Friday, November 30, 2018

Virtue and Meat-Eating—Part I


Virtue and Meat-Eating

“Virtue” is a concept that sounds dated. And the virtue of temperance, which is the subject of this blog, sounds even more dated—there was a Simpsons episode (if I remember correctly) in which a newly married colonial settler to America had “Temperance” as her name (it was Marge’s character, shot back a few centuries). Indeed, “virtue ethics” refers to a way (or theory, if you want) of thinking about ethics that goes back to the ancient Greeks, ancient Chinese, and medieval Christian and Islamic philosophy, to give a few examples.

Contemporary philosophy has revived these traditions, and today there’s a large number of philosophers who subscribe to virtue ethics as a theory that stands its own ground and defends its own philosophical territory, much like other moral theories do. Some virtue ethicists find their inspiration in Aristotle, others in Confucius, others in Thomas Aquinas, others in Hume, and others in Kant, to name a few. They also research how other historical philosophers have relied on virtues in their work, such as Nietzsche.

I approach virtue ethics using Aristotle’s views. And one of the main virtues that Aristotle discussed—indeed, it is one of the classical virtues—is temperance. Before we go into it, let me give an idea of Aristotle’s virtue ethics.

Aristotle thought that human beings’ activities, desires, and goals have a final destination, which is happiness or flourishing (“flourishing” is a better translation than “happiness” of the Greek concept “Eudaimonia”). Although one life goal of mine is to do a duet with Justin Bieber, while one life goal of yours is to become the Minister of Education in the Lebanese government, we both want these goals because we ultimately want to flourish, because we think it would be part of a good life. Aristotle added that although everyone agrees that flourishing is our goal, not everyone agrees on what it consists of—What is a flourishing, good, or happy life for human beings? He proposed that in order to answer this question, we should look to the unique function of human beings. What is our purpose in life that sets us apart from other creatures? It can’t be merely a life of growth, because this is shared with plants and animals; it can’t be merely a life of pleasure or sense-perception, because this is shared with animals. So, he reasoned, it must have something to do with our reason, because it is our reason or rationality that sets us apart from other creatures. (Aristotle forgot that reason does not set us apart from the gods, but let’s let this one slide.)

So our function is to live life in accordance with reason. But just because that’s our function, it doesn’t mean that everyone does it well, or it doesn’t in itself tell us what it is to do it well. A knife’s function is to cut, but not every knife cuts well, and we need to know what a good knife is. Why bother with goodness at this point? Because Aristotle is not concerned with the function of human beings as such; he is after what a good, flourishing life is. And he arrives at that answer by looking at our function. So the answer is that a flourishing human life is a life lived in accordance with reason well or excellently.

Although it sounds uninformative to say that human life is life in accordance with reason, and that a good human life is a life lived well in accordance with reason, to Aristotle this is not trivial at all. This is because living life well is an idea packed with “goodies,” specifically, living well is having and exercising the virtues, which are human excellences, such as courage, justice, honesty, wisdom, and temperance. So although all human beings (with a few exceptions) live life in accordance with reason, not all do so well. Some live life irrationally, stupidly, immorally, etc. Their reason tells them, “It’s okay to take that candy from that baby,” but this is bad advice. So their reasoning has gone awry. And if reasoning goes awry, it is not well. Hence, to live life well as a human being, one needs the virtues.

(Many philosophers have dumped on this argument by Aristotle, accusing it of all sorts of things, such as relying on the idea of a function as such for human beings, which seems crazy and to go against what evolution tells us, and such as begging the question against those who think that people can lead good lives without the virtues. I and other philosophers, however, happen to think that Aristotle was on the right track, but my aim here is not to defend Aristotle’s argument.)

The above does not mean that one’s vocation in life is to be virtuous; this makes little sense, and we do need, after all, to put food on the table. But it does mean that any type of work, hobby, activity, or personality can be part of a virtuous life or part of a non-virtuous life. So if your job is teaching, you can perform it virtuously or non-virtuously, and you do that not side by side with being virtuous, as if the two just luckily go together, but because you are virtuous (or non-virtuous). And if you have, say, an open personality, you express it virtuously (or non-virtuously). Being virtuous means that that’s how you are, so it permeates how you act and do things, including your job, hobby, relationships with others, and so on. Basically, being virtuous (or non-virtuous) penetrates every nook and cranny of your life because it is your character.

Of course, human beings are not merely receptacles for reason—we are not cold, calculating machines. We have emotions and we have values, so how do they fit in a life lived well in accordance with reason? Both emotion and values are subsumed under the concept of “virtue,” according to Aristotle, in that a virtue (or a vice) affects how one feels, thinks, judges, and assigns value to things. So someone who has the virtues is someone who not only reasons well, but who also feels well and his values are oriented in the right ways.

For example, consider the virtue of courage. It involves, according to Aristotle, the emotions of fear and confidence, but in the right ways. To keep things simple, let’s focus on fear. The courageous person feels fear but in the right “amount,” toward the right things, for the right reasons, at the right times, etc. Generally speaking, someone who feels no fear in the face of impending death is not courageous, but foolhardy, and someone who feels fear at having to talk to their teacher is also not courageous, but a coward (alas, many students today claim that they feel “unsafe” talking to their teachers). So a brave person is not someone who does not feel fear, but who feels it, and overcomes it, but she feels it only in certain circumstances (those that call for fear), in the right measure, and for the right reasons. Note one interesting detail: although death is one of the main things that are rightly feared, not every circumstance involving fear of death and overcoming it is courageous. Overcoming the fear of death as the civilian plane you commandeered is about to crash into a building to kill civilians is not courage, because it is not overcoming the fear of death for the right reasons. It is not, as Aristotle would say, for the sake of the “noble.”

Before ending the first part of this post, it is worth noting why above I have written “non-virtuous” instead of “vicious,” which seems to be the obvious opposite of “virtuous.” The reason is that Aristotle distinguished between four character states, not only two (he identified two more, but they need not concern us): in addition to virtue, we have continence, incontinence, and vice. Thus, the state of virtue has three other contrasting states, not just one (though the state of vice is its polar opposite).

Briefly, a continent person is someone who knows what the right thing to do is, does it, but has to struggle with base desires to do it. He is tempted but overcomes the temptation. The incontinent person knows what the right thing to do is, is tempted not to do it, and succumbs to the temptation. So all three—the virtuous, the continent, and the incontinent—have proper judgment about a particular situation, but the second two do not have their emotions, feelings, and (possibly) values aligned with their judgment, and only the first two act on the proper judgment.

The state of vice is quite interesting, and it can have various manifestations, but one crucial thing about it is that the vicious person does something because he thinks it is the right thing to do, whereas in fact he is wrong to think so. He also, unlike the incontinent person, does not regret what he did (probably because he thinks it is the right thing to do). It is important then to not think of the vicious person as someone who is necessarily evil, rubbing his hands together with malicious, joyful laughter (though he could be); a vicious person might very well do something out of moral ignorance.

All the above will be made concrete with the discussion of temperance and intemperance, in “Virtue and Meat-Eating—Part II.” Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Is Meat-Eating Merely a Lifestyle?


Is Meat-Eating Merely a Lifestyle?

I ask, because it seems that this is how people approach it, including, most painfully, people who consider themselves to be political activists and vegetarians or vegans for moral reasons. But before I begin, let me clarify a few points.

First, by “lifestyle” I mean a choice of how one lives one’s life such that not much morally is at stake—such that one’s choices affect mainly and directly oneself, not others. (For those who have a more expansive notion of the moral, one that includes how the choices affect the person him or herself, I say, “I hear you, but grant me the point for the sake of this blog.”) So the choice of which style of clothing one wears is a mere lifestyle, whereas the choice of working as an assassin for hire is not. Actually, examples of mere lifestyles are very hard to come by. Consider: all three of the following heavily involve moral aspects: my choice (as a man) to wear women’s attire, to wear clothes made in sweatshops, or to wear T-shirts carrying political slogans; the first and third make political statements (even if I, in a clueless manner, did not intend them to), and the second benefits from a form of labor exploitation. Indeed, for any lifestyle we can think of (except perhaps for those involving basic tastes in colors and shapes), it is easy to make a moral connection to it, especially in a time of environmental degradation and massive global inequalities.

Still, and going by the general way we often think, we do distinguish between ways of living that are primarily within the jurisdiction of the person who lives them, and ways of living that go beyond that (even if this, per the above paragraph, the distinction cannot withstand heavy scrutiny). The former is what I call a “mere lifestyle.”

Second, I assume that animals can feel pain and thus suffer when they experience the pain (this is a “duh” assumption for all but few people and those philosophers who have argued that there is a difference between feeling pain and suffering because of the pain); I assume that what goes on in factory farming—the source of most of the meat that we consume—involves much suffering for the animals and therefore gives us a strong (but possibly defeasible) reason to not partake in it (by, say, not enjoying the taste of meat produced in these “farms”); finally, I assume, not more controversially but certainly more surprisingly to many—that we also have a strong reason to not eat the meat of animals raised under good conditions and then “humanely” killed, because killing an animal causes its death and death is a harm to the animal, much like death is a harm to human beings (I mean to those who die, not just to those who lose them to death).

So why do I think that meat-eating is treated as merely a lifestyle?

There are a few reasons. The first is the sheer commonality of it. Most people seem to eat meat thoughtlessly, as if it is the most normal thing to do. It is a habit deeply ingrained in all societies. Even people who know of the wrongs involved in such practices as factory farming, eat meat and do so shamelessly. They post pictures of meat on their Facebook pages, as if no moral taint attaches to this practice. (I often say to people, “If you have to eat meat, do it with your head hung low.”) The worst are those who make it sound as if something is wrong with the vegetarian (“What??? You don’t eat meat??? What is WRONG with you?? I LOVE bacon!” and so forth).

The second is the socially imposed symmetry between the ways to view vegetarianism and meat-eating (the vegetarian options that restaurants, cafeterias, etc. are increasingly offering, attest to this social symmetry): “if vegetarianism is your thing, good for you, and that’s your choice; but mine is eating meat. So everyone is happy!”

The third reason is the little regard that people give to animals whose meat they consume. In addition to the above points, consider that in meetings for social justice activists, meat is often served. Rebellions against what is considered outdated religious practices often come at the expense of animals (e.g., protesting the taboo in Hinduism against eating beef by slaughtering cows to make the point). Many philosophers (who ought to know better) eat meat. The point is that even amidst what we would normally consider to be the height of political and moral awareness, eating meat is quite common. This indicates that animals are so far down on our moral ladder that eating them is considered to be a mere lifestyle.

This brings me to the fourth and most galling reason, which is the silence of people, including of course vegetarians and vegans themselves (myself included, so I plead guilty), who say nothing to people who order meat at restaurants or whose shopping carts are full of meat. Of course, we do not want to come across as lunatics by confronting strangers about their purchasing habits, but, really, under other circumstances we would say something. If you came across someone who has just bought a sofa made out of the skin of dead people, or worse, the skin of dead people killed in a genocide, we would protest by at least saying something. Some people might think it socially awkward to do so, but even they would bite this bullet for the sake of what is moral.

Even more interesting is the silence of friends: many vegetarian and vegan people say nothing to their meat-eating friends, passing over the latter’s choices to eat meat as if it were their choice of what color clothes to wear for work. (I pass over the interesting philosophical question about the possibility of close friendships between people whose moral values do not align with each other’s.) But this is surely not right. This is especially true if part of what friends do is to take moral care of their friends. I wouldn’t want my friends to be in the habit of robbing people blind, of pinching their asses on the streets, or of pimping out their younger siblings, so why would I remain silent when they order or buy meat? If their moral well-being is my concern, as it should be, I ought to say something about their meat-eating, though how and when to say it is a matter left to the specific context. The same applies to any relationship between people a crucial aspect of which is moral care-taking, be it mutual or one-directional.

Really, the practice of eating meat is morally indefensible; there is absolutely no (general) plausible moral reason for eating meat (and some of the defenses are downright ridiculous: “Animals kill and eat each other!” or “Animals are dumb”; or “But they taste so good!”; or “The animal is dead already!”; or “I have enough to worry about, so fuck off”; or, my favorite, “I was a vegetarian for ten years, so I feel like I’ve done my time, if you know what I mean”).

No. Meat-eating is not a mere lifestyle. It is a terrible moral practice that contributes to the misery of animals and corrodes our moral souls. We should speak up whenever we see others partaking in it. Those “obnoxious” vegetarians and vegans who reprimand us for eating meat, it turns out, are doing the right thing.

Or am I missing something?

Saturday, November 24, 2018

How and Why I Became a Vegetarian


I became a vegetarian in November 2012. Although I don’t remember the exact day, I know the year and month because I remember that I was on my way to watch the newly released Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee (it wasn’t that good, even though I think that Lee has directed excellent movies, including one of the best movies ever, Brokeback Mountain). I was walking on Michigan Avenue in Chicago to the theater, when I encountered an anti-fur march. Because I was early, I joined the march. One of the marchers started talking to me and gave me a pamphlet (nowadays easily obtained) containing descriptions and pictures of the appalling conditions that animals constantly endure in factory farms.

Since I was a child, I had a natural repugnance to red meat. In Beirut, where I am from and where I was raised, my Mom used to call the butcher early in the morning to request the meat that she needed to cook for that day’s lunch. Sometimes, because the butcher could not deliver the meat at the time that my mother wanted it, she would send me to pick it up. I remember very well how I could never step inside the butcher’s shop. I stood outside and shouted to him to please hand me the “Halwani order.” (Indeed, after a while my meat phobia became a running joke in the butcher’s shop: “Raja is here. Send the delivery boy to deliver the meat to him!” which sounds much funnier in Arabic.) And if there were any traces of (ground) meat on the paper bag that was handed to me (because the butcher’s hands often had meat particles on them) I would pick and carry the bag using only my thumb and forefinger. I would hurry back home, deposit the bag on the closest counter in our kitchen with a loud “Ugh!” and wash my hands at least twice with a thick foam of soap.

Irrationally enough, I ate red meat in Beirut, especially in Arabic dishes (e.g., stuffed eggplant and stuffed zucchini). I also ate hamburgers in (now non-existent) restaurants in Beirut like the Wimpy and Modca. However, if the meat looked red—if it had not been thoroughly cooked or brown—I would not touch it. I simply could not bring myself to eat it.

After I moved to the United States, I stopped eating red meat altogether. For some bizarre reason, I thought of red meat in the United States to be more disgusting than that in Lebanon, and I simply stopped eating it, brown or not brown. I did eat voracious amounts of chicken, however. Chicken was one of my favorite meals of all time, and I almost always ordered a chicken dish in a restaurant. I cooked and ate chicken at home at least twice a week. (I also liked hot dogs, but I ate the vegan variety, Smart Dogs.)

I had known for a long time at a gut level—back then I had not yet fully reasoned my way through it—that eating meat was morally wrong. My reasons, half-baked as they were, were unclear, but they had to do with at least four thoughts: that eating meat was a close relative to cannibalism, that tearing flesh in our mouths (chewing meat) was unappetizing, to put it mildly (I used to form the image of red meat mixed with saliva as a person ate it), that when we raise and kill animals for our own consumption they suffer, and that animals were not ours to do with them as we pleased. I had known that I needed to stop eating all meat. I was lucky with red meat: not eating it came naturally to me, given that I had been increasingly finding it disgusting. Fish was easy too, as I had never been much of a fan. Chicken was my stumbling block. I loved it, and its taste and the anticipation of its taste constantly weakened my will. It was the only barrier between vegetarianism and me. (It’s funny: in some parts of the world, when I tell people that I don’t eat meat, they reply, “But you do eat chicken, right?” to which I reply, with smugness laced with attempted humor, “Have chickens been re-classified as plants?”)

I should mention that before I converted to vegetarianism, I had met a colleague of mine who became one of my closest friends. She was (and still is) a moral exemplar by any standard (and certainly not one of these boring moral saints about which some philosophers have, somewhat shallowly, complained). Of course, she was (and still is) a vegetarian (almost vegan). So her influence added to my conviction that I needed to become a vegetarian and get it over with.

So on that day on my way to the movie, when that wonderful man gave me that pamphlet, I decided then and there to become a vegetarian. I have not relapsed since (though I’m sure I ate food that contained meat or meat stock in it—meat and meat derivatives are omnipresent these days, so they are hard to avoid all the time). At first, I missed chicken, but now I do not. Far from it. The idea of eating chicken leaves me cold. Oddly enough, I miss fish quite a bit—I miss its taste and its thickness and its feel in my mouth (tuna is my weakness). This is odd because, like I said, I never was much of a fan of fish when I was a meat-eater. But I resist eating it, and it is not hard.

So I am a vegetarian not because of health reasons but because of the animals, because they should not have to suffer at our hands. We have killed them for sport, we have relied on them for agriculture, we have used them for our entertainment, we have plundered their bodies for products, we have tested on them for our health, we have depended on them for companionship, and we have eaten them for our gustatory pleasure. Yet animals occupy this planet in the same way as we do, and it does not seem to me that our intelligence, which I grant at least for the sake of the argument is superior to theirs, is a morally relevant factor in deciding how to treat them. After all, intelligence is a morally neutral category (intelligent people can run the gamut from the saintly to the evil). So much as we should be able to make the best of our lives, so should animals.

Some people say that it’s okay to eat meat if the animals are killed humanely. I know people who buy their meat from special farmers who treat the animals well and who kill them (supposedly) painlessly. I am not going to argue that there is no such thing as humane killing. Let’s grant that there is. Still, killing animals brings them harm because it brings them death. That is, because death is a harm to the creature that dies, killing animals is a form of harming them, even if done painlessly. Think about it: when someone dies, even at an old age, we mourn their death, and we mourn it not just because we will miss them, or because the world is poorer without them, but also because we think that their life has ended, that they suffered a loss. The same applies to animals. And when we grieve for someone’s death while also feeling relief because death has ended their suffering, the same can be true of animals—think of how many of them we have to euthanize to end their suffering.

Of course, people will argue that sometimes we have to kill animals or that inflicting harm on them is justified (in the name of, say, medical research). Maybe there are such cases. But this is mostly irrelevant. We do not need to decide on every actual and possible case of conflict between human and animal to recognize that as a matter of principle killing animals for our own benefit, especially for our pleasure (assuming, somewhat plausibly, that pleasure is a benefit), whether gustatory or otherwise, is wrong.

Today, I do not see animals as a source of food. Indeed, I do not see them as a source of anything. I see them for who they are: as creatures driven by their own life-forms to survive and, if they are lucky, to live a pleasant life (for animals living in the wild, life is never easy: watching a single episode of a nature show can easily show you that their lives are actually Hobbesian—"poor, nasty, brutish, and short"). The least we can do is not make it worse for millions of animals by creating animals destined to live miserable lives, only to be killed for food.

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