"To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public." -- Theodore Roosevelt

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Silliest NYT Editorial Ever? Or When Sheltered Professors Go and Write Bad Op-eds

What shall humans do about the "evils" of animal predation-- in other words animals eating other animals? This is the premise of what is quite possibly the worst op-ed I have ever seen in The New York Times... at least the worst op-ed that was not overtly political.

Russell McMahan is a professor of philosophy at Rutgers. This fact may not be evident in the meandering, drunkenly aimless essay that passes, at least in the view of the NYT's editors, as an opinion piece. Yet, two other facts are made abundantly clear very soon within this essay-- (a) that McMahan's degrees are not in biology, and (b) that he has tenure.

From McMahan's laughable display of what is wrong with America's institutes of higher education (with my comments added-- I simply could not resist):

"Viewed from a distance, the natural world often presents a vista of sublime, majestic placidity. [Well, at least from a modern city dweller's perspective. The vast majority of humanity living either before modern Western civilization or outside of Western urban areas have had (and continue to have) a different view of the natural world. But hey they're outside of modern Western cities... what do they matter?] Yet beneath the foliage and hidden from the distant eye, a vast, unceasing slaughter rages. Wherever there is animal life, predators are stalking, chasing, capturing, killing, and devouring their prey. Agonized suffering and violent death are ubiquitous and continuous. This hidden carnage provided one ground for the philosophical pessimism of Schopenhauer [Ah yes, Arthur Schopenhauer-- for those who find Silvia Plath's The Bell Jar too optimistic], who contended that 'one simple test of the claim that the pleasure in the world outweighs the pain…is to compare the feelings of an animal that is devouring another with those of the animal being devoured.'

"The continuous, incalculable suffering of animals is also an important though largely neglected element in the traditional theological 'problem of evil' ─ the problem of reconciling the existence of evil with the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent god. The suffering of animals is particularly challenging because it is not amenable to the familiar palliative explanations of human suffering. Animals are assumed not to have free will and thus to be unable either to choose evil or deserve to suffer it. Neither are they assumed to have immortal souls; hence there can be no expectation that they will be compensated for their suffering in a celestial afterlife. Nor do they appear to be conspicuously elevated or ennobled by the final suffering they endure in a predator’s jaws. Theologians have had enough trouble explaining to their human flocks why a loving god permits them to suffer; but their labors will not be over even if they are finally able to justify the ways of God to man. For God must answer to animals as well [Huh... I was unaware that God's duty was to answer to man. In fact, and I'm no theologian here but, it seems a little more like man must answer to God-- you know God being the ultimate source of universal morality, and judgement, and all that stuff. Silly me. McMahan does amply demonstrate one of the falsehoods perpetrated by current moral philosophy (to charitably allow the subject to retain the name), and that is that God must answer to man's sense of self-righteousness. Setting aside the illogicality (according to the common Western definition of an omniscient and omnipotent God) and hubris of such thoughts, this has caused to horrific misreadings of philosophers such as Kant and Kierkegaard and branches of straw man-like nonsense that this essay exemplifies.] .

"If I had been in a position to design and create a world, I would have tried to arrange for all conscious individuals to be able to survive without tormenting and killing other conscious individuals. [And McMahan cried out "Let there be Vegans!" and behold there were vegans, and McMahan's sense of propriety had been self-fulfilled.] I hope most other people would have done the same. "

I wonder how many hours a day McMahan fantasizes about creating his own world? I mean is this a passing musing or more of an obsession? It doesn't really matter.

"We should start by withdrawing our own participation in the mass orgy of preying and feeding upon the weak. [One might think that we have the found "ah ha!" moment-- that point in which the true purpose of McMahan's odd ramblings reveal themselves. One might think (as I did at this moment) that this was some sort of weird PETA tract. Having become tired blaming celebrities' "odd" behavior and mental problems on an omnivorous diet, rather than drug addictions, PETA (or some such organization) has trotted out McMahan to give some Vegan screed, which he is only partially successful at. *sigh* If only that were true... Had this been the case, we might be able to assign some purpose to this scrawl of words confronting us. But no. His ranting against people eating animals is relatively short, and just arbitrarily thrown in without any real point except to condemn eating meat.]

"Our own form of predation is of course more refined than those of other meat-eaters, who must capture their prey and tear it apart as it struggles to escape. We instead employ professionals to breed our prey in captivity and prepare their bodies for us behind a veil of propriety, so that our sensibilities are spared the recognition that we too are predators, red in tooth if not in claw (though some of us, for reasons I have never understood, do go to the trouble to paint their vestigial claws a sanguinary hue) [Yeah! Way to throw in some weird dig on women's nails. My how clever...]. The reality behind the veil is, however, far worse than that in the natural world. Our factory farms, which supply most of the meat and eggs consumed in developed societies, inflict a lifetime of misery and torment on our prey, in contrast to the relatively brief agonies endured by the victims of predators in the wild. From the moral perspective, there is nothing that can plausibly be said in defense of this practice [LOL]. To be entitled to regard ourselves as civilized, we must, like Isaiah’s morally reformed lion, eat straw like the ox, or at least the moral equivalent of straw [Really? First of all, since when has being considered "civilized" an entitlement? It seems that the term "civilized" has a definition, and that a form of human society either fulfills the definition or does not. Entitlement has little to do with the process. Perhaps McMahan should gift us with his definition of the term civilized. It apparently has something to do with eating habits and specifically a Vegan lifestyle of eating moral straw. Odd. I don't recall that being in any of my anthropology, sociology, or history texts. In fact, I recall a written language being required for civilization, but that idea has been largely discredited or ignored-- the conviction that being considered "civilized" is an entitlement has perhaps grown out of that void.].

"But ought we to go further? Suppose that we could arrange the gradual extinction of carnivorous species [LOL], replacing them with new herbivorous ones [LMAO]. Or suppose that we could intervene genetically, so that currently carnivorous species would gradually evolve into herbivorous ones [LMFAO], thereby fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy. If we could bring about the end of predation by one or the other of these means at little cost to ourselves, ought we to do it? [Why are we supposed to do all of this again? Oh that's right, because animals eating other animals upsets McMahan misplaced sense of self-righteousness (to steal a line). And by the way "at little cost to ourselves"? WTF? So drastically manipulating the genetic code of every predatory species on the planet turning them into herbivores won't cost that much?! Clearly McMahan's degrees are not in economics either. And by the way, since when has doing the right thing been dependent upon cost? You know I would be a moral person, but it's just too expensive...]

"I concede, of course, that it would be unwise to attempt any such change given the current state of our scientific understanding [Duh, no! Really?! Do you think?!]. Our ignorance of the potential ramifications of our interventions in the natural world remains profound. Efforts to eliminate certain species and create new ones would have many unforeseeable and potentially catastrophic effects."

But that last admission doesn't stop McMahan. Oh, no. Admitting that we can't do anything that McMahan suggests doesn't stop him from continuing to argue that we should.

"Yet our relentless efforts to increase individual wealth and power are already causing massive, precipitate changes in the natural world [That's right. Just go ahead and ascribe all ecological damages in this world to individuals' lust for wealth and power. We all know that those moral Socialist governments never cause any ecological damage... I mean look at the air quality of Beijing, or those super clean Chinese coal plants, or just visit Eastern Europe and look around a bit. And by the way "What is this 'Chernobyl' of which others speak?"]. Many thousands of animal species either have been or are being driven to extinction as a side effect of our activities. Knowing this, we have thus far been largely unwilling even to moderate our rapacity to mitigate these effects. If, however, we were to become more amenable to exercising restraint, it is conceivable that we could do so in a selective manner [Is it really conceivable for us to do this? Did you talk to an economist about it? Or a biologist? Or a psychologist? Or a sociologist? Or anyone?], favoring the survival of some species over others. The question might then arise whether to modify our activities in ways that would favor the survival of herbivorous rather than carnivorous species [Because we all know that eating other animals is just plain evil]."

I'm going to skip ahead now, because McMahan's silly essay is very long, and I don't want to reprint the whole thing here. Suffice it to say that McMahan anticipates a few cliched objections taken from from 1950s science fiction movies (meddling in God's domain, and his suggested actions being "against nature"). He then dismisses the first by using the tired and equally cliched argument that any act that infringes upon a completely deterministic universe would be against God (straw man argument anyone?), and then declares that there isn't a God anyway ("The second response to the accusation of playing God is simple and decisive. It is that there is no deity whose prerogatives we might usurp."). So there. Problem solved. McMahan then counters the second objection with the same strategy saying that there is no personified nature, and the one that exists is changeable anyway-- so, why not eradicate all those immoral carnivorous species. There. Problem solved, again.

McMahan then goes on to clumsily address the value of various species with an intentionally narrow focus. I'm not going to bother with it. Read it if you want to watch a contemporary academic doing what so many contemporary academics do best, narrow down definitions and then warp them to fit their arguments. Ah, that scholastic march toward truth...

I will quote a very small porttion of this argument here, because I will reference it soon. McMahan writes: "Again, the claim that suffering is bad for those who experience it and thus ought in general to be prevented when possible cannot be seriously doubted."

McMahan then concludes: "Here, then, is where matters stand thus far. It would be good to prevent the vast suffering and countless violent deaths caused by predation. There is therefore one reason to think that it would be instrumentally good if predatory animal species were to become extinct and be replaced by new herbivorous species, provided that this could occur without ecological upheaval involving more harm than would be prevented by the end of predation [that's not just a thick rug, that's a flying carpet.]. The claim that existing animal species are sacred or irreplaceable is subverted by the moral irrelevance of the criteria for individuating animal species. I am therefore inclined to embrace the heretical conclusion that we have reason to desire the extinction of all carnivorous species, and I await the usual fate of heretics when this article is opened to comment."

Heretic is far too grand a title to bestow upon McMahan, by way of his essay. Instead this piece makes him simply seem like a babbling shut-in; a man unencumbered by reality, untouched by academic subjects beyond his own area of "expertise," and so withdrawn into his self-created, academic world, that even common sense has fled him in favor of superfluous musings stemming from his own fevered theories (I will not call them principles).

Even dismissing this ridiculousness as a mere philosophical exercise, which McMahan seems somewhat unwilling to do, the incredible shallowness of his thinking is breathtaking.

First and foremost, McMahan accepts the basic premise that "the claim that suffering is bad for those who experience it and thus ought in general to be prevented when possible cannot be seriously doubted. [emphasis mine]"

This blanket statement underlies all of McMahan's inane ramblings. It is the basis from which all his weirdly dreamy talk about doing away with immoral carnivores, etc. begins. Yet, McMahan offers no basis for justifying this premise, expecting the mere mention of the concept (replete with "colorful"-- i.e. manipulative-- diction: "vast, unceasing slaughter," "prepare their bodies for us behind a veil of propriety," "inflict a lifetime of misery and torment on our prey," "continuous, incalculable suffering," "mass orgy of preying and feeding upon the weak," etc.) to be proof enough. This basically asserts that suffering is immoral, thus it stands to reason preventing suffering is moral. McMahan says as much when he writes: "we do have a moral reason to prevent it [animal's suffering], just as we have a general moral reason to prevent suffering among human beings that is independent both of the cause of the suffering and of our relation to the victims [emphasis mine]." Lazy, lazy. Lazy and ignorant.

On a personal scale, suffering (as defined as undergoing or being subjected to pain and distress) is often times beneficial. As a simple example, when you runs track, you undergo discomfort. If you push yourself, you'll feel pain. Is this suffering? Maybe. It depends. Do we have a universal pain scale that can tell exactly when mere discomfort ends and suffering begins? Do all humans feel pain to the same degree as all others? Of course not. However, if you push yourself even harder past the pain and keep going, you'll suffer by most people's definition-- anybody who's had an Achilles tendon snap can testify to this. Yet, running is beneficial to the person prior to injuring oneself. You feel better afterwards, exercise your heart, your lungs, your muscles. You live longer. Suffering, in this case and others, is a conduit to greater health and mental happiness.

Would popping a tendon be a bad act, an immoral act? Is a woman suffering through childbirth another example of immorality?

In fact pain itself, like much in life outside of conscious awareness, is neither intrinsically good nor bad, moral nor immoral. Burning your hand on a hot stove teaches you that heat is damaging to your body, that heat can kill you. Would our lives be more moral if we never learned this? Does that question even make sense?

In the realm of religious thought the idea of suffering as sacrifice or penance is common, and surely McMahan would dismiss such thoughts as superstitious and unenlightened. Butchering a lamb or a goat to eat is to participate in an orgy of death or something, so butchering one as a religious sacrifice is right out (a subject that I notice McMahan avoids. Sure, you can invoke scripture to back up your argument. But once it has served it's purpose, it's just foolish superstition from a "decisively" non-existent deity.).

Yet, what of the belief that self-inflicted suffering can lead to spiritual enlightenment? Various Native American tribes indulged in self-torture (body lifted by hooks, self-starvation, walking in place while staring into the sun, etc.) as a way to get a glimpse into the spirit world. Japanese artists (martial and otherwise) would meditate beneath freezing cold waterfalls or remain half-submerged in chilly water for hours contemplating their subject. Hindis can participate in the Thaipusam holiday by piercing their bodies with hooks, skewers, vel, and then sometimes pulling chariots and heavy objects with their hooks. Others can sometimes pierce their tongue to impede speech and focus their attention on Lord Murugan. Are these practices not immoral by McMahan's scheme? Should we, as observers, not be compelled to stop their suffering? Like many utilitarian moral plans, they work best and with less obvious contradiction when dealing exclusively with Western cultures.

Granted, McMahan might argue that he only said that suffering is "bad" and that the prevention of suffering is moral. This is an inauthentic argument, which I will quickly address below.

Without examining it in any way, McMahan seems to have basically set-up an odd variation of Jeremy Bentham's concept of utilitarianism. Instead of pleasure and happiness being the yardstick by which we measure morality, it is the prevention of suffering that defines morality-- a strangely unpleasurable variation of hedonism.

Whether pain is being inflicted or simply observed McMahan claims we are morally compelled to act (Remember that "[e]ven if we are not morally required to prevent suffering among animals in the wild for which we are not responsible, we do have a moral reason to prevent it, just as we have a general moral reason to prevent suffering among human beings that is independent both of the cause of the suffering and of our relation to the victims. The main constraint on the permissibility of acting on our reason to prevent suffering is that our action should not cause bad effects that would be worse than those we could prevent."). Effectively this equates the concept of empathy with morality, or perhaps confuses the two would be a better way of putting it. After all, the reason that we should care about another's suffering is because we ourselves have suffered-- thus the sensation of pain takes on (im)moral significance as it is the substance forcing empathy with the sufferer. Yet, any other reason for moral action becomes murky in this pleasure/pain world. Once this is done, it really makes little to no difference as to whether pain is merely "bad," or is in itself immoral, or merely the conduit toward immoral inaction, as we are expected to act upon it as though pain were in itself immoral-- as McMahan asserts we should.

In fact, Jeremy Bentham argued (more concisely) much of McMahan's ludicrous idea in the 18th century. In Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) Bentham wrote:

"Other animals, which, on account of their interests having been neglected by the insensibility of the ancient jurists, stand degraded into the class of things. ... The day has been, I grieve it to say in many places it is not yet past, in which the greater part of the species, under the denomination of slaves, have been treated ... upon the same footing as ... animals are still. The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognized, that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps, the faculty for discourse?...the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?... The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes..."

Hmm. Does that sound at all familiar, like maybe something written by a certain professor from Rutgers? Too bad that McMahan gives no credit, nor even mentions Jeremy Bentham in his lengthy essay... Indeed McMahan's conclusion, in which he offers himself up as a "heretical" martyr seems to suggest such ideas have never been expressed before.

Let's be fair, however. Bentham was advocating laws protecting animals from wanton cruelty. He was not suggesting that human beings eradicate carnivores in the name of morality. That distinction is specifically McMahan's.

Criticizing Bentham's blatantly hedonistic ideas, John Stewart Mill famously said "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question." This point holds true to McMahan, of course.

So, as so many recent philosophy teachers have asked, would you rather be a satisfied pig or an unsatisfied Socrates? Amazingly, McMahan's argument favors the satisfied pig and the fool-- as long as they're both Vegans.

I have not devoted this amount of my time (only a few hours to be fair) and this blog's space merely to argue with McMahan's repackaged, "new-and-extreme!" Bentham. His argument is so cartoonish, it's like arguing with Woody Woodpecker, or the philosophical equivalent of the narrative in an episode of the 1960s action cartoon "Birdman." Things begin, things end, stuff happens, the plot is mostly absent and really none of our business anyway.

No, what I find bothersome about all this, and the reason I chose to address it, is two-fold. First, and more practically, McMahan has exemplified what so often passes for higher education in this country. Without once crediting Jeremy Bentham, McMahan mashed together Veganism with Bentham's utilitarian creed, threw in some "colorful" language and set it out among the NYT readers while staking himself out as some sort of intellectual martyr. This is your philosophy department at your local university at work. Hurrah.

More important, but less practical is addressing the argument that McMahan espouses-- not the nonsense about genetically altering carnivores and destroying the eco-system as we know it to satisfy some weird combination of Vegan/survivors' guilt. What I'm talking about is the idea of imposing moral order onto the world around us (in this case the animal kingdom). Instead of looking about and deciding what is, McMahan arbitrarily arrives at a moral conclusion (suffering in general is bad) and then seeks to radically alter the world to fit this ridiculously generalized and simplistic viewpoint.

Look at what McMahan attempts to do in his essay (the fact that he fails is not really all that important), and the lengths that he goes to try to impose his sense of moral order. McMahan tries to place God at the feet of man to judge Him. He tries to define all of human morality around a distinctly American/modern lifestyle of Veganism. He attempts to put man in the exclusive role of passing moral judgement on not just all animal species, but on nature itself. He attempts to impose his will, disguised as empathic morality, upon the very nature of the universe. Hubris? Yes. Beyond that, however, is a very real danger in opening up a totalist mentality-- a mentality that declares that all things are capable of being judged as acceptable or unacceptable.

This is a very dangerous attitude based on nothing more then ego camouflaged as empathy, and intellectual gymnastics disguised as morality.


  1. More laughing through tears.

    McMahan tilts at Nature, which has been in existence since the dawn of the Universe (at least). He'd better get on with his program fast, before he gets felled by a submicroscopic virus (and its ferocious pals).

    Heh, heh, heh.

  2. Heh, that was just FUN to read. And can I just say, Schopenhauer fits right next to Hegel for simplistic, idiotic thinking. Those being eaten feel differently than those doing the eating? Um, uh-huh. Bravo! Brilliant insight. He's also said some other "deep" things like people's perspectives limit their world view and (ooh, here's a good one) let's just kill off and/or castrate all unworthy people so that we have a better humanity. Can anyone say lunatic? And I love how my prof in college reveled in Schopenhauer's "clarity," omg, simplistic and one-dimensional is more like it (not that I was stupid enough to tell my prof that at the time, gotta tow the line and spew the poo to do well in academia--too bad people like this bozo internalize and come to believe it). Anyway, at least Hegel's ideas are good for teaching freshmen how to write a thesis statement that won't fall apart in two paragraphs.

    This guy's obviously a total loon, but that man is in command of all things riff fits right in with leftist ideology. After all, man can not only influence global climate can actually control it. Man (at least select ones) should be in complete control of all lesser men (and women) who are too stupid to think for themselves or to make the right decisions. More elitist garbage spewed by an elitist garbageman to elitist garbage rats. Hmph.

    And how long before this animals are so mean and brutal and need to be stopped crap manifests in arresting them and giving them lawyers? Oh, wait, isn't that exactly what at least one of BO's top advisers wants to do? Granted, Sunstein wants animals to be able to sue humans in court, but using human courts for animals to sue other animals for brutality and murder probably just didn't occur to him.