Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Good discussion on animal rights on national talk radio today

Nationally syndicated radio talk show host Dennis Prager had a pretty good discussion on his show today about animal rights. It stemmed from a story about Buddhist monks whose temple has been infested by venomous red fire ants and how the the monks will not exterminate them because of their philosophy of "non-violence". I certainly don't agree with Prager on every issue ( he's a religious conservative and I'm a secular libertarian), but I do respect him as a critical thinker. As an agnostic leaning somewhat toward atheism, I take issue with Prager's notion that "secular thinking" or "secular values" leads to the idea that human life and animal life are of equal moral worth. Having said that, Prager does a pretty elegant job of exposing some of the people who subscribe to the equal moral worth dogma of animal rights, simply by letting them speak for themselves. The folly of some of the callers who support the human/animal moral equivalency idea is really quite priceless. You can listen here. Simply click on the listen icon under the "Humans v. Red Ants" title. Enjoy.


CarolWR said...

Hi GrizzlyBear -

I thought Prager dealt respectfully on the issue of the category of vegetarianism that views animals and humans on a moral or ethical par. I also thought he was very respectful towards moral/ethical vegetarianism and particular vegetarians who called in, even as he exposed the weakness and falseness of vegetarian’s moral and ethical arguments.

I liked that Prager pointed out the different motivations for becoming vegetarian. There are many different reasons why people choose to become vegetarian, including religious reasons, ethics and morality, aesthetics and emotional, for nutrition and health, for ecology and economics. For instance the aesthetic/emotional based vegetarian caller who can’t stomach the thought of animals being killed and ingested. Some of the different reasons may be connected. Prager said that one of the callers was an emotional vegetarian rather than a moral/ethical vegetarian because of a belief in animal rights or equal moral worth. He may have been correct in the case of the caller. Still, there can sometimes be a connection in that an aesthetic/emotional discomfort towards killing and eating animals can lead to or be solidified in an ethical/animal rights and equal moral worth way of thinking. E.g., a human torturing an animal and making it suffer needlessly is, for me, a sickening thought and sight and it doesn’t enoble a human being. This is what I feel and think emotionally. But, also based on this human emotional reaction – as I think people generally feel and think uneasily about human gratuitous cruelty (torture) to animals - one could argue on ethical grounds that it is wrong for humans to torture an animal. So an emotional aversion to eating killed animals can sometimes also be an ethical aversion to killing and eating animals.

I’m not very familiar with Buddhism and Jainism and variations within them, so I might be incorrect in making the following point. But, I’m not sure that Buddhist and Jain vegetarianism really arises out of any ethical notion of inherent worth and moral rights of animals not to be killed by humans, or any notion of moral equality between nonhuman animals and humans. Both seem to be very human-centered and more about the good or bad effects of one’s actions (karma). Causing non-injury (or ahimsa) to animals isn’t really practiced because of animal rights and equal moral consideration. It’s practiced in Buddhism in order to attain salvation or Nirvana (enlightenment/ultimate disinterested wisdom and compassion) or, in the case of Jainism, purification and perfection of the soul through reincarnation. In Buddhism and in Jain, animals don’t seem to be the moral equivalents of humans. E.g., cows may be vegetarian, which is considered in Buddhism an act of reducing dukkha (that which causes pain, suffering, unhappiness) and, thus, should be good karma. But, cows, like all nonhuman animals, never go to to Nirvana directly. Only humans can. It is human life that is valued as unique in that to be human one is given the opportunity to reach enlightenment. Animals can’t in their lifetime reach such. Also, in Jainism, there are 5 types of beings. Humans (and some animals) are five-sensed beings. Larger insects that lack hearing belong to the 4-sensed beings, the smaller insects, including those venomous red fire ants, that lack both hearing and sight, would belong to the 3-sensed beings; and down the ‘chain of being’ are worms, leaches and shellfish, etc., categorised as 2-sensed beings; then, entities that posess only the sense of touch, like vegetables, are 1-sensed beings. In Jainism, though ideally one should not harm any being, it is worse to harm a higher being than to harm a lower being. Also, the notion of ahimsa, even with the notion of karma, can contribute to passive indifference of an animal’s suffering. For, in Jainism, it may simply be one’s fate to suffer in this lifetime, though in the hope of reincarnation on a higher/better plane the time around. My point being that vegetarianism in Buddhism and Jainism is, I think, more an expression of asceticism than an ethical conception of the inherent worth and moral rights of animals. Animal rights- and equal moral worth-based vegetarianism is more a western idea, I think.

I completely agree with you and would also take issue with Prager’s notion that secular moral thinking and philosophies leads to the notion that human life and animal life are of equal moral worth. In other words, he is saying that religious-based values and theory leads to the morally proper placing of the value of human life as being above that of animal life. Yet, he discusses Buddhism (a religion) or the story of these religious, Buddhist monks with their religious philosophy of non-violence that are placing the lives on red fire ants above that of their fellow human monks! Prager also rants on as if all or most moral/ethical- or animal-rights-based vegetarians are secular non-religious people. This simply is not true. There are a number of well-known writers of animal rights or just higher moral worth of animals, and of vegetarianism as a religious/spiritual imperative who hold religious beliefs. Modern folks who come to my immediate mind are Rev Andrew Linzey, Rev Gary Korwalski, Roberta Kalechofsky, founder of Jews for Animal Rights, and Matthew Scully, who wrote Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, and he is a devout Christian. I know there are more and there are many ordinary religious vegetarians around the world.

Also, in the debate related to the issue of the worth of man and nonhuman animals is the controversy between (religious) creationism and (secular) evolution. I think the observable fact of evolution and speciation is a much better explanation and justification for “species-ism” and placing the importance of humans to humans over that of nonhuman animals than the idea of faith-based creationism and other Christian dogma of a constant world, a created world, a world designed by a wise and benign Creator, and the belief in the unique position of man in creation. I’m not anti religion. I just think it’s difficult to find specific moral guidance in relgion. Our modern problems are not the same as the moral and practical problems faced by early Jews and Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. We can’t realy claim that our moral views today on a complex moral issue are derived from religious injunctions and madates. More likely we can only interpret the church tradition, or scriptures, in such a way as to support whatever moral conclusion that is reached. It is more the instance that people’s moral convections are superimposed on their religion rather than derived from their religion. Right and worng are not to be defined in terms of a God’s will. Morality and ethics is a matter of reason and conscinece, not religious faith. Morality/ethics and religion are different. Even if a particular theological system were true, morality and ethics is independent of religion.

As an aesthetic and, I think, moral vegetarian myself, I also, at one time, extended the basis for my thinking on animal rights and equal inherent worth. But, I dropped the rights and equal inherent value when I realized that my actions were not consistent with my espoused principles. Much that I wanted not to have animals killed on my behalf, I had to admit for myself that vegetarianism as an ethical dietary choice, as well as my conscientious lifestyle, in actuality consistently overrode the rights to life and basic welfare that I claimed animals had. I am still a vegetarian, but not “AR.” So, I do rather admire the consistency between practice and preached belief that these Buddhist monks have.

Respectfully submitted,
Carol W. Reeves

Grizzly Bear said...

Hi Carol

Thanks for your thoughts. Very poignant as usual. There isn't a whole lot that I can add. I do agree with your thought that frequently it is the emotions that leads one to be an ethical vegetarian, so I don't really see a lot of distinction there that Prager seems to. The one caller that struck me the most was the one who beleived that meat was "murdered flesh", which was the term I think she used. If I had been the host, I would have asked this caller if she was aware of the animal deaths that are involved in the growing and processing of vegetarian foods. I would have reminded her that by eating said foods, she also was complicet in the "murder" of animals. Like Prager I take no issue with those who are vegetarian for health or personal religious or ethical reasons. I do take issue with those who place human and animal life on the same moral plane and with those who seek to push their vegetarian ethics on to those who don't share those ethics.

aloe2 said...

Hi Grizzly Bear –

In re the caller who believed that meat is “murdered flesh”: I suspect that the caller might have claimed to have been aware that animals are maimed and killed in the production of her vegetarian diet. But, I suspect that she might not have agreed that, as such, she was “complicit in the “murder” of animals.” I say this because Prager questioned her as to whether she considered her 16-year-old son to be a murderer because he ate meat, and she said no because “someone else did the murdering.” I suspect she would use the same reasoning for herself. She might also justify her paying others to murder on her behalf with the standard “AR” excuse used of, but animals in crop ag are “incidentally” killed (which in “AR” lingo means “accidentally” killed) rather than intentionally raised to be intentionally killed/murdered; animal killing in crop ag is indirect while animals killed in animal food ag is direct.