Thursday, July 15, 2004


This really sort of rambling, now.

I was thinking about ethics, and a thought occurred to me. Usually, I tend to think of ethics the same way someone might think of the Ten Commandments: "thou shalt not." As a vegetarian, I am often thinking of where the consumption line should be drawn. For instance, it's safe to say that a bivalve mullosc like a clam or an oyster, while technically an animal, doesn't have enough of a nervous system to care whether it's eaten or not. The same goes for insects who, while I wouldn't eat them, I might swat. But then there's crab, and lobster, and squid, other invertebrates without central nervous systems. They probably can't "think" about pain in the way even a fish can by virtue of a vertebrate central nervous system. And even a fish doesn't have a whole lot of proccessing power in the ol' CPU. You'd have to get up to the level of birds and mammals before there's any animal emotion involved.

The point of this is that when I think about these things, I'm thinking about it from the standpoint of "Why shouldn't I eat animal X?" If I think about buying something expensive when I know the money could be used to benefit someone less fortunate, I think, "Why shouldn't I?"

I have been giving thought to a new way of looking at ethical dilemmas, and it's really pretty simple. Take whatever ethical system you follow (I'm a utilitarian; it might be the Bible, or your own ad hoc rules) and simply reverse the question. Instead of asking, "Why shouldn't I X?" ask "Why should I X?" For example, why should I eat an animal? I don't need it nutritionally. What it comes down to is that I just want to, and that's no reason to kill something. As I think about it, most situations in which this sort of question arises boil down to being simple desires. I just want to eat an animal, I just want to show off my fast car, I just want X.

I'm not saying any of these things are in and of themselves wrong. In fact, getting as much of what you want is positvely good, as long as it doesn't deprive anyone else of what they want. But "why shouldn't I" thinking leads us to rationalize our decisions after we've made them. "Why should I" thinking leads us to decide based on the merits. Maybe the sentient, conscious pleasure you take from eating a steak outweighs the suffering the simple-minded cow experienced. Maybe the increased income to construction workers, utility workers, auto workers, and sweatshop workers to produce your big house, fast car, and designer clothes outweighs a couple of starving Ethiopians.

Seriously, it might. The point is that you thought about it.


  1. Nice post.

    It's a real great way to look at things. It kind of reminds me of this thing that I think about sometimes. It's with regards to spending habits mainly (though obviously it could be applied to other things like eating meat).

    Basically it was looking at the environmental "cost" of all items consumed. Even small things.

    If I buy a Snickers bar, I may pay 79 cents or something. But when I consider the environmental cost of that snickers bar, I have to take into consideration the plastic wrapper that will end up in a landfill, as well as all the fuel burned to both make the junk food and the fuel burned to get the candy bar to the store.

    Many in the environmental movement call this "eating energy". I am not sure the exact formula, but I heard a speaker on KPFT talking about this concept. He said something like: for every 1 unti of energy you consume from food, you are consuming 10 units of energy from the environment. I wish I remember exactly how he phrased it, but basically it was saying that it takes so much more energy to produce the food than people take in.

    Anyway, I don't know what I'm saying, but I'm saying it loud, so there.

  2. Yeah, that's sort of what I was getting at. Even on a basic level, to use meat as an example again, a cow eats 9 pounds of grain for every 1 pound of beef we eat... imagine how that grain could be better used if there weren't ten billion cows eating it to feed people.