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.

Rob Mather of AMF.

Giving What We Can: Oxford brought the founder and director of the Against Malaria Foundation to St. John’s College last night. For those that are unaware, AMF is rated by both the American charity evaluator GiveWell and by Giving What We Can‘s own research team as the most effective charity in the world at reducing suffering. They distribute long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets, which go a long way to combating the toxic physiological, social and economic effects that malaria cripples Third World communities with on a daily basis. By now they can guarantee a bed-net will reach a family for around every $5 donated.

I say they, but the biggest insight gained last night was the extent to which AMF is a mere two-person show running an international aid operation from Mather’s home-office in Fulham. He could teach state departments a thing or two about keeping costs down and running programs like clockwork. Granted, AMF’s success and ability to work in such conditions is currently largely down to the goodwill of Citigroup, Microsoft and many other private firms that offer the free infrastructure their distribution chains depend on, but for the central organisation itself to be so minimalist is still an impressive feat.

A lot of the discussion centred around AMF’s key claim that 100% of donations are guaranteed to be spent on their direct development work, rather than at least partially contributing to their small operational costs. This isn’t a lie, but it is at least mildly deceptive insofar as it conceals the fact that AMF obviously does need some operational financing to function, and this money is still sought in donations. But Mather decided that for now it is best to seek the latter sort of funding from special private benefactors, in order to preserve the truth of the key claim for the general public that their donations will only do real work. He’s convinced, after much experience, that this is the best pitch to get people on board with AMF’s work, given the level of cynicism that dominates public perception of charities.

And cynicism about charities is something Mather has explicit sympathy for, though I suspect the phrase ‘healthy scepticism’ better reflects his attitude. It’s not that most charities are fraudulent, so much as that the job of checking one’s good intentions succeed requires a level of obsessive scrutiny and self-criticism that few have the humility to manage. He told many stories of early AMF failures, and how difficult it is to recognise and overcome the hurdles of ensuring political corruption and black market forces don’t pollute the distribution network for the bed nets. When dependence on the good will and skill of others multiple connections away from you is inevitable, the potential for systemic malfunction is also worryingly high. The rigour of AMF’s mechanisms for checking that what they say they do is done is undoubtedly the most impressive thing about them, and it goes a long way to explaining their unconditional endorsements from the world’s leading charity evaluators.

My allowance for the term arrived in my account this morning. I’ll be donating a tenth of it immediately, which amounts to around £300. I’ve decided to split it such that AMF receive half, and then the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and GiveDirectly get a quarter each.

You can read more about AMF here, and donate to their fund here.


Another odd case of the law struggling to deal with killing. A guy got so plastered in the States that he found himself recklessly driving a car and causing two people to die. He got hit with a long jail sentence accordingly, but was formally convicted of murderNow his lawyers are appealing on the grounds that to murder someone requires an intent that one can only have if one isn’t totally off one’s face after binge-drinking beer for ten hours.

I’m strongly inclined to just say, look, perhaps our idea of murder is used to designate those acts where there is sufficient forethought of the kind that is clearly not possible when someone reaches mental states like these. But that’s fine. We just have to call the act in question something else which better captures the fact it was sheer inexcusable negligence rather than actively planning evil. That does nothing to show there isn’t a similarly stringent responsibility that we all have not to put ourselves in states where such catastrophic consequences materialise so effortlessly, and so nor does it do anything to show the law shouldn’t come down equally hard on his ass to enforce a norm against behaviour that can be as destructive as strict acts of murder. And that’s true even when we see these things are most probably conceptually distinct.

Once that’s kept in mind, there shouldn’t be too much room for disagreement here. We just need to cultivate our emotions to react more strongly to killing through negligence, rather than reserving our moral outrage mainly for murderers.