Kantianism and the Futility Worry

We welcome back philosophy contributor Eliot Michelson whose controversial first post stirred things up a bit. In his promised follow-up, Michaelson continues searching for solutions to the worries presented over the summer. I hope you’ll continue to share you thoughts below as we develop more sound arguments for ethical veganism.

– Joshua Katcher, Editor

By Eliot Michaelson, Ph.D. Candidate

After my last post, several of my friends in philosophy started pushing on me the thought that perhaps we have a duty not to eat animals — a duty stemming from the fact that animals exhibit certain qualities (sentience, an ability to feel pain, or whatever) that suffice to grant them moral significance.  (Interestingly, some of the most adamant proponents of this line of thought have been non-vegetarians, which has started to make me feel like I’m inhabiting a strange inverted world.)  These discussions got me thinking: might we have such a duty?  I should preface my remarks by saying that I’m very sympathetic to the idea that we have lots of duties to each other, and to animals.  I have a duty not to kill other people, for instance, nor should I kill animals.  In fact, I think I should also help people (and animals) out where I can, when I can.  And I don’t mean that I just think it’s nice for us to do these things if we feel like it.  No, I actually think it’s mandatory to help people out where you can.  And I think that ‘where you can’ is a lot more inclusive than just about any of us are living up to.  All that is to say, I’ve got nothing against duties; I think there are lots and lots of them.  And I think that recognizing these duties is an important part of coming to better understand our moral lives.  Still, I wondered, do we have a duty to be vegetarian?

Continue reading “Kantianism and the Futility Worry”

Fresh Friday Finds

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6.Discerning Depot: If you live in the NYC area, check out Build It Green, which is the punk-rock, dumpster-diving, freegan cousin of Home Depot. Build It Green! NYC, is New York City’s only non-profit retail outlet for salvaged and surplus building materials. Their warehouse has everything from panel doors to high end refrigerators and shutters to movie props. Their mission is to keep these materials out of the landfill, while offering deep discounts on their resale.

7. Trashion: Cufflinks by Wabisabi Brooklyn. The team uses vintage elements, recycled papers, and humble metals such as copper to create their designs. “We want our pieces to embody the meaning behind the name of our company,” says LoVerme. “Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic concept that means finding beauty in imperfection. (from Trashion)


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The Inadequacy of Anthropocentrism

In the same way that we might imagine a cat being unaware of the existence of a Planet Earth or an abstract universe, and a fly that is buzzing around the cat being furthermore unaware of even the city or the house the cat is in, and a virus living in the fly being even furthermore unaware of the existence of the very fly it lives in – and all of these entities may be unable to entirely perceive or decode the functions and patterns of our human creations and abstractions – we live through our understanding of time and space while immersed in, surrounded by, filled with, and dwarfed by things beyond our comprehension. Even statistically speaking, human perception is greatly outnumbered by other subjects of perception. We reside within the limitations of our biological hardware; our recognized five, possibly six senses. And in that, we can only look for and compare other things to the senses we are equipped with.

It is arrogant to maintain human-centered, or anthropocentric physical and cognitive abilities as the standard for desirable intelligence. It is also arrogant to assume that other organisms like trees, tarantulas, and termites are simply automatons carrying out robotic gestures that our scientists can neatly place into categories for utilitarian purposes.

Wild nature no longer inhabits a spiritual and meaningful place in our human generated environments. Instead, this culture has steadily aimed to reduce everything that is not human (and in many cases, humans that those in power consider less deserving) to a stockpile of resources to be exploited. Simply because this culture has become good at physical manipulation (consider how drastically our civilization has impacted the biosphere over just the last 10,000 years) most of us naturalize this massive devouring and shifting of the physical earth as a sign of supreme superiority and progress.

Until elephants build a supercomputer, or raccoons write laws, or penguins invest an abstract representation of their resources in a stock-market, I’ll consider human beings smart and everything else stupid,” might be something you’d hear from any typical person that considers themselves intelligent, yet something as simple as radio-waves flow through us unnoticed. A tool interprets it, and changes it into a dialect we can perceive. What other phenomena transpire in ways we haven’t the hardware to grasp, or tools to interpret? What might exist outside the scope of our ability to express something’s characteristics? What lies beyond our biological vocabularies – even beyond all the materials on this planet’s potential to create tools to interpret some of those phenomenon, and beyond anything in the universe we think we could know or observe; even beyond those abilities to create tools with which we may interpret phenomenon we cannot biologically perceive? The possibilities are endless, unimaginable, and humbling.

If none of us had sight, how could we ever understand what it was or even know there was a plane of perception involving sight? We can’t see sound, although we can see the effects of sound, maybe something vibrating – maybe a visual representation of sound waves, but we know they exist. What other phenomenon must slip by not just one or two of our senses, but all of them? What organisms that we write off as unintelligent and unimportant are sensitive to these phenomenon that pass us by?

Now, back to that cat, fly, and virus. The possibility that these entities are equipped with hardware or software that we cannot comprehend (because we can only compare within our bodies and biological tools’ limitations), and that they are functioning on levels that we cannot percieve is likely, if not probable.

Dare I refer to the phenomenon existing outside our perception as spiritual? Maybe ‘supernatural’ feels safer? Consider ant colonies. Migration. Schools of fish, swarms of bugs, oceanic mammal navigation – Non-humans could be, and probably are functioning on planes we cannot perceive. We do not consider ourselves less intelligent for not sharing these abilities and perceptions, yet we hold non-humans accountable, and often justify their exploitation with that double-standard of not being enough like us to respect their will to live and to let them carry out their activities without being subjected to human standards.

Question: Is it a sign of intelligence to be a successful member of an ecosystem – meaning, not destroying your niche’s ability to support your life? It would seem that organisms that outgrow their niche die off. If they overpopulate, over-consume, over-exploit their home – they tend to die. Considering that humans have been around for a few million years, and within the very brief (almost fluke-like) period of our civilization, we have destroyed so much, I would argue for a reevaluation of what we consider intelligence and progress.