Morality, Biology, Complicity

» July 4th, 2012

It is before noon on July 4 and I’ve already encountered a blue crab gutted of his/her innards by a tern, a yellow warbler separated from her head by a cat, a hawk picking sinews from a chipmunk, and a man in pink Bermuda shorts cooking what looked like a butterflied whole chicken on a gas grill the size of a Mazda. Such is the drama afforded by a long morning run on the heavily wooded Connecticut coast.

The way of the world, people might surmise, regarding this panoply of summertime violence. They would say this, in many cases, while conveniently eliding the animal-on-animal violence with the gentleman hovering over his grill like a king over his dominion.  The world is red in tooth and claw, it is said. Animals kill and eat each other as a matter of course. It’s as natural as breathing, sleeping, and breeding. But yet . . .

What this elision obscures is the self evident truth that humans are the only species with the potential to conceptualize and consciously apply basic moral principles to the chaos of biological life.. This is not to suggest that non-human animals cannot be altruistic or make decisions that appear to have a moral component to them. It’s simply to acknowledge the biological reality that humans are the only animals that can intentionally structure the patterns of our lives according to a basic set of self-aware moral ideals. This ability, which is generally premised on reducing unnecessary pain and suffering, happens to be the foundation of human civilization.

This distinction between human and non-human behavior is equally simple and daunting. It’s simple in that it reiterates, again, that self-evident truth that animal-on-animal violence by no means justifies human-on-animal violence, no more than animal mating or sleeping habits justify human mating or sleeping habits.  It’s daunting in that it implies, if you think it through, that ethical veganism is about a lot more than just reducing intentional animal exploitation.

A lot more. As several guest bloggers and commenters have eloquently reiterated here at Eating Plants, ethical veganism—in so far as it’s rooted in the unique ability of humans to live our lives according to collectively assumed and agreed upon principles—compels us to adjust our mentality to confront all forms of unjustifiable dominance and gratuitous exploitation. While liberating as a concept, and undoubtedly right, the idea that vegans are also required to address, thorough our activism, all concerns impinging on social justice can easily overwhelm the vegan who always thought veganism was easy because, you know, you just don’t eat animals and everything’s cool.

Logically extend the implications of ethical veganism into the myriad realm of social justice and you quickly find that veganism can be daunting. No longer can I think about my pink-shorted neighbor in terms of the flesh on his grill. What kinds of injustice and exploitation is obscured by this man’s clothing, his nice car, or the fancy house on the coast? Untold amounts, I’m sure. Oh yeah, and there’s me. What about my own clothes, my own house, my own car, and my own privileged existence as a professional person living more than comfortably in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world? I’ve no way of knowing the depth of my complicity in human injustice. Neither do you.

On July 4 we celebrate, in part, the Jeffersonian notion that all people were created equal. Reflect for a moment, though and you find that virtually every aspect of contemporary life in a modern capitalistic society demands some form of inequality, some level of exploitation, and some tacit acceptance of blissful ignorance. It’s a lot to get the mind around, much less act in accordance with. For now, for today, the best I can do is keep the flesh off the grill.




41 Responses to Morality, Biology, Complicity

  1. Charlie Talbert says:

    Your (as usual) thought-provoking and eloquent post calls to mind these words from Matthew Scully’s book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.

    “The problem with this [natural law] outlook is that it obscures our own singular capacity to make choices, for good or evil. It sees in nature’s violence an invitation to compound nature’s violence. It is the outlook of men who can see terror and cruelty and malignancy everywhere – everywhere except in their own hearts.”

    • Ellie Maldonado says:

      Does Scully support veganism?

      • Charlie Talbert says:

        I’ve been unable to find out conclusively if Scully is a vegan. I heard some years ago that he is. Your question is “Does Scully support veganism?” Considering his book Dominion and some of his opinion pieces, I’d guess that he does.

        • Ellie Maldonado says:

          Thanks, Charlie. I haven’t read Scully’s book, but remember it got mixed reviews among activists, i.e., accepted by animal welfare and criticized by animal rights.

          • Charlie Talbert says:

            I don’t pay much attention to feuds within the animal advocacy movement, but you’re right, Scully was criticized for his 2002 book Dominion by some advocates, and again in 2008 when he became a speechwriter for Sarah Palin. (He’s a conservative and former senior speechwriter for President G. W. Bush.)

            I value his advocacy work because he reaches conservatives, not exactly a group known to be a hotbed of compassion for animals. If you want to see an example of how powerfully he writes, check out this piece that appeared in The American Conservative in 2005, “Fear Factories – a case for compassionate conservatism – for animals”.

            Either that article, or Dominion, or both, prompted conservative commentator George Will to write this column in Newsweek later in 2005, “What We Owe What We Eat.”

          • Bea Elliott says:

            Hi Ellie – Scully is surely vegan… He was also a speech writer for Bush… And where he got the most criticism from in the AR community is that he wrote for Palin too. (don’t ask) :(

            Dominion was the first book I read when I got shaken awake… Except for what some may object to in his religious beliefs, (and conservative politics), I think anyone would find he makes the case for compassion AND justice for nonhumans – as Charlie said… Eloquently.

            Here are some worthy quotes that might show this is so:

          • James says:

            Many friends of mine in the AR movement have a vehemently strong reaction against Dominion. Personally, I found Scully’s analysis to be consistently persuasive and, at times, moving. He’s a gifted writer and, while I may not be thrilled with how he’s wielded his pen in the interests of conservative causes, I respect his book very much.

        • Ellie Maldonado says:

          James, Bea, Charlie – I agree Scully is eloquent, but according to his first quote on the link above, he doesn’t believe nonhuman interests are equal to our own, which is fundamental to animal rights theory:
          “Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship. We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t; because they all stand unequal and powerless before us.”

          That, and Scully celebrates domestication, which is not at all “natural”, as Scully contends, but rather the foundation of animal misery. Lee Hall also quotes him in an article in the Dissident Voice: “Fit To Be Tamed”,
          “Consider the rationale presented by Matthew Scully, a speechwriter for George W. Bush. In Dominion: The Power of Man, The Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, Scully insists on the correctness of our authority over other animals: “It is our fellow creatures’ lot in the universe, the place assigned to them in creation, to be completely at our mercy, the fiercest wolf or tiger defenseless against the most cowardly man.” Having summarily demoted the once-proud cat and wolf, Scully proceeds to consider the term pet “exactly right in capturing the creatures’ utter reliance on our good will, and indeed their sheer, delightful uselessness apart from mutual affection.” Scully continues, “That dependence and the trust it instills are the whole point, the fun of it.” [8] According to Scully the tame animal is “the most natural of all, displaying qualities hidden within its own nature that only human kindness can elicit.” [9]“

          • Bea Elliott says:

            Hi Ellie – I certainly am not going to make extreme efforts in defending Scully… He’s not my *ideal* advocate for nonhumans in the least – But, he does have points in his book that do make the average (unaware) person stand up and take notice of our shameful relationship with other animals. Also, keep in mind – This book addressed a relatively ignored subject back in 2002. For it’s time it broke some ground particularly with conservative thinkers. I suppose he’s like JS Foer – He opens the conversation up but doesn’t lead the audience to a concrete “go vegan” solution.

            There are hundreds of quotes each of us has drawn upon who’s origin was from those in history that in comparison to today’s advocates would fail miserably… But the gist is there in some beneficial context – Especially if stated among “friends” who get the idea to begin with…

            There are at least 10 other entries under “pets” where his words/ideas aren’t quite so patronizing… But I do see and agree that Scully was not comfortable with the term companion animals. In between the two sentences in [8] – He writes: “Companion animal”, the suggested alternative, has a slightly false ring, as if our dogs and cats, if the relationship wasn’t working out, could go out into the world and set up for themselves somewhere else.” (And vice versa).

            And so really, I’m not too keen on “companion animals” either… Or pets of course. I don’t know what’s wrong with just calling them friends? My dog-friend. My cat-friend. My hen-friend.?

            But like I said… I’m not trying to defend Scully nor do I wish to discard what value I was able to get from his writing. I have to figure — During those first few weeks I was in a very, very fragile state. As upset as I was I could have gone in any direction… But I did find meaning and truth in his message and I’m still vegan almost 5 years later. For what I depended on in answers and in comfort during that most critical time… He must have said something right. (for me).

            I’m sure now with broader vision I could go back and re-read it for all the flaws I missed initially… But at this point, I’m comfortable enough knowing that his book served my purposes for that time. Perhaps it’s too much to ask of one author to address each issue with 100% sincerity and 100% factual accuracy? I think Scully sacrificed some of the accuracy for sincerity… I can forgive that much for the sake of bigger points of contention left to be conquered. …If that’s okay?

          • How unfair, Ellie! How do you or anyone who has not even read the book dare to stand in judgment of Scully or his brilliant book, Dominion. To pick it apart and to denounce Dominion on the basis of a few out-of-context sentences (the book is, after all, 398 pages and literally filled with in-context sentences, not to mention extensive notes and fully indexed) and on someone else’s short-sighted review is to dismiss an important book with blinders on. I suggest, Ellie, that you do your own research and reading and not rush to judgment or take it on blind faith that whatever so-and-so’s opinion of the book is is what yours should be. Make up your own mind based on your own reading and interpretation, not someone else’s.

            Now, I suppose, because I have pronounced the book “brilliant,” based on actually having read it, you will automatically assume that it isn’t worth your investment of time or deep reflection. All the more’s the pity for you missing out on one of the most beautifully and compassionately written books we have on the power of man, the suffering of animals, and man’s call to mercy.

          • CQ says:

            Dominion, a gift from a fellow horse slaughter opponent, was the first book I read as an animal activist. Even though I’ve since realized that rights for nonhumans involve more than mercy and compassion from “superior” humans, I still treasure that book like no other. Also, I will forever admire its author both for his bravery in confronting conservatives with his none-too-subtle conscience-pricking moral message and for his sublime writing skills.

            I no longer use the term “pet”; “companion animal” is awfully long and awkward-sounding; “pack leader” sounds too alpha for me. “Friend” is my favorite, for it conveys a two-way relationship based on mutual caring, affection, trust.

          • Ellie Maldonado says:

            Hi Bea, I can appreciate what you’re saying, and it’s possible I might even agree with some of what Scully wrote in Dominion. I so wish he would change his views on human superiority and mercy to instead support nonhuman equality, as in equal consideration of their interests. I would certainly respect him for that.

            If his book was a positive thing in your journey of animal advocacy, I can understand why you appreciate it, and as you said, you have a much broader vision now. What disturbs me is that many people will accept what he said and never go further, which is huge obstacle to ending animal exploitation.

            And Janet, do you think Scully would care about my opinion of his book? I wish he would, but I think it’s highly unlikely. While I may not disagree with everything he wrote, my views on Scully are not going to change unless he does.

          • Wrong again, Ellie, that’s not what I think at all. I would hate for someone to decide not to read Scully’s glorious Dominion based on your half-baked critique of it since YOU HAVEN’T EVEN READ THE BOOK! How you presume to know what Scully thinks is sheer arrogance. No, I don’t think Scully would care two figs what your opinion of his book is (since you haven’t read it), but I do imagine he would resent someone making up stories about what his book says or what he thinks. You have no business reviewing Scully’s book or attributing ideas to his head that may or may not be there. Read the book; then you will be qualified to judge it.

          • Ellie Maldonado says:

            Janet, if you’re suggesting I’m being unfair to activists by criticizing Scully’s book, I’m fulfilling my obligation to point out the pitfalls of his eloquence. More importantly, how is it you don’t see how unfair you are being to nonhuman animals, to promote a book that celebrates their perpetual dependence and entirely misses their entitlement to rights?

            Domestication was their profound misfortune — something I think an all loving and just God would never ordain. If Scully’s book were a stepping stone into caring about other animals, it wouldn’t be so bad, but you don’t seem to be saying that.

            Scully’s position is clear in his first quote on the web site Bea posted. I repeat: “Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship. We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t; because they all stand unequal and powerless before us.”

            Clearly, he doesn’t see nonhuman interests as equal to ours, but he thinks we should to be merciful overlords. Nonhuman animals don’t need mercy or compassionate killing — they need to be respected and their interests given equal consideration. Don’t pity me or others for missing Scully’s book — pity the animals for activism that works against their interests.

          • You cannot presume to know and, worse, tell others, what a book “celebrates” that YOU HAVEN’T EVEN READ, nor what an author “thinks,” whom you do not know or have ever read. Do do so is not only arrogant but irresponsible.

            Do you judge all books (you haven’t read) by one out-of-context paragraph or one isolated sentence? Get a clue.

          • Ellie Maldonado says:

            Ok Janet, if you have Scully quotes that contradict the ones I posted, please post them with links. I don’t have to read the book because others have, and I’ve read their reviews, as well as an Interview with Scully, himself.

            While I have reason to disagree with Dr. Steve Best, I think he’s right about his review of Scully’s book, which is published by Counter Currents, “From “Dominion” to Domination: The Duplicity and Complicity of Mathew Scully”:

            In an Interview published by the National Review Online, “Exploring “Dominion”, Matthew Scully on animals”, October 24, 2003, (link posted separately): Scully states:
            “…………. As a practical matter, the only legal right that any animal can enjoy is to be free from human cruelty or other wrongdoing, and we do not need a new theory for that. And so in my book I try to speak in the simplest terms of reasoned moral judgment, the language of duty, love, mercy, and compassion for the weak…..

            …… I hope that over time our laws will define clear and consistent obligations in the treatment of animals. For this we need only follow the logic of cruelty laws already in place — prohibiting not only individual acts of cruelty those statures now cover, but also the merciless institutional cruelties the law ignores. In Florida last month, we saw how this can be done when 55 percent of voters approved a ballot initiative to prohibit the use of narrow gestation crates for sows. In Oklahoma, a sizable majority made that state the 48th to outlaw cockfighting. Laws like these can make a big difference, showing animal-related industries that there are limits, and ethical standards, and it’s not just anything goes …… (continued)”

            So Scully is obviously satisfied with the so-called “logic” of anti-cruelty laws that inevitably favor human interests in exploiting other animals. He doesn’t challenge exploitation of itself, which is essential to ending their misery. The Interview supports my understanding of Scully’s quotes which I posted on July 6th (3:22am) . If you haven’t got anything that contradicts them, then your objections to position are not valid.

          • Ellie Maldonado says:

            Interview of Matthew Scully, published by the National Review Online, “Exploring “Dominion”, Matthew Scully on animals”, October 24, 2003:

          • All you have proven, Ellie, by your response is that you are “obviously satisfied” to let others do your thinking for you. Whatever your favorite reviewers have said about Dominion, you believe, without question, without wonder. How very sad for you.

            On the other hand, Scully’s book may be beyond your intellectual capability to interpret objectively, stuck as you are in your self-imposed prison of single-minded thinking: no welfare, no how, no way! You see the world through a black-and-white prism, good/bad, right/wrong, my-way-or-the-highway, lacking in nuance, subtlety, tint, or shade. This must be why you resort to others to do your interpreting for you. It sure is easier that way.

            It is not for me to debate quote-by-quote with you in hopes of amending your foregone conclusions about what Scully thinks or what he feels or what he is “obviously satisfied” with. At any rate, such conclusions cannot be reached without knowing the man or having read his book, in context, cover to cover?

            If you ever get around to actually reading the book, I hope you will do so with an open mind, as I have done. Don’t let “others” interfere with your ability to reason or think for yourself. I see no further point in debating with you until you have read the book and have formed your own, unadulterated conclusions, without help from your favorite reviewers.

          • Ellie Maldonado says:

            Janet, I’ve done my best to discuss this with you with some semblance of politeness, but you’re downright insulting. I don’t want to be rude, but you’re in no position to question my intellectual capability.

            What is it you don’t understand about the quotes I’ve posted? Or are you just upset that I’ve criticized your hero?

            If I had never read a review of his book, Scully’s quotes clearly demonstrate he’s a welfarist like yourself, which explains your self-serving adoration of him. You can’t post anything to show Scully’s goal is to end animal use because obviously it’s not his goal.

            If anyone can’t think for herself, it’s you, Janet — you’re so tied to Scully, HSUS, and other welfare groups, you can’t even see the harm you’re doing to the living beings you purport to care about. I will not discuss Scully or his book with you any further.

  2. Abigail says:

    My brother told me very recently that after watching a cheetah kill and eat an animal on an African safari, he is clear that it’s okay for humans to eat animals. This is silly and fallacious on so many levels and I attempted to point out a few things to him. It didn’t work; he is dedicated to his way of thinking – and eating – and literally would not consider the facts. Carnism (yes, Melanie Joy again!) runs deep.

    • Ellie Maldonado says:

      It certainly does run deep, but as more people are willing to consider the facts, maybe even friends your brother knows, hopefully he will too. Maybe he’d be willing to watch the video of Peaceable Kingdom, The Journey Home (?)

  3. Rebecca says:

    Your summation eloquently expresses the feelings I have about this day – and about being vegan. Thanks, James.

  4. Ron says:

    What humans who want to eat animals seem to forget when they rationalize their habit by saying other animals eat animals, is that those animals rarely have a choice if they want to survive. And survival is not something that has to be ethically defended. However, humans do have a choice, as they can live healthfully and well without eating animals, which then has clear ethical implications for the lives of animals. Also, by nature, the animals that eat animals are more physiologically geared towards doing so, as they are endowed with the physical tools for predation in their bodies, unlike humans who require external tools and weapons, which would then suggest that eating animals is not a natural food for them.

  5. “For now, for today, the best I can do is keep the flesh off the grill.” — James McWilliams

    … and try to calm poor Willie-dog as he hides in terror of those loud, booming noises and inexplicable flashes of light in a usually quietly twinkling night sky.

  6. John T. Maher says:

    What are “basic moral principles”?

    • The most basic, and standard, of moral principles is the very human Golden Rule. Most of man’s religions have some form of it as the foundation of their beliefs. Where humans run into trouble is in applying the rule to ALL sentient beings, as in “Do unto ALL others as you would have done to yourself.”

      • John T. Maher says:

        How about if we remove the idea of a god?

        • The Golden Rule has nothing to do with a god, which is why so many peoples the world over have and still use it as a standard of basic moral conduct–granted, for too many humans, as it applies to other humans.

  7. John T. Maher says:

    I am not sure yours is the only or correct interpretation. Despite your disclaimer, we are still left to consider the issue of why is it a basic moral precept to treat others as etc. . . .

  8. Ellie Maldonado says:

    I really like this post, James. I’m convinced nonhuman animals have a sense of what’s right and wrong ( in other words, moral) within their social groups. That’s not to say they always do what’s right — neither do we — but I think we’re the only animal who kills for purely gratuitous reasons.

    • CQ says:

      And I’m convinced, Ellie, that not only do animals innately include morality in their makeup but that they respond to man’s improving morality. Meaning this: in proportion as we become, individuality and collectively, more enlightened, empathetic, and attuned to the laws of Love that power the universe, so will animals, individually and collectively, do the same.

      Certainly we can’t expect predators to quit their needful carnivorism when we, as more complex, comprehensive beings, keep acting like needless, heedless carnists.

      But as more and more of us we forsake the false notion that we are natural flesh-eaters, eventually lions and tigers will follow suit — will evolve morally and thus physically to the point where their nutritional needs will be met by plant foods. (As you can see, I take Genesis 1:29,30 and Isaiah 11:6-9 both metaphorically and literally.)

      What I think I’m saying is this: morality (an inherent aspect of our spiritual nature) is the dog, and physicality (as explained by biology) is the tail. Where we often go wrong is in believing that the tail wags the dog. :-)

      Charlie, thanks for reminding us of that excellent quote in Scully’s Dominion.

      And James, thanks for reminding me of the cute chipmunks who scampered about as we played outdoors in the Connecticut town where I grew up. I also have fond memories of the pink (or bright green) Bermudas that adorned the prepsters inhabiting the Connecticut coastline. (I still love — and wear — those classic clothes, but parted company with that crowd in most other — more essential — ways.)

      • Ellie Maldonado says:

        We may have different view of Genesis, CQ, but I really like your analogy: “…. morality (an inherent aspect of our spiritual nature) is the dog, and physicality (as explained by biology) is the tail. Where we often go wrong is in believing that the tail wags the dog.” :-)

  9. Bea Elliott says:

    “Such terrifying powers we possess, but what a sorry lot of gods some men are. And the worst of it is not the cruelty but the arrogance, the sheer hubris of those who bring only violence and fear into the animal world, as if it needed any more of either. Their lives entail enough frights and tribulations without the modern fire-makers, now armed with perfected, inescapable weapons, traipsing along for more fun and thrills at their expense even as so many of them die away. It is our fellow creatures’ lot in the universe, the place assigned them in creation, to be completely at our mercy, the fiercest wolf or tiger defenseless against the most cowardly man. And to me it has always seemed not only ungenerous and shabby but a kind of supreme snobbery to deal cavalierly with them, as if their little share of the earth’s happiness and grief were inconsequential, meaningless, beneath a man’s attention, trumped by any and all designs he might have on them, however base, irrational, or wicked.”
    ? Matthew Scully, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy

    That’s what comes to mind when I hear carnists excuse themselves from responsibility because of the tooth and claw world they see. What an insane presumption! To say that because the natural world is so violent in ways we cannot change – That this is our get-out-of-jail-free-card to contribute as well! It’s not orderly thinking…

    We wouldn’t apply that same “logic” to other conditions in our lives: My car has a flat, so I’ll break the windshield; A stranger didn’t hold the door open for me, so I’ll not help the blind person across the street; My neighbor doesn’t remove the trash from his yard – Nor will I. Just because the world’s not perfect… Doesn’t give carte blanche to damage it even more.

    I can’t help what lions or alligators must do to live… But I certainly can keep flesh off the grill too – Happily!

  10. Vance says:

    Clearly, I agree with your main point in this post, James, that we are not bound to a survival mode of eating, and have enough freedom of choice (at least, those of us e.g. who are reading this thread) to eschew violently-derived foods. But I hear speciesism in any declaration that humans are “unique” or “singular” in their capacity to act according to moral values. We have no idea, at this point, what values may or may not inform animals’ behavior – but we do know that humans have a long track record of assuming, and then claiming, lines of division between our behavior or consciousness and that of animals, and of turning out to be totally wrong in doing so. The point that we have the ability to choose is just as valid without it being a “unique” ability of ours, and in order to ascribe any uniqueness to it, I would say the burden of proof now falls to us.

    • Ellie Maldonado says:

      I think there are very clear examples of nonhuman morality, both within their social groups and sometimes on behalf of other species. Birds have adopted orphans; a cow living at Primarily Primates Sanctuary helped free a trapped deer; dolphins have helped whales; dogs have nursed orphans of other species; etc.

      Ethological studies also demonstrate nonhuman morality. Here’s just one: “Wild justice among animals: Research shows that animals know right from wrong” by Marc Bekoff

      • CQ says:

        Awwww, I LOVE that mouse story in the “Wild Justice” article, Ellie.

        And Marc’s conclusion resonates with me: “Humans should be proud of their citizenship in the animal kingdom. We’re not the sole occupants of the moral arena.”

        Question: Where can we find the story about the cow helping the deer at Primarily Primates, please?

        • Ellie Maldonado says:

          Me too, CQ :-) I love the story of that little mouse.

          Humans are bi-pedal primates, and part of the animal kingdom.

          I looked for the link to the story about George, the cow who saved the deer at Primarily Primates. Right now, it’s ironically posted on the Animal Liberation Front web site, which Friends of Animals, the group that runs Primarily Primates, has strongly criticized. Lee Hall of Friends of Animals wrote “Capers in the Churcyard: Animal Rights Advocacy in An Age of Terror”, which in turn was strongly criticized by activists who sympathize with the animal liberation front.

          So I was surprised to find it on the ALF’s website, and not sure I should post a link, but you can find it on the web under Cow Saves Deer. Or if you’d rather contact Primarily Primates directly, the Contact link is on home page:

          • CQ says:

            Wonderfully warm-hearted, cool-headed cow, that George Strait Jr.! I’m gathering the doe made a full recovery. Thanks for “steering” me to that “dear” story, Ellie. :-)

        • Ellie Maldonado says:

          You’re welcome, CQ :-)

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