Fighting Seals: Reflections on Daniel D’Amico’s Defense of Factory Farming

The written form of this lecture originally appeared in the Journal for Critical Animal Studies.

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Abstract

In a written defense of factory farming, Daniel D’Amico argues that our instinct to prioritize human life over animal life in certain lifeboat scenarios reveals that human interests are so much more important than animal interests that the bloody system of factory farming can be justified by its (alleged) benefits for humanity. Through an exploration of Rawlsian reasoning, the reflections in this lecture show—contra D’Amico’s claims—that our instinct to favor humans in lifeboat scenarios can and ought to be justified in a way that does not also commit us to defending the cruel system of factory farming. In service of this rebuttal, the lecture proceeds to demonstrate, via an appeal to intuition, that certain violent acts (e.g., killing animals) that may be permissible in lifeboat scenarios are totally unacceptable when committed in the course of ordinary life. In pursuit of some agreement, the lecture finishes by noting that D’Amico’s apparent commitment to human flourishing may provide an opportunity for collaboration with animal liberationists who also take an interest in universal human uplift. 

Keywords: least well off, animal liberation, lifeboats, utilitarianism

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Introduction

In a written debate on factory farming, Daniel D’Amico outlines a thought experiment that invites readers to weigh the importance of human interests against the importance of animal interests (D’Amico & Huemer, 2018). Although D’Amico leaves some of the details unclear, his description suggests that this thought experiment could take one or both of two general forms. In the Sadistic Gunman scenario, a sadistic gunman has forced you onto a beach where, before leaving, you must kill 1,000 baby seals or one human baby. If you refuse to choose, the sadistic gunman will keep you on the beach and kill all of you. Seal Attack describes a situation where you are walking home from baseball practice one day when you find 1,000 baby seals moving towards a human infant. The seals will overwhelm and kill the infant if you continue walking, but the infant will survive if you stop to pummel the seals to death.

D’Amico appears to argue that our strong intuition to save the human infant in both scenarios reveals that human welfare matters more than animal welfare (D’Amico & Huemer, 2018). In fact, human interests are so “vastly more important” than animal interests that factory farming—which provides our species with tasty food—is morally permissible, even though it imposes tremendous costs on animals bred for hellish lives of servitude (D’Amico & Huemer, 2018). 

The forthcoming reflections offer one of many conceivable liberationist rebuttals to D’Amico. If successful, I will prove in this lecture that it is logically possible both to advocate saving the hypothetical human baby and to condemn factory farming as a moral crime against real-world animals. Then, in the spirit of concord, I will explore a potential implication of D’Amico’s appraisal of Seal Attack that shows that D’Amico’s moral commitments might not be too different from the universalist commitments of many animal liberationists. It is in this harmonious spirit that my reflections will end.  

Rawlsian Objections

Animal liberationists hotly debate the utilitarian method of evaluating public policy, whereby analysts weigh the sum of a proposed policy’s good consequences against the sum of its bad consequences (Regan & Singer, 1985). Whereas some liberationists—Peter Singer, most notably—fiercely defend this utilitarian method of moral calculation, liberationists like Tom Regan feel that this utilitarian approach perilously discounts what John Rawls called “the distinction between persons” (Rawls, 1971, p. 27). Cognizant that pain is experienced on an individual basis, Regan and other Rawls-inspired liberationists claim that the aggregate harm that a policy promises is less important than the policy’s probable impact on the affected individual who, once the policy is enacted, will be least well off (Regan & Singer, 1985). It is most moral, these liberationists claim, for us to pursue the greatest well-being possible for whatever hapless individual will end up occupying this bottom position, even if this pursuit requires us to sacrifice some utility overall. 

Regan’s liberationist doctrine is itself liable to powerful challenges. For example, it may be true, as utilitarians insist, that forcing a psychologically neutral individual into a negative psychological state actually would make moral sense, assuming that this move would somehow allow many (say, one thousand) other individuals to transition from a neutral psychological state to a positive psychological state. However, an exhaustive defense of Regan’s position against such challenges is unnecessary to show that his view, whatever its potential deficiencies, is at least plausible and may very well pose a potent challenge to D’Amico’s position.  Although D’Amico seems to think that no set of pro-liberation ideas could yield arguments in favor of saving the human baby in Sadistic Gunman and Seal Attack, Regan’s pro-liberation Rawlsian ideas do exactly that. 

Unlike utilitarians, who would begin their moral calculations by weighing the potential suffering of the human baby against the potential suffering of all 1,000 seals in either hypothetical, Rawlsians would begin by weighing the human baby’s potential suffering against the potential suffering of only one of the 1,000 seals. Of course, the linguistic limitations of seals and human infants would make it difficult for ethicists to measure these beings’ potential for suffering and for Rawlsians, therefore, to compare their potential suffering reliably. Even so, Rawlsians could note that human babies and seals both have nociceptors and central nervous systems and that, despite their unmistakable aversions to noxious stimuli, individuals in both groups have only a rudimentary understanding of the pains they experience (Costa & Crocker, 2009, pp. 873-878). 

Perhaps Rawlsians would feel, at first glance, that the psychological and physiological similarities between seals and human babies mean that saving the human baby, in either Sadistic Gunman or Seal Attack, is not morally required. But thoroughgoing Rawlsians would know that the threats facing the human child and baby seals in our posited hypotheticals are not the only harms for which ethicists must ultimately account. Surely it matters morally that any human baby’s death is overwhelmingly likely to break the hearts of the child’s adult relatives, subjecting them to a tragedy that, according to some bereaved parents, can feel like a nightmare from which one never really awakes (Mendoza, 2016).

If it is true, as it seems to be, that a human baby’s death would generally haunt that child’s adult family more than a seal’s death would harm the seal itself or any of the seal’s loved ones, then Rawlsians’ choice would be clear. If they opted to save the human baby by bringing about the seals’ deaths, they would be creating a situation in which the least well off individual is a pained seal being beaten to death. In contrast, if they opted to save the seals by bringing about the human’s death, they would be creating a situation in which the least well off individual is an inconsolable human adult whose psychological suffering is deeper than that of which any seal is capable. Because the former option would involve less suffering for the least well off individual, this is the option that consistent Rawlsians would choose. 

We should note that the preceding account would fail if the endangered human infant somehow had no loved ones. But maybe Rawlsians would then have other reasons to save an orphaned human baby at the expense of seals. To wit, if it is true that the human baby’s living future—unlike that of the seal—would involve finding a loving home environment that would allow this human to create art, tell stories, fall deeply in love, and pursue other long-term professional and personal projects, then the joys of the human’s life might outweigh the joys of the seal’s life. Consider:

World 1: Seal Survives and Human DiesWorld 2: Seal Dies and Human Survives
Seal: +5 hedons
Human: -2 hedons
Seal: -2 hedons
Human: +20 hedons

The least well off individual in World 1 is the human baby who experiences -2 hedons as a result of being shot or trampled to death, and the least well off individual in World 2 is the seal that is killed in an equally painful way. Upon first glance, we might feel that this is a Rawlsian “tie” and that Rawlsians would, therefore, be obligated to flip a coin (or something like that) in order to choose between the two worlds. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes hard to believe that this is the correct Rawlsian approach. Indeed, if it were the correct Rawlsian approach, then a Rawlsian would also have to flip a coin between Worlds Y and Z, each with 100 people, where (1) World Y has 1 person at -10 hedons and 99 people suffering nearly as much at -9 hedons and (2) World Z has 1 person at -10 hedons but 99 people living positively ecstatic lives at 1,000 hedons. It is reasonable to suppose that the correct Rawlsian approach to such “ties” is instead to compare the second least well off individual in the first possible world to the second least well off individual in the second possible world. Because the second least well off individual in World 2 (i.e., the surviving human at approximately +20 hedons) is better off than the second least well off individual in World 1 (i.e., the surviving seal at +5 hedons), World 2 is the one that Rawlsians ought to prefer. 

If we accept the preceding analysis, then we may be asked to concede, as an aside, that human fetuses resemble human babies in their capacity to be made better or worse off based on whether they live or die (Marquis, 1989). Of course, many anti-abortion Rawlsians would probably view any such “concession” as a simple truism, the validity of which one would be silly to deny. But it is possible that even abortion-condoning Rawlsians can make this concession without abandoning their defense of abortion. Consider:

World A: Fetus is AbortedWorld B: Fetus Lives
Baby: 0 hedons
Mother: -3 hedons
Baby: +20 hedons
Mother: -8 hedons

The first column reminds us that a fetus, if aborted before the onset of fetal consciousness, experiences no joy but also no pain. Thus, the claim that this fetus is “harmed” by abortion makes sense only by reference to the counterfactual: had the fetus entered conscious existence, this fetus would have experienced joy. In that latter world, the baby might experience +20 or even +100 hedons, but what matters to Rawlsians—searching for the social arrangement whose least well off member experiences the greatest level of happiness—is that the abortion-desiring mother experiences -8 hedons (or some other amount of pain) when enduring the hardships of a pregnancy and mother-child relationship that she does not want. Rawlsians compare this lowest number in World B to the lowest number in World A (i.e., -3, reflecting the emotional distress sometimes associated with getting an abortion) and find that the least well off individual in World A (i.e., the mother getting the abortion) is better off than the worst-off individual in World B (i.e., the mother prevented from getting the abortion). Thus, Rawlsians—even while granting that fetuses can have interests—have good reason to prefer World A and to condone abortion at least before the onset of fetal consciousness (at which point the abortion of the baby might cause the baby in World A to experience suffering). 

In any event, it is now clear that Rawlsians, whatever their positions on abortion, can make a logical, non-prejudiced case for saving one human newborn at the expense of 1,000 seals. However, nothing in this case requires Rawlsians to support factory farming. A brief survey of the conditions under which billions of farm animals live and die every year can prove it so. 

As a result of genetic manipulation, chickens have overly large bodies and place such great weight on their legs that they sometimes lose their ability to walk (Rachels, 2011, p. 3). So that they do not injure each other through anxiety-induced pecking in cramped spaces, billions endure the gruesome process of debeaking (Rachels, 2011, p. 3). After a little more than a month of living, these mutilated creatures are shipped to slaughterhouses to be killed for human consumption (Huemer, 2019, p. 118).

The industry’s pigs and cows fare no better. Workers painfully detach piglets’ tails and press searing irons into cows’ hides (Huemer, 2019, p. 24). Dairy cows are routinely overmilked, and their offspring are hauled away shortly after birth (Rachels, 2011, p. 2). Though many are sent straight to abattoirs, some of the females are kept behind to live painful lives as dairy cows themselves (Rachels, 2011, p. 2). Hundreds of millions of turkeys suffer similar horrors in order to sate Americans’ appetites every year (Rachels, 2011, p. 4). 

So grim are the realities of factory farming that most of this system’s victims—who account for the vast majority of the animals consumed in the United States—probably experience more suffering than joy (Huemer, 2019, p. 64). Thus, billions of potential farm animals, who will enter lives of misery if and only if humans incentivize animal production by consuming animal products, seem to fare much better in a vegan system than in a non-vegan system. Consider:

Human A Eats PorkHuman A Does Not Eat Pork
Human A: 2 hedons
Pig A: -20 hedons
Human A: -2 hedons
Pig A: 0 hedons

Much like factory farmed animals generally, the pig (1) suffers immensely if Human A consumes meat and (2) suffers nothing if Human A does not consume meat and the pig, because of that non-consumption, is never brought into existence. Of course, this consideration alone is not dispositive; if Human A’s giving up pork would cause Human A greater pain than Human A’s not giving up pork would cause Pig A, then Rawlsians would have to support Human A’s pork consumption. But not only can most Americans (even if they love the taste of meat) go vegan without experiencing diet-induced suffering, they can downright flourish without animal products (Huemer, 2019, p. 59). Therefore, Rawlsians—who notice that the least well off individual (i.e., a person annoyed by having to go vegan) whose well-being is affected by a vegan system fares better than the least well-off individual (perhaps a tortured animal) affected by the current food system—must favor Americans’ transition to veganism. 

The Deceptiveness of Lifeboat Scenarios

D’Amico seems to assume that any plausible premises that would lead us to share his ideas about Sadistic Gunman andSeal Attack would also lead us to share his ideas about factory farming. Our exploration of Rawlsian reasoning has shown that this assumption is unfounded. But perhaps we do not even need to delve into a complex system of moral thought (such as Rawlsianism) in order to demonstrate that D’Amico is misguided. It may be self-evident, whether we are Rawlsians, utilitarians, or something different, that the moral “rules of engagement” in grim scenarios like Sadistic Gunman and Seal Attack ought to differ from the rules of engagement in less dire circumstances.

We intuitively grasp this point when our moral calculations involve humans alone. If a sadist stuck a gun to your head and forced you to choose between killing one thousand strangers and killing your own child, perhaps it would be defensible for you, as a loving parent, to kill the strangers. For there is an undeniable, if uncomfortable, wisdom to the adage about necessity’s knowing no law; when nothing less than our child’s life is at stake, otherwise operative moral prohibitions lose their force. But in the course of regular affairs, where the stakes are much lower, those moral prohibitions remain firmly in place. Even if you could be excused for killing one thousand people to save your child’s life, you could not be excused for killing one thousand bright children just to secure your child’s admission to a selective university. Favoring our loved ones is not categorically wrong, but killing innocent others in order to secure such minor benefits for our loved ones undoubtedly falls outside the realm of legitimate favoritism.

If we consider all humans our “loved ones”—as we should—and would thus feel inclined to save one human infant at the expense of hundreds of animals, then maybe D’Amico is right to think that it would be proper for our universalist commitments (to ensuring the well-being of all sentient beings) to give way temporarily, just as it would make sense for our universalist commitments to vanish if we were forced to choose between our own child’s life and hundreds of strangers’ lives. But even if it is possible to justify killing 1,000 animals in order to save one human’s life (just as it is possible to justify killing 1,000 human strangers in order to save our own child’s life), surely humans are not so much more valuable than animals that we can justify killing hundreds of animals on factory farms for one human’s trivial enjoyment. Generally speaking, extremely aggressive acts that might make sense in life-or-death scenarios do not make sense when, in the course of mundane affairs, the promised benefits of extreme aggression are much less significant.

The Preciousness of Human Life

Until this point, we have not considered the important differences between the scenarios described in Sadistic Gunman and Seal Attack. Although an exhaustive exploration is neither possible nor necessary here, it may be worthwhile—for the reputation of the animal liberation movement, and in the interest of closing on a resonant note—to point out a particular one of these differences and to consider what D’Amico’s treatment of this difference says about his ethical doctrine.

Remember that the gunman in Sadistic Gunman will kill us if and only if we refuse to choose between the human baby and the baby seals. Thus, it is in our own narrow self-interest to take action in this scenario. In Seal Attack, it is not in our narrow self-interest to take action, seeing as killing seals is a physically and psychologically draining act that nobody will punish us for refusing to commit. Therefore, it seems that the moral obligation to save the human in Sadistic Gunman, if such an obligation exists, is less demanding than any moral obligation to save the human in Seal Attack.

D’Amico seems to think (though I may be wrong) that a readiness to kill the seals in a situation like Sadistic Gunman is not enough. As he would have it, human life is so valuable that, if necessary, we should be prepared to kill one thousand baby seals for the sake of a human baby even when, in a situation like Seal Attack, our personal interests are not at stake. Surely this view, if it is indeed his view, attests to the depth of D’Amico’s affinity for all humankind. His concern for his fellow man runs so deep that he is prepared, on behalf of any unknown human infant, to participate in—and to urge others to participate in—what he calls the “deeply unpleasant” process of beating hundreds of sentient animals to death (D’Amico & Huemer, 2018).


There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of D’Amico’s professed philanthropy. But if his commitment to every human child is indeed as strong as his apparent response to Seal Attack suggests, then it seems fair to wonder whether rich humans, under D’Amico’s moral code, also have a moral obligation to save human babies from threats other than belligerent seals. That is, if every human life is really so precious, then perhaps lethal phenomena beyond improbable seal attacks ought to spur us to action on behalf of vulnerable humans. Specifically, the preventable ailments plaguing impoverished human babies overseas may demand a response from Westerners who are well-equipped to donate money to highly effective social action organizations (Singer, 1972). After all, if it would be wrong to let these infants die in seal attacks, then is it not also wrong to let them die of starvation and illness?


Of course, in most conversations about humans’ obligations to animals, one would be content to table this sort of consideration about humans’ intra-species obligations. However, D’Amico’s repetition of a common anti-liberationist allegation—that liberationists “prioritize the well-being of animals over people”—may make this consideration relevant (D’Amico & Huemer, 2018). The least charitable reading of his statement is that, however unimportant human well-being is, surely animal well-being is even less important. The charitable and more plausible interpretation is that, in D’Amico’s eyes, the furtherance of human well-being is a vital project to which animal liberationists are insufficiently committed. But if D’Amico is suggesting that proponents of animal rights—many of whom have unimpeachable track records of working to alleviate human suffering—should be doing even more for humans, then D’Amico must be something of a humanistic superman, a person so committed to human well-being that he can put Tom Regan, Coretta Scott King, Dick Gregory, Henry Spira, and other humanistic champions of animal liberation to shame. If D’Amico is such a superman, then perhaps, in spite of our (present) differences on the question of animal liberation, he and philanthropic champions of animal liberation can at least find common ground in the struggle for universal human uplift. 

References

Crocker, D. E., & Costa, D. P. (2009). Pinniped Physiology. In Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals (2nd ed., pp. 873–878). Burlington, MA: Academic Press. doi: doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-373553-9.00201-7

D’Amico, D., & Huemer, M. (2018, October). Debate: Libertarians should be vegetarians. Reason Magazine. Retrieved from https://reason.com/2018/09/26/proposition-libertarians-shoul1

Huemer, M. (2019). Dialogues on Ethical Vegetarianism. New York, NY: Routledge. 

Marquis, D. (1989). Why Abortion is Immoral. Retrieved from https://rintintin.colorado.edu/~vancecd/phil215/Marquis.pdf

Mendoza, M. A. (2016, December 8). Loss of a child: The pain that never ends. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understanding-grief/201612/loss-child

Rachels, S. (2011). Vegetarianism. Retrieved from http://www.jamesrachels.org/stuart/veg.pdf

Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice (1st ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Regan, T., & Singer, P. (1985, April 25). The dog in the lifeboat: An exchange. The New York Review of Books. Retrieved from https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1985/04/25/the-dog-in-the-lifeboat-an-exchange/

Singer, P. (1972). Famine, Affluence, and Morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1(1), 229-243. Retrieved from https://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/1972—-.htm

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Posted in Animal rights

On Wolves Attacking Deer

Here is another piece of my exchange with Professor Block. It, too, has been edited some.

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Dear Tommy:

I can’t resist this one. If we humans violate animal rights by killing them, don’t they violate each other’s rights by doing the same thing? Is the wolf a murderer when it kills the deer?

Best regards,

Walter

_____________________________ 

Dear Walter,

The wolf “is a murderer” when he kills the deer to the same extent that the disturbed 6-year-old “is a murderer” when he kills one of his classmates. (Unfortunately, murders of the latter type do happen.) The analogy hinges on the suggestion that the perpetrator (and, we might add, the victim) lacks the cognitive abilities and moral sense of fully developed human beings.

With this analogy set up, let us be careful not to misunderstand what the wolf’s attack on the deer implies. The fact that Child A–because of his limited cognitive and moral development–has no misgivings about hitting, kicking, or even killing the innocent Child B obviously does not mean that you and I are justified in wantonly mistreating Child B. By the same token, the fact that the wolf (again because of cognitive and moral limitations) has no misgivings about killing deer does not mean that you and I are justified in killing deer. The reason is simple: the fact that cognitively/morally underdeveloped beings unflinchingly engage in cruel acts does not exonerate cognitively/morally developed beings who engage in those acts.

Another point might also speak to your concerns: Some people feel that if deer and other animals actually have rights, then vegans should support hunting wolves (and other carnivores/omnivores) as a way of basically giving these animals the death penalty for killing prey. This is a mistake. Wolves, like murderous children, do not understand the significance of their actions; thus, even if we believe in the morality of retribution, it is totally disproportionate to “punish” wolves with death (or, frankly, with anything serious). In contrast, morally and cognitively developed human adults who kill deer, sheep, cows, etc. may indeed make themselves liable to a serious legal response in a just system. (To be clear: as an opponent of the death penalty who is skeptical of retributive justice, I most certainly do not advocate the death penalty for those who kill animals.)

As always, looking forward to getting your thoughts.

Tommy 

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Posted in Animal rights

Is “Humane” Meat Production Realistic?

I recently received an email from Walter Block, and our debate over the treatment of animals quickly started up again. A snippet (edited slightly for clarity) is posted below. I hope to add more soon.

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Dear Walter,


Hello! It’s been a while. Thank you for your kind words.


Walter, you indicated earlier that you agree that it would be morally right to stop a person from “torturing an animal needlessly.” I submit to you that, as I write this email, millions of sentient animals are being tortured needlessly in order that well-to-do Westerners may consume their flesh. Even if you think that such torture should remain legal forever, will you join me in saying that such torture is cruel and that we should therefore promote nonviolent veganism in order to stop it from occurring? As you can see, I am appealing here to Walter-the-ethicist rather than Walter-the-libertarian.

Best,

Tommy

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Dear Tommy:

Yes, I agree. 

Walter the ethicist agrees that such torture is cruel. It should be minimized. Animals should be killed as humanely as possible.

Best regards,

Walter

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Dear Walter,

“Humane slaughter,” conducted en masse, is unrealistic. As I indicated in our last debate, billions of chickens–not to mention hundreds of millions of turkeys, pigs, cows, sheep, and goats–are killed for Americans’ consumption every year. The notion that we can breed, confine, and slaughter all of those animals without resort to the horrific, rough-and-tumble procedures that have come to define the animal exploitation industries is simply fanciful. 

Perhaps your view is that we can and should drastically reduce our consumption of animal products, thereby making it easier to handle animals gently. However, even with less livestock under their control, animal handlers would continue to separate animals from their loved ones in order to prepare them for slaughter. That being the case, a simple reduction in our consumption of processed animals will not be enough to end their psychological suffering. (If you doubt that a being with the cognitive abilities of an animal could ever lament the absence of his loved ones, consider the fact that human babies–to whom certain animals are cognitively comparable–may cry out for their parents when separated from them even temporarily.)

Perhaps, against all the odds, you have some way of demonstrating that millions of animals could be killed without their experiencing physical or psychological suffering. If so, you still have the burden of demonstrating that animals have no interest in continuing to live, and I am not convinced that you have met that burden.

As always, I am interested in getting your thoughts, so please do let me know whether you find this analysis sound. 


Warm regards,

Tommy

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Dear Tommy:

As an ethicist, I salute your concerns. But, I’m not mainly an ethicist. I’m mainly a libertarian. In the latter role, I don’t think cruelty to animals should be a crime.

Best regards,

Walter

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Posted in Animal rights, Peace

Trump’s Tribalism (And Ours)

Almost two years after the fact, the sting to the American Left has not quite faded. That a bumbling, chauvinistic, vituperative, politically inexperienced real estate scion eked out a victory in a contest for the world’s most powerful office still strikes us a monstrous, unforgivable injustice.

The feeling is understandable, what with Donald Trump’s casual and total disregard for nearly every social rule that leftists hold dear. If the mood strikes, Trump will endorse the commission of war crimes, demean entire countries of color, and publicly profess admiration, or even love, for widely reviled authoritarians abroad. When his focus is domestic, he slashes taxes for the massively wealthy, rails against immigrants, and questions the patriotism of Latino citizens. Altogether, these sorts of transgressions (in our eyes) betray the president’s tribalism, his commitment in any given scenario to bolstering “his people”—the powerful, the rich, the American—often without even feigning concern for anyone else.

To be sure, Trump’s brand of tribalism warrants rebuke. However, our go-to rebuke—that Trump and his tribalistic movement are turning America into a cesspool of selfishness, contempt, and cold-heartedness, dispensing posthaste with the compassionate ethic that once defined us a nation—is dubious. In reality, a lot of people in the United States were narrow-minded and prejudiced well before Trump entered the picture. As it happens, many of them are leftists, self-described opponents of Trump’s tribalism who practice tribalism themselves. Indeed, when we are not careful, our social outlook can start to resemble Trump’s, and nationalistic tribalism can suffuse even our criticisms of him.

Consider the leftist allegation that Trump “continues to spit in the face of poor people.” We are right to say so, of course; the Republican tax scheme offers financial relief to corporations while running up a deficit that may very well harm the American poor in years to come. Trump seems no better in his capacity as a “really rich” private citizen, with The New Yorker reporting in 2016 that he had donated not even one-tenth of one percent of his wealth to charity in the preceding 25 years. As anyone who hears him talk for even three minutes begins to suspect, Trump really is “toxic” privilege personified, lacking the good moral sense to resist the unjust inequalities that have materially benefitted him his entire life.

But Americans of Trump’s ilk are not the only ones responsible for lethal inequality. In the Obama years, well before Trump had resurrected the “America First!” mantra, Peter Singer and his allies reissued their call for a global redistribution of wealth, warning that more than 15 million non-Americans would die each year from illness, dehydration, and starvation if well-heeled Americans and other Westerners failed to send aid overseas. Very few of us heeded the call on an individual level, and our government offered only paltry assistance.

More than 8,000 children continue to die every day for a lack of access to basic necessities, and although billionaires like Trump are better equipped than most of us to help, many Americans with far less live comfortably enough to contribute something. For instance, single Americans raking in $55,000 a year, though not exactly rich by domestic standards, are better paid than 99 percent of humanity and probably never want for shelter, food, clean water, or meaningful forms of entertainment. Thus, if there exists a moral obligation to help the needy, then it probably falls (to some extent) on these sorts of comfortable, middle-class people.

But most of us, even while condemning Trump for his hyper-nationalism and unconcern for the destitute, have thus far joined Trump in excluding the world’s most deprived humans from our moral considerations. We may object to Trump’s condescending rhetoric and galling outbursts about so-called “shithole” countries, but at the end of the day, we share in his general indifference to the preventable horrors that befall many inhabitants of those countries. Following our lead, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and other leftist heroes highlight the struggles of American students and low-wage workers—as they should—while saying very little about the millions of afflicted foreigners who will die this year in the absence of wealth transfers from the West.

To establish our moral differences with Trump, in this and every other regard, it will not be enough just to say that we despise him. In fact, many of our hyperbolic characterizations of Trump—as “the worst president” ever, for example—reflect our Trump-styled tribalism. After all, in construing Trump as some terrible anomaly in U.S. presidential history, we implicitly trivialize unconscionable crimes to which American presidents have subjected foreigners (to say nothing of people here) in the past: radiation testing in the Marshall Islands, the destabilization of Cambodia, ethnic cleansing in East Timor, the murderous sanctioning of Iraq, and disastrous regime change in Libya, to name several.

That we would overlook the longstanding lethality of the American Empire speaks to our perilous self-absorption, currently manifested in our thinly veiled sense that oligarchic authoritarianism is something that is not supposed to happen to us. For years we shrugged as Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the rest of the Democratic Party establishment bankrolled oligarchs and authoritarians all over the world, committing unspeakable crimes with little pushback from their patrons in Washington. For years, too, we “spat in the faces” of starving foreigners, contributing almost nothing to the effort to relieve suffering abroad. In short, our parochial worldview—the sort for which we condemn Trump—got the better of us.

If we wish to prove that Trump’s tribalism is truly anathema to everything we represent, we will need to change our behavior, finally expanding our moral community to incorporate those outside the American tribe. As part of that process, we should broaden our fight against inequality, working to highlight and eliminate the hardships that affect millions in other countries. To that end, let us use resources like GiveWell.org to support highly effective social action organizations. Let us also back politicians who favor life-saving development aid and who, in their resistance to all authoritarianism, oppose U.S. taxpayer assistance to Trump-like tyrants in such places as Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Uganda. If we don’t, then perhaps we really are not so different from the tribalists we castigate.

This article originally appeared at CounterPunch.org. The image is available here.

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Posted in Peace

Democracy Summer Talk

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Posted in Animal rights, Peace

The United States and Wahhabism

A quick review…

Posted in Peace

Syrian Quicksand

When will we learn? War is quicksand. The destruction of one evildoer usually gives way to a second evildoer, the latter of which we find ourselves “obligated” to fight for the same reasons we were “obligated” to fight the former.

Look at Syria, where ISIL’s downfall has left the region’s other competitors squabbling for control. Tehran and Tel Aviv are feuding after an Iranian drone allegedly drifted into Israel’s airspace and triggered a confrontation with Syrian troops that brought down an Israeli F-16 on Saturday. Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proceeded with Operation Olive Branch, an offensive he began in January to counter the Kurds in Afrin before his probable incursion into the Kurdish territory of Manbij.

Atop it all, Bashar al-Assad has continued fighting anti-government holdouts—and his Russian patrons have continued supporting him—as civilians in the Idlib war zone find themselves caught in what The Washington Post on Wednesday characterized as a “death trap.”

Still hankering for war after ISIL’s defeat, the United States military apparatus has stuck around for this slugfest as well. The ostensible purpose of our government’s continued involvement, beyond engaging in general “counter-terrorism,” is to bolster the Kurds’ Syrian Democratic Forces, even though that puts the U.S. on a direct collision course with the Syrian, Russian, and Turkish governments. For its part, the Syria-Russia tandem wants to rout the Kurdish fighters so that Assad can tighten his grip on the country, while Erdogan continues to view any Kurdish stronghold in Syria as a potential breeding ground for attacks on Ankara.

Neither Assad loyalists nor Turkish leaders have hesitated to make these feelings known, by the way; Syrian troops have already battled the Kurds’ U.S. allies, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu demanded last month that U.S. personnel evacuate Manbij so the Turks can overrun it.

Against that backdrop, with the U.S. sticking to its guns, it is difficult not to wonder what the point of all of this is. Our leaders (in this century, anyway) first dragged us to the region to oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq; when ISIL replaced him, our leaders decided to stay for more. Now that ISIL is greatly weakened, they want more still, perhaps in order to defeat Assad, the Kurds’ Turkish adversaries, and pockets of Islamist stragglers in Syria. But new rogues will crop up after them, and then what? Will this game ever end?

Our only hope is to abandon the logic of a Pax Americana, which holds that malefactors abroad—through an apparently permanent US war footing—generally can and should be eliminated. It is a tempting system of thought, not least for its simplicity, but history suggests that it is more likely to produce carnage than to bring peace.

If it is peace we want for the people of Syria, then we should heed the advice of libertariansprogressives, and certain conservatives who advocate opening the United States to innocent refugees. Save for that, let us leave the Syrian matter alone.

This piece originally appeared at CounterPunch.org the morning of February 16, 2018. 

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Posted in Peace
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