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.

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