Montaigne: We’re all animals

I have a bad habit of speculating about what animals, usually my dog or someone else’s pet, are thinking. This leads people close to me to accuse me of anthropomorphism. They say I assume animals experience the world in the same way I do without any real evidence to tell me what kinds of  “thoughts” animals might have.

And it is true; I have no way to verify what animals are actually thinking, but I don’t have any reliable way to know what anyone is thinking, so I go about my day assuming animals, especially mammals, experience life more or less as I do, even if they can’t express it with language. I happen to think those of us who make this assumption are kinder than those who don’t. And if we must make assumptions, anyway, we might as well make assumptions that increase kindness in the world.

In Political Emotions, Martha Nussbaum turns the tables on the critics of anthropomorphism. Rather than accusing people of projecting human emotions onto animals, she questions why humans are so insistent on denying that human and nonhuman animals share some emotional experiences. Rather than anthropomorphism, she says, we are guilty of anthropodenial.

Humans have a long history of placing themselves closer to angels than to other mammals. In fact, many humans see themselves as a sort of angel in waiting. We separate ourselves from other animals by drawing a supposed bright line between ourselves and animals. What’s more, humans have a tendency to separate themselves from other humans by projecting animal qualities on others. Humans in despised and marginalized groups are said to be vicious, savage, smelly, dirty, shameless, and stupid. Being no better than animals, members of such groups are often treated much worse than “angels in waiting.”

Nussbaum’s description seems radical in some ways, but the distinction between writers and thinkers who deny the shared experience of human and nonhuman animals and those who embrace the similarities is ancient. Writing in the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne wrote of his condition tha...
Michel de Montaigne wrote of his condition that, “I am at grips with the worst of all maladies, the most sudden, the most painful, the most mortal and the most irremediable. I have already experienced five or six very long and painful bouts of it.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

made many of the same points as Nussbaum. He notes, first, that the humans are the “most wretched and frail” of species yet also the proudest.

He says the human animal “attributes to himself divine qualities, withdraws and separates himself from the crowd of other creatures, cuts out the shares of the animals, his fellows and companions.” And he challenges the assumption, asking, “From what comparison betwixt them and us does he conclude the stupidity he attributes to them?” He points out that we eat, reproduce, protect our young, and generally try to survive right along with all the other animals. Of course, one of the most important similarities is the way we deal with pain, both physical and emotional. He says, “Our crying is common with the greatest part of other animals, and there are but few creatures that are not observed to groan, and bemoan themselves a long time after they come into the world.”

We suffer and bemoan our fate right alongside our animal companions on the earth. While we may wish to bring the heavens under our feet, as he says, we are lowly animals seeking comfort and refuge from fear, hunger, and loneliness. And if humans are wont to declare themselves superior to animals based on an alleged superiority and favor from God, humans are just as likely to attempt to declare themselves superior to other humans—largely by comparing those humans to animals in an effort to degrade them.

Thus, members of other cultures, skin colors, or practices are seen as being savage or beastlike. Their animalism is evident by their alleged smells, filth, aggression, or unchecked sexuality. Not one to shirk from the most extreme cases, Montaigne examines cultural views of cannibals. He describes in gruesome detail the methods of war, capture, and torture reputed to some classes of cannibalistic humans. After Montaigne has thoroughly disgusted his reader, he declares, “I am not sorry that we should here take notice of the barbarous horror of so cruel an action, but that, seeing so clearly into their faults, we should be so blind to our own.”

Without shirking from the most horrifying practices of cannibalistic cultures, Montaigne then turns to examine his own culture. He says, “I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead; in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments, that is yet in perfect sense; in roasting it by degrees; in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine . . . than to roast and eat him after he is dead.”

He then tells us of a case where cannibals are brought into “civilized” society and shown the pinnacle of human achievement. After they have seen all the finery, the king asked them what they most admired. They said “that they had observed, that there were among us men full and crammed with all manner of commodities, while, in the meantime, their halves were begging at their doors, lean, and half-starved with hunger and poverty; and they thought it strange that these necessitous halves were able to suffer so great an inequality and injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throats, or set fire to their houses.”

Be kind to animals. Even human ones.

Is Bill Gates a Trojan Horse?

Bill Gates gives away huge sums of money. I could provide some links here to verify that he gives away huge piles of cash, but, really, is anyone going to claim he does not? It is obvious that he could not give away so much money if he did not happen to have enormous bank balances to begin with. So, thank goodness Bill Gates was able to become so insanely rich. And thank goodness all those corporate sponsors of aid were able to amass gigantic storehouses of funds to distribute globally to alleviate poverty and disease while promoting free markets and democracy. Except maybe it is not that simple.Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie saw philanthropy as a duty of the wealthy. The mere fact that someone was able to obtain great wealth is evidence enough for man that that person is a great judge of what should be done with the money. The wealthy must serve as role models and administer funds in ways that are good for the poorer members of society, even if their choices are not popular. Carnegie said:

“This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of Wealth: First, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community–the man of wealth thus becoming the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.”

Apparently, the wealthy fear giving the money directly to the poor might corrupt them or tempt them to bring about their own destruction. So, the benevolent man of means, and Carnegie does not mention women of wealth, should work for the care and improvement of the lower classes.

And in doing so, the wealthy establish not only their honor, but also their power. As Thomas Hobbes said, “There can be no greater argument to a man, of his own power, than to find himself able not only to accomplish his own desires, but also to assist other men in theirs: and this is that conception wherein consisteth charity.”  Through charity, the wealthy shape the aspirations of society, the resources for improvement, and the goals of the impoverished. The poor cannot be trusted to make autonomous decisions about what is good and proper for the course of society. In order to receive the generosity of the powerful, the weak must assume a position of obedience and servitude. The superior minds will lead with love if only the grateful masses will follow.

But it does not end there—the wealthy engage in a kind of philanthropy that actually seeks to oppress and exploit the poor. This is true in many instances, but it currently most obvious in some forms of foreign aid donations.

In the current political climate in the United States, we often hear that aiding people engenders a culture of dependence. Most people imagine that the recipients of aid become too lazy to work for their own improvement, but that is not how aid creates dependence. Rather, it can create dependence by destroying any possibility of self-sustaining local markets. Economist Dambisa Moyo sums up the problem of aid to Africa when she says, “One wonders how a system of flooding foreign markets with American food, which puts local farmers out of business, actually helps better Africa.” Michaela Schieesl made a similar point, saying, “The United States spends $1.2 billion on food for the world’s hungry, making it the biggest provider of food aid. It is also the biggest contributor to the UN’s World Food Program (WFP). But this seemingly charitable commitment comes with a major hitch: Instead of donating money, the United States donates food, almost all of which it produces itself.”

The US donates food not as a means of helping struggling societies, but rather as a means of subsidizing American farmers and agribusiness. By dumping free food grown in the US, farmers in foreign countries are put out of businesses. Of course, if they turn to alternative crops such as poppy, coca or even tobacco, the farmers are condemned for contributing to the global drug trade and supporting violence and addiction.

The ETC Group in Canada now warns us of another scheme to use philanthropy to help entrench monopoly powers of transnational corporations under the guise of aiding poor farmers:

“The world’s two richest men – Bill Gates and Mexico’s Carlos Slim – are working with CIMMYT (the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) to make bargain GE seeds and traits available to farmers in the global South. The notion that farmers will benefit from a post-patent regulatory regime and Gene Giant charity is patently absurd.”

This international aid effort has the effect of ensuring more and more of the world’s food production will be controlled by transnational corporation promoting market-based “solutions” to global food insecurity. The ETC Group notes that the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture, which includes all the giant gene producers, describes itself as working with G8 and G20 to “foster multi-stakeholder collaboration to achieve sustainable agricultural growth through market-based solutions.”

Not all aid is bad, however, and giving can save and improve lives. Moyo and other critics of aid are quick to point out the difference between rescue or relief aid and aid that permanently alters economic structures. My opinion is that smaller donors tend to choose charities based on how they relieve suffering rather than how they either guide, manipulate, or oppress the poor. Modest earners give a higher percentage of their income than the super rich.  In an article for The Atlantic, Ken Stern noted,  “In 2011, the wealthiest Americans—those with earnings in the top 20 percent—contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity. By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid—those in the bottom 20 percent—donated 3.2 percent of their income.”   Stern added that among donations from the wealthy,  “Not a single one of them went to a social-service organization or to a charity that principally serves the poor and the dispossessed.” More modest earners are more likely to look out for the interest of the poor.

Addressing income inequality would have two positive effects: First, it would help alleviate the need for any aid. Second, it would help more modest earners to give more and give more effectively. And, no, lifting people off the floor will not make them behave as those at the very top (in the stratosphere of wealth disparities). Rather, as the poor enter the middle class, they give more than the super wealthy and give with an aim to relieving suffering and not to creating monopoly power or consumer dependence.

Also, be sure to read Peter Buffett’s comments on the same subject here.

Finally, for an example of a charity operating from the ground up, please see Shoulder to the Stone.

What is Bioethics? Environmental and Economic Justice

Like many people, Peter Singer was the first bioethicist to occupy any space in my consciousness. He first got my attention with his concern for animal welfare and calls for vegetarianism. I suppose he is best known for saying we should not eat animals but that it is sometimes acceptable to kill our babies, which many people find upside down, especially if they haven’t actually read all his arguments, and few of his critics seem to have read his arguments.

But Singer has also spent a great deal of effort offering suggestions on relieving the problems of globalization, wealth inequality, and further destruction of the planet. One can offer reasoned objections to his suggestions, of course, but his choice of topics and concerns helped define what bioethics was for me.

Singer’s concerns fit nicely with the term “bioethics” as originally conceived by Van Rensselaer Potter in 1970. Potter said bioethics should be “a new discipline that combines biological knowledge of human value systems.” Potter saw bioethics as a systematic attempt to ensure the survival of the planet and all the people on it. One of Potter’s goals was to eliminate “needless suffering among humankind as a whole.”

Van Rensselaer Potter

Unfortunately, by the middle of the 1970s, the term “bioethics” had already been co-opted by the medical establishment and applied primarily to medical ethics. Concerns for ensuring the well-being of humankind were replaced by concerns for patients and doctors, with a strong emphasis on patient autonomy. Today’s bioethicists tend to ignore problems that have nothing to do with healthcare or medical research, but millions of people in the world have no access to healthcare and so escape any attention from bioethicists at all, which is itself an injustice.

To be sure, bioethicists are still in the world working for justice and, in some notable cases, the survival of the planet, but those working on themes outside of healthcare or medical research are outsiders at best. (For a couple of examples, see Martha Nussbaum and Thomas Pogge.)

I will continue to argue that this is the wrong approach to bioethics. Potter’s and Singer’s concern for promoting the health of the earth and all its inhabitants is the only reasonable way to think of bioethics, and those who disagree are the ones who should defend their positions.

What are some of the issues we need to address? Just to get us started, we can look at environmental justice, war, climate change, worker’s rights, wealth inequality, access to water, human rights abuses, women’s equality, and children’s welfare. Too broad? The problems that threaten life and health are vast. Medical practice requires an enormous cadre of professional ethicists to develop policy and practice guidelines, of course, but bioethicists following the vision of Potter should be welcome at the table as well.