Monday, October 8, 2012

Greed as a moral position

Writing about the banking bailouts, political philosopher Michael Sandel wrote:

“ have to introduce some normative assumption about what is excessive pursuit of gain in order to make sense of greed as a vice independent of the self-interest that all of the economic models presuppose."

Greed is regularly promoted as a reasonable moral position and passed off as the simple self-interest that does and ought to drive most of our decisions, ala Adam Smith Ayn Rand. [as per JB.]

Inspector Jacques Clouseau put it aptly when he characterized politics, but he could have easily been talking about any number of human institutions: “Where greed wears the mask of morality.”

Greed is the desire to possess more than one needs or deserves, especially at a cost to others. Definitions of greed sometime mention power, food, or “other possessions.” It seems to me that “other possessions” could reasonably be construed to mean things like health, life, and liberty. Greed is the desire to acquire things, no matter what they are, especially when the acquisition or accumulation of these things denies others their legitimate need for, or access to those same things.

Killing you in an effort to extend my life seems to be a version of greed. I would be denying your legitimate needs.

The same could be said of locking you up. If I am rewarded in some way for keeping you in a cell or cage, I am acquiring something at your great expense.

Likewise, making you sick in order to produce a cure for me is greedy because the thing I want costs you something you have a legitimate need for. It’s the same as taking food out of your mouth for myself.

Keeping animals in labs, on farms, ranches, in zoos, aquariums, and circuses, or killing them for profit or for pleasure, all seem to be driven by greed. We want something more and go after it by harming or killing others.

Our desire for the taste of someone else’s flesh seems matter-of-factly greedy, particularly in light of our apparent insatiable demand for more and more prepared in ever new ways – this form of greed is sometimes called gluttony, but gluttony is too broad a term. It’s greed when the desire for food is a desire to eat someone else.

The justification we use almost always boils down to “might makes right.” If we can do a thing, then it’s OK to do it, so long as the one or ones harmed are just animals.

Dale Peterson says in The Moral Lives of Animals (2011) that the justification goes something like this: “In any significant competition between the interest of humans and animals, humans have the moral right to win. This is so because it is so.”

This is so because it is so.

That seems right. Most people who consume animals or products made from them don’t pause to consider the matter – they don’t generally know there is a matter, and if they paused for a moment to reflect, they’d probably justify their burger with something akin to: we eat burgers. Simple.

The moral right to win. This is so because it is so. This seems to be the depth of consideration by many people in the labs as well. At one of last year’s pubic “forums” on animal research put on by the University of Wisconsin, Madison, vivisectors Jon Levine and David Abbott were asked a question about the lack of similarity between the way they thought of the animals they were going to experiment on and kill the way they thought of humans.

They were befuddled. It was as if the person asking it had been speaking Old Hungarian; the question was lost on them. They are stuck in the mindset of this is so because it is so.

But even when you can prod vivisectors or other animal abusers into mustering some defense for what they do, other than this is so because it is so, it invariably boils down to greed. The greed, in the case of most arguments put forward to defend experiments on animals, is usually couched in terms that vivisectors must (rightly, I think) imagine will appeal to a majority of people. They argue that any suffering or death is justified if it has even a vanishingly slim chance of leading to some new product or method that will have some benefit at some future time for someone – no matter how slight, how far in the future, or how few people benefit. Pie in the sky is reason enough.

They don’t put it like that of course; the spiel tailored for the public is that they are saving human lives. But that’s just spin. They aren’t. They’re just not comfortable mentioning the real reasons in public. Greed isn’t a justification that most people will accept and vivisectors know intuitively that greed isn’t a winning moral position. But greed is the unvarnished truth.

It’s common to hear vivisectors in academic settings say that they could make much more money in the private sector. They make this claim to show that they are genuinely altruists and that greed isn’t what motivates them. But the private sector tends to prune out the dead wood, and a cushy tenured lifetime job that doesn’t require much effort or sweat isn’t a sacrifice. And the money isn’t bad either. Vivisectors aren’t part of the middle class, not by a long shot. They commonly live in up-scale neighborhoods, in large homes, drive expensive cars, and take vacations that the average person only dreams about. They go on junkets to conferences around the world, hobnob with senior politicians and elites, and did I mention that they get paid very well too?

No, it’s very far-fetched to think that someone living that lifestyle is sacrificing anything at all. And they are always clamoring for more gravy in the form of taxpayer money. It’s plain old greed. It’s greed because the evidence that their work is more or less dead-end isn’t hidden, but they prefer to turn away from it and argue that they are saving lives. But a dollar spent drilling a hole in a rat’s or monkey’s head is a dollar not spent to feed a hungry child or to provide a homeless person a warm safe haven in the dead of winter.

Another strong piece of evidence that seems to show that vivisectors are driven by greed rather than altruism is the comparison between them and doctors, nurses, and teachers when it comes to volunteerism.

Doctors, nurses, and teachers are well represented among the ranks of volunteers around the world. Nurses and teachers are common in the Peace Corps. Doctors Without Borders is known around the world for its humanitarian efforts. Not so much with vivisectors. If a lucrative taxpayer-funded grant isn’t part of the deal, or a cushy position in the ivory towers, you won’t find someone strapping a monkey into a chair and injecting chemicals into their eyes. Their alleged concern for their fellow man seems dependent on a lavish reward.

Where greed wears the mask of morality.

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