Saturday, 22 February 2014

Limitations of Ethics

Further to my studies lately on morality, only the briefest of mentions have been made on the limitations of it, and I suppose there's only so much can be fitted into a 6 week course. On the occasions it has been raised, it was most often in reference to a philosopher called Peter Singer. He is best described as a moral extremist, in theory at least. Quite how he actually conducts himself we can only guess.

So, because I am never satisfied with half the story, I've ordered a couple of his books, and will be taking a course with him, starting in just over a week. I want to hear it from the horses mouth, as it were.

On the face of, I think I disagree with him on some issues (not others) but we can't just give all our attention to those we agree with. We never grow like that.

So, I'll return to this topic then, if there's something I think good for a blog post.

For now I wanted to cover the basic idea that we are limited. I'll explain with a basic idea from Singer, from several decades ago now, so those of you who are familiar with it please bear with me. (And please read my final paragraph here.)

He suggests that as wealthy modern western people we should give away far more of our wealth and resources than we do, and that we should jolly well feel guilty about living in the lap of luxury when others have so little.

I don't need anyone telling me that, as I fight that sort of guilt on an ongoing basis already, but like most (decent) people I settle for a balance between what I can do and what the cricket on my shoulder tells me I ought to do, because I've seen the damage that too much "outside" altruism can do to families.

As some of you know, I believe in wrestling with ethics. I'm OK with lying awake at night considering this stuff. I don't think I should breeze through life without giving a lot of thought into my decisions and actions on ethical grounds.

At the same time, I am only one person, I have a very limited sphere of influence (family, friends, blog readers) and as a friend pointed out yesterday "you can't save them all".

An excellent and simple example of this is what happened in my barn this week. Our first lamb of the season was born, and the birth was very traumatic for the mother. Jacob sheep are famed for their hardiness and hardly ever need intervention when lambing, but she was on her own all night, as we had no clue she was about to lamb, and we have no idea how long it took or what specific issues she had. I also didn't know she had retained the placenta until I saw it almost 12 hours later, because they usually eat it, and in this instance absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence. Anyway, things went wrong.

What we were presented with was a big, bonny, healthy lamb, and a ewe that was "down". With no strength to get up. We did what we could for her, but she died the following day.

Meanwhile we faffed about making colostrum substitute from a recipe, as we had been unable to get a drop out of her - she was totally dry - and it being a holiday on Monday, the farm stores were closed. As the first lamb this year no foster mother was available, and when I phoned a neighbour, he was in the exact same situation. So we made up the recipe, and then bought commercial lamb milk replacer the following day.

This is a limit of ethics situation, coupled with economics. It's not worth calling a vet on a ewe that is worth maybe $50. That idea will upset some, but that's farming. The animals are livestock. The Vegans have an argument for that, but others don't. She was not a pet. We may easily have spent four figures on trying to save her and failed anyway. So, no. We made her as comfortable as we possibly could and accepted the natural course of events. Shit happens. It's an economic loss, and I'm not callous, I don't enjoy losing animals, but at other times I selectively butcher them so that's how it is.

On the other hand I couldn't leave a perfectly healthy lamb to starve to death, so we have been bottle feeding him. He may not survive anyway. Without real colostrum they often die of infections in the first couple of weeks, and he's very vulnerable to injury too, and this morning he's limping, so this story is not over.

Here's the part even the non-Vegans don't like. If he survives, he will be butchered. That's his future, I'm afraid. That's what he's here for. An accident of being born male. I suppose I could sell him as a breeding ram to another farmer, either way he's far more valuable than his mother.

So what we had effectively was triage. I make no apologies for it, and if you are uncomfortable with this whole story, and you are not Vegan, I'm not going to get into an argument over it, that is the reality of raising meat.

This is how life is on planet Earth. You can't save them all. Most of them you will never even know about. And if you were introduced personally to every deserving case, you'd be overwhelmed.

3 million children under 5 die of hunger every year. It could be prevented, but not by me, and not by you. Even knowing about it and caring will not change that. Human society is OK with that happening or it would be stopped. It would cost $1000 per child, so it's a lot of money, but it's a drop in the ocean compared to a long list of other things we could live without, but I'll just pull one figure out for you, those 3 million children this year could be saved if the Kentucky dam project were cancelled.I have nothing against the Kentucky dam project, which was why I chose it (it's too easy to pick on military budgets) but it's just one example of how the haves spend, and the have nots die.

When I was planning my wedding I was required to go to "classes" with the Methodist minister who married us, and the topic came up of wishes. What did we wish for. Bear in mind I was only 18, very naive and a de facto Marxist at the time. I said that I wished all the money in the world could be equally distributed, right the way across the human population. He was a wise man, that minister, and he smiled and said it wouldn't last.

Trying to find out how much we'd each have if this happened today has proven very frustrating, but it would appear to be just under $10,000.

And this is why it won't happen. I am not willing to live on that amount, and I freely admit it. Remember this isn't an annual income, it would have to last you the rest of your life. In order to eat, never mind anything else, you'd get through it in 2-3 years, even if you grew your own food, and where would you live? Even if you own property you have to heat it, do repairs, etc........I don't need to explain.

But the fact is that to arrive at that figure, it's obvious that many, MANY people are living on a hell of a lot less. They don't all die. It is possible to live on less than that, but it would require a completely different way of life, that the vast majority of people would not be willing to do.

And no, even if this was done, it wouldn't last. The smarter, stronger, more skillful among us would not be willing to live at subsistence levels, and would quickly find ways to move more into our own pockets, not out of greed even, but out of a desire to be able to continue to not just survive but to improve our lot, to stop our share running out. It would be necessary, in fact, to take more than our fair share to thrive. Money changes hands, that's inevitable (no point having it if you can't buy something , from somebody) and it pools in some places. Some people are able to collect more than others, so they do.

That is human nature. Always has been. We are basically ambitious. We are progress oriented. That's why we live in skyscrapers and not trees.

If I was to give away everything I had to help world poverty it would have precious little impact, unless it all went to one small village. And now I'd be a statistic instead. I do take more resources than a whole African extended family, but I'm not ready to change that. Let's be honest.

What I do do, is send $37 a month to a little girl in Uganda so she can go to school, and hope she is able to change her country from within when she grows up, if she has an education. If we all did that much, at least, it would help, so I decided I would.

Still there are those who post all over Facebook that we should not send massive amounts of foreign aid, when we have needs here at home. I get what they are saying, we do have kids going hungry right here in North America, which is absurd, but it isn't because we spend too much on children we've never met, it's because the idiots who run our countries couldn't manage them properly no matter how much money they had. Me going short is not going to change that, either.

It's certainly true that if North Americans gave away all their money to those in need, it wouldn't solve anything because that's not how the world works (see above) so what we have to strive for is a balance, and that requires limitations of ethics. Which is why this is a forever task. Sharing is not straightforward.

And there ARE enough resources to go around. We can feed at least twice as many humans as we currently have, which is just as well as human population has not peaked. It's really all a question of how it is distributed (not to whom), and what is done with it. Again, it can be fixed, but we clearly don't want to fix it, or we would have by now.

Of course, limitations of ethics don't have to be on such a grand scale, it's just that it matters more when we look at something as important as this.

I think that's enough for now or you'll doze off, but I just want to end by saying that I have mentioned bits and pieces of all of this to various people in passing, and their reaction has been a shrug, and "Oh I know, we were taught that in school." Which is great. I wasn't. I've mentioned before of my lack of education, and how I'm playing catch up. Perhaps they don't realise what an incredible privilege an education is. Those of us who didn't get one can probably not get that across because, like most things when you're young, you don't appreciate it.

The simple fact is that the ability to care about ethics, about distribution, and all these theories of how to fix the inequalities in our society, comes from that privilege of education. Because until we know, we don't know. And we don't know that we don't know.


  1. As long as religion is permitted to exist, we will never see a world of true ethics or morality. It will always be "Us vs THEM". True ethics and morals are based on what is, logically, the best path toward a solution.

  2. It is why I do what I can when I can with what I have. Helping an elderly couple buy a few groceries or buying someone a meal at a fast food restaurant is what I can do to help. If I have something I don't need and I find someone that needs it I have no problem giving mine to them.
    Lately on my facebook feed a thing has been going around about how locally we rallied around the family of a girl killed, but we do nothing about Syria or Venezuela. But with the girls family there is a specific need of paying for funeral expenses. I can put $5 toward that and with everyone else that does it will help. With Syria I wouldn't know where to begin to help. So I just have to ignore the children dying in Syria. We just have to do what we can.