If I were of a particular Hindu bent, I'd be nearing the end of Grihastha, the second stage of life, and about to enter Vanaprastha, the third. My understanding is that one of the characteristics of this next stage is me sharing my hard-won knowledge with those still in stages 1 and 2. So I'm not sure what to make of it when an older git like me comes across something as new (to me, said older git) and as eye opening as the work of the often controversial Peter Singer.
It started with reading his recent "The Life You Can Save". In a nutshell it's a calm, unemotional, non-judgemental, but still-managing-to-jab-you-in-the-eye-with-a-hot-needle argument for why folk in the rich West, like me, and possibly you, really should be doing a lot more to help -- specifically, giving money to -- the world's poor. I'm not sure why I picked it up. I think it was because of another eye opening part of this mid-point of life, namely moving to the USA.
I've been here for over seven years now and I still believe the US message of liberty is profound and important. But I've observed two interlinked phenomena that leave me feeling bitterly disappointed and a wee bit sick. It was the combination that had left me primed to read Singer.
First, if the USA is the land of the free, then this place isn't the USA. Either that or some lunatics have taken over the place. I came here expecting to hear, and even participate in, the performance of a great symphony of freedom. Instead, I find that most of the musicians can't read their music, half the audience wouldn't know the good stuff even if it was engrossed on parchment and signed by fifty-six old white guys, and a vocal few of my fellow listeners even have the cheek to demand that me suggesting that it was never the composer's intention that the conductor transpose the first violin part up a semitone and have them play it at half speed, backwards means that I don't belong here. They lay on me a charge I've heard increasingly laid on anyone who in criticizing recent developments in the US is deemed to be criticizing the US itself. I've heard it most often from people who I can only assume have either never read the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, or have but have decided it no longer applies. Their criticism is of the form "Love It Or Leave It". And I agree; they should. It's been said before, but if you're willing to trade away your freedom to buy some safety, you don't deserve either.
But the second and sick-inducing phenomenon is the realization that what the USA is trading away its liberty for isn't actually safety per se. It's property. Stuff. Lexus's and TVs and Burgers, oh my. And it's not just some property, a little property, enough property. It's whatever it takes to satisfy, if that's ever possible, a ravenous, rapacious, revolting appetitite for as much property -- all the property dammit! -- as can be procured legally, bearing in mind that the procurers are also the law makers. Of course I've learned, in my seven years and counting (although at this rate I may well get kicked out by the "Love It Or Leave It" Yahoos) that in a 300 million strong nation, there is no such single thing as "an American". So the reason this second aspect turns my stomach is because whatever subset of the US population is guilty of the greed I describe, it turns out that I'm in it! I live in a 3000+ sq. ft. home; I have four cars, four TVs, and waaay more than enough burgers to provide 2,200 calories a day. Ich bin ein Ugly American!
So it was in that context -- the realization of both what the modern USA really is, and the guilt of seeing that I am part of it -- that led me to gingerly pick up Singer's book. My caution was because I kinda guessed that I was in for a rough ride, and in fact the book lay near the bottom of my "to read" pile for a month before I decided it let it jump the queue and to dive into it. I'm glad I did. It wasn't actually the kick in gut I expected; or rather, it was but the way he delivers it left me wanting more. I'll not say much more about the book itself at this point; leaving that instead for later posts. (I will, however, explain in a second why I'm delaying further exposition.) But with my appetite whetted, I then turned to the internet for more, and came across a Singer video on YouTube where my attention was caught by realizing that his concern for the poor of the world is actually only one manifestation -- and not even the one he is best known for -- of his deeper ethics.
Further internexploration led me to what is probably his best known work, "Animal Liberation". I purchased a copy a few days ago and am halfway through. I'm reading it constantly at the moment, fairly riveted. Again, I'll say not much more for now, but maybe later. The reason for that reticence, though, as with his poverty book, I will explain.
If Singer is right then in terms of helping human poverty, then I am an utter waste of space. Yes, I give money to charity; yes I'm an entrepreneur who has created jobs; yes I look after my family so no one else has to. But it's nothing -- no really, it's nothing -- in the grand scheme of things. If he's right -- if the accounts of tens of thousands of kids dying each week because of easily treatable conditions such as dehydration, if there really are young women suffering from obstetric fistula (go on, if you're a dad with daughters I challenge you to learn about that condition without developing a lump in your throat or a tear in your eye) -- then what the feck are we doing over here in the USA and Europe!? Really -- what are we thinking? And if he's right about what intensive factory farming -- or CAFOs -- requires us to do to other animals, then good grief what have I been eating for the fast four and half decades? I know, yes, it seems bizarre to speak of the suffering of some chickens and pigs only a few column inches away from talking about some heavy duty human suffering. But that's precisely Singer's point. Read him and you'll see.
If Singer is right then I'm simply embarassed, as at 47 I'm supposed to be preparing for Vanaprastha, to see for the first time what has been staring me in the face for the entire first half of my life. How did I manage to get this far and not notice what he's saying? I was raised a Catholic; at Primary School we regularly donated money to help the sensitively named "Black Babies" (later renamed to the only slightly more sensitive "Holy Childhood") in Africa and other such far away places. I know about poverty. And I don't know how many times I've been accosted on a Saturday afternoon on Glasgow's Sauchiehall ("sucky-hall" for you American types) Street by fanatical animal rights people shoving pictures in my face of monkeys in electric-shock-inducing apparatus. I know about animal experimentation etc. Whatever.
But the problem is, I have lived half my life without this stuff seriously impinging on my life. So that demands an explanation, and one possible explanation is that Singer isn't right. It doesn't make sense -- it's just not good science -- to ditch 47 years of world view on the reading of a couple of books, however well delivered, on such emotive subjects. And so I need some time to think about it. For one thing, I need to find some counters to Singer -- some good thinkers who can do for the defence what Singer is doing for the prosecution. I'd like to read someone of opposing views who can match what a New York Times Book Review said of Singer's "Animal Liberation":
"[His] documentation is unrhetorical and unemotional, his arguments tight and formidable, for he bases his case on neither personal nor religious nor highly abstract philosophical principles, but on moral positions most of us already accept".
If any of you know of such counters -- or if you have or would like to read Singer and then provide the counters yourself -- I'd be much obliged. In the meantime, I'll keep reading, pondering, and negotiating the darkling wood.