Friday, March 24, 2006


Whether people feel that a certain being (or group of beings) belong to the moral sphere, or even, at the simplest level, whether they feel concern for the welfare and interests of that creature, depends on one simple thing: that is, whether they identify with that being or not.

The beings we feel concern for (and subsequently we let them enter into our moral sphere) are the ones whose suffering we feel as our own, for some or other mechanism of identification.

The other beings, the ones left out, are those who we can’t identify with and therefore, for biological reasons, we perceive them as antagonistic to us, competing for the same resources (it’s a law of nature, a rule of life), rivals, opponents, enemies.

I think that we cannot escape from this scenario.

What happens is that, when people don’t care about some-one or some group (and therefore the latter fall into the second category described above), but they know that they should care, in the sense that it’s socially expected from them (for reasons of political correctness, for example, or, put in another way, current political orthodoxy, fashionable ideology, or anyway because it’s the accepted social norm geographically and historically), what happens then is that people fake concern, or at least some respect for the social norm: it’s very easy to do.

Interestingly, there’s a connection with psycho-therapy, here.

Something similar happens in psychotherapy.

Whether a psychotherapy treatment succeds or not depends (almost entirely, with perhaps a few exceptions due to exceptionally good techniques) on whether the psychotherapist feels empathy for the client or not, ie whether the therapist can identify with the client and, so to speak, feel his/her pain. If the therapist doesn’t, s/he doesn’t really care about helping that person and most likely s/he won’t, for the reasons I’ve given above: ie it’s a law of nature that mors tua vita mea, the therapist may even feel rather good that somebody else and not him/herself is suffering (especially if the therapist has a lot of problems of his/her own, which I think is an extremely common case).

Animal experiments: ethical vs medical arguments

We often read, in forum discussions (eg the Oxford Gossip), that some-one without medical expertise cannot make statements on animal experimentation.

So, by the same token, we cannot condemn experiments on humans performed in Nazi camps, or any other tests carried out on humans, for that matter. I remember Paola Cavalieri once saying to me: “Do we need medical knowledge to say that we are not allowed to experiment, say, on the Chinese?” or something to that effect.

The obvious problem here is that the two questions, the ethical and the medical, have been confused.

The effect of stressing the medical/scientfic aspect of animal research (its lack of reliability, being bad science etc) created by Hans Ruesch, a great anti-vivisection writer but albeit one who only covered one aspect of the issue, is that now there is an assumption that who opposes animal experiments takes an epistemological stance on its own or in addition to a moral one.

Pro Animal Experimentation new lobbyists

Animal experimentation in Britain“For years, protests by animal rights extremists have closed laboratories and intimidated scientists. Now, for the first time, a student campaign in favour of animal testing is gaining momentum. Laurie Pycroft, a 16-year-old student has launched a protest group, Pro-Test, in support of animal testing for medical research. Rabbits after experimentationHe joins Richard & Judy, along with one of his fellow supporters Iain Simpson, to talk about the creation of their controversial protest group and living under constant fear of death threats.”

This is the coverage on Channel4 website of their chat program on these two blokes.

Vivisection now seems to have found a new breed of defenders, grown out of the culture of anti-animal experimentation and sensitivity to animal rights that is presumably widespread, if not prevalent, in university campuses in the West, like Cambridge and Oxford.

The program only interviews people on one side of the debate (so much for media objectivity). Not one single voice for animals is raised during the show, except the indirect, absent voices of death threats allegedly coming from animal rightists.

Peter Singer on the Guardian online, on animal rights’ extremists’ violence:
“Is there a way out of the present deadlock? Some opponents of experiments on animals will be satisfied with nothing less than the immediate and total abolition of all animal research.
“In a society that continues to eat meat, however, that is an unrealistic goal. If people think that their enjoyment of the taste of animal flesh is sufficient reason to confine millions of animals in horrific factory farms, transport them to slaughterhouses and then kill them, why would they reject the use of relatively smaller numbers of animals in experiments designed to find cures for major diseases?”

Theory of cheap ideas

What are the most popular products, the items that people buy most, the best-sellers, top of the list? The cheapest ones.
Cheap, low-cost flights make people travel more, bargains on designer clothes make people buy more of them, and so on.
Understandably. “Cheap” simply means that it required fewer hours of work and energy to be bought. It’s a biological need, a principle of economy: all things being equal, go for what requires less energy.
It’s only natural, biological (part of our biology and that of other animals) to try to save our energy expenditure. There’s nothing wrong with that per se.

The same happens with ideas. Some ideas require more intellectual effort than others, are more energy-consuming. You’ll find that the least energy-consuming, which are the easiest, the cheapest, will be the ones most widely held.
We tend to believe that, if lots of people think something, believe in some theory, that is more likely to be true.
Not so. If lots of people believe in an idea, it will simply be because that idea is cheaper, regardless of its truth.
Cheap ideas may or may not be true.
Sometimes the simplest thought may be true because it is, so to speak (in a manner of speaking) “closer to reality”, more material, down to earth, attached to the ground, more linked to the faculty of observation and our five senses, less involving the power of imagination and fantasy, less fanciful, less abstract, less flying into higher spheres.
But other times, exactly for the same reason, because lacking fantasy when fantasy is required, the cheapest idea is utterly misleading. Of course it’s intuitive to believe that the earth on which we stand is at the centre of the universe, and everything else, including the sun, and the sun moves around it: we see it with our own eyes going from one point in the sky to another. And yet it is not true. People believed it for centuries because it was intuitive, cheaper than any alternative theory, and they were wrong.
In some ways, the fact that many people hold a certain view may be a sign of its being untrue or, at best, naïve and simplistic.
This is the transfer of a principle of economics (people tend to buy cheaper) into a different realm, that of opinion holding, through their common ground of biology.

The amount of intellectual energy demanded by holding any given idea is, of course, a relative value, not an absolute one. If you’re a millionaire, is cheap for you what is very expensive for average people. Similarly, individuals with less intelligence would find much more expensive, energy-consuming, to hold ideas which for high-IQ persons are relatively easy and cheap, not requiring much effort at all.

A good example of these cheap theories is how much beauty is over-estimated.
Not over-estimated in the sense that it’s considered important and it shouldn’t be, no. Over-estimated in the sense that people say that they consider it important (and they appear to consider it important) but in reality, when you look at what they do rather than what they say, when they speak with their actions rather than their mouths, they do not treat beauty as important at all.
A film, a biopic of Audrey Hepburn, reminds me vividly of this.
Throughout the film, based on her biographies, Audrey Hepburn is described as exceptionally beautiful and the message is that people were fascinated by her stunning looks. Now, Hepburn had a pretty face, yes, but you could hardly describe her as a stunner. She was extremely thin and was not a sex symbol by any stretch of imagination. What clearly emerged from her filmed biography, though, was that she had a very sunny, spontaneous personality, very generous, a bit child-like. Perhaps she liked people. That had the power to fascinate others, very likely, not any imaginary Miss World appearance.
For some reason, it seems easier to believe in the power of beauty than in the power of something much more difficult to define, grasp, understand.

UK hunting ban revisited 1 year after

I watched this program on BBC ‘The Last Tally Ho?’, a sort of ‘1 year after enforcing the ban’ assessment of the situation.
Even the title says what it is: the question mark is the key, expresses the doubts of the program makers that the ban will indeed be effective.
Interestingly, only hunters and their helpers (hound carers etc) appear in the program and are interviewed. The show actually is all about following them, exploring their reactions to the ban (emotional ones as well, with crying women) from the beginning 1 year ago until now.
The law banning hunting with dogs in England and Wales, which dates 2004, Hunting Act 2004, came into effect in February 2005. (Scotland had already banned it.)
What the program was saying is that, because the law is flawed and more specifically is ambiguous, not well defined, it’s easy for hunters to break it, and sometimes even break it while pretending not to.
For example: the Hunt goes out in the field (complete with red jackets, horses, hounds, terrier men), not actually chasing any fox, sounding horns and such.
In fact, they go out with some dusters (‘it costs us a fortune in dusters’, says one of the hunters), which should apparently replace the fox as the quarry in this ‘trail hunting’ (sometimes they call it ‘drag hunting’). So, on the surface, they try to act ‘within the law’ (which is what they often say, half laughingly).
But then, a fox crosses the field, the hounds start chasing him or her, and here we go again: the finale is the same as before the ban.
The terrier man that I quote below explains that this occurrence (of a fox appearing without actually being looked for) did indeed happen before the ban as well, it’s a sort of normal event in a hunt, albeit not very frequent. He also adds that, if the real hunt had been in progress, horns would have been blown and that particular fox (the one, so to speak, killed by accident and not by intention) would have been alerted and stayed well away from the trails of the hounds.
The fact remains, though, that in this incident shown on the TV program the hunters did not do anything to stop the dogs as they could have: whistling, that sort of thing.
So, the law is not all that ambiguous, after all. These humans did indeed break the law.
In fact, many cases of hunts breaking the law have been reported to the authorities since the ban, without arrests or actions taken by the authorities.
And, just to finalize the confirmation that the law is not so ambiguous as they claim, the particular hunters in this TV show asked the TV crew not to film them at one stage, because, they said, ‘we may appear to break the law even if we don’t, just by accident and not intentionally’, or something to that effect.
Some statistics indicate that there are more people hunting now than before the ban was introduced.

My point is: they may still be hunting, but the practice is now being eroded, and over time there will probably be no-one to replace the current hunters, the tradition and continuity will be lost.
A terrier man said: ‘There is no fun now. We do it because we have to, until things go back to normal’ (he means until the Tories, back in power, revert the ban).

My other point is: you can’t just abolish a law because it’s unenforceable. You can’t say that we should make murder legal because not all murderers are caught, and probably a good deal of murders go unsolved.
The law should uphold a priniciple. It has a moral content. That aspect is also important, and probably just as important as the actual, factual consequences of the existence of a law.
In this particular case, moreover, the question of enforceability has two distinct aspects, which need to be separated because the first may have to do with the law (which could be changed, anyway, let’s not forget it: people keep saying that the law is bad and mus be repelled, whereas in fact the law can simply be improved to be made tougher, more precise, less ambiguous, and harder for the hunters), and the second may simply have to do with the police not willing to use (put in) resources into enforcing it (which problem must, of course, be handled and solved differently, by forcing the police to do their duty): the first aspect is whether the law is written in an ambiguous, imprecise way, the second aspect is whether the police do not act when there is a clear violation of the law.