Thursday, July 14, 2005

Humans and animals: Just how civilized are we?

Amba, one of the great friends of The Reaction and the author of one of my favourite blogs (AmbivaBlog), has just come out with her first AmbivaBlog Award -- see here.

The envelope, please... The first AmbivaBlog Award goes to...

Matthew Scully, author of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. For his website, see here.

Amba, he's a truly worthy recipient of your award. George Will has called him "the most interesting conservative you never heard of," and I think he captures the spirit of your award:

I conceived of the "AmbivaBlog Awards" as a way of bringing attention and praise to thinkers who violated the conventional boundaries of left and right in the course of doing justice to reality. For instance, it's long struck me as absurd that most liberals are concerned about the pollution of the physical environment but not about the pollution of the moral environment, and most conservatives' concern is just the reverse.

Read Amba's post for a lengthy quotation from Scully's recent piece in The American Conservative. However we label him, he is somone we should all -- liberal, moderate, conservative, whatever -- be paying attention to. And I say this in part because I, like Amba, believe strongly in treating animals with love, compassion, dignity, and respect. Sometimes I even wonder if I love animals more than my fellow human beings, given the sheer ugliness that often seems to weigh down our species. We may have dominion over the earth, but we aren't absolute rulers, and with such power comes enormous responsibility.

If I may quote one of my very first posts, back near the beginning of The Reaction, "I have long thought that a society (or a regime, to use current political parlance) can be judged by how it treats its weakest members: the young, the old, the infirm, the mentally and physically challenged, the poor, the helpless. A civilized society -- and a government that acts justly -- cares about -- and for -- its weakest members." I strongly believe that animals belong in this category. They may not always be "weak," but, in the end, they are no match for our technological prowess and our determination to conquer nature by any and all means necessary. A society that treats animals without love, compassion, dignity, and respect does not deserve to be called civilized, and, in this regard, I sometimes wonder just how civilized we really are.

Scully draws our attention to the suffering of animals at our own hands, and recognition of him is surely merited. Well done, Amba. I hope the subsequent winners of your award live up to this lofty standard.

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  • Nate, animals may seem "brutal" and "deadly" as you put it but there is no intent behind their actions. They act on instinct and they take what they need and little if any more. The world is slowly dying right here in front of us directly because of human actions. So I see a certain kind of nobility and perhaps even a kind of wisdom in animals and how they live despite their lack of morality and reason.

    As for your other points, you make some powerful arguments but I feel you are walking a fine line. I mean I don't want to live in a society where the old, sick, and mentally disabled are ignored or shamed because they can't "cut it" or because they are considered "inferior". Taken too far I think you're line of thinking can be used to justify selfishness and cruelty to others.

    However, and I dont want to contradict myself with what I was saying just above, I agree about what you are saying about pain. I think that pain is one of two things that if absent would nullify the value of life. I believe that humanity would reject a life without pain because without it how would we even know what pleasure or happiness is. Only via opposites and contrasts do various phenomena take on meaning.

    Along with pain, freedom is the other thing that validates our lives. In attempting to build the crystal palace (purely rational utopia), socialists would only be building a beautiful prison, fully deterministic and thus devoid of freedom. The only way to achieve freedom would be to act irrationally which is what we do a good deal of the time anyways assuming you consider harming oneself to be irrational (drinking, cigarettes, etc.). In a sense, pain and freedom go hand in hand.

    You've also made me think a lot about what it means to be compassionate. As I was reading I was reminded of the Hayao Miyazaki anime called Spirited Away. Its about a wussy pampered little girl who gets whisked off to a fantasy world where her life becomes much more difficult and she is forced to cope in a strange and uncaring world. In the end she develops independence, courage and confidence in herself. It's an excellent movie for new parents to watch I think.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:48 AM  

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