The Absurdity of Compassion and the Futility of Consumption

There are times, when I, like Agent Smith, wonder if the planet must not feel that mankind is a virus.  Our self-important, self-obsessed philosophizing seems to bring about only further inbalance to the system of the world.  Or perhaps, we are incapable of effecting that balance?  The truth is that, even were we to destroy ourselves and all other life on the planet with overconsumption and pollution, we would have destroyed nothing, and the planet would be able to begin again.  We are small, and weak.  But, then what is the purpose of our faculties?  Do our purportedly increased capacities for problem solving and emotive behavior, or even our damnable language hold us to higher standards?  Singer’s character ‘Dad’ wrestles with the same behavior in his struggle to respond to Coetzee/Costello, “But the point is, normal humans have capacities that far exceed those of nonhuman animals, and some of these capacties are morally significant in particular contexts” (Singer, 300).  He is struggling to respond to the extreme position he feels Coetzee expresses “safely” through Costello, and in this case, he is suggesting that a human life has intrinsically more value than a dog’s.  He reinforces this view later when he says, “If I pour the rest of this soymilk down the sink, I’ve emptied the container; and if I do the same to that bottle of Kahlue you and your friends are fond of drinking when we are out, I’d empty it too.  But you’d care more about the loss of the Kahlua.  The value that is lost when something is emptied depends on what was there when it was full, and there is more to human existence than there is to bat existence” (Singer 302).  However, the fallacy there, is that it can be carried out to mean not only that human beings are better than animals, but that human beings can be better that other human beings.  That is, by better I mean deserving of more rights.  I suppose this makes sense.  The criminally insane or the severely mentally challenged are not afforded the same rights I am.  However, there is a form of analysis paralysis that I feel trapped by when I come to this question.

Between them...

Between them...

I will say that Elizabeth Costello is the most sane reading I have done in this class so far, that directly deals with the question of the “ethical” treatment of animals.  From the beginning of Lesson 4 I was impressed by the rationality the author seems to have.  “Presumably she was trying to make a point about the nature of rational understanding.  To say that rational accounts are merely a consequence of the structure of the human mind; that animals have their own accounts in accordance with the structure of their own minds, to which we don’t have access because we don’t share a language with them” (Coetzee 91).  This statement seemed very enlightened to me, and to hearken back to Derrida, who did not try to turn animals into humans, but rather, embraced their otherness.  I also strongly agreed with the character when she further added, “Respect for everyone’s world view, the cow’s world view, the squirrel’s world view, and so forth.  In the end it leads to total intellectual paralysis.  You spend so much time respecting that you haven’t time left to think” (Coetzee 91).  However, what the character of Elizabeth Costello had to say made sense as well.  “Not that animals care what we feel about them.  But when we divert the current of feeling that flows between ourself and teh animal into words, we abstract it for ever from the animal” (Coetzee 96).  This made alot of sense to me.  She is discussing poetry that attempts to describe animals, and how it cannot move them, for we have translated it into a form that they can never experience.  So therefore, poetry must move us by transforming us into the animal.   Later she sharpens her argument in this regard when she is discussing a particular poet, “When Hughes the poet stands before the jaguar cage, he looks at an individual jaguar, and is possessed by that individual jaguar life.  It has to be that way.  Jaguars in general, the subspecies jaguar, the idea of a jaguar, will fail to move him because we cannot experience abstractions” (Coetzee 98).  This made sense to me as well.

Grr...scary kitty!

Grr...scary kitty!

A human dominate approach to understanding animals, does nothing better than force our compassion onto them, just as we do when we kill them by forcing our hunger onto them.  I find myself of two minds on later points as well.  I was intrigued by one of Costello’s questioners who asserted, “Is it not more human to accept our own humanity – even if it means embracing the canivorous Yahoo within ourselves – than to end up like Gulliver, pining for a state he can never attain, and for good reason: it is not in his nature, which is a human nature” (Coetzee 100).  However, I also find Costello’s response of tremendous merit, “But let us also push Swift’s fable to its limits and recognize that, in history, embracing the status of man has entailed slaughtering and enslaving a race of divine or else divinely created beings and bringing down on ourselves a curse thereby” (Coetzee 103).  I am torn!  Both statements have merit.  And of course, as always, it is the question I belive is important, and the process of answering it.  The answer itself is the easy part.  A good friend of mine once said, “We are all looking for answers.  The answers are easy.  The work is in the doing” (Monty Galloway).  I suppose I haven’t decided whether man needs to embrace certain aspects of his nature, or strive always to change and improve that nature.  That is our burden.  Self-consciousness I suppose.

Finally, I was fascinated by the story from the vedic text presented by Wendy Doniger.  It was wonderous to me to hear that such a vision had been around even that far back.  The important part to me said, “When he returned to earth, his father explained that the first man represented people who, when they had been in this world, had cut down trees and burnt them, the second people who had cooked for themselves animals that cry out and the third people who had cooked for themselves rice and barley, which scream soundlessly” (Doniger 304).  This is the maddening logic that keeps me paralyzed.  For if we accept that animals, which are slightly different than us, have rights, even to life and that our consumption is cruel or wrong, how DARE we be arrogant enough not to consider the right of other forms of life to continue existing in their current form, such as plants, who we know feel pain, and even things we do not consider feel any desires at all, such as rocks.  When does this end?  And yet, on the other end, should we be entirely self-interested, believing that all the planet exists to support us, or that our cruelty should go unchallenged?  Is it not our capacity to challenge our nature that defines us as humans, at least partially?  I agreed most strongly, however, with Singer, when his ‘Dad’ says, “You know very well I care about Max, so lay off with the “You reason, so you don’t feel’ stuff, please.  I feel, but I also think about what I feel.  When people say we should only feel–and at times Costello comes close to that in her lecture–I’m reminded of Foring, who said, ‘I think with my blood.’  See where it led him.  We can’t take our feelings as moral data, immune from rational criticism” (Singer 301).  This is the only assertion in all this strange garbled philosophical shitfest I can say I really agree with.


~ by dadaniel on February 24, 2009.

One Response to “The Absurdity of Compassion and the Futility of Consumption”

  1. Could you please cite a source for where you learned that plants feel pain?

    Agreed that we have to take on a whole different view of animals to really understand them. It wouldn’t make sense to do anything else. Even amongst groups of people, even individuals, we can’t understand them until we know we don’t experience the same thing.

    However, you say that maybe we should embrace our humanity. I don’t think there’s a common definition for humanity though. To me humanity has less to do with selfishness and more to do with compassion. Moral systems with pretty much the same ideas have arisen in all societies, regardless of what religion was controlling it. And all the ideas are pretty much based on compassion. I would also say that are inherent need for human contact is a direct contradiction to selfishness, as we are sacrificing something in our relationships. So I disagree that giving in to a desire to taste meat is a part of humanity, especially since there is no dietary need for animals.

    I would also say that the argument that humans have abilities that other animals don’t, which makes them superior no longer makes sense when the idea arises that animals can’t be understood until we stop trying to view them based on ourselves. I don’t think any explanation is necessary for that.

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