Shall we have veal for dinner, dear?

From a blog post on January 28th, 2014. The following two paragraphs in italics are a long quote from Ernest Becker’s 1975 book, Escape from Evil, which I used extensively when I was teaching college sociology courses. The language may be somewhat crass and shocking, but it gets the message across.

“Man is an animal…Whatever else he is, is built on this…The only certain thing we know about this planet is that it is a theater for crawling life, organismic life, and at least we know what organisms are and what they are trying to do.

At its most elemental level the human organism, like crawling life, has a mouth, digestive tract, and anus, a skin to keep it intact, and appendages with which to acquire food.  Existence, for all organismic life, is a constant struggle to feed – a struggle to incorporate whatever other organisms that can fit into their mouths and press down their gullets without choking.  Seen in these stark terms, life in this planet is a gory spectacle, a science-fiction nightmare in which digestive tracts fitted with teeth at one end are tearing away at whatever flesh they can reach, and at the other end are piling up the fuming waste excrement as they move along in search of more flesh. I think this is why the epoch of the dinosaurs exerts such a strong fascination on us: it is an epic food orgy with king-size actors who convey unmistakably what organisms are dedicated to.  Sensitive souls have reacted with shock to the elemental drama of life on this planet, and one of the reasons Darwin so shocked his time – and still bothers ours – is that he showed this bone-crushing, blood-drinking drama in all of its elementality and necessity: Life cannot go on without the mutual devouring of organisms.  If the living spectacle of all that he had organismically incorporated in order to stay alive, he might well feel horrified by the living energy he had ingested.  The horizon of a gourmet, or even the average person, would be taken up with hundreds of chickens, flocks of lambs and sheep, a small herd of steers, sties full of pigs, and rivers of fish.  The din alone would be deafening.  To paraphrase Elias Canetti, each organism raises it’s head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.”

I post this in light of an online petition I signed recently opposing the practices of the veal production industry to take newborn calfs, separate them from their mothers and isolate them in veal fattening pens. These are often dome like plastic structures hardly big enough for the calf to turn around. The idea, I presume, is to allow the calf as little physical activity as possible so as to fatten them up and keep their meat nice and tender. Many farmers who send calves off to the slaughterhouse to become veal are humane and treat their animals with a degree of kindness (I actually have no proof of this, only second hand reports). I think the way we treat the animals we intend to eat reflects our values and assumptions about their intelligence and even whether or not we think they feel pain.

I once saw a video of a ‘scientist’ claiming that animals don’t feel pain. In the video he was standing beside a row of beagles with wires implanted through their skulls and into their brains. The fact that the argument is ongoing astounds me. It’s clear from the scientific evidence that animals feel pain, and they have emotional lives. There is a lot of scientific evidence to support this claim yet there is still controversy over it. Carl Safina in a National Geographic article is quoted as saying:

It is incredible to me there is still a debate over whether animals are conscious and even a debate over whether human beings can know animals are conscious. If you watch mammals or even birds, you will see how they respond to the world. They play. They act frightened when there’s danger. They relax when things are good. It seems illogical for us to think that animals might not be having a conscious mental experience of play, sleep, fear or love. 

Safina goes on to say later in the article that:

Many people simply assume that animals act consciously and base their belief on their own domestic animals or pets. Other people do not want animals to be conscious because it makes it easier for us to do things to animals that would be hard to do if we knew they were unhappy and suffering.

Safina singles out lab scientists as a particular group in denial about animal suffering and pain. He is quoted as saying: “However, in laboratories the dogma persists: don’t assume that animals think and have emotions–and many scientists insist that they do not.”

I am going to assume for the rest of this blog post that many animals species feel pain and experience emotional lives. If that’s the case, we have to address how we feel about that and think hard about how we treat non-human animals, especially the ones destined for our dinner tables. More importantly, what can we make of Becker’s argument in the quotation above given what we know about animal pain and suffering?

The vast majority of us have never experienced what goes on in a slaughterhouse. Slaughterhouses are sites of killing on an industrial scale. I can’t imagine anyone working in the killing line of a slaughterhouse not having been effectively desensitized to animal fear, pain and suffering. Obviously, the terror (and I don’t use this word lightly) that a bull feels on entering a slaughterhouse is very temporary. Stunning and then killing takes moments. Does that justify the slaughter in the first place? Should we all be vegetarians or vegans and avoid eating animals at all thus putting all slaughterhouses out of business?

Some people have definitely accepted the argument that a vegetarian or vegan life is much more ethical than the carnivorous life. They don’t eat animal flesh although they may indulge in the consumption of animal products such as eggs and milk. But is the vegetarian or vegan life possible for the majority of humans? Are humans inherently omnivorous or can we give up our animal flesh diets?

In my next blog post I address more directly the issues presented by Becker’s quote above. Are we not carnivorous by nature? How valuable is life? How valuable is death?

 

Quality and Morality

 

Quality Foods. Quality furniture. Quality trucks. Quality, Quality, Quality. Shite. Robert Persig some time ago wrote a book about quality. It’s called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. As Persig writes, his book has little to do with Zen and not much to do with motorcycle maintenance either. This was a very important book for me as I grappled with certain philosophical concepts in my youth. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the main protagonist goes catatonic after getting caught in his self-made vortex of contradiction around the idea of quality. As a fellow college instructor, I can relate to his descent into catatonia, although I was never able to quite make it all the way to its deepest reaches as Phaedrus (the eventual name of his protagonist) did.

 

The way we use the concept of quality these days drives me a little crazy but I’m not going to go grammar nazi and chastise all the unfortunates among us who constantly misuse the term or simply use it as a synonym for good. These days, quality stands for good. We seem to have lost the ability to qualify quality. Does Quality Foods refer to mediocre quality foods, poor quality foods or high quality foods? Well, that’s a silly question, isn’t it? Of course, the owners of Quality Foods mean it to refer to high quality foods. Any other conclusion would be nonsense. I presume that if we want to point out that a product or service is of poor quality we have to include the adjective ‘poor’ to qualify quality. Quality used by itself now means good. Any reference to any other kind of quality must be qualified with an adjective. Still pisses me off because it’s such a denial of the potential poverty of quality but I guess that’s just the way language evolves.

 

So, now I want to apply the concept of quality to morality. Can we talk about the quality of moral precepts? Can we come up with a hierarchy of moral precepts that go from good to evil or are all moral precepts supposed to be good. What does it mean to be a moral person? To what does ‘morality’ refer? I turn to this last question now, the others I deal with later and in subsequent posts.

 

The dictionary that comes with the Mac operating system defines morality as ‘principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.’ The Miriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary gives a “Simple Definition of morality [as]

  • beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior
  • the degree to which something is right and good: the moral goodness or badness of something.”

 

Fair enough. That seems straightforward, but is it? Are we born knowing the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? If you believe that you probably also believe you were born knowing how to speak English. Not likely. Good and bad are social constructs and can only exist socially.

 

Obviously any judgment of behaviour can only be made when more or less discrete behaviours are compared with one another. The concept of morality cannot apply to an individual’s behaviour divorced from its social context. ‘Good’ or ‘bad’ are inherently relative concepts. There are no behaviours that I know of that can be universally and consistently viewed as good or bad. You might argue that killing and rape are universally and always bad. If you did, you’d be wrong. Killing is only bad in certain contexts particularly when it is unsanctioned by the state[1]. In certain cases, such as in military combat, a soldier may be court-martialled for not obeying a direct order to kill an enemy combatant. In many contexts, killing is expected of one, so killing is not a universal bad. In fact, it would be considered morally reprehensible not to kill if it meant putting innocent people in danger. No matter how strongly we may be repulsed by it, rape is also morally ambivalent and in certain contexts is considered a duty. The Bosnian War was the scene of mass rapes perpetrated by combatants who were given direct orders to do so by their commanding officers.[2]

 

In Emile Durkheim’s work, morality is a word that describes how to measure the intensity of our connections to our societies. I add that it’s used to judge the quality of individual behaviour as it aligns with overall social (including sexual), political and economic values. It stands to reason then that in a class based society[3] moral judgments of behaviour will need to be made in a context where, as Marx noted, the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas.[4]

 

To be continued…

 

Up next, morality and sexuality. I touched on this briefly in my last post, but I want to consider how important moral judgments are around sexuality.

Following that, I want to explore the politics of morality or why poor people are considered to be moral degenerates and made to feel shame and guilt for their situation.

________________________________________________________________

[1] The ‘state’ is one of those words that elicits controversy. I once did a graduate course decades ago now where the only task we had was to define the state. Not a simple task as it turns out.

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/bosnia-war-crimes-the-rapes-went-on-day-and-night-robert-fisk-in-mostar-gathers-detailed-evidence-of-1471656.html

[3] I won’t question the popular unquestioning definition of society here. I’ll leave that for a future blog post. Harold Adams Innis is a masterful critic of the conventional definition of society. I wrote my Master’s dissertation on Harold Innis’ work and it’s available on my blog.

[4] Of course, the ruling class is not homogeneous, it evolves over time, gaining and losing power in times and places. Still, there are some basic precepts and expectations of behaviour that we find are fairly ubiquitous in societies where the capitalist mode of production predominates.

The power of what we think is true or: Marx was a dumbass, everybody knows that! With a commentary by Paul Whyte, political scientist and former colleague.

-This is a blog post which appeared here on November 17th, 2015. A former colleague at NIC, political scientist Paul Whyte, wrote a response to the post below but for some technical reason was unable to leave a commentary. I respect his knowledge of Marx and his capacities as a teacher so I’ve decided to repost my November 17th post with his comments in tow. 

Please read his comment if nothing else. They follow my post. 

 

I write. I used to teach. I suppose that in some individual cases I may have even convinced a few people to change their minds about the way they perceived the world. Mostly my efforts are and were in vain.

Our dominant ideologies around possessive individualism, the nature of countries and what we value in life are so powerful as to frustrate and flummox the efforts of the most competent of teachers to get people to change their minds about anything.

I’ve changed my mind a number of times in my life but generally in line with added knowledge gained from reading and researching writers and authors who compelled me to see beyond what I had previously accepted as true. I came to understand fairly early in my career that there is no absolute truth, only tentative truth which must be abandoned when confronted with superior ways of explaining things.

For the first few years of my career as a sociologist I was a Marxist through and through. That early dedication to Marx’s work was soon tempered in many ways by the works of Harold Innis, Thorstein Veblen, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Szasz, R. D. Laing, Erving Goffman, Ernest Becker, Otto Rank and many others. It’s been a ride. Although I’ve gone beyond Marx in many ways, I still often come back to one of Marx’s aphorisms about history in which he said (and I paraphrase): Human history will begin when we stop being so barbaric towards one another.

He was an optimist who actually believed that this would come to pass with the eventual eclipse of class society, a time in which there would no longer be any reason to kill and exploit because of the rise of technology and the elimination of labour exploitation.

Faced with the litany of accounts of death and destruction perpetrated by groups of people over the face of the earth going back millenia and it becomes difficult to accept Marx’s promise. I also being an optimist agree for the most part with Marx on this especially given globalization, the concentration of capital, the erosion of national sovereignty and the degradation of the natural world. These aren’t particularly uplifting processes for me, but they all point to a time in the future where capital will do itself in by increasingly attenuating the profit margin.

Strangely, I write this knowing full well that the vast majority of people who on the off chance might read this will not have read Marx and will have no idea of what I’m writing about here. People are generally quick to dismiss ideas that don’t agree with their preconceived notions about things. That’s certainly true when it comes to Marx’s work. People can easily dismiss Marx (and most other fine writers in history) by thinking they know what Marx (and most other fine writers in history) argued and can therefore cheerfully scrub him (and the others) from their minds. Or they think of themselves as anti this or that, in Marx’s case ‘anti communist’ so that anything that Marx argued just cannot be ok. Mind shut, let no light enter.

One of Marx’s most important ideas was that the division of society into classes would inevitably be relegated to the dustbin of history and along with it barbarism of all kinds. I like that idea, but ‘inevitably’ in this context will probably still be some time in the future. There’s plenty of time left for ignorant, highly suggestible “cheerful robots” (a term from C. Wright Mills) to commit mass murder or other kinds of atrocities in the name of eliminating the evil that they feel is blocking their prosperity or their road to heaven.

Probably the most influential writer for me over the last 40 years of my career has been Ernest Becker.  His little book Escape From Evil published in 1975 after his untimely death in 1974 of cancer at the age of 49, has most profoundly influenced my way of thinking and seeing the world. Escape from Evil, in my mind contains all the knowledge one would ever need to explain the bloody massacre in Paris on November 13th or all the other atrocities ever committed by us towards others and vice-versa over the last 10,000 years, or for the time of recorded history, and probably even further back. It’s all there for anyone to read. But people won’t read it and even if they do, they will read it with bias or prejudice and will be able to dismiss it like they dismiss everything else that doesn’t accord with their ideology or interests. And there’s the rub.

It’s people’s interests rather than their ideas that drive their capacity to change their minds. Change the way people live and you just may change the way they think. It doesn’t work very well the other way around.

Given Marx’s long term view on barbarism and senseless violence we cannot hope for much in the short term. We just have to wait it out. Of course our actions speak louder than our words, so within the bounds of legality, it’s not a bad idea in my mind to oppose talk that can incite some unbalanced people among us to violent action. It’s also a good idea to support peaceful solutions to conflict rather than pull out the guns at the first sign of trouble. Violence can easily invite violence in retaliation. We can resist that. It’s tough when all we want to do is smack people for being so ignorant and senselessly violent, but we can forgive rather than fight, tough as that may be. Turn the other cheek as some historical figure may have said at one point a couple of millenia ago.

Paul Whyte’s comment:

We will be severely challenged in the years to come to keep our heads as globalization increasingly devalues our labour and the concentration of wealth makes for more and more poverty. Sometime, somewhere we will have to say enough is enough and mean it in spite of the forces trying to divide us. We can regain our humanity even though it’s tattered and in shreds at the moment. It’s either that or we won’t have much of a future on this planet.

I too taught – actually alongside you for close to 30 years! Our disciplines were different [mine were Political Science and Introductory (Western) Philosophy] but shared a common past and crisscrossed each others field of expertise. We were, and still are, passionate about knowledge and driven to explore and share with others, primarily students and colleagues while working, but quite frankly anyone who so much as feigned an interest in the things that captivated us. I write also -surprise, surprise! [cheap seque to invite you to check out my new blog site at paulswhyte.com]. Whether our individual efforts prove to be in vain is really for others to judge and regardless of the answer, we/I must admit we were driven to it and not for any accounting of the number of ‘conversions’ we made [and not even for the fame and fortune!].

   “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” K.Marx

It is true to acknowledge the existence of a dominant ideology within society, but freedom of thought arises from the critical analysis of those underlying oftentimes philosophical thoughts and values, questioning their truth especially within a historical framework. History is littered with ‘dominant’ ideologies that were transformed and/or deposed. It may also be true for example as you state “that there is no absolute truth” but that itself is a historically contingent claim. Our inability [to date] to assert ‘an absolute truth’ does not necessarily negate its existence, but simply denotes only our present limitations to human knowledge.

The trajectories of our academic careers are remarkably similar. My early exposure to the writings of Marx, limited like every other English-speaking student/scholar of our generation by the sheer lack of translations of much of his work into English (now it is all available) was nevertheless profound and revelatory. My appetite became voracious leading me to graduate schools in the UK and a lengthy dissertation on Marx’s theory of revolution and the SDF in late 19th c. British politics.

I concur wholeheartedly with your statement about the gains that accrue from a lifelong practice of reading and research. The list of authors whose paths I have crossed now seems legion. Has my earlier career’s affection, and more importantly, affiliation to the Marxist viewpoint wavered – yes many times; altered – not fundamentally; been abandoned – never. Marx’s detailed and nuanced historical materialist conception, particularly as applied to industrial capitalism, seems more accurate today (as you say) in the expansion of globalization and the widening income inequality gap.

I likewise see Marx as an optimist about the unfolding of human history. The class struggle is at the very core of his theory and ‘projections’ about its “inevitable” disappearance [in a future communist society] still strike me as essentially correct. Where I think I depart from you, and many others as well, is in the hope or assertion that such a transformation can ultimately be achieved by peaceful and democratic means. Greater “participatory democracy” might be an advance on the current situation, but I am reminded of the earlier hope placed in the trade union movement to significantly change the overall conditions of the many in a capitalist economy, and we both know how that has turned out.

You are right to state that peoples’ material interests are foundational, and consequentially that their ideas are forged within the context of their particular class affiliation. Most are blinded/hoodwinked from this truism by a dominant ideological lens, representing as Marx said

  “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling    material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.” [German Ideology]

This creates for our time promotion of the merits of possessive individualism and the fruits of capitalist accumulation. 

Take courage and write/speak on because as one of Canada’s greatest contemporary troubadours [Bruce Cockburn] said so eloquently, “but nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight, got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight”.