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A Reasonable Persuasion

A REASONABLE PERSUASION
Mira Fong
September 2010

"It is we that choose to divide animals up into discontinuous species...In truth, not only are we apes, we are African apes."

 Richard Dawkins

Comparing the Public Response

Recently the PBS shown a program titled "Chimpanzees-the Unnatural History"- a documentary film about chimpanzees, once used for medical research, finally were allowed to retire in sanctuary as their permanent home. Prior to retirement, some of these chimps were also used for pilot testing in space program (yet, only the human astronauts got the recognition as heroes). Instead, they were transferred to medical labs for invasive research-bone marrow transplant, liver biopsy...etc.  Many had been infected with diseases created by humans such as Aids and hepatitis.

Each chimp is tattooed with numbers just like the prisoners in Nazis' concentration camp; their cries of protest only fell on deaf ears. At the end of the program, a scene that brought tears to our eyes was a chimp, had been released from the lab to a chimp sanctuary, wandered around in open air and on soft grass for the first time. Our hearts rejoiced as the chimp climbed up to the tree top; his eyes could look out for miles. He was freed at last!

Another PBS documentary film "The Suicide Tourist",  aired early this year, had received far more emotional response and comments from the public.  Apparently the human issue outweighs the non-human issue. The story is about a patient who suffered from motor neuron disease and was seeking assisted euthanasia at a clinic in Sweden. With the support of his family, he died peacefully at the clinic. It was an emotional story as many viewers joined the debates over the issue of assisted suicide, either from a religious or ethical standpoint.  

For human, the sight of a dying person is difficult to bear and the act of suicide makes people even more uncomfortable, or even becoming disturbed  as it threatens their own denial of death. Yet, when it comes to animal suffering- seeing a captive animal cringing inside the cage, we feel sorry for the animal but find reasons to justify their doomed fate because animals are regarded as having no moral significance. My reason for this essay is to question the general mentality towards the non-human world by exploring a wider meaning of ethics, as well as a new spirituality-the foundation for true health.

A Psychological Disassociation

The two documentary programs I mentioned here serve as demonstration of such mentality-that humans have no moral duty to other animals. Here are few reasons to explain our resistance to moral progress as it has deep roots in psychology, social utility and legal system:

First, the denial of death-as if humans are able to transcend mortality but death for animals are natural, inevitable. The main symptom of our collective neurosis towards death is clearly manifested in the persistent and  unrestricted experimentation on animals. Medical research conducts every kind of experiment on animals to find cures and fight death. Why? Perhaps Blaise Pascal has the answer in his "Pensees". He says:"Let us imagine a number of men in chains and condemned to death, where some are killed each day. Those who remain see their own fate in that of their fellows and wait their turn, looking at each other sorrowfully without hope. It is an image of the human condition." It is out of such desperation, we sacrifice animals in order to escape our own fate.

Second,  a self-proclaimed ownership provides the legality of a master and slave relationship between humans and other animals. As slaves, the non-humans have no rights and are under the mercy of their masters.  In our legal system, animals have no standing; they are denied of having personhood (as autonomous individual) and can be owned as private property.

Third, conceptually, there is a division between culture and nature. Human activities are mainly cultural ( as a result of having larger cortex). Nature is regarded as resources to serve human interest. Such psychological disassociation is the main cause of our insensitivity towards animal suffering and environmental destruction.

Our moral judgment is tainted with contradictory emotionalism. So it is not surprising that the chimpanzee program received far less attention and sympathy than the one on voluntary suicide. We seem to have forgotten that homo sapiens were originally from Africa, as one of the great apes about three million years ago.

What History Tells Us

Human beings like to idealize themselves as part of a divine universe, although history has proved otherwise. Nature is brutal and all animals must hunt to survive-on one to one base. In contrast, humans fight among each other for dominance and can kill by the millions way beyond the purpose of evolution. Our history is propelled by wars, such as the Peloponnesian war, the Roman expansion, the Crusades and the 30 years war, followed by civil wars within nations and states, and the two world wars in recent history. While Thucydides was observing and recording the Peloponnesian war, he was also intrigued by the violent and hostile nature of man.

Krishnamurti, in one of his early talks, said that: "Human beings have been conducting warfare throughout the entire history, and had sacrificed millions and billion of human lives. Modern technology for weapons and warfare is aimed at the increasing capacity for greater destruction.  In addition, we have also massacred billions and billions of non-human animals as warfare against nature. Since the twentieth century, more than 50,000 great whales have been slaughtered..." 

So-called heroes such as Pericles, Alexander the Great, Napoleon and many other war heroes that are glorified in history books were mostly war-mongers; they were mainly competing for power, the same aggression in colonialism and imperialism. They conquer not by virtue but with military might.

Today, with the aid of super technology, humans are waging dangerous wars against nature-threatening land, ocean and sky. The numbers of animals being imprisoned and slaughtered are astronomical.  Long ago, during the Paleolithic age, animals and humans were on equal footing as depicted in the cave paintings of Lascaux.

What Would Nature Say?

In nature's eye, all lives are equal and have intrinsic value (as oppose to imposed value). There is no such thing as being either superior or inferior. Animals are the expressions of nature's grandeur. Each, as autonomous being, has its innate knowledge to fend for itself within the whole eco-system. In this respect, the behavior of homo sapiens is far from being lawful. We have forgotten that it is the uniquely stable and favorable condition of the earth temperature that allows all species to evolve and flourish-EQUALLY.  

If humans pride themselves on being ethical, intelligent and spiritual, then  why has civilization never done anything to assist nature's democratic practice, but acted more against it, colonized all parts of the earth? By excluding other animals from legal protection, we turn them into domestic stocks, lab tools and property as well as business investment, equated them with economic values.

And how are we treating the wild life? They are often being trapped and hunted as humans intrude into their natural habitats. Mountain lions, bears, wild horses, coyotes and prairie dogs, they are the spirit of the land, nature's working order, and yet, as long as their interest is in conflict with ours, they are regarded as nuisance to be eliminated. This is another example of our unjust treatment towards non-humans.

A Moral Imperative

Like early humans, other social animals have their own tribal culture, particularly among the great apes, whales, dolphins, elephants, wolves and many others. Their knowledge on proper ranking for family and social relations is surprisingly  similar to that of the Confucian ethics; their ways of forming  family bonding are also like ours.  In the natural history, homo sapiens is a part of the continuum of animal life. Every animal is a unique individual with a conscious mind, fully aware of its environment.

Today, as human population is exploding, so as the increasing demand of using animal as food supplies. Every year, over 58 billion cows, pigs, and chickens imprisoned in world's factory farms and slaughtered. One can imagine the intensity of animal suffering in agri-business. Their methods of animal exploitation is now a matter of systemized and institutionalized operation. A once docile and conscious creature can be conceptually altered through linguistic cover up when labeled as ham, steak or mutton, an effective way to disengage our  moral sensibility towards other sentient beings.

What is moral imperative? According to Kant, the philosopher of German Enlightenment, moral obligation is at the command of reason, surpassing personal deliberation. One must treat others as ends, not as means. Although Kant's moral theory is for humanity in general, a genuine sense of moral duty naturally involves the sympathy for any living being that is capable of suffering-physically or emotionally. Why is imperative? Because the moment one recognizes the suffering of another being, be it human or non-human, one is already morally obligated to respond, at the command of one's good will.

The Post Modern Nihilism

As there is no end to the ways humans mistreat other animals, so there is no end in our moral and spiritual suffering. Do we ever wonder why is that with all the material comfort, people are still relying on tranquilizers, sleeping pills, alcohol and drugs to get through their lives, to escape the feeling of meaninglessness? With the vast knowledge that we have accumulated about the world and with the most advanced medicine to treat just about all the illnesses, yet people are in need of help to relief the mind's torment? Throughout the ages, philosophers, religious thinkers and wise men, they all agreed on one thing: Despair is the sickness of the soul, the sickness unto death in which animal experimenting can offer no cure.

Philosophically, the cause of nihilism explained Arthur  Schopenhauer (whose idea was influenced by Buddhism) is: "History shows us the life of nations and finds nothing to narrate but wars and tumults; the peaceful years appear only as occasional brief pauses and interludes.  In just the same way,  the life of the individual is a constant struggle, and not merely a metaphorical one against want or boredom, but also an actual struggle against other people. He discovers adversaries everywhere, lives in continual conflict."   The mentality of contemporary life style is similar to that of Epicurean view: "To maximize one's pleasure in life", but can one escape the sickness of the soul?

Ironically, while animal habitats are shrinking, losing their food sources, human population is escalating along with the problem of obesity-the main reason is from over consuming animal flesh. Most health magazines are saturated with successful stories for weight loss; yet their efforts have been difficult.  

At this point, there is only one most urgent question: How to achieve a balance between human longevity and a healthy functioning planet? When glaciers are melting fast and marine lives are drowning in thick oil, when other species are quietly vanishing, how are we going to face ourselves-a lone creature riddled with quilt and confusion? Why suicide is common among young people when their lives supposed to full of hopes and dreams?

The atmosphere of the post modern world is a silent mourning. To quote Eugene Thacker's words: "A kind of inverted memorial, to bear witness to the creation of a nothingness at the heart of the world".  The barrier that we had created between them and us, nature versus technology is the main cause of a new kind of environmental nihilism.

An Out of Date Paradigm

Since the industrial revolution, the progress we have achieved till present days, has been mostly on the material plane. Our sense of justice and moral obligation is still lagging behind. Even the great apes, who share over 99% of our human active genes, are not spared from being used for medical research. 

In present days, the US is the only remaining large scale user of chimpanzees in research in the world. Many are used in labs to study heart disease. This is just one example of the medical tunnel vision. Heart disease, the leading cause of death in most countries, has its genetic factors but also associated with obesity, poor life style, environmental stress, substance abuse and high animal fat consumption due to the widespread of fast food industry. A rational and less costly strategy to combat heart disease would be to focus on health education and stress management. To spend millions of dollars on researching animals that do not have such disease is not only unethical but also a waste of money.

For the last three hundred years, western medicine has been primarily using a mechanical model to understand diseases. Clinical studies have been mainly focusing on isolated body parts-the organs and the systems, ignoring the organic components of a whole person, which include the social, biological, psychological and environmental factors.  Arguably, the use of animal model as research paradigm has been long out of date, yet both the industries and research institutes are resistant to change.  

Should the wellbeing of one species be obtained at the expense of another? What if other intelligent creatures from another solar system decide to use homo sapiens for lab research? Say, to study space travel, organ transplant or human behavior/psychology in a control setting? Would we fight for our dignity right? Would we argue for ethical reasons? Perhaps this is why Stephen Hawkins, a physicist and a cosmologist, advises others best not to make contact with possible aliens in outer space.

Most research scientists share one common claim for their work, that is: To save life, to work for the benefit of humanity as if medicine can eventually  prevent death. Can we ever win the battle against the inevitable end?

If saving human life is such a noble deed, and no one is allowed to die voluntarily, then why are the law makers spending billions of dollars to develop weapons of mass destruction? Shouldn't we appropriate the money for humanitarian efforts? to protect the environment? to fund health education as preventative medicine which is less costly in health care management?  

Science studies facts of life, invents things and create technology. But knowledge requires philosophical investigation and the wisdom from contemplation.  Scientific research can only advance with a new ethical paradigm that is based on reason and deep ethics.

Ethics and Health

People are living healthier and longer today but they are still living in internal discord. The practice of health in a commercial age has become a practice of excessive use of drugs and supplements along with endless ways of serving the physical self. How do we evaluate health not influenced by propagandas? Surely physical health is essential to all life but the health of each individual, each species must relying on a healthy, functioning environment. Ultimately, the practice of health and ethics is inseparable.

Henry D. Thoreau in his "Walden" wrote: "Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant's truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails." True health is not purely physiological- measured by medical tests. It also has to do with one's internal spiritual and moral harmony based on a reciprocal relations with a larger life: What one requires for personal well being must consider the wellbeing of the whole.

Throughout ages, wise men have always lived a tranquil and ethical life. Their deep interior peace comes from a detached mind. Mystics and visionaries like Jesus Christ, Pythagoras, Plato, Plutarch,  Tolstoy, Gandhi...they all practiced non-violence and were also vegetarians. In their eyes, the pursuit of power and wealth reflects a spiritual poverty. Ethics means a profound good will, a vitality-as self opening to a larger life (and to both life and death). The meaning of health, without incorporating a spiritual dimension, would be restricted to merely bodily function. What about the mind? A heart of darkness does not know what happiness is.

What Is Justice? What makes all lives equal?

Happiness comes from a kind heart and a sense of justice, this view is generally agreed among the early Greeks. What is true justice? In Plato's Republic, book II-a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon (Plato's brother) on "What is justice?" Glaucon, as the antagonist, argues that justice is defined by those in power in order to benefit themselves (this explains why humans exclude other animals from moral duty). Socrates disagrees; he firmly believes that a just person would never harm others. He also thinks that being just is itself an end, not as means to achieve personal interest. A just person reflects a well-ordered soul, the embodiment of the three cardinal virtues: Temperance, wisdom and courage.  The desire to have power, in politics and religion, is the cause of unjust treatment to others.

Indeed, we have been paying a heavy price by insisting on a partial and unjust moral view. At the end, the winner is the real loser. The real cure for our illnesses is essentially a spiritual matter. True health comes from one's inner harmony, the cultivation of wisdom and good will. For Socrates,  living well and justly are the same thing.

Diseases and death would matter less if one lives with a sense of connectedness, a sense of being a part of a larger life. For everything has a shared life.  All lives are born equal; each living being has its own worth, not to be judged by the will of another. Be it a chimpanzee, a cow or a human being, each has the cognitive ability to solve problems (even a tiny ant) and has self-awareness of its environment. Every individual animal knows how to use sound and gestures to communicate their feelings and thoughts with others. Their facial expressions soften when sensing affection, their hearts beat faster, bodies tense up when sensing danger and hostility very much  like the humans.

Taoism, a naturalistic philosophy, honors the sanctity of all lives, in that every living being should be allowed to act according to its natural inclination without being forced to be something else. In other words, a cow is not beef, a calf is not veal, a lamb is not mutton, a pig is not pork.

What Is Virtue?

The Greek tragedies are full of stories about the wretchedness of life. The condemnation of Sisyphus is a reflection of human condition. How to rise above one's existential peril? How to achieve happiness? For the early Greeks and Chinese thinkers, the way to happiness is by living a harmonious and virtuous life. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle agrees with Socrates that by cultivating virtue and reason, one can achieve "Eudaimonia"-meaning happiness and well-being. He also thinks that a person will not be affected by misfortunes even on a large scale if he is guided by a rational and a virtuous soul, for he is able to rise above the disaster.  

Socrates asserts that an unexamined life is not worth living. It also implies that an unexamined ethical view (not knowing the right value), is not worth following. For Socrates, virtue is the most important element for humanity. Being virtuous, one naturally acts justly and with kindness; this is the key to happiness and true health. "Virtue" in Chinese implies a benevolent action from the straight gaze into the heart" (translated by Ezra Pound).  Another word "compassion", actually contains two words: "Chih" means kindness and "Bei" means sadness. One feels sad at the straight gaze of a suffering being and acts spontaneously from the heart.

Albert Schweitzer, in his 1959 Brussels lecture said: "Ethics are complete, profound, and alive only when addressed to all living beings. Only then are we in spiritual connection with the world. Any philosophy not respecting this, not based on the indefinite totality of life, is bound to disappear..."  He further said: "We find ourselves in a new movement of thought...and we reject the idea that man is the master of other creatures."  Schweitzer had thought that even traditional philosophy tends to ignore the discussions on the moral status of animals.

Deep Ethics-A New Spirituality

The cure for nihilism can be found if we look to the animal world. Outside the human domain, other free animals have always been able to enjoy their life, in sky and ocean, in deep forest and remote desert, they are the will and joy of life.

What was the spiritual aspect of the Romantic Idealism? It's the celebration of nature and as inspiration for artists, writers, philosophers and educators; they see animals are the shapes, eyes and voices of the earth. Animals are content in their own environment and take only what needed to survive, even vicious predators like lions and tigers, they will leave their animals of prey in peace when they are not hungry.

We share the animal joy when listening to the birds singing in the wake of dawn, the chirring lullaby of crickets at night, or the coyotes howling in nearby hills as if from a wild dream. They are happy because they are free! We also find companionship with canine friends-their calm breathing by our side tells a deep trust that is hard to find among our own kind.

What is animal spirituality? That is, each day is a new day, each moment is eternity. Not living in the regret of the past, nor fearing the future. This is the essence of Zen, the way of Tao. These are the poetic aspects of  "Animality"-a concept discussed in contemporary philosophy. It serve as the connecting link between humans and non-humans.  Animality is the new locus to replace the transcendental ontology.  This new locus is the ground of our beings, fully alive, visible and palpable, not paralyzed by machines.

Animality, implies a natural spirituality as it opens to a realm of contemplation. Heidegger, in his "Being and Time", differentiates between things (their modes are equipmental, as means to ends) and beings. For him, the earth is a living mystery, perceived as "the self opening into a broad path".  If I may take his view further, the earth is the ground of animal beingness, it must refuse our labeling, using and appropriation.

Deep ethics goes beyond human interest, it is when we are being touched by the impulse of life's mystery and the remembrance of where we all came from.

I hope the questions that I raise here concerning moral duty and the analysis of the dichotomy and dis-continuity between humans and non-human sentient are able to stimulate critical thinking in an arena less explored in conventional philosophy. A reasonable persuasion would be for humans to give up the sovereignty over nature's law abiding residents. The meaning of healthy living is to be found in nature's broad paths-its wild diversity and undomesticated existence. 

After words

As I am writing this essay, the National Institute of Health is planning to transfer 220 chimpanzees that have been retired since 2001 from Alamogordo, New Mexico to a research lab in Texas. This news has generated public outrage in New Mexico, the U.S. and from people around the world. At the same time, "The Great Ape Protection Act-H.R.1326" has been reintroduced in the house, if passed, it will end invasive biomedical research and testing on about 1000 chimpanzees in US laboratories. www.releasechimps.org/mission/change-laws/the-great-ape-protection-act/ .  The European Union has already announced its ban on experimenting great apes. The moral irony is that we use great apes for bio-medical research because of our genetic similarity but we refuse to grant them moral rights because we argue from the differences. Even a sophist would find such self-contradictory argument unconvincing.

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