Everyday human morality – the kind of morality based on our instincts and our common sense rather than on theorizing – is quite often rooted in our response to the physical or emotional suffering of other living creatures. But, in a recent post on eating animals, I confess that I was surpised to discover how many of us share the belief that the most ethical way to honor an animal’s sacrifice is to witness or imagine that animal’s death and suffering. This post attempts to make sense of my confusion as to whether or not it is valuable to live with such attention to suffering and death as a means of being ethical.
From an evolutionary perspective, I find it interesting to speculate about how we evolved an ethics that relies so much on the recognition and relief of the suffering that surrounds us. I’m inclined to believe that our sympathy for another’s suffering generally coexists with the fear that such suffering could happen to us. In other words, we evolved an ethics that often centers on relieving suffering, because the desire to relieve the suffering around us is a way to help minimize immediate threats to our community and to ourselves. Our sympathy, while genuine, is often also an instinctive act of self-protection.
However, we also see sitations in which these moral feelings can lead to results that are harmful to the community as a whole in our religious traditions and in life: Nephi, we are told, rightly did not give in to his desire not to kill Laban, because letting him live would threaten a nation; we are told that giving money to panhandlers on a subway is in the end not beneficial to them and that we ought to relieve their suffering by giving to groups that help the homeless instead; we hear arguments that Madonna’s attempt to rescue one child in Africa through adoption and ensure him a better life threatens the futures of the children who would remain behind. We can debate the specific cases, but it seems evident that there are moments in which moral impulses to relieve suffering can get in the way of more appropriate solutions.
Although I too am troubled by how our culture often hides suffering and death from sight to minimize the unpleasantness to the healthy and living – we no longer publicly mourn, slaughter our food, or witness most of our children die young from disease – I believe there is also an argument to be made for the case that the removal of suffering and death from sight, as well as the sometimes replacement of the desire to relieve immediate suffering with deferal to systemic approaches, is better for communities as a whole. Indeed, it is perhaps because we live in a culture where we have decided that public suffering and death are unacceptable that we have devoted a tremendous amount of real resources towards curing disease, advancing human rights, and striving to make a world without suffering. These goals might be predicated on a general cultural denial of our mortality and our role in natural cycles of death, but I am pleased at the results even as a mock our desire to live in a bubble.
At the end of the day, awareness matters if it will change how I consume, but, if not, remembering an animal’s death or a worker’s labor seems more like a way to ease my own conscience. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t ever experience killing an animal or remember human suffering (surely it is appropriate to memorialize those who give their lives), but there is a case to be made for not dwelling too much (or acting on) these unpleasant realities, too. Sometimes, hiding that which is immediately unpleasant can help us act in ways which serve the greater good.
Note: I’ll probably change my mind on this topic, since I am not very committed to this point of view, but I want to play devil’s advocate for the sake of discussion. I reserve all rights to contradict myself in the future!