Tuesday, September 27

Highest morality? Jesús Mosterín and the limits of love for animals

Jesús Mosterín is one of the bravest creatures that have been put in front of a bullfighter. For decades, the Basque philosopher fought directly and remotely against the defenders of the “national holiday”, as they call it in the name of you and me. He almost always came out unscathed, and he was even the one who set up the flags. Certainly, Mosterín’s tone, brusque and controversial, does not derive directly from the illustrated premises that he invoked against bullfighting, which he presented as a residue of barbarism, a legacy of black Spain. Shouting at a bullfighter “!assassin, assassin!” to the face it is the most cañí and chulado, but the applause of the public seems to want to tell us that we had to start somewhere.

Don’t get me wrong: we need many Jesús Mosterín in the Spanish-speaking world. In other words, we need philosophers who dialogue with science (instead of repudiating it out of ignorance of its basic notions), who enter the debate about our relationship with other animals unarmed, and who look to non-Western intellectual traditions and incorporate own the best they find. We may even need a “Hispanic” animalism, with its eventual grace and bravado. Nothing that follows is intended to gloss over this pressing need.

I wish to focus on a critical point in Mosterín’s thought: his vision of vegetarianism, which many contemporary thinkers consider a natural conclusion of antispeciesist ideas. As a prominent anti-speciesist in the Hispanic world, one could expect Mosterín to take a clear and forceful position on the matter, in one direction or the other. However, our author is shown here to be unusually ambiguous, even cryptic, and it is necessary to unravel him. In doing so, we will discover some of the peculiarities of his animal ethic.

In his best-known work in defense of animals, Long live the animals! (Debate, 1998), arguments for and against vegetarianism are listed, although the author states that the former are more numerous than the latter (p. 260). Little to comment on the arguments in favor, except for their extreme brevity, especially in the first: vegetarianism “may be good for health.” True, but also an omnivorous diet can be, we’re not saying much! The reader is surprised to discover that the first of the “few things to say against” is just the opposite: “vegetarian diets are sometimes unilateral and unbalanced, so health can suffer.” To resolve the question, more than a paragraph would be needed, which is what Mosterín dedicates in this book to the pros and cons of vegetarianism (he will expand a little more in The triumph of compassionsixteen years later).

The following “against” arguments are sadly familiar today. “The food of some animals by others is a feature of the trophic chains of nature, which as such has nothing moral or immoral.” Cannibalism and sexual coercion also abound in “nature”, but this does not imply that humans cannot subject them to moral consideration. The third is more interesting: “If they weren’t eaten by humans, farm animals would either not exist, or they would be eaten by other predators.”

Curious scenario, coming from a man who spent decades refuting the classic argument that, without bullfighting, the fighting bull would become extinct. Now Mosterín reasons in a similar way when he has to address, not a Hispanic show in which thousands of animals are slaughtered annually, but a global livestock system in which tens of billions are slaughtered. He repeatedly invokes our need to maintain this system: “We humans have artificially selected breeds of animals (such as fat dairy cows or farm pigs) that are unviable in nature, and condemned, therefore, to survive only as our prisoners” (animals live, p. 256). He even goes so far as to call them “voluntary prisoners, since they would not know how to live outside of jail” (The triumph of compassion, chap. two); as if they themselves insisted on crowding into farms without gates or walls.

Good or bad, they are arguments. In more informal contexts, Mosterín does not even pass that sieve: “I do not have swim against the chicken coops that can scratch the ground, stretch their wings and interact with each other. The pigs that eat acorns that fall from the oaks do not bother me either. [sic] in the meadows of Jabugo”. They wouldn’t mind those idyllic conditions either, but maybe having to visit the slaughterhouse with about one year of age (minimum fraction of your expectation of life). Throughout his work, Mosterín once again insists on his postcard of “the happy pigs of Jabugo”, which “live loose in the pastures, they live almost as well as (in some respects, better than) wild boars” (The triumph of compassion, chap. 9) and, “What they move a lot, they are healthy and happy and they produce good ham”. If before we read that food chains are impervious to a moral assessment, now everything enters the equation: “his death it can be (if the kill is done right) much less traumatic than death by predators, parasites, or starvation in the wild. If we let them go, they are going to die sooner and they are going to die in more pain.” (A classic argument since the days of Jeremy Bentham; according to Marga Vicedo, one that “hunters and fishermen frequently use to justify their activities, so harshly criticized by Mosterín”.)

In a specialized publication, addressed to critics of his work, Mosterín characterizes vegetarianism as a “maximum morality”, comparable to the humanitarianism of “the most dedicated members of certain NGOs” or the strict measures of non-violence of the Jain ascetics of India (which he mistakenly identifies as Buddhists). Vegetarianism would be a “maximum” morality founded on love, while the philosopher declares himself in favor of a “minimum morality” based on basic respect, out of a sense of realism, since this morality would be the only generalizable one.

What Mosterín does not mention is that not only the Jaina renunciates, but everybody followers of that religion (and of others) follow a diet that, in their opinion, could not be generalized. Is this the ultimate human altruism? Are everybody the heroic Jain individuals who “sacrifice their lives and careers to help others”?

In any case, none of what has been said explains why the philosopher himself does not assume that “morality of maximums” in a personal capacity (even when he promoted a “morality of minimums” in public); why he yields the last word to the historical development of a “majority moral consensus.” And it is not about the resistance of a carnivore for life. It turns out that Mosterín grew up precisely as an (ovo) vegetarian, something exceptional in the Spain of his youth. Rather, it they raised him as a vegetarian, entrusting him to the naturist doctrines of Professor José Castro, which Mosterín’s father shared, but did not practice (personally, he considered himself “too old to change his habits”). Jesús was the only member of his family who did not consume meat, fish or dairy, for dietary reasons, until he came of age and had to face the menus of pensions and university residences. Perhaps he was not convinced of the benignity of the diet that he received in his childhood, which in a society like Bilbao in the 1940s (and knowing the ideas of the controversial professor Castro) was perhaps not sufficiently balanced. The interested party explicitly leaves open the verdict on “the quality of the result” of the experiment.

This family background is an asset against his critics: “Let no one explain to me that it is possible to grow up or eat as a vegetarian: I am living proof that it is so”. Regardless of his biographical background (he once referred to vegetarianism as a series of prohibitions [La naturaleza humana, Espasa, 2011, p. 295]), there are problems with the demarcation made by Mosterín. Turning vegetarianism into a “maximum morality” founded on sublime love, instead of conceiving it as a “minimum morality” founded on reason, respect or justice, distances itself from the self-understanding of the main contemporary theorists in the field of vegetarianism. field (Regan, Singer, Francione, Korsgaard, Rowlands…). This argument suggests that Mosterín did not love animals enough; if we take it strictly, he would love them less than all the ethical vegetarians in the world. And yet it is possible that he loved them plus than most. Friend and collaborator of Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente, editorial director of the Salvat Encyclopedia of Fauna, Mosterín directly admired the fauna of Europe, Africa and South America, and his resume of public defense of animals is difficult to surpass. If he did not love them enough, who can boast of doing so?

The underlying problem lies perhaps in sheltering an ethical position in love, in emotions of fascination or sympathy. The first half of animals live aspires to arouse the admiration of the reader, showing him “the miracle of life” and the greatness of our evolutionary relatives (focusing on the so-called higher mammals), while the second half reviews activities such as intensive farming, bullfighting or hunting, where those celebrated beings are mistreated daily at the hands of humans. The book culminates with a plunge into the biosphere, something like a mystique of nature: no —clarifies Mosterín— “The mystic superstitious of dogmatic religions”, but one that would suppose “the culmination of scientific knowledge”. A naturalistic mysticism and not at all maudlin; almost as a counterweight to the enthusiasm, sometimes the castizo Spaniard emerges who does not want to be taken for girls: shortly after defending that a big profit animal has priority over a small detriment human, we read that “when a mosquito threatens to bite us, we do not hesitate to kill it (if we can) with a slap. We do not try to be saints” (p. 225).

This “emotionalist” strategy takes us back to the animal protection movements of two centuries ago, as if a spirit of the 19th century was embodied in the latest data. It is an approach that, we believe, most thinkers on animal ethics consider obsolete. I don’t have to like a human being—nor do I find his life especially worthwhile, fruitful, or fascinating—for me to refuse to do him any unnecessary harm, and, if that’s my ethical attitude, there may be no reason to change my mind as soon as it begins. to have some extra feathers or scales. The aforementioned Jain ascetics —like their Buddhist counterparts— tend to portray animal life in very dark colors, since they consider it an unfortunate rebirth, the result of evil deeds. The “love” that they can experience towards them is not, of course, the vitalistic admiration of a Mosterín (who describes the animal world as “a kind of constant partying”), but something closer to compassion for their unfortunate existence, on the part of a way of life —the human— that knows itself to be more capable and fortunate. Nor is compassion a requirement for respecting life: the injunction not to kill sentient beings is, in both traditions, more central and primary than any pious emotion that might accompany it.

In short: that, it seems, you don’t have to love non-human animals to respect them. It is not necessary to admire them to grant them “rights”. You don’t have to be a fan of animals, or surround yourself with them. It is not even necessary to love nature. We must not be captivated by biological, sensory and sensual life (disdained, by the way, by almost all the vegetarian traditions of Antiquity). It’s not that these things are superfluous; they are probably part of what our modern age has brought to debates of great antiquity. But oversizing them makes us lose points of contact with other cultures and sensitivities, not to mention the neighbor.