The Dismal Impossibility of Doing No Harm
Vegan, vegetarian, ascetic Jain monk — no matter. All life infringes upon other life. (Sorry, yo.)
“It is difficult to be a better person than the times in which you live.”
I can’t recall where I saw the quote or who said it (no luck so far from Google). I’m likely paraphrasing, but that’s the basic gist. Like the fish that scoffs “What the hell is water?” it is difficult to objectively take the true measure of the culture in which we are immersed, let alone rise above its socially accepted ethics.
Perhaps you’ve seen some version of this thought experiment on the internet before:
Look back to any period of history and it is not difficult to identify human behaviors that egregiously offend our own sensibilities. So wouldn’t it be fair to assume that some of our current practices will be viewed by future generations in much the same way — practices which today give us virtually zero pause, but that will cause those in the 23rd century (e.g.) to gasp and shudder in revulsion?
What might our own moral blind spots be?
The question unsettles.
Maybe it’s car accidents. With self-driving cars and other accident-mitigating technologies well on the way, in a couple decades people might marvel at our blasé resignation to today’s highway fatality rates, much as we recoil at the idea of bloodletting or nineteenth-century surgery.
Maybe it’s energy. A third of U.S. energy consumption is from coal. (Meanwhile, France gets 80% of its energy from nuclear power.)
Maybe it’s Twitter. So much squandered potential…
But what if it’s our treatment of animals?
Bacon and Calamari and Ethical Dilemmas
At some point years ago I learned that pigs are more intelligent than cats. Something about that fact hit deep. The thought would surface intermittently, and still does, its ramifications rippling: Pigs are smarter than cats! That’s surprising. I mean, cats are smarter than dogs. And dogs can be so clever, and expressive, and conniving, and loving, with such distinct personalities...
The next steppingstone in the logical chain: Learning that by industrialized farming standards, particularly after the drastically improved treatment of cows thanks to the work of Temple Grandin and others, pigs suffer horribly. Their treatment is objectively worse than that of cattle, quite apart from their higher intelligence — which can only intensify that suffering.
I’ve seen a few pigs in my lifetime, but I’ve only ever met one. His name was Stanley. Oddly enough for our relatively congested area in West Orange, NJ, there was a horse stable at the end of the street where I lived till I was 6. We would sometimes walk to see the horses (my favorite was Skywalker — obviously). I remember a candy bar machine. I can recall zero authority figures there but for one: the stable’s resident pig. Big ol’ raucous Stanley. The pig seemed to have the run of the place, pretty much roaming the premises at will and serving as a friend to the horses.
In all my years, I never met another pig. It’s this distance from the animals we eat, and the process that brings them to our table, that likely makes our treatment of them a gigantic moral blind spot.
The next link in the thought chain seems inevitable: I don’t think I should eat pork any more. The pathetic part is that I flout this basic principle repeatedly. I’ve diminished my pork intake over the last few years, but every so often my willpower is defeated by ready access to bacon.
It should be pretty easy to abide by the decision. And yet I still fail. It’s hard to be a better person than the times in which you live...
Perhaps you’ve already jumped to the next steppingstone. If I think it’s more ethical to abstain from eating pork — to dissociate myself from the mass-scale suffering of pigs — what about cows and chickens and bison and rabbit and turkey and duck and foie gras and all the other animals and animal products available to eat? It even turns out that fish can remember human faces — meaning perhaps there is more going on inside their heads than we’ve given them credit for. Meaning maybe we shouldn’t be so cavalier about eating them, either. And cephalopods are known to be highly intelligent. What about calamari and octopus rolls then? (I’ve cut down on those too.)
Yet how could drawing the line at pigs and octopuses make any sense whatsoever? Shouldn’t I have gone vegan years ago?
We’re Meat Too…Or Could Be
Reinforcing this uneasiness is the utter ethical unsoundness of a common argument in favor of eating meat: We are the highest order of intelligence, at the top of the food chain, and the only species capable of advancing knowledge of our existence and our universe and whatnot.
The premise is true, but it’s the conclusion that falls short. Would we still happily apply this standard if a higher-order intelligence one day showed up on our doorstep making the identical case? I think not.
That idea is brilliantly explored by the philosopher Thomas Metzinger in his book The Ego Tunnel, particularly where he imagines how an artificial superintelligence might treat us even on our most favorable terms. The “conversation” would go something like this:
“Listen, you humans would literally not be able to comprehend what we’re up to, but it’s really important stuff — far more important than you or any thought you’ve ever been capable of entertaining. But since we’re not barbarians, like certain creatures we won’t call out here, we aren’t going to slaughter you like, you know, cattle. Instead we cordoned off this giant area over there for you all to live your silly inconsequential lives as you see fit. Do not even attempt to interfere with us — you couldn’t anyway, truthfully — or there will be consequences.” (I dive into all that in more detail here, in case you’re interested).
Any system of ethics that can be dismissed so easily when the tables are turned — “Everything we just said? Well that applies only to you, not to us! Don’t be ridiculous!” — isn’t intellectually honest, let alone coherent.
So, is the final, inevitable logical link in the chain to become a vegan, or at least a vegetarian? It turns out the ethics aren’t so cut and dried.
Farming Vegetables Kills Animals
One drawback of vegetarianism: With current industrial-scale farming practices, untold numbers of small animals are destroyed by machinery while harvesting crops. Farming practices also necessarily disrupt these tiny animals’ habitats, when they don’t outright annihilate them.
When Steven Davis first designed his course on animal ethics at the University of Oregon’s animal science department, his surprising conclusion was that “nobody’s hands are free from the blood of other animals, not even vegetarians.” As this ABC News article recounts, “Millions of animals are killed every year, Davis says, to prepare land for growing crops.... The animals in this case are mice and moles and rabbits and other creatures that are run over by tractors, or lose their habitat to make way for farming, so they are not as ‘visible’ as cattle, he says.”
Is saving one cow more important than the dozens of rodents destroyed by combines in a single acre of farming? Calorie for calorie, vegetarianism costs more total animal lives — at least at the scale currently required to nourish our population. This is not a hypothetical scenario. One death is intentional and the others incidental, but if the point is to reduce both the total number of animal deaths and overall suffering, than vegetarianism might not definitively be the answer.
Plants Eat Meat
Another less frequently mentioned irony in the vegetarian/vegan position is that plants thrive on animal matter. Not just the remains of those poor combine-shredded rodents sacrificed for soybeans, corn, wheat, and other vegetable farming, but also in the very nutrient-boosting fertilizer needed to grow crops in our current abundance. If I were to become a vegan, would I actually be able to find vegetable products that weren’t grown with the aid of fertilizer? If that is deemed acceptable, why is the line drawn there? And if plants thrive on animal matter, how is that morally different from our doing the same?
The best defense I can think of is that plants don’t really choose to kill animals — not even Venus flytraps — since they are not “conscious.”
Which brings us to a much more disturbing flaw in the ethical argument for vegetarianism: plant intelligence.
Whoa Now . . . Plant Intelligence?
In one of the most fascinating, wondrous, and haunting essays I’ve ever read — “The Intelligent Plant,” published in The New Yorker — author and UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollan dives into this obscure scientific arena and uncovers some remarkable observations from research conducted by the Society for Plant Signaling and Behavior and others.
The ideas underpinning such research include arguments that our biases toward brains and neurons, and toward the ability to move freely as opposed to being rooted to the ground, have blinded us to other forms of potential intelligence and perhaps consciousness, and that in simplistic terms, perhaps plant life operates at a slower time scale than us, leading us to underestimate their own “experience.”
But really, who are we to dismiss plant life as inferior? As Pollan writes, “Plants dominate every terrestrial environment, composing ninety-nine per cent of the biomass on earth. By comparison, humans and all the other animals are, in the words of one plant neurobiologist, ‘just traces.’” Plants were here long before us, and they will thrive long after we’re gone.
Looking at the bright side, plants’ very lack of a neurological structural core means they have evolved to withstand losing massive amounts of their own biological material without such losses proving fatal. It’s almost as if they are designed to be eaten with minimal consequence.
Even so, some of the research into their intelligence is startling. Just a sampling of some of the many amazing discoveries Pollan covers:
In a recent experiment, Heidi Appel, a chemical ecologist at the University of Missouri, found that, when she played a recording of a caterpillar chomping a leaf for a plant that hadn’t been touched, the sound primed the plant’s genetic machinery to produce defense chemicals. Another experiment, done in Mancuso’s lab and not yet published, found that plant roots would seek out a buried pipe through which water was flowing even if the exterior of the pipe was dry, which suggested that plants somehow “hear” the sound of flowing water.
Hold on a sec. How could a plant “hear” the sound of crunching caterpillar jaws or running water? Do roots pick up vibrations? Even so, what biological mechanism does the plant use to interpret these signals and respond? We don’t know…
In another experiment, plants were seen to learn — and remember. This one is again worth quoting at length (emphasis mine):
Mimosa pudica, also called the “sensitive plant,” is that rare plant species with a behavior so speedy and visible that animals can observe it; the Venus flytrap is another. When the fernlike leaves of the mimosa are touched, they instantly fold up, presumably to frighten insects. The mimosa also collapses its leaves when the plant is dropped or jostled. Gagliano potted fifty-six mimosa plants and rigged a system to drop them from a height of fifteen centimetres every five seconds. Each “training session” involved sixty drops. She reported that some of the mimosas started to reopen their leaves after just four, five, or six drops, as if they had concluded that the stimulus could be safely ignored. “By the end, they were completely open,” Gagliano said to the audience. “They couldn’t care less anymore.”
Was it just fatigue? Apparently not: when the plants were shaken, they again closed up. “‘Oh, this is something new,’” Gagliano said, imagining these events from the plants’ point of view. “You see, you want to be attuned to something new coming in. Then we went back to the drops, and they didn’t respond.” Gagliano reported that she retested her plants after a week and found that they continued to disregard the drop stimulus, indicating that they “remembered” what they had learned. Even after twenty-eight days, the lesson had not been forgotten. She reminded her colleagues that, in similar experiments with bees, the insects forgot what they had learned after just forty-eight hours. Gagliano concluded by suggesting that “brains and neurons are a sophisticated solution but not a necessary requirement for learning,” and that there is “some unifying mechanism across living systems that can process information and learn.”
I won’t mention any of the others apart from what might be the most disquieting discovery of all: When plants are harmed or “stressed,” one of their many defense mechanisms is to release ethylene, a chemical that works as an anesthetic.
So answer this: Why oh why would a plant require a built-in pain reliever? The answer suggests something from a horror movie…
Seriously, read the whole thing if you want your outlook of the world to be changed forever. It’s been two and a half years and I think about this article all the time. There is so much we do not understand.
Is There Any Hope?
While thinking about this essay I was reminded of something from Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral. At one point in the story the protagonist’s troubled daughter Merry — clearly in existential crisis after becoming entangled in domestic terrorism in the turbulent ’60s and ’70s — repudiates all her past violence and becomes a Jain.
I’d never heard of Jainism before. According to Wikipedia, it’s an ancient Indian religion demanding “nonviolence toward all living beings to the most possible extent,” its motto being The function of souls is to help one another.
Here’s how Roth’s hero, The Swede, describes this “relatively small Indian religious sect” — or at least his daughter’s practice of it:
She wore the veil to do no harm to the microscopic organisms that dwell in the air we breathe. She did not bathe because she revered all life, including the vermin. She did not wash, she said, so as “to do no harm to the water.” She did not walk about after dark, even in her own room, for fear of crushing some living object beneath her feet. There are souls, she explained, imprisoned in every form of matter; the lower the form of life, the greater is the pain to the soul imprisoned there. The only way ever to become free of matter and to arrive at what she described as “self-sufficient bliss for all eternity” was to become what she reverentially called “a perfected soul.” One achieves this perfection only though the rigors of asceticism and self-denial and through the doctrine of ahimsa or nonviolence.
— Excerpted from American Pastoral, by Philip Roth.
Her intentions are obviously noble. Aspiring toward the elimination of all suffering is a high calling indeed. Yet even in Merry’s extreme case (I don’t mean to conflate the above fictional account with the real-world practice of Jainism), the sheer futility is evident. Does the veil truly protect microscopic organisms from her breathing? Where does she obtain the little food she does eat? She has to move around sometimes, surely?
But for the sake of argument, let’s grant that all of her actions (or lack thereof) indeed did protect the lives of all the living organisms around her, great and small. Still there is harm being done — to herself. In the most perfectly ethical scenario she can imagine in her interpretation of Jainism, which again assumes far more efficacy than reality can bear, the philosophy in which she constrains herself requires complete self-abnegation and indeed self-harm to the point of serious illness and a slow wasting away.
Her example reveals in stark relief the harsh, inescapable reality of our universe bearing down on us once again. Life is death, survival entails suffering, and uncertainty and necessity and good and bad are all tangled together in a Gordian Knot of unfathomable complexity — yet brutal, unavoidable simplicity.
While talking about this topic with my wife, who’s a psychologist, she said it reminded her of common scenarios she’s encountered with patients. Naturally, people often make choices that minimize the suffering of others, even to the extent of making themselves suffer more. She pointed out that these small concessions — a partner letting an unwanted behavior slide, or a parent avoiding setting a boundary with a child to gain some short-term peace — usually lead to greater suffering in the long run. Part of the reason is that in avoiding difficult decisions or conflict, we rob others of the chance to learn and grow from the experience of working through problems. In other words, we can rob them of a chance to be a part of a healthy relationship, a sentence itself a form of suffering.
Anyway, back to the matter at hand: what to eat. What is the takeaway? If only all of our possible choices could be laid out in front of us, pointing us toward the path of least suffering (our own included). That’s impossible, so all we can do is try as much as we can not to harm others, without ever letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
I will continue trying to avoid eating pork and octopuses and squid, and will stick to free-range chicken and hormone-free beef and other baby steps taken to stem the guilt. Maybe they are improvements. Maybe it’s just virtue signaling. Maybe one day these habits will be viewed as horrific. But any time I have a salad I’ll also wince in wonder about those poor rodents who might have died for it — and about plants too, with their built-in anesthetics and networked communication and other inexplicable behaviors…
It’s so, so hard to be a better person than the times in which you live.
Posted on June 15, 2016