Friday, December 03, 2010

Cruelty and Contradiction

By Joel Marks
Published as "Kitten’s horrid tale contains conundrum" in The New Haven Register, November 2, 2010, page A6

A news story that was both horrible and heartwarming appeared on Saturday’s front page (“Woman saves kitten tossed from car,” October 30, 2010). Somebody threw a kitten out of a moving car, injuring her severely. But then no fewer than four other drivers stopped their cars to render assistance, with one of them whisking the kitten off to a nearby animal hospital.

Apparently the kitten will survive and then thrive under the loving care of an adoptive owner. But the witnesses to the event and the folks at the hospital remain traumatized and outraged by what they saw. Sample quotations include: “The person has to be sick. Anybody who would do this is a dangerous person. There should be a police investigation”; “so sick to my stomach I could have thrown up”; and “I can’t believe someone would do that.”

The reporter herself referred to the “cruelty” to which the kitten had been subjected. And isn’t that the word that best sums up our natural human feelings towards the abusive treatment of other animals? One of the largest animal organizations has that word in its very name. Yet there is something distinctly odd about how we apply, and especially how we do not apply, the word “cruelty” to other animals.

Look at some numbers. According to one survey, there are approximately 68 million owned dogs and 73 million owned cats in the United States. Let’s suppose – absurdly – that every single one of them were treated cruelly: That’s 141 million animals. Of course the actual number is just a fraction of this. But even if we assumed the higher number, it would itself be only a fraction of the number of animals we eat in the United States: ten billion (which does not include marine animals). And that’s every year. So if you consider the average life expectancy of a cat or a dog to be, say, ten years, then the true comparison is between 141 million pets versus 100 billion food animals.

Now consider two other salient facts: First is that the animals we eat are no less sentient, intelligent, or even adorable than our pets. Second is that the standard treatment of animals we eat would be considered cruel, indeed criminal, if done to our pets. That includes the manner in which they are housed, the actual things done to them, and killing them at a young age even though healthy.

The conclusion would seem to be that our attitude towards the cruel treatment of other animals is contradictory. For both our emotions and our pocketbooks are wide-open when it comes to the cruel treatment of cats and dogs, and even pet gerbils and chicks, but shut tight when it comes to their animal cousins in factory farms and slaughterhouses. Out of sight, out of mind. Or more precisely, since we do see the slab of meat in front of us: mental eyes closed, physical mouth open.

And this attitude applies not only to the eating of meat but to the eating of any animal products, including milk, cheese, and eggs. Thus, 50 percent of newborn chicks are thrown live into meat grinders since the males are not wanted in the production of laying hens. And male calves meet a similar fate in the production of dairy cows, being taken from their mothers and confined to crates for their entire short lives before being killed for veal.

The official position of the American Dietetic Association is that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases [“including heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes”]. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life-cycle including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence and for athletes.”

How, then, can we human beings be so saddened and angered by the tossing of a kitten out of a car window, and yet condone the production of food made from animals? Are not both activities equally cruel and unnecessary?

Joel Marks is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of New Haven. He maintains a website on how to become vegan at
www.TheEasyVegan.com.

Monday, August 09, 2010

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

By Joel Marks
Published in Philosophy Now, issue no. 36, June/July 2002

I played a part in the premature death of an eminent planetary geologist. A few years ago I attended a lecture by E___ S___ when he was visiting another university in my city. His talk was fascinating and totally fulfilled my wildest scientific fantasies. I had wanted to hear this man for decades, so when the talk was over, I walked up to shake his hand. But I hesitated, was distracted, and in the end did not meet him.

Several months later, E___ S___ was killed in an automobile accident while driving in the Australian outback. Do you share my intuition that, in all likelihood, he would be alive today had I introduced myself? For most accidents, like most (or all?) events, depend upon a precise convergence of circumstances, including the random thoughts transpiring in one's mind, which may or may not distract one's attention or affect one's reaction time. But it seems to me unlikely to the point of impossibility that E___ S___ would have been having the identical thoughts at that particular moment months after the alternative scenario, even had the gross events of his life remained the same (e.g., the same flight to Australia and the same rental car). I imagine that in the interval his spoken words and all other behaviors would have been altered in some way as well, such that he might well not even have been at the accident scene at the critical instant; for example, had he not got round to making his plane reservation until one day (or one minute) later than he did, a different car might have been assigned to him, parked in a different location in the lot, resulting in a slight but crucial change of elapsed time before reaching the relevant spot in the road. In other words, I don't believe in fate.

But neither do I feel guilty for having caused E___ S___'s death. Why not? Well, I didn't really cause his death, did I? Suppose someone fell asleep with a cigarette in her hand, and the house burned down. What caused the fire? If investigators do trace the start to the cigarette, then most people would conclude that the cigarette caused the fire, or perhaps they would say, it was caused by a careless smoker. But would anyone insist that the oxygen in the room was the real culprit? (I mean, besides the smoker's lawyer.) I don't think so. And yet, of course, absent oxygen, no fire. Similarly, I doubt that anyone would say that I caused the death of the astronomer, even though, absent my act of omission, the death would not have occurred. More likely the offender was a drunken trucker driving in the wrong lane.

There is still something bizarre about all of this, however, for a real connection does exist between my behavior and the fatal outcome. Perhaps we could say that something can be the effect of something else, without having been caused by it? But the question remains: What significance does that connection have? In particular, does it have any moral significance? And if not, what is the significance of that?

Maybe we place time limits on the consequences for which we bear moral responsibility. Thus, it makes perfect sense to hold somebody blameworthy for an avoidable occurrence, but not for something way down the road, which could not have been foreseen.

That does sound reasonable, until one ponders that it introduces a certain arbitrariness into morality. For if we judge the rightness or wrongness of our actions on the basis of the consequences of our actions, why stop with only the predictable consequences? The obvious answer is: "How could it be otherwise? Morality would not be useful as a guide to life if it required that we know everything ahead of time, since we never do."

Yes, that is an obvious answer. But I don't think it is a sufficient one. Consider this analogy. I need to get across the Atlantic Ocean. I don't have the ability to fly (by flapping my arms), but I do know how to swim (by flapping my arms). Therefore I should jump into the water. It's not a good solution, though, even though it is something I can do. Just so, while we do in general have some ability to know the effects of our actions, but we certainly do not have the ability to know all of the effects of our actions, it does not follow that exercising the ability we do have is the best way, or even a good way, to decide what to do ... even if our main concern is the effects of our actions!

Yet it does seem that near-time consequences matter. Anna Rosmus, a contemporary German woman who has uncovered her hometown's Nazi past (and is the subject of an Academic Award-nominated documentary called "The Nasty Girl"), claims that "Hitler had lived in my town. In fact, he had almost drowned there, and my next-door neighbor had saved his life" (quoted in an interview with Sandi Kahn Shelton in the New Haven Register, January 22, 2001). Now, was it right for the neighbor to save Hitler's life? Let's suppose this happened when Hitler was a boy. The neighbor could not possibly have foreseen the long-term consequences of saving little Adolf; there was only the immediate result of rescuing a child. So the neighbor did the right thing.

But I still ask: In what sense can we say that the consequences of her action are what made her action right? Surely, the foreseeable consequences endorsed the action. But why should that be a significant fact? If it is consequences we care about, why limit our injunctions and judgments to the foreseeable ones, if these bear no knowable relationship to the net results? Wouldn't that turn morality into a kind of fairy tale, as if "wishing makes it so"?

I don't expect you to be convinced by my remarks right off the bat. But after they have sat in your mind for awhile, perhaps you will come to share my strong feeling that morality is not fundamentally about consequences. (We would then both be in very good company, including the philosopher Immanuel Kant and the god Krishna.) Instead, it is about intentions and attitudes. I would say that the right thing to do (or, more broadly, the right way to live) is that which best expresses respect and caring for living beings (et al.?). And while such expression will typically involve attending to the likely consequences of our actions, that is not because we can control the ultimate outcome (which we can't); rather it is because the effort to control what we can shows that we care.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Unprincipled Principles

by Joel Marks
Published in Philosophy Now magazine, issue no. 57
(September/October 2006), p. 47

"I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any subject." That was Ezra Cornell's motto for my alma mater, and it seems an apt characterization of the university where I am currently employed. A student can prepare for a career in resort management, engineering, interior design, accounting, music, law enforcement, you name it. But what would the respective founders of our two institutions have thought of a course called "Arson for Profit"? I kid you not: We have it on the books. Any undergraduate who has met the academic prerequisites can sign up for FS 409 in our program in fire science.

Naturally the course is intended for prospective arson investigators, who can learn all the tricks of the trade for detecting that a fire was deliberately set for nefarious purposes, discovering who did it, and establishing a chain of evidence for effective prosecution in a court of law. But would this not also be the perfect course to sign up for if you were a prospective arsonist? It is certainly not unheard of for a firefighter to be caught torching a building. My point is not to indict academic programs in fire science; nothing could be more welcome than the increasing professionalization of many occupations. However, the example is suggestive of how malfeasance, with the help of higher education, can creep into every aspect of public and business life.

I realized this anew when I was invited to speak before a class in marketing, which is another of our degree programs. The regular instructor is a colleague who appreciates the kind of ethical perspective I can bring as a philosopher. There are endless ways I could have approached this assignment, but I took my cue from the title of the course: "Principles of Marketing." It made me think to ask the students, "Is marketing principled?" After all, a subject matter can have principles in the sense of being codified without being principled in the sense of being ethical; for example, I’m sure a manual of the principles of effective torture could be found on the Internet. Many of my students inferred at once that the answer to my question about marketing was therefore obvious: No. Just look at the ways in which everything under the sun has been marketed; obviously it need not be done in a principled fashion.

Or is that obvious? I made the suggestion, which may sound downright loony in light of the evidence, that perhaps marketing is by definition principled. My inspiration is Immanuel Kant, who, in his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), states, "All sciences have a practical part consisting of problems saying that some end is possible for us and of imperatives telling us how it can be attained" (p. 25 of the Hackett edition, James W. Ellington tr.). While not noted for an accessible style of writing, Kant did have the acuity to see right to the heart of a matter. In simpler terms, then: Any body of knowledge consists of an end and a means.

Let us apply this to marketing. The students have signed up for a course in order to learn how to market effectively. But to what end? There seem to be two main attitudes toward that question. One is that the answer is obvious: The purpose of marketing is to sell things or to make money. The other attitude is that the purpose of marketing is irrelevant: Each person comes to the program and course with his or her own plans, which need not concern the acquisition of marketing expertise as such. My proposal, which I believe would also be Kant's, is that neither of these attitudes captures the significance of the end to the means of marketing. A field of knowledge or a professional endeavor is defined by both the end and the means; hence both deserve scrutiny. If students will pore over books to learn how to achieve x, then they should also take a hard look at what x is.

It is at this point that "Arson for Profit" becomes supremely relevant. That course is presumably all about means: how to detect and prosecute criminal activity. It is therefore assumed that the end is good in an ethical sense. When I ask fire science students to articulate the end or purpose or raison-d'etre of their field, they eventually generalize to something like, "The safety and welfare of society." That seems right. If the end were not such, then, I presume, we would not even be offering such a program at the university. As we have seen, someone could use that very same knowledge of means to achieve a very different end, such as personal profit via destructive, dangerous, reckless activity. But we would not call that firefighting. We have a separate name for it: arson.

Thus I clinched my case about marketing (or any other field suitable for college instruction): It will not be just the means but also some good end that constitute the field itself. Therefore, if you employed the "principles of marketing" in an unprincipled way, you would not be doing marketing (cf. firefighting). We have another term for it: fraud (cf. arson). Kant gives the example of a doctor and a poisoner, who use the identical knowledge to achieve their divergent ends. We would say the one is practicing medicine, the other, murder. And there you have a diagnosis of what has gone wrong in so many businesses and professions, due in large part to what has gone wrong in higher education: We have come to treat fields of knowledge and endeavor as if they were simply about means, while either assuming or neglecting the ends. But the unexamined end is not worth pursuing. Therefore, “business ethics” is not an oxymoron; rather, “unethical profession” is.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

You Always Hurt the One You Love

Published in The Connecticut Post on December 17, 2009, with the title "Remember Where that Dinner Came From"

My mother used to say to me, “I love you so much I could eat you.” The expression brings to my mind the image of one person hugging another person, really squeezing them tight.

When it comes to animals, however, the more apt expression would be, “You always hurt the one you love.” For instance, “I love lamb” means that the person enjoys eating the flesh of young sheep after they have been butchered.

Believe me, I know that pleasure. The taste of a juicy hunk of rare meat is not at all abhorrent to me, even though I refuse to eat it anymore. I also have fond memories of chicken soup, and certainly that old stand-by, tuna fish salad. Now that I am not just a vegetarian but a vegan, I abstain from dairy and eggs as well. Oh, the omelets and grilled-cheese sandwiches of yore! -- giving them up has certainly been a sacrifice.

So when I hear somebody say, “I love lamb,” or “I love duck,” or “I love fish,” I understand. But now when I put that together with what my mother used to say to me, I am jolted by the juxtaposition. I want to say, “You love fish, but I love fishes. You love duck, but I love ducks. You love lamb, but I love lambs.”

Dog-owners who “love” all of these foods also surely love their pet. But they would never think to put him in pain or countenance his being killed (except to put him out of pain), not to mention eaten. And yet they have no compunction whatever about eating pork, which is the flesh of an animal equally intelligent, sensitive, and lovable.

What is going on here? There is no intrinsic difference between the animals. After all, many Koreans think nothing of eating dogs, while many Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists would not touch a pig. So the difference must lie in culture and in the person who is eating them. It seems an odd way to decide who lives or dies, who is pampered or who is tortured and slaughtered.

‘Tis now the season between two holidays that feature animals as the main course. On Thanksgiving the family sits round the table, whose centerpiece is a roast turkey. What American does not love turkey? But if you really got to know them, then I think you would love turkeys too. Then you could no longer enjoy this particular tradition.

One person who has devoted her life to getting to know and love turkeys and other domestic fowl is Karen Davis, Ph.D., founder and president of United Poultry Concerns, in Machipongo, Virginia. Here she tends to rescued and escaped birds in a “poultry paradise,” where the animals are allowed to live a natural life.

Dr. Davis describes the fate of most of their unfortunate kin. It is heart-rending and gut-wrenching. “Turkeys are crowded in confinement systems – including so-called free-range, a fraudulent term. When hundreds, even thousands of birds are forced to sit and stand in a crowded yard or in filthy litter, they develop respiratory diseases, ulcerated feet, blistered breasts, and ammonia-burned eyes. Turkeys are painfully de-beaked and de-toed without anesthetic to offset the destructive effects of overcrowding.

“If a 7-pound human baby grew as fast as baby turkeys are forced to grow, the human baby would weigh 1500 pounds at 18 weeks old. At the slaughterhouse, turkeys are torn from the crates and hung by their feet upside down on a movable belt. They may or may not be ‘stunned’ by a handheld electrical stunner, or by having their faces dragged through an electrified waterbath. The electricity shoots through the birds’ eyes, eardrums, and hearts causing ‘intolerable pain’ according to researchers.”

Then their throats are slit.

We now approach the time for the Yule ham. A young pig was killed so that you could eat its hind leg. Bon appétit!

Joel Marks is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of New Haven. He can be contacted via his Website at www.TheEasyVegan.com .

Friday, January 15, 2010

Vivisection and Ethics: cutting to the quick

Published in AV Magazine, vol. 117, no. 4, pp. 2-3, fall 2009 issue [January 2010]

The central contradiction of vivisection is that animals are used for research precisely because of their similarities to humans, and yet by that very use they are implicitly denied a place in the moral community. Somehow our commonality of physiology and sentience is deemed to be a completely separate matter from our respective rights, including the most basic right simply to be let alone. Procedures that ethical researchers would never think to perform on human beings are, in consequence, routinely performed on other animals. The very condition of being an animal that is used for experimentation would be ruled out for a human being, since at a minimum it involves involuntary confinement and isolation. Beyond this, countless animals are subjected to invasive practices, including the most invasive of all: manipulation of their very nature by being bred specifically for experimental purposes. Thus, vivisection is not simply a particular event in the lifespan of an animal – awful as that might be -- but the total subjugation of an animal to the control and ambitions of human beings from artificial birth to premature death.

For an antivivisectionist, considerations such as these make the cessation of animal use in testing, research, experimentation, education and training an open-and-shut case. But of course there are arguments on both sides. In this regard a recent editorial in the science journal Nature is instructive.1 It concerns what is described and applauded as “a major accomplishment,” namely, the creation in the laboratory of a primate that can pass on to its offspring a gene that had been implanted from a different organism, a so-called transgene. The significance of this feat is that the primate in question, the marmoset, is closer genetically to humans than is the current “model” of choice, the mouse. Therefore medical science will have available to it a better means of testing theories about human diseases, and possibly as well neuroscience about brain functioning. The research community is excited.

But the thrust of the editorial is not so much to praise the breakthrough as to warn the Japanese researchers who pioneered the new procedure that they had better brace for controversy and public confrontation. Yes, those pesky antivivisectionists are going to get all fired up about this. Much in the manner of a boxing coach, therefore, the editors, who express their support for the research “as long as [it is] carried out in a responsible fashion,” advise the researchers to “be ready to deal with the broader ethical questions involved.” Why, exactly? So as to be sure that they are really doing the right thing? The reason given in the editorial is, “If unprepared, [the researchers] risk being caught wrong-footed when the debate inevitably takes off.” The editors offer this encouragement: “Animal research in Japan … should heed the lessons from the West, where researchers have won several political victories by addressing the issues openly.”

The editorial is beyond faulting in its own terms. It even speaks of “showing respect for opposing ethical positions,” and concludes: “The lesson for the animal-rights debate is that more engagement, not less, is the best way to promote the research. Scientists everywhere must be ready to discuss … controversial topics, based on a thorough understanding of the ethical issues ….” But to the antivivisectionist this sounds paradoxical, for would not “a thorough understanding of the ethical issues” lead one to conclude that the research in question ought not to be done? I think there is a double lesson for antivivisectionists to draw. First is that antivivisectionists too should be thoroughly versed in the relevant argumentation coming from both sides. Second is that antivivisectionists too should recognize and respect the genuine motives of their opponents. In sum, the issues are real ones.

How, then, do vivisectors go about defending their work? Their first line of defense is that the use of nonhuman animals is necessary for achieving certain laudable goals. Uppermost in most people’s minds will of course be the maintenance of human health and safety. In critiquing this argument, antivivisectionists should keep in mind the two modes of refutation, namely, (1) false, or questionable, premise and (2) illogic. Regarding the first: the premise of the vivisectionist’s argument can in many cases be refuted when an animal is being used for some relatively trivial purpose, such as testing a new cosmetic, or when a substitute for animals is available, such as microbial cells or computer models. I should point out, by the way, that this applies to the antivivisectionist as well; that is, since the only reason to eat animals or animal products, such as eggs and diary, is for taste or convenience, the same principle clearly implies that all antivivisectionists should be vegans.

But even when the vivisectionist’s argument has a true or plausible premise, it is possible to lodge the objection that its conclusion does not follow. One area of animal use that raises this issue exquisitely is so-called “pure” or basic research, for example, neuroscience, where the objective is to advance human knowledge for its own sake. Consider this statement by a philosopher whose own research depends in part on the work of vivisectors:

The kittens and the macaques we continually sacrifice in experimental consciousness research are not interested in a theory of consciousness; the results of these experiments are of interest only to our species. However, we pursue this interest by making members of other species suffer, forcing highly unpleasant states of consciousness on them and even denying their right to exist. How coherent is this from an ethical perspective? As a theoretician, do I have the right to interpret data gathered by making animals suffer? Am I morally obliged to boycott these types of experiments?2

Of course a common argument by the vivisectionist is that basic research may also lead to practical applications for human welfare. So let us cut to the quick and ask about the justification of vivisection in research that shows clear promise of benefiting human beings in significant ways. Here the strategy of objection would be to argue that no matter how much good could be brought about, certain things simply should not be done. Everyone recognizes this principle; it is the reason nonhumans are vivisected rather than humans, since to submit the latter to such procedures would be considered unconscionable (except by sadistic Nazis). This form of argument is notable, however, for being the strongest from the point of view of the antivivisectionist and the weakest from the point of view of the vivisectionist. It is strongest because it appeals to very deep intuitions; but that makes it weakest for people who happen not to share those intuitions.

For example, there is research that purports to show that a rat that has been deliberately crippled doesn’t seem to mind this state of being and just goes about the rest of its short life dragging its useless rear limbs behind it.3 Apparently to some researchers this means that it’s OK to use rats in this way if doing so would, say, contribute to aiding human stroke victims. To the antivivisectionist this shows that these researchers are lacking an elemental sensibility. The researchers’ view is that absent pain, absent a problem. The antivivisection view is that intentionally crippling a living organism is itself intrinsically wrong. It is not clear that rational argument could ever resolve a difference like this. I chose this example to give the vivisectionist every benefit of the doubt. There are other cases, however, where an animal’s distress is an essential feature of an experiment, for example, in research on pain itself; so there would be no way to deny it, other than to offer the problematic consolation that the animal will be euthanized shortly thereafter.

At this juncture, ethics comes into its own. For a distinguishing feature of ethics as commonly conceived is that it trumps cost/benefit analysis. Thus, even if we were to grant every claim of the vivisectionist regarding the necessity of certain experiments on animals to bring about an overwhelming good … indeed, even a good for other animals of the same species as the individuals being experimented on … it would not follow ethically that the experiments were justified. For it would also have to be shown that the experiments did not violate any ethical principle of proper treatment of an animal, human or otherwise.

Curiously, then, ultimate resolution of the very practical issue of vivisection may depend on agreement about the abstract nature of ethics. If vivisectionists agree that the end does not always justify the means, which is implicit in their using animals rather than humans in the first place, then, on pain of contradiction, they would seem bound to refrain from using the animals either. By the same token, what antivivisectionists must be prepared to acknowledge is that their position could have a real cost, namely, retarding research into relief from illness and pain. Thus, when applied to the vivisection debate, ethics is a double-edged scalpel.

1 “Time to Connect,” Nature, vol. 459, issue no. 7246, page 483, 28 May 2009.
2 “A New Kind of Ethics,” ch. 9 of The Ego Tunnel: the science of the mind and the myth of the self, by Thomas Metzinger (NY: Basic Books, 2009), p. 231.
3 “The Lower Bounds of Cognition: What Do Spinal Cords Reveal?” by Colin Allen, James W. Grau, and Mary W. Meagher, Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Neuroscience, ed. John Bickle, forthcoming.

Joel Marks is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of New Haven and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. His column, “Moral Moments,” appears regularly in Philosophy Now magazine, and his most recent book, Ought Implies Kant (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2009), offers an original defense of animal rights. He wishes to acknowledge helpful discussions with Colin Allen, Gary Francione, Justin Goodman, Lee Hall, Ian Smith, and AAVS staff.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Modest Proposal: Why Not Now?

Copyright © 2008 by Joel Marks

The animal issue is first and foremost a moral and social issue. … the law is there to protect property interests. As long as the movement fails to shift the focus to abolition, veganism, and rights as a moral and social matter, we can expect that the law will continue to protect animal exploitation. We must understand that if there is going to be any progress, we must change the political playing field. And we can do that only through building a base in favor of abolition, which requires that we focus on the importance of veganism as the indispensable element of a movement that is concerned about justice. – Gary Francione

Three centuries ago the satirist Jonathan Swift made a “modest proposal” to help relieve poverty by selling children as meat. I would like to make a more modern proposal that we forgo eating meat entirely. Of course this is not an original idea; nor is it intended satirically. (Nor is it modest!) To be more precise, what I have in mind is veganism. This differs from the more familiar vegetarianism in two respects: (1) Vegans refrain from eating not only animals but also animal products, such as milk and eggs, and (2) vegans avoid using non-food animal products as well, such as wool and leather. In this essay I will address (1), but my comments could be applied to (2) as well.

The rationale for veganism builds upon that for so-called ethical vegetarianism. Vegetarianism is ethical when the reason for it has to do with consideration for other animals, specifically, the ones that human carnivores eat. A person can be a vegetarian for other types of reasons, typically having to do with the health of the human eater. For example, animal fat has been implicated in heart disease, so a diet consisting only of vegetables and grain would presumably be better for you in that respect. But the ethical vegetarian is thinking more about the effect of humans’ eating meat on the well-being of the nonhumans who are being eaten. In the past this concern had to do mainly with the slaughtering of animals, but today the focus is even more on the exceedingly cruel and cramped manner in which food animals are raised for their entire lives on factory farms.

But half-an-hour’s research on the Internet and a moment’s reflection on the implications thereof will demonstrate that ethical vegetarianism makes no sense if restricted to not eating animals. For the treatment of animals in the factory-production of milk, cheese, eggs, and the like is just as inhumane as the factory-production of meat. And that treatment includes even the slaughtering of the animals; consider, for example, the likely fate of the hen once her egg-laying capacity diminishes below a profitable level, and the fate of the cocks who are not needed to produce more hens. Hence on grounds of both anti-cruelty and anti-killing one is led inevitably to veganism.

You might suppose that veganism would also follow from health-vegetarianism since, for example, harmful hormones could end up in milk and eggs as much as in beef and chicken. True enough; hence the so-called organic movement. However, similar concerns apply to vegetables and grain, since all modern farming is based on the widespread use of artificially manufactured and introduced chemicals. So the organic movement is not really allied with vegetarianism, not to mention veganism; it is instead a food market for animal products, including the animals themselves (i.e., meat), that have not been exposed to “unnatural” chemicals.

Veganism, therefore, is an ethical concept. And that is a problem. As a general rule, people are not particularly motivated by purely ethical or moral appeals. (So much for my efforts as an ethics educator? But what I really mean to say is that moral reflection is probably not sufficient to make us moral persons, or the persons we want to be, although it could sometimes be necessary or helpful.) Oh, the occasional drought or tsunami will tug on the heartstrings enough to make us open the purse strings, and being confronted by some particular and local hardship suffered by family, friend, or neighbor can bring out the best in us. But by and large our motives have a non-moral character. And this is especially the case when a moral motive comes up against a basic appetite, such as hunger, pulling us in the opposite direction.

Veganism doesn’t have a chance when you go to the supermarket. You are surrounded by tasty foods of every conceivable variety, healthy and unhealthy, with narry a vegan item to be found. And the ones that do exist, if you can find them or have the time to locate them, may not bring out the Pavlovian dog in you. Tofu prime ribs, anyone? If the store were filled with giant images of cows and chickens being abused and slaughtered, you might avoid some items. More probably, you would simply avoid that store. So make it illegal to market animal products anywhere? Fine: unless you happen to live in a democracy, where the populace is not likely to support such legislation except at a relatively cosmetic level, such as the recent Proposition 2 passed in California that will give chickens room enough to stand, turn around, lie down, and fully extend their limbs. Isn’t that wonderful? But the hens will remain confined for their entire lives; and even these minimal standards will not be required until the year 2015 ... by which time, the chicken industry will have relocated to another state!

Nobody wants to torture and murder animals, human or nonhuman (except a few nuts and evil characters, of course). And the vast majority of people would like to be moral and ethical, I’m sure. So the trick is to align our everyday motives with our natural, or at least our best, tendencies. And one way to do that is to make it easier, even enjoyable, to be moral. Not too easy since we don’t want to become morally slack; for example, it’s not really moral to tell the truth if your reason is that you’ll be caught and punished if you lie. But Aristotle for one did consider virtue to be both habitual and pleasurable. And by the way, my recommendation would apply even with an alternative account of moral motivation. For suppose that we humans were indeed morally motivated in large part. It would still be the case that since so many concerns tug on our moral attention and time, we simply have to prioritize them; thus, meticulously avoiding harm to other animals could well lose out to, say, providing basic necessities for one’s family.

Enter my bright idea, my immodest and thoroughly entrepreneurial proposal (which occurred to me while I was taking a shower, so I hope it’s not all wet.), to wit: a chain of vegan grocery stores across the land (and, ultimately, the world). There are already some organic foodstores, but, as noted, these are usually not even vegetarian; furthermore, they tend to be upscale, not to mention few and far between, and hence not useful to most consumers; hence also they are not much help to the other animals. There is also a handful of vegetarian and even vegan restaurants around, whose proliferation I would certainly encourage. Indeed, I keep suggesting to the students in my university’s hotel/restaurant school that a fortune awaits the founder of the first vegan fast-food franchise. But people cannot eat out for 21 meals a week. That is why I propose a nationwide chain of vegan grocery stores to make the desirable product readily and affordably available.

An obvious objection will occur to the capitalist: doesn’t my suggestion put the cart before the horse? For you need demand in order to have the needed supply, but I’ve got it reversed. In other words, where will the consumers come from to convince a bank to extend the capital for such an enterprise in the first place and then to assure long-term profitability? My response is twofold. (Well, threefold, since first I will point out that a true animal-rights person would not want the cart to come after the horse anyway!) The grand scale of the project is precisely what will entice vendors to create the needed variety of tasty foods to stock the shelves and hence entice customers, and the larger market for the suppliers would help make vegan food more affordable because of the economy of scale and greater competition.

Secondly, the marketing potential is huge. I can easily imagine a two-pronged effort. There would of course be the standard moral appeal along the lines of, “Do you know where your hamburger really comes from?” But I would supplement that with a more upbeat approach, such as: “I don’t eat vegan because I love animals. I don’t eat vegan because it’s good for me. I eat vegan because it tastes good!” Saturate the tele with ads of those sorts and in a matter of months it will be as uncool to frequent a regular supermarket as it now is to light up a cigarette.

There is in fact an abundance of tasty and nutritious vegan cuisine, especially if one counts the international scene. Somebody needs to bring it all together, that’s all, and present it in a manner that appeals to the average consumer in a given locale and circumstances. For the citizens of my country, this might mean dumbed-down and convenient, with a dash of showmanship thrown in. For example, in my state we have a popular chain of dairy superstores, where animatronic barnyard animals entertain the children while the parents shop. Just replace that with a store full of animatronic wild animals, and abundant stocks and varieties of animal-free foods and groceries.

One of my “pet” peeves is the complex manner in which vegan nutrition is typically broached. These stores could perform a great public service by having sections dedicated to the three meals of the day and, within each section, several sets of foodstuffs – maybe a different set for each day of the week, not to mention, varied tastes -- arranged as recommended packages, which, together with the packages from the other sections, would assure one’s daily nutritional needs. In this way the busy consumer would not have to become an instant nutritionist in order to embark on the vegan path, where one wants to be sure that the moral choice is also the prudent one for oneself and one’s family.

Naturally there would also be free samples, prepared foods and meals, maybe an in-store eatery. A community room would allow for appropriately themed seminars offered by guest speakers: vegan cooking classes, nutritional tutorials, showcases for animal sanctuaries, and so forth. I could also see eventual inclusion of an “alternative” clothing section, etc.

It seems to me that the way a dream becomes reality is to make it happen. So: “Build it and they will come.” Why not now? What are we waiting for?

For information on becoming a vegan, check out my Website, "The Easy Vegan."

Friday, August 14, 2009

No Exit

by Joel Marks

Published with the title "Suicide should be a choice available to all" in the New Haven Register on July 21, 2009, page A6

It is with relief that I learned of the suicide of British orchestra conductor Edward Downes and his ballerina/choreographer wife Joan Downes. Married for 54 years, they were inseparable in death as in life. They had chosen to die together because Joan was suffering from terminal cancer of the liver and pancreas, and Edward had become increasingly dependent on her assistance because of his own encroaching blindness and deafness. He was 85, she 74 when, in the company of their adult children at the Dignitas clinic in Zurich, they drank a fatal concoction that put them into a peaceful, permanent sleep.

To me, a philosopher, their death summons up the very image of Socrates drinking the hemlock in his prison cell. Although this was his execution in dismal circumstances, he did have the option of escape into exile from Athens. In a sense, then, his death was a suicide. He chose it because he thought it would be ridiculous for an old man like himself to try to run away and hide from death, when he believed there was nothing to fear about an afterlife. He had led a full life; the mode of his death would be painless and quick; he was surrounded by good friends; and, even though his particular case may have been a miscarriage of justice, he had principled reasons for abiding by the laws of the city-state that had nurtured him his whole life. Thus, as poignantly depicted in Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates boldly and cheerfully met his end.

But it is not because of that association that the news of the Downeses’ suicide brings me some measure of peace as well. Rather, it is the knowledge that such an option exists somewhere in the world. The right to end one’s own life with assistance from others is strangely denied to most of us.

We usually hear the argument against assisted suicide that an industry of death would inevitable arise, which, for economic reasons, would put undue pressure on old or ill or impaired people to end their lives prematurely. We would be made to feel guilty about burdening our loved ones with the responsibility of taking care of us, and about the good fortune we would be denying them by spending their potential inheritance on our own prolonged care. Ultimately the government would get in on the act, pointing to those who lingered as a main drain on the budget, thereby crimping other social goods, such as education and health care for the young.

There is certainly truth to that. But what follows? To me it is not obvious that all of those reasons for feeling guilty are inappropriate. Furthermore, we should consider the alternative. As things stand now, there is a massive industry of life … of often long, pointless, even painful life … which surely saps the economy and good will and welfare of all as much as any industry of death would.

And on top of that is the misery of those lingering lives for the sufferer him- or herself, as well as the low-level anxiety that shadows all of us throughout our younger years when we happen to contemplate the “No Exit” sign society has posted at life’s door.

As I now am at an age where close contemporaries are dead or dying, I am acutely aware of the prospects. I hope that I shall be so fortunate as to be able to choose the timing and mode of my death when its imminence is made known. I would like to leave all my good friends and loved ones with a memory of a fully-functioning, independent, and contented fellow. I would be very happy to know that I am able to provide for some of them in death as in life, rather than squandering my assets on some corporation to warehouse me in despairing boredom. And I would like to treat all of them to one final, all-expenses-paid holiday in Zurich, which they will retain in lifelong memories, while I remain to check in to the Dignitas clinic.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Whose Environment Is It?

by Joel Marks
Published in Philosophy Now, Issue No. 66, March/April 2008, p. 33.

A peculiarity about the contemporary discussion of the proper human treatment of other animals is that, when the topic is broached at all, it often falls under the rubric of environmentalism. No doubt this is an unintended consequence of the otherwise welcome prioritizing of an “environmental crisis,” which was highlighted in a recent issue of this magazine (issue 65). It is peculiar nonetheless because it begs a rather key question: whose environment is it? The word “environment” has its roots in the notion of surrounding. We humans are ensconced in an environment that surrounds us, and other animals are surely a part of that. But every living being lives in an environment, so humans are a part of the environment of other animals. When we speak of the environment, I suspect that the unspoken assumption is that it is our human one. I doubt that most people have even considered the possibility that there could be others. The current use of “environment” therefore appears to be largely egocentric in a species sense, or in a word, anthropocentric.

That environment is a relative notion can be appreciated with the help of a concept coined by the late perception psychologist J.J. Gibson. Gibson developed a theory of ecological optics (and ecological perception more generally) to counter the idea that perception is a purely subjective phenomenon. Perception, he held, is an objective relation between an organism and its environment. This is brought out more particularly in what Gibson called affordances. Thus, an apple of a certain color affords picking and eating, a doorknob affords grasping and turning, an automobile affords driving, and so on. But of course those examples are from the human environment, and even a particular sort of human, who is technologically aware, etc. For a deer the automobile affords mainly getting out of the way of, and for a worm the apple affords burrowing into (and also eating), and for a bird the doorknob may not even be noticed other than as a glint of light. So to speak of the environment as the habitat of other animals risks masking a substitution of our environment for those of the other animals.

This suggests an even deeper ambiguity in what we mean by “our.” When we speak of “our environment,” do we mean the human one, or the animal one? After all, humans are animals. Obviously placing the discussion of other animals under the rubric of environmentalism delimits “our” to the human. But was this a conscious decision based on good grounds, or simply an habitual thought pattern based on unexamined assumptions? And what are the implications and consequences of such a division between humans and other animals? It seems to me that the whole plight of other animals, that is, their mistreatment at human hands, could be due to this very division.

Perhaps “environmental ethics” was not the happiest term to begin with. Suffice it to say that the main idea environmentalists typically mean to convey is that all animals or even all life shares a single planet, such that we are completely interdependent for our survival and thriving. For that matter, all animal life is in interaction and interdependent with the inorganic world as well: this is as obvious and immediate as the elements of which we are composed, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the neighborhood hillside we quarry, not to mention global warming. Thus, we modern people need to have greater respect for the whole world that surrounds us and not treat it solely as our private gold mine or our garbage dump since doing so distorts our true relation to reality and hence puts us in peril.

That is surely a compelling idea, but a person who is concerned about the proper treatment of all animals (not to mention, all life) cannot be satisfied with such a view insofar as the anthropomorphism of “the environment” remains a possible implication. For then it would still be the case that other animals are seen in their relationship to us but not vice versa. It is our survival and thriving which would remain the touchstone of what is right and wrong. This is apparent in, for example, the “environmentally friendly” organic foods movement, which is far more likely to tout the human health benefits of detoxified animals than to display any deference to the animals’ welfare. Thus, according to Peter Singer and Jim Mason’s new book on The Way We Eat, the milk and cheese and eggs and meat in “natural foods” stores are just as likely to be the products of pain and suffering and premature death, just as deceptively disguised, as the food in the supermarket; this is because the treatment of the animals will still conform to minimal standards dictated by economic competitiveness. In this way animal issues can become hijacked by an anthropomorphic environmentalism, with animals conceived as just another “sustainable resource” for human use, well-being, and enjoyment.

Meanwhile, might it not be mainly wishful thinking, or some kind of extra-scientific faith in an all-good providence, that “what’s good for humans is good for the other animals”? This is an empirical claim, despite its intuitive appeal. Therefore we cannot simply assume that there is a pre-established harmony in this best of all possible worlds, such that humans would never be called upon to make a genuine sacrifice for the welfare of other species (or vice versa). Frankly, I find the harmony hypothesis as questionable as the theological one that an all-good God exists. It also falls prey to the Achilles heel of any consequentialist theory of ethics, which would base the rightness of actions and policies on the goodness of their outcomes, since it is well-nigh impossible to predict the total (i.e., relative net) long-term consequences of anything.

Instead, and in essential agreement with ethicists like Paul W. Taylor and Tom Regan, I submit that all sentient and perhaps all living beings merit respect as ends-in-themselves, regardless of our interdependency. Certainly facts about our interconnections, just like other contingencies, will be relevant to deriving specific moral recommendations and injunctions. But the underlying principle will have to do with the inherent worth and dignity of the respective beings -- perhaps of all existence or existents, analogous to the way God looked down upon every created thing and deemed it good -- and not with their place in somebody else’s, and specifically the human, environment.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Turning the Tables: We Matter Because We Are Animals

by Joel Marks

Published in Philosophy Now, Issue No. 67, May/June 2008, p. 37.

Recent times have seen an ever-increasing interest in our similarity to other great apes and ultimately to all other animals. While sometimes this research has been motivated by sheer interest, it also forms a backdrop to a heightening moral concern about other animals. Following the same logic as earlier efforts (mainly philosophical) to establish human uniqueness by distinguishing us from other animals (for example, Aristotle took us to be the rational animal, and Descartes highlighted our language ability), this new research program seeks to establish the opposite thesis of the moral considerability of other animals by demonstrating their similarity to us. Sometimes the similarity is found at the genetic level, where human and animal genomes turn out to be much more like than different. At other times the similarity is found at the everyday level, such as the sentience, emotions, and even cognitive abilities we share with many other creatures. Such common characteristics are taken to warrant according other animals the same kind of (or a similar) moral regard and treatment that we owe to our fellow humans.

But while thus well-intentioned, the new program is, I maintain, just as misguided as the earlier one, and for two reasons. First is that all animals, ourselves included, matter “in themselves,” that is, for being whatever they are. Other animals do not, any more than we, require demonstrating their similarity to any other animal in order to possess their own inherent value. Just as surely as a human is a human is a human, a mouse is a mouse is a mouse. Why would anyone have thought that a mouse needed to be human in order to merit moral consideration? In part no doubt this attitude is attributable to simple bias or narcissism or arrogance; it is an extension of egotism to think that one’s kind -- however that might be identified, whether by race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sex, sexual orientation, etc. ad inf., and in this case by species -- is superior to all others.

But a more reasoned explanation can also be given. Morality is sometimes thought of as a kind of contract whereby one’s security is buttressed by agreeing to certain constraints and obligations owed mutually to and by others who are similarly vulnerable. Thus, since we all can be harmed by others, we agree not to harm one another; and since we can all benefit from the assistance of others, we agree to aid one another; and so forth. But obviously an agreement of that sort can only be entered into by beings who are as rational and otherwise cognitively endowed as we humans are. Therefore our moral concern extends only to other humans. There is nothing to be gained by keeping a promise to a mouse; for even if the mouse could benefit, it has no way of reciprocating.

However, if morality is not a business deal but is conceived instead as arising from the relation between moral agents and other beings who have inherent worth or dignity, then there does not seem to be any obvious reason to deny moral regard to beings just because they happen not to be capable of being moral agents. In other words, there could be so-called moral patients (as Tom Regan calls them), whose status is determined not by their being moral agents but by something else.

Any pet owner understands this implicitly when it is a matter of what kind of care is owed the animal who lives under her roof. One does not feed one’s cat only out of kindness but also obligation (or the kindness may itself be one’s obligation). If the cat fails to “return the favor” and maintains her aloofness, one is not justified to ignore her or dump her into the river … no more so than if your child did not thank you for the meals you prepared for her day in and day out. Perhaps one gets pleasure from observing the cat’s behavior; but this mere accident of one’s interests is not a sufficient account of one’s responsibilities to the cat, even if it might explain why one purchased or adopted her in the first place.

Another way the inherent valuing of the pet is revealed is in, for example, an American’s reaction to the eating of dogs in other cultures. What seems wrong about that consumption is precisely the treatment of the animal merely as a means and not an end-in-itself. It is exceedingly curious, then, that humans, Americans or otherwise, feel no obligation to the pig, an equally intelligent and lovable animal, whom they not only eat but treat, or allow to be treated, cruelly its livelong days until its mercifully premature (and gruesome) demise. The moral worth of a being should depend on the nature of the being and not on our attitude towards it. (I made an analogous point about the nature of other beings and our interdependency in the last issue.)

The second reason I reject the moral pretensions of any research program that seeks to discover human traits in other animals is that it gets the direction of dependence (somewhat) backwards. For it is not that other animals matter insofar as they are human-like but rather that human beings matter because we are animals. The “something else” I alluded to above that makes a being morally considerable is, it seems to me, that it has interests, that it cares about things, that it values certain things. We might put it this way: a thing matters insofar as things matter to it.

Admittedly that slogan trades on an equivocation between “mattering” in the moral sense and “mattering” in the psychological sense. But I think there is wisdom in sensing a meaningful equivalence underlying this equivocation. It is because the cat cares about eating and staying warm and not being stepped on – because she values these things, because these things matter to her -- that the cat has some kind of purchase on a being, such as we are, that is capable of responding to her concerns. I do not mean to say that any valuer is thereby entitled to be given whatever she wants – only that her being a valuer gives her the right to have her values considered by beings that are capable of doing so.

To complete my argument: so far as we know, the only valuers are animals, and all animals are valuers. Therefore animals move to the center of what ethics is all about. The discussion of nonhuman animals turns out to be, not some special issue of “applied” ethics, but rather part of ethics’ core (we human animals are the rest of it). I would say, then, that ethics is animal ethics.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Capital Punishment Deters Crime: Therefore What?

Copyright (c) 2007 by Joel Marks
Originally published with the title “No justification for death penalty” in the New Haven Register, June 26, 2007, page A8

Killing people saves lives. That seems to be the conclusion of recent studies of the effect of capital punishment on the murder rate. According to Associated Press (June 11), “between three and 18 lives … would be saved by the execution of each convicted killer.” One study estimates that the moratorium on executions in Illinois resulted in 150 unnecessary deaths of citizens in its first four years.

The scientific community has not yet subjected the cited studies to thorough scrutiny, but they have garnered enough preliminary respect that, for the sake of what I have to say, I will grant that they have shown the effect they claim: capital punishment deters murder. It still does not follow that capital punishment is justified. Not by a long shot. Why not? I think the most telling fact about these studies is that they do not consider whether the executed convicts were actually guilty!

It is obvious, is it not, that being “found” guilty of something is not the same as being guilty of it; juries can make mistakes and condemn the wrong person. And that is not merely a logical point. The Innocence Project, for example, has helped win the exoneration of 15 persons on death row by means of DNA testing.

The issue here is part of a much broader one of long standing, namely, whether a practice or policy is warranted by its consequences. In simpler terms: does the end justify the means? Here is why the answer is “No.” Suppose the government wanted to put an end to murder once and for all and it knew that capital punishment is a deterrent. The recent studies also suggest that the more speedily the punishment is meted out, the more dramatic its deterrent effect.

Why not, then, simply round up hundreds of derelicts all over the country where there are unsolved murders, try them and convict them quickly in kangaroo courts, and then execute them? Whammo – murders plummet! But this would be wrong to do, would it not? Therefore, effects do not by themselves justify anything.

After all, our society does not believe in chopping off the hands of convicted thieves even if it could be proved that this would reduce the amount of theft dramatically.

Or think about it this way. Suppose your child desperately needed an organ transplant, as did four other young people in adjoining wards. It turns out that there is a healthy young person walking by the hospital whose body contains all of the needed organs in fine working condition. Why not just pluck her off the street, remove her organs, then dump her body in the morgue? The results would be that five young people get to live their lives rather than just one. But it would be wrong to do this, would it not?

Thus, how we think about capital punishment has implications for other important issues as well. Consider torture. Here too there is controversy about whether the practice is even effective, since people being tortured may be as likely to give false information as true. But, again, let us grant the claim that it is effective and efficient. Still we might oppose it on other grounds.

As the United Nations Convention against Torture puts it: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture” (Article 2). Why not? Because torture is a violation of “the inherent dignity of the human person” (preamble), not to mention, as with capital punishment, the victim may be innocent or unconnected to the matter of concern.

Interestingly, the very reason our country has tried to sidestep the prohibition on torture is to counter yet another egregious example of employing barbaric means on possibly innocent persons in order to achieve one’s ends: terrorism.

Can two wrongs -- indeed, the same wrong --possibly make a right?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Singer Diet

Copyright (c) 2007 by Joel Marks
Published as “Book makes case for thinking about what we eat” in the New Haven Register, May 16, 2007, page A6

America’s slaughterhouses kill 10 billion animals every year. Think about that. That is what philosopher Peter Singer asks us to do in his new book, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter (Rodale, 2006). Co-authored by former farm boy Jim Mason, this book demands a strong stomach to read. It is not often that a philosophy book informs you that an important “factor relative to global warming concerns cows burping and farting” (page 206). By the same token, you are not likely to learn from the typical book on animal husbandry that our treatment of nonhuman animals for food rivals anything in Dante’s vision of hell.

It is important that we expose ourselves to this kind of shock treatment. It is a morally necessary antidote to the deceptive depiction of wholesome livestock lives foisted upon us by the food industry. Nevertheless Singer and Mason’s book goes about its business in a non-sensational way by reciting the facts and holding up the arguments on both sides of each issue to critical scrutiny. The book also has an inviting narrative “hook,” introducing us to three families and their diets and then tracing all of the food to its source. But the contrast between what ends up on the dinner table and the manner in which it arrived there could not be more extreme.

The book contains surprises. While reviewing the production of veal, the poster child of animal cruelty in the popular consciousness, the book reveals that most mammals in the food chain are treated about as miserably. But the real shocker turns out to be poultry. Nine billion of the animals slaughtered annually are chickens. Those who “Enter the Chicken Shed,” a four-page section of the book, are advised: “May be disturbing to some readers.” If you have a human heart, you cannot read these pages without resolving to change your food shopping habits. And the chickens’ conditions of living are if anything worse than how they die. Even the eggs you buy in the supermarket are in most cases the product of lifelong cruelty almost too painful to imagine empathetically.

It did not use to be that way. The chief culprit is factory farming, the thoroughgoing mechanization of food production from animals for speed and efficiency. The result most noticeable to the consumer has been cheaper meat and poultry and fish and eggs and dairy products. But the toll of animal misery has also been increased to the limit. According to Singer and Mason, “The core issue is the commercial pressures that exist in a competitive market system in which animals are items of property, and the conditions in which they are kept are not regulated by federal or state animal welfare law” (page 55).

Therefore it is we, the consumers, who must act so as to change the direction in which these pressures push. The virtue of the market system is that it is indeed sensitive to demand. There is now every reason to demand that all animals be treated humanely in the production of food. This is not just a matter of a healthy diet, although there is that too. It is first and foremost a moral issue. The amount of animal suffering brought about by modern methods of food production could well rival and indeed surpass all of the evil perpetrated by humans on other humans. Add to that a concern for treating workers fairly and protecting the environment, and the case is complete.

Meanwhile the solutions could turn out to be surprisingly simple. “The idea that we need high levels of protein was disproven in the 1970s, and health authorities reduced recommended protein intakes to about a third of what had been thought to be required” (page 227). Thus, simply eating less is one way to reduce the demand for factory farming, not to mention address obesity and heart disease. The book is filled with other practical suggestions and food sources to make the transition to an ethical diet feasible. And, yes, their final recommendation is a vegan diet of plant-based food exclusively.

For more information on becoming a vegan, check out my Website, "The Easy Vegan."

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Why Are We Here?

Copyright © 2000 by Joel Marks
Originally published in Moral Moments: Very Short Essays on Ethics (University Press of America, 2000)

"The prescriptions needed by a doctor in order to make his patient thoroughly healthy and by a poisoner in order to make sure of killing his victim are of equal value so far as each serves to bring about its purpose perfectly." -- Immanuel Kant (trans. James W. Ellington)

This observation from the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (section 415) was brought home to me in a rather striking way at my university. No, we don't have mad poisoners lurking about, but there did come before the Faculty Senate a most peculiar-looking document one day last term.

It is standard academic procedure for a proposal for a new course to come before the Senate for faculty review. On this occasion the agenda informed us that the Department of Fire Science wished to offer "FS 409: Arson for Profit."

I don't recall if nary a snicker emanated from the august chambers (actually, a dilapidated classroom), but there certainly was no commotion. The matter was dealt with in routine fashion, for the course appears to be a sound one for the program.

The content has to do with detecting and prosecuting this particularly vicious brand of white-collar crime. As the course description states, "The investigation of arson for profit requires that a large amount of data be collected from various sources. None of the data means anything unless it is properly organized and presented. Investigative techniques such as link analysis are used to interpret data obtained from studying fire behavior, motives, lab results, and financial records."

Naturally the intended market is persons in careers in fire science and criminal justice. But, in the light of Kant's remark, one may pause to reflect: What is to prevent an individual with incendiary intentions from signing up for this course? The very knowledge that would enable a police investigator to detect arson would help an arsonist to avoid detection.

Of course precautions might be instituted, such as a criminal background check before admitting anyone to the course. But Kant's point in citing his case was perfectly general: Any knowledge has the potential for good or evil.

We may therefore, with Kant, draw the conclusion that skill in means is not enough to make someone an ethical agent ... however effective an agent they may be. There must also be reflection on ends, on the purposes to which we apply our skill.

Perhaps the most stark and chilling example in modern times of the failure to do this is the crematoria of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps. Using their technical knowledge, engineers and other professionals worked constantly to increase the destructive capacity and efficiency of the gas chambers and ovens that obliterated millions of innocent human beings.

But we need not look to the past or to Nazism to find this emphasis on "how" over "whether" to do something; it is everywhere in our own society, even right here in Connecticut -- from the technicians manufacturing weapons of mass destruction that would dwarf World War II, to the tax accountant and computer programmer helping the local supermarket magnate bilk the government ( = other taxpayers) of millions of dollars.

A running joke in my ethics classes, which are typically taken as part of the university's "core curriculum" outside the student's major field, is for me to pose the philosophical question, "Why are we here?" and for a student to answer, "Because it's a requirement!" Seldom would a student -- not to mention a professor -- raise that question in a course in the student's major field. The assumption is that the student has his or her reason(s) for pursuing that field, for example, employment opportunities, higher salary, career advancement, lifestyle.

But in a class like ethics, it seems fair to turn that assumption into a question: "Do you have good reasons for pursuing your chosen field?" For example, "Have you considered a different career path in that field (not to mention, a different field altogether) which perhaps promises greater benefit to society, if somewhat less financial benefit to yourself?"

The real answer, then, to the perennial question, "Why am I here (in this ethics course)?" is, "To raise the question, `Why are you there (in your other courses)?'"!

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Right Way to Make a Left Turn

Copyright © 2001 by Joel Marks
Originally published in Philosophy Now magazine, no. 32, June/July 2001, page 45

I love roundabouts. Whenever I visit England, the first thing I do is rent a car and head out into the countryside. Even though the driving is sinister, I have no difficulty adapting. But I positively look forward to the traffic circles on the roads and in the towns. They are such a pleasant change from the obligatory stop and wait at intersections in the U.S. How many hours, days, seeming years I have spent sitting at stop lights at otherwise deserted crossroads!

Of course most of us are spending an ever-increasing percentage of our lives behind the wheel of an automobile, whether stop or go. To while away the time, people are importing ever more elaborate entertainment systems into their cars: first it was radios, then tape players, then CD players, then phones, now even TVs and computers. As a philosopher, however, I prefer conversation if I have a companion, and reflection if I don't. And what I have discovered is that the whole of ethics can be derived from traffic observations.

Consider again those accursed American intersections. One consequence of their design is that you must wait even after the light has changed to green in order to make a turn across oncoming traffic (which to us means when turning to the left). But if you want to proceed straight ahead, no problem, right? Wrong.

Suppose you are second in line behind a car that wants to turn. Typically there is room to pull over to the right and pass, but only if the turning car has pulled over far enough to the left. Not infrequently the first car fails to do so; hence you, and everyone behind you, are needlessly stuck for the duration.

"Learn how to drive!" oft leaves my lips on such occasions. But might I not as well have said, "Do the right thing"? For while there must be some rule in driving manuals about pulling over to the left when making a left turn, is it not also the case that this procedure could be inferred from a moral precept?

Indeed, from any one of many. Are you a fan of the Golden Rule? Then surely you would pull to the left to accommodate others because you would want others to do the same to accommodate you. Are you a utilitarian? Then you would realize that pulling to the left maximizes the amount of good in the world. Are you a Kantian? Then you would recognize that, by hogging the road, you would be treating those behind you merely as a means and not as ends-in-themselves. Do you practice Zen? Then you would be aware of not only your own desire to turn but also the desires of others to travel straight ahead. And so on.

Similarly it is incumbent on the first and all subsequent drivers in line to keep to the left as much as possible, in case someone behind wishes to make a right turn while the light is still red, which is legal in most localities in the States.

Now, ethics as a whole includes not only morality but also prudence. Thus, sometimes it happens that the car at the front of the line and about to make a left turn is pulled over far enough, but the driver has neglected to activate the turn signal (or decided to turn only at the last moment? or the car has a faulty signal light?). Then you could still be stuck when the light changes, if you have not left enough room between your car and the one in front because you had falsely assumed the other would continue straight on. So morality dictates always using the turn signal, but prudence dictates always leaving room; and hence ethics dictates both.

Yet another cause of needless waiting at an American intersection is the inability to make a right turn, simply because traffic coming from the right is turning too sharply to their left, leaving you no room to maneuver. When traffic is especially busy the effect can be to completely undercut the temporal and energy efficiency of right-turn-on-red laws. Thus, again, utilitarianism would object to the inconvenience to the blocked driver as well as the consequent environmental degradation, Kantianism to the disregard of the blocked driver's personhood, Zen to the lack of awareness thereof, etc. And from these observations yet another rule could be extracted: Whenever turning left at an intersection, fully enter the intersection before turning.

I could keep multiplying rules of the road ad infinitum, sufficiently to make any legislator or bureaucrat or highway patrol officer happy, or any teenager dread being tested by the motor vehicle department. But is there not a benign corollary to the driving-and-ethics connection? Rules are visible signs of an underlying principle. If one could grasp the principle, therefore, one would have a short-cut to learning all of the rules, or even be able to bypass them, as well as generate indefinitely many more as new situations presented themselves. In other words, a principle conveys understanding of a rule or rules. Furthermore, if the principle is a genuinely ethical one, then presumably the understanding it conveys will be motivating.

I hereby venture, then, the modest proposal that driver education should incorporate a healthy dose of basic ethical theory. No, ethics cannot totally substitute for learning driving rules. For one thing, there are non-ethical rules, such as "A yellow light means you should be prepared to stop." Secondly, there is always a tradeoff between rules and principles -- even in pure logic -- because the fewer the rules, the longer the inferences. So while "in theory" it may be possible to derive the entire ethics of driving from a single principle, it would take too long to do so on every occasion.

But should we supplement the rules of the road with a little ethical instruction? or make it a prerequisite? By all means. And while we're at it ... how about doing that for all of the rest of life as well?

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Rules of the Game Should Not Be the Law of the Land

Copyright © 2006 by Joel Marks
Published in the New Haven Register on June 29, 2005 (page A6)

If something is legal, is it ethical? Not necessarily. It is wrong to "dishonor thy parents," but not illegal to do so. Yet some of our current legislators in Connecticut seem to think that once the question of legality is settled, nothing remains to be considered. That is why lobbyists are being invited to their fund-raisers. It is legal to do this. The question of its ethically problematic nature does not even occur to them.

The special irony of the current cases, as reported Monday (June 20, 2005) by the Associated Press, is that some of these same legislators support proposed legislation to outlaw such activity. But until it becomes illegal, they argue, the current "rules of the game" would leave them at an "unfair" disadvantage if they did not solicit funds for their re-election campaigns in this way while their rivals were free to do so. The "playing field" would not be level.

This issue fascinates me because it highlights the relation between laws and ethics. I believe that there are good reasons for keeping the two separate. Apparently so do the legislators. However, we disagree about the implications of that separation.

Clearly there must be a realm of ethics that is not covered by laws. If everything that was wrong in the ethical sense had a law against it, the police would rule our lives down to the smallest detail. For example: Cheating on your spouse? Prepare for the men emerging from the car with the flashing lights to break down your door!

Why do we not want that? Because freedom and privacy are precious values. Because a universally intrusive police force puts total power into the hands of folks who are themselves fallible human beings. Because many sorts of problems are better worked out through personal means.

Nonetheless this does not mean that the areas of our lives that are not governed by laws are beyond constraint. In a society that is moral, there can be social pressure to influence our decisions and actions for the good. As we have recently seen in Connecticut, such pressure can even have real political ramifications, as when moral disapproval leads to or threatens the impeachment of a public official who may not have broken any laws.

But besides the external enforcement mechanisms of law -- arrest, court appearance, fine, prison -- and of moral social pressure, there is also an internal force of conscience. A person of integrity can be just as responsive to this prompting as to any disapproval by others or fear of punishment by the criminal justice system.

Where, then, is this power of conscience at work in the actions of those legislators who show no qualms about inviting lobbyists to their fund-raisers? It is obvious, is it not, that asking for money from somebody who is trying to influence your legislative decisions creates a conflict of interest with the public trust. Therefore, whatever legal loophole may happen to exist which permits this cannot possibly close the ethical loophole. To argue that such behavior is legal is not, it seems to me, sufficient to show that one ought, or is even permitted, to engage in it.

Furthermore, one is truly entering the realm of nonsense to make that argument and, as these legislators do, also express support for bills to curb such behavior. On what basis would one provide such support? Presumably on an ethical one: the behavior in question is wrong. Indeed, it rises to a level of wrongness that calls for laws to be enacted against it, despite the intrusiveness, etc., of laws. But if that is so, then how can it not also be wrong enough not to do it prior to the passage of those laws?

Morality is not a game. Neither is legislation. Both deal with laws, not rules. Legislators who take the game metaphor too literally might better spend their time at a casino.

Sacral Rites and Civil Rights: A modest proposal (of non-marriage)

Copyright (c) 2006 by Joel Marks
Published in the Milford Weekly on March 11, 2005 (page 4)

Now that the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee has approved legislation for civil unions in Connecticut, there are some who think that same-sex marriage cannot be far behind. I myself would welcome that development, but I know that many others would not. However, I think there is an alternative that could make everybody happy.

While a group of us were traveling to Hartford last June to rally on the Capitol steps on the occasion of the first legal same-sex marriages in Massachusetts, it suddenly dawned on us: What business does government have endorsing marriage in the first place? All the ballyhoo about "protecting" marriage has come from religious constituencies. Well, then, let them have marriage. Why not divorce government from marriage altogether and instead carve out a strictly "legal arrangement" for all who wish to be lifelong intimate partners?

Of course that is precisely what civil unions are supposed to be. The more enlightened among the "defense of marriage" folks at least recognize that there is a host of legitimate legal concerns, such as hospital visitation and social security benefits, that those "living in sin" should be humanely granted. Thus, they have been willing to compromise and to accord such legal rights to homosexual couples so long as marriage remains heterosexually sacrosanct. But doesn't that imply that marriage is supposed to be a religious institution? Why, then, should government be regulating it at all? Let government deal with civil rights, not sacral rites; and let the religious right have its religious rites. Civil union, not marriage, should be the law of the land.

My proposal, therefore, is that civil unions be mandated for all who heretofore have sought marriage licenses. Those heterosexual couples that want to add a religious dimension can then have a church wedding besides and become married. For that matter, those homosexuals who want to be married ought to be able to find a church that will bless their union as well. There is no reason to surrender religion to the right. For example, in 1985 the General Synod of the United Church of Christ adopted a resolution that “encourages the congregations of the United Church of Christ to adopt a non-discrimination policy and a Covenant of Openness and Affirmation of persons of lesbian, gay and bisexual orientation within the community of faith.” Our own Woodmont parish of the UCC just recently adopted such a policy.

Indeed, there is a movement that is gaining ground around the world to push for greater rights within one's religion and not just in civil society. Legal scholar Madhavi Sunder (UC Davis School of Law) has coined the term "New Enlightenment" for this extension of Eighteenth-Century Enlightenment concerns from the public sphere into the heretofore private sphere. An example that Sunder cites is women's activism for equal rights in certain Muslim communities.

Thus, this "modest proposal" (of non-marriage) would still enable almost everybody to marry, and it would even have the added bonus of according marriage just the sort of religious imprimatur that "save marriage" proponents seek. The latter would also still be free to fight whatever battles they wanted for the "purity" of their own church or congregation, and if they win or lose, the loser can always move to another establishment (or keep fighting). Nobody is going to deny freedom of religion in this country, are they?

The one possible true "loser" in this proposal might be atheists, but in America even they are likely to find a safe haven. First of all, some atheists would probably be perfectly satisfied with the civil union they would be able to obtain from the government. Secondly, there are religious establishments that would accept them. For example, I once heard a local rabbi claim that all Jews are religious, even if they are atheistic, since the name "Israel," which the angel gave to Jacob at Peniel (Genesis 32:28), means "struggles with God," and even atheists are struggling with God. Thirdly, some religions are atheistic to begin with, for example, Buddhism.

Therefore, the opponents of same-sex marriage face a stark logical choice: Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and relegate marriage to religious establishments only, or else recognize marriage as a properly governmental affair. Either way, same-sex marriage cannot possibly be opposed by any American who believes in freedom of religion and equal rights under the law.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Truth About Lying

Copyright (c) 2005 by Joel Marks
Note: The essay was my first "Moral and other Moments" column in Philosophy Now magazine (issue no. 27, June/July 2000, p. 51), where my essays have appeared ever since.

Is it possible to tell the truth and lie at the same time?

"Tomorrow is going to be a beautiful day," you say to your child, who is afraid the planned family picnic will be rained out. But you believe the rain that has been falling all week will continue tomorrow. You are lying in order to put off your child's disappointment for one more day.

But the next day turns out to be beautiful after all. So you told the truth. And yet you lied.

Is it possible to utter a falsehood and yet not lie? Suppose I say to you, "The Earth is flat." This statement is false. But I am not lying. I know it's false, and I know you know it's false. I have only uttered it in order to make my point: It is possible to utter a falsehood and yet not lie.

In fact, lying has nothing to do with truth and falsity. It is simply not true that the definition of lying is the stating of a falsehood. Lying seems instead to be a relation between a belief and an intention. If you utter what you believe to be false (regardless of whether it is false) for the purpose of inducing another to believe that it is true, you have lied.

What about the converse situation: uttering what you believe to be true for the purpose of inducing another to believe that it is false? In the movie True Lies Arnold Schwarzenegger portrays a U.S. secret agent who hides his occupation even from his wife. One day when "Arnold's" wife asks him what he did at work that day, he casually replies, "I saved the free world" (or something to that effect). As it turns out, he had done just that. But his intent in saying it was to disarm his wife's suspicions, for presumably she would consider his reply to be ludicrous. Was he lying to his wife? Was this a true lie?

I think not. For suppose "Arnold's" wife confronted him when she learned the truth (i.e., that what he has been telling her is true). If she accuses him thus -- "You lied to me!" -- his retort that, "No, I didn't; I told you the truth!" would be true, wouldn't it? And more to the point: Unlike in the picnic example, he had even believed it to be true when he uttered it.

However, his retort would also seem rather lame. Although speaking the literal truth, "Arnold" is not speaking in earnest. Rather he is being disingenuous and once again trying to manipulate his wife's beliefs by a subtle, verbal misrepresentation of his intention. Now he wants to convince her that he did not deceive her, by insisting that he did not lie to her, or at least that he did nothing wrong, because he did not lie to her.

But deceiving is a broader category than lying, and the latter is wrong (when it is wrong), I maintain, precisely when it is a form of the former. This is important to recognize because it implies that any comparable act of deception, lie or not, is just as wrong.

In the movie example, "Arnold" may have had good reason to deceive his wife. "Loose lips sink ships" and all that. So I am not saying that deception is always wrong. But I believe it is crucial to clarify that when lying is wrong, it is almost always so because it is a form of deception, and not the other way around, namely, that deception is wrong only when it takes the form of lying.

The latter view leaves open a huge loophole large enough to let pass, for example, political life, advertising, and sales; for do not all of these expend great gobs of time, money, and effort to avoid lying in the perpetration of deceptions? It may be, therefore, that entire institutions and industries are founded upon a conceptual misunderstanding of ethics.

No doubt their "justification" is to sidestep legal liability; for the law requires highly objective and visible standards, and lying fits that bill much better than the infinite subtleties of deception. Hence also we can understand why U.S. President Clinton chose to engage in various deceptions to dodge a perjury charge regarding his relations with Monica Lewinsky.

But from an ethical standpoint, all of that cleverness is a complete waste of time.

I would speculate that the popular equation between lying and speaking falsely is a holdover from childhood, or from child rearing. A very young person presumably cannot grasp subtle conceptual distinctions. Thus, we counsel the child to "Always tell the truth." Of course taken literally this is an impossible demand, even of a knowledgeable adult, for humans are always liable to error. But it is good enough to start the child on the road to honesty and integrity.

The problem is that, when the child reaches an age where subtler distinctions are possible, many, perhaps most parents do not revise the advice. Soon enough the child is, indeed, ready to practice law. "You lied to us! Your little brother told us you did break the vase." "No I didn't lie! I said I didn't break it today. That was the truth!" The child is, I think, literally correct. But he did intend to deceive, and that, to my way of thinking, is what carries the moral weight. I could care less whether an explicit lie has been told.

The child is not evil, but mainly confused. New mental possibilities are being discovered and experimented with. But if the parents (or teachers or church, etc.) do not have the conceptual wherewithal to counter this kind of argument and thereby intervene on behalf of a subtler morality suited to a more sophisticated mind, a deceiving child may very well go on to become an adult who plays fast and loose with the truth, often to the long-term detriment of self and society.

Where does the truth lie? Better to ask: Where does it deceive?

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Note: The vase example is an adaptation by one of my students, Scott Randall, from Sissela Bok’s Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (Vintage, 1999).

Of Humans and Mice

Copyright (c) 2005 by Joel Marks
Originally published with the title “Consider daily plight of lab mice” in the New Haven Register on January 4, 2006, page A4

I read with the usual grim bemusement that researchers have created laboratory mice containing human brain cells (Associated Press, December 13, 2005). The purpose is be able to model neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease, with an eye, no doubt, to finding cures for these human afflictions.

Perhaps this is considered news because of the hint of sensationalism. Mice with human brains! Shades of Dr. Moreau, the sinister surgeon of H. G. Wells' imagination, who created animal-man monstrosities on his secret island.

What is not considered news, however, is the daily plight of millions upon millions of mice and rats, who languish and die in research laboratories across the country without any legal protection whatever. For in 2002 President Bush signed into law a farm bill containing an amendment proposed by then-Senator Jesse Helms to exclude most such creatures from the definition of "animal" under the Animal Welfare Act.

According to Sue Leary, President of the Alternatives Research and Development Foundation, this makes the United States the only country in the world, among those that regulate animal research, to formally exclude some of them.

This reaches the level of absurdity when you consider, as was pointed out to me by Dr. Barbara Orlans, a faculty affiliate at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, that, as a result of the exclusion, only 1 percent of the animals used in research are actually protected by the Animal Welfare Act. No matter how friendly to humans may be the intent of this forced labor and imprisonment of our fellow mammals -- and also birds, who are similarly unprotected -- how can we justly or humanely deny them the legal guarantee of relief from pain and distress?

The crowning irony of this situation is that mice and rats are used for these purposes precisely because of their similarity to us. The news article reports that "mice are 97.5 percent genetically identical to humans." If that were not the case, they could not model our diseases! Why, then, do we not accord these animals 97.5 percent of the moral regard considered appropriate for humans? That would include entitlement to basic legal protections.

Instead human beings often seem to think of themselves as not animals at all. There is no question that humans are different from all other species. Furthermore, I would not seriously contend that a quantitative comparison of genes can decide our qualitative similarity to other beings. But I ponder when I poop how humans could fail to see their obvious commonality with other animals!

I marvel at the human contradiction between coddling our pets and condemning puppy-killers and parrot-exterminators on the one hand, and the general complacence about exploiting completely similar animals in laboratories and slaughterhouses on the other. Only animals as smart as we are could be so stupid.

According to Leary, there is no active citizens campaign to reverse the Helms amendment, and, Orlans adds, "There is nothing in sight." Fortunately, there are some safeguards in effect, such as requirements by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in order to be eligible for grants, and by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC) International in order to become accredited.

But only the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is governed by the Helms Amendment, can close down a lab. Furthermore, says Leary, of most immediate practical concern is the need for public accountability, which, again, only the USDA can supply. The basic tool of measurement of pain and distress is needed to gauge progress in this area.

As it happens, a friend of mine has a pet rat. That rat, named Persephone, is clearly intelligent, certainly has emotions, and flaunts her distinctive personality.







Photo by Melanie Stengel

Persephone: half her life in darkness, half in light, and always in perfect balance

We can all support efforts to ameliorate the effects of the Helms Amendment on Persephone's less fortunate cousins by joining an organization such as the American Anti-Vivisection Society.

A more extended discussion of this issue can be found in my article, "When I Heard the Learn'd Biologist."

On Being Disabled

Copyright © 2005 by Joel Marks
Originally published as “Society decides which disabilities are disabling” in the New Haven Register on June 2, 1995, page A16

I am a person with a disability ... in fact, many disabilities.

When I need something from a high shelf, I have to find something to stand on. I'm just not tall enough to reach it without assistance.

When I want to read the small print, I have to put on my glasses. Without them I am helpless, unless someone else is nearby, in which case I can ask them to read it to me. And even with my glasses on, for the life of me I could not see what an eagle sees ... or even what a bee sees.

I have no way to keep myself warm outside at night or on a winter's day unless I wear clothes. I am a pretty hairy guy, actually, but not nearly hairy enough to deal with all kinds of weather.

If I want to bring food home from the supermarket, I use a car. How else would I ever be able to carry it back? I'm just not big or strong enough, unless I spent the whole day walking between here and there with one bag at a time.

I wouldn't even think of trying to walk on water; I'm just not suited for it. And sometimes the distance I must travel is too far even to swim, so I have to wait for a boat to take me across.
And what would I do without a telephone to enable me to hear what somebody across town is saying? My hearing is just too weak to pick up their voice otherwise.

My intellect is incredibly weak, too. Oh, I can do simple arithmetic operations in my head, but when it comes to the square root of 578 ... I rely on a calculator!

I could go on and on. If truth be told, there are far more things I cannot do than I can do. This is not just a case of the glass being half-empty; it's pretty much drained dry.

And yet, to all appearances, I am a "normal" person. I disguise or compensate for many of my disabilities. As my examples show, I do count on lots of help from various devices and other people. But, lucky for me, these happen to be the very sorts of assistance that most members of my community depend on as well. So my disabilities don't even seem to be disabilities because nobody expects me to be able to do the things that I cannot do.

Is what we usually call a disability, then, really only a particular type of disability? If most human beings -- or even just most of the people in a given community -- have a disability in common, they tend not to see it for what it is. But if someone in the community has a relatively rare disability, then we think of that as a genuine disability.

In other words, what we typically recognize as a disability is a kind of abnormality -- a deviation from the norm, where the "norm" is simply what is usually the case. Not just any abnormality is a disability, for example, having an unusual eye color, but only one which impedes a vital function, such as knowing when it is safe to cross a traffic intersection.

But even this kind of disability is not anything objective, for society chooses which disabilities to accommodate and hence which are truly disabling. Sometimes by extremely simple and inexpensive means, vast realms of "disability" can be eliminated. For example, all of us have the disability to know which is the men's room and which is the women's room ... or even which is a bathroom at all ... if we are presented with nothing but a blank door. All of us depend on a sign outside that door.

A person who is blind requires a sign too, in raised lettering or Braille. Without this simple accommodation, the person may be helpless ... and, indeed, appear to others to be suffering from a disability. But that person is in no different a fix from anybody else, absent the required information in a form she can detect. Even a sighted person would be helpless without a magnifying glass if the lettering were too small ... or if it spelled a word in a language he did not know.

People do not just have disabilities; society decides who shall be disabled.

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Ideas for this essay emerged from a symposium on "People with Disabilities in the Workplace," moderated by Joel Marks at the University of New Haven on April 26, 1995, as well as from an interview with Amanda Massaro, a student at the university, on “Student Scene,” a radio program hosted by Joel Marks on WNHU-West Haven, Connecticut, 88.7 FM, on May 18, 1995.