Pending Moral Changes?

The Future Will Judge Us, part 3

One more issue that Appiah identifies as ripe for change: Industrial Meat Production

Criterion one: The arguments have been around a long time. In fact, it has been 235 years since 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.”
Criterion two: The practice is not defended on moral grounds. People who eat factory-farmed bacon, or hamburgers, or chicken rarely offer a moral justification for what they're doing. Those who eat meat do it from habit.

Criterion three: The practice persists because we push out of mind what we know about it. 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.
“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)
Given the conditions in which these animals live, killing them is the kindest thing we do. Appiah offers this suggestion:
“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.”
Their eyes turn to you asking, how did you support that? What were you thinking?

We also know that the meat production industry produces 18% of all greenhouse gases – more than the entire transportation sector. If climate change is a concern (and it surely is), the one single most effective step would be to end meat production. Future generations will find it difficult to forgive us for our meat-eating comfort habits that bequeathed them an environmentally devastated planet.

It’s been six years since 2010 when Kwame Appiah's Washington Post column described the three criteria (HERE) -- an extract of one of the themes in his book of the same year: The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. In those six years, how have his predictions played out so far?

Regarding prisons, we have in fact seen the beginnings of a shift in thinking about prisons. Prison population peaked in 2009, and has begun to come down slightly amid attention to releasing more nonviolent offenders.

Regarding climate change, last summer’s Paris accords were an important step – though still only a small step.

The number of elderly in nursing homes had already begun declining when Appiah wrote in 2010. After increasing in the 80s and 90s, the number of Americans aged 65 and up living in nursing homes declined 20% since 2000. That’s pretty substantial.

Per capita meat consumption in the US gradually climbed for 50 years until it peaked in 2007, and has since fallen. So perhaps we are seeing shifts underway in all four of the areas that Appiah predicted.

One area that Appiah didn’t foresee when he wrote in 2010 was the increased attention to the ways black lives are treated as mattering less than white lives, from employment to medicine to housing to schools, to, particularly, differential treatment by police and courts. An African-American himself, Appiah did not foresee change in this area – and, indeed, it is too soon to say that change is really happening, yet.

But his criteria apply. The history of red-lining neighborhoods, intentionally creating segregated housing concentrating African-Americans into certain parts of town has been known for some time, as have been the statistics of differential treatment. And no one defends the differential treatment. American racism was just something that, those who could, preferred to push out of mind.

Another area Appiah didn’t mention was sexual assault. We have widely understood for a long time that rape was indefensible, but we haven’t treated it very seriously – at least not when committed by white middle- and upper-class men. In the last couple years, we’ve seen new attention to sexual assault on campus, culminating in the outrage over the light sentence given to Brock Turner, the Stanford freshman caught sexually assaulting a drunk and unconscious woman. We are beginning to realize – I hope – that neither testosterone nor alcohol excuses rape. We are beginning to realize – I hope – that young men, even when intoxicated, actually can control themselves if they want to, and that holding them accountable helps them want to.

Moral progress is never smooth. We take two steps back for three steps forward, and discover often that principles we thought were established have to be fought for again.

Moreover, sometimes conscientious and well-informed people do succeed in making a change that, like Prohibition, turns out not to have been progress at all.

Future generations will look back on us and wonder what we were thinking. The best we can do today is just try to make sure that we are thinking.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "The Future Will Judge Us"
See also
Part 1: What Were They Thinking?
Part 2: Three Issues We Prefer Not to Think About

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