More Thoughts on Prof. McMahan’s Essay

Reading yesterday’s NYT (online) essay, The Meat Eaters, by Rutgers University professor of philosophy Jeff McMahan (forwarded by reader Daniela and shared below by Steve), I’m almost more puzzled by my own need to comment on the piece than I am amazed by it.

It’s tempting to lump this man’s essay in with the tiresome mass of animal rights propaganda, but I think it’s only superficially similar. This goes deeper, is arguably crazier, and may belong to another tradition entirely.

Professor McMahan’s work is principally atheist, by my reading, secondarily misanthropic, and only for the sake of example concerned with the welfare of animals.

His ignorance of animals and “nature” is obvious (Does he know some deer eat baby birds? Does he know ducks rape and kill each other?) and his ignorance of the human animal (his own animal self!) can be inferred. But I think the misanthropic bent of his argument hints that maybe he knows just enough about himself to be scared and disgusted by what he sees.

This is a very old theme, indeed. Man’s fear and loathing of himself long predates any “animal rights” movement (though it certainly seems to inform it.)

I can’t help but, as a parent of two children, recognize in this line of thinking a child’s deep-seated (and profoundly self-centered) sense of injustice.

Faced with the world’s certain measures of pain, bewilderment and abandonment, reasonable children seek comfort—and if denied that comfort, predictably lash out in self defense. They give hell to their parents, to their siblings, teachers, and tragically often to themselves.

To such a child, it is better to be alone than in the company of fellow sufferers. It is better, some will conclude, even to be dead.

For all the professor’s elaborate argument and educated language, he writes essentially from the perspective of a hurt child, ironically selfish in his lashing out against the “cruelty” of others.

This argument has been taken farther than the professor has yet come. Every religion and entire civilizations (spawning literatures and philosophies he must certainly know) have been created in the attempt to see past the problem of pain.

Although we still argue (obviously) and wonder about this problem, there is at least a shared understanding that the problem is sewn into the system and somehow essential to it.

Whether you chose to see this as life in a Fallen world or simply acknowledge, in the secular sense, that we’re all fucked, every adult must advance from that basic understanding to whatever conclusions can be drawn.

Only a child will chose to sit in a corner, hungry and hurt, while everyone sits at the table and eats what’s given.

Update: Chas’s thoughts here.

16 thoughts on “More Thoughts on Prof. McMahan’s Essay”

  1. Ah!

    I read that first line and smiled.


    You get it.

    WHY the &%$# is anyone giving this article any attention?

    And the answer is that it is "in The New York Times".

    But, of course, it's not.

    It's on some internet blog that is attached to The New York Times in much the same way a barnicle is attached to a ship.

    And there's the rub.

    You see, the old-fashioned *paper* New York Times — the Gray Lady — was reviewed by editors, most of whom were sober most of the time.

    They were not crackpots, paranoids, racists, conspiracy theorists, lunatics, animal-liberation vegans, dope-smoking-Communist hippies, birthers, born-again gun nuts or peaceniks.

    The worst you could say about them was that too few of them knew anyone who owned a gun, and too many of them had an opinion on what type of wine went well with Oysters Rockefeller.

    But in the age of the Internet, anyone can say anything and they frequently do.

    And so we have people spewing hate, stupidity, rumor, crackpot philosophy and the like from one end to another, and as the price of printing, paper and postage goes up, and ad revenue goes down, we will only get more of this, and less of the sober and sane stuff.

    The New York Times has announced that it will stop printing at some time in the future. Soon it will all be on-line, read by the light of a laptop or Kindle or IPad, or whatever.

    And there will no longer be the DISCIPLINE of editing for length, the discipline of editors, the discipline of fact-checking, sobriety and intellectual rigor.

    And so we will get more of this pratting nonsense by bearded philosophy professors. Lots and lots more.

    And the only proper response is to ignore it and let it subsume beneath the waves — like a barnicle.


  2. "The worst you could say about them was that too few of them knew anyone who owned a gun, and too many of them had an opinion on what type of wine went well with Oysters Rockefeller."

    That needs to be our next blog sub-head! Would you give permission?

    Your point is well taken Patrick but what's a blogger to do? I mean, some things just fall in your lap.

  3. LOL. Sure! For the record I have known a few of these fellows, so I speak from experience 😉 Oddly enough, I'm quoted in a NYT piece today about fraud in the oil drilling industry. Drill baby drill!


  4. These are the people who should sign on to a safari to save the orphant (old spelling) offspring of predatory animals. Their knowledge of nature will help them save the offspring from the new male on the block and is in inverse proportion to reality.
    Who knows, a close encounter with the new male may improve their thought processes.

  5. Stephen, it's Tracy from our email exchange over the summer about Eagle Dreams – my computer crashed and I don't have your email address on my backup one, the magazine people need a higher resolution jpeg of the photo(s) you so kindly let me use in the article – can you shoot me an email and I can get you in touch with the graphics diva? Sorry to be jumping into the middle of a very lively conversation, just trying to find a way to connect.

  6. I see that same childish sense of self-hate and injustice in the worst of the dogmatically "purely positive" dog trainers. These are the ones who are horrified that we should so much as consider using a harsh word to communicate with dogs – and the same ones who spew hate and venom on anyone who dares to question their twisted little worldview.

    Because a rather scary number of them describe their discovery of positive methods as revelational (as in "I used to beat the crap out of my dogs until I discovered how good it felt not to"), I think that like McMahan, many of them can be described as "know[ing] just enough about himself to be scared and disgusted by what he sees."

    Merleau-Ponty has some very interesting ideas in this area. I need to put some time into looking farther into that…

  7. At least two books in my home library speak directly to these issues (many others speak to them indirectly): CS Lewis's The Problem of Pain and Sherwin Newland's How We Die.

    Memorable to me from Lewis and I think important here: his objection to the notion that pain exists somehow as an aggregate, global quantity (necessary to McMahan's alarmingly totalitarian solution to "the continuous, incalculable suffering of animals"). In contrast, Lewis notes pain is not abstract or cumulative; it exists within, and can only be experienced by, individuals. And even there it has limits and qualifications, unique to each.

    To view pain as something highly particular and equivocal means it can't easily be simplified or generalized. The problem of pain demands individual consideration of a kind unfit to global solutions.

    Whatever your fix (assuming you can conclude pain is absolutely a problem—Lewis refutes that), it must embrace its probably incomprehensible complexity. Or to apply the older understanding, it must acknowledge a vast mystery.

    Vast, unsolvable mysteries don't seem very palatable to Prof. McMahan. Better that problems be simple to define "from the moral perspective" and easily solved, at least in theory.

    Having spent 17 years working or studying in various university settings, I recognize the Professor's approach to problem solving as an academic norm. Not all university departments phrase their problems as "moral," but all will seek to generalize them and to suggest global solutions based on theoretical models. This is simply how universities work: global solutions are their product. How scholarly theories fare outside the campus gates is famously uncertain, and (from inside the gates) more or less irrelevant…

    Newland’s interesting book on the physical processes of death includes a very memorable passage describing the factual murder of a young girl by a man with a knife. The random attack took place in public and was witnessed by many. The crazed attacker was eventually subdued by bystanders but not before mortally wounding the girl.

    Newland uses this well documented tragedy to illustrate the phenomenon of shock and the physiology of sudden, traumatic injury. He describes a process that must closely approximate the experience of predation from the perspective of the prey (he makes that connection). Pain is a component, of course, but to CS Lewis’s point, soon reaches its limit. Pathways that allow the experience of pain shut down through shock, something we know experimentally and from accounts by those who have survived such injuries. Some (I’m one) would call that process a blessing.

    Of course this is no apology for violence, but it does suggest (again) that the experience of pain, especially in McMahan’s context of predation, is at best very complex—-not easily explained in broad moral terms like good and evil, nor easily solved as a problem.

  8. McMahan is what happens when the Academy gives tenure to an unreformed utilitarian.

    Except he's a rather poor philosophical utilitarian. The dominant flaw of a "good" one is that he gets caught up, Vulcan-like, in the formulae of his calculus of pleasure-pain, and is so blinkered that he doesn't see that he's gone all the way down the rabbit-hole while riding the unknowable.

    McMahan doesn't have the patience for the pretend math, so he jumps straight to the absurd by a more direct path, by "feeling" that it would be vaguely "a good thing" to meddle in Nature in order to eliminate violent death via predation. He's not even any good at disguising the fact that his limp arguments are piled up like styrofoam cribbing to prop emoted conclusions that are far too corpulent for such flimsy "support."

    The primal, basic emotion that motivates this nattering is a terror of life, a rejection of its raw, gristly, blood-pumping, blood-leaking-out, laughing, fighting, fucking, eating, fleeing, shitting, and suckling at the tit. It masquerades as a morbid fear of death, and then that costume is draped in a thin shroud of concern about "suffering."

  9. I find it interesting that I can do battle with the professor from either a Catholic (or in Matt's case from Lewis's "mere Christian") viewpoint*, or from a Dawkinsian, pure evolutionary, atheist one, without doing violence to either. Says something about the validity of Utilitarianism (and what of Princeton which now employs two "philosophers" of that stripe– Singer as well as McMahan?)

    I mean, how seriously can one take a school of philosophy whose founder, Jeremy Bentham, had himself STUFFED?)

    *Or Daniela's Jewish tradition.

  10. This article caused me agonized suffering by the time I got to the fifth sentence.

    If the author won't extinct himself, he should at least take a break form the bong.

  11. Another problem with such "philosophising" isn't just the complete disconnect with Nature(though that is bad enough), but the obviously(but seemingly unconscious) ENORMOUS EGO, that assumes their view is the ultimete view, and does not take into consideration that(religious or atheist) there just MIGHT be some things beyond one's tiny, tiny, narrow, miniscule, individual ken at work in the universe…….L.B.


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