A recent thread discussing the legal and moral implications of teachers having sex with 18 year old students evolved into a discussion of moral taboos and our place in nature. I think about this topic a lot. In fact, it might be the thing I think about most. As human beings, there is a necessity that we approach life consciously if we are to thrive, as both individuals and as a collective species.
For ages we thought that as humans we had a range of vision (I mean this literally, here) which allowed us to see everything worth seeing. As science pushes ever further into the unknown, we consistently find that this arrogance on our part is not merited. Just the other day I read an article in Scientific American which disclosed the findings of an avian researcher, Timothy H. Goldsmith, who explored how much more birds can see than we do. For example, birds can see light in the ultraviolet range. Pictures taken with a camera which only registered ultraviolet light revealed a very different world than the one we see. A black-eyed susan has several bands of color, rather than being merely yellow, with a black center. Stop and try to imagine everything we cannot see. We are so blind that we cannot even conceive of what it is that we do not see. And yet it is there, and no less important for the fact that our eyes cannot perceive it.
When I was in the tenth grade, I had to do a research paper for my English class. I decided to do mine on animals in laboratory research. I have always identified with animals more than with people (I think it has something to do with having been raised by housecats, with my parents assisting), and I was fairly sure I was opposed to the practice of experimenting on animals…but at the same time my father had died of cancer and I truly would like to see scientific research on diseases such as cancer progress faster, rather than slower. It seemed a good thing for me to investigate, and I vowed to be objective.
I prowled through the literature on both sides of the fence. I read about the advances that have been made, that couldn’t have been made without animal research. I stumbled on enough pictures of factory farms to ensure that I would never eat another bite of non-free-range meat as long as I lived. I read about experiments that should never have been done…and I read about ones that even I had to concede were vital to our advancement as a species. I was doing o.k. in being non-biased, until I met and interviewed the head of animal research at UNC-Chapel Hill. After quite a few other questions, I finally came around to the one that bothered me most: How do you cope with the feeling that you are causing suffering to another living being, even if it is in the quest to ease suffering for others?
His answer was very simple: Oh, I don’t feel bad about it at all. They don’t feel pain like we do.