Friday Links

–A challenge to libertarians on the coecivene power of private entities.

–A.O. Scott on superhero movies as a Ponzi scheme.

–Richard Beck of Experimental Theology on why he blogs.

–A political typology quiz from the Pew Research Center. (I scored as a “solid libera.l” Although I’d take issue with the way some of the choices were presented.)

–An end to “bad guys.”

–Def Leppard’s Hysteria and the changing meaning of having a “number 1” album.

–The folks at the Moral Mindfield have been blogging on the ethical implications of killing bin Laden, from a variety of perspectives.

–Ta-Nehisi Coates on Abraham Lincoln and slavery.

–Marvin had a good post earlier this week on the death of bin Laden and Christian pacifism.

–Christopher has a post on problems with the language of “inclusion” and “exclusion” in the church.

–I don’t always agree with Glenn Greenwald, but I’m glad he’s out there asking the questions he asks. He’s been blogging up a storm this week on the circumstances surrounding bin Laden’s death.

–Brandon has a concise summary of the history behind Cinco de Mayo.

ADDED LATER: How do you feed 10 billion people? By eating less meat for starters.

Friday Links

Somewhat abbreviated…

–Here’s the Red Cross disaster newsroom page for donations and updates on today’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

–How climate change can lead to increases in earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic activity.

–The Christian Century responds to B.R. Myers’ anti-foodie polemic, drawing some useful distinctions.

–A study finds that chickens are capable of empathy.

–Lent is for solidarity.

–What’s next for Wisconsin?

–An excerpt from the new edition of Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics on killng animals, with responses by several other philosophers.

Friday Links

–Why Washington doesn’t care about jobs.

–At the Moral Mindfield, Marilyn has more on the question of whether welfare reforms benefit animals raised for food.

–Metallica’s classic album Master of Puppets turned 25(!) yesterday. This was the first real metal album I ever heard, and it’s still one of the best.

–NPR’s “First Listen” is streaming the new REM album in its entirety.

–For all the sci-fi nerd parents of small children out there: Goodnight, Dune.

–David Brooks will decide when it’s time for you to die.

–A lecture from Peter Singer: Evolution versus ethics.

–From the blog Experimental Theology, a series of posts on universalism: part 1, part 2, and part 3.

–How all the extra noise created by human beings affects animals.

–On James Alison and discipleship.

–Peter Gomes, the black, Republican (at least until late in his life), openly gay Baptist preacher who was the long-time minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church, died unexpectedly from complications associated with a stroke this week. Michael Westmoreland-White has an overview of Gomes’ life and work.

–Two good ones from Fred Clark at the (newly moved!) Slacktivist: The epistemology of Team Hell and Should I not be concerned?

–In honor of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day on March 9th, Oxfam is “raising awareness about hunger, climate change, and other crises facing women worldwide.”

ADDED LATER: Glad to see Marvin back in action with posts on Christian Taoism, the politics of union-busting, and the Rob Bell-universalism brouhaha.

Friday links

–Do extraterrestrials have original sin?

–Brandon on Sam Harris’s argument for a science of morality

–How to build a progressive tea party

–Fox News thinks there’s only one English translation of the Bible

–This critique of Mad Men from the New York Review of Books scores some points

–A video (in two parts) featuring the late philosopher G.A. Cohen making the case against capitalism

–Theo Hobson on the religious crisis of American liberalism

–The case for casting Parks and Recreation’s Rashida Jones as Lois Lane in the upcoming Superman reboot

Varieties of “humane”

From Grist, a run-down of the various schemes to label meat and other animal products as “humane” or its equivalent. Some key points:

– There are no legally enforced definitions of “humane” (the same holds for “all-natural,” “sustainable,” “cage-free,” etc.); only products labeled “organic” are legally required to meet certain standards.

– There are both industry-produced and independent schemes for determining if producers meet certain standards. Industry-led programs typically have no third-party audits to ensure compliance.

– Even the independent third-party standards (e.g., Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane) vary widely in the specific requirements they make. For instance, in the case of laying hens, whether access to outdoor space is required or debeaking is prohibited.

At times, I wonder if all this futzing around with labeling schemes is merely tinkering with the machinery of death (to borrow a phrase from Supreme Court justice Harry A. Blackmun) and whether the only sensible policy is strict vegetarianism. On the other hand, I’m as guilty as anyone: I buy “cage-free” eggs and feel better about myself, even though I really have no idea how the birds are treated. Either way, there are good reasons to be concerned with what the article calls “humane-washing” and, if we’re concerned about animal well-being, to make sure that these kinds of labeling programs have teeth.

Christopher on “marriage as discipleship”

Christopher makes some important points here, offering a corrective, I think, to some of the things I said here. For Christians, marriage isn’t just about “happiness,” but as Christopher rightly points out, it’s also a way of living out our discipleship. Or in Lutheran terms, it’s a vocation that allows us to learn to love the neighbor in a particular context. This doesn’t refer just to loving our spouses and children (if any), but also making our households blessings for the larger community. A household turned in on itself–concerned solely for its own prosperity and happiness, say–falls short of what Christians are called to. This may be a particularly countercultural word that the Christian understanding of marriage offers today.

Ethics and human-animal relationships

Philosopher Clare Palmer provides a summary of her new book Animal Ethics in Context (via Scu). The intent of her book, according to Prof. Palmer, is to

argue that animals’ capacities, while important, are not all that’s morally relevant. We need to take context and relation into account as well—just as we do in the human case.

It’s often argued in ethical theory that particular relations can underpin special moral obligations—relations such as creating a dependent child, or being causally implicated in harming others. If we create someone who needs us to thrive, or if we set back the interests of someone who would otherwise have flourished, we owe them something special that we don’t owe to people in general. I argue that some human-animal relations have a similar structure.

I think there’s something plausible about this. We often do ascribe moral weight to particular relations (of family, friendship, etc.), and it also makes sense that this would hold in animal-human relations (I have special obligations to my pets/companion animals, for instance). In fact, Mary Midgley’s Animals and Why They Matter explored some of this territory with her notion of the “mixed” human-animal community. Stephen R.L. Clark has made similar points.

What I’m less sure of is whether relationships can do as much ethical work as Palmer seems to be suggesting, at least based on her summary. Consider our dealings with our fellow human beings: just because I don’t have a prior relationship with someone, it doesn’t follow that they fall into the moral outer darkness where I have no obligations to assist them. I may well have an obligation to help people on the other side of the planet simply because their need is great, not because we share some special relationship. Might the same not be true, other things being equal, of our duties to animals? I certainly agree that as a general rule, we shouldn’t go mucking around in otherwise healthy ecosystems in order to protect the well-being of individual animals. But that may be because in the long run such interference would actually harm the well-being of a greater number of living creatures, not because we don’t have obligations to help those animals. In fact, it seems plausible that we have an obligation to foster the well-being of ecosystems because we have duties among other things, to foster the well-being of individual creatures.

This is somewhat speculative of course; I’d like to read the book to see where she goes with this.

EDIT: See also this post.

New social ethics blog

Readers may be interested in this new(ish) blog: The Moral Mindfield. The about page says that it is “intended as an open forum for the discussion of the ethical dimensions of society and culture. …informed by philosophy, theology, and social theory, as well as other academic disciplines.” If I’ve got this right, the contributers are students at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and include Marilyn of Left at the Altar. Worth checking out.

The radical Lewis

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that many C. S. Lewis fans–maybe especially his many evangelical admirers–don’t know that Lewis wrote a pamphlet for the British Anti-Vivisection Society. This essay, reprinted later in God in the Dock, anticipates some key arguments since made by philosophical proponents of animal rights.

Lewis posits a dilemma for the defender of animal experimentation: either they hold that humans are metaphysically superior to (non-human) animals (he identifies this with the Christian view), or they believe that there is no inherent metaphysical difference between humans and other animals (he calls this the naturalistic or Darwinian view).

If one takes the first view, Lewis argues, it by no means follows that humans are entitled to treat animals any way they wish. “We may find it difficult to formulate a human right of tormenting beasts in terms which would not equally imply an angelic right of tormenting men” (“Vivisection,” God in the Dock, reprinted in The Collected Works of C. S. Lewis, p. 452). Or, we might add, an extraterrestrial right of tormenting men. Further, “we may feel that though objective superiority is rightly claimed for man, yet that very superiority ought partly to consist in not behaving like a vivisector” (p. 452). This turns the superiority argument on its head; Andrew Linzey has also made much of this line of thinking (see his Animal Theology and Why Animal Suffering Matters, among other works).

Of course, as Lewis notes, most of those who experiment on animals are not Christians with a belief in the metaphysical superiority of humanity, but Darwinian naturalists who see humans as just one species of animal among many (albeit one with certain unique characteristics). “We sacrifice other species to our own not because our own has any objective metaphysical privilege over others, but simply because it is ours” (pp. 452-3). But Lewis is quick to point out that if there is no great metaphysical gulf separating human from non-human animals, what reason is there to draw the line at the species barrier? If all that justifies our preference for our own species is sentiment, than wouldn’t sentiment also justify a preference for our own nation, class, or race? “Once the old Christan idea of a total difference in kind between man and beast has been abandoned, then no argument for experiments on animals can be found which is not also an argument for experiments on inferior men” (p. 453).

This argument similar to the one known as the “argument from marginal cases”–i.e., many non-human animals have the same cognitive abilities as so-called marginal humans (e.g., the severely mentally handicapped), so why are we justified in, say, experimenting on animals but not in experimenting on “marginal case” humans?

Of course, it’s open to the naturalist to admit the force of the argument and accept that we aren’t justified in experimenting on “marginal” humans or non-human animals. (James Rachels takes such an approach in his book Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism.) But this just concedes Lewis’s main point: once you do away with the “metaphysical” distinction between humans and animals, there is no rational ground for treating humans and non-human animals differently simply because they belong to different species.

Killer electronics

Derek flagged this article on the human cost of our insatiable demand for new electronic gadgets and asks what the proper Christian response would be.

My suggestion: most Americans wouldn’t pay $15k for an iPad (the amount the author estimates an iPad would cost if manufactured in the U.S.)–would they pay somewhat more than they do now if it meant workers got better treatment? Seems like we see this in other areas–”fair trade” coffee, chocolate, etc. What about fair trade electronics? Plus, paying slightly more might mean that we buy fewer gadgets and/or replace them less often, which would probably be good for us (and good for the environment, since most electronics are pretty toxic when disposed of).

More ambitiously, we need to make international trade fairer on a structural level so that it doesn’t reward the companies that treat their employees the worst and the governments that permit it.