Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Dare to be . . .

After a night disturbed by the crying of one of our little ones, my wife announced that she was going downstairs to open the front gate for our window-cleaner. It sounded like some kind of euphemism. Then again perhaps I've been listening to too many 'Janet and John' stories. Well our window-cleaner is quite handsome, but not her type. In fact she constantly assures me that nobody is her type - except me. Do I believe her? Abjectly so.

The little one who kept us awake for much of the night has what you might call a winning personality. He has quite won our hearts and minds. Like the other children who stay with us he has a severe disability and not much capacity to express clearly what his needs are or how urgent. And yet he is subtle in his manipulation of us. His gift is to be objectionable in a perfectly adorable way. We never lose patience with him. Maybe this is what 'in love' means.

UN believable

Thanks again to Norm,

" . . . here's a passage from Gordon Brown's letter to the Liberal Democrat leader, on Britain's continuing obligations in Iraq:

We are there at the express invitation of the Iraqi Government, implementing a UN mandate renewed last November in UNSCR 1723.

We, together with the rest of the international community, have undertaken to support the country's political and economic development through the UN-led International Compact for Iraq.

Remember when lack of UN authorization was given as amongst the reasons pulling thousands of people on to the streets in protest against the military intervention in Iraq? Me too."

Sunday, August 26, 2007


Norm comments on words out of context.

"I have in mind the time Winnie Mandela said 'with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country [South Africa]'. The endorsement of the barbaric practice of necklacing that the remark appeared to be didn't show her in an especially good light, but she came back by saying her words had been taken out of context. It's the best example I can remember of people using this defence without going on to explain how the context would give the offending words a more benign meaning."

Andrew Anthony cites another example in today's Observer:

"No one loves the kuffaar! Not a single person here from the Muslims loves the kuffaar. Whether those kuffaar are from the UK or from the US. We love the people of Islam and we hate the people of kuffaar. We hate the kuffaar!"

What context, he asks, could make these words 'acceptable or reasonable'? They're taken from Channel 4's documentary Undercover Mosque where a radical Muslim preacher includes them in his sermon and later accuses the programme makers of quoting them out of context. He was reading someone else's words.

But was not the Pope accused of bigotry and racism when quoting a fourteenth century Byzantine emperor's unfavourable remarks about Mohammed? And were not Muslims infuriated by the publication of 'The Satanic Verses'? Would they not have been even more incensed if it had been quoted 'in context' by a Christian preacher?

Is sex dirty?

Andrew Brown defends Augustine.

"I am always surprised that people misunderstand — for example — original sin as being a doctrine that sex is dirty. But when Augustine thought it was transmitted at the moment of conception, I don’t think he meant that we wouldn’t get it if our parents didn’t fuck; or, if he did, he shouldn’t have. He meant, surely, something much more like one of the central insights of Darwinism: that individual life necessarily involves differential survival, failure, great pain, and injustice. Conception in that sense is important as the moment of individuation, not the one connected to fucking. Otherwise, identical twins would have identical sins."

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Global Warming

When Freeman Dyson, professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton thinks this, whatever is the man on the Clapham omnibus to make of it?

Here are a few excerpts from his recent contribution to Edge.

. . . all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated. Here I am
opposing the holy brotherhood of climate model experts and the crowd of deluded
citizens who believe the numbers predicted by the computer models.

There is no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the
warming is not global.
. . . the problems are grossly exaggerated.

When I listen to the public debates about climate change, I am impressed by
the enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations and the
superficiality of our theories. Many of the basic processes of planetary ecology
are poorly understood. They must be better understood before we can reach an
accurate diagnosis of the present condition of our planet. When we are trying to
take care of a planet, just as when we are taking care of a human patient,
diseases must be diagnosed before they can be cured. We need to observe and
measure what is going on in the biosphere, rather than relying on computer

Friday, August 17, 2007

Mr Eugenides

In his Normblog profile Mr Eugenides makes a serious comment about the UN.

What would you do with the UN? > I'd specify minimum entry criteria; if you hang homosexuals, perform chemical experiments on dissidents, or attempt to wipe out chunks of your citizenry based on their religion or ethnic background, you'd be out. How this organization retains the confidence of so many people is an utter mystery to me.

He then makes two of the funniest replies to these questions I have read.

Do you think you could ever be married to, or in a long-term relationship with, someone with radically different political views from your own? > If Angelina Jolie handcuffed me to a bed and started listing the merits of a national ID database, I would listen. I'm a fundamentally fair-minded person.

How, if at all, would you change your life were you suddenly to win or inherit an enormously large sum of money? > I'd buy a private island in international waters, construct a giant arena inside a hollowed-out volcano, and make Patricia Hewitt and Polly Toynbee fight to the death with rusty tridents and rolled-up copies of The Guardian. This is not a joke.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Worried about Irving

From normblog:

Morty visits Dr Saul, the veterinarian, and says, 'My dog has a problem.'

Dr Saul says, 'So tell me about the dog and the problem.'

'It's a Jewish dog. His name is Irving and he can talk,' says Morty.

'He can talk?' the doubting doctor asks.

'Watch this.' Morty points to the dog and commands: 'Irving - Fetch!'

Irving, the dog, begins to walk toward the door, then turns around and says...

'So why are you talking to me like that? You always order me around like I'm nothing. And you only call me when you want something. And then you make me sleep on the floor, with my arthritis. You give me this fahkahkta food with all the salt and fat, and you tell me it's a special diet. It tastes like dreck! YOU should eat it yourself! And do you ever take me for a decent walk? NO, it's out of the house, a short pish, and right back home. Maybe if I could stretch out a little, the sciatica wouldn't kill me so much! I should roll over and play dead for real for all you care!'

Dr Saul is amazed, 'This is remarkable! What could be the problem?'

Morty says, 'He has a hearing problem! I said "Fetch", not "Kvetch"'.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Heated Debate

For over ten years I was prescribed one of the infamous benzodiazepines (Ativan) as treatment for serious anxiety and panic attacks. It always seemed to me that I had freely agreed to the treatment, and that I chose to continue with it. I myself ordered the repeat prescriptions. Although I was warned that I might become dangerously addicted, I never exceeded the specified dose, and, before coming off them, I had voluntarily reduced my intake by gradual withdrawal. When the time came to stop the medication I was again warned that my symptoms would probably be as severe as those associated with withdrawal from heroin. I ceased treatment with no obvious adverse side-effects whatsoever.

Although I am naturally more sympathetic to registered addicts than Policeman's Blog seems to be, I do think he has a point.

I’ve long suspected that heroin addiction may not be as bad as all that. Probably because all the heroin addicts I meet are pathetic losers who would be just as pathetic if they weren’t addicted to drugs. It all strikes me as something of a winge, “Oh, the thing is officer, I just want the help.” “I started taking heroin when a close family friend died.” “I’m not on heroin any more, I’m on a ‘scrip, so I don’t know why I stole the DVD.”

When you compare the worries a heroin addict has (getting a fix, are there any more hot chocolate maxpacks in custody) to the concerns of non-addicted taxpayers (can I pay the mortgage this month, where are my kids, has the wife crashed the car, will I get the sack from work) there doesn’t seem to be any comparison.

The crime argument is even less compelling, “Heroin is so addictive, I have to mug old ladies.” Nonsense. As I look at the addicts coming into custody from the local shopping centre, I cannot believe that the absence of heroin would magically turn them into productive (or failing that, honest) people.

I’ve always had a nagging doubt that everything we get told about addiction is a lie and that heroin addicts get a free ride from honest people who’ve been conned into being sympathetic by the legal and medical establishment.

But pets can wreck relationships

A warning to all love-sick pet owners from Ian Sample.

Over-indulging pets can spell disaster for singletons hoping to attract a new partner, according to a nationwide survey of attitudes to pet ownership.

Questionnaires completed online by more than 200,000 people revealed that the type of pet a person owned, the way they treated it and the number they owned had a dramatic impact on how appealing they were as a future partner.

Women were particularly unimpressed with men who owned spiders, with 48% admitting to being repelled at the prospect. Men were turned off by partners who pampered pets, spending more than £100 a week on accessories and upkeep. One in four men said they would not date a woman with two or more cats and a third of women said they would avoid men who let cats sleep on their pillows.

One quarter of men and women questioned said that if push came to shove, for example if a new partner was unbearably allergic to their pet, they would still choose to keep the pet.

The survey was conducted between YouGov and a dating agency, Parship, to investigate the potential pitfalls of having pets as surrogate partners. Victoria Lukats, a psychiatrist at Sussex Partnership NHS trust in Brighton, who was involved in the survey, said: "The image of Paris Hilton and her pampered pets is one that seems to send most men running for the hills."


The philosopher Peter Singer has coined the word ‘speciesism’ to describe a prejudice or attitude of bias towards the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species. The fundamental objections to speciesism apply equally to racism and sexism.

Now many philosophers have proposed the principle of equal consideration of interests, in some form or other, as a basic moral principle; but not many of them have recognized that this principle applies to members of other species as well as to our own. Jeremy Bentham was one of the few who did realize this. In a forward-looking passage, written at a time when black slaves in the British dominions were still being treated much as we now treat nonhuman animals, Bentham wrote:

The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights, which never could have been witholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason, nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

Here Bentham points to the capacity for suffering as the vital characteristic that gives a being the right to equal consideration. The capacity for suffering—or more strictly, for suffering and/or enjoyment or happiness—is not just another characteristic like the capacity for language, or for higher mathematics. The capacity for suffering and enjoying things is a prerequisite for having any interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in any meaningful way. It would be nonsense to say that it was not in the interests of a stone to be kicked along the road by a schoolboy. A stone does not have interests because it cannot suffer. Nothing that we can do to it could possibly make any difference to its welfare. A mouse, on the other hand, does have an interest in not being tormented, because it will suffer if it is.

The point is, if a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering seriously. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering—in so far as rough comparisons can be made—of any other being. If a being is not capable of suffering, or of experiencing enjoyment or happiness, there is nothing to be taken into account. This is why the limit of sentience (using the term as shorthand for the capacity to suffer or experience enjoyment or happiness) is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others.

The racist violates the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of his own race, when there is a clash between such interests and the interests of those of another race. Similarly the speciesist allows the interests of his own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is the same in each case.

Except that most human beings are speciesists

For the great majority of human beings, especially in urban, industrialized societies, the most direct form of contact with members of other species is at mealtimes: we eat them. In doing so we treat them purely as means to our ends. We regard their life and well-being as subordinate to our taste for a particular kind of dish. I say "taste" deliberately because it is purely a matter of pleasing our palate. There can be no defense of eating flesh in terms of satisfying nutritional needs, since it has been established beyond doubt that we could satisfy our need for protein and other essential nutrients far more efficiently with a diet that replaced animal flesh by soy beans, or products derived from soy beans, and other high-protein vegetable products.

It is not merely the act of killing that indicates what we are ready to do to other species in order to gratify our tastes. The suffering we inflict on the animals while they are alive is perhaps an even clearer indication of our speciesism than the fact that we are prepared to kill them. In order to have meat on the table at a price that people can afford, our society tolerates methods of meat production that confine sentient animals in cramped, unsuitable conditions for the entire durations of their lives. Animals are treated like machines that convert fodder into flesh, and any innovation that results in a higher "conversion ratio" is liable to be adopted. As one authority on the subject has said, "cruelty is acknowledged only when profitability ceases."

Since, as l have said, none of these practices cater for anything more than our pleasures of taste, our practice of rearing and killing other animals in order to eat them is a clear instance of the sacrifice of the most important interests of other beings in order to satisfy trivial interests of our own. I do not myself think there is any other way to avoid speciesism but to stop this practice. It may be difficult, but it is no more difficult than it would have been say for a white slaveholder to go against the traditions of his society and free his slaves: if we do not change our dietary habits, how can we censure those slaveholders who would not change their own way of living? There is a related but not identical argument to be had about animal experiments, another major form of speciesism in our society.

Special Needs

Here are four little people that my wife and I help to look after every week. They come to us from their homes or straight from school to give their hard-pressed parents, mostly single mums, a much needed break. We are put in touch and supported by our local Children's Services. They are variously diagnosed as having neurological and/or autistic spectrum disorders.

One of the differences between these and so-called normal kids is that it's harder to take them or their development for granted. They are always surprising us. Getting to know them calls for a bit more patience and effort, but, believe me, they're worth it. Aren't we all?

Friday, August 10, 2007

Untimely harvest

A transplant surgeon in California had been accused of hastening the death of a severely disabled 25 year old patient in order to harvest his organs. He is said to have ordered far above the normal doses of pain-killing and sedative drugs, and even performed a sterilisation procedure normally carried out after death. In spite of this the patient survived for more than seven hours after being removed from life support when the time limit for organs to remain viable is only 30 minutes. He was returned to intensive care, where he died the next morning.

The case raises so many serious issues. Apart from the apparent illegality of a transplant surgeon being involved in the treatment of a potential organ donor, it also highlights the extraordinary pressure under which such work is done. Clearly the most stringent rules must be enforced to protect the vital needs of patients, especially where, as in this case, the donor's quality of life may be doubted. It also suggests to me that the clamour for a change in the law which would require that a person opt-out of organ donation rather than, as presently, opt-in, might not be in the best interests of the most vulnerable.

Equal Rights

I have been outlining a history of the animal liberation movement; I’d like now to turn to the idea of equal rights that underpins it.

The idea that animals could be said to have rights at all was once used to parody the case for women’s rights. When in 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft published her ‘Vindication of the Rights of Woman’, her views were widely regarded as absurd. They were ridiculed in an anonymous publication entitled 'A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes'. The author of this satire, Thomas Taylor, a distinguished Cambridge philosopher, challenged Wollstonecraft's arguments by showing that they could be carried one stage further. If they could be applied to women, why should they not also be applied to dogs, cats, and horses? And given that the idea that such creatures should have rights was obviously ridiculous, the idea of women’s rights must plainly be just as silly.

Now on the face of it the case for equality between men and women cannot validly be extended to nonhuman animals. Take, for instance, the right to vote. It obviously applies to women, because, it can be argued, women are just as capable of making rational decisions as men are. Dogs, on the other hand, are incapable of making sense of voting, so they cannot have the right to vote. There are many other obvious ways in which men and women resemble each other closely, while humans and other animals differ greatly. So, it might be said, men and women are similar beings and should have equal rights, while humans and non humans are different and should not have equal rights.

But, as well as similarities, their are differences between men and women that are equally undeniable, and the most strident supporters of Women's Liberation are prepared to admit that these differences may give rise to different rights. Many feminists, for example, hold that women have the right to an abortion on request. It does not follow that since these same people are campaigning for equality between men and women they must support the right of men to have abortions too. Since a man cannot have an abortion, it is meaningless to talk of his right to have one. Since a pig can't vote, it is meaningless to talk of its right to vote. There is no reason why either Women's Liberation or Animal Liberation should get involved in such nonsense. The extension of the basic principle of equality from one group to another does not imply that we must treat both groups in exactly the same way, or grant exactly the same rights to both groups

When we say that all human beings, whatever their race, creed, or sex, are equal, what then is it that we are asserting? Those who wish to defend an unequal society have often pointed out that by whatever test we choose, it simply is not true that all humans are equal. Like it or not, we must face the fact that humans come in different shapes and sizes; they come with differing moral capacities, differing intellectual abilities, differing amounts of benevolent feeling and sensitivity to the needs of others, differing abilities to communicate effectively, and differing capacities to experience pleasure and pain. In short, if the demand for equal treatment were based on the actual equality of all human beings, we would have to stop demanding equality. It would be an unjustifiable demand.

The claim to equality that I am making here does not depend on intelligence, moral capacity, physical strength, or any such factual matters. Equality is not an assertion of fact, but a moral ideal. There is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to satisfying their needs and interests. The principle of the equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans: it is a prescription of how we should treat people.

Jeremy Bentham incorporated the essential basis of moral equality into his utilitarian system of ethics in the formula: "Each to count for one and none for more than one." In other words, the interests of every being affected by an action are to be taken into account and given the same weight as the like interests of any other being. A later utilitarian, Henry Sidgwick, put the point in this way: "The good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view (if I may say so) of the Universe, than the good of any other.'' More recently, the leading figures in contemporary moral philosophy have shown a great deal of agreement in specifying as a fundamental presupposition of their moral theories some similar requirement which operates so as to give everyone's interests equal consideration—although they can’t seem to agree on how this requirement is best formulated.

It is an implication of this principle of equality that our concern for others ought not to depend on what they are like, or what abilities they possess—although precisely what this concern requires us to do may vary according to the characteristics of those affected by what we do. It is on this basis that the case against racism and the case against sexism must both ultimately rest; and it is in accordance with this principle that discrimination against non-humans is also to be condemned. If we agree that possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his own ends, should we not also agree that the superior intelligence of humans does not entitle them to exploit non humans?

Mother Love

As someone whose mother didn't possess a phone, I have never been in this position.

A man calls his mother in Florida. 'Mom, how are you?'

'Not too good,' says the mother. 'I've been very weak.'

The son says, 'Why are you so weak?'

She says, 'Because I haven't eaten in 38 days.'

The man says, 'That's terrible. Why haven't you eaten in 38 days?'

The mother answers, 'Because I didn't want my mouth filled with food if you called.'

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Double Standards

I loved my Dad dearly, but I grew up thinking that anti-semitism was much more widespread than it turned out to be. He was deeply suspicious, to put it mildly, of Jewish influence, which he saw in every corner of the business, media, and political worlds. Quite where he got this prejudice from, and what fuelled it, I don't know, but other members of his family that I've since spoken to are as puzzled by this as I am. Seemingly he didn't get it from them.

Although one of my first girlfriends at primary school was Jewish, as was my best (boy)friend at grammar school, and in spite of the known semitic background of JC himself, I've always thought that there must be something kind of 'wrong' about Jews and Israel. This and my staunchly Labour politics, and the generally soft left liberal position I've taken on most things, have led to my fairly half-baked view that Israel is mainly to blame for the suffering of the largely innocent and passive Palestinians.

Lately I have come to a very different conclusion, and everywhere I look I am beset by double standards.

Judeosphere offers us a list.

(1) Christian fundamentalists who support Israel are religious fanatics; Jewish fundamentalists who oppose Zionism are individuals of deep religious and moral conviction.

(2) Comparing Israelis to Nazis is a poignant political statement; comparing Saddam Hussein and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler is a gross distortion of history with the intent of demonizing foreign leaders and justifying imperialist military campaigns.

(3) Palestinian nationalism reflects the inherent right of all people to self-determination; Jewish nationalism is an archaic form of tribalism and racial supremacy.

(4) Criticizing academics that legitimize hateful stereotypes of African-Americans and Arab-Americans is a proper response from minority groups who oppose racism; criticizing academics that legitimize hateful stereotypes of Jewish-Americans is an attempt to stifle free speech.

(5) Iran has the right under international law to pursue nuclear power for peaceful purposes; any other country that pursues nuclear power is endangering the environment and increasing the risk of nuclear proliferation.

(6) Jews who cite the lessons of the Holocaust as a rationale for opposing Israel are moralists; Jews who cite the lessons of the Holocaust as a rationale for opposing authoritarian regimes in places like Yugoslavia and Iraq are neocon warmongers.

(7) Israeli policies are said to be tantamount to “genocide”; accusations of genocide in Darfur are a Zionist plot to divide the Muslim community.

(8) The war on terrorism is driven by Islamophobia; the “new anti-semitism” is a myth created to deflect legitimate criticism of Israel.

(9) Efforts to oppose anti-semitism on college campuses undermine academic freedom; academic boycotts against Israel infringe upon academic freedom but serve a greater good.

(10) Burning flags with Muslim symbols is desecration, burning the Israeli flag and the Star of David is political protest.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Animal Welfare in the 19th Century

The intellectual progress made in the 18th century was followed, in the 19th century, by some practical improvements in the conditions of animals.

A British parliamentary bill was introduced in an attempt to prohibit the ‘sport’ of bull-baiting. It was opposed on the grounds that conduct which injures only an animal cannot possibly be worth legislating about. As the Times editorial thundered, in terms which may remind you of a more recent debate, Tyranny? ‘Whatever meddles with the private personal disposition of man’s time or property is tyranny.’

In 1821 an MP, Richard Martin, proposed a law to prevent the ill-treatment of horses. This too failed, but the following year Martin succeeded with a bill that made it an offence wantonly to mistreat certain domestic animals. For the very first time, cruelty to animals was a punishable offence, though the bill had to be framed so that it resembled a measure to protect private property for the benefit of the owner, rather than to protect the animals themselves. But, however limited the scope of the new law, it was not long before Martin, together with other notable humanitarians, formed the RSPCA in order to gather evidence and bring prosecutions.

Twenty years before the publication of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote these words in his diary: ‘Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity. More humble and, I believe, true, to consider him created from animals.’ Twenty years later he published the evidence on which this judgement was based. Even then he was careful not to draw too much attention to the way his findings could be applied to humans for fear that this would add to popular prejudices against him. It was only in The Descent of Man, thirteen years later still, that this aspect of his thought was made explicit.

Human beings now knew that they were not the special creation of God as previously understood, but animals themselves. Moreover the differences between us and other animals were now seen to be not so great, and the similarity not just physical.

The new ideas were winning acceptance, but many more battles lay ahead, and sadly, in spite of these insights, we probably inflict more pain on animals now than at any other time in history.

So why? Why is it that so many people stop short of the point at which they would challenge, let alone change, their deeply ingrained attitudes and their deep attachment to the habit of eating the flesh of other animals? It’s as if, just at the point when change is called for, and the argument seems overwhelming, a qualification is made, or a new consideration is introduced. And for this reason, ours has been called the era of excuses.

A classic excuse is set out by William Paley. It is the Divine Excuse, or the appeal to scripture. ‘Some excuse seems necessary’, he wrote, ‘for the pain and loss which we occasion to brutes . . for our pleasure or convenience. . it would be difficult to defend this right by any argument . . we are beholden for it to the permission recorded in scripture.’

Lord Chesterfield appealed to Nature and the way that the strong must always prey on the weak.

Benjamin Franklin cited the same principle.

Thomas Arnold found the whole subject such a painful mystery that, as he said, ‘I dare not approach it’.

The philosopher, Schopenhauer, knew too much of eastern ways to deny that humans can exist without killing, but, without further explanation, insisted that animal food is necessary for survival ‘in the north’. He did however propose that the death of the animal should be made easier by the use of chloroform. What neither he nor other sympathetic philosophers seems to have considered is that it is one thing to put down a single creature lovingly, gently and painlessly, but a very different and necessarily painful matter to rear and slaughter animals on a commercial basis.

As for Darwin, having demolished the intellectual foundations of earlier attitudes to animals, he continued to maintain those same attitudes, to dine on the flesh of the beings he said were capable of love, memory, curiosity, reason, and sympathy for each other; and he refused to sign a petition urging the RSPCA to press for control of animal experiments. TH Huxley, Darwin’s greatest champion, maintained the seeming contradiction, that to speak of the relation between man and the brutes is to speak of both a vast gulf and an essential oneness.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Bombay Slums

Watching a TV documentary with scenes of extreme poverty in a part of Bombay, set against an India which is surprisingly modern, western and affluent, caused me to reflect on how intractable such conditions are in a single nation, and how vain is the hope that we can make poverty history in the wider world.

Meanwhile, back in the Guardian, social worker Alison Napier explains why she doesn't have to bring the good name of her employers into disrepute, and why need should sometimes trump other considerations:

"I entered social work in 1993 with my eyes open, knowing full well that this is a solid, well-intentioned job rather than a radical one. We try to provide care to vulnerable people, within the constraints of a local authority budget. Straightforward enough thus far. So why have I become so deeply ashamed of my job and of my employer that I am considering leaving a field of work that I have enjoyed for so long?

"Mrs Stewart has a council home-help who comes in for half an hour, seven mornings a week. She is in her 80s, lives alone, and finds it hard to get dressed and washed in the mornings because of stiffness, angina and anxiety, so the carer helps her to have a shower and dress.

"Mrs Stewart rang me last week and left a message saying it was urgent that I phone her. I phoned. "They've said I can't have my home-help at the weekends any more. What will I do? I'll have to stay in bed." I listened. Then she said: "Oh I'll just cancel the whole lot. I'm a bother to everyone. I'll just cancel the lot and stay in bed."

"No don't do that," I replied. "See if the home-help will work privately for you. Then write to your local councillor and your MP."

"For 15 years, Mrs Stewart herself was a carer. She saved the council thousands and thousands of pounds by taking on caring responsibilities. Now she is the one who needs some care. But the UK, the fourth richest country in the world, has told her that her needs are too great - or too unimportant - to be met from the budget......If Britain cannot provide for the most vulnerable people, and we condone the constant shifting of the goalposts, such as the definition of "vulnerable", then we should all be deeply ashamed. I know I am. And if I look around at all the wealth in the UK and can still look someone straight in the eye and tell them that their care package is to be cut back due to lack of funds, then I have betrayed every single one of the principles and ideals that brought me into this job in the first place.

"There is a clause in my contract that states I must not bring the good name of my employers into "disrepute". My employers may consider that I am doing just that. To which I can only reply: "No. You are managing to do that all by yourselves."

The Humanist Perspective

The new humanism that arose at the time of the Renaissance turned out to be just that, humanism, not to be confused with humanitarianism, which is a commitment to acting humanely. The emphasis was now on man’s uniqueness, his free will, human potential and dignity. It is summed up in the phrase, ‘man is the measure of all things’, and it left non-humans as far behind as they had ever been.

Around this time, however, we do notice the first genuine dissenters. Leonardo da Vinci was teased by his friends for being so concerned about the sufferings of animals that he became a vegetarian. The notion was gaining ground that cruelty to animals was wrong in itself, quite apart from its tendency to lead to cruelty to human beings. Intellectual conditions seemed to be in favour of change. Things could only get better. Then along came Descartes.

Descartes taught that all material things are governed by the rules of mechanics, rather like a clock. Human beings are the exception in that they, we, are the only physical beings that also have a soul, a consciousness, specially created by God, which survives the decomposition of the body. Animals do not have a soul; that is, they do not have consciousness. They are mere machines, automata. They experience neither pleasure nor pain, nor anything else. The essential difference between an animal and a clock is that whereas a clock is a machine made by man, animals are infinitely more complex machines, made by God.

This account of what consciousness is neatly resolved two problems for Descartes. On the one hand it maintained belief in life after death which he thought was necessary to discourage immoral conduct. At the same time the belief that animals were without consciousness and feeling eliminated the ancient and vexing puzzle of why a just God would allow animals to suffer at all. The answer was, He wouldn’t, and they don’t.

For Descartes the doctrine had another fortunate result. The practice of experimenting on live animals was becoming widespread in Europe. As there were no anaesthetics, the animals being experimented upon appeared to be in extreme pain and distress. Descartes’ theory, if true, meant that he and other physiologists need have no qualms about dissecting live animals, because, as they were no more than machines, they could have no feelings and therefore could not suffer.

The outlook for non-humans could hardly have been worse. Curiously though it was these same experiments that revealed a remarkable similarity between the inner-workings of our human bodies and the bodies of those animals being experimented on. So alike were they that Voltaire was moved to ask whether Nature or God could possibly have arranged for animals to have all the organs necessary for feeling ‘to the end that they may not feel’? He condemned what he called the ‘barbarous custom of supporting ourselves upon the flesh and blood of beings that are like ourselves’.

Among others who contributed to the debate, were Rousseau who attacked the use of animals for food as unnatural, unnecessary, bloody murder; and the philosopher David Hume who made the more moderate claim that although we are entitled to use animals, we ought to do so gently. Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, considered animals as no more than a means to an end, the end being man. One answer to Kant came in the writings of Jeremy Bentham, of whom more later.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Other Side

A monk on his journey home comes to the banks of a wide river. Staring hopelessly at the great obstacle in front of him, he ponders for hours on just how to cross such a wide barrier.

Just as he is to give up his journey, he sees a great teacher on the other side of the river. The monk yells over to the teacher, "Oh Master, can you tell me how to get to the other side of this river?"

The teacher ponders for a moment, looks up and down the river and yells back, "You are already on the other side."

More Early Christian Thinking

There are just one or two Christian figures, like John Chrysostom and Francis of Assisi, who are known to have shown compassion and concern for non-human creatures. On one occasion a disciple of Francis is said to have cut a trotter off a living pig in order to give it to a sick companion. According to the narrator, Francis rebuked the disciple, not for being cruel to the pig, but for damaging the property of the pig owner! It appears that Francis once begged the emperor to issue an edict prohibiting anyone from catching or imprisoning ‘my sisters the larks’. Legend also tells of how he preached to the birds. But it was not only living creatures that Francis addressed as his sisters: sun, moon, wind, and fire were all brothers and sisters to him, and he delighted in rocks, flowers and trees with a kind of ecstasy. What he doesn’t seem to have appreciated is what we might regard as the essential difference between sentient creatures and others. Neither did Francis’ love for birds lead him or his friars to give up eating them.

If any single writer may be taken as representative of Christian philosophy before the Reformation, and Catholic philosophy to this day, it is Thomas Aquinas. Commenting on Genesis, he wrote, ‘It is lawful both to take life from plants for the use of animals, and from animals for the use of men.’ But granted that man may kill other animals for food, are there perhaps other things that he may not do to them? Would it be wrong to make animals suffer, or at least make them suffer unnecessarily?

Aquinas is not able to answer such questions. He divides sins into those against God, those against oneself, and those against one’s neighbour, that is other human beings. There is simply no category of sins against non-humans. Nor even is it charitable to be kind to them, for charity does not extend to irrational creatures. It follows that we cannot lovingly give food to a turkey because it is hungry, but only if we think of it as someone’s Christmas dinner, so that by feeding it, we are being charitable to them. Aquinas, in his writings, allows only one good reason to condemn cruelty to animals, namely that it may lead to cruelty to human beings.

Aquinas’ influence has never waned, and as late as the 19th century, Pope Pius IX refused to allow a society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to be established in Rome, on the grounds that to grant permission would imply, wrongly, that human beings have duties to the lower creatures.