Wednesday, October 27, 2010

John Rember, "Bottleneck Ethics"

 "Bottleneck Ethics"
by John Rember

"Lately I’ve been reading Peter Singer, a bioethicist and philosopher who argues, along with a good many pet owners, that animals are sentient and therefore eligible for personhood. But once you accept animals as persons, Singer tests your commitment to the idea. Singer says humans should become vegans, given that animals act like unhappy and terrified sentient beings as they’re being herded into slaughterhouses. It’s reasonable to assume that it causes more suffering for animal-persons to give their lives to become meat than it does for human-persons to quit eating meat.

In other essays, Singer looks at people who live a life of plenty in a world where other people starve. You might argue that animals aren’t people, but it’s more difficult to argue that people aren’t people. Singer suggests a moral failure occurs when forty dollars buys a bottle of wine instead of feeding three or four hungry Ugandan children for a month. I’m not going to take on Peter Singer logically or morally. That’s Bambi versus Godzilla territory. But there is utility in asking if Peter Singer isn’t a symptom of fossil fuel. In blunt terms, decrying speciesism is possible on a full stomach. Get hungry, and animals start looking like — well, animals. Tasty animals.

I’ve just come back from a trip to the Boise Costco, and from the looks of the people in its aisles, it’s going to be a long time before hunger will trump ethics in Idaho. But there are famines occurring in other places in the world right now, and not from any failure of the free market. Some communities just can’t sustain a Costco. Furthermore, population biologists looking at the imminent end of cheap oil and fertilizer forecast the famine deaths of six out of every seven humans by 2050.

The murder of six million European Jews has been the accepted benchmark for evil for the last sixty-five years, but these projected 21st century deaths will be a thousand times more evil. It’s a function of arithmetic. Or so Peter Singer would argue, if I read him right. Those six billion are sentient beings, he would say, able to anticipate their deaths and suffer all the more as they starve. As for guilt, he’s just trying to point out the consequences of people’s actions. In the end, it matters little whether you’re an SS colonel ordering Jews into a gas chamber or a wealthy American choosing to have three or five or nine children in a world already overgrazed by voracious consumers.

Peter Singer may be correct, but just as his arguments haven’t produced a world of sexually abstinent vegans, he won’t convince scientific-technological civilization that it needs to concern itself with sentience, personhood, and suffering. So the slaughter of the weak by the strong will continue. Famine and disease and borders will be used as weapons of war. The lines we draw between ourselves and animals so we can eat them will be drawn between groups of humans. It’s lucky for Peter Singer that he looks tough and stringy in his author’s photo, and that the look on his face suggests that he wouldn’t taste anything like chicken.
In Terry Gilliam’s totalitarian horror movie "Brazil," a giant robot samurai appears between scenes of the movie. It’s huge, hollow, and unkillable. For all I know, Terry Gilliam put it there only because he likes robots, and samurais, and the fact that tricks of light and lenses can make cute little puppets into terrifying monsters on the screen. But I came away from the movie convinced that the samurai was Gilliam’s attempt to portray the incarnation of the soullessness of scientific-technological civilization. Behind governments, corporations, militaries, and universities lies this empty thing with steely death at its core. The only problem: it appears to be sentient, and is thus eligible for personhood.

You can glimpse a perverse kind of sentience behind the BP oil spill, behind the meaningless lives spent in cubicles, behind the deadly tedium of faculty meetings, in the willingness of a whole country to send soldiers back to its wars for deployment after deployment, until they come home maimed and mad. Toward the end of the movie, the hero destroys the giant robot samurai, but that turns out to be the last flickering fantasy in the hero’s mind as he is being tortured to death. And yet scientific-technological civilization — up to now — appears to have proceeded according to the greatest good for the greatest number, and good in Peter Singer’s universe is defined as giving persons what they want. If we limit personhood to humans, our civilization has produced the greatest number of persons, and they’ve got the goods.

Other things I’m old enough to remember: Bull Connor unleashing dogs on civil-rights protestors. Altamont. The Vietnam War. The assassinations. Nerve gas. Watergate. Whip Inflation Now. The Yom Kippur War. Iran-Contra. Anthrax bombs. The disconnected grin of President Alzheimer. The well-connected grin of President Narcissus. The painted-on grin of President Bozo, chain-sawing brush on his Texas ranch in the moonlight. 9/11. The first Gulf War. Afghanistan. The second Gulf War. Al-Qaeda as an unavoidable excrescence of technology.

What sort of civilization it is that can take these lickings and keep on ticking? When I read forecasts of imminent financial doom or oil depletion or climate feedback loops, I recognize that the economists and engineers and scientists who have written the forecasts know what they’re talking about. I can’t argue with their logic, just like I can’t argue with Peter Singer’s logic. Everything I know about the Second Law of Thermodynamics says that civilization is approaching heat death in a variety of arenas, literal and metaphorical. But the giant robot samurai still moves along, crushing mountains under its feet, melting the planet down and rendering everything it touches into product. It consumes and it excretes and it grows, and in a weird empty way, thinks. Sometimes I think it is going to take a sharpened stake to its heart, except I’m past the idea that the thing has a heart. Maybe with a brain you don’t need a heart.

Lots of people think civilization will die when it hits the scarcities of petroleum, or coal, or potash. What will die is 19th century Western capitalism, which doesn’t mean that we won’t have 21th century Eastern capitalism and governments to go with it. I have noticed in the doomsday literature a striking emotional similarity between the sudden breakdown of industrial culture and Marx’s predicted end-of-capitalism/withering-away-of-the-state. We all know how post-socialist withering turned out: China.

The old Thomas Hobbes joke goes that it’s just the neighbors who are nasty, brutish, and short. But it might be time to dust off our copies of Leviathan, just to see how a brilliant mind conceived of social arrangements prior to industrial civilization. It turns out that Hobbes proposed — for those of us who remember the 20th century — a relatively benign totalitarianism. He didn’t think much of the human capacity for moral restraint, and he thought that in a situation of scarcity, an authoritarian state would be how you could keep neighbors from eating each other. He also proposed equality for all citizens of his state, and he defined citizens as those men who abided by the social contract. Western liberal democracies adopted many of Hobbes’s ideas. What we call the rule of law stands in the place of the Hobbesian benevolent sovereign, but it’s just as absolute if you get in its way.

Peter Singer has made a career of showing how the rule of law is full of unintended negative consequences. Laws evolve to harm the people they’re supposed to protect. Rules and regulations can crush moral endeavor. A creeping criminalization can cause citizens to lose personhood. Soft totalitarianism is still totalitarianism, and it’s only soft until you cross it. Singer says that if you really want to make things better, turn toward empathy, the reduction of suffering, individual moral choice, and asceticism. Avoid the free market, the commodification of the wild, consumption as a way of life, and destroying other peoples and ecologies in the name of spreading liberal democracy. All these add up to the state as the final authority on what and what isn’t a person. The consciousness and the conscience of the individual are less than zero in the equations of the state.

Still, I’m far less worried about the coercive power of Hobbes’s Leviathan than the coercive power of my neighbors. If they run out of food and their kids start dying of hunger, and all the horses and cows and deer and elk and ground squirrels have been eaten [we’re in the same climate zone as the Canadian Shield here in the mountains of Idaho], I would be more comfortable depending on the rule of law than on the empathy and asceticism of parents whose kids are starving.

Singer’s utilitarianism implies a vast effort to grow as many crops as possible to feed as many people as possible, portions to be determined by caloric need and total supply. Meat should not be eaten because, suffering aside, its production is an inefficient use of person food. The disadvantage of this scheme is that if a lack of petroleum means you only have one-seventh of the food you need, the same ethics dictate that everybody starves. Starvation eventually equals non-personhood. A Hobbesian pre-social contract state-of-nature implies cannibalism, war, ethnic cleansing, child soldiers, warlords, raiding parties, slavery, genocide, severe unemployment, hyperinflation and the hoarding of food. Oh. Wait.

A book I really have dusted off lately is Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer. Hoffer was writing in the late forties and early fifties, when the Nazi takeover of Europe was fresh in the collective memory. Hoffer analyzes the psychology of mass movements, and is concerned particularly with the effects such movements have on the individual. If Peter Singer presupposes an ethical individual inside every human being, Hoffer presupposes a slave in the same position. I simplify, but Hoffer suggests that most people don’t really like shouldering the burden of a self and will give it up to any movement that offers them power, tribal identity, and the sense of belonging to something greater than they are.

That’s why when I think of scientific-technological civilization facing energy and resource scarcity, I also think of mass movements. We haven’t thus far seen the sweeping mass delusions that allow the SS to slaughter the SA, Fascists to administer castor oil, or Cultural Revolutions to destroy the Four Olds (the Five Olds if you include Old People). But a deliberately-created mass movement is a weapon in reserve that our civilization can use to strengthen itself and — not coincidentally — to redefine personhood.

When a nation declares itself a tribe, look out. For that matter, look out when two or more people declare themselves a tribe. Declare yourself a tribe of one, you’ll start getting paranoid and will have good reason to. Hoffer notes that true believers will sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the tribal whole. They will endure misery in the present for a utopian eternity. And they will happily kill anyone who doesn’t agree with their vision of what constitutes a person or their country or their future.

A small, self-sufficient farmstead, one that’s insulated by distance and isn’t sitting on a cache of Krugerrands and a five-thousand-gallon tank of diesel and an elevator full of grain and an arsenal of weapons might not seem a threat to a mass movement. It might not seem important enough to scientific-technological civilization to bother with, if all it’s really trying to do is to get everybody dressed up in a spiffy uniform and hold a decent-sized parade.

But self-sufficiency is a form of heresy, because it’s a powerful object lesson that life doesn’t have to be the way civilization defines it. When you’re asking folks to make huge sacrifices for the tribe, anybody else’s independent free existence becomes a threat. Individual freedom strikes at the heart of any mass movement’s world-view and its promised cultural revolution. Individual thought becomes a sin — the individual itself becomes a sin — because it stands outside of the collective psychosis.

I don’t think the alien sentience of scientific-technological civilization is much threatened by individual consciousness. It’s just that it’s about to switch power sources from the fossil to the human. It doesn’t require nearly as much energy to get what it wants as we do, and all it has to do to proceed is to deny humans sentience and personhood. It started doing that in 1914, or 1890 if you want to throw Wounded Knee into the mix. It hasn’t let up much since. A joke from the 1990s: “Hutu, Tutsi, Goodbye.”

Humans, trying to name the unnameable, have come up with Heart of Darkness, The Wasteland, Orwell’s human face under a boot, giant robot samurais, Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, Terminator movies, and the Borg. But the symptoms of toxicity in the body politic are more eloquent expressions of how strange and death-dealing our civilization is: reality TV, know-nothing politics, AM talk radio, high-fructose corn syrup, plutonium, PCBs, a medical establishment that apparently exists to prolong demented suffering, corporations as persons, and, at least in this recreational part of Idaho, every other car on the highway a giant SUV driven by a vacant-eyed blonde.

By its fruits ye shall know it. What this civilization is effecting is the reduction of human beings to the same status as chickens in a factory farm. Personhood has been redefined upward, beyond the reach of humanity. The principle of the greatest number just couldn’t handle that many humans. It would be like granting sentience to bacteria. Such robot thinking — if it is thinking — doesn’t argue well for independent human existence, or even for human consciousness in the face of suffering. It does argue for humans as members of mass movements, and for the end of unemployment. No wonder conscious humans are thinking it’s the End.

If tenure still exists in twenty years, and it no doubt will in a world run on the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number of giant robot samurais, Peter Singer will be arguing for the humane treatment of humans, arguing against all evidence that they are sentient and completely aware of their suffering. Yes, they keep eating each other, he’ll say, but they can be trained to eat grass."

John Rember is Writer-at-Large at the College of Idaho in Caldwell, Idaho, a position that endows him with lots of freedom but little money. His latest book, "MFA in a Box: A Why to Write Book," is now available from Dream of Things Publishing. Ordering information and Rember’s weekly blog on writing are at

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