I was just thinking about the classic “moral relativism” example cited by Herodotus whereby he notes that the Callatians eat their dead while the Greeks do not.

This seems to be replayed in our time in the question of the Japanese practice of eating live animals. The reactions of the Westerners are predictable, it is barbaric, it is cruel, etc, etc.

I can’t help think of a quote commonly misattributed to Bismarck that, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” The cruelty of Western animal factory farms are well known, but the horror which greets the Japanese who are willing to eat frogs still blinking on their plates or octopuses still wiggling is not so much that the sum of sufferings endured by that animal is less than that of the animals in the factory farm but that the Japanese dared to eat it right in the face of it suffering and dying. The preparation of animals for consumption, it seems, would inspire outrage to the proportion as we know, and see, how they are made.

As a Chinese, I am a little ambivalent. I definitely would not have the stomach to eat a frog or octopus live, but I’m not entirely certain why that is cruel or barbaric. Maybe I have a souless insect-like Asian mind, or maybe I’ve been reading too much Daniel Dennett, but I can’t help but think of “consciousness” or “soulfulness” as coming in degrees, and the more developed and sophisticated the cognitive system, the more “soul” it has. Thus, the suffering of frogs and squid like creatures inspires very little outrage or righteous indignation in me, anymore than I would be outraged at the squishing of an insect. They seem more like organic robots rather than as possessing any true sentience. (And this goes for sharks as well! Those fins, yum yum!)

Compare this to foie gras or the French delicacy of eating duck’s liver. The duck’s liver is fattened through a process of gavage where farmers force feed the ducks by sticking a tube down their throat and pumping food directly into their stomachs. Because ducks are, or at least we think, more sentient, this seems to me more cruel and terrible than simply eating frog or octopus sashimi still wringing on my plate. Thus, as Daniel Dennett would say, there isn’t a magical line separating the state of consciousness from non-consciousness, but consciousness comes in degrees and to how elaborate and developed one’s cognitive or information processing system is. Not all suffering is equal on this conception, but suffering is a function of one’s degree of consciousness…

Assuming the premise that we are going to eat animals anyway, and in so doing cause their deaths, the question of “ethical eating” may not so much as to be minimising death but that of suffering. But if suffering is itself simply a function of how “humanlike” the animal undergoing the suffering is, that is, the degree in which we believe or think that the animal has a cognitive system comparable to ours… isn’t this just a bit of anthropomorphism, of projecting human qualities unto non-human entities, in the same way that we project divine agencies to volcanoes and thunderstorms? Descartes, for example, believed that all animals, without exception, are essentially organic robots, and that humans alone have consciousness.

We tend to think that consciousness is something special and unique to humankind, and therefore debate as to whether humanity has it or not. But what if, as per Daniel Dennett, consciousness is simply a location for concentrated information processing, and that it is not a special feature of humanity but in fact distributed throughout the entire universe in different degrees, a sort of Berkeleyian/Hegelian idea of the universe as essentially one vast mind-like entity, or in modern terms, a vast data or information system?


In any case, I think this provides a rather interesting take on why moral relativism continues to be a respectable opinion amongst the learned, having its pedigree in ancient Greece no less. It is not that people disagree on broad abstract principles (e.g. justice, do good, avoid evil, promote happiness, avoid suffering, etc), the problem is that we disagree as to the application as well as the meaning of those principles, meanings which are highly dependent upon philosophical schemes. Do animals have souls? Insects? Do they suffer? How much? Is the unborn a life? Does consciousness comes in degrees or is it a qualitative fact? Who about life? Is death an absolute evil to be avoided -at all cost- or does life come in degrees such that there are some quality of life so bad they are “better off dead”?

In this, I think the truth of moral relativism is this: moral relativism is simply a function of philosophical relativism and disagreement on philosophical schemes…

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