Tag Archives: Ethics

People Aren’t Projects

Originally posted on March 11, 2013. 

“Let’s go talk to the street preachers!” Drew teased this past weekend. I raised my eyebrow and glanced over at him, trying not to roll my eyes.

Muslim, Jewish or Christian, street evangelists in Toronto share the same goal: to convert you. Certain groups loudly berate (female) strangers they think are too scantily clad. A handful are mentally ill, arguing with people who aren’t really there or exhibiting disorganized thought patterns if you listen to what they have to say. Others are quite friendly and knowledgable, especially if you can get them to discuss something other than religion.

After a year or two of living here I began avoiding all of them because people aren’t projects. It’s just as inappropriate to yell at strangers that they’re all going to hell as it is to take advantage of an existing friendship to push the issue.

Evangelism isn’t just a religious phenomenon, though. I’ve seen people use forms of friendship evangelism to convince others to:

  • Eat certain foods
  • Avoid other foods
  • Lose weight
  • Gain weight
  • Own a car
  • Use public transit
  • Get pregnant 
  • Raise your kid my way
  • Switch to reusable shopping bags*
  • Vote only for candidates from party X 

Regardless of whether those around them actually needed advice or had any intention of considering unsolicited input.

Do some of these urges come from a good place? Yes. Wanting other people to experience the same joy you do from a certain experience or decision is completely understandable but adults are responsible for their own lives.

Attempting to transform a friendship into a situation in which one person knows best for another taints every interaction. Am I asking about your latest doctor’s visit because I’m genuinely concerned or because I want you to buy megadoses of a particular vitamin that is sure to fix your incurable disease? Are you wondering for whom I voted in the last provincial election because you are thinking about voting for someone new or so you can make sure I’m not a Pauper?

It comes down to this: debating differences of opinion is healthy. By all means question the why and what of other people’s ideas and identity’s but condensing another human being to where they stand on one issue and then trying to “fix” that part of them doesn’t build trust. It erodes it.

*Yes, I have actually seen so-called grown ups get snippy about this one.

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The Ethics of Eating Animal Products

What ethical obligations do we have to the animals that provide our meat, eggs, milk and other foods?

When a pride of lions track down and eat an antelope we don’t believe that they’ve done something wrong. This is just what carnivores do. When Homo erectus began hunting in groups cooperatively with the aid of more sophisticated tools it was one of the bigger steps in our evolution. Cooperation communication, according to one theory I’ve read, gradually molded our distant ancestors into more intelligent and social beings.

Should we be held to a different standard? If it’s ok for an animal, even a primate, to eat meat why wouldn’t it be ok for us as well?

Once again I hold a series of conflicting views on the topic. Here is what has been rolling around in my mind:

Objections to Eating Animal Products

Pigs, cows, chickens and other factory-farmed animals are kept in absolutely brutal conditions.  I’m ethically uncomfortable every time I support this industry (even as I acknowledge that in certain situations it’s difficult to  find alternatives.)

Raising animals for our consumption is resource-intensive. It takes less water, land, fuel and time to raise and distribute grain or produce that we eat than it does to water and fertilize corn or wheat, feed it to cows or pigs, and then slaughter and transport those animals and feed them to us.

The average person living in the west consumes far more protein that he or she actually needs. Even if we agree that a good diet can or should include animal products protein is also found in beans, grains and certain vegetables and as a whole westerners are not deficient in this nutrient.

But What About…

Land that is only fit for grazing. Some geographic areas are more conducive to farming than others. In certain climates the land can sustain grazing herds but is too cold, dry, or otherwise unsuited for vegetables or grains.

Ethically raised meat and eggs are often far more expensive than their factory-farmed competition. Sometimes the extra money can be squeezed out of a food budget but at other times it cannot. What should people with fixed or low incomes do? Do the ethics of this change based on what a family can afford? If the same ethics apply to everyone, should someone who cannot afford free-range meat or other products never eat them? If it doesn’t apply, why are there different rules for different groups? Does having more choices in life lead to the ethical obligation to choose the less harmful option?

Veg*n failures. Some people thrive on a vegan diet and I genuinely wish I was one of them. Every time I try it, though, I become sick much more easily and start to feel lethargic. What works best for me: animal products a few times a week when healthy and a little more often when I’m sick or injured. Often all I need is a few scrambled eggs or a handful of shrimp tossed into a stir-fry. If I weren’t allergic to milk products I could easily be vegetarian or pescatarian. The B-vitamins, iron and protein in foods like  eggs, cheese, and the occasional bit of seafood would suffice. Until we find a cure for allergies, though, I’ll continue to eat meat occasionally.

Tradition. Every fall a few family members buy hunting licenses. If they are successful everyone feasts on venison for months. In unsuccessful years some family members will buy a quarter or half of a locally-raised cow (which, in some cases, they’ve actually met!) or they may decide to pick up their meat at a grocery store for a while instead. I never ask where the meat they serve comes from, though, as it feels odd and a tinge ungrateful to do so in a culture so reliant on meat and dairy products in their diet.


What would the world look like if everyone were more conscious about the origins of his or her food? Have you thought about the ethics of eating animals products? If so, what does your diet look like?



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Non-Theistic Morality

“With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
—  Steven Weinberg

Last week I blogged about a sermon series about the problem of pain and how Bruxy Cavey approaches this question. During his second podcast Bruxy briefly mentioned his beliefs about the origin of human morality. In short, he believes that it comes from God and that there cannot be a just system of morality without God behind it. He says:

Atheists cannot explain their own morality.

While he absolutely agrees that atheists can be just as moral or good as Christians he doesn’t think that this sense of right and wrong can come from a non-theistic worldview:

they [atheists] are far more moral than their worldview accounts for

because he believes that there must be a higher power that arbitrates between various human groups for the greatest good. While I respect Bruxy Cavey immensely as a speaker and as a fellow human being I vehemently disagree with this premise.

For one, religion doesn’t make people more moral or good. The rules – whatever they may be – are broken just as often by the people who believe in them as they are by those who don’t follow that particular religion (or none at all.)

Sometimes, in fact, the act of following the rules actually seems to make good people into much less admirable versions of themselves. I’ve known more than one individual who was a wonderful friend and human being in every way other than his or her religious beliefs. When the topic of God came up it was like a switch had been flipped in that individual’s brain and they lost much of the good that I saw in them the rest of the time. Rather than seeing the rest of us as friends or fellow human beings we became  unrepentant sinners, unbelievers, potential converts or, worse, social projects.

Bruxy and I also have a fundamental disagreement about where our desire to do and be good comes from.

I believe it comes from our generations upon generations of experiences as an extremely social species. With the exception of the rare hermit or mystic we do not do well in a life of solitude. We need one another and so we have learned ways of getting along in difficult situations and of strengthening our bonds with one another.

In short, I believe we (tend to) share similar beliefs about what is fundamentally a good or bad thing to do to someone else because cooperation and altruism are some of our oldest social tools. We could not have survived and become what we are today without them.

In a roundabout way this leads me to today’s question:

What Does Non-Theistic Morality Look Like?

That is, how do people who don’t believe in God decide what is right and wrong? How do we determine what it means to live a good life?

I believe much of it boils down to harm. Do my actions hurt me or someone else, intentionally or unintentionally? If they do I probably shouldn’t be doing them in most situations.

This is a deceptively simple “rule.”  Many aspects of modern business and product marketing  would not pass it because of all of the suffering that is caused when:

  • People are consumers before anything else
  • Workers (especially the working poor) are treated like machines
  • Money is used to define our worth as human beings

My ethical beliefs and morals don’t come with a long list of rules. Almost everything that I puzzle over can be reduced to the question of harm.

I also believe in being and doing good for goodness’ sake! That is, I (try to) lead an ethical life not for any sort of eternal or extrinsic reward but because it’s the right thing to do. Of course I hope that other people will treat me with kindness and respect in return but no one is keeping score here. I’d continue to be as loving, forgiving and kind as possible even if one or several or many people around me were none of these things. (If it continued, though, I’d find a new social group. 😉 )


What criteria do you use to decide what the most ethical or moral choices are for your life? Why are you good?


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God and Explaining Suffering

Last month I listened to the podcast of a sermon series about the problem of pain called My God Why? in which head pastor of The Meeting House, Bruxy Cavey, attempts to answer the question:

Why would a loving God allow there to be so much suffering in the world?

Bruxy’s first sermon on this topic boiled down into one sentence:

We can’t know for sure on this side of eternity but take comfort in the knowledge that God suffers alongside us. The links at the beginning of this provide a great deal more detail and nuance to his argument, of course. If you only have time to listen to one podcast in this series I recommend the first one and if you happen to listen to the third instalment, The Origin of Evil, I highly recommend checking out Drew’s response to Bruxy’s theory on the origin of evil. I was actually planning to write a very similar blog post about that part of the series here but Drew nailed every point I had compiled in my head!

What I like about Bruxy’s sermon and the idea of a God who suffers alongside with us:

  • People who are suffering are not blamed for their misfortunes.
  • A suffering God seem more human and far less distant than the other versions of God I’ve been introduced to in the past.
  • Bruxy acknowledges that there will always be a new question behind the one that has just been answered.
  • Bruxy affirms the idea that we see things through a glass dimly on this side of eternity. I appreciate his honesty here.

These are my disagreements or issues with this answer:

  • The idea of a God who suffers with us doesn’t actually alleviate anyone’s suffering.
  • Suffering yourself and allowing someone else to suffer are two completely different actions.
  • If God suffers with us wouldn’t that give him or her even more of an incentive to intervene? I know that I’m far more apt to work to solve a problem if it’s physically or emotionally painful for me.
  • How could a deity who created the entire universe not be able to think of an alternative way to encourage people to worship and embrace him or her that doesn’t involve billions of lifetimes of often unrelenting suffering? Surely he or she could think of something!

To be fair, this is an incredibly difficult question and Bruxy’s answer is best one I’ve ever heard from a theistic point of view. It also avoid many of the often unbelievable offensive assumptions made by or trite phrases embedded in traditional Judeo-Christian responses to this question:

  • God has a plan!
  • Suffering is a divine pop quiz.
  • You’re suffering because of a past un-repented sin.
  • You’re suffering because your parents or grandparents have un-repented sin.
  • If your faith was stronger you and your loved ones wouldn’t have these problems.

Unfortunately something is still lacking in this explanation. Or at least it is for me.

Imagine  if a storyteller began to quietly share a new tale of adventure over a roaring fire late at night. Just as the hero or heroine gasped one last breath before his or her seemingly grisly, unavoidable death the storyteller says “and then somehow it all worked out in the end and everybody lived happily ever after. The end. Who wants another marshmallow?”

Bruxy’s explanation sounds a little like this to me. It begins in one place, veers off in a completely different direction and then ends abruptly. I want to find solace it but it has too many rough edges.

A blog post isn’t enough space to figure this all out, of course. Honestly, a lifetime isn’t even long enough. There are other explanations out there, though, which is the other half of what I’d like to discuss today.

Alternative Explanations

Sh*t happens. You can make all of the right decisions, take every known precaution and still end up being diagnosed with an incurable disease or die in an accident tomorrow. There are no guarantees in this life, no magic elixirs to protect your loved ones from harm. This also means that no one deserves everything that happens to them. Tragedies to triumphs, some things we earn, others are given to us, and others show up out of nowhere. The problem with this explanation is that, at least for me, this  doesn’t provide any hope that tomorrow will be any better.

God doesn’t exist. This isn’t actually something I believe but it does account to a certain degree for the randomness in which fates are doled out. If there’s no one working behind the scenes it makes more sense for selfish, wicked people to prosper as much if not more than those who are kind and giving.

God exists but isn’t involved. At times I do believe this one. One of the benefits of being Agnostic is that I don’t have to claim anything as the capital-T Truth. When I do lean toward the idea that God exists it makes far more sense for God to be uninvolved  in the affairs of his or her creation than it does for God to love us, have both the knowledge of intense suffering and the ability to end it and yet still do nothing to alleviate it. This (apparent?) lack of action is something that disturbs me to the marrow of my bones.

None of this is real. Another theory: we’re living in the matrix. Everything we think we’ve experienced has been a simulation, a computer program of sorts. I’ll admit that it is one of the wackier theories out there but there is a certain allure to it. If nothing else it’s an intriguing metaphor for how we interact with this thing called existence.

What do you think?


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The Ethics of Mummies and Museums

I recently visited the museum again, this time concentrating on the Ancient Egypt exhibit . It featured two mummies: one who was displayed with his original sarcophagus and a mummy of indeterminate age and gender from an earlier era when bodies mummified accidentally/naturally from being buried in the sand in a dry, hot climate. There was something odd about standing next to the remains of two people who were once someone’s child, spouse, sibling, parent, friend even though everyone who knew and loved them has been dead for thousands of years.

I have certain ethical hesitations when it comes to displaying human remains from ancient cultures for the entertainment of others in general. Strangely enough, I don’t have the same feeling of ick about the cadavers used in medical schools or even the Bodyworlds exhibit that visited Toronto last year. (As an aside, the latter was one of the most educational experiences of my adult life. I’d never realized how fragile our systems are, how easily a pregnancy, a bone, a heart, a blood vessel can break down.)

We can learn a lot about a society – their diet, general health, burial rituals, afterlife beliefs, etc –  through the archeological study of their grave sites and remains, of course. It would be a real shame to lose the knowledge of past civilizations that we have gained or will gain in future expeditions and I completely understand why archeologists dig up and study these things.

I also know that some Native American tribes are very upset  with museums who display the bones of people who were unearthed on land that traditionally belonged to certain groups. It isn’t always possible to pinpoint the racial (much less tribal) identity of a skeleton, of course.  Erring on the side of caution is an admirable trait and while I don’t have a problem with the general scientific study of mummies, skeletons or other human remains I don’t think it should ever be done against the will of that individuals probable descendants or ethnic group. A corpse can’t give consent, of course, and if there is such a thing as an eternal soul I doubt that they are that concerned with what happens to their shells after death. But those left behind do care in certain cases, even if the individual in question has been dead for a few hundred generations.

Is the human body sacred? I don’t know what I think about that term, but I would argue that human remains should be respected for the people they once contained and for their cultural beliefs about death, burial and the afterlife (assuming that we know enough about their culture to make an educated guess as to whether they would find the exhumation of a burial site to be ethically objectionable. If the culture is not known well enough for us to figure this out, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with learning everything we can about them.) There is a balance between respecting a culture and the person-who-was and the advancement of scientific knowledge that we have yet to reach. In some cases maybe there cannot be a compromise: either we excavate a newly-discovered ancient burial ground or we don’t.

I don’t even know exactly what I’d change about the presentation of the Egyptian mummies themselves to make it feel more ethical. A cultural shift in which we acknowledged the lives that these individuals lived seems more appropriate. But you can’t exactly legislate culture and dimmer lights or a sign asking people to be quiet in that area probably wouldn’t be effective. If nothing else, I’d like to see human remains only displayed for limited amounts of time . Whether that is measured in weeks or months or years, I don’t think any human body parts should be indefinitely under the public eye. At some point they should be laid to rest again, if only in a quiet storehouse of scientific discoveries somewhere.

And so I end this post just as conflicted as ever. Is it always unethical to display human remains? I don’t think so, no. But our current standards don’t seem to be entirely appropriate either. There is a line between education and entertainment. The former seems like an appropriate use of human remains; the latter sticks in my craw. But I don’t quite know what to do with displays that are of both educational and entertainment value.



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Poverty Museum

I recently re-visited our local natural and world history museum and was struck by what narrow slices of history were up for public viewing. Imagine if our society was only shown through the homes and possessions of  movie stars and high-ranking government officials a thousand years from now. The picture it would paint of life in 2010, while elegant, would be miles away from how the vast majority of people ever lived. I think many museums are suffering from a similar problem. In every gallery or display, especially within European history, the artifacts presented are almost without fail items that would only be found in the homes of the rich or powerful (or within the four walls of a church or other religious institute.)

Part of the reason for this, of course, is that poor people don’t leave much behind.  Until just a few generations ago almost everyone owned very few material possessions and what they did own was generally used until it was worn out. A coat or chair or pair of shoes that belonged to someone who only owned the one of them is probably not going to preserved for hundreds of years and eventually end up in the possession of a museum. Keeping something safe for all of that time requires money and a fair amount of social/political stability (or a very good hiding spot.) A wealthy family or community is much more likely to access these privileges.

Institutionalized racism, sexism and classism explains another chunk of it. If the ideas and work of wealthy white men is what is valued most in a society then it would make perfect sense for more of their work to survive or even be created in the first place. A slave, a woman who gives birth every other year until  menopause, someone who works six or seven days a week, 12 hours a day in a factory is going to spend much more time trying to survive and what they do create is less likely to be recognized as something extraordinary. Some level of discrimination will probably always be with us but it is becoming much less acceptable to display open prejudice against many groups. It just hasn’t yet really filtered down to how it is we represent our history or traditions in most cases.

Still, it would be so compelling to visit a museum and see gallery upon gallery that showed what life was like for slaves, women, ethnic or religious minorities, the poor, and people with disabilities in various times and places. What did they eat and drink? What did their homes (or institutions, in certain times and places) look like? What sort of clothing did they wear? How did they worship their god(s)? Were they able to access some sort of formal education? How was their career path or vocation determined? What sort of medical care was available to them? How many of their children could be expected to reach adulthood? What happened to their bodies after death?

I am on a wait list at the local library for a book about the history of the common (wo)man by Howard Zinn called A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. It won’t cover all of eras that interest me but I am definitely looking forward to reading what Zinn has to say on this subject. Hopefully one day a museum will follow in his footsteps!


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