Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Out-of-Sight-Out-of-Mind-WEB-resize-700x945-53125a287620e-smallSifting through all the human-based ethical perspectives on nonhuman animals I was left with the obvious, morally dubious, question: who cares? Most moral positions begin with a consideration of that misleading question: do animals have moral status? I mean do we as humans have any moral responsibilities to animals? Are we morally culpable when we inflict harm and unnecessary suffering on animals? The utilitarian view-point is, of course, sensient-centric. This is at least a wider spectrum than anthropocentrism – that is it does not concern itself exclusively with the human species and our interests, but with the interests of any being that can suffering; i.e. a sentient being. And indeed Bentham seems correct here in noting that the question to be asked is not ‘Can they Reason? Can they talk? But rather, Can they suffering?’ His point was that interests are premised on one’s experiential capacity for suffering. The stone being kicked along by a school boy walking home from school has no vested interest in the boy’s chosen path of amusement. But were the boy to kick a mouse instead, however one feels about the mouse, we could not deny that the mouse has a vested interest in not being kicked along because it suffers! Now those familiar with utilitarianism know the theory to be teleological in kind and hence always only ever a conditional moral response to a set of circumstances that give rise to pleasure/pain outputs. Hence, there is nothing wrong in principle with kicking a mouse; after all, if we could anesthetize the poor mouse so that it felt nothing, it would feel no pain.

And yet, is there not something quiet disturbing about the kicking of a mouse as a form of idle amusement in principle anyway? Well, not according to the mouse, I suppose. It is after all a sentient being, lacking in any propensity for abstract consideration of issues pertaining to its treatment. It will not, as it were, suffer even were it to be made privy to the acts of this boy. So who cares?

It seems to me we care. That is, we who permit ourselves the luxury to acquaint ourselves with the gruelling reality of the actions we endorse indirectly. I don’t know how far back what I call the industrialization of happiness goes, and I am not yet entirely sure when and how moral attitudes fit in, but utilitarianism certainly does scape-goat such practices or conceptual attitudes of mind (though as I say it may be even more directly implicated) in that it grounds all moral justification in the increase of happiness or pleasure. It’s a game of averages, and so long as we can reduce the net average amount of pain over the experience of pleasure, all is good in our moral conceptual world.

But I give you the mom who runs out to her son with moral sentimentality in her heart to have him see her concern for the mouse! “My son”, she might say, “this is a living being, it has feelings, it can suffer and be hurt”. To which the boy proudly says, “ya I know mom. That’s why I injected it painlessly with anesthesia! It feels nothing, and will know nothing when it awakes! Awesome, right?! Ingenious, right?”

Well I suppose the boy’s mom might ask him if anesthetizing a human and performing all sorts of pleasure maximizing activities upon him would render the same moral result in his mind. Chances are, it would not. We are humans after all! Hmmmm, back to anthropocentrism!

Anthropocentrism is a conceptual framework of human understanding which ultimately shapes the manner in which we engage and value the world and ourselves in it. It will be responsible for the designs we place and implement in the world amongst others. The framework says that everything in the world is instrumentally valuable, and that all things that have value have it as our resources, basically because we endow it with value because we have figured out a way for it to be made useful to us.

I wish to very briefly address the industrialization of happiness and instrumentality. There is a whole industry of happiness out there: from flippantly prescribed happy-drugs (anti-depressants? Really?) as well as all forms of pain-alleviation drugs (even when no medical reason presents itself) as with pain-killers for every ache and pain, epidurals frantically requested by expecting mothers, and caesarean-births requested for the same reason, to self-help books, various forms of political and empathetic correctness, and the totalizing preoccupation with shielding ourselves and others from the experience of any pain at all. Out of sight, out of mind! Terrible things will always happen. Painful experiences are an unavoidable aspect of the human experience of life. Hurt, injustice, heartlessness, bad friggen luck, sickness, death….all of these things unfortunately come to us all. We tend to accept this. But what we do not accept is permitting ourselves the experience of pain, suffering and perhaps the onslaught of (temporary) depression. If we are not encouraged to take anti-depressants, we will likely be scolded (by ourselves and/or others) if we allow ourselves to experience our suffering, especially publicly, for too long. “Get yourself together!” You can’t just wallow away in your pain, for this serves no one! Indeed, pain is unnecessary! Hence, we have a moral responsibility (some might say our sense of dignity relies on it!) to implement any and all tactics to rid ourselves of the experience of suffering. What better tactic then to put it out of your mind. After all if the memories of our experiences were to be removed from our minds, there’d be no suffering. Take the blue pill and deploy the harsh reality of the world, and blindly return to those blissful days of happiness. We don’t need to consider the hurt we cause others, if we never experience their pain. We don’t need to see ourselves as heartless and cruel if we never experience the impact our actions and choices have upon them. What good would that do them or me anyways, right? WRONG!

The avoidance of suffering can be the very reason someone engages in inhumane activities – think of the school boy! Indeed, allowing ourselves to experience the pain and suffering of others helps build empathic reservoirs, and cultivate our so-called humanity. This is ultimately defined as the quality of being humane or benevolent. It is tied up in our comportment in the world and our sense of integrity as we make our way in the unfolding of actions that constitute our world and ourselves. The burning question then must be reframed, from “who cares?” to “who do you want to be?” When one experiences the (unnecessary) suffering inflicted upon others it acts as a mirror – one can see, experience, in oneself the beastiality, the cruelty, the heartlessness of our actions and thereby assume responsibility. And this is only the tip of the iceberg as far as the “beauty” (for I wish not to call it an advantage and place it within the context of that industrialized world of human conduct) of human suffering goes. (Disclaimer: I am not advocating the pursuit and enjoyment of suffering – I’m not advocating either sadism or masochism.)

Instrumentality is that conceptual framework that feeds the mainframe to human happiness! It says that everything is a means to my end. Nothing and no one is valuable in themselves; indeed, no experiences are valuable in themselves. All things are substitutable, inter-changeable, replaceable, recyclable. Anything and anyone is valuable only for so long as I am, perceive or experience myself as the recipient of pleasure; as soon as it causes undue suffering, the wise and morally acceptable attitude would be to oust that being in the most efficient manner available. Consider the quality of one’s relations with fellow humans – as a parent, citizen, friend, lover – and all other living being in this world that jointly inhabit and shape this world we live in! These would be devoid of any deep affection, ideas of respect and commitment would be null and void, and the richness (or riches) that comes from enduring the trials of life and overcoming, surpassing, the contingencies of life would come to dictate one’s (superficial?) life.

How shall we live our life? Who shall we be? How shall we construct our inter-human, inter-species and inter-bio relations?



2 thoughts on “Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Add yours

  1. There is some pain which I would define as “existential”, that, in fact, reflect a deep integrity very close to some “appearance”, such “a texture”, of the being, if I may say so, I realize that, every now and then, at the time of an “absolute requirement” to write, up to a certain point, in some way, as enter in trance, as if I am touching a sensitive formulation even from the mind.


    1. Existential angst is no less dubbed than any other form of suffering, though of a very different kind, as you suggest. A hedonic, and uninvested, life (even the Aesthetic man in Kierkegaard evolves into a connoisseur of life) tends to the superficial and is easily held hostage to the conceptual frameworks outlined. Ethics is about how to live well, it is not simply or only about how to respond to said moral dilemma. As such, an existential attitude (the epistemological and metaphysical underpinnings would have to be carefully worked out, of course) that begins with “being-in-the-world-with-others” offers interesting formulations of authenticity and integrity.


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