Book Summaries Politics

Ch 7: The Rights Revolutions (The Better Angels of Our Nature)

Before the 19th century, the idea that animals should have rights was laughable. But throughout the century, movements that had their basis in humanitarianism and romanticism led to the protection of animals. Vivisection was banned, so was any form of animal cruelty. The idea was the animals were conscious, and experienced pain.


In the 20th century, the trend was reversed. Two world wars led to meat hunger, and the populace was so grateful for cheap meat from factory farming that it cared little about where the meat came from. In the same period, behaviorism took over psychology and philosophy, and insisted that the very idea of animal experiences was a form of scientific naivety (the cardinal of anthropomorphism). The animal welfare movement beame associated with do-gooders and health food nuts. Even Orwell, one of the greatest moral voices of the time, was contemptuous of vegetarians.

He said,

One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words “Socialism” and “Communism” draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist, and feminist in England…. The food-crank is by definition a person willing to cut himself off from human society in hopes of adding five years on to the life of his carcase; that is, a person out of touch with common humanity.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature

All this changed in the 1970s, when the oppressed classes and animals were fought for once again. Peter Singer’s book, Animal Liberation, was a turning point. Since humans could thrive on a modern vegetarian diet, it no longer mattered if we evolved to eat or were culturally conditioned to. An animal’s interest in living a life free from pain outweighed the human desire to add marginal pleasure to our lives.

In the 2000’s, blood sports were outlawed. Louisiana became the last American state to ban cockfights. Even the bullfight was outlawed in Barcelona in 2004, and then the ban was extended to the entire region of Catalonia.

The average age of hunters is increasing. Americans tend to spend more time with animals these days, but a larger portion of that time is spent to observe these animals rather than hunt them.

People used to not care about eating chicken because chickens seemed to be small brained creatures that led uninteresting lives. But the tide is turning. More Americans are aware of the cruelties of factory farming and now refuse to eat any form of meat.

The food industry has responded with a cornucopia of vegetarian and vegan products. The faux-meat section of my local supermarket offers Soyburgers, Gardenburgers, Seitanburgers, Veggie Burger Meatless Patties, Tofu Pups, Not Dogs, Smart Dogs, Fakin Bacon, Jerquee, Tofurky, Soy Sausage, Soyrizo, Chik Patties, Meatless Buffalo Wings, Celebration Roast, Tempeh Strips, Terkettes, Veggie Protein Slices, Vege-Scallops, and Tuno. The technological and verbal ingenuity is testimony both to the popularity of the new vegetarianism and to the persistence of ancient meat hunger.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature

Teenage girls are the demographic sector with the largest proportion of vegetarians (but vegetarianism among teenage girls is highly correlated with eating disorders). Is vegetarianism trending upward? In the UK, it has more than tripled over the last two decades. In the US, vegetarianism has tripled in the last 15 years.

Moral Development

Moral growth has also been the result of scholars who have been puzzled about the trajectory of material progress in different parts of the world. Sowell, Diamond, have concluded that material success comes from being situated in a large catchment area of innovations. No one is smart enough to invent anything in isolation that anyone else would want to use.

Martin Luther King recounted his intellectual influences, and among them was the Bible and orthodox theology, but he had also read reengage theologians such as Walter Rauschenbusch, in addition to the great philosophers, from Plato and Aristotle down to Rousseau, Hobbes, Bentham, Mill, and Locke.

All these masters stimulated his thinking, yet he found things to question in each of them.

He carefully read (and rejected) Nietzsche and Marx, inoculating himself against the autocratic and communist ideologies that would be so seductive to other liberation movements. He also rejected the “anti-rationalism of the continental theologian Karl Barth,” while admiring Reinhold Niebuhr’s “extraordinary insight into human nature, especially the behavior of nations and social groups…. These elements in Niebuhr’s thinking helped me to recognize the illusions of a superficial optimism concerning human nature and the dangers of a false idealism.”

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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