A recent article in the “Opinionator” by philosophy professor Jeff McMahan attracted a good deal of attention on my listservs, which include environmentalists, hunters, and animal studies people — a broad assortment easily set at each other throats. Some took this article as absolutely received word and others said it was obviously provocation and still others were laughing too hard to have an opinion. The premise of the article was that suffering in the world could be addressed by eliminating all the predators — which seemed to be defined as lions and tigers and bears (oh!) with little mention of predatory human beings. Or consideration of how we are going to get rid of carcasses if all the meat-eating bugs, rodents, and microbes are gone.
What sprang to my mind was a dim memory from World Religions class: the Jains, a religious group in India so concerned with not eliminating other life that they wear gauze masks to keep from inhaling gnats and carefully sweep the ground ahead of their feet to prevent stepping on ants. I looked it up.
Jainism is very old, going back nearly to the beginning of agriculture ten thousand years ago, which may be significant. The dislocations of such a major shift in civilization is bound to demand a new paradigm. The core of Jain reasoning is that every living creature has a soul and that the deepest moral command is kindness to all, because of reincarnation. When any living creature dies, it becomes another new living creature which is either “higher” or “lower” than the previous version, according to how much virtue was achieved. Thus: “Every soul is the architect of its own life, here or hereafter.” They speak of karma, a kind of fate, which is a bit of a joke to American culture (“My karma just ran over your dogma!”)
First you must believe in the soul, the ability of the “living” part of a being to separate from and survive the death of the body. “When a soul is freed from karmas, it becomes free and attains divine consciousness, experiencing infinite knowledge, perception, power, and bliss.” But don’t expect God or guardian angels to help you out if you’re Jain. “There is no supreme divine creator, owner, preserver or destroyer. The universe is self-regulated and every soul has the potential to achieve divine consciousness (siddha) through its own efforts.”
Jainism is one of the roots of Buddhism. Jains claim their beliefs are so ancient that they have always existed. Archeology and very early manuscripts tend to support this since there are traces back to nine thousand years before Christ — that’s about the time Isaiah was alive, one of the thinkers that McMahan quotes. The Hindu stream of thought is independent from Jainism, but takes so many ideas from Jains that some think of them as a variation of Hinduism. And I have a hunch that Jesus talked to a few Jains.
Some say the most important contribution of Jains is the end of ceremonial animal sacrifice which had become so obsessional that it was consuming too much wealth at the expense of feeding families.
In the Old Testament related ideas show up in the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son or Isaac having to be tricked into blessing Jacob, since Isaac preferred Esau, his hairy older twin son who usually brought hunted meat as sacrifice, while Jacob the smooth son brought ag products. Their mother, Rebecca, preferred Jacob and helped in the deception, aware that the twins had quarreled even in her womb. Some versions say that Esau sold his birthright for a mess of stew (which would include meat) and others say pottage, which is cooked peas or lentils. Reading these old stories is highly suggestive.
What I see in the kafuffle over McMahan’s proposition that all predatory meat-eaters be genetically altered to make them browsers is a new paradigm shift which cries out for a story. The culture shift we are in right now, which leaves so many families suffering from hunger, is about the new technological and bureaucratic advances that have made the planet a “sim world” where ecologies can be altered (global warming) and whole populations can be eliminated by denying assistance in the face of disease. After all, a virus is simply a bit of code. We ought to be able to alter it. So then the boys on the stone altar of trafficking could be spared — but the angel is late. Abraham is not writing the check.
That’s one angle. Another is the preoccupation with suffering. a physical response to damage or sometimes childbirth or bodily disfunction, which it has been possible to formally escape if you have the money for drugs. At one time it was considered immoral for a woman to use anesthetics during childbirth because that agony was mandated as Eve’s punishment for disobedience. Suffering has become a kind of pornography. Consider the agony of Darth Vader as he changes from a Jedi to a menace. And all those movies about the 19th century when soldiers had legs amputated while biting bullets. Yet the promise to eliminate suffering seems to be the only way to get people to write checks. In general, they will do it more generously for animals than for people.
Here’s another idea: the suffering that comes from overpopulation of humans which we then impose upon animals, all of us living in little bureaucratic cubicles making and manipulating code, quite like chickens stuffed together in cages to lay eggs. This time we have sold our heritage for a plastic credit card. Salvation by prosperity, often at the expense of others who labor for low pay and live in hovels. Maybe cutting their hearts out with obsidian knives would be kinder.
The most sophisticated shift in recent thinking is well represented in the comments responding to this essay. It is ecology: the idea that all things — living or not: animal, vegetable, mineral — fit together in a constantly shifting and deeply interrelated pattern that is an entity in itself. Pull out the tigers from the jungle and see what comes undone. Send out frankensalmon to the seas and see what comes undone. Every change sweeps around the planet and every change, even so small as the size of a fish, raises the possibility that humans will no longer fit. It’s time to get back in touch with the continuous sharing with all beings that was taken for granted before the boundaries of agriculture were imposed. Which takes us back to Jains.