Friday, March 9, 2012

Horses, Lambs, Children, and Conflicting Ethics

In the March issue of The Atlantic, Darcy Courteau writes about the consequences that have been faced by the horse market in the years since the last slaughterhouse that produced horse meat in the United States was forced to close. I remember that story well, as I felt at the time that I was at odds with what I perceived as a widely shared instance irrationality in American culture. It seemed absurd to me that the Department of Agriculture should place a value judgment upon the production of horse meat, which differed from that applied to all other livestock.

I disagreed in no uncertain terms with that bit of interference with free enterprise. I disagreed with it on rational grounds despite being a vegetarian and a person highly concerned with animal rights. I simply don’t see how the overwhelming public support for the removal of horse meat and only horse meat from the American market could have stood up to any measure of introspection. It relies on a false distinction between one type of animal and all others.

Being a vegetarian and an animal rights advocate, I want to see that society avoids the mistreatment and slaughter of all animals, not just the ones that I like. How I feel about the creatures is irrelevant; right and wrong are never contingent upon personal attitudes. It may be contingent upon the objective nature of different things, but this doesn’t seem to apply to the situation of horses and other livestock. I don’t see how anyone could realistically argue that horses possess personalities that, for instance, cows or lamb lack, or that horses are better able to experience pain, discomfort, or fear.

Unless one earnestly believes that horses are intrinsically different from other animals, which belief they would have to hold in absence of real evidence, I can only assume that their impulse to suppress the slaughter of horses while allowing it for other animals is on the basis of the personal relationships people sometimes have with horses.

But that doesn’t really make a difference when we’re talking about just the concept of slaughtering them for meat. It’s not as though opponents of horse meat had personal relationships with this or that particular horse. Some people have personal relationships with particular rabbits, or snakes. It’s not unheard of for someone to keep a pig as a house pet, or to feel affection for a cow that is kept solely for dairy production. Rarely is any of this used as grounds to argue that the entirety of society ought to disallow the killing of or production of meat from any animals of a certain species.

If one recoils with horror at the very thought of horse meat, but never bats an eye when filling his shopping cart with pork and beef, he is wedging an artificial dividing line into the application of his principles. Such selective defense can only be irrational. And if one is concerned with consistency of his own beliefs or ethics, instances like that ought to lead to one of three outcomes: a change in attitude leading to universal application of the principle, even if potentially inconvenient; abandonment of that principle; or production of a satisfactory account of why the dividing line is not artificial.

If a person utterly opposes the production of horse meat but neither opposes the slaughter of all other creatures nor truly believes that the mental lives of horses are significantly and objectively different from those of all other creatures, then that person is trying to hold two contrary views at once: that killing a sentient, autonomous being that’s called a horse is wrong, and that killing a sentient, autonomous being that’s not called a horse is okay.

Cognitive dissonance is the enemy of breaking points. When you give yourself license to hold views that are in opposition to one another, you strip yourself of the crucial motivation for intellectual or moral growth. Breaking points arise of conflict, and sometimes it is a conflict between two opposing ideas that you yourself maintain. A person who is concerned with rational consistency will keep an eye out for such conflicting views, and his breaking point will entail a sudden realization that either one of his ideas is wrong, or he doesn’t actually know why each of them is right.

In the case of the ranching of horses and the slaughter of them for meat, the tension between views goes well beyond the simple difference in perception of horses and other animals. Cognitive dissonance is easy when you’re operating on pure intuition. When those intuitions are directly challenged by pragmatic concerns, it’s much more difficult to make glib pronouncements that a certain action is simply wrong. Courteau writes of the fallout from the closure of the last US horse meat producers:

“In states across the country, reported cases of equine abuse, neglect, and abandonment skyrocketed. And the kill buyers of yesteryear aggregated into rarer but still more haunting boogeymen, purchasing for the abattoirs of Canada, or, worse, Mexico, where horses at some slaughterhouses are reportedly subject to torturous conditions.”

Consequentialism makes for complex ethical calculations, and if one wishes not only to release the United States from the stigma its citizenry attaches to the slaughter of horses, but to actually reduce the suffering experienced by American horses, then such a person’s intuition that it was good to force closure of the slaughterhouses is probably in error. But that error and the larger error of deliberate cognitive dissonance are both based on the same mistake of thinking that your knee-jerk intuition is sufficient grounds for all moral judgments.

When one really starts to analyze the consequences of people’s intuitive moral pronouncements, we see that cognitive dissonance is quite easy to come by once all the nuance of principle and pragmatism is taken into account. In other words, what a person thinks is wrong often fails to align perfectly with why he thinks it is wrong. We cannot permanently avoid the moral burden of having to occasionally choose the lesser of two evils. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to occur to many people who have non-inquisitive, black-and-white views of morality.

The other night, I was watching the documentary Sweetgrass, and the depictions of some of the operations at the sheep farm brought to mind these same questions of ethical complexities. The opening scenes of the film largely focus on the beginning of lives for sheep on that farm, and I was somewhat shocked by the dismissive treatment by the ranchers of both newborn lambs and nursing mothers. But if watches with a measure of objectivity, one quickly comes to realize that given such high volume of sheep, the farmers are doing what they can to promote survival of the highest number possible.

Some years ago, I had a good friend who was a devout, even zealous Buddhist. He was exceptionally sensitive to implications of animal mistreatment, and aggressively, immediately judgmental of perceived wrongdoing. It occurred to me while watching Sweetgrass that he certainly would have found the farmers’ behavior to be unforgivable, but that any alternative behavior that would have resulted in the survival of fewer sheep would have elicited just as much disdain from him. While their rationalizations were grounded in Buddhism instead of Christianity, this friend’s social and political views were decidedly conservative, and probably didn’t differ very much from those of his Christian parents.

His moral judgments, like those of many conservatives, and indeed like those of many people of any political leaning, were severely averse to nuance. I recall discussing abortion with him on one occasion and using the word “complex” to describe the breadth and seriousness of the associated ethical questions. That evoked fiery indignation from him, and he said, “No. You can kill or you can not kill. It’s actually really simple.”

And it would be simple if that’s all it came down to, if there weren’t any genuine questions about what qualifies as killing, if there weren’t any other ways of being responsible for another creature’s suffering. What my friend believed seemed simple on the surface, but at a deeper level of analysis it becomes clear that he was keeping it simple by ignoring the hard questions.

No doubt he would have agreed that his moral concern was with decreasing the suffering of sentient beings, a utilitarian concern. That view means it is reprehensible to do anything that promotes or permits the death of, say, sheep or horses. But it must also make it reprehensible to do anything that promotes or permits the hunger or severe discomfort of the same creatures.

In the case of the sheep in Sweetgrass, keeping all of the lambs alive meant separating them from their mothers immediately upon birth, forcibly compelling ewes to nurse lambs to which they had no connection, and hastily handling the creatures as if they were inanimate objects. The alternative would have been to handle them more delicately, more compassionately, but chances are that in light of the enormous numbers of sheep that needed to be handled by just a few farmers, that would have resulted in some of the lambs being neglected, and thus starving or being killed by competing sheep.

Both alternatives may well be similarly unethical, but it’s unhelpful to simply reject whichever alternative is current simply on the basis of its perceived wrongness. The choice of one wrong action is, in cases like this, the direct consequence of the rejection of another.

It may strike some people as hideously dehumanizing to draw such a parallel, but the pragmatic circumstances surrounding the abortion debate can be elucidated by thinking of the entire human race as a correlate to a herd of livestock. As population increase, the rate of survival within that population, or at least the average utility available to each individual, naturally decreases. Mandating the birth of more young is tantamount to mandating the provision of more suffering. A person who opposes either abortion or the neglect of newborn lambs or the slaughter horses doesn’t have to accept that fact as a justification of the contrary position, but he does have to acknowledge the consequences of what he’s advocating.

In fact, I find that most people refuse to do this. They are, instead, happy to embrace cognitive dissonance, presumably because it is easier to live in a fantasy world in which right actions never have unintended consequences than it is to willfully struggle with moral dilemmas. That perception, however irrational, may help an individual to remain admirably committed to his own ethical obligations, but it also results in unfair judgments predicated upon others.

It’s not rational to demand that a creature with little access to resources must both birth its child and feed it. The acceptance of cognitive dissonance results in dissonant demands and no-win situations. That is the cognitive dissonance of, for instance, anyone who repudiates abortion without compromise, but also rejects the provision welfare. Essentially, the two views in concert pronounce that it’s wrong both to terminate a pregnancy and to have a child while poor.

Again, a rational person whose views are at odds with one another must apply the relevant principle, abandon it, or explain how they can be reconciled. In the given case, if a person claims the principle of defending the lives of innocents, he must apply that principle by providing material support to unsupported children. If that is too inconvenient, he must rethink his stance on abortion, or else explain why it’s worth defending an unborn child but not one who has truly entered the world.

It’s not easy to decide upon coherent ethical theories as to what constitutes right and wrong, but even once you have, it’s not easy to determine how to apply those theories. If you want children to have both a chance at life and at least basic comfort once they’ve begun that life, you’ll eventually have to confront a situation in which those desires stand in opposition. If want the lambs to avoid both starvation and mistreatment, you’ll be horrified, when you look closely enough, to realize that it sometimes takes one to avoid the other. You can save the horses from the abattoir, but you may thus doom them stable that does them even greater harm.

There is a certain sense in which my Buddhist friend’s pronouncement is still correct. It’s very simple: you can either kill or not kill. But the operative word there is “you.” The individual often has privileges that are absent to society at large. You can choose to carry your own unintended pregnancy to term, but if you can then feed that child without fail, you’d better thank God that you never really had to face the choice between depriving a child of life and subjecting it to exquisite hardship. And you can’t conflate either situation with the broader hypothetical in which the nation is inundated with a million additional young lives that must be supported and defended.

If you raise horses and you’re uncomfortable with them being either slaughtered or abused and underfed, you can do as Ms. Courteau’s father had always done and refuse to sell them to kill buyers. But when such sales are no longer an option and the reduced demand causes the prices of horses to fall, lowering your revenue to the point where it is no longer possible to take adequate care of the horses you have, the dual ideals of defending all life and defending against all suffering are no longer sustainable.

This has been the situation of horse farming in the United States for the past four or five years. I remember it being mentioned by some as a possible consequence at the time that the last slaughterhouse dealing in horse meat was closing. But mostly I remember objecting to the irrationality of it all. I remember this very well, but somehow I missed the fact that the Congress resumed funding for these slaughterhouses in November, which may result in some reopening this year.

I won’t be happy to see domestic horses go back to slaughter. Indeed, I hope that someday in the far-distant future they all close again, but that they do so then right along with those that deal in every species of animal, and that it be on the basis of the universal application of moral principles, not on the basis of an absurd double-standard.

But despite the fancifulness of that hope, I’m not na├»ve about the implications. I know that many animals will suffer and die from lack of care during any possible transition away from their slaughter and consumption. But if I could be alive when that time comes, I would say that that is the unhappy consequence of doing right in a way that is more crucial to our future moral standing. It is a great tragedy of the social aspect of moral existence that we sometimes have to prioritize our values against one another. But our collective morality gains not a bit from pretending that there is no such problem.

The nuanced demands and consequences of collective ethics are discomforting, in that they may require us to accept things that don’t feel right to us. Intuition is a powerful tool in making moral judgments, but it can only lead us so far. If it guides a situation towards less obvious but more serious harms, we’ve probably made the awfully mistake of eschewing rationality in order to appease the short-sighted demands of immediate perception. Only reason, and not intuition, is capable of handling nuance and recognizing indefensible cognitive dissonances.

Rationality is a skill that must be learned for the sake of coherent, far-reaching moral behavior. It draws the dividing line between those who think they are doing the right thing and truly are, even if they appear not to be.

Courteau writes of the reversal of the double-standard regarding horse meat, “Many pet lovers are furious, but PETA actually supports the reversal, arguing that the suffering of unwanted horses increased after the demise of the kill plants.” If PETA, which is often so prone to over-the-top displays of self-righteous, black-and-white morality, can learn the value of nuance and circumstance, anyone can.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Watch More! Do Less!

When last I watched something on Hulu, I was treated to an advertisement for Hulu Plus, which almost seemed like a thematic sequel to the commercial with Will Arnett that ran during the Super Bowl. I didn’t mention that one in my post reviewing the Super Bowl ads, but I remember now just how puzzled I was by the message that it presented. Arnett played a space alien who presented himself as a member of a vast conspiracy among people in entertainment and broadcasting, observing with malicious glee all of the people around him who remained glued to television programs on their mobile devices while they sat in cafes or just walked down the street.
Obviously, the ad was intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but to simply watch it, it’s hard to see any acknowledgement of the joke. I would expect that an absurdist portrayal of the would-be criticisms of a brand would show the salutary kernel of truth under the surface, but I don’t see that in the Will Arnett Super Bowl ad. Instead, it presents the criticisms of television viewing habits in an over-the-top way, but it also presents those actual habits in an over-the-top and markedly negative way. Arnett explains the evil plot that is modern television, and everyone around him sits in utter obliviousness, staring obsessively, vacantly into their screens. There is no point of contrast; there’s nothing that encourages viewers to both laugh at the absurdity and recognize the appeal of the product.
With the new commercial that I’ve seen run on Hulu itself, the company seems to have stripped the joke out of the equation altogether, leaving only a negative portrayal of their own product. I’m not sure what’s going on here. Either Hulu is engaged in some bizarre campaign of parodying itself, or my values are so hugely out of step with those of much of the culture that these advertisers see certain images as edifying while I see instead as disturbing.
That dichotomy is seen in the images of the new commercial alone, but it’s really driven home by Hulu Plus’ latest tagline: “Make the most of everything.” The ad shows a man on what I presume to be a Stair Master at a gym. I can only guess at the machine he’s using, because we don’t see it. The shot remains tight on this face and upper body, perhaps deliberately restricting our visual awareness of the fact that he is even doing anything. The man holds the handle of the machine with one hand while holding a mobile device in front of his face with the other. And as the camera lingers on the image of his distracted, staring expression, the voiceover says, “Make the most of your workout.”
How? I assume he means by doing the exact opposite of what this man is doing, seeing as he doesn’t appear to be aware of the fact that he’s working out at all. Now, I’m no fitness expert, but I’m pretty sure that if you don’t feel anything and you don’t have to concentrate on your exercise in any measure, you’re doing something wrong. The visual presentation really doesn’t give me the impression that he’s making the most out of his workout by adding television to it. It gives me the impression that he’s not getting much out of either activity.
“Make the most out of your lunch break,” the voiceover says next, at the same time that the scene changes to an image of a woman in business attire sitting on a bench outside and staring at an iPad on which she is watching an episode of Lost. The expression on the actresses face is marvelously discomforting, and it can’t be unintentional on the part of the advertisers. I wonder what the director said to her. Perhaps, “Try to look as if you’ve just dropped acid and you’re watching a dragon tenderly make love to a unicorn on a bed of rainbows.” They even have her raise a fast food beverage cup into frame and clumsily place the straw in her mouth without so much as moving her eyes. It’s an exceptionally unsophisticated image.
Nobody should look as rapturously mindless while watching television as Hulu has the subjects of its ads look. This is doubly true if the person is outside at the time. With the professional woman as with the man at the gym, the camera stays pretty close, but by all appearances it is a nice day outside. And yet Hulu’s concept of making the most of a lunch break on that day is to focus completely on an escapist fantasy and to never, ever glance for a moment at the sun. There’s no joke behind this as with the alien conspiracy ad; they’re actually saying that.
When I started to notice the popularity of watching television on DVD, I thought that there was something very positive about the changes to the way we consume media. At the same time that I miss the unifying experience of knowing that the rest of the country is watching the same thing at the same time, I considered it a worthy trade off, knowing that programs themselves were coming to be seen more as things to be sold directly, rather than just as means of delivering advertisements, and thus as things to be controlled by them. I liked the idea that Mad Men could make money because it was appreciated by its audience, and not just because it sold products. I realize, though, that that idea isn’t entirely accurate; the advertising is still primary, and it still affects the progress and direction of shows.
Now, not only does secondary advertising still hold sway over good media, the idea of entertainment as a product unto itself has proven to have a dark side. With companies now profiting not just from the consumption of their media but from the consumption of media in general, there are advertisers whose jobs have come to be to sell us on the very idea of watching television and movies, and to try to convince us that it’s better for us if we consume more, even as much as possible.
It’s only natural that a company tries to present its product as eminently beneficial to the consumer, especially in contrast to its competitors. It’s just less familiar, and quite unfortunate that in the cases of products like Hulu Plus, the major competitor is the entire outside world. Consequently the vision of such products’ ultimate benefit to your life is a situation in which you no longer have a life at all. “Make the most of everything” is a powerfully, and dangerously disingenuous slogan. With the haunting images of media addiction presented by such products as Hulu Plus and Digital Copy, about which I’ve written before, a far more fitting tagline would be, “You may as well not leave the couch.”

Monday, March 5, 2012

Immorality of and for Children

Moving about my town this weekend, I made two markedly unpleasant observations, which were quite distinct from each other, but also meaningfully connected. They both spoke to the deplorable effect that many adults have upon the children growing up around them, in the one place through the influences they predicate upon them indirectly, and in the other through what they willfully do to them.

When I had just gone out of my home to catch a bus and go to meet a friend, I was walking down the principal street of my neighborhood and I saw a ten year-old boy turn to stare openly and at length at the backside of a seven year-old girl who had walked past him. Now, it could be that there was some other context that I was missing – he may have recognized her from elsewhere but been too shy to call out to her – but to my eye his behavior was indistinguishable from that of the appallingly many men I have seen stop in their tracks and follow with their eyes the receding course of a woman they find attractive.

The young boy didn’t appear to be simply looking; he appeared to be leering, and I know all too well what that looks like. It’s been so commonplace in recent years that there’s no longer any deluded part of me that’s willing to pass it off as an anomaly when I see another man doing it. It’s become a social trend, and in turn I’ve become pretty consistent in reacting to it in some fashion when I see it. That action only rises to the level of staring crazily at the unabashed lecher, but my hope is that by thereby calling attention to the fact that he’s not invisible to the world just because the object of his ogling has her back turned I can help to instill a slight sense of shame.

To do so seems like an even stronger imperative now that I’ve seen a young boy exhibiting the same brazen rejection of self-restraint. After all, the boy was about ten years old, and the object of his leering about seven. Unless human biology has changed far more than I realize, there’s no way that he has sufficiently developed sexuality to provide him with a strong instinctual desire to look. Even if there was, that instinct would direct his attention toward a woman with fully developed secondary sexual characteristics, not a child like himself.

The logical conclusion, as I see it, is that the boy was showcasing an environmentally learned behavior. The vulgar social trend of open displays of unchecked lust is probably self-progenitive, like many social behaviors, and will grow and worsen in communities where it is not combated. What I observed was a ten year-old boy having learned lecherousness before he ever learned about sex, and perhaps before he’d so much as heard the word “hormones.” It is a truly hideous culture that allows its youth to inherit vices before they inherit any reasons for indulging them. And that is a trend that is only interrupted by adults within the culture being mindful of the behaviors that they put on display to their children, and seeing that the indulgence of common vices never outstrips the reasons for them.

While the incidental corruption of youth by the action of a collective culture is awful, at least there is a plea of ignorance to be made. What is worse still is putting the worst of oneself on display in full awareness of the fact that a child is the main witness or the direct object of it. I was coming back with my friend from where we had met up, and we had to wait a few minutes in the Metro Rail station before transferring to a bus. Other passengers emerged from the tunnel with us and most of them headed straight out to the street. A boy who may have been as young as four, accompanied by who I presume to be his mother, was among them, but the two stopped short inside the door at the behest of the woman’s sudden and exceptionally severe shouting.

“Are you serious?! Tie your goddam shoe! I’m fucking sick of this shit! Tie your goddam shoe! And it better fucking stay tied this time, or I’m gonna beat your ass!”

She delivered these commands and threats with lengthy pauses and with repetition, so that the entire affair lasted a thirty seconds or so as the boy sat on a bench and tied his shoe while she stood imposingly over him, doing nothing but staring down with a fury that never relented. I stood nearby and glanced repeatedly in their direction with a similar, but I think righteous, fury in my eyes. But that was it; I reacted in the same way that I tend to react to lechers on the street, which I steadily realized was not good enough as I watched them go.

As always seems to be the case when there is a subtle but significant opportunity for me to stand up for something, I found myself regretting my prolonged silence for a long time after the fact. When these demonstrations of immorality spring themselves upon me, it tends to take me time to process what I am witnessing. And in this case, I wrestled silently with the situation for too long. It’s one thing when someone is harassing a stranger, but another when some public conflict is between friends or among family. The lack of known circumstance makes me reluctant to insert myself into a situation that does not concern me. Perhaps there are issues involved that I don’t understand.

In this case at the rail station, my moral compass wobbled terribly because of the fact that it was the woman’s own child at whom she was directing her aggression. I’ve always found that there is a common but flawed cultural assumption that people have special rights and privileges in dealing with their children, and that it’s almost never the place of the community to insert itself into another person’s parenting. But recognizing the common assumption as flawed doesn’t mean that I entirely avoid being influenced by it. The effect is evidently that I feel I must be quite sure that a situation rises to the level of unjustifiability, as by involving physical violence, before I confront wrongful actions against one’s own child.

Unfortunately, when the aggression doesn’t cross the line from threats to physicality, I’m compelled to make moral, rational, and probabilistic calculations before my perception of the situation reaches a breaking point at which my mind exclaims, “of course there’s no justification for that!” Of course there was no justification for this woman screaming at her four year-old child because his shoelaces had come undone. He’s four. He probably learned how to tie a bow just months or weeks prior, and clearly he wasn’t getting any help from his mother in perfecting the craft. Her assistance took the form only of demeaning criticism and public humiliation, and even if that isn’t the normal dynamic between them when the child is struggling with something, her response isn’t justified even in an isolated case.

I wanted to defend the child against the maternal onslaught he was absorbing, and it would have been worth doing so not just for the sake of protecting his fragile emotions, but perhaps more so for the sake of protecting his malleable mind from being warped into the image of the insanely hot-headed, irrational woman who is raising him. The aggression hurts the child in the short term, but he’ll get over it. Kids are resilient. But at the same time, dealing with his problem by doing nothing more than shouting at him to fix it or suffer the consequences gives the impression that that’s the best – perhaps the only – way to solve further problems. One day, that child will grow into a man who has the power over someone else in a situation, and if his mother’s treatment of him is indicative of the overall environment that he’s living in, there’s a definite risk that he’ll command that power without reason or restraint.

At a higher level, there’s a terrible social consequence to the message that’s sent by the parenting techniques that the woman put on public display that night. The black mother and son, being in Buffalo, were almost certainly from a background of low socio-economic status. A cycle of enforcement that says “solve your problem or suffer the consequences” is indicative of a tragic victim-blaming tendency that even operates inside of disadvantaged communities. Rather than doing anything to help the boy become more practiced at tying his shoes, his mother merely insisted that he do it better, implying that worse consequences of failure would be as good as greater opportunities for success. One wonders if she will offer the same message when he needs help on his homework, or when he’s looking for a job, or when he needs a social support system. There is an implied resignation there, accepting the assertion that there’s something wrong with the individual, or the race, or the community, and that until such time as that changes, there’s little point in trying to help them to better outcomes.

Everything moral choice that we make – with respect to our children, our neighbors, within ourselves – begins the alteration or supports the preservation of the way things are at the level of the family, of the community, and throughout the culture. I failed to decide quickly to step up to the woman and insist that she stop screaming expletives at her child and start actually raising in hopes that he’ll be even better than she. And in that failure, I missed an opportunity to put a new nick in the structure of the world as it is. I feel as though had she stayed around another moment I would have been past my breaking point, but as it was she stalked off quickly enough that I barely raised my voice before she was through the door. However, her child trailed behind her, and I saw that he looked squarely back at me as he was going out. In absence of having truly stood up against an example of horrible stewardship of our children, I comfort myself with the hope that the boy himself recognized my indignation for what it was, and that even as he followed his raving mother, he realized that not everybody is the same, that there are other sorts of people that he can grow into.