When parents produce a child there is from the beginning, and for very many years, an asymmetry in their relationship. Normally the parents provide everything which is necessary until the time when the adult can maintain himself. Exactly when this moment will arrive is very variable. In England, although we have a problem relating to affordable housing, there is a tendency amongst the young to fly the nest as soon as they can, something not necessarily replicated in other countries, like France and Italy. The difference can be explained in part, at least, by the law. Here in the UK, responsibility for a child finishes at the age of 18. In other countries, where the law is based on the Napoleonic Code, it is more generous. In 2016, an Italian court decided that a father should continue to be responsible for the maintenance of his son (a ‘child’ of 28) until he had finished his doctorate in, I think, sociology.
But it is not totally asymmetric because, in those countries, the children are also legally obliged to maintain their parents. Indeed, elderly friends of ours in France are currently fighting a claim for maintenance by an even more elderly mother who would like a higher standard of living. This obligation has no equivalent here in the UK. Instead, we largely subcontract our responsibility for our elders to the state.
Oxytocin is one of the tools ‘used’ by evolution to promote the link felt by parents towards their children. But the inverse – a natural disposition to help ones parents or grandparents to the same extent? In thinking about this, we shouldn’t ignore evolutionary pressure. We are predisposed to use our resources in order to ensure the continuation of our DNA. Its continuation, however, depends on the children and not the preceding generations, except in their role, for example, in looking after the grand-children. And now the generations often don’t live even in the same town, never mind in the same street, which makes their evolutionary benefit more fragile.
Obviously there can be a good relationship between children and their parents, but often there isn’t. That there is, in general, an asymmetry in attitude is for me evidenced by the lengths to which the parents will go to ‘encourage’ the feeling of an obligation to look after them. For example, the Bible says little or nothing about the care of children, but one of the Ten Commandments tells us: “Honour your father and your Mother that your days may be long...”. I would suggest therefore that if the wish to look after our parents were the same as that felt towards the children, there would not be the need for such an emphasis on there being a moral obligation. Methinks they do protest too much.
In principle, our willingness to look after people who are not part of the family ought to be even weaker. And that is so. We make a donation when we see Comic Relief on the tele or when someone rattles a collecting box under our noses. There are those who make regular donations, but they are the exception. Normally we have to be almost forced to acknowledge the problems others have in in order to be motivated to generosity. There is no strong natural link between us and the poor of this world. We are empathetic, altruistic, but it seems that this emotion exists mainly towards the people around us with whom we have some sort of relationship.
I wanted to explore the extent to which we were willing to disadvantage ourselves for the benefit of someone-else before getting to what started me writing this essay - veganism. That veganism is a religion, based on an absolute morality, is obvious from the death threats used to try to impose their beliefs on the rest of us. It is though a religion which is an extreme example of the need to disadvantage ourselves. It is for the benefit of ‘someone’ who cannot give us any obvious evolutionary advantage in exchange, apart, ironically, from its milk, meat or skin. There is no other symmetry in the relationship with animals except perhaps in the case of pets who give us their ‘love’ or those which have a special ability which we can make use of.
Apart from their threats, vegans depend on encouraging from us the same empathy for animals which we show (or not) towards the poor of this world. To activate this empathy, they have various methods. They allude to cruelty towards living beings. Certainly, there are examples of cruelty towards animals. Here, however, it doesn’t resonate very much, because the UK is known for its strict laws against such cruelty. Moreover, it has an effective regulatory system for the production of meat for eating. They are up against it even more because the animals they are trying to protect – cows, pigs, chickens etc. - are not very cuddly.
Clearly, vegans are aware that they have a problem to overcome and so have decided to play their ace card – the alleged sentience of animals. They assert that animals have a self-consciousness which is essentially the same as that of human beings. According to them, this means that we have a moral obligation to treat them as we treat ourselves. It is of course true that basic elements in the structure of animal brains are similar to those found in our brains. Their reaction to pain can appear to be similar to ours. But this does not in itself demonstrate that we ought to treat them like us. Even spiders apparently feel pain. And our brain is much bigger, more complex and capable of so much more. I would suggest, therefore, that our self-consciousness can reasonably be expected to be far more complex and indeed in a different category.
For thousands of years, we have justified our stance towards animals based on the Judeo-Christian doctrine that we have a soul and therefore a moral sense, something lacking in animals. It creates a difference in kind. In the space now created in the UK at least by resistance to the authority of traditional religion, and therefore the idea of a spiritual difference between us and the lower orders, vegans have spotted an opportunity. They now encourage us instead to see only a difference in degree between us and other species. But even if we accepted that there were only a difference of degree in our self-consciousness, I would still find it reasonable not to think that this indicated that we were all the same. It would be reasonable to think that there was a point below which the level of self-consciousness became inconsequential.
For me, in any event, self-consciousness is not the only factor. There is also the question of rationality in a form which we can recognise, of an advanced nature, and the capacity to imagine a world different to the one which we inhabit. I will be more persuaded of the case for veganism when, as the prophet Isaiah said in his vision of paradise:
“The wolf will dwell together with the lamb; the leopard will lie down next to the kid; The cow and the bear will graze together; The lion will feed on straw, like the ox. "
- in brief, when I see in them the empathy for other species which vegans require of us. It would demonstrate a mind and a morality like ours, sufficient to convince me to think otherwise. In the absence of such symmetry, will there nonetheless be a change in public morality thanks to the efforts of vegans? It is possible, but I doubt it, in view of the difficulty we have in persuading ourselves even of the need to look after disadvantaged humans. So then, at the moment, I shall continue with my normal partly carnivorous diet. And in view of the number of people who were complaining the other day when there was the problem with the deliveries to KFC, it seems that I am still part of the majority.
13 March 2018