It may well be that the person most qualified to be President of the United States is in fact the current President. I won’t make Mr. Obama’s greatness or lack thereof my theme. The fact is, however, that if the sole or main criterion for judging him is based on his commitment to peace, we would be in a sorry state. I admit there is much more to being qualified for the presidency than a commitment to pacifism, but I would like to explore the notions that collectively make a theory of pacifism. [My interest in the matter dates from 1984 when I was awarded a national summer fellowship to study pacifism and I focussed on the anti-pacifist views of Jan Narveson.]
While many would regard one’s idea about pacifism not to include any stance towards animals, that was not the view of the most famous pacifist of the 20th century – Mahatma Gandhi. For the Mahatma, pacifism and nonviolence are one thing. For most of us, that seems a stretch but let us not quibble about that for the moment. The quotation Gandhi is best remembered for (I think) is this: The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way it treats its animals.
Gandhi certainly believed was that any serious doctrine of nonviolence had to extend to animals. In America, the doctrine of nonviolence does not extend to animals. Those who preach there is too much violence in our country almost never have in mind the killing of deer, game birds, squirrels, etc. for fun and games. Those who are conscious of the deaths heaped upon animals generally want to draw a distinction between killing animals on the grounds of some alleged necessity and killing them for fun and games. Most of us admit there is never necessity but think we have many more important matters to worry about. Everyone knows there is an extraordinary number of animals that are not killed by design but unintentionally and by accident. Almost everybody thinks this is a great pity but accidents are unavoidable and, in any case, once again, we have more important matters to worry about.
It is precisely the view that we have more important matters to worry about that drives us to think not all violence should be condemned and it is precisely that idea that caused the Mahatma to think moral progress is impossible until or unless we stop our insouciant shrugging off animal death with something like, “Oh, well, how sad. What’s for dinner?”
Some statistics to bore AND NUMB you. Nothing numbs better than the sense of helplessness.
Here is the latest “harvest”of deer
South Carolina: 248,778
New Jersey, 56,000
New York: 222,979
I believe this adds up to 1,864,339 deer. 40 other states make their contribution but I hazard the guess that they add “only” another 200,000 or so deaths. Since we don’t take squirrels as seriously as deer, it is difficult to know how many we shoot. I would guess the number to be between 4 million and 10 million annually, but as the joke goes, “Who’s counting?” The Audubon Society estimates that we run down a mind boggling one million squirrels daily and while this seems preposterous to those of you not in the habit of observing dead squirrels, it certainly seems a reasonable estimate to me. I don’t recall the last time I saw fewer than six dead squirrels along the two mile stretch from my home to the university I used to work at. I have seen drivers accelerate their cars at the sight of squirrels. This is a mad form of violence and I have no doubt that Immanuel Kant was right when he said that violence towards animals begets violence toward people. Is there any reason to think that veteran criminals or mad youngsters who go on violence sprees in schools don’t enjoy the “practice violence’ of squirrel killing? Getting used to the infliction of death on animals is a fine way to inure yourself against squeamishness.
As for game birds, it seems that only madmen care about them. Nevertheless, their deaths are tracked. “Five billion birds die in the U.S. every year,” said Melanie Driscoll, a biologist and director of bird conservation for the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi Flyway for the National Audubon Society. Don’t rack your brain by calculating a daily number from that.
Thus it is that President Obama has repeatedly defended the dignified role of the rifle in American culture. He loves, respects and admires “a careful, responsible” hunter as much as the next guy. So ingrained is the curious idea that killing for fun is wholesome that all those who hate Wayne LaPierre say that if only the NRA could figure out a way to restrict rifles so that guns were limited to “mature” adults, they would love to join Wayne and the rest in a vigorous hunt. One might almost think that the “liberals on CURRENT TV or MSNBC or their counterparts in the print media have never heard of Mohandas Gandhi. [Of course he has been dead for 64 years and professional liberals do not think a sense of history is essential for their cause.]
For thirty-five years I bought into the animal rights thesis of Tom Regan that pushed the idea that each animal cares for its own life as each of us cares for ours. Today, that strikes me as insane. But the remnant of that philosophy is still with me: animals matter. They are much more than empty vessels into which we can pour pleasurable or painful experiences. [The latter is the utilitarian position championed most famously by Peter Singer.]
To his credit, Regan is a disciple of Gandhi and he argues that all the great social movements are ineluctably bound together. You cannot be an advocate for gay rights, for women’s rights, for the rights of colored persons or any other group in any coherent way unless you grasp the idea that you must also be an advocate for animals. I am nearly certain he is right.
The trouble is that pacifism is complex and it has too many divisions so that many pacifists think other pacifists are crazy. It is hard to see how it connects to say, women’s rights or to gay rights. I can’t bite that one off for purposes of this essay but I can at least offer a few sketches of pacifism so that readers may decide for themselves.
For many pacifists, pacifism is a doctrine that there are no moral grounds which can justify resorting to war. This is highly restrictive and makes avoidance of war between states the prime mover. War is a means to an end, and always the wrong one, these pacifists say. Readers can see for themselves that while this is a noble thought, it has to be wrong. This idea of the wrongness of war does not bother to distinguish the empirical reasons for thinking so from the deontological reasons. The pacifism of Martin Luther King had little to do with his worries about war. [He did have some worries about war.] He believed in passive non-resistance to oppressors but he had in mind nothing global but focussed on not returning beatings for beatings on a personal level. Other pacifists are concerned with hawkish aggression. Nations should never attack other nations, and only in the direst circumstances should they fight back. Such pacifists are known as doves, although real doves fight among themselves to protect their territory. They don’t fight other birds to protect their territory. “Go ahead and take it, if you feel that strongly about it.”
The most famous pacifist in history is Jesus and perhaps Leo Tolstoy is his greatest modern disciple, preaching a doctrine of Christian love for all mankind. Loving everybody is, of course, nonsense since equal love for all is indistinguishable from equal indifference to all. It is, what philosophers call conceptually absurd.
Jainism is the hardest pusher of the idea that pacifism involves veganism, a very extreme form of vegetarianism and I hope, for my personal sake, that its merits are few. Albert Einstein is the spokesperson for what I call wishy-washy pacifism. He says that sometimes the good pacifist must admit that war in the name of self-defense is necessary because bad guys cannot be reasoned with. Maybe. But that just isn’t pacifism.
Sam Harris, would-be king of atheism, chips in with the thought that pacifism is a fallacy, combining hesitance with cowardice, in that the social context in which a pacifist can protest was created by the actions of direct activists. Harris compares the collateral damage that could result from practicing torture with that resulting from errant bombing. He posits that if one is willing to accept the collateral damage that results from the incidental bombing of civilians on the one hand, one cannot denounce the collateral damage resulting from the accidental torture of the innocent on the other. [I'll have to take a closer look at that one.] The aforementioned Jan Narveson thinks pacifism is a self-contradictory doctrine via a rather complex argument that frightens me.
I hope this survey has the merit of not being exceedingly boring and that it may even be intellectually stimulating.