The Casual Blog

Tag: ethics

The crucible of a massive earthquake in Haiti

Last week an earthquake hit Haiti with devastating force.  The destruction was so massive.  Airports, ports, roads, bridges, utilities, and communication networks were all shut down or disabled, and rescuers, aid workers, and journalists still cannot even see much of the area affected.  We know that the scale of death is huge, and the scale of suffering is enormous.  Reports yesterday said there had been 40,000 bodies recovered so far, and without food, water, or medical care, people will continue to die.

Disasters are natural crucibles.  They can reveal unexpected kindness and generosity.  At Red Hat, the population that insists on broadcasting company wide emails on their personal concerns is on an average day a minor but continual annoyance.  After the Haiti earthquake, though, there were many of those emails concerning how to contribute to charitable efforts effectively.  Many people everywhere pity the Haitians and wish they could help. For most Americans most of the time, if they think of Haiti at all, it is as a far away place of unfathomable poverty.  Some may be discovering, as I am, an unexpected feeling of solidarity, kinship, and shared sorrow with Haitians.

But disasters also expose character flaws and crazy ideas.  Pat Robertson, a well known religious TV personality, had this take on the Haitian earthquake:  that the Haitian people made a “pact with the devil.”  He was referring to Haitian slaves’ successful revolt at the end of the eighteenth century against their French rulers.  Robertson thus suggested that Haitian slavery was God’s will and that struggle against it was the work of Satin.  He implied that God personally gave the OK last week to kill tens of thousands of Haitians.  And God was justified in undertaking this slaughter based on the sins of ancestors several generations back.

To judge from press reports ridiculing Robertson, a great many people appreciate that such a view is morally demented.  But it does bring up in a starker-than-usual form difficult issue for religious people who are also concerned with ethics.  If  God is all knowing and all powerful, why would He trigger, or even permit, an earthquake to kill tens of thousands of innocent people?  Indeed, what possible justification could He have for the violent death of one innocent child?  Or for any of the other atrocities that we all see in the ordinary course of  life?  This line of questioning was really valuable to me in finding the courage to step off the path of conventional religious thinking.

How can we eat animals?

Not eating animals is, for me, a matter of conscience.  It seems to me plain that unnecessarily killing sentient creatures for human consumption is wrong.  I’m very conscious that this is a minority view.   That’s being too kind: this is a fringy view.  I feel good — that is, both healthier and happier — about eating plants rather than animals.  But it’s not pleasant to take a stand on this that is at odds both with the majority of the community and with most of the people I care about and respect, and I would not do so if I saw a principled alternative.

Because the topic is a difficult one, I was heartened to see in today’s NY Times an opinion piece by Gary Steiner setting out the animal rights point of view._ http://tiny.cc/GfNrJ Steiner is a professor of philosophy at Bucknell who’s written extensively on animal rights.   His basic argument is that animals possess inherent dignity, and that human desire cannot justify their slaughter.

Steiner has trouble explaining why most humans seem untroubled by this.  As he notes, the classic arguments that support treating human animals as privileged to cause unlimited suffering on other animals are embarrassingly weak.  It is difficult to square our general understanding of ourselves as beings embodying and constrained by morality with massive indifference to the pain of our fellow creatures.

Part of the answer is that the problem is at once overwhelming and easy to ignore.  According to Steiner, there are 53 billion animals slaughtered each year for human consumption, which is more than enough misery to inspire hopelessness.  There are also nested issues of economics and tradition. Humans have lots of other problems.  This week the NC press had stories about NC pork farmers going bankrupt, who were pleading for people to save them by eating more pigs.  It would be wrong to dismiss the plight of the farmers, but their voices at least get a hearing — unlike the pigs, who would undoubtedly prefer to live.  Steiner also alludes to the Thanksgiving turkeys who will be consumed this week recalling happy memories.  How could we give up such a joyful tradition?

The answer is, it isn’t really that hard, once the horror of the slaughter is brought into view.   There are many intractable problems of human society, but this one is not intractable.  It’s just difficult.