Expanding the Circle 3

The Moral Frontier

So what’s next? Where else shall we consider expanding the circle? What moral progress might we be on the verge of making?

Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832)
Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah has advanced three criteria for identifying a practice that is on the verge of being widely condemned as immoral – practices that we now engage in that our great-grandchildren will look back at us with something like the moral disdain with which we look back at, say, witch prosecutors or slaveholders.

First criteria, the arguments against the practice have been around for a while. People have heard them, and the arguments are simmering in the back of our collective consciousness. For instance, the case against slavery didn't suddenly pop up in an instantaneous transformative insight -- a blinding moment of moral clarity. The moral argument against slavery had been around for centuries. It just took a while for it to really sink in. Arguments for women’s suffrage were around a long time even before the 1848 Seneca Falls convention more-or-less officially kicked off the US suffrage movement – and it took 72 years after that before women’s suffrage was won.

Second criteria for a practice beginning to become ripe for moral condemnation: Even those who defend it don’t offer a moral defense. They don’t say, “this is right.” Rather, they argue from tradition, or human nature, or necessity. Defenders of slavery said, “We have to have slaves to get the cotton crop in.” Or “this is how we’ve always done it.” Or “it’s human nature for some people to give the orders and others to obey them.”

The third criterion is that we see a lot of pushing the issue out of our minds. At some level we do know it’s wrong, but we just put it out of mind. We don’t want to think about it. But we can ignore something only so long before the inevitable return of the repressed. Those who ate the sugar or wore the cotton that the slaves grew simply didn't think about what made those goods possible. It was the abolitionists’ job to make clear and vivid the slave conditions so that it couldn’t be ignored.

Appiah then applies these criteria and discerns four areas most likely to be on the verge of change – change that will leave our descendants judging us immoral for allowing certain practices to continue as long as they did.

Our prison system. There is no good reason for having over 2 million people behind bars, nor for subjecting them to the horrors and abuse typical of our prisons.

Our warehoused elderly. Another 2 million of our citizens, the elderly, are warehoused in nursing homes, out of sight, out of mind, cut off from families, often treated abysmally.

Arguments against these atrocities have been around a long time, no one defends them on moral grounds, and their persistence is enabled only because we push it out of mind. How did we as a people let that happen?

These are two areas where we’ve seen the circle of concern and respect contract. We didn’t used to be so awful about imprisoning so much of our population or warehousing so many elderly, and for those who did go to prison or a nursing home, we didn’t use to treat them so badly. We’ve written them off – out of the circle of concern and respect. The expanding circle will need to take them back in again.

A third issue is environmental destruction. Expand the circle to take in our planet itself.

The fourth issue that Appiah mentions is the cruelty of meat production. It meets the criteria for an issue where our moral perspective is getting ready to shift.

First: have the arguments been around a long time and had a chance to sink in? Yes. It has been 230 years since British philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote:
“The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ Nor, ‘Can they talk?’ But, ‘Can they suffer?’…The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes.”
Second: do even the defenders not offer a moral defense? In fact, they do not. People who eat factory-farmed bacon, or hamburgers, or chicken rarely offer a moral justification for what they're doing. Those who do it, do it from habit. We choose foods for comfort, I believe, and habits are comforting. We put out of our minds the stomach-turning stories about what the animals went through to give their flesh to our comfort habits at the lowest possible price.

And that’s the third criterion: is the issue generally just pushed out of mind? Yes, it is.
“Ten billion animals are slaughtered for human consumption each year. And, unlike the farms of yesteryear where animals roamed freely, today most animals are factory farmed -- crammed into cages where they can barely move and fed a diet tainted with pesticides and antibiotics. These animals spend their entire lives in crates or stalls so small that they can’t even turn around. Farmed animals are not protected from cruelty under the law -- in fact, the majority of state anticruelty laws specifically exempt farm animals from basic humane protection.” (Appiah)
It’s not the killing of them that I think will earn our great-grandchildren’s greatest condemnation. We all have to die. It’s the unconscionable suffering we make them endure while they live.
“At least 10 million [cattle] at any time are packed into feedlots, saved from the inevitable diseases of overcrowding only by regular doses of antibiotics, surrounded by piles of their own feces, their nostrils filled with the smell of their own urine. Picture it -- and then imagine your grandchildren seeing that picture.”
We will be at an embarrassing loss, for there is no good explanation for why we do that to our fellow creatures. So miserable do we make their lives that killing them is the kindest thing we do.

We rationalize that their suffering doesn’t count. And why doesn’t it? Yes, it’s real pain, yes, they are beings capable of rich emotional lives. Their brain’s mechanisms of wanting – wanting to be free, and free of pain – work pretty much the way your brain or mine would want those things.

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This is part 3 of 4 of "Expanding the Circle"
Next: Part 4
Previous: Part 2
Beginning: Part 1

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