Monthly Archives: November 2008

Reflections on adoption by same-sex couples

The Proposition 8 debate has set me to thinking about the related issue of adoption by same-sex couples. In many places in the U.S., it is illegal for gay couples to petition for adoption, and all but pointless in still more. There is widespread disfavor for the idea, even among professed “anti-homophobes.”

I thought I might address some of the “anti” arguments here.

Gay parents as a “bad influence” on children, or otherwise less than ideal caretakers

There is the argument that homosexuality is just “wrong”—immoral, antisocial, etc.—and that this disqualifies gays from adoption just as other immoral or antisocial behaviors block heterosexual couples from adopting.

Assuming this view of homosexuality is correct, it seems odd to block adoptions on the basis that there is something “wrong” with the parents. For something is “wrong” with everyone. The oddness applies to adoptions in general: There is no parental “vetting” prior to natural conception and childbirth; nor can you have your children removed for doing most of the things that might block you from adopting. But perhaps the difference is a pragmatic one: We can’t regulate natural birth as we can adoptions; at least, not without creating harms that would outweigh those we aim to prevent. Perhaps—and I have some sympathy for this view—if we could, we would.

But such as it is: If there is something “wrong” with everyone, gay adoption could only be opposed if it amounts to something fundamentally wrong, and in such a way that seriously implicates child-rearing.

But where are the grounds for saying this? There is no evidence that children of gay parents are any less well-adjusted than any other children, adoptive or not. Indeed, in terms of relevant indicators like self-esteem and future “success,” when studies find a difference, it is that children of gay parents tend to “score” a bit ahead of the pack. This is probably for the same reason that minority and female workers who gain positions on the basis of affirmative action tend to outperform their white, male, “meriting” counterparts—they know they are expected to fail, and try doubly hard not to confirm the stereotype. It is the same for gay parents: They know every miscalculation will be wildly magnified; they have to wonderful just to be seen as average.

Gay parents as producing gay children

The argument that gay adoption will produce gay adopted children is not only unsupported by evidence—it is hard to see what would count as evidence, given the reality of “closeted” gays that do not lend themselves to census—but it also begs the question: Yes, if there is something wrong with homosexuality, an institution which produces it might be immoral. But that assumes there is something wrong with homosexuality. And this must be demonstrated, not just assumed. (This also goes for the argument that children of gay parents will inherit a basic tolerance of homosexuality in others, and that this in itself is a maladjustment.)

Children of gay parents will be traumatized by their peers

The argument that children of gay couples will be traumatized by their schoolmates has slightly more plausibility. Its appeal rests in the fact that it is technically compatible with high levels of sympathy to homosexuality. One could in principle be pro-gay, even gay, and buy into this. On the surface, it is merely a fear of everyone else’s homophobia.

However, recalling the previous paragraph, if the feared taunts or ostracization (or whatever) don’t register loudly enough to produced maladjusted children and adults, it isn’t clear what weight to give it. (Perhaps gay adoption represents a statistical “wash,” with the self-esteem boon of having very driven parents balancing out the liability of being extra-targetable.) Anyhow, while there are certainly cases of serious bullying against youngsters due to gay parentage—I mean, there have to be, right?—there is no evidence that the average child of gay parents is any more at risk for serious taunts than another child. (I suspect that, for kids, making fun of another’s parents is oftener something used for taunting rather than the reason for taunting in the first place.)

So there is a risk, I guess. But you have to weigh this against some other risks: There is the risk of maintaining homophobia as a social phenomenon—or at least, the contribution that a ban on gay adoption would make to this. When homophobia is “hard-wired” into social institutions, it makes a kind of civic argument in favor of it. The natural impulse to identify with dominant—indeed, one’s own—social institutions requires, cognitive-dissonant-ly, some story to rationalize the exclusivity of these institutions, which appears otherwise malicious and capricious. The moral (or otherwise) deficiency of homosexuals is the most available hypothesis.

This is to say that homophobia harms children also—indeed, far more children than the victims of homophobic taunting—and the adults they grow up to be. There is no warrant to assume the psychological effects of being homophobic (on the homophobe, I mean) are any less harmful than those of being racist. Well-settled irrational fears needlessly complicate and degrade human living. They are alienating, providing one more block against a sense of fundamental social identification or “at-home-ness” in the world of people. They also cause people to be stupid: “Big” bad ideas train one to accept bullshit and poor explanations, and must be accommodated in the individual’s whole web of belief by abandoning or “tweaking” any good ideas that might conflict with them.

(I also suspect, as Marxist scholarship on homophobia suggests, that homophobia and sexism spring from the same well and are mutually reinforcing: (Male) gays are denigrated because they are “like women”; but women are the most “like women” of anyone. (Ergo….) So even if the homophobe never meets another gay person, his relations with straight women are compromised.)

Finally, of course, there is the straightforward cost to the gay would-be parents who are witness to the joys of parenthood but excluded on the basis of something they know is inessential to the project. This is—it must be—profoundly alienating also.

At least, let’s agree that we are dealing with a tradeoff of values—not “protecting children” versus some other value, even, but rather “protecting children” in one respect versus “protecting children” in another respect. And avoiding bad things is not the only direction in which ethical behavior moves: If there is an imperative to keep children safe, there is alike an imperative to fight, actively, social ills like homophobia. Let us not pretend we are dealing with anything less than competing imperatives.

And let us not make too much of “the children.” One must consider children’s needs in the moral equation, but they are not an inquiry-stopper. For there seems no warrant for never doing anything that could possibly impact some child, somewhere, badly. Perhaps gay adoption should be viewed like a teacher’s strike, or right to strike; missing some school is in itself a bad thing, but may be “worth” the frying of bigger fish—better wages, a better world. Indeed, the child who misses school at one point will inherit this world, one that is in part the product of such class conflicts. Just as the child taunted for having gay parents will inherit a world that is in part the product of struggles for gay rights such as his own. Having openly gay parents—being targetable for it—contributes to a world in which it is easier for gay parents and their children alike to be themselves. And this is fucking worth something. It may be worth some taunting.

And consider: Every other adult life-choice is permitted to make demands on children: Career relocation plops them into unfamiliar, friendless schools and neighborhoods, divorce splits their home and allegiances, an early retirement cuts luxury income; why is gay parenting the only choice that cannot in principle be entertained to impose on children in any way?

The bottom line

Finally, critics of gay adoption need not just talk about the relative merits of gay versus straight parents. They must talk about the merits of gay parents versus the foster system—for these are the alternatives at stake in this debate. I believe people view gay adoption in terms of an analogy to childbirth: They imagine that gay parents are choosing whether or not to “have” children, such that if they choose—or are forced—not to, there are no real children brought into the picture; no harm, no foul. But adoption is not analogous to childbirth: The children are already there, and waiting, whatever gay parents choose or have chosen for them. And the straight couples can’t and won’t take them all. This is not to disrespect foster parents as a group—foster homes are better than the alternative of needing foster homes, while having none—but the program is necessarily unstable.

Even if you are a ravenous homophobe, is it reasonable to think that gay parents—that is, not just any gay parents, but gay parents that want the child, have planned in advance and jumped through many difficult hoops to get the child, and are vetted by the government as financially stable, well-adjusted, loving, and soforth—is it reasonable that having these gay parents poses worse than the vagaries of the foster program(mes)? (Come on, now.)

Lakoff and Budner on progressive taxation

[Kind of an elegant reiteration of the previous post.]

“…Ordinary people just drive on the highways; corporations send fleets of trucks. Ordinary people may get a bank loan for their mortgage; corporations borrow money to buy whole companies. Ordinary people rarely use the courts; most of the courts are used for corporate law and contract disputes. Corporations and their investors — those who have accumulated enough money beyond basic needs so they can invest — make much more use, compound use, of the empowering infrastructure provided by everybody’s tax money.

The wealthy have made greater use of the common good—they have been empowered by it in creating their wealth—and thus they have a greater moral obligation to sustain it. They are merely paying their debt to society in arrears and investing in future empowerment.

This is the fundamental truth that motivates progressive taxation.”

[See entire article here. Thanks to Brooks for the link, via Debatepedia anyhow.]

For progressive taxation, or against being against it

[Revised 11-13-08 8:30 PM EST; forgot the last section]

Continuing the previous post, the arguments against (real) progressive taxation—taxing at a higher rate, the higher your income—rest on a number of misplaced confidences about the meanings of certain words, and some outright abuses of language.

1. The meaning of “more”: Math versus morals

First, there is the idea that one is “paying more” than other people if one is taxed at a higher rate than them. In absolute terms, this is true and hardly controversial; even if everyone were taxed at the same rate, whoever makes more would “pay more” than whoever makes less. But of course the complaint is about paying proportionately more. Again, it is trivially, mathematically true that progressive taxation taxes the wealthy proportionately more than lower earners; this is what “progressive taxation” means. Merely defining a concept is not the same as arguing against it. What is wrong with disproportionate taxation?—is the question.

Critics of progressive taxation could only be saying that, when you pay proportionately more than others, you are burdened more than they. Indeed, if we share moral values of equity and fairness, disproportionate burdening seems wrong. In general, loads should be shouldered as equally as possible; there is no obvious reason why the tax “load” should be different.

But “overburdening” does not describe our subject. It is arguable that paying a higher rate is less burdensome when you are left with many millions of dollars afterward. When you have more to begin with, giving “more” is simply easier. Bill Gates pays his federal rate and donates another huge chunk to charity. Is it reasonable to view him as “burdened” more than his poorer counterparts who pay a smaller percentage, but have to count every penny? The critic must give us more if he is to transform the purely mathematical “burden” into a real-life moral one.

2. Wealth is a privilege for which the state is largely to thank

There is the related criticism that being “taxed more” is a “punishment for being successful.” Again, this is a natural enough way to look at it, if you aren’t thinking hard. Warren Buffett used to say that he could never have become a billionaire in Bangladesh. And he could only be one in the U.S. due to a whole network of conditions not of his making, and for which the government is largely to thank.

As Mike Parenti writes:

“[G]overnment provides private industry with a publicly funded transportation infrastructure of airports, train depots, port facilities, canals, and harbors. And public capital is used to develop whole sectors of the economy, such as the airline industry, telecommunications, the nuclear industry, the Internet, and various medical and pharmaceutical products—which are then handed over to private corporations to market and reap the profits. Corporate America relies on government for the ample applications of force and violence needed to keep restive [foreign] populations in line. Various government agencies involved in surveillance, repression, incarceration and overall social control are well funded….Units of the national security state, the military, the CIA, FBI, DIA, and others, together devour the largest portion of the federal discretionary budget. Hundreds of state, county, and municipal police forces receive generous sums to hire additional officers and buy the latest state-of-the-art equipment, utilized less to fight crime—of which they usually do an indifferent job—and more to keep a tight lid on social unrest.”

Not that I agree with state repression, but the resultant stability certainly benefits the business class. At the least, maintaining a national guard and police force are uncontroversial ways in which the state makes business possible. Our capitalists don’t have to worry much about domestic riots, foreign occupation or expropriation of foreign holdings.

Parenti also notes the “whole basketful of handouts” given to the business class “from federal, state and local governments…[B]illions of dollars in start-up capital, research and development funding, equity capital, bailout aid, debt financing, low-interest loans, loan guarantees, export subsidies, tax credits, and other special favors.”

Even if Buffet himself never received these “handouts” (he did), and even if his own “sector” was never directly “developed” by the state, these subsidies enrich the whole economy, making his own wealth possible. (It is much easier to become a billionaire when such things as billionaires already exist; all the more when many of them exist.)

So far from a means to punish the wealthy for something they have accomplished, progressive taxation ensures that those who have benefited more from the tax-subsidized capitalist system—like that top 2.3% at the heart of the current debate—pay “more” back into it.

3. “Earning” is probably another bullshit bourgeois trojan-horse term

All criticism of progressive taxation rests upon the concept of “earning”—as in, “She has earned her money.” This is not merely a value-neutral, descriptive statement to the effect of “She makes money” or “She gets a paycheck.” “Earning” suggests a relationship of entitlement. When I earn something, I merit it; I deserve it. If this is the case, it can’t be taken away—without a damn good reason. Certainly, taking it away to give to someone who hasn’t earned it is suspect.

But “earning” implies more than this. “Merit” and “deserve” are states of being, while “to earn” suggests an activity: If I “earn” something, I do something for it. It is mine on the basis of some action—some work—performed. (Indeed, it is the work which does the earning.)

Again, all this seems reasonable at first; but at bottom it is rather silly. I’m not saying nobody ever “earns” anything, or that the concept is invalid. Only that “earning” has nothing to do with why people are legally entitled to what they make. My money may be mine, or not, but it is not mine because of any quantity of labor which I have expended, or anything else which I have done. It is mine simply because I entered into an agreement with another person (or persons) to give it to me.

I may work for my money—but if I’d inherited property or stock and merely lived off rent or interest, I’d be allowed to keep that, too. If someone steals my paycheck, I don’t have to first convince the police that the quality and hours of my work have entitled me to that wage rate before I can get my check back.

And consider this: If my work “earns,” in a legally relevant sense, x number of dollars, why can’t another guy complain that he does the same work for less than x dollars, or has to work harder for his own x? I mean, if your work earns money—creates a legal entitlement which everyone else must respect—there should be some universal scale according to which the same quantities of work yield the same quantities of pay. If I have earned it, so has he; for that is what “earns” means. If we work the same and get paid different, one of us is getting less or more than he has “earned.”

Of course, we know the underpaid guy has no legal recourse. We both had different agreements with our bosses (or fellow stockholders, or renters, or consumers, etc.—whoever we get the money from for whatever we do to get it), and that is that. “Earning” never comes into it.

The point is that, once the bogus idea of “earning” goes out the window, you are free to tax according to some other value—like equity, fulfilling needs, etc. You can still come up with a bad tax plan, but having to respect “earnings” won’t be standing in the way of a good one.

More importantly, there is the following point:

Capitalists don’t work, so they don’t “earn” anyhow

One could argue, OK, “earning” isn’t a legally relevant concept—but still, people who “earn” are still doing some kind of work, and we can still assume some rough correspondence of money earned to work done. (Hence, more money means you have worked more, and this means you are entitled to more. More taxation violates a greater entitlement.)

This is not only false, but it becomes more false the higher up the income ladder you go. The wealthier you are, the less likely you are to have done any real work to “earn” it.

That top 2.3% of earners—the group Obama wants taxed at a higher rate, supposedly—is chock full of people who make their living (or substantial parts of it) by owning rather than working. This is the home of capitalists, whose “work” is to lend others the wealth they already have—in the form of productive land, raw materials, machinery, or investment money—to make more wealth.

On the surface, it should be obvious that lending wealth is not “work” in the normal sense of the word. So if we want to say that it is work which entitles one to his wealth, it is hard to see how it could be unjust to tax any percentage of capital assets.

The whole history of capitalism—especially since the challenge of Marx—has accompanied an ongoing effort to show how what appears like doing nothing should justify the great profits that capitalists enjoy—much greater, even, than those who actually labor. Addressing these arguments is relevant to the subject of progressive taxation, but is important in its own right. Hence, the next a later post will deal with it separately.

Obama’s tax plan “socialist”? (Not even progressive)

[Revised 11.19.09]


Joe the Plumber injected the topic of progressive taxation into the election when he argued (paraphrased) that “You shouldn’t pay more in taxes just because you make more.” I know people who voted for McCain entirely on the supposition that Obama’s tax plan violates this principle. This belief has led everyone from Mike Huckabee to Sean Hannity to Michelle Malkin to Glenn Beck to McCain himself to call Obama a “socialist,” even. (Yeah, I wish.)

How progressive—socialist, even?—is Obama’s tax plan?

Some argue we already have progressive taxation—that it should be either continued, or reversed as an injustice. Indeed, if you look for progressive elements in our system, you’ll find some. (If you look for white hairs on a black cat, you’ll find some of those, too.) But there isn’t progressive taxation in any overall, net sense.

First, keep in mind you can’t just consider the tax rate. The tax rate is applied to pretax income; but the richest Americans qualify for a host of very substantial loopholes on top of this rate that have no correlate in lower income groups. Nobody making more than $250,000 a year pays the set rate, unless their kid brother is doing their accounting.

Second, while federal taxes are at the heart of the current debate, they aren’t nearly the whole story. Before the Bush tax cuts of 2003, taxes as a percentage of income were nearly identical for all income groups when you consider all government taxes, including state ones. (See graph [1] below.) Of course, the Bush cuts were regressive, favoring the wealthy; since things were basically proportional before, this skewed the whole tax profile in a regressive direction.

Nor is Obama proposing much “progress” to reverse this situation: The Bush tax cuts reduced the federal income tax rate for the richest 2.3% of Americans from 39.6 per cent—where it had been since the Clinton years, an unprecedented boom time for this group—to 35 per cent. This cut is set, per Bush, to expire in 2010. Obama’s plan is simply to let it expire accordingly. Or possibly to rescind it a few months early. His “socialism” amounts to not pushing to renew one of his predecessor’s programs. This is what the hype is about. This is the big red scare. Even Ronald Reagan wanted to socialize health care for life-threatening conditions, and conservatives love him. Obama can’t not propose a new tax cut on the millionaires without being vilified. This is how far to the right the spectrum of political thought has shifted.

[More on progressive taxation in the next post.]


[1] 21doublechart

Marxism (sort of) and “ethical” vegetarianism

[In what follows, I use “vegetarianism” to refer to veganism or vegetarianism.]

[In #3 in the final “Notes” section, I call the meat industry less “labor-intensive” than other industries. I don’t mean that the work is less difficult or “intense,” but that it employs fewer people. The work is quite taxing, I’m sure.]

Marxism (sort of) and “ethical vegetarianism”

I spent years as a vegan (eating no meat, no dairy, no eggs), motivated by ethical concern for animals. I was particularly militant about this. Like many who share it, I viewed my diet in terms of an informal boycott; I aimed to withhold monetary support from the meat industry, and to that (small) extent impair its ability to torture and kill animals.

I am no longer vegan (nor vegetarian), due in part to the influence of Marxist ideas upon my thinking. At the same time, however, I retain the belief that it is wrong to kill animals for food. (At least, at this stage in human social development, and in the part of the world in which I live.) And I retain this belief for all the reasons I ever held it to begin with.

The difference in my current thinking has to do with the connection between opposing the killing of animals, and being a vegetarian. I don’t think there is much of a connection, in fact. That is, the fact that it is wrong to kill animals does not mean one ought to be a vegetarian. It doesn’t even make vegetarianism a good idea.

Marxism and the moral mushiness of meat

How Marxism relates to this is in its wholesale indictment of production under capitalism. For Marxists and other socialists, how goods are produced—not any particular kind of good, but goods per se—is deeply problematic, always. Without repeating the arguments here, this is due to the kind of relationship direct producers (workers) bear to the owners that pay them to work, and to the fact that production is organized for profit and exchange rather than direct use; these features make the system necessarily undemocratic and exploitative, and contribute to economic crisis and instability, ecological destruction, and even war. These features “cut across” specific sectors and industries within the productive system; they are generic features of capitalist production as such.

In short, such a radical view removes the ability to say: “Believing that a particular industry is fundamentally problematic, one ought to boycott it”—because each industry fits that description, and we can’t boycott them all; we must consume something.

This applies especially to meat since it is not a luxury item which we might simply discard—as we might stop wearing “blood diamonds” or patronizing R-rated movies. For we were getting vital nutrition from that source, and must fill the dietary “hole” left by meat consumption with some other kind of food. And this will come from another deeply problematic industry.

As I discuss below, this does not mean there is no reason, nor even no ethical reason, to not eat meat—only that it removes the moral imperative to do so.

At least, it appears to. Vegetarians might respond that, even if all industries are bad, they aren’t equally bad. Perhaps we are obliged to boycott meat because it is the worst, or a particular reprehensible one.

One argument goes: Killing is worse than (merely) exploiting. So an industry which both exploits human beings and kills animals (i.e., the meat industry) is worse than one which only exploits humans.

But the reality is more complicated. Yes, killing seems worse than exploiting, all things being equal. But things may not be equal. It may not be the case that killing animals is worse than exploiting humans, or, if it sometimes is, that killing just any given number of animals is worse than exploiting just any given number of humans.

Terms for comparison: Not lives, but qualities of life

To clarify the issues at stake, it is helpful to get at what makes killing—any killing—wrong (when it is wrong). What makes killing wrong can only be that “life” has some value which killing destroys.[1] If this is so, we should be able to specify certain features which lend it this value. The obvious candidates are things like autonomy, richness of social relations, capacity for desire satisfaction, etc. These types of thing, or some combination of them, give value to life. And while the list is debatable, it is clear that, by any reasonable measure of what could give value to live, animals will possess some of these features—will have value—just as humans. That is, unless we cheat [2], we cannot construct a list of things possessed by all and only humans but no animals; if humans have value, then animals do.

It should also be clear that these features admit of varying degrees: One can have more or less richness in social relations, more or less autonomy, than another. If this is so, I contend, the animals killed for meat possess these features to a lesser degree than the adult humans exploited in every industry (including meat). Therefore, they have less value, and it is, though still tragic, less so when they are killed.

Two qualifications are in order:

(1) First, this is not a particularly “anti-animal” view. For it is also the case that some humans (say, infants) have less of these features—thus less value—than some animals (just as some animals have less value than other animals, and some humans less than other humans).

(2) Second, I admit the idea of some people being “worth less” than others is extremely distasteful. It would be unfortunate if the concept entered into everyday conversation. But this is not the same as saying the idea is false, or even particularly sinister. It is merely to say that not every being shares (or can share) the same quality of life. The idea does not, in the extreme case, license any kind of Hitlerian “eugenics”: Saying one can destroy a person because they are less valuable than another is like saying I can destroy your car because it is less valuable than mine. There is no principle of logic nor ethics that necessitates that only the absolutely most valuable entity be suffered to exist. The idea that we can “rank” beings according to value does not mean that it is ever right to kill any of them.

But it does complicate the question of whether one capitalist industry is worse than another. It means we are not are dealing with a simple case of “killing versus exploiting.” In comparing meat to other industries, we are comparing worse treatment of “lower valued” beings (animals) to better treatment of “higher valued” beings (adult humans). If human workers have more value than animals, it could be that they have so much more value that merely harming them is actually worse than killing animals.[3]

Other considerations

This still perversely simplifies the moral question. For one, exploitation among human beings is not equivalent across industries, either. There are degrees of intensity of exploitation: Some workers work harder, longer, and for less pay than others. And there are countless moral categories in play here beside just killing and harming in production: From the same Marxist view, the accumulation of capital (productive wealth) is the drive behind all of the system’s problems; as some industries are more profitable, and reinvest (re. accumulate, rather than spend) more profit, than others, they contribute more to this central dynamic. And this occurs after the production cycle rather than in it. Some non-meat industries may accumulate more, may be more volatile and unstable, may contribute more to global trade and the inequities abroad that follow it. All of this would have to be researched and accounted for in deciding the relative “badnesses” of various industries.

Further, there is no “meat industry” as such to be boycotted—not really. The “borders” between industries are mushy rather than firm. Industries buy from one another; aiding one aids the other. If there were no builders, there would be no henhouses, thus no chicken factory-farms. In this sense, the building industry is the chicken industry—and so forth. Buying anything stimulates a general economy which in turn enriches every industry within it. Opting out of meat in particular means more grains will be bought—enriching the same industry which provides cows and chickens and pigs with (the same) grains. The point is not that “everything is bad so we should not boycott anything”—but rather, it is unclear how we might identify and isolate “anything” to boycott it in the first place.

The poverty of “consumer politics” in general

These issues make it difficult if not impossible to establish that the meat industry is worse than any other. A second question is whether, even if it is worse, not eating meat does anything to affect this situation.

It is clear that if I raise an animal to eat, then change my mind and keep her for a companion, an animal is saved. If I quit hunting, that could save animals. But buying (or ceasing to buy) animals on the market is not analogous to this. In a market economy, we don’t normally “order up” live animals to be killed as we need them. There is no such clear, one-to-one correspondence between individual demand and supply. A gross number of animals are killed (or set aside to be killed) prior to and in anticipation of aggregate demand.

Indeed, as high numbers of “demanders” alter their preferences away from meat, this aggregate sum can, after a time, be altered. But this is a case of very broad trends responding to other broad trends. It is likely that a single person’s opting out of meat consumption saves literally not one animal from slaughter. Certainly, it is unclear how this could be proven if it were true.

Note also that overproduction is the norm here. Even if my going vegetarian lowered demand for meat, it is likely that simply fewer animals would be consumed—not fewer killed. Already-slaughtered animals would simply be “wasted.”

At best, not buying meat withholds, over time, a few dollars’ profit from that industry. This is not the stuff of moral imperatives; for a rather silly analogy, if I dropped a few dollars on the sidewalk, and Hitler picked it up to use in his campaign, I could not rationally be especially bothered. I could sleep securely knowing my “contribution” was symbolic rather than substantial.

Conclusion, Part I: The scope of good ideas is not exhausted by the scope of moral imperatives

Again, all of this argues that a moral imperative to vegetarianism does not (clearly) follow from the immorality of killing animals. It is not as straightforward, for instance, as the way in which the imperative not to poke people in the eye follows from the fact that it is wrong to poke people in the eye. Poking eyes is analogous to killing animals—not to buying meat from animals already killed.

But there are plenty of worthy projects—indeed, the vast uncountable majority of life’s projects—that aren’t imperatives. A thing needn’t be morally obligatory to be a perfectly good or helpful thing to do.

Two appealing “alternate” motivations for vegetarianism come to mind:

(1) Eating meat strikes me as a distasteful, ugly practice, and could be avoided on these “aesthetic” grounds alone. The same kind of reason would keep any parent from tearing a photograph of their children—though no actual children would be harmed in doing so.

(2) Given the wrongness of killing animals, refusing to eat them is a way to feel connected to them, to the whole world of sentient, morally deserving beings of which anyone reading this is a part. We needn’t be obliged to seek this feeling, but it is a healthy, desirable goal. It helps us whether it helps any animals—and we are important, too.

Conclusion, Part II: Consumer politics redux

Finally, what small practical or psychological benefit comes about from “ethical” vegetarianism must be balanced against the harm it could cause. Again, I’m speaking here as a Marxist—a socialist activist—and to others on the radical left for whom vegetarianism is appealing.

The chief political rival to revolutionary socialism is reformism—the idea that socialism, or at least a benign, democratic, peaceful, equitable world, can be generated by a gradual accumulation of small improvements to capitalism. And the most vulgar species of reformism is the notion that the, or a significant, way to bring about political or economic changes is through selective purchasing.

This view is not only false but dangerously misleading. I suspect that vegetarianism—being a particularly common and “visible” expression of consumer politics—confuses the hell out of the average worker or student who might be ripe for radical politics. It “sends a message” that not buying stuff is the way to get things done, the “natural,” proper expression of one’s opposition to social problems.

I can’t prove this, but I suspect it. If true, this confusion can only hinder the real activism that needs to be done—raising enough hell to scare the state into making concessions. If there were strong reasons to boycott meat in the first place, this might outweigh the potential “damage”; but, again, there aren’t.


[1] Here I am ignoring the possibility that beings have “rights” which make it wrong to kill them. No evidence has ever been adduced that such a thing as natural rights exist, and even if they do, that doesn’t negate my alternative analysis. “Rights” could theoretically exist right alongside those “features” which give life its value. Either or both could make it wrong to kill at the same time. It could be wrong to kill you because it violates your rights and because it destroys your value.

[2] Speciesists might say that “being human” is what gives value to life—to which we might reply, What is it about being human that gives life its value? What do humans possess that gives human life this value? It is circular reasoning to answer again: “The feature of being human.” Eventually, we have to get back to non-species-specific features.

[3] Note also that the meat industry is less labor-intensive than many other industries, so there are far more humans exploited in the latter than in the former. This increases the likelihood that meat production is not particularly bad. Consider: If there were an equal number of humans working in the meat industry as in any other industry, this would amount to a moral “wash”; as far as humans are concerned, at least, none would be worse than any other. So any industry which killed animals on top of this would indeed be the worse. But other industries have so many more humans than in meat production that only a small percentage are “washed out” in the comparison. We are not simply dealing with “higher value” beings harmed versus “lower value” beings killed—but rather a significant number of “higher value” beings harmed versus “lower value” killed.

Ferguson article on Obama’s unique brand of hazy bullshit

I didn’t invest much emotion in the election’s outcome, but I welcome Obama’s win nonetheless. Democratic administrations are just more interesting than Republican ones. And they have the potential to activate left movements. The “soft” left gets to see that Democrats are war criminals and gay bashers and environmental sellouts and corporate shills same as the Republicans—plus budget balancers, neoliberals and “law and order” guys all on their own. They remember that the long, slow erosion of economic security plods along no matter who is in office. Their checks level out or shrink as their hours and debt increase. Worst of all, they realize they didn’t organize against it because they didn’t expect it from a Democrat, or thought it was the price to pay for all the good stuff they thought he’d do. And sometimes—recalling the Nader phenomenon at the end of the Clinton years—this kicks things into gear.

I know that Obama will let you down because that’s what Democratic presidents do. I know he won’t do shit for the working class because there is no such thing as “presidents doing shit for the working class.”


Anyway, I came across an old article about Obama in the neoconservative magazine Weekly Standard. Its called, “The Wit and Wisdom of Barack Obama” by Andrew Ferguson. I’d been reflecting on how Obama’s relatively progressive, “left-wing” moments (in speeches and his campaign book) are never articulated in the rich detail we suspect he must be capable of. Actually, we know he is capable of it, but never where it counts. He likes to suggest “bad things” with vaguely “economic” causes—but they always seem to happen to us, like the weather, rather than be done to us. (The implication being, of course, that Obama can help fix these.)

Ferguson concludes that his chronic vagueness is a cover for what Obama believes the real causes are, but can’t say out loud. Among others, the author suspects Obama blames the chief directors and beneficiaries of capitalism—such as “stockholders [and] managers of globalized companies”—for these ills. And of course, the right-wing Ferguson thinks Obama is wrong to cast blame there. Obama has to talk about the problems but can’t blame capitalists out loud because he would cease to be the “uniter” and positive force he has branded himself.

Ferguson is dead on with the diagnosis, but his conclusion is off. The drivers and beneficiaries of capitalism—indeed, capitalism itself—are indeed to blame for Americans’ “despair.” But Obama doesn’t believe this any more than Ferguson does. His business-friendly, moderate-to-conservative voting record proves this. What’s more, his donor roll of downsizers, sub-prime lenders, would-be social security privatizers, and the lawyers and lobbyists that represent them, shows that he wouldn’t be free to do anything about it if he did.

Yes, Obama isn’t telling the truth. Either he wants us to think that capitalists and capitalism are the problem, and that he is the one to buck them—the opposite of what he believes to be the case—or he is being cynically “suggestive” without anyone in particular in mind for us to blame.

[Below is a good excerpt from Ferguson’s article. The entire piece can be read here.]

Ferguson writes:

“…Obama truly is the unity candidate. There is no white America or black America, as he says; no blue states or red states, in his famous formulation, but only the United States of America. And what unites all these people—what unites us—is our shared status as victims.

Unfortunately, this raises the question of who the victimizer is. It’s an uncomfortable question for a candidate who, having drawn such a depressing picture, wants to pivot toward the positive and upbeat and hopeful. Suddenly Obama’s gift for the identifying detail leaves him. With unaccustomed vagueness he refers to “lobbyists” and “overpaid CEOs” but never names them. It’s a world without human villains, improbably enough. Who are the agents of this despair? By whose hand has the country been brought so low? Whoever they are, they vanish in the fog of sentences like this: “We are up against decades of bitter partisanship that cause politicians to demonize their opponents instead of coming together to make college affordable or energy cleaner.” So not even politicians in power are responsible; it’s decades of bitter partisanship that has forced them into demonization, and the demonization has in turn prevented them from getting things done.

This is a murky place. Cause and effect are blurred. Bad things happen though nobody does them. Instead we face disembodied entities, ghostly apparitions. “Make no mistake about what we’re up against,” he will announce, with what sounds, for a moment, like clarity; but then he goes on to say what we’re up against: “the belief that it’s okay for lobbyists to dominate our government”; “the conventional thinking that says your ability to lead as president comes from longevity in Washington”; “forces that feed the habits that prevent us from being who we are”; “the idea that it’s acceptable to do anything to win an election.”

Some agents of despair these turn out to be! A belief, a way of thinking, an idea, forces that feed habits, and decades of partisanship. He won’t even bring himself to blame Republicans.”