PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Thursday, March 14, 2019

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: The ethics of dealing with fellow animals

Dear Friends,

This Sunday we are discussing: The ethics of dealing with fellow animals

The last time we discussed Animal Rights was way back in 2007 so it is
time we revisited the topic. Ruel and I have each wrote an essay:

Ethical Dealings with Fellow Animals by Ruel F. Pepa

The ethics of dealing with fellow animals by Lawrence JC Baron

Best Lawrence

tel: 606081813
Gran Clavel (Café-Bar): Gran vía 11, esquina C/ Clavel, 28013—Madrid

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: The ethics of
dealing with fellow animals

The ethics of dealing with fellow animals

The ethics of dealing with fellow animals

We are familiar with some of the arguments about animal rights and many people are even active in promoting animal rights. So you will forgive me if I focus on the Ethics and the language side of the topic question and not the well known arguments on animal rights (1).

On the ethics side, I want to ask a simple question: By what means does an ethical system give a benefit to a party but does not require a reciprocal duty from that party to follow the normative principles of the ethical system? More simply, why should we apply ethical principles to animals when they don’t reciprocate?

But first the language involved in the title subject. The words “fellow animals” are fully loaded with meaning that we need to disambiguate it. The function of the word “fellow” is to imply that those in the general set “animals” have not only the same status as us, human beings, but that we are also members of the same set of animals. The implication of this situation is that any ethical system that applied to us must also apply to other animals in the general set of animals. And of course, vice versa, any member of the set (i.e. other species) who can establish an ethical system, must, ipso facto, also apply to us.

Under this scenario the set of “animals” includes all animals and us as equal members of that set: set All Animals = ((animals – humans) + (humans)), we can call this the Equal interpretation. We might even take this idea to extremes with: set All Animals = All biological creatures. In effect this represents the modern trend in thinking about our relationship with animals. Irrespective of the emotional attraction to this position we still need to tease out the philosophical issues of this Equal interpretation position.

The traditional attitude towards animals has so far been, at least at face value seems to be, that Human Beings are not only superior to other biological creatures but that animals have no rational value. Western religions are very fond of professing the difference in substance, if not in form, of the sanctity of human beings compared to animals. The traditional attitude towards the human – animal relationship is: humans animals, we can call this the Superiority interpretation. The traditional form of this relationship is that animals are chattels and cannot have any qualities which humans enjoy either empirically or metaphysically: the list starts from souls to consciousness. In effect, under the Superiority interpretation of this human-animal relationship, the subject of our meeting is a load of nonsense.

On a biological level the Superiority interpretation is false since there are many empirical similarities and commonalities between humans and animals that we just cannot exclude ourselves from the biological set of creatures. We might very well be something else apart from biological creatures, and I will show that we are, but we are certainly animals as well. I will also show that especially under the Superiority interpretation we have a moral responsibility towards animals.

The question I put forward earlier was: By what means does an ethical system give a benefit to a party but does not require a reciprocal duty from that party to follow the normative principles of the system? As already suggested, under the Equality interpretation, a human ethical system would have the same value and binding force on other members of the general set of all animals. The nature of an Ethical system is that it is binding on all members who are subject to that system, but how can we make other species to follow an ethical system by the human species? We might and can enforce an “ethical” system within species but not intra species. And what would an ethical system devised by spiders be like that also binds human beings?

It is clear that the Equality interpretation is seriously flawed and it is flawed for a number of reasons. The main reason is that there are no ethical systems in nature. In the natural world there are only the laws of physics, chemistry and biology. Ethics is a human system that makes sense to humans; we understand our ethical system but animals can never understand our reasoning. This is not to say that other species might not have their own “ethical systems” but nothing that will or can involve human beings.

Another reason is that how on Earth do we communicate our ethical system to other species; and vice versa. Specifically, what language do we use to “communicate” what is good and what is bad? What is the meaning of acceptable and unacceptable for other animals? Indeed, how will spiders understand our meaning of good or bad? For those who are fascinated by this issue they would do well to start with the paper by Thomas Nagel “What is it like to be a bat?” Although this paper is more about consciousness the issue is how can we be conscious of a set of rules that out brain cannot even begin to assimilate as part of our epistemological environment?

Even under our present ethical system it is unfair to assume that we are equal to other animals when in reality we are the equivalent to animals what a nuclear bomb is to a hamlet with half a dozen cottages. Having said that, viruses and microbes do give us more than just a good run for our money, some are deadly to us. So basically the serious problem with the Equality interpretation is that we do not have an equal rights relationship with animals: firstly because the concept of ethics is a human concept and secondly because we are the predominant predator on Earth now. But we most certainly have a “duty of care” towards animals.

In the celebrated appeal case in the House of Lords UK), DONOGHUE (Pauper) v. STEVENSON 1932 ((2): I referred to this case many times in my essays: the snail in the bottle case) Lord Atkin says: “…….the lawyer's question, Who is my neighbour? receives a restricted reply. You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour. Who, then, in law, is my neighbour?........”

Therefore, taking this case as a model for Ethics, I would argue that we have a duty of care towards animals not because they are our equals but because they are our neighbours in the biological sphere. And more importantly there are many acts and omissions that we “can reasonably foresee” to avoid harm towards animals. Under the biological rules all creatures can use other species for their own gain: it is the biological right of every cat or every dog to steal your sausages. The difference for us is that we have evolved and supplanted* our biological rules and rights for rational rules and rights to enable us obtain massive gains and advantages from our environment. A state of affairs that cannot be reached with only the biological rules and this means we have a duty of care towards other animals. Indeed, it is a well accepted ethical principle that the strong have a duty to protect the weak or disadvantaged.

The problem is that ethics is all well and good, but it doesn’t solve such problems as eating animals, blood sports and mass breeding. As I said under the biological rules eating animals is allowed, although wasting animal meat might not necessarily be strictly within these rules. As for hunting or blood sports we need to understand why such activities were started in the first place. We need to distinguish between a necessity, hunting for food or fighting predators, and that necessity evolving into a cultural meme many centuries later. This chain of investigation is all within our intellectual capacity to investigate and then devise a model to reconcile the meme with the ethical norm of our time.

Those who are following Brexit at an engaged level would have come across the case of the “chlorinated chicken”. Basically in the USA they disinfect chicken with a chlorine treatment to remove bacteria, whereas this is banned by the EU. Brexiters in the UK argue that imported American chickens (post Brexit) are safe to eat even though they are chlorinated; and the EU agrees with them. The reason why the EU bans chlorinated chickens is that this allows American breeder to have “poor hygiene behaviour” (3) during the breeding and processing stages of chickens thus creating “harm” to chickens whilst at the same time giving unfair financial advantages over humane breeding practices in the EU. In a way these issues are low level solvable ethical problems; emotional yes but not hard hitting ethics as this US chlorinated chicken case demonstrates.

In the meantime if you really want hard hitting ethical questions about dealing with animals how about: do we have any duty of care towards human microbiota, microbes in general, fungi, viruses and especially the common cold virus?

* 5:30pm 15/03/2019: in retrospect, maybe we have not completely replaced (supplanted) the biological rules, but for most part we employ the rational rules (duty of care or build bridges) whilst still employing the biological rules for our biological survival: we still need to eat, or drink but impose degrees of rational rules. 

(1)  Animal Rights our meeting June 2007

(2)  M'ALISTER or DONOGHUE (Pauper) Appellant v. STEVENSON. Respondent (PDF File) – also check Wikipedia.

(3)  Chlorinated chicken explained: why do the Americans treat their poultry with chlorine? By Julia Glotz in The Grocer.

Best Lawrence

Friday, March 08, 2019

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Is materialism destroying society?

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing: Is materialism destroying society?

As you can see we have three essays for the topic with the links below.
Hope you enjoy your reading:

Is materialism destroying society? by James O'Doherty

Is Materialism Destroying Society? By Ruel F. Pepa (c)

Is materialism destroying society? By Lawrence Baron

Best Lawrence

tel: 606081813
Gran Clavel (Café-Bar): Gran vía 11, esquina C/ Clavel, 28013—Madrid

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Is materialism
destroying society?

Is materialism destroying society? By Lawrence Baron

Is materialism destroying society? By Lawrence Baron

In theoretical philosophy we have the old problem of materialism. Basically, is the physical world the highest order of existence followed by mind, soul, spirit, and so on? Or is there some form of higher order existence such as mind or spirit and materialism is just a subset of this higher superior order of being?

This problem takes us back to such ideas as the mind body problem, spirituality and superior intelligence by the gods. In other words, early in our evolution we felt the world around us was mediocre and our ancestors came to the conclusion that there must be a superior power that can make our lot much better. This idea must be one of those memes that originated in the archaeological mental past at the birth of Homo sapiens but it is still with us today.

Of course, there is no superior power since our idea of superior power fits perfectly well with the models of natural selection and biological group structures. The low level monkey not only had to contend with the whims of their second level monkeys, but all the monkeys had to contend with the whims of the chief monkey. No doubt the first philosopher monkey must have had the idea that surely there must be a better and far superior chief monkey than the one we have. And thus Zeno’s paradox was born and the superior intelligence model was formulated.

But it must have been a clever and brave marketing and sales monkey to persuade the chief monkey to buy into the idea that there is a superior and more powerful monkey than the chief himself and that we should worship it. And then be appointed director of ideology. This brings me to applied philosophy.

In applied philosophy, basically the activities we mostly get involved with during our meetings, we have the concept of materialism, as in the title of our discussion, which we also refer to as consumerism, economic materialism and maybe even capitalist society. I will use the term social materialism or even consumerism to distinguish from philosophical materialism.

My only caveat about the terms used is that I consider everything we need and desire that is not freely available from nature must be considered as social materialism. Anything that requires human brains or human labour must be regarded as social materialism because we do not only consume sports cars and mobile phones but also medicines, packed food etc.

The idea is that consumerism is changing or even destroying our society because we do not endeavour in more lofty activities such as building better cathedrals, write more poetry, spend more time preparing wholesome food and, of course, meeting in coffee shops and rustic restaurants, like Plato, Socrates, and friends did, to discuss the infinite and life in general. Basically, today we seek meaning in life by the thrill of what we purchase. Spending money on big ticket items, such as a sports car, gives us the emotional high and elation which is probably the equivalent  to our ancestors bringing down a mammoth for lunch.

But this scenario begs two questions: 1) how is social materialism changing or destroying society? And 2) what is society changing from? We can quickly get rid of the idea that society was better in the past. It wasn’t.

In 1846, the Viennes doctor, Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, suggested that if doctors washed their hands before treating women during childbirth this might reduce the number of female deaths at childbirth (a). And although the results were spectacular in 1847 there is still an issue today about washing hands.

Furthermore, in 2016 the World Health Organisation reported: Last year, an estimated 303 000 women died from pregnancy-related causes, 2.7 million babies died during the first 28 days of life and 2.6 million babies were stillborn. Quality health care during pregnancy and childbirth can prevent many of these deaths, yet globally only 64% of women receive antenatal (prenatal) care four or more times throughout their pregnancy (b).

These are just two examples to illustrate the point that life and society was never better in the past. I also use these two examples to show that even if consumerism is having a negative effect on society there is still enough “decency” left in society to "invest" in real needs technology. We don’t just produce sports cars in our society.

But social materialism has changed society; we understand the material and physical world much better today than ever. We can manipulate the material world to meet our whims and desires: we can build bridges over valleys, use efficient light cars instead of horses, and in 2019 we can change and manipulate the human body with our technology that would have been unimaginable in 1846.

In any event, we also interact with our material world because that's the only world we have. This is, indeed, what it means for something biological to be natural: something biological has to interact with the material world around it. Our capacity to learn from experience also makes us slightly different from other creatures who do not necessarily adapt to new situations. And one of those differences is of course our capacity to understand and formulate ethical concepts and the idea that something can be better. Indeed our relationship with the material world is one of more and better.

My two real world examples demonstrate that social materialism, whether of real life need gadgets or consumer goods, social materialism can solve some of our problems. What has not changed is the will to make social materialism accessible to everyone. Consider this fact about one of the richest country in the world: The number of uninsured Americans has dropped from 48.6 million in 2010 to 29.3 million in 2017 (c). That‘s practically the combined population of Hungary, Austria, Ireland and Denmark (29,220,087 Wikipedia).

The problem for Dr Semmelweis was that his well run and paid for teaching hospital for midwives had a mortality rate of one in 25, whilst the paupers hospital for medical students had a mortality rate of one in 10 (a). If spirituality is the highest order of being, why is there such a discrepancy in real life?

The reality about this topic is that, yes, materialism has and is changing society, we can do better things at the materialistic level. We also know more things about the world around us. But in the philosophical debate of whether there is some lofty superior existence to being human, the answer is clearly, no. No changes here as I have demonstrated. The ethical and spiritual society of the gods has not changed at all; we’re still the immoral and non spiritual biological blobs we have always been. We have changed the monkey, but we haven’t changed the attitudes of the human monkey.

(a)       The Dirty History of Doctors’ Hands by Leah Ginnivan
(b)       Pregnant women must be able to access the right care at the right time, says WHO
(c)        30 Staggering Healthcare Statistics to Know in 2019
Dr. Nikola Djordjevic

Best Lawrence

Is materialism destroying society? by James O'Doherty

Is Materialism Destroying Society? By Ruel F. Pepa (c)

Is materialism destroying society? By Lawrence Baron

Is materialism destroying society? by James O'Doherty

Is materialism destroying society? by James O'Doherty

In order to answer this question one should first determine what is meant by Materialism. The dictionary has two definitions for the word.

1.  “a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values”.

2.  “a theory or belief that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications”.
 “The theory or belief that consciousness and will are wholly due to material agency.”

The second definition is related to Dialectical materialism, a term for Marx’s theory (the official philosophy of the Soviet communists) that political and historical events result from the conflict of social forces. These conflicts are thought to be caused by material needs. However this is not the meaning I am referring to in the title of the essay but rather the former. So the materialism that I wish to call attention to here is economic materialism which is an obsession with material things. It encompasses both a desire to possess objects (material things) and a need to demonstrate wealth. Furthermore it is a yearning to consume all sorts to material goods (consumerism). It rejects theism (the belief in the existence of a god) and presumes that the world in which we live is all there is. Both its goals and their end results are negative for society and I will attempt to demonstrate this in the essay. Take for example the acquisition and accumulation of material goods as a means of showing one’s worth or status. This leads to a false sense of comfort, affluenza (which is lack of motivation in wealthy young people) and even compulsive buying. People who purchase goods routinely buy far in excess of their needs but despite this they tend to be less satisfied with almost everything. Implying that materialism does not provide happiness.  It also manifests a great deal of egocentrism which results in numerous negative qualities such as self-centredness, lack of empathy, distrust, scepticism, jealousy, extravagance, overindulgence, envy and even unhealthy relationships. Accumulation of material goods or aspiration for success are other factor. These engender poor morals, disagreement and antagonism and a preoccupation with money.

Materialism in this context is therefore a personal attitude in which a person attributes great importance to the acquisition and consumption of material goods. The term materialistic is commonly used to describe a type of personality or a society and it often has negative connotations.  It equates social status and personal worth with affluence and wealth while also assuming that the accumulation of possessions will bestow happiness and prestige on an individual. When acquiring material possessions functions as a central life goal the person believes that possessions are crucial to securing happiness and they also think that success is judged by their material wealth and the quality and price of the material goods he can buy.

The concept of materialism has been present since time immemorial, one only has to recall the famous lines from Matthew 19:24 where Jesus says to his disciples “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”. The interpretation being that a rich man is often blind to his spiritual poverty because of his pride in his accomplishments and his wealth. He is content with his lot and distracted from the spiritual. All things considered he is materialistic. Ever since the industrial revolution materialism and its effects have augmented in the western world and the tendency is that it will continue to increase in reaction to discontentment and the need of many individuals to comply with social norms. Nowadays more than ever before people in the industrialised world are focusing more on money, image, fame and status.

Materialistic people bear such adverse traits as being ungenerous, selfish, no sense of solidarity with others. In addition they are unwilling to give or share possessions. They also have an utter lack of sympathy or empathy for those who are less fortunate than themselves. Besides this, they are very envious of other people and their possessions. If for example a friend buys a new top-of-the-range mobile phone then jealousy triggers a desire to equal or surpass their friend’s possession. Possessiveness is a further characteristic which concerns the loss of possessions and a desire for the greater control of ownership. For instance a male chauvinist who assassinates his wife or partner after she threatens to leave him is in fact treating his spouse as if she were a possession (he is losing control).

Some materialistic people are capable of exploiting others to achieve their goals or to obtain that craved-for possession which will validate their status or demonstrate their wealth when exhibited (their belief is that the end justifies the means). To illustrate this point consider the issue of surrogate mothers, it has recently been brought to light that these women are being commercialised like goods. The profiteering with women’s bodies has again become big business (sexual exploitation has already been going on for a long time) however this time to provide affluent people with an offspring. The product can be selected from a catalogue like any other material goods (you select the appropriate body for the purpose depending on the cost etc.). There are those who consider it a service but for the unfortunate surrogate mother it is generally a way of subsisting. Many of these surrogate mothers come from a deprived background and countries with poor standards of living. Obviously, the demand for the product enables unscrupulous organizations or companies to take advantage of the nitch in the market and make a huge profit from these poor women. How unfair! Surely the law should be changed to prevent these practices.

To turn to the issue of waste generated as a consequence of materialism. I would say that while the large majority of people are conscious about the dangers to the environment (climate change, the Great Pacific garbage patch etc) and the need for a change in values they are much less concerned about aspects such as acquiring more wealth and possessions (materialistic values). However it is this fallacy of not seeing the connection between environmental damage and materialism (consumerism) that is perpetuating this catastrophe.

We live in a culture where we discard material goods when we should be trying to be more efficient and conserve them as long as possible. In addition nobody thinks of where all this waste that we throw away goes. Evidently, it must be dumped somewhere but we in the so called developed world say “not in my back garden” so the waste from chemical plants and contaminating electronic equipment are sent to poorer countries that are paid a miserable amount and expected to accept the burden (Pollution that we do not want).  On top of this, it is often cheaper nowadays to replace a broken electronic gadget or a torn garment of clothing than to fix them and industry has decide that it should be this way. The consumer cycle consisting of buying, upgrading, replacing, discarding is a calculated one. Naturally, planned obsolescence ensures that consumers keep spending, however, it has a major drawbacks and inconveniences especially the hefty environmental burden.

Psychologists have also seen that spending can be a compulsive behavior similar to gambling, food disorders and alcoholism.  Some people are especially prone to it because of some psychological pathology but it could also be an easily acquired habit (by conditioning) especially when exposed to the constant bombardment of advertisements on television, in the press and even on roadside billboards. Children and young people are extremely vulnerable to these advertisements as they portray a glamorous lifestyle and suggest that if one doesn’t comply they are both naive and foolish. Consequently, as a lot of people are not able to afford the levels of spending expected (they cannot match other people’s expenditure) hence jealousy, envy and antagonism is bound to follow.

Researchers in the United States have found that despite the increase in material wealth little to no effect on the well-being and happiness of its citizens has been noticed. Tibor Scitovsky, a Hungarian economist, called this a "joyless economy" in which people are forever pursuing comforts without encountering happiness. Furthermore when people obtain a lot of pleasure from buying things and believe that amassing material possessions are important goals in life, they usually experience less satisfaction with life. There is also a positive correlation between materialism and more serious psychological issues such as depression, narcissism and paranoia.

Three different studies (Belk 1983, Kasser & Ryan 1993, Richins & Dawson 1992) and a meta-analysis of work in this area (Wright & Larsen 1993) have found evidence of a connection between materialism and happiness. In all these studies they discovered a negative correlation between materialism and happiness or well-being. However so far it is unclear what causes this anomaly. The following questions arise; whether materialism cause unhappiness and whether unhappy people drawn towards materialism for fulfilment or it is some other factor?

On the other hand, however research shows that buying with the intention of obtaining a life experiences such as a vacation with the family make people happier than purchases made to procure material possessions like an expensive car. What is more, just thinking about experiential purchases makes people feel far happier than thinking about material ones.

In conclusion, the negative effects of economic materialism have mingled into many facets of society, environmental issues, personal relationships and emotional well-being and happiness. On a positive note industry creates employment but the waste generates by the industrial processes and the consumerism culture eventually has negative implications on other parts  society (e.g. in the form of pollution). 
Social status and personal worth are put on a par with affluence, wealth, material possessions, accumulation of material goods and one’s purchasing power. As a result, jealousy, envy, distrust and antagonism manifest themselves in people who are trapped in the desire for material possessions. Moreover it can even cause people to want to take advantage of others in a bid to obtain what they require. Take for instance the cases of exploitation of surrogate mother, the sex industry and even precarious work contracts.

In order to change people’s values on materialism we must start by educating young people to see the problems that materialism entails. Finally we should have legislation that ensures a proper use of advertising and marketing in the media.

by James O'Doherty

Is materialism destroying society? by James O'Doherty

Is Materialism Destroying Society? By Ruel F. Pepa (c)

Is materialism destroying society? By Lawrence Baron


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