Friday, November 25, 2005

pain, suffering, and kittens

Xrlq points with approval to this article about a woman who was being punished for abandoning some kittens. Her sentence was a night out in the woods without sufficient clothing or shelter. Xrlq and some of his commenters think justice was done. They think that the woman's suffering is similar to what the kittens suffered, but this is because they are making the mistake of attributing human morality to animals.

I pointed out that the woman will suffer but that the kittens did not suffer. A commenter responded by asking me if I was drunk when I wrote that. The answer is, "No". I had just taken a shot of of ice-cold peppermint schnapps in celebration of the holiday season (great stuff, by the way), but I wasn't dunk.

Animals do not suffer. They can be in pain, but animals do not have the necessary moral sensibility to suffer. That is a good thing because otherwise nature would be one huge awful torture chamber: otters eating fish tail-first, lions killing zebra colts by strangling while their mothers watch, alligators killing cattle by drowning, adult chimps tearing baby chimps away from their mother to kill and eat them.

Animals are innocent; they have no sense of right and wrong. That means in particular that they cannot feel that something is wrong when they are in pain. Suffering is a moral sense, not a physical sense. It is caused by pain or loss, but pain or loss alone is not suffering. You have to respond to the pain or loss with a moral sense of outrage, rejection, or hopelessness in order to turn it into suffering.

I used to get spankings from my father. These punishments caused me great suffering as a child. Then one day my mother got irrationally angry at me and insisted that my father spank me for no good reason (this only happened once; I don't mean to give the impression that my mother was a harridan because she wasn't). My father knew that the spanking was unfair, but he felt he had to do it to keep peace in the family. I knew that it was unfair and I understood why my father was doing it.

For the first time, I reacted to a spanking not by rejecting it, but by accepting it. I could tell how badly my father felt, so I decided to not cry and fuss because I didn't want him to feel even worse than he already did. I accepted the spanking. I volunteered to take the pain. And you know what? I didn't suffer. For the first time, I took the lashes and I realized that it was only pain. I didn't have to suffer if I chose not to.

My father never spanked me again. He realized that I was past the point where I could be effectively punished with a spanking. I had learned the secret of suffering: it is a choice.

People feel pain and loss all the time and don't suffer when they have chosen the pain or loss. Giving a thousand dollars to charity does not cause suffering, but having a hundred dollars taken by a mugger does. Policemen regularly subject themselves to mace as part of their training and many soldiers attend simulated prison camps where they are roughly treated and abused. But many of these people don't suffer from the mace and the abuse. They don't suffer because it was their own choice. They accepted the pain.

Now I don't mean to imply that not suffering is always an easy choice. It is much harder to chose not to suffer when the pain or loss is great and when it is not by choice. I don't mean to imply that I could be tortured and not suffer; I couldn't. We all have our limits, and my own limit is well south of having my fingernails pulled out.

But animals don't have such limits because they do not have the capacity to suffer at all, no matter what happens to them. They just do not have the moral sensibility to feel outrage or rejection or hopelessness. Animals are morally innocent, and that innocence protects them from suffering.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Ink Magic continued


Ink Magic (part 4)

"You have violated the pact, Steven."

"What pact?" I asked. "I don't know no steenking pact."

"I made a pact to protect you and your mother," the stern voice told me, "The pact was intended to keep you from ever discovering .... Well, never mind. By entering my office, you have violated the terms."

"If I'm expected to keep a pact, it would have been prudent to let me in on it."

"The encloudment was supposed to keep you out! How did you find the basement?"

"I don't know. I just came home and noticed the door."

"You just..."

"After I escaped from the hoodoo."

"The what?"

"A sort of black-mercury blob that can shoot out tentacles. You know: a hoodoo."

"Some sort of monster attacked you?"

"Well, if a black-mercury blob that can shoot out tentacles counts as a monster, then yes, a monster attacked me. I called it a hoodoo because that's what the tattoo guy called it."

"The tattoo guy? Did you get a tattoo, Steven?"

"Tattoos are a lot more common these days, Dad. It's not just ex-cons and sailors..."

"Is the tattoo surprisingly life-like? Did you pass out while you wre getting it done? And did you feel different after you got it?"

"Yes, yes, and ... yes, now that I think about it. I started getting intuitions. I knew that something was following me before I ever saw the blob. And I knew to run from the blob even though it didn't seem very fast."

"And then you came home and saw the door."


"OK, I know what happened now. Some mystic quack managed to invest you with a minor charm of some sort. He probably bought the ink from a fey and then got lucky in applying the tattoo. But it wasn't lucky for you because it broke the encloudment that enforced the pact."

"The old guy said I was going to be attacked if I didn't get the tattoo. It probably saved my life."

"No. You wouldn't have been attacked at all if you hadn't broken the encloudment."

"So ... the tattoo that protected me from the danger is what drew the danger in the first place? That's rather ironic, isn't it?"

"It doesn't matter now," my father said in a resigned tone, "What's done is done. You and your mother have to get out of that house immediately. In fact, you should get out of California. Don't even pack. Go to the East Coast. Don't tell anyone where you are going. Don't ..."

"Just who am I supposed to be running from, Dad?"

"It doesn't matter! Just do as I say!" he sounded angry. Angry or frightened.

"You expect me to spend the rest of my life hiding from some mysterious unknown menace? That's not very realistic."

"No," he admitted, "I guess it's not." Dad sounded calmer now, resigned. "Look, Steven. I don't have time to explain it all to you because you have to get out of the house, but please take my word for it that you and your mother are in grave danger."

"OK," I said. "I believe you." After all, I had barely escaped from a monster only a few hours ago.

"Good. Good." he paused again. "There is a book on the bookshelves. Third shelf down, second shelf in from the left as you face the books, near the middle of the shelf. The title says 'Tables of Physical Properties of Materials' but it is really my journal. Grab it and get the hell out of there. Right now. Don't pack, just get to an airport and get out of the state. Please, Steven."

"OK, Dad, I believe you, but how am I supposed to talk mother into this?"

"There is a letter in the top desk drawer addressed to your mother. Give it to her to read." I opened the drawer as he spoke and saw the letter. "When your mother reads the letter it will lift the encloudment on her as well. It will also tell her that I was kidnapped and that you two are in danger."

"OK, Dad."

"You will do it?"

"I said, 'OK'".

"OK. Go right now, Steven. I can't express how urgent this is."

There was a click and then dead silence on the phone. No buzz like you used to get on these phones after someone hung up on you.

For the last couple of minutes I had been feeling that same odd certainty that I was being stalked; the one I had felt before the first time I saw the hoodoo. But after the freaky conversation I'd just had with my missing father about pacts and feys and encloudments, I figured that I was just generally creeped out so I didn't pay as much attention to the feeling as I should have.

That's why I didn't even bother to look back at the staircase. If I had looked back, I would have seen the streams of black mercury coursing down the basement steps, but it would have been too late anyway. I was trapped.

I picked up the nail gun again but the extension chord didn't have any more room. Since I was in a hurry, I set it back down on the desk so that I could go over to the bookcase and look for my father's journal. As I stood there looking at titles, the mercury streams must have been crossing the floor behind me, because I began to feel near panic but I firmly pushed it way, telling myself that it was only a sense of urgency.

Then, genius that I am, I set down my last weapon. I leaned the two by four against the bookcase to pull out the journal and check that I had the right book. As I was scanning through the book, I felt something brushing at my pants cuffs and I looked down to see my feet encased in that black mercury.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

more on "torture"

Jeff Goldstein is having an interesting discussion on so-called torture (really just abusive treatment). So far he has gotten about a hundred more comments on his post than I got on mine.

Here was my comment on the thread:
To the people who have compared Jeff and the others to moral relativists and utilitarians: you don’t know what you are talking about. Moral relativism and utilitarianism are not the position that the morality of an act is relative to or dependent on the situation. Nearly everyone believes that.

Cutting someone open with a scalpel is bad if you do it for fun, and good if you do it for surgery; it’s relative. Punching someone in the nose is bad if you do it out of anger and good if you do it out of self-defense; it depends on the situation. Killing is bad if you do it out of greed but good if you do it to save someone’s life from a homicidal maniac. See a pattern here?

To extend the pattern: abusing someone with sleep deprivation, water boarding, threats, or whatever, is bad if you do it for the wrong reasons but good if you do it for good reasons. And saving people from homicidal maniacs is a good reason.

The only excused for disagreeing with any of these statements is that you are an absolutist or a puritan in certain areas. I could argue why that is a bad thing, but I don’t have to. I can just explain why, unless you are an absolutist in all areas, you are being inconsistent.

To see this, tell me which is worse to do to a person: killing him or water boarding him?

If you have trouble answering that, then let me ask you: if you have a choice between being killed or being water boarded, which would you chose? OK, good; glad we cleared that up.

Now, is it good to kill someone in order to prevent him from blowing up a busload of school kids? If you say “yes”, then how can it not be good to do something less extreme (like water boarding) to the same person for the same effect?

If you are not an absolutist pacifist and you are an absolutist against all kinds of prisoner abuse, then you are being morally inconsistent.

Monday, November 21, 2005

If you think gourmet food is crap...

Here is an extremely expensive gourmet coffee that really is crap. No shit.

The Maverick Philosopher calls it Crapacino.


The new Storyblogging Carnival is up.

I actually had the first entry this time, due to my efforts to post a section of "Ink Magic" every Saturday. I'm aiming for about 20,000 words on "Ink Magic" and then I'll go back to "Scale 7 Artifact".