Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Erich Fromm #3D: Alienation, animals, and atheism

How does all of this relate to animal consumption and veganism? To the scientific-atheist (or, as I prefer to call it, epistemic) movement?

Alienation, animal use, and veganism

It’s difficult to imagine a more alienated relationship between living beings than that between humans and farmed animals. The 50 billion animals slaughtered each year are literally commodities (the commodification of nature can be seen in other realms as well). We discuss them in abstract language, and render their experiences, their suffering, and often their very existence as living beings invisible. They’re viewed as objects to be exploited for human pleasure, as the quotation that opened this subseries, with its reference to the importance of the “total sensory experience” of eating meat, shows.

Despite the superficial insistence on the great sensual joys of consuming animals, the psychic distress caused by this alienated relationship and the moral wrongs it entails reveals itself in a number of ways. Symptomatic are the psychological defense mechanisms Melanie Joy describes

which make it evident that these relationships are problematic and causing deeper psychological strain.

As I mentioned in the previous post, Fromm regarded sentimentality as alienated emotion – there’s a need for emotional relatedness but no relationships in which to give it form. He offers this illustration:

It is like a person crying at the movies when the heroine loses a chance to make $100,000 and people cry and the same people in real life can witness a great tragedy around themselves and around their own lives, and they don’t cry, and don’t feel anything, because they are really unrelated. They are not concerned. They live in that vacuum of abstraction, of alienation from reality of feelings. (PoN KL 793-5)

We see something similar, I think, in the popularity of the many sentimental films featuring humans helping or saving individual animals or animated animals gaining their freedom, of which there seem to have been many recently. The response to these movies indicates that there’s still a widespread longing amongst all but the sickest people for a genuine and loving relatedness to nonhuman animals, but since most relationships most people have with them in actuality are extremely alienated and destructive, and this poisons those few nonalienated relationships they do have, that longing is subverted and what’s left is alienated emotion or sentimentality.

All of this suggests that the fleeting satisfaction of a juicy burger or cheering Drew Barrymore as she rescues whales are simply alienated practices of consumption that, we’re dimly aware, reveal our lack of relatedness to our fellow animals and the rest of the natural world. Beyond the conscious or unconscious psychological effects of this alienation are the opportunities lost for our knowledge of them, and thus of ourselves; for the development of our reasoning and emotional capacities; and for our development through mutually beneficial relationships with them.

Veganism is the minimal starting point for reforming our relationships with the nonhuman world, as it removes the alienated relationship of exploiting and consuming animals, with its poisonous effects on any other relationships with animals such as conservation work or companion care. It’s a necessary foundation for developing a genuine biophilic ethics.

Alienation, faith, and science

I opened this subseries with a quotation about eating meat that I thought captured perfectly the sad alienation of our relationship to farmed animals. Parallel examples in discussions of religion and atheism appear frequently, but, even though the imbalance of not having a faith quote bothered me aesthetically, I didn’t want to spend time searching for a specific one. Fortunately, reading a post at Jason Rosenhouse’s EvolutionBlog I came across a beauty from Robin Hanson. “A few days ago,” he offers, “I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak?”

He provides the most frequent answer from atheists: that we value truth. It’s not the only answer, since atheists by no means concur that the claims about religion’s supposed benefits are supported by the evidence or accept the premise that the evidence for religious beliefs is merely “weak.” But it’s a perfectly valid and ethical answer. Behind the reference to truth as an abstract value are both a moral and a political argument, and I’ve yet to see a convincing refutation of either. The moral argument explains the duty to believe according to the evidence. Once that case is made (and thus far the response on the part of religious people and accommodationists has been to ignore rather than engage with it), it’s the same as any other ethical argument: we don’t typically place our personal desires above the duty to behave ethically.

The political (also an ethical) argument is also strong: if we value truth so little, we have no defenses against the evidence-challenged truth claims of powerful, self-interested people and organizations – not just religious fundamentalisms but corporations and governments - that mean great harm. Both suggest that to accept beliefs that we suspect or know to be false because they have desirable consequences for us personally, even if we wanted to and were somehow able to do it, would be an affront to our dignity and abdication of our responsibilities as reasoning beings.

So the argument about valuing truth (and, by implication, for rejecting bad epistemic practices) is strong. But, somewhat unlike ethical arguments about harming animals, it has an abstractness about it that seems to concede too much. It stipulates, basically, that human well-being and a key value of atheists might be in conflict, and that in this case atheists value an abstract principle above human happiness or well-being. So when the faithful or accommodationists raise the absurd extreme hypothetical case in which a faith has only benefits (to humans, presumably) and ask “Would you still oppose it? Would you still tell people not to believe?” a response in the affirmative sounds callous, because the question has pitted “abstract” truth against “real” human well-being.

Of course, it isn’t really, because we don’t live in this impossible fantasy world, as the people posing the question well know. (I find this sort of ridiculous rhetorical posturing unethical in such a context, but leaving that aside…) The problem with the perfectly valid ethical-political argument about truth and believing according to the evidence is that it’s too general to move the discussion into the deeper realm of alienation, with its more integrated understanding of ethics and well-being. It’s incomplete in that it doesn’t address the meaning of faith for our real relationships.

A comprehensive argument, and one that shows the impossibility of the hypothetical case, would emphasize that what we value are truths, plural – truths about real entities, including ourselves and other human and nonhuman beings. Capital-T Truth is not, in fact, abstract, but just the set of these individual truths. And science is practiced at the level of these individual truths - at the level of our relationships with real, concrete natural entities.

Seen in these terms, faith as a practice is revealed as, fundamentally, an alienated relationship with the world, or, better yet, a set of alienated relationships. Even if it were true that faith exclusively afforded all of the benefits its proponents claim (including the experience of awe and wonder at “the world”), these would come at the extent of profound losses. In Fromm’s terms, in contrast to science, faith lacks “humility, in which one ha[s] the strength to look at the world objectively,” undistorted by “our own wishes and fears and imagination.” It lacks respect for the independent reality of the beings and things it encounters. It subverts our ability to gain knowledge about ourselves, about other beings, and about our relationships.

Learning to practice faith is an education in how to be alienated from ourselves and the rest of the natural world. This isn’t only unethical but harms our development as reasoning, feeling beings. Science, in contrast to a narcissistic and alienated faith, is an example of a loving and unalienated relationship with the world. By way of the scientific attitude and concrete relationships of understanding with other beings – regardless of whether these are part of institutional science or not – we relate ourselves lovingly and productively to the world.

It might be surprising how different this understanding of scientific practice is from the common view of science and scientists as cold, distant, and uncaring, as opposed to faith, seen as connected and loving. Fromm’s framework, if taken seriously, forces a reversal: science, ideally, is love.


Even superficially, the benefits to our well-being of animal consumption and of faith are certainly arguable. And even if this weren’t the case, they face strong ethical challenges. But even the ethical challenges don’t address the fact that what’s lost, in both cases, is our relationship to the world, our understanding, the fullness of our existence.

Alienation needs to be a central concept today, not just for ethical-political reasons, but for reasons of our own well-being. We need to think seriously in these terms about whether ours are healthy relationships for human beings, for human cultures, to have with the world.

The great part of all this, as Fromm recognized, is that we don’t have to believe what we’ve been told (often by corporations) about our needs and the bases for our well-being and development. We can end our alienated relationships and rebuild or develop new unalienated ones that will nourish not just our mental health but our development as human beings.

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