At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

The Case Against Animalism

posted by Jack Kerwick

It hasn’t been until the last half-of-a-century or so since we have discovered that up until that juncture, the human race had been trapped in moral darkness.  With the advent of the 1960’s, though, we gradually began to ascend from this cave, for it was then that we discovered that the institutional arrangements and modes of life to which we had long grown accustomed were nothing less than instruments of racial oppression.

In the ‘60’s, we discovered the evil of “racism.”

Later on in the decade and into the next, as we grew more enlightened, it dawned on us that not only was America founded and sustained upon the backs of non-European minorities; women, too, have been subjugated.  In addition to being “racist” to its core,America—and all of Western civilization—is incorrigibly “sexist,” we realized.

In the ‘80’s and beyond, we reckoned with the glaring truth that we were an even more depraved people than these jarring revelations would have had us believe.  It was bad enough that we were “racist” and “sexist.”  But then we discovered that we are also “homophobic!”  It was during this time that homosexuals joined racial minorities and women as victims of “Amerikanism” and Western civilization more generally. 

Since then, other heretofore undiscovered evils have been unveiled: “classism”—the differential treatment of people on the basis of socio-economic class; “ageism”—the differential treatment of people on the basis of age; “ableism”—the differential treatment of people on the basis of ability; “Islamophobia”—the differential treatment of people on the basis of their adherence to Islam; and even “specieism”—the differential treatment of animals on the basis of their exclusion from the human species.

Given this rapid rate of moral progress, it is nothing short of a monumental disappointment that there is one evil that has yet to be recognized for the horror that it is. 

The evil I refer to is that of what we may call “animalism”: the differential treatment of plant life on the basis of the fact that plants are not animals.

If Americacan be said to have been built upon the proverbial backs of the historically disadvantaged and marginalized, then the planet can be said to have been built upon the proverbial backs of plants.  In the absence of plants, we would be without the elements—particularly, oxygen—without which the existence of animals—of the human and non-human varieties—would be impossible.  Moreover, plants were around long before any other life forms emerged on the scene.

And yet, to this day, plants remain at the mercy of other living things.

Before the emergence of animals, plants ruled the planet.  There were no wars, no bloodshed.  For that matter, there wasn’t even any pain.

Since the advent of animals, all of this has changed. 

The whole world now is governed according to a scheme that has no place for anything that is not either a predator or a prey.  The scary thing about our circumstances is that the ubiquity and comprehensiveness of the systems of animalist domination to which they have given rise continue to blind us to them.  How can things not be so?  After all, every conceivable mode of thought—from the law, morality, and religion, to literature, science, history, and beyond—is determined by an idiom that is animalist through and through.  Our discourses covertly—and not always so covertly—perpetuate animalism.

In other words, those presuppositions and prejudices that have conspired over the span of millennia to generate animal-centric hierarchies—asymmetrical relations of power within which animals are assigned a position of privilege over subjugated plants—are structural.  They are embedded within our institutions.  Structural or institutional animalism, then, renders us all unconscious animalists.

Although the planet once belonged to plants, we have either claimed ownership of them or corralled many of them into “parks,” “public gardens,” and “wildlife reserves”—i.e. the equivalents of concentration camps, reservations, and slave quarters.  And even then, they are still prey to animal predators.

This horror of animalism transcends political parties, religions, cultures, and even species.  Yes, that’s right: even non-human animals are implicated in it.  Granted, unreasoning animals aren’t as guilty as humans.  But this doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be held somewhat responsible for their animalism.  If non-human animals can be said to have “rights”—and this is what anti-specieists and others say about them—then the implication that is most strongly urged on us is that these animals must also be held accountable for what they do. 

Doubtless, the more sophisticated animalists among us—academic philosophers particularly—will object either to my position that there is such a thing as animalism or to my claim that it is an evil.  Equally doubtless is the line of defense that they will advance. 

“Animalism,” if it is a meaningful term at all, they will contend, is no evil, for there is no one or nothing that is harmed by it.  Plants, unlike human and non-human animals, are not sentient.  A sentient being is a being that is capable of experiencing pleasure and pain.  It is true that not all animals possess the same measure of sentience, and some animals, like lobsters, say, seem to possibly experience very little if any sentience.  Still, it is certain that plants have no sentience: they experience no pain. 

On its face, this line of argumentation appears plausible as far as it goes.  The problem with it, however, is that it doesn’t go far at all.  It is easily met.   

First, this apology for animalism conflates the concepts of harm and pain.  The two are not the same.  Even if it is true that there are no plants that experience pain, this does not mean that it is impossible to harm them.  A person who is cheated on by his spouse may never find out about his wife’s infidelity.  He is, then, not pained by it.  But he is harmed by it, because whether he knows it or not, he has been betrayed, deceived, manipulated.  It is only on the shallowest conception of harm that the case can be made that only if someone feels pain can they be injured.

Thus, inasmuch as we destroy plants for the sake of animal well being, whether real or perceived, we do indeed harm them.  That they cannot experience pain is immaterial.

Second, the utterances and deeds of environmentalists of all sorts suggest that they are well aware of the distinction between pain and harm.  This explains why they fight tooth and nail for wildlife reserves and the rest.  Yes, they express concern for the animals that will be homeless in the event of deforestation.  But there is also no shortage of concern expressed for the plants themselves. 

That this is so can be seen from the following thought experiment. 

Imagine that you are walking along a tree-lined city street and pause to avail yourself of some shade provided by one of the Dogwoods.  About fifty feet or so away, you notice a rowdy group of teenagers that has set its sights upon one of the other Dogwood trees. Unlike you, the teens aren’t interested in seeking relief from the afternoon sun.  Rather, they proceed to vandalize the tree by breaking off its branches.  Surely, you will be appalled by this.  Why? 

There is no question that, whether they were beating on a tree or a lamppost, you will find offensive the violent nature of the teens’ activity.  But beyond this, that it is a living thing—an innocent tree—that did nothing to provoke their outrageous conduct will also account for no small measure of your own outrage.

Third and finally, the argument from sentience pushes the animalist’s problem back one more step and further exposes his bigotry.  The animalist, it is now clear, is a “sentiencist.”  In fact, animalism is propped up by sentiencism.  The latter is the doctrine that only those beings that can experience pleasure and pain are morally relevant, for only sentient beings can be harmed.  Yet sentiencism is objectionable for all of the same reasons that animalism is wrong.

Hence, the counter-objection—the argument from sentience—is question-begging.    

If morality demands impartiality for all peoples and all animal species, then it is nothing more or less than sheer arbitrariness that stops us from extending that impartiality to plants as well.  If all humans and animals have “rights,” then plants have rights too.

It is high time that we recognize animalism and its sister vice, sentiencism, for the evils that they are.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

orginally published at The New American 

 

 

What is “Racism?”

posted by Jack Kerwick

If a representative of our generation was made to stand before an alien tribunal and identify the worst of evils, there can be no doubt that it would be “racism” to which he would allude.  It would be better for a person to be convicted in the court of public opinion of child molestation (to say nothing of murder or rape) than to be judged guilty of “racism.”  This is particularly true if the person is regarded as white (witness George Zimmerman).

“Racism” is of a uniquely evil nature.  Of this, we are sure.  But what exactly is this most incendiary of crimes against humanity?  What exactly is “racism?”

 

“Racism” as Doctrine of Innate Inferiority

Originally, “racism” is the term that was reserved to describe the position that individuals were intellectually and morally superior and inferior to one another depending on the racial groups to which they belonged.  Thus, a white person who regarded all black people as inferior to himself simply and solely because they were black would be considered a “racist.” 

The problem, though, with defining “racism” in terms of this belief is that while the doctrine of innate inferiority is doubtless false, it is not clearly evil.  It would be evil, though, if one of two things were true.

(1). If all false beliefs were evil, then this false belief would be evil. 

However, the idea that false beliefs are evil because they are false is ridiculous.  Furthermore, if it is the erroneous nature of the doctrine of innate inferiority that renders it immoral, then there is nothing uniquely, or even distinctively, about it that makes it so. 

(2). It may be argued that the doctrine of innate inferiority is evil because it is the basis for racial persecution.

This line too is dubious. 

Whether this doctrine is either necessary or sufficient for racially-motivated hostility is an empirical question that has never been asked, though it has been answered.  Conventional wisdom aside, thoughts are not always “the basis” for our actions.  Think about it: a stranger cuts you off on the highway and you envision doing all manner of evil to him.  But just because you have these ugly thoughts running through your mind at the moment, do you ever truly think that there is any real chance of your acting on them? 

Thoughts are not always the basis of our actions.  But let’s, for argument’s sake, say that they are.  Why assume that the doctrine of innate inferiority will necessarily translate into racial animosity and cruelty?  After all, we encounter beings, whether humans or animals, who we judge to be inferior in some respects or other all of the time.  I do indeed hold that the man who is chronically unfaithful to his wife is morally inferior to I who am faithful to mine. And I believe that I am morally and intellectually superior to my goldfish.  This, though, does not in the least motivate me to treat anyone or any thing cruelly. 

In any event, it is the conduct that warrants praise or blame—not the ideas accompanying the conduct.

 

“Racism” as Racial Hatred

Some say that “racism” is a matter of hating the members of other races. 

First of all, unless “hatred” is always evil, there is no a priori reason why this type of hatred is evil. 

Second, just because a person hates all of the members of another race does not mean that he will then make it his life’s mission to persecute the objects of his hatred.  Hatred, like any other emotion, expresses itself in numerous ways—none of which can be determined in advance. 

Third, presumably, racial hatred is immoral because race is a morally irrelevant concept: an accident of birth like race is neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy.  Well enough.  But this being so, then it follows that “racism” is not uniquely horrible, for it is the irrelevance of race that renders racial hatred impermissible.  This means that hating people on the basis of race is no more and no less evil than hating people who are left handed, short, tall, obese, thin, pimple-faced, etc.  Thus, there is nothing distinctively, let alone uniquely, evil about hating others on the grounds of race.

 

“Racism” as Racial Discrimination

To discriminate on the basis of race—now this is “racism.”

Not so fast. 

The problem with this approach is that it is indiscriminate in its application of the term “discrimination.”  Is there something especially evil about using race as a criterion when making a decision?  Or is it only evil when race is permitted to trump all other considerations?

Considering that there isn’t one among us who hasn’t assigned racial considerations some role in some of our decision-making—just think of the decisions to date, marry, and procreate—I think it is safe to conclude that the racial discrimination to which the champions of this understanding of “racism” object consists in relying upon race as the sole, or even primary, standard in life.  Or so they’ll say.

So be it.  The next question is: Why is it abominable to use race as the primary or sole standard in decision-making? 

The answer, I would think, is that race is as irrelevant as eye color.   Yet if this is so (and it is far from obvious that it is), then there is nothing particularly horrible about racial discrimination or “racism.” It is the irrelevance of race that renders the latter immoral. 

Racial discrimination or “racism,” then, is no more and no less immoral than discrimination on the grounds of eye color.

 

Conclusion

From this analysis, there are a couple of deductions that we can make.

The first is that “racism” is most definitely not a unitary phenomenon.  The forgoing accounts of “racism” are irreducible to one another: each stands by itself. 

Secondly, upon considering each statement of “racism,” we are compelled to paraphrase the author of 1 Corinthians and cry out: “Where, oh ‘Racism,’ is your sting?”  Each of these readings fails to accommodate the notion that “racism” is something especially awful. 

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 

 

 

 

 

Republican Contradictions and Ron Paul

posted by Jack Kerwick

There is something afoot within the Republican Party specifically and American politics generally.  Something is happening, something that will make it increasingly difficult for the GOP of today to return to its previous way of doing things.

This “something” is a keenly felt incoherence within the GOP, a tension that is on its way to boiling over.  This tension has been brought about in part by the presidency of Barack Obama, it is true.  But the contribution of the latter consists in simply forcing to the forefront inconsistencies within the GOP that long predate the rise of Obama, inconsistencies that are the offspring of the tumultuous marriage between the party’s rhetoric and its practice.

Republicans loudly and proudly affirm “limited government” and the “individual liberty” to which the former is supposed to give rise. Yet their talk is one thing.  Their walk is something else altogether.  In practice, the differences between Republicans and Democrats are differences of degree—fractions of a degree, at that.

We need not recapitulate the many respects in which our two national parties are for all intents and purposes indistinguishable.  One need only reflect upon the presidency of George W. Bush to recognize that while our 43rd President was many things, a proponent of “limited government” he most certainly was not.

However, regardless of Republican media spin, the base of the party has long recognized that its leadership has failed miserably to advance the agenda that it claims to support.  This explains why with every primary season, voters insist on the need to nominate a “real conservative.”  That the majority of the GOP’s base remains mired in confusion on this matter is beside the point.  The very fact that the base routinely reveals itself to be at odds with “the establishment” proves that even Republicans perceive a conflict between what Republican politicians, strategists, and commentators say and what they do.     

I contend that it is the candidacy of Ron Paul that has at once illuminated and remedied this conflict. Because of his visibility as a national figure, to say nothing of his earthy charm, Paul has made it impossible for Republicans to any longer deny the glaring incongruity between their utterances and their actions. 

Paul explodes onto the national scene espousing just those ideas to which Republicans have claimed to be committed for decades.  His fellow Republicans in the presidential primary contests of 2008 and today are no less reserved than is Paul in expressing their support of “limited government” and “individual liberty.”  Yet it is Paul, and Paul alone, who is regularly treated by both his colleagues and their supporters in the so-called “conservative” media as persona non grata.  Why?

The question is rhetorical: Paul is clearly the only one who truly believes in that of which Republicans speak. 

At a minimum, he is the only one who recognizes that certain kinds of policies—like those suited for waging an interminable war against a vague enemy—are radically incompatible with Republican Party ideals.

Just by virtue of his presence, Paul simultaneously identifies the contradiction at the core of GOP politics and points the way toward its resolution. 

Paul calls out his fellow partisans while hurling them on the horns of a dilemma.  If Republicans really believe in the ideals to which they pay lip service, then they have no logical or moral option but to adopt the policies that Paul prescribes.  If, though, they refuse to adopt these prescriptions by continuing along the path that they have been traveling for far too long, then we have no logical option but to conclude that their ideals are nothing more than rhetorical devices for procuring votes.   

There is no slipping between these two horns: the dilemma is inescapable.

Republicans know this.  This is why they have reacted to Paul as hysterically as they have.  Paul is a whistle blower.  The affable Texas Congressman and stalwart constitutionalist has aired the GOP’s dirty laundry for all of the country to see. 

However, Paul is generous.  Yes, he has shown that the Emperor has no clothes. But he has offered to provide clothing—and more. Paul seeks to adorn the GOP with those jewels—our Constitutional liberties—that its rhetoric would have us think it prizes. And he seeks to do this by charting a new course for his party and his country, a course that is in keeping with the spirit of liberty in which Americans have traditionally delighted. 

Paul’s support among voters not only indicates no signs of diminishing; it continues to swell.  As much as Republicans in the media would love to have us believe that the Paul phenomenon is negligible or vanishing, that Paul continues, and will continue, to accumulate delegates all of the way to the Republican National Convention exposes this line for the falsehood that it is.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 

 

 

 

Conversation vs. Talkativeness

posted by Jack Kerwick

We are a talkative people.  In this era of mass communication, human beings have never talked more: “social media,” cell phones, texting, email—it is increasingly difficult, almost impossible, to spend much time without communicating to someone or other.

However, in the midst of this avalanche of loquacity, a paradox is afoot: the more talkative we have become, the less conversable we have become.

We talk and we talk and we talk—but we do not converse.

It has long been noted (but not noted enough) that conversation is an art.  Sadly, though, it is a lost art.

There is doubtless a sense in which it can be said that every generation falls in love with itself.  But our generation is obsessed with itself.

The rise of “Reality Television” has done much to fuel this self-obsession, it is true; yet it is more a function of our excessive self-love than its cause.  Facebook, twitter, MySpace, Youtube, the blogosphere, etc., have given anyone and everyone platforms for self-expression.  In so doing, though, they have inflated our sense of self-importance.

I think that it is this self-importance that has sounded the death knell for the art of conversation. 

Like any art, the art of conversation requires practice.  And like any art, mastery of the art of conversation entails the perfection of virtues that are peculiar to it. 

One of these virtues—recognized by the ancients as one of the four cardinal human excellences—is the virtue of temperance.  “Temperance” is what we today are more inclined to call “self-control” or “self-discipline.”  The temperate person has mastered his desires by bringing them under the governance of reason.

Temperance is a virtue in exceedingly short supply today.  This can be seen most readily in our exchanges with others. 

Most people ache to be heard.  So, they seek out anyone from whom they can gain a hearing.  Yet hearing and listening are two entirely distinct activities.  To hear someone is nothing less than to have one’s ear drums bombarded by noise. The hearer is passive. The listener, on the other hand, engages in an activity.  The listener, in contrast to the hearer, is mindful of his interlocutor.  To put it another way, the listener is temperate, for he has restrained his desire to speak.

Of course, a virtuous conversationalist isn’t just a good listener.  There are other excellences—civility, articulateness, generosity, equanimity, hospitality, etc.—that he needs to possess. But unless he listens to what his partner in conversation has to say, conversation is impossible.

Conversation is a civilizing activity.  In conversation, two personalities meet in an act of mutual self-disclosure.  Moreover, each personality invites the other to unveil itself.  Genuine conversation has no place for the conventional altruism/selfishness distinction, for the hospitality of fellow conversationalists is motivated as much by a desire to forge their own identities as it is motivated by a desire to advance the interests of one another. 

Sheer talkativeness, in contrast, retards the civilizing mission of conversation. Talkativeness reflects and feeds narcissism.  Those who are talkative relish in their own talk—regardless of what they are prone to say.  They care not a lick about permitting others the same self-indulgence.  Sheer talkativeness relates to conversation as rape relates to love making.  Sheer talkativeness approximates violence as the exceedingly chatty leave their victims feeling brutalized.  While there are only subjects in conversation, the person exploited by the chatty is an object: the chatty reduces him to nothing more or less than a sounding board or, at best, an echo chamber. Talkativeness reflects and feeds narcissism. 

Perhaps it is high time that we had a conversation about the (lost) art of conversation.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

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