Friday, November 7, 2008

Ethics: out of Sight, out of mind?

I woke up this morning thinking about the "Chicken Statute", otherwise know as Proposition 2, that just passed in California. Proposition 2 requires that certain farm animals (egg laying hens, calves raised for veal, and pregnant pigs) be kept under conditions that allow them to turn in a full circle and extend their limbs. When I was considering this proposition, my thought process went something like this:
If I were raising an animal, let's say a chicken, for eggs or meat, would I confine it so that it could not even raise its wings? Absolutely not. I could never live with myself if I treated an animal so cruely. Does the fact that the hen that produces the eggs I will eat is being kept on a farm (egg factory) somewhere where I will never see it mean that the conditions in which it lives are irrelevant to me? I think not.
It seems to me that we not infrequently sidestep the moral implications of our choices and actions by mentally and physically disengaging ourselves. Examples are myriad. When we choose to leave a shopping cart loose in the parking lot of a store, we cheerfully choose to ignore the burden and inconvenience we are placing on someone else who will have to retrieve that cart. When we buy a cheap pair of shoes made in China we are happy with our bargain because we are not forced to see the miserable conditions in the sweat shop that produced them.
On a more serious note, a woman who chooses an elective abortion to end an unwanted pregnancy is insulated from the true nature of her choice by several distancing layers. In all probability, she will view her choice as "ending a pregnancy" (something abstract and a nuisance to her); since she does not see the beating heart and moving limbs within her, she can comfortably ignore the life she is ending. And since she herself will not perform the procedure that destroys that life, she can distance herself from its reality by viewing it as simply a medical procedure, the moral equivalent of having an unwanted mole removed. Were those layers of insulation removed, were she to see the life and be required to snuff it out herself, I suspect many women would make a different choice.
Because making truely moral decisions is hard and often very inconvenient, we frequently choose another route. We willingly wear blinders that allow us to see only what we choose to see.

5 comments:

Catherine said...

In addition to all the points you mentioned, weapons of mass destruction come to mind. We are outraged when we hear of civilians, particularly women and children, being tortured and killed, but with a flip of a switch or whatever tiny movement was used to release the atom bombs we dropped on Japan, we tortured and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, women and children included. A carefully planned, precisely executed massacre which we feel somewhat detached from because of the mechanical and distanced manner in which it was conducted. What does that say about our ethics and humanity?

Karene said...

Bingo. You hit this one right on the mark.

Brian said...

How true it is! Thanks for this insightful post. Though I don't think I will immediately stop shopping at Wal-Mart, maybe by little steps at a time, we can all get to the point of having a totally clear conscience.

Maile said...

I couldn't agree more.

Paula said...

Catherine,
I have debated whether to respond to your post. On the one hand, I acknowledge that the devastation of the atomic bombs was horrific. And the general principle that it is easier to kill from a distance. I believe it is awareness of that horror (and worse) that has kept such an incident from being repeated. However, this particular incident does need to be seen in the context of the overall horror of war. There are debates both ways, but it is not inconceivable that had Truman chosen not to use the bombs overall human destruction and misery (of conventional warfare) could have been many times worse.
Sadly, Truman was not facing a choice between killing 200,000 people or killing none. I really doubt he would have dropped the bomb under those circumstances. He was facing the possiblity of a protracted, very bloody invasion--in which many civilians would have been involved--and a fatal step that might bring quick surrender. If that choice were placed before you, how would you choose? I'm not arguing for one choice over the other, and maybe Japan would have surrendered anyway; just pointing out that, as with so many ethical dilemma's, it isn't quite black and white.