Sunday, 27 November 2016
Vegans have a fundamental problem – it is impossible to live strictly according to their principles because the sanctity of living things can never be preserved absolutely. It may be easy to avoid eating pork and beef and fish, but it’s impossible to live a life without being complicit in killing bugs and insects and microorganisms. Every time you clean the kitchen worktops or do some gardening, living things are killed. When your house was built, millions of tiny living things had to die for that to happen. Yet I presume even the most ardent vegan is not opposed to the idea of gardening and housing.
By a similar measure, absolute pacifists have a problem. An absolute pacifist believes that whatever the circumstance it is always wrong to act violently or impose force on another person. But are they seriously telling us that if they went out in the garden and saw their young daughter about to be raped by a sexual predator they would still insist on not using force if the attacker persisted? It seems unlikely, and would be a gross solecism against the daughter’s well-being if a parent did fail to stop this awful act.
The wisdom that can be distilled from the above is basically this. If even the most fervent proponents of a belief wouldn’t see it through to its logical end, there is a high probability that what they believe probably needs serious revision. If even the most conscientious vegans aren’t opposed to killing bugs then it’s very likely alright to kill bugs under the right circumstances. By extension, if for example it’s alright to kill flies to stop them going on your food, it’s probably also alright to kill disease-carrying rats, drink cow’s milk and eat free range eggs.
Similarly, if it’s morally permissible to defend an innocent young girl from a stronger attacker, it is probably morally permissible under some conditions to use force to defend innocent civilians against aggression and maltreatment from neighbouring states or tyrannical leaders.
The above method of thinking will get you quite far in running people’s beliefs through the gamut of rigorous analysis. Here’s another method I think can be useful in the area of assessing people’s beliefs – it’s what I call the ‘What if only one person believed it?’ phenomenon. Here’s how it works. Consider any of the countless dodgy and questionable beliefs out there and you’ll almost certainly find that it’s believed by a large number of people. Now imagine that only one person believed it, and ask whether it is likely that that belief would start to spread around the present population with enthusiasm, or whether the sole person who held that belief would in actual fact be a popular candidate for the funny farm.
Here’s an example: suppose genital mutilation didn‘t exist, and then one day a father came up with the novel idea that upon seeing his new born baby girl the first thing it seemed like a good idea to do is hack her genitals with a knife. I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t all rush to make it a national (or even a religious) practice – we’d be rushing to phone first the police and second social services.
There are plenty of other examples; suppose only one person in the world believed that scientology is based on fact, or that the earth is only 6000 years old, or that black people are inferior to white people, or that homosexuality is a perversion of a person's real nature, or that homeopathy is evidence-based science - we'd think them to be absurd. But once upon a time each of those things was thought up by one person, so by definition there was a time (albeit very brief in some cases) in the world when only one person, or a very few people, believed those things.
That there are so many people currently subscribing to these beliefs and views shows how easily absurd ideas are passed on to credulous minds, and how, after a time, multiplicity of belief can act as a protective shield against external scrutiny being employed properly. That is to say, you are less likely to stand out with your absurd belief if thousands (or in some cases millions) of people also share that belief around the world.
Asking if certain acts or beliefs would be socially acceptable if just one person did them or subscribed to them for the first time is largely about creative use of thinking to instil improvements. By getting people to think this way we can strip some of the beliefs of their protective niche and subject them to a more courageous scrutiny.
On the other hand, employing the ‘What if only one person believed it?’ phenomenon the other way: suppose we were a nation of litterbugs, with everyone dropping their litter everywhere they went, completely ignoring the bins (at a huge expense for local councils) - and then some bright spark thought up the idea that every individual should be responsible for putting their own litter in the bin. That would be a good idea that would spread quite fast, and the person who thought of it would be praised.
Everyone alive today exists in an age in which thousands of views, beliefs and ideas are so ingrained in popular cultures that they are pretty much taken to be part of the furniture, often without very much critical and empirical evaluation. There are many we know with ease that they are good, and many we know with ease that they are bad - but there are an awful lot of good and bad views, beliefs and ideas that an awful lot of people think are good when they are actually bad, and bad when they are actually good.
With my above two methods you can subject any view, belief and idea to an interesting method of scrutiny. You can get a good sense of whether people really do apply the extensive logic required to be a vegan, a pacifist, a socialist, an eco warrior, an astrologer, an anti-abortionist, an anti-evolutionist, a Muslim, a Jehovah's Witness or numerous other examples I could proffer. Combine that with the assessment of a view, belief or idea with the ‘What if only one person believed it?’ test and you'll often be surprised how differently you feel about someone's opinion, not just in terms of its veracity, but also in terms of its place in society.