Thursday, November 20, 2008

Quantum of Solace

If we have the power, we ought to alleviate suffering. This is a proposition that unites talk about bailouts, abortion, veganism, whales and sonar, and, indeed, virtually everything on which people disagree and then claim their opponents are in the wrong. Over the years, Dorf on Law has produced compelling arguments about all of the aforementioned (OK—maybe not the whales, but I gave it a shot). But it remains, in my mind, beyond our power to convince people of very much at all about suffering in politics—at least if they aren’t already predisposed to hear you out and decide afresh. Many minds means many disparate calculations about how much suffering, how much power, and the value of action in the uncertain and imperfect world we actually inhabit. Seems trite to say out loud—but the devil is in the details (of persuasion).

Take veganism. It is one step beyond “vegetarianism” properly understood because it also rules dairy products like milk out of one’s diet (among other things). As Neil pointed out in his excellent post on the subject, vegans won’t drink milk at least in part because of the way in which dairy cows are treated: they are kept perpetually pregnant and the calves that result become the very same victims that eating veal creates. The increment of suffering that is caused, at least in an attenuated fashion, by one’s purchasing milk is reason enough not to do so for vegans. But now imagine trying to persuade someone else with that increment. What about the dairy farmers your practice will put out of business, assuming it catches on? What kind of suffering will that cause? Are humans capable of deeper, more affectual suffering than the calves milk-drinkers are torturing? If so, how many farmers out of business would it take to cancel out the small contribution to calf-suffering your drinking milk is causing? A high ratio? A low ratio? Even the pioneers in comparative ethology like Donald Griffin never argued that animal suffering is just like human suffering. Grow up in farm country and watch farmers’ kids live in poverty if you think this isn’t real or causal.

Another objector might calculate that what we really need is a synthetic bovine hormone which induces lactation in non-pregnant cows. Not buying milk will do little on that score. You might better work for stem cell research funding; go to work on Tom Daschle this person concludes. Others would expect that that improved system would still generate some cruelty and question the strategy for that reason.

Still others would (rightly, in my view) worry about the greenhouse gas spikes and other environmental costs of switching lots of rich consumers to an exclusively plant diet. Brazil’s loss of rainforest sped up incredibly as soy and other agricultural commodity prices jumped (deflation does has some advantages, although I haven’t heard anyone predict serious drops in bushel prices yet). Would greater demand for soy-as-food extend such trends? It’s hard to say. Want to alleviate a lot of primate suffering? Stop the bushmeat trade . . . somehow. Every ounce of effort you put into veganism is effort you can’t put into ending the bushmeat trade—unless you’ve somehow found a way to eliminate the opportunity costs that every meaningful action entails.

These kinds of practical conundrums are probably what give us milquetoast (forgive the pun) measures like Proposition 2—which pass by wide margins I might add.

In my experience, the closer you get to practical certainty on suffering averted, the quicker people are to hear you out and decide afresh. Hence the ease with which you can convince someone to go buy something that will make them happier (hence, advertising). Certainty about one’s own person is much easier to come by than certainty about systemic questions and the value of actions in dynamic systems. The suffering people imagine in their own lives from giving up every single animal-based product stunts the ranks of veganism for sure. This makes a lot of arguments about consumer activism into ultimately unsatisfying affairs.

And it is what makes me think that politicking on climate change won’t get us very far as long as it’s consequentialist in nature. There are too many points at which parts of any coalition will predictably peel off (even in good faith) because of the likely suffering of lives in being from making changes with short-term economic consequences. As others have argued at length lately, the future will almost certainly be richer than us, right? (Incidentally, if we can’t quantify so much of what makes Earth Earth, why do we really think this? We are almost certainly leaving the future a biotically impoverished Earth.) Arguments about meaningful action on climate change are too easily bogged down not to think seriously about shifting the political focus to aesthetics, poetics, and other, similar sorts of reasons for action. Our problem going forward on climate change is as much or more about communications and calculations as it is about greed and selfishness. If you’re going to talk about suffering, though, I say be prepared for a fight.

Posted by Jamie Colburn