Secularism’s Prohibitions; Religion’s Permissions
Recently I saw a cat hit by a car. It rolled over several times but escaped unhurt. Its face showed no sign of shock (1), but its body language indicated clear signs of panic and disorientation. It ran to the side of the road, turned over several times more as if in total confusion, and then calmed down. I waited a few seconds wondering what I could do to help, but a moment later the cat went on its way and then disappeared.
This unusual and painful sight triggered several thoughts that I have been contemplating for some time now.
How do we know that animals experience less pain than we do? How can we measure this? What is it that makes animals different from human beings, and their lives of less value?
It has been argued that animals do not possess the sophisticated level of consciousness that human beings have. Humans are aware of their very being, of their thinking. They are much more intelligent, far more creative. They can think in abstract terms. Animals are unable to do so, at least not on the same level as human beings. (2)
Surely there is an ontological difference between animals and humans. Human beings live life on a level that animals do not share, but we don’t even know what this consists of. We recognize that there is a “jump in level” from the animal to the human species, but we don’t know what actually constitutes this jump (3). We merely see the outer aspects of it. Physics and chemistry don’t help; they can only describe it. To claim that they can explain it is like saying that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is nothing but an aspect of a particular combination of letters. But, in fact, the particular combination of letters is nothing but an aspect of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We cannot describe its gestalt. This ultimately remains mysterious. It seems that even the best life sciences can hardly explain life as such. It is simply elusive.
But even when we acknowledge that these differences are real, what criteria determine that the lives of animals are less valuable than those of human beings? How do we know that ontological decline also means a lesser claim to the sanctity of life? Who says that less gestalt means less significance and meaning? What gives us the right to kill animals for our consumption, use them for scientific research or force them to experience pain for the sake of human beings? Perhaps all forms of life, from the simple to the sophisticated, are of the same “life value” and none of them should have any claim on the other or be subordinate to the other.
What moral criterion, then, do we rely on when we kill animals for food? However careful we may be in sparing them pain while slaughtering, what gives us the right to kill them at all, even painlessly? This challenge does not stop here. We must also ask, what gives us the right to pluck a flower and stop its life flow? Or to kill an insect, even when it is dangerous? How do we know that our blood is redder than that of the insect? Perhaps human life must be sacrificed for the sake of an insect’s life. The astonishing conclusion is that there are no objective criteria to follow.
Let us take this matter even further. What gives a husband the right to impregnate his wife, knowing she will no doubt undergo serious pain and discomfort when giving birth? Is this entirely dependent on his wife’s consent? Who says we are allowed to put her in the slightest danger even if she has fully agreed? What gives us the right to have sexual relations with a human but forbids us to do so with another creature? Once again, we lack absolute moral criteria.
It is for this reason that there are serious doubts about whether “morality” could ever permit any of the above. If there are no absolute criteria by which we determine how to deal with these questions, a consistent approach may well have to conclude that the slaughtering of animals, the killing of insects, the plucking of a flower and the impregnation of women should be strictly forbidden. In case of doubt, the rule should be: No!
Like it or not, we may be forced to conclude that much of what we assume to be permitted should in fact be prohibited. The list of forbidden acts would be nearly infinite.
This leads us to a most amazing conclusion: A strictly secular approach to major moral issues may have to be much more restrictive than what any religion would ever demand. In fact, a secular moral attitude may make life extremely difficult and even impossible.
It is religion, and not a consistent secular attitude, that has the more liberal approach to major moral issues. Religion, in fact, removes many restrictions which would otherwise be required by secular standards of morality. In the case of Judaism, halacha rules that one is allowed to slaughter an animal, albeit under certain circumstances. It allows and even obligates us to kill a dangerous insect. And in the case of a married woman, it makes the radical claim that it is a mitzvah for her husband to impregnate her and have children even though this is accompanied by excruciating pain. It does so purely on the basis of its faith that the Creator not only permitted these but even demanded them. This of course cannot be proven, but once halacha would reject this belief it would have no option but to forbid all the above, as would secular morality.
We may therefore have to admit that we have been wrong for hundreds if not thousands of years. It is not religion that restricts our lives, but it should be secularism. True, we may not have seen secularism in this light and may have allowed ourselves many liberties in its name. But we should be aware that this approach may have been entirely wrong. It should perhaps have been the reverse; it is secularity that would make life much more difficult.
If so, we must argue that in the case of Judaism the 613 commandments are not restrictive but are ways to liberate us from hundreds if not thousands of prohibitions that honest secularism would have imposed on us.
Perhaps Professor E.S. Waterhouse (4) was correct, after all, when he made the disturbing observation that just as a parasite is an independent organism but dependent on its host for survival, so is secular morality dependent on religious values for its restrictions. But in our case it has the reverse meaning: If secularism would stand on its own, it would be so restrictive as to make life extremely difficult, if not impossible. That it permits so much is due to the fact that it has adopted much from the “permissive” world of religion.
Rather an unusual observation prompted by a simple cat.
(1) I have been told that no animals have the capability to show their emotions in facial expressions.
(2) Actually, it is not at all clear how we can be certain of this. True, we do not see in animals any manifestation of self awareness and cognitive thinking, but how can we know that it does not exist in some other form of which we are unaware and which we ourselves do not possess?
(3) See E.F. Schumacher, A Guide For the Perplexed, Harper Colophon Books, NY 1977, Chapter 2.
(4) E.S. Waterhouse, The Religious Basis of Morality, in Essays presented to J. H. Hertz, ed. by I. Epstein, E. Levine and C. Roth, 1942, pp. 413-4.