Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

David Hart, Jeff McMahan, and nature

There's a really challenging post at The New York Times philosophy blog by Jeff McMahan (I posted a past video talk by him on pacifism and just war theory). It begins about the problem of evil, and theology, and animal suffering, but then it goes to a place that I find very conflicting ... the question of whether we humans should intervene in the way nature operates. His example, and I've seen this discussed elsewhere, is whether we should contribute to the extinction or radical changing of carnivore species to help eliminate animal suffering. But the problem is not just animal, I think - as David Bentley Hart mentioned in The Doors of the Sea, even plant life is dog-eat-dog ...

[A]ll the splendid loveliness of the natural world is everywhere attended - and, indeed, preserved - by death. All life feeds on life, each creature must yield its place in time to another, and at the heart of nature is a perpetual struggle to survive and increase at the expense of other beings .... those lavishly floriferous but parasitic vines - that urged always upwards by a blind, thrusting, idiotic heliotropism - climb toward the light of the sun by choking the life from the trees around which they grow, constantly struggling out of the shadows in their thirst for the light, extending one tenuous tendril after another toward the sun to swell and slowly suffocate the boughs they entwine, until they burgeon forth at the last in such gorgeous and copious flowers that one might forget what had to perish to make such a triumph of beauty possible.

Here's some of the article. It's long, so I've left out a lot - best read it all ....


The Meat Eaters
By Jeff McMahan

[...] The continuous, incalculable suffering of animals is also an important though largely neglected element in the traditional theological “problem of evil” ─ the problem of reconciling the existence of evil with the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent god. The suffering of animals is particularly challenging because it is not amenable to the familiar palliative explanations of human suffering. Animals are assumed not to have free will and thus to be unable either to choose evil or deserve to suffer it. Neither are they assumed to have immortal souls; hence there can be no expectation that they will be compensated for their suffering in a celestial afterlife. Nor do they appear to be conspicuously elevated or ennobled by the final suffering they endure in a predator’s jaws. Theologians have had enough trouble explaining to their human flocks why a loving god permits them to suffer; but their labors will not be over even if they are finally able to justify the ways of God to man. For God must answer to animals as well .....

Certainly this and related ideas have been entertained since human beings began to reflect on the fearful nature of their world — for example, when the prophet Isaiah, writing in the 8th century B.C.E., sketched a few of the elements of his utopian vision. He began with people’s abandonment of war: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation.” But human beings would not be the only ones to change; animals would join us in universal veganism: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and the little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” (Isaiah 2: 4 and 11: 6-7).

Isaiah was, of course, looking to the future rather than indulging in whimsical fantasies of doing a better job of Creation, and we should do the same. We should start by withdrawing our own participation in the mass orgy of preying and feeding upon the weak .... But ought we to go further? Suppose that we could arrange the gradual extinction of carnivorous species, replacing them with new herbivorous ones. Or suppose that we could intervene genetically, so that currently carnivorous species would gradually evolve into herbivorous ones, thereby fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy. If we could bring about the end of predation by one or the other of these means at little cost to ourselves, ought we to do it? ......

Many people believe that what happens among animals in the wild is not our responsibility, and indeed that what they do among themselves is none of our business. They have their own forms of life, quite different from our own, and we have no right to intrude upon them or to impose our anthropocentric values on them.

There is an element of truth in this view, which is that our moral reason to prevent harm for which we would not be responsible is weaker than our reason not to cause harm. Our primary duty with respect to animals is therefore to stop tormenting and killing them as a means of satisfying our desire to taste certain flavors or to decorate our bodies in certain ways. But if suffering is bad for animals when we cause it, it is also bad for them when other animals cause it. That suffering is bad for those who experience it is not a human prejudice; nor is an effort to prevent wild animals from suffering a moralistic attempt to police the behavior of other animals. Even if we are not morally required to prevent suffering among animals in the wild for which we are not responsible, we do have a moral reason to prevent it, just as we have a general moral reason to prevent suffering among human beings that is independent both of the cause of the suffering and of our relation to the victims. The main constraint on the permissibility of acting on our reason to prevent suffering is that our action should not cause bad effects that would be worse than those we could prevent.

That is the central issue raised by whether we ought to try to eliminate carnivorism. Because the elimination of carnivorism would require the extinction of carnivorous species, or at least their radical genetic alteration, which might be equivalent or tantamount to extinction, it might well be that the losses in value would outweigh any putative gains. Not only are most or all animal species of some instrumental value, but it is also arguable that all species have intrinsic value. As Ronald Dworkin has observed, “we tend to treat distinct animal species (though not individual animals) as sacred. We think it very important, and worth a considerable economic expense, to protect endangered species from destruction.” When Dworkin says that animal species are sacred, he means that their existence is good in a way that need not be good for anyone; nor is it good in the sense that it would be better if there were more species, so that we would have reason to create new ones if we could. “Few people,” he notes, “believe the world would be worse if there had always been fewer species of birds, and few would think it important to engineer new bird species if that were possible. What we believe important is not that there be any particular number of species but that a species that now exists not be extinguished by us.” ......

The basic issue, then, seems to be a conflict between values: prevention of suffering and preservation of animal species ..... Here, then, is where matters stand thus far. It would be good to prevent the vast suffering and countless violent deaths caused by predation. There is therefore one reason to think that it would be instrumentally good if predatory animal species were to become extinct and be replaced by new herbivorous species, provided that this could occur without ecological upheaval involving more harm than would be prevented by the end of predation. The claim that existing animal species are sacred or irreplaceable is subverted by the moral irrelevance of the criteria for individuating animal species. I am therefore inclined to embrace the heretical conclusion that we have reason to desire the extinction of all carnivorous species, and I await the usual fate of heretics when this article is opened to commen


My own conclusion .... I disagree with McMahan. I do believe in trying to mitigate animal suffering whenever possible, but not by eliminating carnivore species. Which is not to say I'm unconflicted. I'd save mice and bird prey-items from my outdoor cat Grendel, and I felt guilty about feeding my obligate carnivores cats meat. And I have to admit, I'm all for eliminating unattractive (to me) stuff like bacteria, fungi, viruses, the botfly, etc.. I guess I can't explain rationally why I don't want to eliminate carnivore species, but I don't.


Blogger Matthew said...

>The claim that existing animal species are sacred or irreplaceable is subverted by the moral irrelevance of the criteria for individuating animal species.

I'm not convinced.

> I guess I can't explain rationally why I don't want to eliminate carnivore species, but I don't.

Maybe you don't like this idea because it reeks of a familiar pattern, kind of like just war and the death penalty:

1. "other" group is tagged as inherently morally reprehensible

2. the more-powerful consider themselves justified in eliminating said group, or at least "desiring their extinction"

3. "morally reprehensible" group is wiped out

10:20 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Matthew,

Yeah, I'm not convinced either. I think things are more complicated than he wants to make out.

12:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i love the line "Toward the sun to swell and slowly suffocate"

2:07 AM  

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