Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Why a Philosopher can’t convince me of What I Already Know

In response to Wake-Up Weekend in Grand Rapids last Friday and Saturday, I engaged a few smart friends in the topic of Veganism. By ‘smart friends’ I mean some vegan philosophy students that I know and like very much.

I was curious what their response to my question would be, but I was not looking for an answer perse. The result of the entire discussion was to persuade me – yet again – that philosophy is overrated. Over the past year I developed a tendency to expose myself to the pompous intellectual mind games that call themselves philosophy despite being a skeptic. I have learned a lot through this, and feel more strongly now than ever that philosophy has its merits but is not the substitute for God that it likes to claim.

My question builds on the following premise:

I see two basic differences in types of vegans – the Must-Not and the Should-Not. Both groups see animals as having more rights than generally afforded by human society, and therefore they do not eat or use animal products (meat, dairy, leather, fur, gelatin, or anything else that comes from an animal).

The Must-Nots believe that animals and humans have the same rights. That is, humans have no more right to eat animals than they do to kill and eat other humans – or use them for their products such as milk even without killing. Their moral structure, therefore, forbids them from eating anything animal as an abhorrence.

The Should-Nots believe that although animals have rights, human still, in some circumstances, have the right to eat them or their products. These people choose veganism primarily as a protest against the corruption in the production of animal products.

I fall into the Should-Not category, which, unfortunately, gives me freedom to eat animal products occasionally even though I feel that it’s better not too. I take advantage of this freedom all too often. I presented this question in part because I am trying to increase my private arsenal of conviction for maintaining a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle.

The question I presented is: “Given these two categories, what are the differences in practice? What potential fallout is there?” I could have given my own answer (I just did, in an abbreviated sense), but I wanted to hear what other people had to say. I wanted to be convinced.

The problem with philosophy is it is all built on common assumptions. First philosophers break down all common assumptions to the bare nothingness, then they build them back up again using reason to determine their validity. Any discussions I’ve had with philosophers end up pandering in a mire of declaring assumptions, having them challenged, backing them up, which reveals deeper assumptions which are then challenged, and so on. It’s very easy to digress and lose track of the point altogether. After the end of the convoluted conversation, I tried to piece together what was presented, and I came to this:

1. Sentient beings feel suffering.
2. Causing suffering is less preferable than not causing suffering.
3. Humans are moral beings.
4. A duty of being a moral being is to maximize what is more preferable and minimize what is less preferable.
5. Suffering among all sentient beings is equal (no differentiation human vs. nonhuman).

Therefore, humans must not cause suffering in any way shape or form upon any other sentient being.

The problem with an attempted logical argument is that it is required to be foolproof. It must go all the way. This argument in no way goes all the way. A vegan, however, could probably fill in the cracks. We got mired in a few details, such as, why are humans not allowed to eat animals when other omnivores are? I got two responses: other animals actually don’t have the right to be omni/carnivores (I don’t get that one); and because humans are moral, we have the duty not to cause suffering. We entered the inevitable extreme case model, for example when it is either eat or be eaten. In that case, self-preservation trumps. One validation for this what because a human death causes more suffering because other humans feel sorrow.

Trying to pin these considerations down just leads into increasingly complex byways. For example, does self-preservation extend to species-preservation? And only after that, sentience-preservation? And after that, preservation of things non-sentient? What if self-preservation comes only at the cost of causing massive suffering upon any one of those other categories?

We didn’t discuss the problem of flourishing. Do I have a right to flourish? Do I have a right to increase my flourishing? At what cost? Imagine we decide that to minimize suffering must come before increasing flourishing; it is not likely to flourish while there is suffering (roll with me here). Therefore a person should not eat animal products, even at the cost of her own flourishing, because it inflicts suffering on another. This model, when fleshed out logically like philosophers do, raises many questions. Is it allowable for any being to pursue their own flourishing at the risk of causing suffering to another? What about getting a promotion over a colleague? Is it allowable to pursue flourishing when another sentient being is suffering? Or must we all collectively progress together – all nations and individuals and cows and turkeys together?

Clearly that is impossible. Existence is an inherently selfish pursuit.

And what constitutes flourishing anyways? One idea is to maximize potential. But does human potential include the capability for pleasure? In which case, the human ability to take pleasure in consuming animals is acceptable, even encouraged.

If we allow for flourishing, what kind of rubric must we put into place where we can flourish at the extent of others?

And this doesn’t even touch on the assumptions made about morality. Is morality necessarily to pursue what is more “preferable”? Why does our morality put us above animals only in responsibility towards them but not rights over them? (That is, they, being not moral, can eat each other, but we, being moral, must not eat them.) Why doesn’t our morality put us above them so that we have the right to use them, so long as it is with care and responsibility?

In turn, the others disagreed with my differentiation between “should not” and “must not,” for how can there be shades of morality? There is only “allowable” and “not allowable.” I couldn’t disagree more heartily with that. Life is full of “should nots” and “must nots.”

At the end I realized that I can’t be convinced. The others’ beliefs were just that – beliefs. They could logically argue them in the same way that a Christian theologian can argue, but without a leap of faith to see morality the way they do, no attempt at reason could convince me.

The truth is, first we FEEL something is right and then we find the arguments to support it.

When it comes to veganism, I believe that I should not participate in the animal products industry as it exists today. Veganism is a better choice on many many levels. My point here is not to argue them, but they spread the gamut of animal rights, human rights, environmental, health, and a general concern with capitalist infrastructure. In the end, there are many pressing reasons to be vegan, even if dissecting them all to prove them logically is impossible.

There are no pressing arguments for the consumption of meat. The only real reasons for a person like me to use animal products are for pleasure and convenience. Even without a cohesive ethics structure, I cannot validate my own pleasure and convenience despite all the evils that they cause.

And so, I reach my own conclusion, which is the same as it was before the discussion. My belief in the effectiveness of reason and logic, however, take one more hit.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Mushroom Finally

behind my parents house. i went snowshoeing back there the other day, but i couldn't find this one under two feet of snow...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Rome, as promised

I never finished my story about Rome.

The second and third day of my trip were significantly better than the first. I left the hostel early Saturday morning to walk to meet Virginia. We spent the day touring the city Virginia style - perfect. Espresso and cornetto (croissant) as the first thing. An open air flea market in the rain. A walking tour of her favorite cathedrals. Across town to Vatican City, where I saw San Pedro and the Swiss Guard and everything else. I didn't go inside, which maybe I regret a little tiny bit. No Sistine Chapel. But I don't really regret it, because I had a wonderful day laughing and reminiscing with Virginia. We went to a restaurant owned by her friend for a fantastic lunch buffet. Exhausted, we hiked it to her beautiful apartment in a wealthy area built up in the 1920s.

At any point I expected to head back to the hostel for the night. I would meet up with the Australians, I hoped, and pretend that I enjoyed myself as I tagged along on their nightlife tour. At the last minute, however, plans changed and I followed the Dao where it led me. Virginia and her husband took me to a dinner party with their group of intimate friends - all rich Roman socialites. One family owns a chain of shoe stores, one runs the restaurant, one couple were both famous models, Virginia's husband himself is a city architect. Not the elite, but definitely wealthy and happy to be in Roma. They welcomed me with warm friendliness like I hadn't seen even in Milan. They teased me for living in Milano, saying "that's not Italy. you must come to the south" and promising to introduce me to their single sons, all doctors and lawyers or their counterpart. We were served by a Filippino girl. I wondered if it is weird for Virginia, a Filippino herself, to be on the other side of society from most of her countrymates. In Milan I saw a lot of Filippinos working as nannies for the youngest of children and the oldest of grandparents. Virginia is in her element, however, and perfectly poised as she relaxes with her eight best friends.

I loved it, but I was the one who fell asleep on the couch at the ungodly hour of midnight. Virginia says that if you are the first to leave one of their dinner parties, they all talk about you after you've gone, but there was no saving me after two nights without significant sleep.

They let me sleep in their daughter's bed - lofted a few feet from the ceiling and graffitied with all her friends' names and love notes.

There was a hail storm that night, but I slept right through it.

The next morning I shared a coffee with Paul's mother who lives inside her room in the small apartment. The streets were full of inches of hail piled up like autumn leaves in the gutters and curbs. Virginia and I adventured to the Capitoline museum, where some of the most famous Roman, Etruscan, and Italian art is held. We saw the ruins buried forty feet under the current street level. We saw Nero, and Marcus Aurelius, and Romulus and Remus sucking the wolf's teat, and some of the best trompe l'oeil sculpture I've ever seen. I again, like in Florence, saw in person the works I've learned about.

Greek pottery - We learned the difference of black on red versus red on black, but it all looked the same in the textbook photographs until I could get my nose a few inches from the clay and see the scraped away bits and the painted on bits and truly relish their delicate beauty.

Humanist sculpture - I never fully understood what it meant for art to be humanist, how the Roman was revived in the Renaissance and the intervening Medieval art was truly different. In a hall of sculpture, however, where I could feel (even without touching) each muscle fiber and twitch of flesh carved into the marble, it all made sense. The importance of the human body - and the human mind attached to it - impressed itself upon me intensely. A slide in art class cannot convince the viewer of the time and effort it takes to wrestle a human form out of solid rock. In real life, however, you understand that what deserves this much time, attention, effort, expense - that reflects what is important to the ones creating, funding, and viewing the work.

Museums quickly overwhelm me. By the end I was ready to leave and find a bar for a cappuccino. Perfect.

A final tour of - oh shoot, i can't remember the name of the famous squares we visited - anyway, all the sites you are supposed to see in Rome. She took me to her favorite street, where all the artists live (the rich artists who've made it big). She used to tutor in English the modern aristocrat who owns most of the street. I loved seeing the pride she had in her own city. The day rendered me speechless, and I'm afraid Virginia misunderstood it as disinterest, but I tried to show her the rapture on my face.

Back again at Virginia's, we watched a football match on tv. It was Rome playing (I don't know against whom) and when they scored, we could open the windows and hear the cheers erupt from the stadium a mere kilometer away.

Paul gave me Grappa to try, which I am embarrassed to say I didn't like at all. I suppose my palette is not yet that refined.

Just as the night was turning dark, we went out in the car - Paul, Virginia, and Alison their daughter - for a driving tour of Rome. They wanted to hit the sights that weren't seen by most tourists because they could only be accessed by car. We went up to a mountain over the city and saw the view of the city. There was a peephole in the gate, through which St. Peters glowed like a golden diamond in a cerulean evening sky. The Garden of Oranges. Smaller, older cathedrals where I could see the simplicity that makes the famous ones ornate by comparison. They treated me so well.

Driving around the Coliseum in their car, I was happy.

Finally we went to a little (and expensive) Italian restaurant where they treated me to a final Roman meal before dropping me at the train station. I waited a few hours in the station before finally catching my 1130 train home.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Thanks for the Super Cool Link

This is great. Lego Steampunk.
Also, have you noticed the new Steampunk Esurance ad featuring Cloud Cult? Makes me want a steampunk band SO BAD.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Grammar Games

The title and byline for a New York Times article reads: "Who Owns Your Great Idea? That depends. Where did you have it and whom did you brainstorm with?"

"Whom did you brainstorm with" is an unusual use of half proper, half colloquial grammar that ends up sounding just plain odd.

In the author's sentence, the use of whom is correct. Whom is generally underused and misunderstood but actually not too difficult to master. Knowing when to employ it (and then actually using it effectively) takes you that last step into sounding like an intelligent, educated person. Which is what you want in a job interview, but not necessarily at the pub with your friends.

'Whom' is to object as 'who' is to subject. Whom stands as both direct object and indirect object: "Whom did you introduce to Evan?" and "To whom did you introduce Michaela?" The easy way to remember how to use it is to reword the sentence using 'him' or 'he.' He is a subject; its correct substitution is who. Him is the object; use whom. So, "Did you introduce him to Evan?" and "Did you introduce Michaela to him?" But "He introduced Micheala to Evan" becomes "Who introduced them?"

Please excuse the gender-biased use of 'he' and 'him' instead of 'she' and 'her.' I chose the male pronouns because the common use of m and the end of him and whom makes the pneuomonic that much simpler to remember.

My students in Upper Intermediate English told me that their textbooks taught them not to use 'whom' in any situation, calling it archaic and insisting that native English speakers never use it. I disagree. I was forced to learn who versus whom in high school English, and I have both used it and seen it used - usually correctly - ever since. Grammarians across the English speaking world take pride in the details of the language and how to employ them properly.

Referring back to the article's byline, we can dissect the positioning of 'with.' In proper, Strunk & White grammar, a sentence should never end with a preposition. In fact there should never be any lingering prepositions at all; a preposition is a linking word that must be followed by a noun or noun clause.

We ignore this rule all the time.

On one hand, all kinds of idioms and phrasal verbs have snuck into our language over time that throw wanton prepositions here, there, and every whichwhere. A phrasal verb is any verb + preposition that collectively takes on a new meaning. The components often don't clearly relate to the new meaning. Some common examples from my Business English course this fall include: hang up (the phone), put off (a meeting), call off (a meeting), put through (a connecting call), etc. For native speakers these are easy and intuitive because we've heard them since birth, but for someone learning English as a second language, these prove a big challenge. Some of these also become idiomatic expressions, like 'a hang up' which has nothing to to with the verb 'hang up.' Sometimes the phrasal verbs are followed by a noun to complete the prepositional phrase, although often we let the noun go unsaid, leaving the listener to fill in the difference. With idioms, however, the preposition lingers with no realistic partner at all. Look at the use of 'ends up' in my first sentence.

A British English teacher told me that phrasal verbs entered the language thanks to the Americans in World War II. Rising concern over lingering prepositions during this era would explain Winston Churchill's famous quote, "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put." Since hearing that bit of American defamation I noticed that both Alfred Lord Tennyson and even Shakespeare have examples of phrasal verbs in their writing. Clearly not all abuse of the English language is America's fault.

Another example of problematic prepositions occurs when we rearrange the order of a sentence. Variety is an important tool for any speaker or writer of English. The standard format, "We take pride in our school," needs some spice (or shall I say, spicing up) and might become, "It's something we take pride in," leaving 'in' lingering. The noun for that prepositional phrase came all the way at the front of the sentence ('it').

English always rearranges the order of questions, leaving interrogatives with prepositions a messy tangle. "I brainstormed with him" should translate into "With whom did you brainstorm?" but these days it's normal to say "Who did you brainstorm with?" even though there are two errors in the sentence.

Americans usually know these mistakes and choose to ignore them. We don't expect daily speech to be grammatically correct. Our most common errors then translate back into written language. High school teachers wade through these errors, trying to teach how to write proper English even if the pupils aren't going to speak it. Until ten or fifteen years ago most of what we read went through the filter of an editor who corrected those things, but with the internet, it usually rests solely on the author to consider whether her grammer is correct. Furthermore, language texts like New Headway are choosing to teach spoken, colloquial English rather than the proper language we learn in school. The text had my students practicing ending sentences with prepositions, which was even against what felt natural to them.

As casual language becomes more and more common, proper English sounds increasingly convoluted and eventually falls out of favor. It is still the standard for writing, but use it with your friends and they might throw something at you for being pretentious.

In the article's byline, the author has chosen a strange combination of what neither is correct nor feels natural. If she is going to use 'whom,' she should put 'with' also in the right place. Or she must embrace the casual nature of her online readership and stick with what she probably says in real life, "Who did you brainstorm with?"