Archive for the ‘Secular Humansim’ Category

Animalia Commonalis: Truth, Suffering and Ethics

April 19, 2020

All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them. (Galileo Galilei)

Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth. (Buddha)

The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable. (James A. Garfield)

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. (Arthur Schopenhauer)

Why do we want so desperately to know whether there is life elsewhere in the Universe when we treat so much human and non-human life on this planet with such disdain?

blue turtles on brown sand
Photo by Jolo Diaz on Pexels.com

I’ve written briefly here about what makes homo sapiens special.

We know that species other than ours exhibit some of these qualities:

  • Problem solving
  • Sophisticated memory
  • Ability to plan
  • Tool use
  • Culture
  • Ability to act contrary to instinctive behaviour
  • Belief in gods of one sort or another

As far as we know, the last item on the list is unique to us. This could mean either that there are gods of some kind or that we have a tendency to mistake certain types of patterns for gods.

What of the second to last? We are not purely instinctive creatures. Without that, we would never have developed Science, mathematics, technology.

But there exist humans with a severe mental handicap who cannot participate in anything approaching the “lofty intellectual heights”. Neither can young children.

For children, this is only transient you say. Rightly so. Children mature.

Not so for someone with a severe mental handicap.

Perhaps questions like “what makes us special?” or “what sets us apart from other animals?” are less than useful.

Perhaps it would be better to ask instead: What do we have in common?

Animalia Commonalis popped into my head when I was writing this post. By this latin-sounding (but not real) phrase, I was trying to capture this idea: The Commonality of Animals.

Of course, there’s a continuum of complexity of animal life starting from self-replicating molecules (RNA, DNA), to viruses, bacteria, fungi, insects, reptiles, fish, birds, and mammals like us.

Just limiting ourselves to mammals, all have:

  • A common body plan. Animals as diverse as whales and bats share the same basic skeletal structure and organs.
  • An apparent desire, or at least a strong instinct, to care for their young.
  • The ability to feel pain, to suffer.

The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being? (Jeremy Bentham 1789, in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation)

Bentham said this more than 200 years ago!

Where on this continuum from viruses to us does the ability to suffer begin? Dogs don’t pass the mirror test whereas pigs do, but few would say that a dog cannot suffer.

Do bees feel pain or is the avoidance of harmful stimuli purely mechanical with no pain response? It seems that no-one really knows the answer yet.

I’ll be honest and say that right now I’m more concerned about dealing with the more obvious and well-documented suffering of mammals, birds, and fish by our hand. The “low hanging fruit”. Even choosing not to consume one of these groups is a big win at this point. The jury is still out for me regarding insects.

Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight. (Albert Schweitzer)

Whether starting from the idea that not consuming animal products may be healthier for us, from worrying about the environment and sustainability, or from a concern for the welfare of animals other than ourselves, one can eventually be led to the realisation that what we once did only to people taken out of Africa to America and to other “civilised” countries, we are now doing to other species, but worse.

The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men. (Leonardo da Vinci)

Speciesism is just a generalisation of racism beyond the borders of homo sapiens.

In my view, along with Climate Change, Speciesism is the defining issue of our time, and we will be judged by future generations on how we responded to both.

If Climate Change is an existential crisis, Speciesism can be thought of as a battle for the collective “soul” of homo sapiens.

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated. (Mahatma Ghandi)

On How Not to Protest (again)

January 19, 2020

Recently, Karen and I were waiting for a tram in Bourke Street to take us to a vegan pizzeria in Melbourne I’d heard good things about.

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Before the tram was able to come, hundreds of climate change protesters emerged. It was an unseasonably cold, wet day, as the picture suggests.

Now, as someone who in late 2019 attended a climate rally and a protest against oil and gas exploration in the Great Australian Bight, I’m broadly supportive of such public protests and marches.

However, there were a few problems with this one…

It seemed to Karen and I that the protesters were mostly preaching to the converted.

It took place in a street in which trams run. Trams. Not cars. Public transport.

Sure, not very efficient public transport given Victoria’s current reliance on coal for power (perhaps that was at least part of their point).

Why not march up a street where cars ran instead? They, at least, could have taken a different route. There was a police presence since this was a planned event, unlike another recent protest in Melbourne.

Yes, I know that disruption was probably part of the aim.

But the truth is that you don’t have to be completely disruptive to get attention like a two year old having a hissy fit.

Another problem was they appeared to circle around multiple times…

After the boredom set in, Karen and I got to wondering what a poll would show about just how seriously participants in the protest were about finding solutions to climate change.

Which of these people, we wondered, use vehicles (theirs or others) in a responsible way in order to minimise emissions?

Which of these people were vegan or at least made some significant attempt to reduce the consumption of animal products, given that the animal agriculture industry is responsible for a similar quantity of emissions as the whole of the transport sector.

Which of these people regularly waste food?

Which of them recycle? And so on…

Yet another problem was that at one point, the chants changed from being climate related to:

Always was, always will be, aboriginal Land

I encountered the same thing during the 2019 oil and gas exploration protest in Adelaide.

Now, no matter how sympathetic you are to the plight of aboriginal people in Australia (and there is good reason to be), how much you support the notion of land rights, or how positively you view the aboriginal people as good stewards of the Land, this is a problematic statement.

For one thing, it is astonishingly anthropocentric, the very thing that has gotten us into so much trouble with climate change.

For another, it’s a claim that can only have any validity for the last 60,000 years or thereabouts. Before that brief geological time span, the land “belonged” to other species.

Such a view may not be politically popular these days, especially with Australia/Invasion Day on January 26, but it has the distinct advantage of being true.

Of course, none of this excuses the terrible things done to the aboriginal people by our white settler ancestors and it is important to separate the massacres of two centuries ago from the broader historical place of homo sapiens, and the future of our species.

I’ve written more on this theme elsewhere. As I said there:

I’ve always found the Cosmic Calendar quite compelling. Popularised by Carl Sagan on Cosmos, the whole timescale of the universe is compressed into 12 months. Nothing remotely human begins until late morning on December 31. The original settlement of Australia by seafarers didn’t happen until 11:58pm and the last few thousand years of human history occupies the last 30 seconds of the day!

cosmos-04-hulu

Getting back to the chant… It was out of place in the context of this protest.

If you’re going to have a protest about climate change, stick to the point!

Don’t dilute the message!

Also, ensure that you are really making an attempt to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

We eventually got to that vegan pizzeria, but it was far enough that we caught a cab.

Anyone who knows me, knows how much I hate catching a cab if I don’t have to!

So, thanks for that (not).

On Being Special

January 19, 2020
sunset person love people
source: Josh Willink (pixels.com)

I’ve had some conversations in recent times that have ended in disagreement over the question of whether members of homo sapiens are more important or special than members of other animal species.

But what do we mean by special?

Relationships with other beings, human or non-human, make the participants special to one another.

Particular things about us make us special, e.g. tool use, intelligence, culture.

The holy books of some religions and other ideological traditions often claim that humans are special, perhaps even chosen in some way.

It’s important to distinguish between these different types of special-ness.

The first type is subjective and derives from a shared history, an emotional bond. For some people, the death of an animal can be as devastating as the loss of a relative or human friend to someone else. There’s no right or wrong in that. It just is.

The second type can be tested; other species use tools, have high intelligence and some may even have their own kind of culture (e.g. humpback whales).

Although a person of faith is unlikely to agree with this, the third type must be supported by evidence, and since, as Carl Sagan reminds us, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, this is a difficult requirement to meet.

Humans are meaning creators. Relationships are central to being human and meaning is often created in relationship with others; not always, but very often; some do choose to find meaning in solitude.

My father’s health was in decline late last year and more rapidly before my eyes in the first week of 2020. However, his death on January 7 2020 has not changed my view of the special-ness of homo sapiens relative to other species.

Dad was special to me because he was, well, my father. We had an emotional connection, a shared biological and social history, a relationship spanning more than 5 decades. I am in the process of mourning his loss. This does not necessarily imply that we or members of homo sapiens in general are special in any other sense.

We are free to choose who to become. If we are special in any sense, it is due to the responsibility we have to accept the human condition and to leave the world better than we found it, irrespective of the fact that we will not be around to see our legacy.

…but what is not possible is not to choose…if I do not choose, that is still a choice. (Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism)

African Swine Fever: with a whimper…

October 15, 2019

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

(T.S. Elliot)

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source: https://ab.co/2IQVbpS

ABC News today reports that a woman has been deported back to Vietnam for trying to bring 4.6 kg of uncooked pork into Australia via Sydney airport.

Sigh. Apparently some people don’t read the news. Or just don’t care…

The Australian Pork Chief Executive Margo Andrae is quoted as saying:

“I’m outraged that someone thinks they can bring 10 kilos [sic] of pork products in their suitcases and not declare it and risk our entire $5.3-billion industry.”

Sure. Outraged, yes.

But again, the talk is all about risk to the industry, not about the consequences for the millions of gentle creatures who may be exterminated in the process.

Imagine if we treated the human carriers of infectious diseases the way we treat livestock who may not even yet have been infected, let alone those who have.

That’s speciesism in action.

Wombat stoning and other insults

October 7, 2019
11572152-3x2-940x627source: https://ab.co/2LQ8ysw (ABC)

A South Australian Aboriginal elder recently defended the killing of wombats by throwing rocks at them until they die (aka stoning) as a “cultural practice” used to obtain food…

…in the 21st century…

He was cited by the ABC as saying that:

This has been part of our culture and the way we’ve gone about it for thousands of years.

Hmm…

Stoning is an ancient tradition for adultery in Judaeo-Christian cultures, and still is in some Muslim majority countries…

…and how many of us in western democracies (whatever they are now) consider that to be a Good Thing?

On the flip side, killing animals without first stunning them is yet another tradition in some religious cultures…

…and in case you were wondering: no, I don’t think throwing rocks would count as a method of stunning.

Generally, when I hear “tradition”, I translate it in my head as “the way we’ve always done things around here” or simply, “just because we want to”.

Tradition can be harmless and even fun.

But, when your “tradition” is combined with careless treatment of sentient animals or the environment, other than making me angry, you should also imagine me sticking my fingers in my ears and uttering:

la la la la la la la la la la…

When you’re ready for a civilised conversation, let me know. Maybe then you can join the United Federation of Planets, er, People.

Until then, don’t bother me with your “it’s tradition” nonsense.

And please, please, please don’t expect me to respect your harmful tradition.

Postscript: Since I first wrote this, another aboriginal elder has spoken out to condemn the action and a 10 daily article claims that this “…has sparked a national debate on what’s culture and what’s cruelty.” While debate is always healthy, is there really anything much to debate here?

“Divine” Hitch

September 30, 2019

There are often moments when I desire inspiration from Christopher Hitchens, one of the most eloquent public intellectuals of our time.

I watched this interview tonight, recorded after his diagnosis with oesophageal cancer. It came from a slightly surprising (at least to me) source, but I found it to be rewarding and classically Hitch:

Questionable church signs #3

July 19, 2019

I’ve heard it said that God (which god, you may reasonably ask…) is love.

When I first saw this local church sign, the slogan reminded me of 1984 and The Ministry of Truth…

War is peace

Slavery is freedom

GodIsLove

But if one, as the sign proclaims, wishes to uphold the Bible as the Word of God along with the notion that god is the epitome of love, it might be prudent to ask: How many times does “love” appear in the Bible?

Around one hundred and fifty, in each of the old and new testaments.

“Lord” and “God” on the other hand both appear a few thousand times (admittedly more in the old testament) suggestive more of narcissism than concern for others.

So, if we’re honest, the sentiment is simplistic at best, even if we confine ourselves to the god(s) of the Bible.

Vegan Haiku

July 15, 2019

A haiku distilling aspects of previous posts, suggesting documentaries that influenced my thinking:

Ghosts in our machine

Slave species Dominated

Our Cowspiracy

Vegan Activists: you’re doing it completely wrong

April 16, 2019
The sleep of reason brings forth monsters. (Francisco Goya)

Although written for Canberra, the Australian National Capital Right to Protest Guidelines say this:

Our democracy recognises this right which is subject to the general law and must be balanced against the rights and interests of others and of the community as a whole.

Of paramount importance are the protection of public safety, the maintenance of peace and the facilitation of fair and equal access to public areas.

Recent protests by vegans in Victoria, NSW, and Queensland were the opposite of this, certainly compared to the well-organised and anticipated Climate Change school strikes held around Australia or the rally against live export.

You’re frustrated. You feel a sense of urgency. You’re impatient.

But as The Conversation said last week, vegan activists: you’re getting it wrong.

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Credit: Ellen Smith/AAP, source: The Conversation

If you wanted to confuse the message with the medium, you’ve done it.

Pissing people off is not the answer.

Invading people’s privacy is not the answer. Would you tolerate that in reverse?

Those who said they had a burger instead of a salad for lunch that day in “retribution” for your action were just being inflammatory too.

But then, why do we expect others to be kind to us if we don’t lead with kindness and consideration?

I resisted using the term “vegan” for a long time because of negative stereotypes and an expectation of perfect compliance, preferring to say “I’m taking a plant-based approach”. I still like that better, even if it is more awkward.

Of course, the questionable actions of one group of humans is independent of what’s true or false in the world.

So, you want people to watch Dominion?

No-one really should want anyone to watch Dominion, even though I think its message is important.

Earthlings and later Dominion horrified and upset me. There are plenty more to choose from, including the Land of Hope and GloryCowspiracy, and What the Health?

Some people will respond to direct action or documentaries.

Others will be completely turned off by in-your-face approaches.

Some may prefer to read more matter-of-fact resources like those of the RSPCA or books like The Ethics of What we Eat.

Others will prefer a combination or none of the above.

I have a certain sympathy for the cube of truth, but even there I have concerns.

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Source: http://tiny.cc/amj64y

I’ve spoken with activists in Adelaide’s Rundle Mall.

You’ve all seemed like nice people.

But sometimes, I hear you use phrases like “convert to veganism”.

The temptation to adopt that attitude must be strongly resisted.

You shouldn’t be trying to convert anyone to anything. That way lies dogma and an analog of religious zealotry.

Sure, engage people in conversation, encourage people to think about what they believe to be true about the world, cast doubt on the validity of traditions and long-held beliefs.

That’s just plain old skepticism and the aim of movements like street epistemology.

It’s not up to you — or anyone — to tell people what to think or how to live.

Above all, show compassion for the people you engage with (people are animals too), as well as the non-human animals you are trying to save, a path I have not always trod well.

I’ve chosen to try to eliminate the use of animal products. I feel compelled to.

Others choose to reduce the use of animal products in various ways.

It all helps.

Doing nothing is less tenable the further down the track we go.

I thought it was interesting that Grill’d had their first Meat Free Monday not long after the vegan protests. Voting with our wallets may ultimately be more effective than direct protest.

Honestly though, I’d rather not write about this stuff at all, but I still feel the need to get it off my chest. I’ve written more here.

I’d rather be writing about the recent amazing black hole image, variable stars, computing history, even the evils of religion. But this topic still occupies me.

In general, I’d just like to get on with trying to live a meaningful, enjoyable life.

Finally, as I’ve suggested in several other posts, to gain some perspective, watch Pale Blue Dot. Or watch it again if it’s been awhile, as I do.

On Food Choices: a summary (tl;dr)

March 31, 2019

…but what is not possible is not to choose…if I do not choose, that is still a choice. (Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism)

Given the length of the previous seven posts, here’s a summary.

The right road lost

  • The criteria we apply to food choices are: our desires, our health, what’s good for the food producer (e.g. Fair Trade), environmental impact (climate change, resource usage/degradation), and what’s good for non-human animals (animal welfare).
  • Other than our health, without which nothing much matters to us, I consider this list to be essentially in order of increasing importance.
  • Large scale animal farming is environmentally unsustainable in terms of land and water use and the resulting waste and emissions (carbon dioxide and methane). This will only get worse as the human population continues its exponential growth. A plant-based diet could significantly reduce emissions and waste.

But is it healthy?

The 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines say that:

  • “Appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthy and nutritionally adequate.”
  • “Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the lifecycle. Those following a vegan diet should choose foods to ensure adequate intake of iron and zinc and to optimise the absorption and bioavailability of iron, zinc and calcium.”
  • “Supplementation of vitamin B12 may be required for people with strict vegan dietary patterns.”

The elephant in the room

  • It took a long time for me to accept the idea that we’re not at the centre of the universe, that there is no compelling evidence for gods of any sort, of a higher plan, of an afterlife.
  • The idea that we have a higher moral status, a greater right to be happy — to be free — than other animals is widespread, even though most of us would not be inclined to say so.
  • This idea is called speciesism. It is as if racism had been applied beyond the borders of homo sapiens.
  • Raising livestock for food involves billions of sentient animals worldwide per year being born into servitude and living lives that are nasty, brutish, and short, to borrow from Leviathan (Hobbes).
  • We need to widen our ethical circle to include other species. We do so when thinking about species loss through habitat degradation and climate change, but not necessarily when thinking about the animals we exploit.

Cultural relevance?

  • Do the desires (e.g. cultural, religious) of one or more humans outweigh the welfare — the life — of even a single non-human animal?
  • For example, it’s hard to see how the live export of cattle or sheep can be defended on cultural, religious or other grounds when we know the harm caused to individual animals.
  • And what of the shorter yet no less harrowing trip from farm to abattoir, to say nothing of what happens upon arrival?

Surplus to requirements #1

  • Caged hens as a source of eggs can’t be ethically justified unless you think that having an area no larger than a sheet of printer paper to live in, standing on wire, beak cutting to stop pecking of other hens, not being able to engage in natural behaviours are okay.
  • According to the RSPCA:
    • “In the egg industry, the sex of day-old chicks is determined at the hatchery. Sexing chicks…is done at this very early stage to determine their fate.”
    • “If strong and healthy, the female chicks remain in the hatchery, they are grown to a suitable size and then transferred to a laying facility — which could be a caged, free-range or barn set up.”
    • “Male chicks are considered an unwanted byproduct of egg production and are killed and disposed of shortly after birth.”
    • “A hen is declared ‘spent’ when her egg production drops at around 72 weeks of age. At this point she is considered less profitable and removed from the production system… Spent hens are either killed on farm and composted, or transported to an abattoir for slaughter.”
  • The treatment and fate of so-called broiler chickens and other birds such as turkeys is not something I have written about so far.

Surplus to requirements #2

  • As the RSPCA says:
    • “For cows to produce milk, they have to give birth to a calf. Most calves are separated from their mother within 24 hours of birth to reduce the risk of disease transmission to the calf, and most do not stay on the farm for long.”
    • “Separation within 24 hours of birth interferes with the development of the cow-calf bond and thus reduces separation distress. Cows will show a strong response (calling) if their calf is separated at an older age.”
    • “The term ‘bobby calves’ refers to newborn calves that are less than 30 days old and not with their mothers. Essentially, they are surplus to dairy industry requirements as they are not required for the milking herd.”
    • “Products from processed bobby calves include young veal for human consumption, valuable hides for leather, calf rennet for cheese making, and byproducts for the pharmaceutical industry.”

Asymptotic vegan

  • I would say now that I’m asymptotically approaching veganism: moving towards a plant-based diet on ethical and sustainability grounds.
  • There’s “low-hanging fruit” like meat. Then dairy and eggs. Once I got over a few psychological hurdles, leaving these behind turned out to be easier than I expected.
  • Yet there are shades of grey…
  • I have shoes with leather uppers that I purchased before my thinking changed. Should I discard them? Will that help the animal now? No. Will I buy shoes with leather uppers in future. No.
  • Last Christmas we had a turkey in the freezer with a long expiry date that had not yet been eaten. Would the “right action” have been to not consume it? If so, wouldn’t that have been a waste and wouldn’t that mean the turkey’s demise was pointless?
  • Do you care about herd immunity? You should. Will you get the yearly flu vaccine to protect the vulnerable in our society as well as yourself? Eggs are used in the process of making the flu vaccine. Having the flu vaccine involves a compromise, perhaps one we will not have to make forever if research bears fruit.
  • Do you use sweetener in your coffee? Does it contain lactose? Some do, some don’t.
  • Do you drink almond milk or otherwise consume almonds? I have not dealt with the question of bees and honey in the first seven posts, but irrespective of your thoughts on that, how are the flowers of almond (and other) trees pollinated? By bees. Do the bees just fly in and out of the orchard, or under some circumstances are they brought there, in man-made hives?
  • Do you drink wine? The fining process often uses animal products (such as milk or eggs), but there are alternatives.
  • We need to cease deliberately enslaving and killing animals, treating them as means to our ends, instead of acknowledging them as sentient creatures who like us, do not wish to suffer and moreover, who wish to be free.
  • The point is to think. To ask questions. To cast doubt on long held beliefs. To intend change, to do better. To find alternatives, to say no more often.
  • It should never be about dogma. I sometimes hear vegan activists using the phrase “convert to veganism”. That way lies religion and unjustified ideology.