Friday, September 16, 2011

intentional consuming

Jackson asked me what my ethical position is, in relation to the practice of consuming the flesh of non-human animals. I realized that it wasn't something I'd taken up and thought about in a while, so I asked my loveliest why it's okay for us to eat animal flesh. She laid out what we regard as our position, and I think she's more accepting of it than I am on the whole.

It goes like this.

Humans evolved as omnivores, and we continue to live, as a species, as omnivores. Obviously, we're not biologically determined to eat animal flesh any more than to eat, I don't know, rutabagas. Just as obviously, when there were a few thousand humans trying desperately to avoid starving to death, being an omnivore was useful, rather than the problem it has become. Yet this evolutionary history has predisposed us to be delighted by the taste of meaty things.

That's important because we believe that living well, happily, and pleasurably is practically a commandment (if there were commandments). Lauren often articulates this as a form of responsible hedonism. Not to enjoy life, for the sake of an abstract moral commitment or political aim, seems wrong to her. As she put it this afternoon, if you mean to live in a completely unharmful way in our society, you must run naked and eat nothing, and that won't last long or be very enjoyable.

We limit how much animal flesh we consume, because we recognize that its primary role in our lives is for delectation, rather than sustenance. We tend, as far as possible, to eat the flesh of animals that have lived better lives than many in the US food chain. We avoid eating feedlot beef or caged chickens, for instance. (We also think this meat is healthier for us, and firmly believe that it's more delicious, so it better serves our hedonistic mission, and our intentional ingestion of meat for the purpose of delight instead of mere sustenance.) We literally never buy chicken that is not free range. Until recently we only ate range-fed, grass-fed beef.

We're concerned about the sustainability of our consumption habits, and try to find more-sustainable options, which is another factor driving our limited consumption of animal flesh. We eat fish and seafood that is more sustainable and really strictly avoid poorly fished, over-fished, or poorly farmed fish (like that disgusting stuff they call Atlantic salmon).

After talking about it, we realized we have slipped in our habits, and we've decided to be more conscientious about what we consume.

I notice that I haven't said anything about sentience, and only alluded to suffering. Here, our positions definitely differ. My position, for now, is that sentience and suffering are important ethical considerations for any decision, but that they aren't the final and absolute considerations. I can't say it's immoral for lions to eat a yak, even though the yak is sentient, and the method of killing the yak employed by lions is probably going to cause the yak to suffer. It probably doesn't enter the minds of lions to be concerned about it, and it does enter my mind, and so it's a consideration. That's why the way animals that I eat are raised matters to me.

This may seem like a strange analogy, but I feel about eating animal flesh somewhat the same way I do about driving a car. Driving a car makes a lot of things much more comfortable and feasible, and in that way makes life more pleasant for us. Clearly, the US consumption of gasoline, like the US consumption of most kinds of food, is not ultimately sustainable, for the planet or for us. We two can't do a lot to change that, but we can choose to reduce how much we consume, and to be attentive to how and why we consume. I'm calling that "intentional consuming," to imply that the consuming I do is still self-conscious and reflected-upon.

That means, it's always open to change. I said earlier I'm less accepting of our current practice and thought about eating animal flesh than Lauren is. It's fraught. I'm not satisfied with our reasoning. But I think it's good that we do reason about it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

thoughts and words

I have a prevailing dissatisfaction with Western philosophy: its obsession with words. In a basic way, philosophy is how we grapple with meaning - with how and why there is meaning, with how and why we could be said to create or constitute meaning, with the meaning of experience, and so on. Overwhelmingly, the tradition of Western philosophy has discussed meaning in terms of words. Semantics, grammar, syntax, logic, even metaphysics and epistemology, and in some circles even ethics and politics, have been boiled down to words.

I have nothing against words. I like words a lot. But I am suspicious that when meaning is construed in terms of words, that there may be something significant left out. Let me give you a f'rinstance. In an article about Eugen Fink's text referred to as the Sixth Cartesian Meditation, which Fink meant to extend the analysis in Husserl's Cartesian Meditations, Ronald Bruzina says this:

From the beginning philosophy has been an affair of the word. Putting insight into language and working out reasons in speech have always been of the very act of rational thinking. And even though this is frequently done in the stillness of solitary reflection, nevertheless that it be done in words at all has always meant that it be in principle accessible to someone else, needing only the appropriate practical conditions to make the accessibility actual. So it is that from the beginning what philosophers have thought, and therefore said in words, others have heard and discussed-and sometimes discussed with that thinker; so that thinking itself and its wording have long been taken to be also a matter of dialogue.

So, according to Bruzina, whatever "insight" is, apparently, putting it into "words" (whatever "words" are) has been the first impulse of philosophy "from the beginning." Now, first of all, let's be clear that "words" include things like "numbers," because "words" doesn't mean words, it means symbolic or abstract representations of concepts. It means Saussure-like signs. "32" is as much a word as "contingency," and a complex mathematical function is as much a sentence as "All men by nature desire to know." There is simply a near-universal consensus in Western thought that meaning is what language does, or seeks to, capture.

My shortie Maurice Merleau-Ponty repeatedly quotes Husserl's Cartesian Meditations to this effect. In the English translation of the French translation of Husserl's German (there's a point to my doing this, which I shall not go into here), Merleau-Ponty tells us: "It is the experience… still mute which we are concerned with leading to the pure expression of its own meaning" (The Visible and the Invisible, 129) - that is, the problem is to figure out how to translate the mute into words.

I have always, always, resisted this impulse. I have never been that impressed with words, even though I do like them a lot, and I have never been impressed with the human monopoly on meaning implied by this view. I never read a poem that could express the poetry of ice skating or the particular kind of flying one can experience playing tennis or riding a bicycle very fast. I think this philosophical echolalia leads us to imagine that only that which we can or have translated is within the purview of philosophy or has the status of "meaningful experience."

When philosophy, as a verbal enterprise, begins to talk about bodies and embodiment, about suffering and pain, about joy and pleasure, about the sensuous, it tends to translate, to violate, to vitiate, or to poetize, and in all these ways loses its love of wisdom to its dalliance with words. I'm not saying I'm better than that. I'm also hoping this isn't a point where I'll ultimately have to invoke Wittgenstein and say that of this I should say nothing. Because it's not meaningless, because there are things to say about it, to invoke and to indicate it.

Monday, September 05, 2011

well, here goes nuthin

Today I submitted an article to an actual, honest-to-Pete peer-reviewed academic journal, something I haven't done in nearly a decade, for a variety of highly complicated reasons.

A main reason I haven't done is a main reason I finally did. (If you are already having trouble with the logic, or indeed the syntax, of that sentence, then the actual article might not be your cup of tea.) The paper is this thing I've been working on for a couple years now about how contingent academic appointments undermine the ethical responsibilities of "lecturers," because lecturers are not provided any of the professional opportunities that would enable us to act responsibly. It's a cruel, terrible, catastrophically destructive argument, and it happens to be right.

So, I sent that fucker off to the Journal of Academic Ethics, whose reputation I know not (it's a Springer Verlag joint, which means it's at least prohibitively expensive!). I have such mixed feelings about this.

I make the case in the paper that academic ethical responsibilities and the social contract of the "academic profession" has been voided by the bureaucratization of faculty work. I sincerely believe that. But one way this manifests itself is that faculty submit articles and books for publication always under a conflict of interest, because of the doctrine of "publish or perish."

The unremitting irony of the sitch is that I've sent this out for consideration because I need to get on the job market. I have a conflict of interest: I want to get something published. That obviates against my AAUP-articulated duty to "seek and state the truth as I see it." I've tried to do that, no doubt, but my main reason for trying to publish my results is not about an ethical obligation to state the truth, but entirely about an economic motivation to seek ongoing gainful employment in a profession I have just argued (and I hope to argue in print) has become ethically bankrupt.

My brain hurts, and I wrote the damn thing.