Why Do We Do That?





I recently finished reading Animal Liberation and Atheism, written by Kim Socha, a local English Professor and author in the Twin Cities. Part of what captivated me was that I felt like Socha had been wandering the halls of my brain for years and extracted thoughts for which I had not yet formed words.

Socha’s premise is based on the notion that non-human (and human) animals will never be liberated as long as religion (dogmatic by design) exists. Her reasoning is that because religions are hierarchal, any being or species that is below a God, a god or a goddess must always answer to that Supreme Being and is never fully capable of ultimately making their own choice or decisions since this Supreme Being is THE guiding post for all ethical matters. Because this hierarchy exists, Socha argues, we are always striving to do what is right, not because it is right for all involved, but because doing what is right is what will assure us proper positioning in the afterlife (whether in spirit form or through reincarnation).

As I let this notion wash over me, I’ve come to realize the complexity of a question that has been begging to be answered for years. The question, which I am still refining, has to do with the (most common) reasons why humans treat animals with regard (if and when they do).

There are two “areas” of “doing what is right” for the “wrong” reasons that I will address. (While reading this article please keep in mind my liberal use of the terms “right” and “wrong.” Although I usually stray from using these judgments, I find them effective tools for this article.)

The first “area” is our reason for saving threatened species of animals.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 41% of amphibians, 25% of mammals and 13% of birds are threatened, i.e., endangered. (Sadly government and special interests repeatedly threaten to remove them from protection, often so we can resume hunting them.) The reasons for saving threatened species are almost always cited as “…future generations depend on them…” or “I want them to be around for my grandchildren.” Rarely do I hear the notion of saving the species for the sake of the species or for the sake of the individuals within that species (not even from the organizations that are doing amazing conservation work).

On the surface these actions can appear to be altruistic. However, I am not convinced they are because if something was not at stake for ourselves (by the loss of these species), by and large, we would not be taking actions to protect them.

Some people believe that all that matters is that the action is being taken and that the reason for taking the action does not matter. While what may be the most important thing is indeed the action, I tend to look at the larger picture.

What long-lasting implications are there of only taking actions that ultimately benefit ourselves, even if others also benefit? What kind of a world are we creating for ALL, not just humans, when this is our guiding post to taking “right action”? I do not have the answer. But, my guess is that it is not a very good one because I find this to be one of the most selfish reasons for taking action, and selfish actions are often met with negative and unintended consequences.

The second “area” regards the notion of reincarnation.

There are two aspects of this that I find to be disturbingly anthropocentric. The first (which touches upon Socha’s observation of the hierarchy imbedded in religion and many other forms of faith and spirituality) is the idea that if we do not reach enlightenment in this lifetime, we may return in another lifetime as a life form that is lower than our current selves, an animal. If we do reach enlightenment, then we are propelled to the next stage, heavenly beings. So we see how deeply rooted in this belief is the superiority of humans to all life forms other than spirit or God. Thus, Socha’s claim that humans and non-humans alike will never be liberated as long as we are living in accordance to these religious and spiritual doctrines.

The second aspect of reincarnation I find to be disturbing is the reason that people (aspire to) assure themselves good karma. On the surface, some religions and spiritualties appear to hold animals with great regard because their doctrines or precepts suggest treating them with what could generally be considered great respect. Upon deeper reflection, as Socha points out, this is really done to satisfy human needs and desires.

An example she uses (that “burst one of my bubbles”) is the reason that Janes are extremely mindful of not harming animals: not only are they predominantly vegetarian, they also cover their mouths with masks so they will not inhale insects and they sweep the ground before them so they will not step on bugs. The reason they do this is not because they value the lives of these individual creatures to this degree, but because they want to be sure they are treated well if they are to return to another life form such as one of these creatures. By putting into practice now, a kinder and gentler way of treating a “lesser” being, they are assuring a kinder and gentler treatment of themselves should they ever return as one of these “lower” life forms.

In my view, this is extremely human centric and more disturbing than that, it is very “me centric.” And it is not only Janes who do this – I only use this example because I had great hopes that at least a small number of humans following religious practices were able to act kindly to other species for reasons beyond themselves; for reasons of real altruism.

So this leaves me still seeking an answer to a question I am still refining: when will humans, as a species, take right action for the sake of others and not only for the sake of ourselves? Please share your thoughts and reflections on the blog.

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