of injustice mastered. But when the time arrives to recognise the fact that in global terms, he’s picking fights between the privileged and the ultra-privileged, the worldview that’s left over appears far from compelling. He talked briefly about his alleged “internationalism”, but the upshot of it is only that he wants the changes he advocates here to happen in nations everywhere. I saw no concern for or recognition of global poverty as the moral crisis of our time that calls for action from us. And nowadays, I just struggle to see the pull of an ideology that’s so blind to the big picture. Because let’s not forget what that picture looks like:

Yes, even a family of four with one adult working on the minimum wage in Britain earns enough to put him or herself in the wealthiest fifth of the planet. That’s adjusting for Purchasing Power Parity, and that’s before we factor in the benefits that arise from living under a stable state with well-functioning public services and so on. Such considerations only compound the comparative privilege. I see little in the monolithic campaigning and political passions of people like Jones that pay due respect to this fact.

Perhaps this is far too harsh. The public, after all, has little appetite for global egalitarian advocates in the media, and if Jones pursued such a career path then his social clout and capital would have never grown to the extent that it has. Perhaps it’s best to emphasise the smaller injustices because they’re the only injustices that the press could potentially push people to effectively address. If that’s genuinely the case, I guess Jones can be understood and forgiven. And insofar as he’s managed to create a personal brand through social media that’s made him border on being a household name, perfectly capable of carrying readers with him wherever he decides to write, he’s a rare breed of British journalist who is using his new-found power in an understandable and commendable way.