Consciousness, Suffering and Veganism

The correspondence between Yuval Noah Harari and Gary Yourofsky offered readers an encounter with two prominent and highly articulate representatives of the vegetarian and vegan movements. Bracingly, it also offered a glimpse of the dangerous and anti-humanist extremes of that ethical movement. I shall not waste too many words on Yourofsky. Anyone who calls humans “parasites” and explicitly advocates violence is motivated by messianic blindness and certain to eventually cause death, be it of his rivals, his adherents or himself. And the day is not far off.

"in suffering we are all equal" says the t-shirt. click to go to siteYourofsky gives vegetarianism and veganism a bad name, but he is not without a home within these movements, asthey also have an anti-humanist element built-in to them, as well as a tendency to cheapen life through a utilitarian quantification of pain and suffering. Had these noble ideas a spokesman of their own, he would have had to condemn Yourofsky, but as this is not the case, one can only hope that anyone possessed of compassion and a conscience will distance himself from him and his ilk.

Harari is another story. Not just as a popular intellectual, but as a brilliant and extremely knowledgeable person, Harari presents a much more complex view of the subject. And yet, I think he “falls” into a number of intellectual traps, two of which I shall elaborate upon here.

First, Harari’s insistence that there is no difference in consciousness between animals and humans is astonishing. Harari claims that “there seems to be no evidence that homo sapiens

has some kind of special consciousness, or a greater capacity to suffer [than other mammals].” This is an odd assertion, considering that there is no scientific proof at all of human consciousness. Neuroscience, for example, has no capacity to examine the existence of “consciousness,” but only the nervous system and the brain that, ostensibly, enable its existence.

This is why many neuroscientists and neurophilosophers believe that human consciousness is merely an “epiphenomenon,” a secondary side effect that arises from brain function and is of wholly negligible influence. The big questions raised by the Turing Test also derive from precisely the same premise – that human consciousness may only be identified via the external responses that it produces.

And it is precisely from those external responses that we see that animal consciousness is not identical to human consciousness. Animals are not capable of constructing a sentence, of adhering to ideologies, of discussing moral questions. Harari surely knows this, for the superiority of human consciousness is a key element of the excellent best-seller that he authored. It is quite strange to see him retreat from this observation, which ought to be obvious to any thinking person.

The Depth of Suffering

As for the capacity to suffer, it, too, derives from consciousness, of course. A large portion of human suffering is linked to memory, imagination and our ability to tell ourselves complex stories about what happened, what might happen and what could have been. Anticipation, longing and remorse are direct causes of tremendous suffering, such as the memory of our loved ones who have died, or anxiety in anticipation of our own deaths in the years to come. As one interested in Buddhism, Harari surely is aware that the Buddha ascribes to these same emotional impressions a central role in the suffering that we cause ourselves (and others). While animals can certainly feel pain, since they have no complex system of conceptualization and imagination they cannot feel the same intensity of suffering.

Moreover: If we return for a moment to the empirical findings we find that scientific research has no doubt that the human nervous system and brain are more complex and sophisticated than that of the fly, the cat, or even the monkey. In fact, if this were not so, we’d be compelled to argue that the cause of man’s superior consciousness is not the structure of his brain, but rather his divine soul. Since depth of consciousness is directly and undeniably connected to the nervous system and the brain, it should be clear to us that the more complex these systems are, the deeper and more extensive the consciousness and suffering they can produce. Man’s capacity for suffering is immeasurably greater than that of the grasshopper or the cow. Fortunately, we also have a much greater capacity for happiness.

A second problem that arises from Harari’s statements has to do with consensual entities. Harari argues that man has “the ability to imagine things that don’t really exist, like gods, nations, money and human rights.” The equating of gods to money and nations does a disservice to atheists, who I expect would insist that gods do not exist anywhere near the extent that nations and money do, for if not, we would understand from Harari’s words that, like nations, gods divide up geographical spheres of influence, and like money, gods do in fact make the world go around. But this is the smallest problem with what he says, for none of us has any doubt that nations do exist. Harari apparently means that they would not exist without human consent, and the same goes for money – that is, these are entities dependent upon general human consent for their very existence.

This is true, but if that means that these are “things that don’t exist,” before you know it we will have to make do not just without nations, but without human beings as well, for the category of “human” also exists solely by virtue of human consent. Without the conscious ability to perceive distinct mammals and include them under a single abstract heading, all that would exist would be an undifferentiated collection of various individual organisms. The category of “science,” which Harari is so fond of citing in support of his ideas, also exists only due to human consent. The scientific method is a human creation, and the definition of a scientific experiment, and the way in which one should draw conclusions from it, are also utterly dependent upon human consent. Before Harari draws conclusions on the basis or the lack of “scientific proof,” he should take note that it, too, is a consensual entity.

But above and beyond all of these issues, a dangerous utilitarian moral stance arises from the discussion between these two thinkers. As noted above, this is a worldview that flattens and breaks down reality exclusively into units of suffering and pleasure, and that measures each action on a scale calibrated to identify these two things and nothing else. A commonly seen slogan on the T-shirts of vegan protesters is “We Are All Equal In Our Suffering,” and the same slogan can be found on the website of the 269 animal rights group, the movement that recently placed decapitated calves’ heads in various public squares in Tel Aviv. Suffering here is the common denominator among all living beings, and what makes them, despite being clearly distinguishable from one another by any other measure, “equal.”

This anti-humanist attitude not only fails to see any unique value to human life, but also fails to accord any value to life at all, instead measuring it solely in terms of the suffering or pleasure that it produces. This is the darks side of that heightened sensitivity to suffering which is gaining strength in this day and age. Amid the crumbling of universal ideals (not to mention traditional moral values), it is coming to be perceived as the sole valid index. In a world in which the pursuit of “experiences” and pleasure has become the only thing motivating us to action (Why travel to India? Why do drugs? Why see a movie? Why change jobs? – “for the experience”), causing suffering is becoming the only reason to abstain from an action.

Of course, there is an important moral dimension to our desire not to cause suffering to another being (I myself have been a vegetarian for the past 17 years). Compassion, empathy and respect of others’ wellbeing are all important elements of our moral framework. But a moral world that is reduced solely to equations of suffering and pleasure is a shallow one, incapable of grasping a complex picture in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (as is the case, for example, with human society).

In fact, such a world, ultimately, also cannot explain why it is morally wrong to cause suffering. Yes, suffering is “unpleasant,” but then quite a few cultures consider the unpleasant or uncomfortable to have positive ethical value (See: asceticism). When Harari says that “gods, nations and human rights” are “things that don’t really exist,” he ought to bear in mind that the utilitarian notion that suffering must be prevented does not ”really exist” either. A less simplistic argument is needed in order to present a valid and convincing vegetarian or vegan stance.


Published in Haaretz

4 Responses to “Consciousness, Suffering and Veganism”

  1. 1 Shlomit Raz 05/11/2013 at 10:55

    Thank you. Very-very interesting (especially the point about lack of humanism). I’ll forward this link to some of my English speaking friends abroad.

  2. 2 Shlomit Raz 05/11/2013 at 10:55

    I forgot to do “follow”, this is why I write again.

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