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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Animals and Empathy: Social Imperatives and the Future

Disclaimer: No, this will not be a long diatribe about why we shouldn't eat animals and other such animal rights topics. It's a brief look at our attitudes towards animals and where the future will likely take us. It's related to science fiction. Honest.

We live in a curious world where humans clash with the remaining members of the animal kingdom on a regular basis. Disrespect for the animal is two-pronged, for on the one hand we must separate ourselves from them, because they are inferior beings, but on the other, we split the human species by defining those of us who do not fit a particular cultural norm as animal. Society is resistant to anything beyond these two extremes, because we have a culture that, in most parts of the world, relies on animals for everything from social interaction to sustenance. Imagine if we changed our ways and suddenly became like the extremists want us to be? We would have to rely so much on our own kind, and whether that is something possibility within the limits of human consciousness, I cannot say.

What I am getting at here isn't so much the need for a change in how we operate; I will always consume meat, because that is my personal preference. Rather, I am proposing an examination of human attitudes, an alteration of how we view our animal brethren, and even ourselves, and an acceptance of the social/cultural imperative to use animals as tools for our survival. Nothing is suspect about the necessity for emotional maturity. We are a complicated species, no less complex than the chimpanzee or the baboon, excempt insofar as our technology dictates complexity, and within us we have the ability to enjoy empathy. The future will, undoubtedly, involve a paradigm shift in our conscious acknowledgement of the animal; vegetarians, vegans, and others will influence how we perceive the other beings that inhabit this planet, and, I hope, for good reasons. Why should we not at least understand that a cow does not deserve to be treated poorly, even if we're just going to eat it when it gets big and strong?

I suspect our distance is one of necessity, because to love our fellow animals as much as we might love a pet dog would constitute the steady recurrence of the betrayal of a social trust. You would not, I presume, kill Benji the Dog after raising him from puppyhood to the adult dog he would become, unless his existence directly threatened your own--and even then, you would likely feel bad about it if you are part of the cultural norm that seems to revere these sorts of creatures, but loathes others.

Perhaps emotional distance is absolutely necessary, but such distance does not mean we cannot punish people like Michael Vick and even the myriad employees of slaughterhouses everywhere who find it necessary to mistreat the animals they will eventually butcher to feed the nation. These individuals make conscious decisions to cause pain to animals. Animals feel, even if they do not contain within their minds the ability to properly examine those feelings. Is it too much to ask that these animals get at least the most basic of comforts? After all, we grant death row inmates a final meal, and even read them their final rights, or whatever you call those religious prayers offered up as final penance for a lifetime of mediocrity. But, then we are back at square one: our resistance to the animal, to, perhaps, the unknown.

Otherness. That's what we often call this human imperative for separation. Built into the genetic structure of our kind, we are always considering new ways to segment ourselves from those that don't meet our personal, or even societal, norms. The nerd, now seemingly adored, was once a social pariah; so too were women and people of color, constantly ridiculed and made inferior because of the circumstances of their birth. One cannot forget the resistance to animality in human culture, this push to define ourselves by an arbitrary religious or personal idea as non-animal, as separate, always and forever, from our animal brethren. Damn science for telling us otherwise.

The future, however, may breed new life into the social apparatus of humanity. Slaughterhouses will become a thing of the past as artificial methods for cultivating meat become not only possible, but effective at recreating what we love so much in cows, pigs, and other edible creatures. While now we may scoff at the idea, it is only a matter of time before the consumption of the animal ceases to run parallel to the enormous quantities of slaughter and abuse. I would argue, here, that artificial forms of food production are essential to the survival of our species, unless someone can develop a method that suits all nations, all governments, and all peoples which can adequately reduce our population. Artificial means of production are the only way for our species to continue to feed itself and reproduce at our current rate, and even to potentially feed those that haven't the means to do so themselves.

That is the future, the utopian ideal that exists on the horizon. We can embrace it, or we can reject it, but ultimately, there will be a change, and our future selves will have to deal with it as it occurs. We cannot be resistant to change if it means sacrificing our ability to feel, or our ability to be human, or even biological beings equally as important to this planet as the bee or the rat or the elephant. But the assumption, of course, is that we are important, that we are special, in some way. True, we are special for existing, but the universe is a vast and complicated place, constantly making us realize how insignificant this little blue planet really is.

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  1. crvenka9:42 PM

    You make the important good point that humans, as other hunters in nature, must detach themselves from the prey animals we eat. But nothing in nature or human reality justifies deliberate infliction of pain and suffering. There is a huge psychological difference between the act of killing and the acts of torture and infliction of physical and emotional pain. Enjoyment of torture, enjoyment of the suffering of other sentient beings is not a healthy human trait. Normally, people feel physically ill when they witness extreme pain and suffering, whether of another human or an animal. That is the healthy reaction. Some of us unfortunately learn to override this normal reaction, and train themselves to ignore, or worse, enjoy the suffering of others. Contemporary media is unfortunately very guilty of training our minds to enjoy watching extreme suffering of others in the name of entertainment. That's why it is very important to keep a continued discussion of this issue, to keep reminding people that we are not born vicious, but to the contrary, we are empathic and cooperative creatures. We succeeded as a species because we are able to sympathize, and understand mutual benefit, and cooperate to achieve a common goal. So thank you for raising this important issue. Good on you. - Crvenka

  2. crvenka: I think the people who actually work in the slaughterhouses, etc. have to ignore their empathic responses, because they see death every day. They have to see animals as animals, not as complicated beings, otherwise it would be a job they could never do.

    That's not to say I think they are bad people, just that we have to come to a point where we still eat meat, but at least acknowledge the need for more ethical, humane treatment of the animals we put on our plates. We should still eat meat, but be nicer about it.