Selective Skepticism and Flexitarians

It is true that secular thinkers and organizations have contributed significantly to the rights of nonhuman animals and ongoing cultural discourse on the topic—think the British utilitarians Bentham, Mill and Sidgwick and their philosophical descendants—but these have not been representative of the wider secular community and its priorities. As one of the descendants of British utilitarians, Peter Singer has pointed out,

even the classical utilitarians relegated their comments on animals to the margins of their philosophical writings. Their thinking was influential in leading to laws that sought to prohibit gross acts of cruelty to animals, but it did not lead to reconsideration of the assumption of the priority of human interests when they conflict with the interests of animals.[1]Peter Singer, “Ethics and Animals” (presentation, the 10th Dasan Memorial Lectures, Daegu, Korea, May 18, 2007).

So while it has long been accepted that “the inculcation of humanity to animals on a wide scale” was largely thanks to the rationalism and morality of a secular age,[2]W.E.H. Lecky, History of European Morals From Augustus to Charlemagne, In Two Volumes, Volume II (London: Appleton & Co., 1895), 177. the rational humanist, secular community has never been united on combating nonhuman animal injustices, and attitudes toward the idea have ranged from lukewarm to dismissive to hostile.

Henry Salt, writing on the history of the Humanitarian League in the last 1800s and early 1900s, records that while the National Secular Society sought humane treatment and protections for animals, “the Labour movement, like the Churches, has not cared to widen its outlook.”[3]Henry Salt, Seventy Years Among Savages (London: George Unwin & Allen, 1921), 216. But nor did those one would think of as more thoughtful and sensitive—philosophers, artists, academics. They kept their outlooks within traditional and insidiously entrenched religious boundaries. The avoidance of humanitarian charity towards other sentient beings by the intelligentsia was something Salt also noted:

I have already mentioned how the artists, with one or two important exceptions, stood aloof from what they doubtless regarded as a meddlesome agitation ; literary men, even those who agreed with us, were often afraid of incurring the name “ humanitarian”[4]Henry Salt, Seventy Years Among Savages (London: George Unwin & Allen, 1921), 212.

Many still held views similar to the likes of writer and Catholic zealot G. K. Chesterton, a “champion of those high prerogatives of Mankind, which he saw threatened by the sinister devices of humanitarians.”[5]Henry Salt, Seventy Years Among Savages (London: George Unwin & Allen, 1921), 127. In what is a twisted reinterpretation, intentional or not, of Darwin’s assertion on the difference in degree only among all animals, Chesterton finds no moral obligation toward any species other than his own: “the difference between our moral relation to men and to animals is not a difference of degree in the least : it is a difference of kind.” He was of an age and espoused its common sentiment.

Of the 20th century intellectuals and artists without religious affiliations that apparently saw it the same way, the classic example is Ernest Hemingway, whose proof of masculinity and sense of identity depended on, among other violent displays, hunting animals. Ignorance of animal rights issues was significantly worse in his day, before more civilized attitudes began to take hold thanks to people such as Peter Singer raising awareness. But how is it that those who are supposed to be progressive in their thinking in any age fail to arrive at a consensus on the ethical treatment of nonhumans? Even it is perplexing to encounter it among intellectuals and artists, as if a major shift in cultural sophistication passed them by or was ignored.

Even the best are prone to some manner of inconsistency, dishonestly, denying, ignoring, evading and, not the least, delusion. Orwell is a classic example of the rational atheist ridiculer, unaware of his own blind spot and complicity in the very things he would condemn in a different context. With his own demonstration of “crimestop,” Orwell sneers at vegetarianism several times in The Road to Wigan Pier:

the food-crank is by definition a person willing to cut himself off from human society in hopes of adding five years on to the life of his carcase; that is, a person out of touch with common humanity.

As Spencer remarks in The Heretic’s Feast, this kind of attitude shows how people distort and misinterpret vegetarianism—“the choice of the word ‘humanity’ implies that Orwell had never considered vegetarianism might be a more humane philosophy than his own meat-eating one.”[6]Colin Spencer, The Heretics Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1995), 299-300. It is ironic that the author of Animal Farm and 1984 would deride those not conforming to a dominant society’s exploitative ideology. Also telling is the way he sees meat eating and human identity as inextricable.

Even among those sensitive to the moral implications of nonhuman exploitation, you get lip-service. This, too, is part of a long tradition dating back to the Enlightenment. Rousseau in his Discourse on Inequality (1754) conferred that animals

mankind is subjected to a kind of obligation even toward the brutes. It appears, in fact, that if I am bound to do no injury to my fellow-creatures, this is less because they are rational than because they are sentient beings: and this quality, being common both to men and beasts, ought to entitle the latter at least to the privilege of not being wantonly ill-treated by the former.

Fine sentiments, yet they did not extend to the table, where Rousseau was an “unapologetic carnivore” with a reputation for incomparable roast lamb, quail and snipe.[7]Jim Chevallier, Apres Moi, Le Dessert: A French Eighteenth Century Vegetarian Meal, Volume II (CreateSpace, 2009), 56. Nor for Voltaire, who in his Philosophical Dictionary (1764) famously railed against those that would “dare to advance that animals are but animated machines,” and yet enjoyed the “healthy frugality” of meat soup, mutton, and roast goose.[8]Chevallier, Apres Moi, Le Dessert, 57. Like the late Derrida, most contemporary moral philosophers have not advanced significantly beyond this kind of hypocritical disconnect, as if their academic preponderances obligate them to no more demonstrable conviction than, say, your average politician.

David DeGrazia is a moral philosopher who has note this and, like countless animal rights advocates, finds puzzlement at the

remarkable disconnect between what people do and what makes moral sense. This is true even of philosophers and ethicists, whose job description includes critical thinking about moral issues. Most people, including most philosophers and ethicists, are not vegetarians and apparently don’t feel obligated to become vegetarians. [9]David DeGrazia, “Moral Vegetarianism from a Very Broad Basis,” Journal of Moral Philosophy 6 (2009): 143.

Though claiming to be skeptically acute, they are content with the hypocrisy of voicing one set of moral values about the treatment of nonhuman animals and following another. We can extend this quandary to leading voices throughout the secular and skeptical community—quick to affirm the need to respect sentience and negligent in practicing what they preach.

Who is not more reprehensible than those with the least excuse? How is moral progress even possible in a world where even those who make a living out of critical thinking fail to live up to it, or where prominent skeptics keep giving themselves free passes?

Defensive Secularist Omnivores

Interestingly, when their internalized speciesism is pointed out to skeptics, the backlash of denial and indignation from them is compatible with the reaction from the religious when their beliefs are questioned. Indeed, speciesism is defended by many so-called progressives with a kind of religious intensity—irrationally aggressive in defending their stomachs and avoiding any danger of moral responsibility. Confronted with their own speciesism, they contract true-believer syndrome and deny all credit to externally conveyed information.

Regardless of concessions to animal sentience, which Hume, in his Treatise on Human Nature, felt only the “most stupid and ignorant” could ignore, many progressives have already decided animal rights is irrelevant to them and basically ignore it. Most have not read the literature on vegan perspectives or animal rights and have no interest in educating themselves. They therefore lack the foundations of knowledge upon which to apply rational appraisal. Yet you will find them convinced they are correct in every way purely on the back of their own logic, which usually starts from a conclusion, like true believers, because they have already made up their minds, like true believers.

Otherwise they err by treating veganism and animal rights as if it were like religion, applying the same kinds of arguments as they would against religion and thus making themselves look rather silly. To apply skeptical tools ordinarily used on “invisible things” for critiquing real things, such as the scientifically confirmed sentience and the suffering of animals, does get you in a tangle. Some progressives hold views conforming so well to the biblical mandate of dominion it would make any Christian literalist proud.

Experience shows that skeptics and rational humanists can be as rigidly opposed to upsetting the status quo of their own selective “free thought” as their magic thinking contemporaries. The result of all of this is nonsensical arguments and comical ignorance from the kind of people you would least expect it—until, after a while, you come to expect it. Yet you will find none more satisfied than they in the righteousness of their acumen.

While religious dissembling, evading, and shutting down of blinders before your eyes is feeble; when skeptics do it, those who so pride themselves in rational critique and inspection, it is just pathetic. In both cases it stems from a defense of privilege, from umbrage at anyone who would criticize what is perceive as practically a birthright, or, more topically, as “god-given.” Besides, it is easier to demonize vegan critics and animal activists for alleged “offense,” rather than examine their message.

Simply swap “food” for “faith” and “speciesism” for “religion” in the following from Richard Dawkins for insight into what vegan critics regularly observe:

The illusion of intemperance flows from the unspoken convention that faith is uniquely privileged: off limits to attack. In a criticism of religion, even clarity ceases to be a virtue and begins to sound like aggressive hostility. A politician may attack an opponent scathingly across the floor of the House and earn plaudits for his robust pugnacity. But let a soberly reasoning critic of religion employ what would, in other contexts, sound merely direct or forthright, and it will be described as a shrill rant.[10]Richard Dawkins, “How dare you call me a fundamentalist,” The Times, May 12, 2007, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article1779771.ece; also see the same views expressed in the “Preface to the Paperback Edition,” The God Delusion (London: Black Swan, 2007), 16.

See how it works? Descriptions of religious reactions to atheist criticisms are easily adapted to describe reactions from progressives and skeptics to vegans. Again, with this from another vocal atheist, Greta Christina, swap “speciesism” for “religion”:

…religion has a tremendously privileged status. Religion is deeply embedded into our culture and our laws. So much so that it’s often invisible until it’s pointed out. At which point—as is so often the case with privilege—those whose privilege is being critiqued tend to squawk loudly, and resist vehemently, and act as if a terrible injustice is being committed.[11]Greta Christina, “5 Faulty Arguments Religious People Use Against Atheists (Debunked),” AlterNet, July 6, 2011, http://www.alternet.org/story/151539/5_faulty_arguments_religious_people_use_against_atheists_(debunked).

Skeptics with their privilege, threatened by logical arguments against speciesist behavior that might oblige them to change, reverse engineer their role and frame themselves as if under siege. It is exactly what believers do when they “take legitimate areas of dissent and disagreement” brought up by atheists “and equate them with bigoted myths”:

It is a classic example of privileged people defending their privilege by taking on the mantle of victimhood. It is a classic example of privileged people acting as if resistance to their privilege somehow constitutes misunderstanding, bigotry, and oppression.[12]Greta Christina, “5 Faulty Arguments Religious People Use Against Atheists (Debunked),” AlterNet, July 6, 2011, http://www.alternet.org/story/151539/5_faulty_arguments_religious_people_use_against_atheists_(debunked).

These same words could be applied to the defensive secularist omnivore in a dominant meat-eating culture, when confronted with one of those “strident” vegans.

In an attempt to avoid cognitive dissonance—the inner conflict when attitudes and actions do not coincide—defensive omnivore skeptics rationalize, attack or joke away the threat to a real lifestyle change, to justify their behavior. They seek out or selectively view information that supports existing opinions. They excuse in some way the violence their actions are indirectly responsible for. This is “moral schizophrenia,” as law professor and activist Gary Francione calls it, and it is found among even the most prominent secularists.

Test of Consistency

Animal advocacy issues are especially good as a litmus test for the veracity of the skeptic, especially one brought up in a community built on strong religious influences and firmly ingrained speciesist attitudes. When tested, tender-headed progressives and tough guy atheists often resort to bumper-sticker style “might is right” arguments.

A rationalist might come across as intelligent and lucid, but change the topic to animal protection, it is as if a switch is thrown in his (usually) or her brain, and out comes a gush of cliches and knee-jerk responses that are a match for the dumbest of meat-gorging rednecks. Animal suffering, especially in relation to the meat industry, is dismissed by way of tangential arguments and excuses bent to defending lifestyle over all else—science on nonhumans or reasoning on ethics easily fall by the wayside.

They will not be drawn on complicity in any injustices or moral hypocrisies, for if so exposed they would be compelled to act. They behave like defense lawyers in a rape trial, trying every trick to discredit testimony, focusing on everything but the crime. Such is the “breathtaking speciesism of our Christian-inspired attitudes,” notes Richard Dawkins,[13]Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 263. where all the traits of embedded speciesism and its defense are on display for anyone with the blinkers off. Thus is revealed the skeptical community as sadly little more than a microcosm of the mainstream.

“Conventional people are roused to fury by departure from convention,” wrote Bertrand Russell, “largely because they regard such departure as a criticism of themselves.” But what causes offense is not just the critique of dominion-like attitudes, it is also and perhaps more so the threat of having to concede how conventional they really are in their thinking.

“Yeah, but I’m a beast, like other beasts who eat animals,” “I fought my way to the top of the food chain, so I’ll eat what I want,” “If animals were not supposed to be eaten, they would not be made of tasty meat”—this kind of drivel passes for intelligence on skeptical forums. The first statement is simply a might-as-right argument in line with the religious idea of dominion, the second one is too with an added self-congratulatory fiction about personal effort, and the third one has it origins in natural theology and the idea that man was supposed to—fill in the blank—because God created it that way. These statements are real examples from skeptics who reject most religious beliefs yet still behave as though religious dominion were true, as though humans are atop a god-given hierarchy that accords them the right to ruthlessly exploit animals.

Mistakenly thinking their speciesism is not culturally ingrained, these human supremacists will, like the religious, react against claims that threaten their cherished customs and, not surprisingly, are not swayed by evidence and logic. The most meager excuses are accepted as enough to sidestep concern and avoid looking into speciesist issues further. Hard physical evidence of animal abuses on videos and backed by insider interviews and official investigations—all corroborating the facts and the evidence, time and again—are dismissed with excuses or labeled hyperbole.

These selective skeptics can be the worst of obscurantists. As is often said of the religious, if they place little value on evidence or logic, how can you convince them of anything based on evidence or logic? Sometimes in a speciesist world, rationalism or rationalizing is as much in the service of biases and delusion as it is in religious circles.

For more, take a look:

In this video, what speciesism encompasses is called carnism.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Peter Singer, “Ethics and Animals” (presentation, the 10th Dasan Memorial Lectures, Daegu, Korea, May 18, 2007).
2. W.E.H. Lecky, History of European Morals From Augustus to Charlemagne, In Two Volumes, Volume II (London: Appleton & Co., 1895), 177.
3. Henry Salt, Seventy Years Among Savages (London: George Unwin & Allen, 1921), 216.
4. Henry Salt, Seventy Years Among Savages (London: George Unwin & Allen, 1921), 212.
5. Henry Salt, Seventy Years Among Savages (London: George Unwin & Allen, 1921), 127.
6. Colin Spencer, The Heretics Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1995), 299-300.
7. Jim Chevallier, Apres Moi, Le Dessert: A French Eighteenth Century Vegetarian Meal, Volume II (CreateSpace, 2009), 56.
8. Chevallier, Apres Moi, Le Dessert, 57.
9. David DeGrazia, “Moral Vegetarianism from a Very Broad Basis,” Journal of Moral Philosophy 6 (2009): 143.
10. Richard Dawkins, “How dare you call me a fundamentalist,” The Times, May 12, 2007, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article1779771.ece; also see the same views expressed in the “Preface to the Paperback Edition,” The God Delusion (London: Black Swan, 2007), 16.
11. Greta Christina, “5 Faulty Arguments Religious People Use Against Atheists (Debunked),” AlterNet, July 6, 2011, http://www.alternet.org/story/151539/5_faulty_arguments_religious_people_use_against_atheists_(debunked).
12. Greta Christina, “5 Faulty Arguments Religious People Use Against Atheists (Debunked),” AlterNet, July 6, 2011, http://www.alternet.org/story/151539/5_faulty_arguments_religious_people_use_against_atheists_(debunked).
13. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 263.

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