Ethics & Animal Rights

“The question is not, Can they reason? Nor can they talk? But, can they suffer?”

– Jeremy Bentham

Imagine growing up in 18th century America. Your family might own slaves, your friends’ families might own slaves, and it would be entirely normal to grow up around slaves. Most people did not worry about the ethics of slavery, until the Abolitionists came along and made it an issue.1

It’s probable that you and I wouldn’t have kicked up a fuss about it. Protesting would have risked social ostracisation.

In the same way that people didn’t think of black people as people until somebody else forced them to look at what was right in front of them, most people didn’t think of animals as worthy of moral consideration until Peter Singer came along and sparked the animal liberation movement in the West. It’s still a minority view. I grew up eating meat; my friends all eat meat; my parents grew up eating meat; and so on. Eating meat is normal.

This will eventually change.

The more you examine it, the more our attitude to animals seems logically inconsistent.2 Most people would be outraged if they were out in the park walking their dog, and some random stranger came up to them and shot the dog dead. But when it’s someone else killing an animal after putting it up in living conditions that amount to torture, we look the other way.

Perhaps, however, you would kill an animal yourself for the sole purpose of eating it. If this is true, I’m still willing to bet that you wouldn’t kill and eat a human. So there must be some important distinction between humans and animals, such that eating animals is OK but eating humans isn’t.

But what is that distinction? It can’t be intelligence, because otherwise eating infant babies would be OK. The obvious answer is that we don’t want to harm things that feel pain, and humans feel pain. But so do animals. If harming one is wrong, then harming the other is wrong too.

‘The circle of empathy’ has widened over time. Society went from only valuing the preferences of certain classes of people, and ignoring the preferences of other classes of people (brown people, black people, gay people etc.), to treating all humans equally. I think eventually we’ll come to realize that animals, too, should be included in that circle. There is no good reason to exclude them.

Further Reading

  • I highly recommend Peter Singer’s work. All of the above is basically an informal statement of his philosophically rigorous case.
  • A great exploration using the medium of short fiction is done by JM Coetzee in his Tanner Lecture ‘The Lives of Animals’.
  • Jonathan Safran Foer explores the broader questions nicely in his book Eating Animals.

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  1. A few weeks after writing this, I came across the late Aaron Swartz’s essay, ‘Against Reflective Equilibrium‘, which takes a similar line of argument. It’s a common manuever, so the similarity isn’t that surprising, but it’s still striking.
  2. Amusing example from David Foster Wallace (pdf):

    “It occurs to me that I had bacon yesterday and am even now looking forward to my first corn dog of the fair. I’m standing here wringing my hands over a distressed swine and then I’m going to go pound down a corn dog(…) I can imagine what (the swineherders) think of us, cooing at the swine: we fairgoers don’t have to deal with the business of breeding and feeding our meat; our meat simply materializes at the corn-dog stand, allowing us to separate our healthy appetites from fur and screams and rolling eyes. We tourists get to indulge our tender animal-rights feelings with our tummies full of bacon…”

The Smears Against Edward Snowden Have Begun

David Brooks, writing for the NYT, informs us that:

he could not successfully work his way through the institution of high school

and that:

he has not been a regular presence around his mother’s house for years.

Jeffrey Toobin, of the New Yorker, writes that Snowden is:

a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.

In a really marvelous piece called ‘10 Things to Know About Edward Snowden’, Politico decided that the most important thing you need know is that “He doesn’t have a high school diploma”. No. 3 is “He wasn’t a friendly neighbour”.

These smears would be laughable, if they weren’t sad. When people have nothing intelligent to say, they resort to name-calling and ad hominem attacks. Snowden’s relationship with his mother has nothing to do with, well, anything.

This isn’t new. Whenever revelations like these appear, the media launches a coordinated effort to smear the character of the revealer.

Back in the 70s, a guy named Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, which showed that the government had lied about Vietnam & dragged the US into a war that it knew:

  • It couldn’t win
  • Would kill many more people than they said it would

After the leak, the government went into full attack mode. They even broke into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. They investigated dozens of his family, friends, & colleagues, to find anything damaging, that could distract from what he was saying.

Another whistleblower, Julian Assange, received even more brutal treatment. Here’s another hit piece on him, again run by the NYT, filled with subtly negative phrases like “dwindling number of loyalists”, “notoriety”, “erratic and imperious behavior”, “delusional grandeur” et al.

The sad thing is, this stuff works. A lot of my friends are incredibly smart people, but when you ask most of them about Julian Assange, I hear comments like “oh, he’s a bit creepy” or “he seems really narcissistic”. People largely stopped talking about what Wikileaks revealed years ago, & now discussion of Assange is dominated by the usual cliches about him being arrogant, a rapist, etc. That’s when you know the character assassination has worked: when even smart people have forgotten about the real point.

As Assange himself said to CNN: “Do you want to talk about deaths of 104,000 people or my personal life?”.

We can’t expect the mainstream media to do a great job on this. Perhaps we should step up and do something ourselves.

Update: good discussion on HN here.

Why I Run Marathons

A lot of people are mystified as to why I run marathons. So I thought I’d write about it.

It’s ‘endurance practice’. Getting through a marathon requires an extraordinary mental effort not to stop when your entire body is screaming at you to stop.

Why? The body can only store about 20 miles’ worth of glycogen (an easily accessible form of energy derived from carbs) before turning to other sources of fuel such as fat. So the last six miles of a marathon are agony. (Known as ‘hitting the wall’).

But once you’ve pushed through those last six miles, your mind internalizes the fact that it can do more or less what it wants, even if the body complains. That lesson applies to all sorts of areas.

(Related: By endurance we conquer.)

It’s joyful. Maybe this is just because I’m desk-bound at work all the time, but the sheer pleasure of moving outside compels me to run. I get restless if I haven’t done it in a few days. Most of us don’t experience this anymore: I only discovered it after a few months’ running. Discovering a new, reliable source of joy is valuable.

It’s a form of meditation. My mind quietens down after running for 20-30 minutes. Our minds need quiet time just to wander, generate ideas, etc: running distances is one way of doing that. (Paul Graham recommends taking hikes.) I don’t take any electronic stuff with me when running.

Emotional stability. You could think of your life as a ‘portfolio’ of different things: work, relationships, etc. The more things in your portfolio, the less impact each has on your overall ‘position’. So maybe you had a bad week at work, but you also reached a personal best while running. Result: stability.

It’s healthy. Everyone knows that exercise is healthy. Running, in particular, makes me feel great afterwards: I’m clear-headed and can think quicker, I feel more energetic, I sleep better, food tastes better, colours are brighter, etc.

It’s communal. I train alone, but the race itself is a communal experience. Thousands of you wait together before the event starts while music & trumpets play, announcers blare into their mics, crowds cheer, etc. It feels exactly like what I imagine going into battle to feel like, minus the fear – like your heart’s swelling. It sounds absurd, but is actually great fun.

Runners tend to be pretty nice to each other, too, since the marathon isn’t really a competitive sport except at the elite level. You’re only racing against yourself.

It’s an excuse to go outside. Related to the ‘joy’ thing: I feel terrible if I spend too much time indoors. I refuse to run on treadmills, because it’s boring and sterile. But being outside is awesome: there’s value in just observing things, whether it’s trees in a park or the architecture of houses in different parts of London.

It’s a massive ‘f you’ to mortality. I’m not going to be able to do this when I’m older and disintegrating. It seems worth enjoying now.

You can probably get most of these from other forms of exercise as well. I picked running because all I needed were some shoes to do it. It worked out pretty well, though.

The main thing to remember is that you won’t like it straightaway: it takes 4-6 weeks of regular running before your body/mind adjust and you start enjoying it. So push through.