Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Should We Be Vegetarians? St. Thomas Aquinas Weighs In.

(Note: take a look here before you read this post.)

We want to know whether we should stop eating meat. Concerning this question there are four points of inquiry:
  1. Whether becoming a vegetarian has good consequences for the world;
  2. whether vegetarianism makes us healthier;
  3. whether we have a religious obligation to be vegetarians; and
  4. whether we can justify vegetarianism without any of the preceding points' being the case.
Let us begin with the first article. Does adopting vegetarianism have good consequences?
  1. It seems that vegetarianism does have good consequences. Abstaining from meat leads to the death of fewer animals.
  2. Moreover, vegetarianism reduces our negative impact on the environment.
  3. Moreover, vegetarianism, if it's selectively applied to meat-producers with egregious slaughtering practices, induces slaughterhouses to treat their animals better.
On the contrary, as Nathan Nobis argues, "the conclusion... it ought to be the case that we are all importantly different from the conclusion that she ought to be vegetarian."

I answer that my refusal to eat my grandmother's brisket has a trivial influence on commercial meat production. If I stop eating meat, there is no empirical evidence that, even over the course of my life, I will reduce aggregate demand enough to induce any slaughterhouse to reduce its output by even one animal. The calculations that meat producers make are simply too gross to account for any one consumer's behavior. So while it would be morally preferable for the whole country to become vegetarian, that's irrelevant to the question of whether I should. Unless I'm willing to proselytize and convince as many people as I can that they should be vegetarians, my individual decision to stop eating meat is akin to urinating into Allagash Falls. (Which, by the way, I can attest has no effect.)
Either way, the moral of this oft-quoted parable does not apply in this case: there is no individual cow that I can point to and claim to have saved by being a vegetarian.

Replies to the objections: The above answer should make the replies to the objections clear.

Let us proceed to the second article. Does vegetarianism make us healthier?
  1. It seems that vegetarianism makes us healthier. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, together with many other reputable organizations, has long advocated a vegetarian diet  on the grounds that it is associated with lower rates of cancer, diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and  gallstones.
  2. Moreover, typical foods that vegetarians eat are on the whole healthier than typical foods that meat-eaters eat. Quinoa is better than chicken soup, and kale than a tongue sandwich. (That cadence works better in the original.)
On the contrary, in 1928, the Republican Party proposed to promote good nutrition by promising a chicken in every pot.

I answer that the claim that vegetarianism makes us healthy is unsubstantiated. Good health is strongly correlated with good socioeconomic status, and most vegetarians are not working class, so it's unclear that the association between vegetarianism and health is causal. Furthermore, it is unlikely that a vegetarian diet is significantly different from a diet that simply includes less meat. Finally, our healthiest president was an avid hunter. (N=1, I admit. Even so!)

Replies to the objections:
  1. There's no reason that a person can't eat meat occasionally and still enjoy the benefits that the PCRM lists. The PCRM might have a case for encouraging us to eat less meat, but not for the absolute abstention implied by vegetarianism.
  2. Eating meat does not necessarily mean eating unhealthy meat. White meat in moderation, for example, is high in protein and low in fat. We can also get a good supply of iron from moderate amounts of red meat.
Let us proceed to the third article. Do we have a religious obligation to be vegetarians? (I will answer this question from a Jewish perspective, but I think that a similar argument applies to many Christians and Muslims.)
  1. It seems that we have a religious obligation to be vegetarian. Prohibitions against cruelty to animals are found throughout Jewish law, as in Exodus 23:5, which commands Jews to relieve even their enemies' donkeys from their burdens. And modern slaughtering practice—even kosher slaughter—is tantamount to the cruelty described in the Bible.
  2. Moreover, the Bible permitted eating meat before a time when vegetarianism was possible for most people. Now that it is indeed feasible, there is no reason to assume that the Bible's lack of a prohibition on meat is sufficient evidence that God does not expect us to be vegetarians.
On the contrary, God specifically permits meat to the human race in Genesis 9:3.

I answer that God does not expect us to refrain from eating animals. God is primarily concerned with our treatment of other human beings, and though we have an obligation to be kind to animals, what counts far more is our kindness to our brothers and our enemies. (In this vein, I think that some animal-rights campaigns can even be counterproductive if they distract people from pursuing human rights.) 
At any rate, God sometimes even requires us to eat meat. Every Jew, for instance, used to be—and one day will be—required to eat the paschal lamb on Passover.
So while God insists that we refrain from cruelty to animals, if we treat them well, they're fair game (pun intended).

Replies to the objections:
  1. The Bible makes clear throughout that cruelty to animals, not killing them, is the problem. This might mean that current slaughter in the United States is prohibited given the conditions to which it subjects animals, but the killing is not prohibited in itself. On the basis of the Bible, it might make sense to eat, for instance, only grass-fed beef, but there's no justification for complete abstention.
  2. In the absence of new revelation, we cannot presume to know that the will of God with respect to all human beings has changed on this question. 
Let us proceed to the fourth article. Even though vegetarianism has no effect on the world, is not divinely mandated, and doesn't make us healthier, should we still do it?

I believe firmly that we should. I start from the premise that killing sentient beings to eat them is objectively wrong, and even if it's not egregiously wrong, it would be morally preferable not to kill them. Vegetarianism, understood rightly, is an act of moral revulsion at this wrong. (I say moral revulsion—vegetarianism ought to have more behind it than squeamishness at the sight of blood.) Even though our diet has likely no effect on the environment or on animals' well-being, we still shouldn't be able to stand the fact that animals are regularly put to death for our benefit. Abstention from meat doesn't follow logically from the conviction that killing animals is wrong, but it follows emotionally. (Though the connection between belief in the wrongness of killing animals and the decision not to eat them is emotional, the original decision that killing animals is wrong is not.) As Peter Singer says, "becoming a vegetarian is a way of attesting to the depth and sincerity of one’s belief in the wrongness of what we are doing to animals (quoted by Nathan Nobis)."

Being convinced of the wrongness of killing animals was all it took for me—I couldn't stand being a part of systematic slaughter, so I stopped being a part of it.

By the way, as far as I'm concerned, the actual act of killing is the problem. Nevertheless, there's a good argument to be made that the suffering of animals in slaughterhouses is enough grounds to oppose eating meat.

Let this suffice as our answer.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"Just a Little Higher!" On The Return of the Jedi

This post is a series of thoughts on Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. 

I. Sarlacc Ethics.

C-3PO explains in Jabba’s palace that the sarlacc digests its victims over a thousand-year period of unimaginable suffering. If this is true, then Luke and Han act reprehensibly when they glibly allow bounty hunters to roll into its maw instead of shooting them. On the other hand, the sarlacc probably enjoys eating bounty hunters more than they dislike it. So from a utilitarian perspective, it’s actually fine. (There are other considerations to take into account—Tatooinians, for example, might not like living on a planet where sarlacci can devour people with impunity. The sarlacc, though, gets such intense pleasure from eating that we don’t need worry about this objection.)

II. Racism.

Jabba’s palace is Orientalist and the Ewoks are insulting to indigenous people of the Amazon. My Art History class has made me too sick of critical theory to go into this further.

III. Yoda Will Always Be with You.

One of my favorite moments in any movie, almost an par with this, is this moment, when Obi Wan first appears to Luke on Dagobah after Yoda dies. The orchestra’s crescendo that suddenly cuts off as Obi Wan approaches is tingle-inducing.

IV. The Forest Moon of Endor.
One of the most well known grammatical disputes in Star Wars is this: is “the Forest Moon of Endor” a partitive or possessive genitive?
There are two possibilities for the identity of the home of the Ewoks.

  1. (Partitive genitive.) It’s a forested moon called Endor. Thus, “the Forest Moon of Endor” is the same construction as “the great state of Maine” or “the frigid, godforsaken city of Iqaluit.”
  2. (Possessive genitive.) It’s a forested satellite of the planet Endor, and not itself named Endor. This reading understands “the forest moon of Endor” to be akin to “the two moons of Mars” or “the blood-spattered armor of Mars.”
Personally, I’m sympathetic to the first reading, because I think it would be bizarre for George Lucas to have left the central stage of the movie’s action unnamed. Nevertheless, there are good, honest people on both sides of the debate, so let’s pause before we haul out the fire, wood, and oil.

V. Darth Vader’s Redemption

One of the most commonly repeated lines about the movie is that Darth Vader “redeems himself” when he saves Luke by hurling the Emperor into a conveniently placed molten pit. I used to believe this too, until I realized that it it’s a facile platitude. Redemption is impossible for Darth Vader. If billions of murdered Alderaanians had risen from the dead and offered their sincere pardon, then it might have been possible for Vader to die with a clean conscience. Saving one man’s life who happens to be his son isn’t enough to cut it. The only people who could have redeemed Vader—if human beings can redeem other human beings at all, which is debatable—are dead by the time of Episode VI.

This speaks to a general moral point: I don’t think that redemption is something that we can have any knowledge about in the first place. How is it possible for us tell whether or not someone receives the pardon of the universe? God knows, not us.

This isn’t to say that Vader’s saving Luke isn’t significant. Luke is right, in spite of Leia’s insistence to the contrary, that there is some good in him. The operative word, of course, is some. At the very end of the movie, Luke consciously lays his father on his pyre with his mask back on. Despite his heroism, in the end Vader’s still a murderer.

VI. The Remastered Version.

I  don’t have too much nostalgia for the old VHS version of Star Wars. That said, I have a couple qualms with the revisions from the original. First of all, turning the Ewok’s simple chant at the end of the movie into a tremendous intergalactic celebration is like cutting out the Song at the Sea from Exodus and replacing it with this. Also, as my friend pointed out, giving the sarlacc digital tentacles and a beak puts a damper on its Freudian symbolism. That might be a good thing—the sarlacc scene alone is probably responsible for a host of lifelong male bachelors who saw it as kids.

VII. Is Luke tempted?

It’s hard to tell whether Luke is actually tempted by the Emperor to go over to the Dark Side. He attacks Vader in a rage, but it’s left unclear whether that’s just a lapse of self-possession or an ominous sign of weakness. The answer to this question has a lot of bearing on Luke’s character, so it’s a bit frustrating that the movie leaves it ambiguous. We don’t know, after all, whether to cheer or to nod understandingly when Luke tosses away his lightsaber in front of the Emperor.

That’s not all, but I’m done for now. I’ve seen this movie more times than I can count, and its sound effects and dialogue are firmly embedded into my mind. It’s a fresh movie every time, though.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Internet, and Social Justice.

I had a vision at breakfast last Friday. As I munched on my Raisin Bran, reading the New York Times, the lights flickered, and I saw it:
A baseball stadium. Citi Field, to be precise. Not filled, as I'm used to, with drunk, thirty-year-old Mets fans, but submerged in a sea of black hats. Forty thousand Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men had gathered to protest Mayor Bloomberg's denial of shelter services to hundreds of vulnerable homeless people in New York City. From where I was sitting in the Upper Deck, I couldn't make out the field very well, but the jumbotron made it easy to see and hear. A lone figure stood on the pitcher's mound, making a speech to the crowd. It was impassioned, and not, as I recall, very empirically grounded. But the crowd was rapt.
"He has blinded himself," he said. "Our mayor has closed his eyes to the poor, and forgotten that they're human beings. Human beings! Not numbers on a report to the administration."

Of course, that's not what really happened today. As I write this blog post, there are indeed forty thousand Haredi (Ultra Orthodox) Jews in Citi Field, another twenty thousand in Arthur Asche Stadium, and many, many others watching on broadcasts across the country. But they aren't protesting New York's homelessness policy. This weekend, a meeting convened by the Ichud Hakehillos LeTohar HaMachane, the Union of Communities for the Purity of the Camp, has absorbed the attention of Orthodox Jews across the country. The subject: restricting access to the internet. This meeting is not going to result in a prohibition on the internet—that would be a little extreme—but will instead "raise awareness" of its dangers. The internet, after all, can be used to access pornography, which is prohibited by Jewish law. It can also waste time and divert people into frivolous pursuits. Take a look at this quote from the New York Times article on the event:

Posters promoting the rally have filled Williamsburg in recent days, playing off biblical themes. The event is being held right before the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which marks the giving of the Torah.
“Accept it Again, Like One Person With One Heart” one sign says, adding, “No one should miss it.”

How did this happen? How can it be that a community that has dedicated itself to God has ended up focusing on this? The same Bible from which these posters draw their themes is the Bible that enjoins Jews to "seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow." It is the Bible in which Abraham challenged God himself because he was concerned that God was acting unjustly to a city of Gentiles.  The Haredi community, by its sheer numbers, has the potential to do immense good. Imagine, as I did, that they protested the city's policy regarding its homeless citizens. In the first place, its forty-thousand-man meeting would do more to give Jews a good name than all of the piety of the last forty years. It would be a powerful spur on the government to change its policy. (Already, politicians in New York regularly make deals with Haredi leaders in order to secure the votes of their communities.) Plus, by the way, it would be moral in itself. So to miss this opportunity and instead insist on the "purity of the camp" is an abdication of responsibility to Jews, to New York City, and to God.

I don't have a problem with the Haredi community's discomfort over the internet in itself. I've got a puritanical streak myself. I sympathize fully with the religious impulse to purity, and I think that it's appropriate for the community to restrict its access to the internet if it wants. But whenever I'm tempted to be understanding of the meeting that happened today, my vision from last week flashes again in front of my eyes.

For Grammars Sake: Abolish the Possessive Apostrophe

Possessive nouns are declined free, and everywhere they are in apostrophes. How did this happen? I do not know. Why does it need to be corrected? I think I can answer this question.

English has three cases, or forms that nouns can take depending on their role in a sentence: subjective, objective, and possessive. There’s almost no difference in form between the subjective and objective cases: what difference there is is mostly restricted to pronouns. Hence: he (subjective) tasted his tongue sandwich, but not before it tasted him (objective). But Mary milked the cow and the cow licked Mary: for most nouns, the English case system has regrettably withered away almost entirely.
Not so, thankfully, for the possessive case. Almost all nouns in English still take an s when they refer to objects or people that possess others: consider the king’s taster, Plato’s lunacy, and my brother’s keeper. But as these examples make clear, the s isn’t just appended to its noun, as we might expect. An apostrophe inexplicably intervenes. I say inexplicably, because this use of the apostrophe is by any standard unwarranted. In almost all of its other uses, the apostrophe is a stand-in for a letters that have been omitted: I can’t come to the club because my dog’s decided to chew my checker’d coat. In the case of possessive nouns, there is no letter to leave out, and hence no need for an apostrophe. There’s no logical reason that François Hollande is France’s president and not Frances; that Lou Gehrig had Lou Gehrig’s Disease and not Lou Gehrigs.

Perhaps we English speakers are so squeamish about our ancient Germanic case system that we’ve decided to sanitize it. Rather than let our nouns go forth with naked esses, proclaiming joyfully and innocently their full-hearted allegiance to the possessive case, we nervously separate them from their rightful endings out of pale timidity. Better, after all, to give the impression that the s is an unnatural addition to the noun-stem, that it’s an innocuous result of schoolroom pedantry. But our prudery has a cost: in our refusal to face the unbearable, irresistible pleasure of the unsullied cases, we’ve doused the blazing furnaces of our souls with a shower of tiny drops of ink. The stout-hearted followers of King Harold, by contrast, surely went to their doom at Hastings shouting their genitive battle-cries in terrible grammatical purity. Weop eal gesceaft, cwiðdon cyninges fyll. Cyninges!

As for the factual, historical origin of the apostrophe, a bumbling though well-meaning printer probably decided it would be a good idea around the year 1750, and no one bothered to correct his mistake.

There are, I concede, some useful functions of the possessive apostrophe. For one, it helps distinguish the schoolboy’s chair from the schoolboys’; the hart’s longing for the stream from the harts’ extermination during hunting season. This, though, is a trivial advantage. If it’s not clear from context that the writer intends the plural form of the noun, the writer wrote a bad sentence.

In any case, the Germans, who also mark their possessive case with an s, have got along without the possessive apostrophe for at least a century. They do fine. More than fine—the Germans enjoy just as much of the old pleasure of the Proto-Germanic case system as the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes did. Granted, German doesn’t pluralize its nouns with an s as much as we do, so there’s less room for ambiguity. Nonetheless, I have a feeling that the vault of heaven would not collapse if we followed suit.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names, in an inspiring display of stern courage, has already gotten the message: in 1894, it forbade the use of the possessive apostrophe in all domestic place names, with a few regrettable exceptions. (See chapter V of this list of guidelines.)

Abolition, then, is both desirable and possible. The last remnant of our stark and strangely beautiful case system is drowning in a pit of black, writhing maggots. Who is on orthographys side? let him come unto me.