Archive for February, 2010|Monthly archive page

Reducing Animal Pain Is Not Equivalent to Reducing Harm

An op-ed in today’s NYTimes addresses new advances in neuroscience that could reduce the pain experienced by intensively-farmed animals:

Neuroscientists have found that by damaging a laboratory rat’s anterior cingulate cortex, or by injecting the rat with morphine, they can likewise block its affective perception of pain. The rat reacts to a heated cage floor by withdrawing its paws, but it doesn’t bother avoiding the places in its cage where it has learned the floor is likely to be heated up.

Recently, scientists have learned to genetically engineer animals so that they lack certain proteins that are important to the operation of the anterior cingulate cortex. Prof. Min Zhuo and his colleagues at the University of Toronto, for example, have bred mice lacking enzymes that operate in affective pain pathways. When these mice encounter a painful stimulus, they withdraw their paws normally, but they do not become hypersensitive to a subsequent painful stimulus, as ordinary mice do.

Prof. Zhou-Feng Chen and his colleagues here at Washington University have engineered mice so that they lack the gene for a peptide associated with the anterior cingulate gyrus. Like the animals given brain lesions, these mice are normally sensitive to heat and mechanical pain, but they do not avoid situations where they experience such pain.

The editors argue that we are stuck with intensive farming and factory farms, but such technologies may reduce the unpleasantness of the lives of the animals destined to live and die for our consumption.

But to me, this totally misses the point. The harm caused by factory farming is not merely the fact that it causes animals physical pain but rather that the animals’ entire lives are degrading, exploitative, and contrary to nature. Locking a chicken in a cage so small it cannot move surely causes the animal displeasure, but not in a way directly related to physical pain. The chicken’s displeasure comes from the fact that it cannot move, has no exposure to the outdoors, and can’t do all the other things that chickens are supposed to do.

Obviously, its not a direct analogy, but imagine a human being in the same situation. If you were to confine a human being to a tiny closet, with no access to light an poor ventilation, stuffing him with food to fatten him up for an early slaughter, would the inhumanity of the act be lessened because you took away his ability to perceive pain? Of course not. If anything, it might increase the inhumanity of the imprisonment. Taking away the capacity to feel pain, the capacity to suffer physically due to an injustice, seems to me to be taking away something critical from humanity, and by extension, intensively-farmed animals.

Decreasing the amount of pain experienced by factory-farmed animals makes it that much easier to justify their exploitation. Most of us feel a twinge of empathy or concern when we hear about the suffering these animals experience. This empathy (or maybe guilt if you are a regular consumer of intensively-farmed meat) is a good thing. It indicates an injustice. The solution is not to reduce the pain consequent to the injustice, but to end the injustice itself.

It seems to me that underlying the editors’ argument is a utilitarian assumption, namely, that decreasing pain and suffering is equivalent to increasing happiness or utility. This is why utilitarians like Peter Singer justify infanticide of severely handicapped infants–surely, they reason, it is better for the infant to not exist at all rather than to exist in pain. The same reasoning is behind the widespread support of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.

Eudaimonistic ethics, on the other hand, virtue ethics included, views happiness much more comprehensively as flourishing. That is, happiness is living in the way in which God has ordained that you live. For chickens, this includes a long life out of doors, roaming and clucking and brooding and chasing grubs. Cows too are ordained to flourish by munching on grass, roaming the fields, and mooing with their friends in some mid-day shade. Pigs, perhaps the most intelligent of the bunch, flourish in a much more dynamic way than their domesticated companions in lives that include highly-developed social relationships, curiosity, and compassion (pigs are thought to be as intelligent, if not more so, than dogs).

These animals can achieve a eudaimonia suited to their constitution and the order of nature, but not under the conditions in which they find themselves in factory farms. Reducing their physical pain does nothing to address the fact that our exploitative farming techniques deny these animals their God-given telos, or purpose. These new neurotechnologies are just another way to continue exploiting animals to suit our desires, and specifically, the unrestrained appetite to eat meat with a clean conscience.

*Admittedly, I took a cheap jab at utilitarians and Peter Singer in a naive and simplistic way. My apologies in advance to Charlie Camosy and other utilitarians I am hoping to convert to a virtue-ethics frame of mind.


Defining ‘Normal’ Behavior: The New DSM and the Old Manuals of Sin

Today’s NYTimes front page features an article on the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V), due out in 2013. The DSM is the psychiatric field’s encyclopedia of mental disorders which allows practitioners to determine who is mentally “normal” and who is not.

This is no small deal:

“Anything you put in that book, any little change you make, has huge implications not only for psychiatry but for pharmaceutical marketing, research, for the legal system, for who’s considered to be normal or not, for who’s considered disabled,” said Dr. Michael First, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University who edited the fourth edition of the manual but is not involved in the fifth. “And it has huge implications for stigma,” Dr. First continued, “because the more disorders you put in, the more people get labels, and the higher the risk that some get inappropriate treatment.”

One concern is that the revisions for the new DSM have “been the subject of intense lobbying by advocacy groups.” Considering the fact that many of the new diagnoses will also come with prescription drug remedies, many worry that the pharmaceutical industry is playing a big role in expanding the diagnostic criteria in order to increase profits from psychiatric drugs. Many of the comments on the NYTimes page note that it seems the new DSM is a matter of politics rather than medicine, or another move by “big pharma” making money by drugging people.

From the EverydayThomist perspective, the problem with the new DSM is that it assumes too much normativity in human behavior. Human behavior is not only incredibly complex, it also varies a lot from person to person. Some children are born with more of a natural tendency toward moderation in food and drink; others are prone to excess. Some children are very shy; others are prone to excessive anger and aggression. Human beings are too diverse to be able to neatly label as “ordered” or “disordered” to the extent that the new DSM attempts to do.

It reminds me of the manuals of moral theology, especially those written at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century which strived to precisely label and categorize every possible sin. This is, however, impossible, as Josef Pieper notes in his most excellent book The Four Cardinal Virtues:

How are we to react to a proposition such as this one, found in one of the most popular handbooks of moral theology: “To look at the private parts of animals out of curiosity, but without voluptuousness . . . is a venial sin”? Not to mention other distortions, it seems that here the limit beyond which casuistry becomes meaningless has been considerably exceeded. Propositions so constructed seem entirely to miss the true purpose and scope of casuistry, which is to provide a tentative approach and an auxiliary means for the practice of discernment. Is it not to be feared that a discernment schooled by such methods will be misguided toward an unrealistic rigidity and a prematurely fixed judgment, instead of toward a sober evaluation of the realities of life; and that this in turn may lead to a total incomprehension of the reality of man as a being who responds to the richly orchestrated world with every power of his soul, and thus reaches his choice?

The pre-conciliar moral manuals were striving toward certainty in their evaluation of human behavior, in much the same way that DSM V seems to be doing. Whereas the moral manuals wanted to define precisely in every possible case what could be considered “sin,” the DSM uses the more contemporary scientifically minded language of “pathology” and “disorder,” but the intent is the same–the desire for rigid and precise criteria to judge human behavior.

A virtue ethics perspective rejects the need for such certainty, recognizing that two people may do the same things, and yet act (in light of circumstances and intentions) in very different ways. As Josef Pieper writes,

It is temperantia, the virtue that realizes the inner order of man in himself, which St. Thomas has in mind when–in contrast to justice, in whose province that which is ‘properly and in itself right’ can and must be determined–speaking of ‘the other moral virtues which refer to the passions and in which right or wrong cannot be determined in the same fashion, because men vary in their attitudes toward the passions,’ he says, ‘therefore it is necessary that what is right and reasonable in the passions should be determined with reference to ourselves, who are moved by the passions.’ But especially in the province of temeprantia ‘we ourselves’ have the choice of innumerable possibilities: for example, to desire halfheartedly or wholeheartedly, to tolerate, to let things take their course, to give in to pressure or to be carried away. ‘Who could determine,’ writes the perceptive Thomist H.D. Noble, ‘who could determine when lack of control ends and where temperance begins?’ St. Thomas says that the realization of temperantia varies too much according to individuals and periods to allow the establishment of hard and fast, universally valid commandments.

Aquinas recognized in the 13th century that there was no such thing as “normal” human behavior. Which is why he referred to the virtues as powers within a person to help her realize for herself within a specific community with specific practices which behaviors would be conducive to happiness. But the problem for a lot of people with virtue ethics is that it leaves too much room for ambiguity, too much room for diversity in behavior which makes human beings, even the most open-minded contemporary human beings, very uncomfortable. So we’ve done away with sin manuals, but have we simply replaced them with an ever-expanding encyclopedia of mental disorders?

The Sporting Mind and the Secret of Basketball

David Brooks writes in today’s op-ed that sports provide useful analogies and metaphors for a liberal arts education. He describes Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, a German immigrant who discovered the power of sports-related metaphors in teaching his students sociology:

Rosenstock-Huessy began teaching at Harvard and converted his lectures into English. He noticed, though, that his students weren’t grasping his points. His language was not the problem, it was the allusions. He used literary and other allusions when he wanted to talk about ethics, community, mysticism and emotion. But none of the students seemed to get it. Then, after a few years, he switched to sports analogies. Suddenly, everything clicked.

“The world in which the American student who comes to me at about twenty years of age really has confidence in is the world of sport,” he would write. “This world encompasses all of his virtues and experiences, affection and interests; therefore, I have built my entire sociology around the experiences an American has in athletics and games.”

He then goes on to describe the specific ethical import of the American sporting culture, drawing on Duke University Professor Michael Allen Gillespie’s essay in the new book Debating Moral Education:

American sport teaches that effort leads to victory, a useful lesson in a work-oriented society. Sport also helps Americans navigate the tension between team loyalty and individual glory. . . Gillespie appreciates the way sports culture has influenced American students. It discourages whining, and rewards self-discipline. It teaches self-control and its own form of justice, which has a more powerful effect than anything taught in the classroom.

This reminds me of one of the major motifs in Bill Simmon’s Book of Basketball which I am slowly making my way through. This motif is what Simmons calls “the Secret:”

Year after year, 90 percent of NBA decision makers ignore The Secret or talk themselves into it not mattering that much. Fans overlook The Secret completely, as evidenced by the fact that, you know, it’s a secret (that’s why we live in a world where nine out of ten basketball fans probably think Shaquille O’Neal had a better career than Tim Duncan.) Nobody writes about The Secret because of a general lack of sophistication about basketball; even the latest “revolution” of basketball statistics centers more around evaluating players against one another over capturing their effect on a team (45).

So what is The Secret? It’s that stats matter, but in basketball, they are not of primary importance. Great players on paper do not leave great legacies or necessarily win championships (think Wilt vs. Russell). The Secret is that basketball is about being able to connect with your teammates, to play your role, to do your job, and to contribute to the harmony that is a team. More importantly, though, it is about pushing your team to its greatest possible level of excellence, year after year after year. Simmons writes,

Anyone can connect with their teammates for one season. Find that connection, cultivate it, win the title, maintain that connection, survive the inevitable land mines, fight off hungrier foes and keep coming back for more success . . . that’s being a champion. As Russell explains, “It’s much harder to keep a championship than to win one. After you’ve won once, some of the key figures are likely to grow dissatisfied with the role they play, so it’s harder to keep the tam focused on doing what it takes to win.” . . . Wilt captured one title (’67) and was traded within fourteen months. He only cared about winning one title; defending it wasn’t as interesting, so he gravitated toward another challenge (leading the leaggue in assists). Meanwhile, Russell still ritually puked before big games in his thirteenth season. He had enough rings to fill both hands and it didn’t matter. He knew nothing else. . . Merely by being around Russell and feeding off his imense competitiveness, his teammates ended up caring just as much. You can’t stumble into that collective feeling, but when it happens–and it doesn’t happen often–you do anything to protect it. That’s what make great teams great. (51-53)

But Simmons admits that The Secret of basketball has its limits when applied to real life. Take David Robinson:

The same qualities that made [Robinson] a special person also limited his basketball ceiling. Robinson might have been his generation’s most intelligent player, the guy scoring 1310 on his SATs, playing the piano, and dabbling in naval science in his spare time. Do smarts matter on a basketball court? Not really. If anything, those extra brain cells wounded Robinson. . . A peaceful Christian who tried to find good in everyone, he lacked the requisite leadership skills–much less MJs “keep this up and I’m bringing you into the locker room, locking the door and beating the crap out of you” quality, for that matter–to handle Dennis Rodman as Rodman spiraled out of control and undermined San Antonio’s ’95 playoff run. He never developed the same cutthroat attitude that defined Hakeem in his prime. It just wasn’t in him.(459)

The problem with sports metaphors is that sports are ultimately looking for a champion. There are certain character traits that a champion has which others should strive for, but what makes a champion different from the rest of us is that he would sacrifice anything to be on top, and we expect him to be on top. Nice guys very rarely win championships and when they do, we say that they won in spite of being nice (my husband is always saying this about Dwight Howard–he’s just too nice to win a championship).

So sports teach us a lot—-that winning is not an individual act of will but a team effort, that sacrifice is worthwhile, that pain is necessary for gain—-but sports don’t teach us to value niceness. They teach us to tolerate and respect niceness, but not root for it. At the end of the day, I bet more people are wearing Kobe jerseys than they are Howard jerseys. Allen Iverson is an All-Star this year, not because of talent but because of popularity. And I bet David Robinson is actively being forgotten in anyplace not named San Antonio. And its not because of winning. People don’t like Kobe and Iverson more because they win; they like them more because they have a meanness that seems a prerequisite to winning. And we respect that meanness, even if we know we can’t imitate it in ordinary life.

“I See You:” Avatar and Prudence

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen Avatar, don’t read this post.

People have had a lot to say about the movie Avatar—its pantheism, its overhanded critique of US foreign policy, its hodgepodge of superficial cultural references—but for me, the part of the movie that really stood out was in one of the final scenes where Neytiri, holding Jake in his vulnerable, clumsy, handicapped human form looks into his eyes and says, “I see you.” This motif is woven throughout the movie, as Jay Michelson of the Huffington Post explains:

In the Na’Vi cosmology, what’s really happening is the Ai’Wa in me is connecting with the Ai’Wa in you. This is echoed in their greeting, “I see you,” a direct translation of the Sanskrit Namaste, which means the same thing. (“Avatar” is also from the Sanskrit, though the film plays on the word’s two meanings of an image used in a role-playing game, and a deity appearing on Earth.) As the Na’Vi explain in the film, though, “I see you” doesn’t mean ordinary seeing – it, like Namaste, really means “the God in me sees the God in you.” I see Myself, in your eyes.

I don’t know anything about Sanskrit or the eastern religious traditions on which Cameron is drawing here, but I do know that this motif of “seeing” and its connection with right action and justice has an important foundation in the Thomistic tradition. As Josef Pieper writes in his beautiful little work The Four Cardinal Virtues, the virtue of prudence is the true perception of the way the world really is:

Man’s good actions take place in confrontation with reality. The goodness of concrete human action rests upon the transformation of the truth of real things; of the truth which must be won and perceived by regarding the ipsa res, reality itself.

Bill Mattison picks up the connection between prudence and seeing in his book Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues. Mattison describes an article by Lorraine Murray in America Magazine called “The Lady in the Mirror.” Murray writes,

I am obsessed with food, but I assure you that I am not fat. I wear a size 10, and the weight charts brand me as “average.” The trouble is that when I gaze into the mirror, a fat lady stares back. I know that I am supposed to be God’s beloved child and I know I should love my neighbor as myself. Problem is, I have such difficulty loving myself because I am always criticizing my body.

Mattison explains,

Given how Murray says she sees herself, it is less surprising that she agonizes over her weight. [Paul Waddell] describes the moral importance of how we see things and claims it is crucial that we have ‘truthful vision.’ Put simply, we cannot act rightly if we do not see rightly. If we do not have an accurate grasp of the way things are, it is impossible to act virtuously. . . Being a prudent person is what enables one to see rightly and translate that truthful vision into action.

In Avatar, Neytiri’s vision, or prudence, is already highly developed. At one point, right before she is about to kill Jake, a seed from the sacred tree of Ey’wa lands on her arm with the outstretched bow and arrow. Her eyes turn to the spirit and back to Jake. She does not yet know what she sees, but she knows that she sees him differently. A similar thing happens when they are arguing about who Jake is. Neytiri complains that she does not know him because she does not see him. At that moment, the same seeds collect all around Jake, covering him. Again, Neytiri’s vision changes. She begins to see Jake. And both times, this vision translates into right action. Neytiri knows the right thing to do because she sees rightly. This is prudence.

But Jake’s vision develops slowly over the film. He must learn to see the truth of reality, and only when he learns to see will he know the right way to act. What is unfortunate about the film is that it traces Jake learning how to see everything but himself. Jake learns to see the Na’Vi and their world rightly, and in turn he learns to treat them rightly. He learns to see Colonel Quaritch for who he really is, and accordingly, can treat him appropriately as an enemy and threat. But Jake never learns to see himself.

Let’s return to “The Lady in the Mirror.” Murray can’t see herself. She has a false vision of who she is, a fat person, and so she does not know how to act rightly. She diets obsessively, abuses herself with thoughts of guilt over an ice cream sundae or piece of fried fish, and looks loathingly at her reflection in the mirror. She can’t act rightly toward herself because she can’t see herself rightly.

Jake is similar. He sees himself as a crippled, as a deficient being because he does not have functional legs. The reason he consents to the colonel’s deal to spy on the Na’Vi, an unvirutous action, is precisely because he sees himself as deficient without his legs, and the colonel promises him “his legs back” if he carries out the mission successfully. If Jake saw himself as a complete and beautiful human being, even with non-functional legs, he would not have been so quick to agree to the colonel’s deal.

While Jake is learning to see the world of the Na’Vi rightly, he still isn’t learning to see himself rightly. His avatar is beautiful, athletic, powerful, and seemingly invulnerable. Indeed, Jake can hardly wait each time he is out of his avatar body to get back in “where things seem more real,” where he gets to lead the Na’Vi into battle, and conquer their great unconquerable mythical bird, and make love to one of the most powerful beautiful Na’Vi ladies.

But in the end, the real Jake is not his avatar. The real Jake is a man, unshaven and unkempt, without functional legs. And Neytiri sees this. As she holds the dying Jake, she tells him “I see you.” This is what love is. Love is not trying to change the other person, to make them perfect, or to focus on their weaknesses. Love is seeing a person for who they are and embracing that person.

But Jake has no such revelation at the end. He doesn’t ever get to look at himself and say “I see you.” He gets his avatar body back. And this is the most unfortunate part of the film. Jake shouldn’t get to have his avatar body at the end. He should have to live among the Na’Vi in his wheelchair, with his respiration mask. He should have to learn how to see himself just as he learned to see the Na’Vi. He should be able to look in the mirror in all of his weakness and vulnerability and say to himself, “I see you.”

Here in real life, we don’t get our avatars. It’s celebrity doppelganger week on Facebook and everybody is posting images of celebrities who they resemble, but in the end, everybody has to go back to being themselves. Murray doesn’t get the model-thin woman she wants to see when she looks at herself. She just gets Lorraine Murray, not a model, but not fat either. And if Murrary wants to be happy, she has to learn how to see herself. Only then will she be able to treat herself right. And this is the most disturbing thing about Avatar–in the end, it’s happy ending keeps us from taking off our 3D glasses, leaving the theater, and seeing the world as it really is, and seeing ourselves for what we really are.

The Problem With Scott Roeder’s Defense

In this article from Friday’s NYTimes, Scott Roeder, the man charged with the murder of George R. Tiller, one of the only doctors who performed late-term abortions in this country, took the stand in his own defense:

“I did what I thought was needed to be done to protect the children. I shot him,” he testified, adding at another point, “If I didn’t do it, the babies were going to die the next day.”

In other words, the circumstances justified an otherwise immoral action, because, the logic goes, if Mr. Roeder had not shot Tiller, more people would have died. This is what is called the “necessity defense.” The necessity defense must meet four requirements: First, there must be a threat to a third person. Second, the threat must be imminent. Third, the threat must be the result of an unlawful act. And fourth, the agent must be firm in his beliefs that he was acting out of necessity.

Criticism of the defense focused on whether or not the fetus counted as a third party. Regardless of whether you think that abortion involves taking the life of a human being (and EverydayThomist thinks it does), Mr. Roeder’s defense is unacceptable. He shot Dr. Tiller in front of his church. No pre-born children were in the process of being killed, nor were they going to be killed that day. The threat was not imminent.

Roeder’s move was a preemptive strike, one which assumed that Tiller would go into work the next day and continue conducting late term abortions. But the problem with preemptive strikes is (1) you cannot predict the future and know what Tiller is going to do the next day and (2) they are hardly ever a last resort.

Roeder’s motive to protect innocent lives could have been carried out in a way that did not involve taking the life of another, at least not at that moment. When Roeder acted, he was not defending the pre-born; he was simply shooting a man who had taken the lives of the pre-born in the past. He was shooting a man that he had planned to shoot for weeks.

The “imminent threat” requirement is an important one in cases like this. It rests on the assumption that life is precious, and should only be taken as a last resort, when there is no other possible way to achieve the intended goal of the protection of a third party. In EverydayThomist’s mind, this is why Scott Roeder’s defense fails.