Monday, October 21, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- I'm Going to Eat Your Face!

Question 7 

Levinas is reluctant to include animals as "beings with faces" . Do you agree that ethics can be extended to animals only as a secondary form, more patterned after ethics towards humans? Or should ethics toward animals be a primary from of ethics? Can Levinas's own theory be redesigned to include animals? 

The Bible says we have dominion over other animals and this has usually been interpreted to mean we can do with them whatever we wish. Descartes said animals are only machines that have no feelings or language, or consciousness. Nietzsche acknowledged that we also were merely animals, but said that superior animals can kill and eat lesser animals. 

And so on through a number of philosophers. Slowly but surely, we have been seeing people begin to accept the idea that animals and we are much the same. This can be seen as an increase in the size of the circle of what we consider to be us as opposed to them. This, too, is one of my theme concepts and we have discussed it before. Human beings believe that those who are considered to be "us" are better than those who we consider to be "them". This extends even to our fellow human beings. Prior to the opening of World War II, people knew that it was disrespectful and rude to refer to people from Japan as "Japs". They also knew it was disrespectful and rude to refer to people from Germany as "Krauts". Once the war began, however, these terms became the most commonly used, even in movies, newspapers and magazines, and by the US government.

This wasn't just people being angry. It was a deliberate choice by the media managers to develop propaganda to make Americans feel comfortable about bombing and killing those other human beings. By using these pejorative terms, the American people came think of them less as human and more as some sort of monsters. Levinas would say that we were denying those human beings their faces.

The question of whether animals have faces in the sense that Levinas intended is of great importance to those who believe in the animal rights movement. Scientifically, he is very correct. We humans do look into each others faces and this has powerful evolutionary impact upon our behavior and responses. I'm going to list a few examples below which shows the importance of the face to human psychology.

- When giving advice to people on how to avoid panhandlers, experts often say, "Don't look them in the eye." To do so is to make a contact, which is very difficult to break without feeling rude and emotionally troubled. You could say that once you look in person in the eyes, once you connect your face to their face, you have been hooked.

- Paleontologists have been known to use such expressions as the world's first face or the earliest face. This usually applies to very primitive creatures. It can even go back to the Cambrian era when we first find sea animals with a front to their bodies in which is contained a cluster of sense organs and the mouth. In other words, the first head with a face.

- Primatologists who study gorillas and chimpanzees in the wild very often refer to the profound impact upon their psyches that is made when they first are close enough to the animals to actually look them in the eyes. Their moving descriptions demonstrate how deeply this act makes them feel that they are looking at a kind of primitive human being.

Of course, these are largely emotional reactions. That is exactly my point. Our emotions are part of the deepest section of our brain. They are not generally controlled by our higher, intellectual functions. We feel at our deepest level that anything with a face is similar to us.

For the same reason we see faces everywhere. We are born with the ability to recognize a human face and to seek it out. So it is not surprising that we see faces on clouds, on burnt pieces of toast, on random patterns of water splashed against the ground, and just about everywhere else. To a human being the face is one of the most basic and significant marks of humanity.

Levinas, a survivor of the Holocaust, did not simply grow to hate his Nazi abusers, but instead saw that they were flawed because they were unable to recognize the humanity of their victims. Having seen these horrors, he declared no one should ever suffer this way again. Human beings needed to recognize their fellow human beings as inherently having some level of dignity and some basic rights, no matter how debased or vile they are. No matter how debased or vile either the abusers or the victims are!

It has often been said, even during the days when slavery still ruled over much of America, that the act of holding other human beings in bondage has a bad effect on the masters as well as upon the slaves. You cannot commit such a despicable act, you cannot so degrade your fellow humans without it having a brutalizing effect upon your own character.

Even the monsters of society must be recognized as having a few basic rights in spite of their own abuse of the rights of others. This is what keeps us safe from moving down the path which they have already travelled.

And now to go back to the paleontologists and the original question. Yes, our face is a derived characteristic which we inherited from our ancestors going back many hundreds of millions of years to the Cambrian explosion. If everything we have, if everything we are, is inherited and developed from our ancestors, then those ancestors must have had a more primitive version of what we now possess.

The book, "Your Inner Fish", points out how much of our human body plan is based upon the first fish that came into existence back in the Cambrian. This includes our brain, which is the center of our own existence. As I pointed out to you before, if we feel pain, it is because animals felt pain before us. If we feel love, it is because animals felt love before us. If we have a sense of morality, it is because animals have had a sense of morality before us.

It follows that if we humans have an innate dignity and innate rights, animals also have these things. Our dignity and our rights evolved from the more primitive levels of dignity and rights which existed in animals. We must continue to expand our circle of what we consider to be us. And it should expand to include animals.

I have pointed out in the previous communications that children who abuse animals grow up to abuse other people. It is also true that adults who abuse animals often abuse people. Like the slaveholder, allowing ourselves to be cruel and brutal to others, even to animals, makes us even more cruel. There's a positive feedback loop at work here. The more badly we behave toward others, the less we are able to understand how wrong it is to so.

Extending the same basic dignity and rights to animals that we do to human beings does not mean giving them exactly the same dignity and rights. They are lesser creatures than we. Their levels of dignity and rights are less than ours. Nevertheless, they do exist and should be respected.

This is so for two reasons. First, as I have already stated, being cruel to animals strengthens our tendency to be cruel and weakens our sense of morality. Once we begin walking this path, the path becomes easier and easier to tread. This is just like a path which at first is no different from any other part of forest, yet the more it is walked upon, the more flattened and plant free it becomes.

Cruelty and indifference to the suffering of others are easily habituated patterns. Once they form into a habit, it is very hard to break it. 

This would form a secondary cause to treat animals well. It derives from the need to treat humans well and from the need to protect ourselves from self-destructive habits.

The second reason is that, if you accept my statement that animals have rights and dignity, it follows that those rights and dignity should be respected. Animals are incapable of doing so. Their intellects exist, but are not as well developed as ours. They operate primarily upon a basis of instinct. but that is not an excuse for us to do so. We do have higher intellectual facilities and we are mandated to use them or accept responsibility for having failed to do so.

This is a primary reason for giving animals respect and dignity.

Let me end by harkening back to something else I said in previous posts (I know that's getting wearisome, but I just can't help myself), recently scientists served guests the first meal of lab grown meat. It resembled ground hamburger and was based upon beef. The cells certainly had been alive, but there never was an animal from which that meat was taken. There was no life, no dignity, no rights. There was only meat. Meat without a brain, meat without nerves, meat that could sense nothing.

Reports were that it wasn't identical to hamburger but was surprisingly similar. I predicted before and I predict again that the day will come when the idea of killing an animal for food will be utterly horrifying. Nevertheless, we will continue to eat meat. That is because we will grow that meat in a lab, in a vat. There will never be a living animal which will have to suffer so that we can feast.

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