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

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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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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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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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Democracy Summer Talk

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Did Moscow Really Poison the Skripals?

The Trump administration confidently asserts that the Kremlin poisoned Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, on a public bench in Salisbury, England, at the beginning of March. The actual evidence appears inconclusive, though; as of Tuesday, investigating scientists at the Porton Down research laboratory had not uncovered any proof of Russian involvement.

Are our leaders making up “facts” again?

Particularly strange is how much they emphasize that “Novichok,” the poison reportedly used at Salisbury, first emerged in the Soviet Union. True enough, the Russians invented it during the Cold War – but the chemist Vil Mirzayanov later published the formula for Novichok in State Secrets, a widely available book about Moscow’s chemical weapons program. According to Mirzayanov himself, anyone with the book and requisite components could have concocted the nerve agent allegedly unleashed on the Skripals. How does that incriminate Russia?

The official narrative is questionable on other grounds, too. The Russians vehemently deny committing this crime, meaning that if they did it, they probably did not want the world to know. Why, then, use a nerve agent that everybody associates with Moscow? Are the Russians really that harebrained?

Maybe the Trump administration theorizes that the Kremlin’s master plan was to insist upon Russia’s innocence while still scaring the bejeebers out of Moscow’s detractors by using an obviously Russian poison that – in spite of Vladimir Putin’s face-saving denial – would inevitably trigger unease among Russian dissidents. According to this theory, Moscow was striving for a delicate balance, seeking to inspire fear of the Kremlin without jeopardizing Russia’s plausible deniability.

This “balancing act” theory is not ridiculous, but surely the Russians realize that any mysterious crime against a Russian ex-spy – conducted with or without a recognizable Russian poison – is enough to provoke suspicion (and therefore fear) of Russia. If the Russians wanted to intimidate their critics without sparking a huge Western backlash, then, they probably would have had reservations about choosing a poison that screams “Russia!” for the entire Western world to hear.

Okay, but who other than the Russians would have wanted to poison the Skripals? Gee, I don’t know – maybe someone keen to frame the Kremlin by engineering an attack that the impetuous “Confront Russia” crowd would happily blame on Moscow? In case it is not yet clear, there are bellicose people on both sides of the Atlantic eager to portray the Kremlin as a dire threat to Western civilization. Is it really so absurd to wonder whether some group of them, perhaps with the connivance of high-ranking U.S. or British officials, perpetrated this attack as a pretext for “retaliation” against Russia?

Of course, as time has passed and the government-peddled falsehoods about Saddam Hussein have faded from public view, it has become increasingly taboo again to acknowledge the mere possibility that Western officials lie. And yet they do lie, and some have indeed gone to the extraordinary lengths of hatching criminal plots to pin on their adversaries. The CIA’s Operation WASHTUB, for example, had operatives plant Soviet materiel in Nicaragua in 1954 in order to “prove” that Moscow was supporting Guatemalan Prime Minister Jacobo Árbenz. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Lyman Lemnitzer followed that up in 1962 with Operation Northwoods, a proposal to overthrow Fidel Castro “in response” to a series of “Cuban” terrorist attacks to be conducted clandestinely by the U.S. government. It never came to fruition, though not for a lack of commitment on Lemnitzer’s part.

If it could happen during the Cold War, then why not today? Human nature hasn’t disappeared since then, and neither has the fraught U.S.-Russian relationship. The Cold War era’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization is still alive and kicking, and proxy wars between the U.S. and Russia have returned with a vengeance, accompanied by frenetic suggestions that we “need” to confront our dreaded enemies overseas. Admitting it may be uncomfortable, but the environment is ripe for U.S. and British chicanery.

To be sure, we may discover some day that this particular act of chicanery was Russian after all. But with the New Cold War fully on, it would be foolish just to take the Trump administration’s word for it. As we know by now, there are power brokers in Washington who, if given a free pass, will use even the most dubious accusations of Russian misconduct to intensify the drumbeats of war. We cannot let them get away with anything, lest the worst come to pass.

This article originally appeared at Antiwar.com. Peter Curbishley took this photograph, which is available here

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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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