Bloody shovel

Don't call it a spade

on Ethics

It used to baffle me that universities have such a thing as an Ethics department. I had read enough philosophy during high school to know that ethics is just one aspect of philosophy, and the hardest one to get any consensus. I also was under the Humean spell, namely that you can’t drive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. The fact is the only societal ethics that work are those enforced under the power of religious coercion; you make up some shit and kill people who don’t agree with it.

So I wondered: what are those Ethics majors doing? Well I still don’t know. The guys doing Ethics were mostly creepy dorks who I, desperate to get some poon back then, couldn’t afford to befriend. Still after some time I did get some appreciation for Ethics studies. The fact is ethic problems are huge conundrums against which the basic logic we use in our everyday lives seems quite useless indeed. The old aspiration of objective morality reveals its impossibility when asked the old switch dilemma: push the button and one person dies, don’t push it and 5 die. What is one to do? And why? Those puzzles are fun.

What’s more fun is that there’s some people who get paid for making up solutions for those puzzles. And as I was saying, those solutions are not based on any sound logic, because ethics doesn’t work that way. Ethics works by making up convoluted and unfalsifiable shit, throw it somewhere and see what sticks. Guys like this do the throwing:

I make up unfalsifiable shit for a living

This guy’s name is Paul Thompson. He gets paid, among other places, by the Center for Food Animal Productivity and Well-Being. I’m sure he’s fed his fat self with lots of meat from those animals whose Well-Being he cares about so much. Well, among the many convoluted unfalsifiable shit (sounds similar to politics, doesn’t it?) that he has made up, there’s the Blind Chicken Solution, which has the folks at the United Poultry Concern very pissed. The Blind Chicken Solution states that: Animal suffering is a bad thing, chickens in industrial farms are crowded in cages so they suffer. Well, blind chickens seem to be able to cope better with crowded conditions. So let’s blind all the motherfuckers. Clearly a genius. And he gets paid for saying that!

Well some dude at the Royal College of Art, as it happens, André Ford, thought of making that logic go to its necessary conclusion. If less sensory input decreases animal suffering, and that’s a good thing; well let’s just cut away the cerebral cortex, so they will cease suffering completely. If less is good, nil must be great. You can still grow their muscles for meat, and you could do it in a mechanized way which would be more efficient and thus ecologically friendly. And that’s a good thing too.

Now it sounds at first glance that the guy is just being tongue-in-cheek, wanting to make a statement about the absurdities some ethics experts say. Not so, the guy is dead serious. And he can talk too.

I think it is time we stopped using the term ‘animal’ when referring to the precursor of the meat that ends up on our plates. Animals are things we keep in our homes and watch on David Attenborough programs. ‘Animals’ bred for consumption are crops and agricultural products like any other. We do not, and cannot, provide adequate welfare for these agricultural products and therefore welfare should be removed entirely.

Earlier in the project I was proposing the chickens would be rendered unconscious, or desensitized by complete removal of the head but this has since been revised. Desensitisation will be achieved by a surgical incision that separates the animal’s neocortex, responsible for sensory perceptions, and its brain stem which controls its homeostatic functions. The head remains intact.

So in short, I would refer to this solution as pragmatic, not cynical and if the project does cause anyone to reflect on his or her dietary habits then that’s great.

Well the guy has a point doesn’t he? Still I have the hunch that he wouldn’t be able to sell his idea so well if he were talking of raising cows in the same way. Chickens are just at the bottom of the sympathy pyramid. But his logic is good.

He goes on:

An ancillary part of my proposal is to use the blood of the chicken posthumous, to hydroponically feed a nursery of rare orchids. The rationale behind setting up this unlikely mutualism is to display the similarities between these two organisms once the chicken has been desensitised. The unconscious chicken is just a different expression of the same chemical elements as in the orchid.

To answer the second part of your question – The project is overtly a hybridisation of nature and machine which is how I see the future of farming. Unfortunately, there is very little that is natural about the way the our food is currently produced. The monocultures and intensive farming systems upon which we rely are technological landscapes, harvested and processed using high-tech, and increasingly robotised machinery.

His vision of the future of chicken raising is this Matrix-ish picture.

Neo is one of these

Well there’s several ways of looking at this. The middle schooler inside me is excited that we have found a way of raising meat in space. I also got excited about aeroponics; any technology that can make Singapore a food exporter is awesome. Decreasing the value of land is a good thing in my view.

There’s also the ethics angle, i.e. making up convoluted unfalsifiable shit. Actually I’m quite good at that too, so I shall add my two cents. The fact is that factory farming exists, and selective breeding of animals has existed for millennia. Selective breeding has caused, by purely biological processes, a lot of special breeds of animals which are genetically defective, suffer of bad health, and are basically fucked up in many ways as a by-process of breeding for particular traits which people find useful. The same slow motion biological engineering that is mainstream today, is found horrible and creepy if done by mechanical means. People have a natural aversion towards plastic tubes it seems. Jim Kalb would tell you it’s not about the results, that means and processes matter too. Still is the fact is that when people see those braindead (literally so) chickens being fed through a plastic tube and muscles exercised via electric pulses they don’t like it. Hume said that morality was only about feelings, so we should leave it at that. But we are more curious that he was, and we want to know why people don’t like it. Well people don’t know. Tell your wife/girlfriend/mother about this thing, and ask her opinion. And press her, ask her to articulate the reasons why she finds it creepy. She most probably can’t. Nobody can actually, all we can do is make up some convoluted unfalsifiable shit to rationalize our feelings. I’ll tell you my evo-psy theory: people have a built-in mechanism against new stuff; especially about food. Present ways of feeding oneself have gone through a long process of trial and error; so you may assume that it’s safe. New stuff: industrial feed, GM crops; those are new, and we can’t know if they are safe. So they scare us.

Ok, I know you don’t care. As no one should. All this blabbing would be of no consequence if it weren’t for a small detail. Bureaucracy. You see, food has to be produced, and the government has to make some regulations about what processes are allowed. As Foseti will tell you, our laws aren’t made by our Parliaments but by the bureaucracy. But bureaucracy is about paper working, its about routine tasks. It’s not about decision making. What criteria should they use? Well they outsource that to experts. Experts like the fat guy on top of this post. The demand for Ethics students in University comes from the Government which uses them to justify their regulations. They need a fat guy on a suit to make up some shit so they can go on with their workload.

In other countries, Corruption is basically people with money paying off the bureaucrats to make regulations on their favour. But in the Anglosphere, the Cathedral, the people with money go to the fat guy on a suit, pay him some money to make up some shit, and wait for that to be reflected in some new regulations. Just by adding a fat guy on a suit, you eliminate Corruption from the system. Then you can get other fat guys on suits to make rankings of Corruption in the world, where your country is one of the cleanest and nicest, of course.

The problem with André Ford’s idea, which is strong, consistent, and quite elegant, is that he’s no fat guy on a suit, so unless some business gets interested and starts the influence-buying process, the Chicken Matrix won’t come to the market anytime soon. Population growth is leveling out anyway; the sort of people whose population is growing (only black Africans and Afghans by now) will never have the purchasing power to justify investing in his meat factories. It’s a pity. I enjoy the idea of a Blade Runner-ish city state with a huge population fed on skyscraper-sized Chicken Matrixes.

11 responses to “on Ethics

  1. nydwracu February 29, 2012 at 16:15

    Applied ethics is the judgeship of the modern-day common law; they make decisions and sound authoritative, and as far as I know, that’s all. Some ethicists do legitimate work in “experimental ethics” — trying to formulate a descriptive account of human ethics — but they’re only one step away from being psychologists, and it’s a small step.

    Oh, and if you want to see something really scary, look up Peter Singer. He’s probably the most known public figure in ethics, and I’d be surprised if he’s not some flavor of sociopath.

  2. Alrenous March 1, 2012 at 18:49

    I have a problem with scholars being satisfied with ‘ethics doesn’t exist.’ There’s no proof. It’s not philosophically sound.

    I still have a thing I want, which amounts to ethics. I’ll find it even if I have to invent it.

    I will solve the trolley problem. Sooner or later. In the past, I’ve solved similar problems by finding how the question was being asked wrong.

    I found a couple things, which more or less confirms that suspicion.( )I’ll probably throw up a post about it. Hopefully today.

    • spandrell March 1, 2012 at 20:33

      Fact is different cultures have different ethics. Mostly similar, but different nonetheless. The quest for functional ethics is easy, the quest for objective ethics is impossible. There’s nothing there.

      The whole point of theism is that we, dumb humans can’t even tell right from wrong, so we need some awesome dude above the sky to tell us.

      Looking forward to your post.

      • Alrenous March 1, 2012 at 20:38

        So your list of things an objective ethics would have:
        -cross-cultural validity
        -enforcement power?
        -deriving ‘ought’ from some set of data previously agreed to be objective
        -an answer to puzzles like the trolley problem

        Anything you care to add?
        For example, what about the relationship to ethical intuitions? I think it needs a path from here to there, but fundamentally intuitions can just be wrong about objective facts.

      • Alrenous March 2, 2012 at 14:59

        Post successful (I have nonzero reason to think)!

  3. spandrell March 1, 2012 at 20:50

    The problem is that different people tend to have different intuitions. African blacks see no wrong with raping albino teenagers, and New Guineans see no wrong with eating or killing their own children when they get annoying

    You guys need to get out more. It’s a rough world out there.

    • Alrenous March 1, 2012 at 20:54

      If objective ethics exist, they’re just wrong.

      Do they lack empathy? Or did they have empathy and it’s been beaten out of them?
      I mean, they do see something wrong with being raped or eaten, don’t they? So, what do they say is wrong with it?

      • spandrell March 1, 2012 at 21:04

        Well, lack of empathy is a way of putting it. But where’s the line between self-interest and empathy? Empathy gone too far makes the European Court of Human Rights force the UK government to give asylum and a stipend to an open polygamist jihadist, lest he be tortured in his home country.

        I just noted that you can’t use ‘human intuition’ or ‘natural mores’ to build objective ethics. See for example the trolley problem. Japanese would 99% would be for sacrificing some random fellow. Anglos not so. Who’s right?

      • Alrenous March 1, 2012 at 21:09

        According to the ‘justified true belief’ definition of knowledge, neither is right, because neither have a justification. Even if one of them turns out to be true.

        I just realized I split that definition. I don’t care about knowledge. I care about truth and justification, separately.

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