Animal, The Restaurant

A couple of nights ago I had a dream about a restaurant where a whole animal, fur and all, was curled up as if asleep in a giant frying pan.  It's no mystery why I had the dream--my bedtime reading was an article in the New Yorker about an L.A. restaurant called "Animal."  Not "Jim's Steakhouse" or some such. The point of the name is to shout out "we turn animals into food."  Of course, most restaurants do that, but this one is proud of the fact.

And boy do they ever--turn animals into food.  Here's a meal ordered by Mario Batali, another restaurant owner--five pork bellies, the "poutine" (huh?), two pig ears, two gnocchi, two sweetbreads, two quail, two fluke,  two crispy rabbit legs, two pork ribs, two flat irons medium rare/rare, two veal breasts, "and no fuckin' vegetables."

What else does the restaurant serve?  There's "lamb-tongue ravioli, lamb-heart paprikas, deviled lamb kidneys, veal brains grenobloise, " and recently the chefs have been experimenting with veal testicles.  They seem to be a sensitive couple of guys.  Here's one of them, waxing poetic about tofu--

"I had this weird thing last night" Dotolo said recently.  What, did he have sex with his wife?  No. "I was, like, eating tofu, and I was, like, thinking about how much it reminded me of, like, bone marrow and, like, brains and, like, that weird texture--like, soft, a little bit gelatinous.  But the flavor of tofu is, like, so yelchth.  I'll think about that now for, like, maybe a year befire I think about something to do with it. I think it'd be fuckin' hilarious to do tofu at Animal, just because it throws people off so much."

Hilarious!  Or maybe even, like, fuckin' hilarous!

Earlier that day, I had read a post about food at Jerry Coyne's blog.  It was an interesting reminder of my former self.  That used to be me--the attraction to super-authentic food like barbecue, and szechuan cookery, the whole thing. In fact, I grew up eating the sort of stuff Mario had for dinner--the pigs ears, sweetbreads, quail, rabbit, everything. In "real world" terms, there was no difference.  But there was a difference of attitude.  We never relished the idea that we were turning real live animals into food. To tell the truth, the animals were "out of sight, out of mind." The only thing I couldn't get into was tongue.  When you see a tongue lying on a plate it's impossible not to think of the mouth that used to house the tongue.

I am repulsed by Animal and it's ostentatious animal-to-food conversions, but feel a bit nostalgic about my former self's approach to food.  Having food rules is particularly a problem when traveling.  I will be visiting Italy soon, and hate to miss the local food. And yet, and yet.  Here's Barbara King, talking about the problem of carnivorous Italy.  And I'm just a vegetarian. A vegan would miss out on far more. Here's an ex-vegan talking about how the travel problem became a deal-breaker.
Bologna, Italy (known for its amazing food): I convinced my partner to go to the only vegetarian restaurant I could find out about in all of northwestern Italy. It was a total throwback to the 1970s. A tofu sausage rolling around on a plate with some boiled vegetables and alfalfa sprouts (this was listed as the hot dog option). I think the only thing that tasted good was the mustard.
Levanto, Italy: We were staying at a beautiful agriturismo olive farm up in the hills above the town. The woman who owned the farm came by our patio in the morning while I was having coffee to offer us fresh eggs, still warm from her hens. She had this lovely smile on her face and when I had to turn them down, her face just dropped and I felt like such an ungrateful asshole. We then walked to the horrid supermarket nearby to buy stuff for breakfast. How I couldn’t see the lunacy of this at the time completely baffles me now.

I wouldn't set foot in Animal. I'm not going back to being my former self, despite some nostalgia. But I don't think I want to become a person who turns down fresh eggs at an Italian olive farm.   I'm not sure I can defend that, philosophically, but that's the way it is.


What? I surfed over to the Animal website, and couldn't believe my eyes.

We Live in A Beautiful World (2)

More "Best Nature Photos of All Time " here

Oklahoma's Abortion Law

We interrupt regular programming to bring you this important story.  I couldn't be more appalled by the new abortion law just passed in Oklahoma.   Under the new law, all women must have sonograms before abortions--no exceptions.  The doctor must show the woman the screen and describe whatever heartbeat, organs, limbs, etc., they see there.  (On the other hand, women can't sue doctors if they don't mention abnormalities they may see.)  It's one thing to offer women the option of a sonogram. To require it and offer unrequested information is a completely unacceptable violation of a woman's privacy and autonomy.  Appalling.


When Everyone Disagrees

I have various beliefs that make me unusual.  I think there's a problem with killing animals for food, and as many as 97% of people do just that, without batting an eyelash.  I don't believe in any deities, and a large majority of human beings do.  So... what?  What does it tell me when so many people disagree?

I could adopt a heroic view--my views are the ones that count.  I should soldier on and ignore what the masses believe.  I don't see how this sort of indifference could make any sense.  It is at least somewhat probative that almost everyone believes X. The fact that most people eat meat and believe in God is something I have to come to terms with. 

I could also adopt a conformist position.  The 97% who think animals = food can't be wrong.  The vast majority who believe in deities can't be wrong.  This goes too far.  The human race just ain't that perfectly bright.  Example I read about in the paper today:  the good people of Qatar evidently marry their cousins, and all sorts of birth abnormalities result.  They know there's this connection, but, well, it's a tradition. You just can't question it.  It wouldn't be wise to submissively follow the human herd wherever it's heading.

So--no heroism, no conformism.  Then what?  There are still multiple options.  How about explain or conform?  If you take that approach, you regard the super-majority's view as the default. If you can't explain why you're in a superior position to know, then you should at least seriously consider adopting the dominant view.

I think I could adopt that approach, and stick to my guns. It's not that I'm smarter than everyone else.  Lots of super-smart people are in the super-majority on gods and animals.  So how can I explain how it happens that I believe not-X and they all believe X?  One way to explain it is to identify fantastic arguments I have in favor of not-X.  Perhaps they haven't heard of these fantastic arguments.  Well, up to a point, that's true. (What about the people who have heard of my fantastic arguments?  Should it matter to me if they don't find them fantastic?)

I can also point to traditions and biases.  Just like the people of Qatar can't stop marrying their cousins because that way of life feels normal to them, there's a normalcy factor with gods and animals.  People don't want to be wrenched away from the way of life that feels comfortable to them.  Plus, people in the super-majority know they're in the super-majority. That's extemely reinforcing.

I can explain my superior vantage point relative to at least a lot of people, so "explain or conform" may let me stick to my guns, but it nevertheless doesn't seem quite right. For one thing, it's too close to the conformist position.   It gives too much weight to the fact that X is something everyone believes.  Also, it allows members of the super-majority to go on unreflectively believing what everyone else believes, since most of them are not in a superior position, relative to their confreres.

Back to the heroic view? I don't think so. It can't mean nothing that everyone else believes differently.  I'm writing an essay for The Philosopher's Magazine about disagreement, and finding it a puzzling thing.


Do Atheists Need More Evidence?

Michael Antony has a thought provoking article in the new issue of Philosophy Now.  He says atheists don't play fair.  They accuse theists of lacking evidence, but "tend not to worry much about providing evidence" for atheism.  Antony looks at five possible defenses of the idea that theism requires more evidence than atheism and finds them all wanting.  

If one of the defenses appeals to me, it's #5: absence of evidence is evidence of absence (the "Hanson-Scriven Thesis" so "HST").   This would mean that atheists don't have to come up with their own evidence that God does not exist, if theists lack evidence that God does exist.

Sounds pretty good.  What's the problem?  First Antony says theists don't lack evidence. At the very least they have weak evidence--
religious experience, the fine-tuning of physical laws and constants, the apparent contingency of the universe, etc. These and other points, although far from decisive, and although explicable in other ways, could conceivably be mentioned in a compelling argument for the existence of a divine being.
So for the HST to help atheists it must be construed as saying that absence of strong (as well as weak) evidence is evidence of absence.  But that, he argues, is implausible.
Consider the claim that earthworms have a primitive form of consciousness. There is little evidence for this, certainly no strong evidence. Nevertheless, many consciousness researchers believe it (with varying degrees of confidence).... Or consider string theory. Again, there is nothing that could properly be called strong evidence for it, yet many physicists believe it. Such examples could be multiplied. Yet if we were to take HST seriously, given that there’s no strong evidence for any of the above propositions, we would rationally have to conclude that the negations of the propositions are true: that earthworms are not conscious .... and that string theory is false. But that is absurd!
As Antony points out, HST is typically asserted in connection with a bunch of ridiculous entities--the Tooth Fairy, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the teapot orbiting the sun. That, he thinks, steers atheists wrong.
It is now easy to see where Hanson and the New Atheists go wrong with their example-based defense of HST: they select examples that conform with HST and ignore cases of the sort just offered that conflict with it.
OK, he convinced me.  HST can't be affirmed if you consider the whole spectrum of cases.  But maybe there's a narrower principle something like HST that's correct.  What's correct is a principle specifically about "the ridiculous." Absence of evidence for the ridiculous is evidence of absence. But then Antony balks at the suggestion that the God hypothesis is ridiculous.  He thinks there's no reason why "religious belief, because it lacks strong evidence, must be judged to be just as ridiculous as the Tooth Fairy or goblins."

Sure, the sheer lack of strong evidence doesn't make the God hypothesis  ridiculous.   It could still be ridiculous because .... well, because why? Antony is right to press atheists on this question.

Take just one aspect of the God hypothesis--the notion of a disembodied mind.  It's one thing to be uncertain whether the nervous systems of worms can or can't support consciousness.  Both views are credible. But must I really take seriously the possibility of disembodied mind--God?   What a bizarre idea. It sure does seem odd to think a disembodied mind could do so much--like create the universe, perform miracles, and do all that's normally attributed to God. If there's no strong evidence for something as odd as that isn't it fair to say there's no such thing?

Maybe this is just to say there's a presumption against very weird things being true, and it's up to people who believe in them to come up with very good reasons.  Skeptics about these things get to disbelieve more lazily than believers can believe. Something of the sort strikes me as true, though I can't say I know how to say it more precisely.  Ridiculous, weird, odd, bizarre.  There's got to be a better way.

There's lots more in the article. Have a look!


More About Solar

Having now finished Solar, and the Walter Kirn review in Sunday's New York Times, I've made two decisions; I must read more Ian McEwan, and I must never read another review by Walter Kirn.  Not only are his opinions about the book wildly off the mark, but he's a plot ruiner extraordinaire.  Truly, I'm baffled.

Anyhow, I loved the book.  The main character is one Michael Beard, Nobel Prize winner in physics and now, 20 years and 5 marriages later, an accidental climate scientist.  The delicious fun of the book is that Beard is so comically appalling.  His womanizing, his over-eating, his cynicism...everything makes him abominable, but somehow not despicable. The book is about his misadventures in love, green technology, crime and punishment, overeating, overdrinking.  This is the sort of closely observed dark comedy I just love.


Stop reading now if you haven't read the book and plan to, because I've got to say something about the last two pages.

Not so satisfying. It's not just that the plot goes awry, but the novel winds up saying the wrong thing.  Unless you are determined to hear no message at all, the book seems to say that personal self-control is key to getting global warming under control.  McEwan won't let his gluttonous, thoughtless, amoral "hero" pull off a technological feat that could save the world.  Why not?  Bad people don't do good things?  But they do!

Maybe we're supposed to take this a little more metaphorically.  OK, green technology geniuses can be slobs and womanizers. What he's trying to say is that we have to get our appetites under control, if we're going to solve the problem of global warming.  Is Michael Beard us? I'm afraid that just doesn't work.  He's much too abominable for that. And the appetites theory of our environmental crisis doesn't seem very insightful anyway.  We're not really, as individuals, "too" greedy. There are just too many of us, so our collective ecological footprint is too big.  It's not because of greed that our cars produce greenhouse gases--they just do, because of the sort of cars and fuel we use.

Solar needed another ending--more "organic," less punitive, less message-y.  I want to know what really happened in the end (come on, what about Darlene and Melissa?) not what had to happen to teach us all about the hazards of over-consumption.  Other that--a really enjoyable book, and interesting too.

We Live in a Beautiful World

Why are we such a destructive species?  This being Earth Day, and that being the question of the week for my environmental ethics class, I thought I'd ask. In a well-known article, Lynn White says that what's most destructive is western science and technology, which has roots in Christianity.  The Judeo-Christian view is that humans are uniquely endowed with "spirit" and "made in the image of God."  The rest of nature was just created for our use; and our proper position is to rule and dominate. (I don't think that's really the message of Genesis, but never mind--in time, that did come to be the dominant Christian view.)

What's the better way of seeing things?  White says: Animism, pan-psychism--in the Christian form that's culturally accessible to us.  White likes St. Francis:
All Praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars; in the heavens you have made them,
bright, and precious, and fair.
All praise be yours, my Lord,
through Brothers wind and air, and fair and stormy,
all the weather's moods,
by which you cherish all that you have made.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Water,
so useful, humble, precious and pure.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you brighten up the night.
How beautiful is he, how cheerful!
Full of power and strength.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through our Sister
Mother Earth, who sustains us and governs us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs. 
Pretty, no?  A nice poem for Earth Day.  I wonder, though, what happens when people get serious about their animism, instead of just deploying it as a metaphor.  It's harmless enough to think of the moon as alive, and as your sister.  If we thought of earth as mother, we might be more protective of her.  But animists think everything is really animated.  Like the volcano with the most unpronounceable name--

If we thought "Eyja" was Sister Eyja, I think we'd have to wonder what she was so mad about.  Since we can't possibly find out, we'd be free to project anything we liked onto her fiery volcanic mind.  Perhaps what would soothe her is for 1000 Tea Party members to be thrown in her craw.  Others would say she's only hungry for one tall, dark, and handsome American president.

Oh come on, it's just a volcano. Volcanoes aren't people.  The world is not imbued, through and through, with mentality.  We don't need to live in fear of what volcanoes want from us.  There is a related attitude, though, that isn't daft at all.  Nature is awesome, intricate, beautiful, worthy of respect.  Which means we ought to be doing a great deal differently.

Today's a good day to listen to the Coldplay song "Don't Panic"--because we do live in a beautiful world.



I'm 150 pages into Ian McEwen's new novel Solar, and I love it.  It's laugh-out-loud funny, grippingly entertaining, timely, thought-provoking, and beautifully written.  Thanks to New York Times reviewer Walter Kirn, though, I've been reading it with a question mark in my head. No, I don't have a question about McEwen, I have a question about Kirn.  What's with him? And also: who is he?  As I rummage my mind for what he's written (besides a lot of book reviews), all that comes to mind is a children's book called Walter the Farting Dog, and Walter Kirn didn't write it.  That's how stupid his review is.

Now, a confession. I just read the first paragraph, because I hate the way so many book reviewers spoil books.  Most begin with a synopsis that gives away 90% of the plot. The idea seems to be that the sophisticated reader isn't interested in suspense.  Or perhaps what reviewers think is that there's enough suspense left if you don't know exactly what happens in the last 25 pages.  In any event, I wasn't going to let Walter ruin a book I was looking forward to reading.  As for the first paragraph--here it is:
According to the perverse aesthetics of artistic guilty pleasure, certain books and movies are so bad — so crudely conceived, despicably motivated and atrociously executed — that they’re actually rather good. “Solar,” the new novel by Ian McEwan, is just the opposite: a book so good — so ingeniously designed, irreproachably high-minded and skillfully brought off — that it’s actually quite bad. Instead of being awful yet absorbing, it’s impeccable yet numbing, achieving the sort of superbly wrought inertia of a Romanesque cathedral. There’s so little wrong with it that there’s nothing particularly right about it, either. It’s impressive to behold but something of a virtuous pain to read.
Completely baffling. My question for today is what time can I respectably set aside my official duties and read the last 100 pages of this delicious novel?  (And yes, I'll go back to the review, more or less as a guilty pleasure. Some reviews are so crudely conceived, despicably motivated and atrociously executed that they're actually rather good.)


Amazing Pictures from Iceland

More from Eyjafjallajokull - The Big Picture - Boston.com

Many more, not to be missed!

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Francione vs. Smith

Here (see 4/16 podcast) is a debate between Gary Francione and Wesley Smith on the Michael Medved show.  I reviewed Smith's book recently and I've blogged before about Francione.

They start by agreeing on the distinction between "animal welfare" and "animal rights."  Either you support business as usual, but want the usual things to be done nicely, or you think that animals are persons with the rights we usually attribute to persons.  Both are invested in the dichotomy, but for opposite reasons. 

There really is a middle path.  In fact, when Francione makes his argument against eating animals, he doesn't rely on rights talk. He simply says:
(1) It's wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals.
That's an irresistible principle.  It makes for an irresistible argument against meat-eating considering that what we obtain from eating animal products is (usually...in most cases...) just pleasure and convenience.

Wesley Smith fails to respond, instead repeating some familiar bromides about how meat-eating is natural.

Francione quickly forgets he's talking to a defender of the status quo, and starts attacking a completely different foe--Humane Society style animal advocacy (or "welfarism," as he misleadingly calls it). 

Francione comes back to Smith's assertion that it's natural to eat meat.... but Medved wants to talk about medical research. Now it starts to be a problem for Francione that he opened with the irresistible principle.  By any measure, some medical research is necessary.  So how can it be wrong?

Francione back-pedals.  Moral justifiability doesn't turn on what's necessary or unnecessary after all!  He grudgingly concedes that some research is "empirically necessary" and "beneficial"...but no, that's not enough. It appears that he believes the irresistible principle, but also believes:
(2) It's wrong to inflict necessary suffering on animals.
Observation: when someone asserts (1), there's an "implicature" that they reject (2). That's part of what makes (1) so irresistible.  When you assert (1) and then (2), it's a whole new ballgame--the "animals are persons with rights" ballgame.

Next:  a change of subject and a reminder that Smith and Medved are capital "C" Conservatives.  Smith is bothered that Francione believes in a woman's right to abort a fetus but not the right to eat a chicken.  Francione points out that the rights-holding fetus is inside the rights holding woman, whereas the chicken isn't.  There's a difference. He throws in some stuff about racism and patriarchy that elicits derision.

Smith brings up PETA's Holocaust on your Plate campaign.  Colonel Sanders vs. Hitler.  Francione says he isn't interested in ranking evils.   It's all wrong.

Medved:  In Exodus, Moses kills the overseer who is beating an innocent slave.  We generally think that human beings are obligated to kill others and risk their own lives to stop the suffering and death of human beings.  Are human beings obligated to do the same to stop the suffering and death of animals?

Francione: Moses shouldn't have killed the overseer. (Smith points out that Francione is a pacifist.)

Medved shifts the focus from killing bad people to sacrificing yourself to prevent their misdeeds. What about sacrificing yourself to save 1000 people. If that's obligatory, must you do the same to save 1000 animals?

Francione: You could save 1000 right now by donating your organs at a hospital.  It's not obligatory, but it's admirable.  

OK, but would it be just as admirable to sacrifice yourself to save 1000 animals as it would be to sacrifice yourself to save 1000 humans?  Francione won't be cornered into answering such questions.

Francione comes back to the idea that it's wrong to impose unnecessary suffering on animals.  99.9% of our use of animals is unnecessary, he says.    It seems a tad disengenuous to keep pushing (1) when he also believes (2). It makes is seem as if he's just applying common sense, when in fact he has a revolutionary view of animals as persons with basic rights as strong as ours.

Smith pipes up about the main claim of his book--animal advocates are undermining human exceptionalism.

Francione:  what is special about humans is our ability to love, feel compassion, reach out, help the vulnerable other.

It really is the height of irony when people like Smith blow the trumpets about human specialness, which to a great degree consists of our extraordinary moral goodness (he says), and then use that to defend hideous acts of cruelty.   Please.  

Medved to Smith: How would we be worse off if the status of animals changed?

Smith: if we see ourselves as just another animal in the forest, we will act like that.

This is one of the very implausible themes of his book.  It's strange how people throw around predictions without any evidence to support them.  Are animal advocates really a more "animalistic" bunch than the rest of us?  I had not noticed that. 

He goes on to say: we'd be worse off without meat, medical research, wool coats, horse riding, etc.

Surprise revelation during this debate:  conservative commentator Michael Medved is close to being a vegetarian (he only eats fish).  Based on that and his line of questions in the interview, I'm going to recommend my book to him (what chutzpah).  Animal ethics without equality--I think that's his stance, and that's what I argue for.


Notes from a Conference

Feel like a traitor to my tribe.

Standing ovation for Laura Bush (very pretty)... can I do it?... gotta do it ... not for GWB, though. Just can't.

They met with cyberdissidents this morning.

The thrill of celebrity--have I succumbed?  Laura talks about "freedom fighters"...echoes of Ronald Reagan.  "Women's rights are human rights."  The Amnesty slogan from a few years back.

George Bush comes to podium.  He sounds so much like...George Bush!  Couldn't not stand up.  It was manners, not admiration.  One guy didn't stand up.  Is this the place to protest past policies?  Accepting invitation = observing rules of etiquette.

After opening remarks, George leaves, Laura stays.  Is he incurious, like they used to say?

Conference is about internet freedom.  Presenters from "Freedom House." What's Freedom House?  Lots of brochures and handouts.  Keep wondering--what's the connection to burnishing GWB's image?  Is there one?

Ethan Zuckerman is a good speaker, but I'm not sure what he said.  Twitter is bad, he seems to say.  On the other hand, Twitter is good. "Digital space as the new public sphere."

Secret service people follow Laura Bush even to the bathroom. 

The most secure network for dissidents is the cellphone network. Governments aren't going to shut it down.

Proxies not the answer to gov'ts messing with ISPs.

Panel of cyberdissidents...they have various professions, but most are here because they're bloggers.  Blogging as radical act...

Two are ashed-in in Europe, but on screen via skype. 

Some of the dissidents are "live twittering" the event while onstage.

Tons of cameras, lovely auditorium. Too bad I must reenter real world to teach and miss fancy lunch.

Instinct to reciprocate is powerful.   Appreciated invitation, enjoyed event.  How could I blog about it? Seems so ungrateful.  Must limit snark.

Blogging as act of freedom. Must do it, despite questionable etiquette.  I'm a cyberdissident!

Not really.  It was fun. Came out valuing internet and cellphones more. Now if my students would just top using them in class to go on facebook.

[No, I didn't live blog this.  It just looks that way.]


Choosing to Limit Our Choices

From a review of the book The Art of Choosing, by Sheena Iyengar, in today's New York Times:
Iyengar began her scholarly exploration of choice with an undergraduate research project. She suspected that religiously observant people who obey lots of behavioral restrictions would feel unable to control their own lives and thus pessimistic. To test this hypothesis, she interviewed more than 600 people from nine different religions, ranging from fundamentalists to liberals. She surveyed their religious beliefs and practices, asked questions to test optimism and had them fill out a mental health questionnaire. What she found surprised her.
“Members of more fundamentalist ­­faiths experienced greater hope, were more optimistic when faced with adversity and were less likely to be depressed than their counterparts,” she writes. “Indeed, the people most susceptible to pessimism and depression were the Unitarians, especially those who were atheists. The presence of so many rules didn’t debilitate people; instead, it seemed to empower them. Many of their choices were taken away, and yet they experienced a sense of control over their lives.”

In retrospect, the result seems obvious. Even many atheists would agree that believing that God cares about you or that your life is part of a cosmic plan can be a powerful source of hope (or, to put it pejoratively, a crutch). Meaning is as important as choice. Besides, Iyengar conducted her survey in the United States, where people are free to switch religions and often do. If keeping kosher or refraining from alcohol makes you feel constrained and helpless, you can abandon those strictures. The only people left in the restrictive groups are those who value the rules. In a modern, liberal society, religious observance does not “take away” choice. It is a choice.
Question for Sam Harris:  if ethics is all about promoting well-being (as he's arguing in a forthcoming book), can it be ethical to try to turn theists into atheists?   Would people really be better off if they were "freed" from religion?  There's a fine line here. I wouldn't hesitate to take a skeptical position in a philosophical debate. I am a skeptic!  It's proselytizing that bothers me--really working to convert the masses. It's not at all clear to me this would be for the good, and Iyengar's book seems to bolster that hunch.
Unlike “provocative” books designed to stir controversy, “The Art of Choosing” is refreshingly thought-provoking. Contemplating Iyengar’s wide-ranging exploration of choice leads to new questions: When is following custom a choice? How costly must a decision be to no longer qualify as a choice? Did Calvinism spur worldly achievement because its doctrine of predestination removed all choice about the hereafter? Do con­temporary Americans adopt food taboos like veganism because they crave limits on an overabundance of choices?
Well, veganism is not just a taboo--if the paradigm of a taboo is the rule certain south sea islanders have against women eating in public. It's an ethical proscription.  However, it's fascinating to consider whether vegan and vegetarian diets also satisfy a craving for choice-reduction.
Human beings, Iyengar suggests, are born to choose. But human beings are also born to create meaning. Choice and meaning are intertwined. We use choice to define our identities, and our choices are determined by the meanings we give them, from advertising-driven associations to personal relationships and philosophical commitments. Some meanings we can articulate, while others remain beyond words. “Science can assist us in becoming more skillful choosers,” Iyengar cautions, “but at its core, choice remains an art.”
This goes on my list of books I need to read.


Ashed In

Live in Europe?  Feeling ashed in?  Tell us about it.  After 9/11, it was noticeably odd to have no plane noise overhead and no contrails. Is it noticeably quiet in the UK and elsewhere?  In the summer, we're planning on flying to Paris. Dear Icelandic Volcano, Calm down.

14 billion, not 6,000

Here's the question du jour at atheist blogs:  if a science teacher explains that the universe is 14 billion years old, may she explicitly draw out the implication that the universe is not the age the bible implies it is--6,000 years old?  May the teacher say, "Since it's 14 billion years old, the bible is wrong about the age of the universe"?

One side says: weird, weird, weird. How can it be forbidden to go on from (1) to (2), (3), and (4)?

(1) The universe is 14 billion years old.
(2)  The bible says it's 6,000 years old.
(3)  If it's 14 billion years old, then it's not 6,000 years old.
So, (4) The bible is wrong about the age of the universe

All the fun started with Michael DeDora here (you can find out what the initial issue was there) and the insults started with PZ Myers here, then there was this from Massimo Pigliucci, and this from Jerry Coyne, and then this from Ophelia. 

Here's the other side.  First, therere's the problem that saying (2), (3), and (4) picks on one religion.  Hindus and Buddhist believe in a universe with an infinite history (or so I recall).  How can it be right to spend time attacking biblical ideas, but ignore Hindu and Buddhist rivals?  That doesn't sound very even-handed.

Second, there's a problem with (3).  Different religions have different ideas about religious truth.  Scientific truth is one thing, "sacred truth" is another, some say.  So the earth is 14 billion years old, but it's also (in some sense)  6,000 years old. So some reject (3).  Now, that may be poppycock, but could it really be a science teacher's job to get into it? What training do public school science teachers have in these philosophical matters?

Third, there's a question of the deal we've struck on these issues. Many fundamenentalists really don't like having (1) taught in school, because they think (2) and (3) are true, and they don't like the implication that (4) is true.  As I understand it, the deal we've got now is--science teachers get to say (1), if they don't say (2), (3), and (4).  Now, to many religious parents, they're already getting the raw end of the deal.  They know their kids are going to be thinking (2), (3), and (4), even if only (1) is openly stated.  So the deal is fragile and fraught, and there are frequent battles about it.  In that context, is it really wise to ask for more?

Fourth, as a parent, I'm rather sensitive to what's crammed down my kids' throats during school time.  I think I'm entitled to be the primary shaper of their attitudes on religious and moral matters.  Occasionally teachers stray into these private, family areas, and I don't think "Oh wonderful, my kids are being asked to critically scrutinize their beliefs." Not at all, because lower level education is rarely about crticial thinking. The teacher is right (actually, more often wrong when they get into religious and moral matters), and that's that.  What I think is "butt out."  To be consistent, I must take the side of religious parents who would want a science teacher to butt out and say no more than (1).


Everything You Think is False

Doesn't it sometimes seem that way?  Recently I learned that extremely poor people are reasonably happy and optimistic. I also read that developing countries spend less on health care themselves, as a result of foreign donations.  So a dollar sent is not exactly a dollar added to existing resources. I'm teaching an article in my environmental ethics class that shows how abolishing hunting reduces the amount of wildlife in African countries, and allowing hunting increases it.

Now I learn (thanks to Dom) that kids in orphanages aren't destined for lives of misery and sorrow, but actually do better than average in adulthood.  This is all very annoying, because it means that you basically can't reason about any moral issue without first digging through piles and piles of research. And that's not what philosophy is supposed to be like!  Whatever happened to the comfortable armchairs we were promised in graduate school?

Anyhow, here's the post (from a "hot shot research assistant") about orphanages.  The author concludes that parents have an obligation (if utilitarianism is true) to give up their "tots." This reminds me of the paradox of retirement in Saul Smilansky's book 10 Moral Paradoxes.  Are you in the bottom 50% of a "helping" profession?  (Does philosophy count?)  Then it seems you're obliged to quit and let someone better take your job. 

I'm going to run the orphanage business by my kids when they come home from school and see what they think.  If I play my cards right, I should be able to get them to say that I am an exceptional parent, and I'm not just permitted to keep them but obligated.  I'm going to take this slowly and choose my words carefully. 

Note, if I'm not so exceptional, I just have to send them packing "if utilitarianism is true."  A philosophy graduate student recently interviewed at Let Them Eat Meat (the blog is my new guilty pleasure) says utilitarianism is "the laughing stock of ethics."  I really don't think that's true.  Utilitarianism may not be "the moral truth, period," but it's a point in logical space that all ethicists return to over...and over...and over again.  This sums up my attitude toward utiltitarianism:  "How could it be true?  But then, how could it not be true?"  The back and forth stimulates lots of further reflection about the nature of morality.


The Argument from Marginal Cases

In an otherwise very positive review of Animalkind (thank you!), Elisa Aaltola chides me for not accepting the argument from marginal cases.  So...let's talk about it!

The argument from marginal cases is really a family of arguments.  You start with a spectrum of cases, perhaps thinking of every creature as standing in a line according to ability.  

Cog and Chimp are just alike, as far as capacities go.  From the fact that we feel equal concern for Norm and Cog, the argument tries to leverage equal concern for Norm, Cog, Chimp, and Mouse.  Here's an example of this sort of argument (this is inspired by Tom Regan, but not directly from his writing).
(1)  Norm and Cog have the same inherent value and thus the same basic rights, despite their huge differences.
(2)  That must be because they share sentience (Regan actually talks about a slightly more advanced but ill-defined attribute--being a "subject of a life").
(3)  But Chimp has sentience too.

(4)  So Chimp has the same inherent value and basic rights as Norm and Cog.

(5)  Mouse has sentience too.

(C)  So Mouse has the same inherent value and basic rights as Norm, Cog, and Chimp.

If this were a good argument it would be prove a lot.  If you thought Norm had a basic right to life, it would prove that Cog, Chimp, and Mouse do too.  That would foreclose many things we normally consider permissible, like experimenting on Chimp or Mouse or eating them, if human survival were at stake. 

Is it a good argument?  We're to affirm (1), which is fine, but I think that affirmation is not simple.  There's a lot going on in our heads when we think Cog has all the same basic rights as Norm.  A lot of this is pretty recent stuff.   If you go far enough back, disabled people actually were seen somewhat as animals are today.  They were used in medical experiments for the benefit of the rest of us (not incessantly, but occasionally), and some were even put on display at fairs.  Amazing, but true.

What we have now is a "championing" mentality.  How dare anyone not give Cog the same rights as Norm?  We identify with Cog, becuase we've been taught to stop thinking of people with disabilities as "other".  We now realize that there are no immutable lines between "us" and "them." If I wind up in an accident or suffering from Alzheimer's disease, I will be disabled. 'That could be me" opens the door to all sorts of caring moral emotions.  So--there's  a lot going on in our heads when we accept (1).

But that stuff is thrown out at the next step.  We are told that Cog's sharing Norm's basic rights rests on nothing but his being sentient like Norm. We are not allowed to see any complexity in our reaction--like its being partly a matter of seeing the capacities Cog does have, and partly a matter of sympathy, and partly a matter of wanting protection for our own relatives some day, and partly a matter of knowing that could be us some day.  We are to abandon all of that and just settle for the idea that Norm and Cog have the same basic rights because they are both sentient.

But how plausible is that? Those who make arguments like this never explain how you get from simple sentience to immensely powerful rights. On the face of it, there's a huge gap to be bridged.  Having basic rights is a hugely significant thing.  Rights are like a magnetic charge that attracts and repels.  If you have rights, that forces all sorts of adjustments on everyone else.  At the very least, they have to "give you your space," however much that may inconvenience them or set back their serious interests.  Sheer sentience can do all that?

In my book I imagine some tiny little creatures called Pangfish. They have limited sentience, consisting in nothing but the ability to suffer headaches.  When the headaches go away, their consciousness fades out.  That's their whole conscious life. I find it utterly fantastic to suppose that on such a slim basis they could have the sort of inviolability that would force me to choose death rather than eating them. Or that would force a medical researcher to let thousands of people die, rather than extracting some life-saving chemical from them.

So I buy (1), but not (2), and that stops the argument from successfully supporting the conclusion.  I think we need a better explanation why Norm and Cog have the same rights, one that refers to things they have in common internally, but also to our emotions, "the social contract" we have as members of one community, self interest, and so on.  I grant that's a hodgepodge, but I think it's better than the obviously inadequate explanation offered by (2).

What I'm saying does not leave Cog out in the cold (obviously).  It also does not leave Chimp and Mouse out in the cold.  The details are discussed at length in my book, but based on what capacities they do have, we do owe them respect, and that does force us to make careful decisions about what we may and may not do to them.  Furthermore, sheer sentience does make some difference. We should not gratuitously cause pain.  If I'm going to eat Mouse because my life depends on it, I shouldn't cause him more pain than necessary.

In short, I don't buy the argument from marginal cases in my book because I think it's very weak. In fact, I'd go further. I find it rather offensive, and so do the students I teach.  The idea that some people are "marginal" offends them.  People with disabilities have only recently been raised in status--in fact, in earlier versions of Animal Liberation, they are referred to as "mental defectives"!  (Good heavens.) Most people in our society do think that animals are "just animals." So the "Cog= Chimp" equation is more likely to demote Cog than to elevate Chimp.  Finally, it's inane to think that animals are like humans, but just less capable. Chimpanzees have capacities and a way of life all their own.  My book champions animals without making any comparisons between them and people with disabilities, and I think that's all to the good.

Animalkind Review

From Times Higher Education--

Philosopher Jean Kazez takes as this book's starting point the difficult, highly relevant, and often avoided question: "How should we treat animals?" She approaches the question from different angles, which one by one coalesce into a coherent argument. This work reads as a journey into animal ethics, within which the author, together with her audience, is seeking to find the right answer.
First, Kazez looks at how we have valued and treated our non-human kin in the past and present. Viewpoints from different cultures, biblical interpretations and grand old philosophers are briefly analysed. After this, attention is placed on the nature of the beast, as Kazez takes a deeper look at what types of minds animals have. The third part concentrates on ethics, and finally, in the fourth part, she reminds us of the context of the question: how what we do to domestic animals affects wild animals and ecology in general.
Kazez has many highly plausible things to say. She attacks the intellectually lazy anthropocentric tradition, according to which animals have very few and very primitive cognitive capacities. The fascinating spectrum of animal capacities is brought to the fore, and the reader is quickly convinced that even if they are instinctual, animals are also highly cognitive creatures, capable of thinking, feeling and awareness. She also argues that animals should be given significantly more respect (all due respect, as she says in the playful tone that runs throughout the book) than contemporary society is willing to admit. We simply cannot treat beings with minds as mere matter, and the horrors to which animals are subject are inexcusable.
What is interesting is that Kazez combines two notions that are usually alien to each other. On the one hand, she argues for ethical vegetarianism and veganism. On the other, she maintains that, while much animal research may lack justification, research that is necessary for the basic welfare of human beings can be justified. We should give up animal products because in the contemporary world they are unnecessary for survival, cause a great deal of suffering and are harmful to the planet - however, vivisection is justified when absolutely necessary.
Overall, the arguments she presents are intelligent and convincing. But she does get into trouble when she seeks to justify vivisection. Most specifically, Kazez fails to explain away "the case from marginal arguments". If we believe it is morally unjustifiable to use human beings of very low cognitive ability in experiments, why is it permissible to use animals of a higher cognitive ability? Why is biology (species) so important here, when in other contexts it is highly unimportant (biological sex, "race", age, etc)?
Kazez is rather brief in her argument, but the gist is that we favour "unfortunate" humans because of sympathy, and we have sympathy because we could, ourselves, end up like them. Ultimately, we save the mentally impaired because of self-interest. This is rather cynical. One could say that "unfortunate" humans (perhaps an ill-chosen term) have value in themselves and deserve respect regardless of our self-interest. There is reason to hold on to the argument common in animal ethics: inherent value is based on the capacity to experience one's existence. This renders experimentation on both humans and animals dubious. Kazez would have done well to explore the philosophy of animal rights more thoroughly.
Setting aside this criticism, Kazez has written a persuasive book. It may not satisfy more radical thinkers and activists, but it will offer brain food for those who follow the taken-for-granted ways of treating animals. Kazez writes in an enjoyable and accessible fashion, and wit and humour are used generously. Combined with many fruitful arguments, this makes the book a good read for anybody curious about whether it is, indeed, morally justifiable to eat one animal and love another.
Reviewer: Elisa Aaltola is lecturer in philosophy, East Finland University, and fellow, Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. She is the author of Elainten Moraalinen Arvo (2004), Animal Individuality: Cultural and Moral Categorisations (2006) and is currently writing a book on the ethics of suffering.

I'm going to discuss why I don't accept the argument from marginal cases in another post, but I want to quickly set the record straight on disabilities.  I don't deny that people with severe impairments "have value in themselves and deserve respect regardless of our self-interest."   There is a level of respect owed to each human and animal, and a value we have to recognize, regardless of self-interest.  However, this value is not constant. Its basis is not the minimal fact of "experiencing one's existence."  There are differences that make a moral difference.  For example, if we must eat some animal for dinner, better it should be a rabbit than a chimpanzee.  Is it the same with people--better to rescue the "normal" before the impaired after a natural disaster?  I argue that a second factor kicks in here.  We ought to think about what we would want for ourselves, if we're ever in that position, what we would want for family members, descendants, and those we identify with. There's a "social contract" component to between-humans morality.

Respect is rock bottom and non-negotiable.  But according the same respect to all, regardless of differences--that's a choice. I think it's a reasonable choice when it comes to our treatment of other people.  But not when it comes to animals.  We really should eat the rabbit before the chimpanzee.  Before you say "speciesist!" think about the word. Speciesism is a bias or prejudice.  If there's a reasonable case for "equalizing" people but not animals, to think so is not speciesist.  "Cynical"? I see myself more as struggling to explain things that are hard to explain.  I'd rather say that "all creatures are created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights," but I'm afraid that just doesn't strike me as true.

Stay tuned for a post about the argument from marginal cases.  It amuses me that some THE editor (surely) mangled the phrase and called it "the case from marginal arguments."  Marginal argument indeed!  I think it's relied upon much too much int the animal ethics literature.



So I've been thinking about manure a bit (unfortunately).  It started when I made my latest attempt to plant a vegetable garden.  Last time I tried this, I wound up with a very tired daughter, 3 green beans, one tomato, and a gigantic cucumber.  I wanted to do better, so sprang for the cattle manure at the garden shop. 

On the way home, the stench in the car stimulated thoughts about whether the manure was really a good idea.  Though putting manure in soil doesn't feel like putting a hamburger in your mouth, it isn't much different.  You are supporting the meat industry when you pay for byproducts of the meat industry. 

Which got me thinking:  should vegans buy organic vegetables?  It seems not, unless they're specifically marked "vegan" and grown in soil enriched by vegetable matter.

Which got me thinking some more: why not human manure?  There's no shortage of it.  In a vegan utopia, would that be the solution to the problem of soil enrichment?

This seemed really pie-in-the-sky, but then I went to a lecture about genetically modified food.  Dr. Pia Vogel gave a very balanced presentation of the pros and cons of GM agriculture, industrial agriculture, and organic agriculture.  A worry about organic agriculture is that farmers are starting to fertilize with human manure.

They are?  The organic vegetables at Whole Foods are grown in our crap?  Yes, she said that the city of Houston takes sewage and turns it into organic fertilizer pellets. Now, from what I can see, the stuff is not actually being used yet on organic farms.  The Houston crap is spread on grazing land and used in landfills.  But apparently there are companies that do sell human "biosolids" to organic farmers and gardeners like me.

Eww? Dr. Vogel said we should worry about human poop containing drugs, hormones, and antibiotics we consume.   So: not actually such a good idea.  But animals are fed all that stuff too, except the very small number raised organically. So using animal manure isn't smart either, unless you happen to have your own private cow.

Horrifyingly enough, it's starting to look like the perfectly ethical gardener would skip all the manure, and choose between low-yield vegetable compost and inorganic fertilizer. Or even make use of GM crops (some day available to gardeners?), which can be easier on the environment.

The head spins. Meanwhile, the garden has been planted.  It turns out the stench was not from the cattle manure, but from composted cotton plants we had bought as well.  All odors have now disappeared and we have shoots!  This year I am bound and determined to have a vegetable garden that actually yields vegetables.

By any means necessary!


The Philosophy of Pepperoni

So...you're a vegetarian and your pizza arrives with pepperoni on top, contrary to your order.  Julia Galef watched a friend face this dilemma, and disapproved of her for throwing out the pepperoni.  Considering that the order has been placed, and there was no undoing the damage, she thought that was irrational.

Here's what she doesn't get.  If you haven't eaten meat for a long time, it can both taste good and seem unpleasant.  Best guess: that's why the friend spurned the pepperoni.

But more interestingly, there's also this:  When you choose a rule to follow, you have to consider the rule's content, but also the rule's followability.  Giving up animal products is a discipline, for most people.  It takes self-control.  Take the rule "never eat pepperoni."  That's a little overbroad, contentwise.  It generates more abstinence than necessary, ethically speaking.    Yet it's a great rule for many people, because it gets you out of the habit of eating pepperoni. It removes pepperoni-eating as an issue. 

The alternative is "never eat pepperoni unless the meat would otherwise go to waste."  It seems to make sense, but it isn't very followable.  If you eat pepperoni on messed up orders, and off your friends' leftovers  you'll be stimulating your yen for pepperoni.  Adopting that rule is likely to generate less abstinence than necessary, ethically speaking. At least for pepperoni coveters, the simple rule is the way to go.

I would have thought this was obvious.  In lots of areas of life, we follow over-broad rules. You follow a rule against stealing to keep you on course not to steal when it really counts.  You follow a rule against lying because most of the time it's important not to lie. We wind up being more restrained than we really need to be, but it's for the best. (And we can still make exceptions, of course, when it's really important to do so.)  Not eating pepperoni on that pizza is the same kind of thing.  It keeps you on course to turn down pepperoni next time it actually matters.


Reader, I Bought It

Lierre Keith’s book, The Vegetarian Myth, that is. I confess, I bought it because the author got pied by angry vegans and that made me curious.  (This is a lovely example of wrongs that don’t harm. I believe the book is doing very well largely because of the pieing.)
First, the book’s style. Sometimes it reads like recovery literature.  In her 20 years of being a vegan, Keith suffered mightily, both from countless health problems and moral torment.  Sometimes it reads like the literature of religious awakening.  Out of the darkness of veganism, she is reborn into the light of meat-eating. There’s also a coming-of-age component.  Before she was a child, now she has “adult knowledge.”   This recovered, enlightened, knowledgeable adult now speaks to us as a prophet, a healer.  She issues fervent commandments.  She tries to save us from our agony, our childishness, our stupidity.
Phew. So what’s the adult knowledge she wants to share so we too can be saved?  I’m going to distill, here, but I’d say her primary message is that life comes from death.  To wit:  there are worms and little creatures in the soil, mice in our fields, predators in forests, bacteria in the rumens of cattle, and such like. Not only does life come from the death of animals, but it also comes from the death of plants. Thus, any diet we can choose will involve the death of plants and animals.  Keith didn’t know these things during her 20 years of wandering in the vegan desert.  Now that she’s found it out, she wants us to know too.  
But what does it all mean? Isn’t there a difference between eating cows and eating carrots?  No, she says.  Part of her adult knowledge is a wildly anthropomorphic view of plants.  On her view, plants make choices.  Apple trees want us to eat their apples, and want us to defecate on the ground, so that the seeds can become new apple trees.  If we don’t do this, then we’re not doing what the tree wants.
Keith even thinks plants are sentient. So are all the tiny creatures in the soil. Which makes me think: there is adult knowledge even in a dictionary.  Look it up!  A sentient apple tree would consciously want things and feel things.  It might, for example, enjoy the gentle tug when someone picks an apple, feel pleasantly lighter after the picking, perhaps get mad at people for defecating in the wrong places.  Sentience means feeling. 
All signs are that feeling takes place in brains.  No brains in apple trees, no feelings.  No brains in bacteria, no feelings. It probably also takes a brain with a  certain amount of sophistication for there to be feelings.  It does not at all go without saying that worms, because of their nervous systems, have feelings.
As to values, I’m equally unimpressed.  In Keith’s universe, there’s absolutely no difference between driving a spade into the ground and accidentally killing a snail, and driving recklessly down a busy street and killing a child.   This hyperegalitarianism is essentially mystical and religious, not rational, and certainly not enlightened.
Some readers of this book are going to feel much better tucking into their next hamburger and ignore everything else. In fact, Keith preaches a gospel of abstinence. It’s just that she’s changed her mind about what we should abstain from.  From being super-vegan, she goes super-green.  Don’t have children, she says. Don’t drive a car.  Don’t live in a city. Don’t live in a place where food can’t be grown locally.
And there’s more.  Don’t support agriculture. You heard that right—the crime of crimes is planting annual crops.  So: no wheat, no oats, no corn, and (for God’s sake!) no soybeans.  Eventually topsoil is damaged, so agriculture isn't sustainable.
So:  build yourself a little hut, get yourself a goat and some chickens.  I’m pretty sure she’ll let you have a garden, but only if you fertilize with goat and chicken manure.  Heaven forbid that you should walk into the Home Depot garden shop.
What next?  If “Thou shalt be green!” replaces the ten commandments and the categorical imperative and the greatest happiness principle, how may I fill my time?  If we mustn’t ship in oatmeal from across the country, may we ship in books?  Can I have a computer if it’s manufactured in China?  Do I have to dress in skins?
Does your ultimate greeniac have a goat or not have a goat?  I think that’s the fascinating (or not so fascinating) question this book is really about. She says: get the goat.  It’s good for you too. She never met a low-carb salesman she didn’t love.
But what about the goat?  Remember:  vegetables are sentient. Apple trees get mad when we use flush toilets. So the goat matters, but not especially.
I say: the goat matters, and yes, especially.  The city folk matter, because there’s a ton of them.  There’s no point in contemplating the end of agriculture, because you need it to feed 7 billion people. And let’s not kid ourselves: it’s complete nonsense to think that our giant herds of livestock are easy on the earth, while crops are brutal.  Livestock needs lots of space. They displace wildlife. They use tons of water and erode land.  We’re already using 1/3 of the earth’s non-ice land surface for livestock.  Responsible environmentalists know that we need less meat, not more.
Putting aside animal issues, this book raises an interesting question:  if the ultimate green life is not a good life, do we have to choose it anyway to keep earth habitable for as long as possible?   I don’t really think so.  What the point of chugging away in our gardens, childless and with only the provisions that we can get within bicycling distance?  I think I’d get tired of reading the super-local poets and having quilting bees or whatever it is that’s supposed to fill my time.  There’s a reason people gave up that life 10,000 years ago.  They preferred a different one.  I prefer a different one. If we really can't live a good life on earth forever, then so be it.
Reading this book made me want to run out and buy Thomas Friedman’s book Hot, Flat, and Crowded, with all it's clear-eyed realism. We’re not going back in time, we’re going forward.


Consider the Oyster

Here.  A great little essay on the reasons to be vegan, but not to be a purist.

You know you're online too much when...

My publicist at Blackwell tweeted yesterday about the "twettle," a kettle that seems to send you a tweet when your water has boiled.  I thought it was ironic that she tweeted that this was depressing, and then I got to thinking about whether it's depressing at all.  In fact, the internet does seep into our lives in a disconcerting way.  The other day I was doing some gardening, and I was struck by how...well, how 3-dimensional everything was. You "get around" in gardening in a completely different way than you get around the internet.  Duh. 

The funny thing is that spending a lot of time online makes "surfing" and "following links" and "googling" seem like the default. In fact, recently I was looking around the house for a lost...who knows what?  (We constantly seem to lose things around here.) And it actually crossed my mind that I ought to be able to just google it.  What better way to find what you're looking for?   Searching in the real world is just so crude. You have to walk from room to room, open drawers, lift up stacks of stuff.   Last thing I need:  a twettle.


Let them Eat What?

OK, so I disagree with Rhys Southan about some important things, but he's a good interviewer and he has a wickedly funny blog.  His interview with me covered all sorts of interesting topics.

As to my being a symbol of the resistance.  You can find out what he's talking about (colorfully) starting here and then in all these posts.

So, who is Rhys Southan?  After I agreed to do the interview, I googled him. (My son tells me that's doing things in the wrong order.)  He cowrote and codirected "Who is Jim Holt?" a musical play that I read about a while back after googling philosophy writer Jim Holt (no relation). Next for him was a play called "Stuck in Delaware," about a woman with warrants for her arrest in every single state except Delaware. 

He's an ex-vegan (after nine years of being a vegan) and a former cook at Angelica's Kitchen, the famous vegan restaurant in New York. He's also a former intern with Reason magazine and with John Stossel (ohhhhh....now I get it). For the moment, he lives in Dallas. Next for him: finishing a screenplay, moving to Los Angeles, and then (obviously) it's on to Iceland.  

Here's how the interview began:
How long have you been vegetarian?
I’ve been a vegetarian for 17 years. I became a vegetarian not long after seeing The Animals Film. I’d been thinking about these things for years, but the disturbing images in that movie made me “ready” to make a change. The truth is, though, that I didn’t actually make the change until I met my husband some months later. He was already a vegetarian, but more for health reasons. I talked him into the idea that the moral reasons were more important.  link


Sam Harris Derives "Ought" from "Is"

Here.   Basically it goes like this (cutting to the chase):

(1) x IS an action or practice that will produce the worst possible misery for everyone.

So (SURELY!!!!  COME ON!!!)

(2) x OUGHT not to be done.

Why, you might wonder, should we want to derive an ought from an is? We could just recognize rock bottom normative facts, like--

(3) We ought not engage in actions and practices that will produce the worst possible misery for everyone.

Harris paints himself into this corner by being so determined to extract ethics from science.  He wants it to be the case that scientists come up with facts like (1) and thereby get their hands on ethical conclusions like (2).  If we just started by knowing things like (3), we wouldn't know them as a matter of science.  You don't find normative claims like (3) in science books.

Why's it so important to him to get ethics out of science?  Because he's trying to woo the public away from the belief that ethics is derived from religion.  Science is an impressive alternative source for ethics.  It would be harder to convince the public that we can do away with religion as a foundation for ethics if Harris simply said we all know things like (3).

But maybe we do just know things like (3). And maybe saying so is less problematic than saying (1) entails (2). Logically, it just doesn't.  Even if we do know things like (3), without relying on science, that doesn't mean science has no role to play.  Armed with the knowledge of (3), we need to figure out what does and doesn't produce the worse possible misery for everyone.  Science could certainly help us with that question.


Pig 05049

Here's a really interesting sounding exhibit and book: Pig 05049.  It details everything made using one pig's body--all 185 products.  Bill Buford's response here is (I gather) that traditional farmers have a more personal relationship with their pigs, but the killing is just as awful; furthermore, if you're going to kill an animal, you ought not waste any of its body.  So--pig 05049, ho hum? I would say the French pig Buford ate for dinner was better off being able to graze around in a wide open field, while pig 05049 had no real life at all.  Surely we should prioritize letting animals have lives over avoiding wastefulness.


Tithing Atheists

In an interview, Templeton Prize winner Francisco Ayala defended religion as a salve for the poor, and Jerry Coyne had this to say--
As P.Z. has noted, none of us are boorish enough to preach atheism to our dying religious grandmothers. Indeed, religion does bring some hope and meaning: that’s why it is strongest in those societies that are most dysfunctional (e.g., the work of Gregory Paul and others). But religion is also a potent source of poverty, misery and disease (look at AIDS in Africa, for instance, or the effect of Islam on the suppression of women, or of Catholicism on the abuse of children), and by and large it’s an excuse to do nothing. Without faith, we have only ourselves to look to, and, rather than blaming God, we must realize that we have to roll up our sleeves and fix those problems ourselves.
Many problems here. Religion is strongest both in dysfunctional societies and in highly functional societies--like ours. Some religions seem to increase prosperity (Protestantism, Judaism), some seem to decrease it (Islam, Catholicism).

Worse problem: his assertion that religion is "an excuse to do nothing." Apparently not, since some of our most vibrant philanthropists are religious. Tracy Kidder's biography of Paul Farmer is a must read in this regard. It's also true that many of the largest philanthropic organizations are religion-based--like World Vision.

Worst problem: the bit about how, "without faith, we have only ourselves to look to, and, rather than blaming God, we must realize we have to roll up our sleeves and fix those problems ourselves." It seems it doesn't work that way. Today a New York Times article reports that secular households "give less on average than do religious households." Why is that? An atheist by the name of Dale McGowan has an interesting theory, as the article reports.
From a practical standpoint, atheists almost entirely lack the communal infrastructure of religious people--the system of congregations, the pattern of weekly meetings--that enables philanthropy.
It's easier to get involved in good works and give regularly if the opportunities present themselves regularly, and doing good is intertwined with other pleasant activities.

So what's an atheist to do? A. Become a non-believing participant in a religious congregation. That makes varying amounts of sense depending on the religion. B. Get the communal aspect of giving in another way. For example, join your local chapter of Amnesty International and go to the monthly meetings. C. Overcome stasis without anyone's help. Go on, write that check to Oxfam. You know you should. D. Link arms with other non-believers and give to an organization like Foundation Beyond Belief, run by McGowan.

I like what McGowan says here--
One of the things I'm trying to get past is a dismissive attitude about why religious people give--that it's out of fear, a fear of God or a fear of damnation. It's out of a human need. And we secular humanists have to have enough self-confidence to look at what they're doing right as well as wrong.
Indeed. Religious folk don't sit around blaming God. That's nonsense. Quite possibly for sheer reasons of being better organized, they're the ones more likely to fix problems. It doesn't hurt to give credit where credit is due.


Seeing and Believing

Would you find this more/less beautiful depending on which sentence you believe to be true?

A.  The color is the result of dye being added upstream as an April Fool's joke.
B.  That's the color of blood--the result of a huge massacre upstream.
C.  The color is a natural result of minerals stirred up by heavy rains.

Not tellin' which is true (yet). Photo credit:  Rochelle Coffey, National Geographic.

UPDATE: OK, it's C.  The picture made me think of a passage about how we value wildness in an article by Ned Hettinger and Bill Throop.
Imagine how visitors to Yellowstone would feel about Old Faithful if they thought that the National Park Service put soap into the geyser to regulate and enhance its eruptions...People value more highly what is less subject to human alteration or control than a more humanized variant of the same phenomenon.
I react as they predict--believing A would make me find the scene less beautiful than believing C.  Of course, wildness is not an "absolute value."  If I believed B (and believed the massacre was a matter of normal predation), I'd find the color disturbing, not beautiful.  But wildness is something I (we) value.  That colors my thinking about lots of issues...

Quick segue to Matzoh Ball soup.  Seriously. Three ways to make it--

A.  Use fake chicken stock--tastes just like the real thing.  Lots of strange words in the list of ingredients.
B.  Use real dead chickens.
C.  Make rich vegetable stock from scratch.

Is the fakery of A unappealing, like the fakery of dyeing the falls red?  Is the carnage of B unappealing, like the massacre turning the falls red?  Is C the ethical aesthete's best choice?