Leibniz’s Metaphysics

This essay on Leibniz’s metaphysics is from Chapter 13 of Metaphysics and the Meaning of Life (2010), reprinted here with permission. 

Leibniz, with his encyclopedic knowledge, is influenced in his metaphysics by more concerns than your average philosophical specialist who is not a polymath, and I want to begin by listing six such concerns.

1.) If one strictly adopts Cartesian metaphysics, then the ancient problem of universals comes in the back door.  This problem is one and the same as the problem of how reality is capable of being understood or comprehended.  Leibniz thus tries to find a synthesis between the ancient knowledge of Aristotle, which states that reality is fundamentally made of particulars, and the modern, scientifically fruitful analysis of Descartes, which attempts to analyze reality simply into extension and motion.  These concerns turn out to be logical in nature, and are perhaps the most important influences on Leibniz’s metaphysical thinking.

2.) Another set of related concerns has to do with physics.  These can be grouped under two major headings: the nature of matter and the nature of motion.  Can Descartes’ analysis of matter as extension hold in the physical world?  What other attributes besides extension must the units of reality consist in?  On the other hand, if reality were to consist in extended objects, motion would then have to be explained by some other principle or principles.  A proper theory of metaphysics will, in Leibniz’s view, fit nicely with a theory of physics.

3.) A third problem that goes all the way back to Zeno is that of the continuum or of motion itself.  How can it be possible for motion to occur at all, since space is infinitely divisible?  Furthermore, how can substance consist in mere “extension” since the latter is admittedly divisible into infinity?  What would that mean for the nature of substance?

4.) Contemporary concerns over mind-body causation and causation in general, upon which the occasionalists first bring emphasis.  We must recall that Leibniz was intimately aware of these problems from his correspondence with occasionalists such as Malebranche.

5.) Problems that have to do with Spinoza, whom Leibniz had also met. If one first accepts the Cartesian project, then the logical rigor of Spinoza’s system seems to make his system the only plausible conclusion.  Leibniz wants to find a better alternative that is not contradictory.  This can be no easy task.

6.)  Finally, there are a series of problems that correspond roughly to theological issues.  How does one reconcile divine omnipotence and omniscience with human freedom?  This problem goes all the way back to Augustine and the Pelagians.  In theological works, Leibniz also demonstrates how his metaphysics can be applied to theological problems such as transubstantiation and miracles such as resurrection.

What results from these concerns—and certainly others as well—is a very important and elaborate system of metaphysics that may in fact better explain quantum physics than any other theory.  We follow Nicholas Jolley in thinking the best way of beginning to understand this abstract system is with something more concrete: an image or metaphor.[2]

The Monad

The core of Leibniz’s metaphysics is the monad.  Monads are said to be characterized by perception and appetite, something that can correspond roughly to our two qualities of the effection as being data and emotion.  Monads are variously described as individuals, simple substances, souls, active, non-extended, and unique.  We can start out with a mental image.  Each monad should be pictured as a sphere that reflects everything around it, and the world is made up of an infinite number of these reflective spheres.  In this sense, every individual monad is a microcosm of the entire universe.

We can find a similar metaphor in Eastern philosophy in Indra’s Net, described as follows.

Indra’s Net [is] a cosmic web laced with jewels at every intersection.  Each jewel reflects the others, together with all the reflections in the others.  In the deepest analysis, each “jewel” is but the reflection of other reflections.  Likewise, every thing and every person in the world, like every jewel in Indra’s Net, because dependently arisen, is empty-of-own-being (lacking in self-existence).[3]

Leibniz may not agree with all of the details of this metaphor, but, since a picture is said to be worth a thousand words, placing a sort of picture of reflective spheres in the reader’s mind will be far more helpful than starting with an extended logical analysis.  Indra’s net is to be compared with the following important passage in Leibniz.

Each substance is like a whole world, and like a mirror of God, or indeed the whole universe, which each one expresses in its own fashion—rather as the same city is differently represented according to the different situations of the person who looks at it.  In a way, then, the universe is multiplied as many times as there are substances, and in the same way the glory of God is redoubled by so many quite different representations of his work.  In fact, we can say that each substance carries the imprint of the infinite wisdom and omnipotence of God, and imitates them as far as it is capable of it.[4]

Why would Leibniz come up with such a scheme?  The basic reasoning, I believe, is in response to the first “problem” listed above: a tension between Aristotelian and Cartesian metaphysics on the nature of substances.  Aristotle proves that substances must be particulars.  Descartes wants to reject this conception in order to advance the more scientifically profitable analysis of substances as mere “extension.”


Let us consider Aristotle first of all.  According to Aristotle, this chair that I am sitting in exists in a fundamental way.  What the chair is will be explained by causes, of which there are four.  To rightfully identify this chair as a chair consists in expressing the “formal” cause of what it is.  This might also consist in giving the precise dimensions of the chair, since “form” and “shape” are described by the same Greek word morphe.  There is also a material basis for what this chair is, i.e. that it is made of wood.  Explaining that it is made of wood, and even what kind of wood it is, consists in giving the “material” cause.  Insight as to what the chair is for in the eye of the builder of the chair would consist in the “final” or “teleological” cause.  Finally, the actual steps that took place in the building of the chair would consist in giving the “efficient” causation of the chair.

Here, it seems that Aristotle has all of his bases covered in his explanation.  The problem with this, for Descartes, is that this “chair” cannot be a fundamental unit of reality because to have it thus would not be conducive to the scientific ideals that Descartes has in mind.  Physics does not deal with tables and chairs, but merely with objects of certain sizes, dimensions, and masses.  Descartes the scientist is only interested in the measurable qualities of the chair, that is to say, what about the chair can be quantified.  Accordingly, Descartes views the chair as “extension.”

Here, then, we have a conflict over the fundamental units of reality (substances), and Leibniz is interested to solve it.  Leibniz is dissatisfied with both explanations, and this is largely what makes Leibniz a seminal thinker in metaphysics.

Leibniz follows Aristotle in his proof that the fundamental units of reality must be individuals or particulars, but would deny that “this chair” is a particular.  According to Leibniz, “this chair” is actually an aggregate of more simple substances. [5]  The suggestion that aggregates cannot be fundamental substances can be considered as an important stipulation to Aristotelian philosophical logic.  For, if (as we have suggested above) proper nouns describe individuals, there is no reason why, say, the “Fifth Infantry” could not be considered to be a fundamental unit of reality.  The latter would indeed seem to satisfy Aristotle’s linguistic tests which pertain to predication.[6]  But, on the other hand, the “Fifth Infantry” is actually just an aggregate of individual men.  If we claimed that it were a fundamental unit of reality, a paradox would result in which each individual soldier were numbered among real items, and then the “Fifth Infantry” were also numbered, as if it had its own independent existence.  The same would be true of a particular flock of sheep, gaggle of geese, posse of cowboys, or any group of individuals: they would all be numbered as their individuals plus one.  It is still evident, according to Aristotle’s analysis, that the fundamental units of reality must be particulars or individuals, but the question then comes to be what the nature of these must consist in.  This, I take it, is how the monad originates.  The monad is the name Leibniz gives to whatever these true individuals must be.

For Leibniz, every perceived body is actually an aggregate.  In a letter to Arnauld, he gives deep and persuasive argument to this end.

I think that a block of marble is, perhaps, only like a pile of stones, and thus cannot pass as a single substance, but as an assemblage of many.  Suppose there were two stones, for example, the diamond of the Great Duke and that of the Great Mogul.  One could impose the same collective name for the two, and one could say that they constitute a pair of diamonds, although they are far apart from one another; but one would not say that these two diamonds constitute a substance.  More and less do not make a difference here.  Even if they were brought nearer together and made to touch, they would not be substantially united to any greater extent.  And if, after they had touched, one joined to them another body capable of preventing their separation—for example, if they had been set in the same ring—all this would make only what is called an unum per accidens [accidental unity].  For it is by accident that they are required to perform the same motion.  Therefore, I hold that a block of marble is not a complete single substance, any more than the water in a pond together with all the fish it contains would be, even if all the water and all the fish were frozen, any more than a flock of sheep would be, even if these sheep were tied together so that they could only walk in step and so that tone could not be touched without all the others crying out.  There is as much difference between a substance and such a being as there is between a man and a community, such as a people, an army, a society, or a college; these are moral beings, beings in which there is something imaginary and dependent on the fabrication of our mind.  A substantial unity requires a thoroughly indivisible and naturally indestructible being, since its notion includes everything that will happen to it, something that can be found neither in shape nor in motion (both of which involve something imaginary, as I could demonstrate), but which can be found in a soul or substantial form, on the model of what is called me.  These are the only thoroughly real beings.[7]

This being the case, one then wants to know how it is that these monads relate to the objects that we perceive all around us.  Leibniz’s response is definitely open to debate.  We recall that the existence of the monad is very much the result of logical considerations, and is thus quite certain.  But the relation between what must be the case and what we experience to be the case is a grey area that requires speculation.

Experience as Phenomenal

Leibniz clearly believes that the objects of perception need not have substantial existence, but may be merely phenomenal, and uses the metaphor of a “rainbow” being the result of light reflecting off of water droplets.  Here is where the metaphor of the reflective spheres, Indra’s net, or, as Jolley calls it, the “mirrors of God” comes into play.  The simple substances necessarily exist because perceived substances, which are aggregates, exist, although the particulars of how the former compose the latter are still in question.  Notice in the passage above that a version of the cogito seems to be employed, the “I” indicating our only accessible example of a genuine unity.

If I am asked in particular what I say about the sun, the earthly globe, the moon, trees, and other similar bodies, and even about beasts, I cannot be absolutely certain whether they are animated, or even whether they are substances, or, indeed, whether they are simply machines or aggregates of several substances.  But at least I can say that if there are no corporeal substances such as I claim, it follows that bodies would only be true phenomena, like the rainbow.  For the continuum is not merely divisible into infinity, but every part of matter is actually divided into other parts as different among themselves as the two aforementioned diamonds.  And since we can always go in this way, we would never reach anything about which we could say, here is truly a being, unless we found animated machines whose soul or substantial form produced a substantial unity independent of the external union arising from contact.  And if there were none, with the exception of man, there is nothing substantial in the visible world.

We now find ourselves at the crux of the problem, and we are also discussing something crucial to the science of metaphysics as a whole, which is the nature of substance, and its relation to our knowledge.  I believe that this question should not be considered a historical artifact, but rather a question that is very much alive.  If one goes one way on this topic, the result is a certain system of metaphysics.  If one goes the other way, the end result is something quite different.

If we follow Leibniz’s reasoning and we grant that the substances we perceive are not the fundamental units of reality, then it would seem there are a few options, of which Leibniz was quite aware.

We must then come down either to mathematical points of which some authors constitute extension, or to the atoms of Epicurus, or Cordemoy (which things you reject along with me), or else we must admit that we do not find any reality in bodies; or finally we must recognize some substances that have a true unity.[8]

Physical atomism, which we shall treat in more detail later, is rejected along with Descartes’ “mathematical points.”  The former is rejected for logical reasons and on account of the problem of the continuum.  The latter are rejected for physical reasons and also on account of the problem of the continuum.[9]  The monad is the alternative, and exhibits a genuine logical unity that is even more rigorous than that ascribed by Aristotle to real objects.

The only remaining problem, it would seem, would be the difficulty of actually imagining a monad.  Monads are said to be non-extended substances.  One then wants to ask: how many monads are there in a certain space?  To employ an oft-quoted theological allusion: how many monads can fit on the head of a pin?

But just because the monad boggles the imagination does not make it problematic from the perspective of knowledge. As Stephen Hawking points out, four-dimensional space-time is difficult (if not impossible) to imagine, but this does not mean that it does not make for a good scientific theory.  Indeed, there is a sense in which to even ask the questions given above is not-to-the-point.  This, because of Leibniz’s expressed doctrine that space and time are merely phenomenal entities.

[S]pace and time belong to the realm of appearances only; they have no place at the ground floor of Leibniz’s metaphysics, the level of monads.  Here of course it is important not to be misled by Leibniz’s claim that monads have points of view.  This claim should not be interpreted literally as implying that they are in space.  Rather, the picture that Leibniz wishes to defend is that, in modern jargon, space is a logical construction out of the points of view of monads where these are analyzed in terms of the distribution of clarity and distinctness over perceptual states.  That is to say, the system of special relations of physical objects in the phenomenal world can in principle be derived from the properties of monads.  The point can be made in theological terms.  By knowing all the facts about the relevant monads, God can read off, for example, how the desk in front of me is spatially related to the other physical objects in my study.[10]

In all, Leibniz provides us with an excellent philosophical system, in many ways the flowering and crowning point of the rationalism.  Logic, science, philosophy, and theology are all in ways satisfied by Leibniz’s system.  I have strived to give an accurate depiction of the monad along with some of the major reasoning behind it, but we can hardly do him justice without dedicating a full volume to the man.  I will conclude here with some final thoughts on Leibniz, and I will give some problems with his system in the following chapter.

In the Categories, Aristotle describes substances as “unities” that are “able to receive contraries.”

 It seems most distinctive of substance that what is numerically one and the same is able to receive contraries.  In no other case could one bring forward anything, numerically one, which is able to receive contraries.  For example, a color which is numerically one and the same will not be black and white, nor will numerically one and the same action be bad and good; and similarly with everything else that is not substance.  A substance, however, numerically one and the same, is able to receive contraries.  For example, and individual man—one and the same—becomes pale at one time and dark at another, and hot and cold, and bad and good. Nothing like this is to be seen in any other case . . . .[11]

There is a sense in which Leibniz never strays from this sort of doctrine.  Each individual can say to himself: “I am a monad, and I receive perceptions and I have appetites; the latter change from time to time according to the will of God, but I am a genuine substance.”

For Leibniz, nothing about reality as perceived is sufficient unto itself.  The entirety of our experienced reality—the reality of the senses—is contingent upon the will of God, and can vanish just as easily as He wills it, or ceases to will it, mere images of him, reflected by our selves, the phantom of a dream.  Leibniz’s metaphysics is thus a better framework for understanding the “weirdness” of contemporary physics as opposed to the Newtonian framework, which depicts reality as functioning as regularly as clockwork.

But, this does not mean that Leibniz cannot account for scientific laws.  Indeed, he can.  Jolley puts the point nicely.

 The causality of God and the causality of monads operate on different ontological levels.  We can clarify this picture by means of a familiar analogy.  Imagine an author writing a novel.  Within the framework of the narrative there is a complete story to be told about the causal sequence of events; a character dies in a fire, and the fire is in turn caused by the deplorable state of the wiring in the house, and so on.  But there is also a sense in which the author himself is a cause; it is he or she who made the causes cause.  In this way we might seek to reconcile the causal self-sufficiency of monads with their status as substances conserved and created by God.[12]

Finally, we can describe Leibniz as a response to Spinoza.  While Spinoza is thoroughly monistic, Leibniz is genuinely atomistic, although his atoms are not physical, and nor are they merely logical.  They are simple substances, and they are real.  God created each individual monad, and each individual monad reflects His attributes, “as the same city is differently represented according to the different situations of the person who looks at it.  In a way, then, the universe is multiplied as many times as there are substances, and in the same way the glory of God is redoubled by so many quite different representations of his work.”

All in all, Leibniz’s system is heavily influenced by philosophical logic; it strains metaphors, and our only direct apprehension of the monad is actually our apprehension of our very selves as unified, subjective beings.  Thus, for Leibniz, in contrast to Spinoza and in agreement with Descartes, we exist, even if the whole world of experience were to slip away like a dream.  For Leibniz, this is the way God made reality, and He fashioned it in the best possible way.

The philosophy of Leibniz is unique in the history of western philosophy, and, logical though it is, it is not without mystical appeal.  For something similar, one might have to look to the single greatest philosopher of the east. I am speaking here of Gautama Buddha.

Within this body, six feet long, endowed with perception and cognition, is contained the world, the origin of the world and the end of the world, and the path leading toward the end of the world.

[1] Cf. p. 78 of this volume.

[2]Cf.  Nicholas Jolley.  Leibniz.  2-5. Jolley draws attention to this sort of metaphor at the start of his book, and calls it aptly the “mirrors of God” metaphor.

[3] Hudson Smith and Philip Novak.  Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. 61-62.

[4] Discourse on Metaphysics, section 9.

[5] Cf. Nicholas Jolley.  Leibniz. pp. 39-41.

[6] Cf. pp. 55-56 above.

[7] Letter to Arnauld, November 28, 1686.

[8] Letter to Arnauld, April 30, 1687.

[9] Cf. Daniel Garber.  “Leibniz: Physics and Philosophy.”  The Cambridge Companion to Leibniz.

[10] Nicholas Jolley.  Leibniz. 87-88.

[11] Categories, section 5.

[12] Nicholas Jolley.  Leibniz. p. 73.

Since veganism will not prevent environmental catastrophe, we need to look to population control

Charles and David Koch as featured in Jane Mayer's book "Dark Money"

Charles and David Koch as featured in Jane Mayer’s book “Dark Money”

Many ethical movements in recent years have wittingly or unwittingly adopted an ethical stance that I will here call “passing the buck downwards.” This is the idea that the solution to a problem or crisis–be it economic, environmental, or otherwise–requires small changes to be made by a large number of individuals without necessarily making any changes to the law. “Passing the buck upwards” is the opposite stance. It places the onus of solving a problem or crisis upon the elite/moneyed/privileged/ruling class. Here, I suggest that a realistic solution to the social, political, and environmental crises facing our generation will require more than the voluntary incremental change of individuals. In a word, it will require passing the buck upwards.

A Case study: Plastics

It has been widely known for perhaps the last ten years that plastics are more harmful to the environment than we had previously suspected. Essentially, plastics end up in oceans and waterways where they eventually break down but do not decompose. Once they have broken down into tiny bits, they are consumed by fish and other sea life that mistake them for plankton.

Once inside the body of the fish, the plastics can chemically imitate the role of estrogen, leading to mutations such as hermaphroditic fish. In turn, the sea life is consumed by human beings, where, one can assume, it also has ill health effects. Larger plastics are to be found in the bellies of wild sea birds.

Juvenile Herring Gull, Larus Argentatus with plastic rubbish in its beak, Newquay, Cornwall, UK. (Photo By: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

Juvenile Herring Gull, Larus Argentatus with plastic rubbish in its beak, Newquay, Cornwall, UK. (Photo By: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

One study found that in 1960, fewer than five percent of sea birds had traces of plastic in them, and the number had jumped to 80 percent by 1980. The production of plastic has risen and continues to rise exponentially. By now it is likely that plastic can be found in almost all seabirds. The large plastics they consume often kill them by filling their guts and/or puncturing internal organs.

A solution that passes the buck downwards would place the onus of the solution upon the mass of individuals to no longer purchase or use disposable, non-biodegradable plastics like plastic bags, bottles, and lighters. A solution that passes the buck upwards would come in the form of legislation outlawing disposable plastics.

Examples can be seen of both. A number of cities and states have enacted legislation that either prohibits or places a tax on the use of disposable plastic bags, and other states have passed legislation that does the opposite: protecting plastics from legislation. A company like Trader Joes or Whole Foods that takes it upon themselves to not use plastic bags has found a rare happy medium between the two: the idea of an ecologically conscious corporation. The corporation sees that the consumers want a less “guilty” purchasing experience; the corporation has made a policy to reflect that; and the customers have voluntarily agreed to go along with it. But, it must be noted that these efforts may not be sufficient. Merely eliminating plastic bags at the checkout is a nominal gesture compared to the plastic packaging on other products sold.

In the case of plastics, history has shown the only real solutions to occur when the buck is passed upwards. To place the onus upon individuals simply does not work. If the plastics are available, there will always be a few consumers that voluntarily forgo the plastics, but a larger number that opt for convenience over altruism.

This point becomes more obvious in the example of plastic microbeads. Plastic microbeads are currently used in soaps, toothpaste, and other products. These beads are easily replaced with ecologically friendly biodegradable substitutes such as pulverized walnut shells.


Plastic microbeads are used in soaps and toothpastes.

Lets say I am a mechanic that knows of the ill effects of plastics in the water, and therefore I forego using the microbead laden soap at the shop to clean my hands. While no one can fault my altruistic efforts, in the face of the number of greasy hands that need to be cleaned in shops around the country and world, these efforts will not be enough.

In 2015 federal legislation was passed to phase out microbeads in personal care products by 2017. In this case, the legislation accomplished what would in fact never be accomplished by individuals acting altruistically.

The Argument for Passing the Buck Downwards

Perhaps the most explicit popular argument for passing the buck downwards is to be found in a documentary written and directed by Pete McGrain and starring Woody Harrelson: Ethos: Time to Unslave Humanity.  At the start of the documentary, Harrelson begins with a sort of mission statement.


The Pete McGrain documentary Ethos: A Time for Change

Everyday we turn on the TV, and there’s more bad news. Another environmental catastrophe somewhere, or more starving refugees, or innocent victims in war zones. Most of us are trying to make ends meet in our own lives, and we see these images and feel helpless to do anything about it. I think that the deep shame we feel about that is paralyzing, certainly one of the reasons that we turn away. The object of this documentary is to look at the flaws in our systems that allow these things to happen, and the mechanisms that actually work against us, and to show you a very simple, but powerful way that we can actually change the world that we live in.

The documentary goes on to use numerous interviews with politicians, insiders, and intellectuals to paint a picture of the United States as what is essentially a totalitarian regime in which corporations have taken over democracy.  McGrain points to the establishment of the Federal Reserve in 1913 under Woodrow Wilson as a turning point in which government first came under the authority of private capital, and the Great Depression is conveyed as having been deliberately instigated by the banking cartel behind the Federal Reserve, by means of calling in loans all at once, in order to consolidate its power.

Big money is also conveyed as controlling the media.

The media gives the illusion of choice in the political sphere by focusing on non-economic moral differences (e.g. gay marriage, abortion) when, in fact, democratic and republican options are both apiece in their allegiance to big money.

The media is used to control the population and to make them into passive consumers, and employs political and psychological strategies developed by Walter Lippmann,  Reinhold Neibuhr, and Edward Bernays, among others.

Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) , Harvard graduate, famous for his book Public Opinion, in which he coined the term "Public Relations"

Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) , Harvard graduate, famous for his book Public Opinion, in which he coined the term “Public Relations”

McGrain goes on to discuss the development of the military industrial complex, also known as the Iron Triangle, which has as its vertices the military, big business, and politics. McGrain focuses on the Carlyle group as an illustrative example. He goes on to discuss the war on terror as having been the product of this type of infrastructure.

The only answer, according to the documentary, is for the mass of enlightened consumers to use their spending power to control the corporations from below by forgoing the purchase of certain products and preferring others produced by corporations or companies that demonstrate higher ideals. In a word, the buck is passed downwards.

The Argument for Passing the Buck Upwards

In the interest of keeping this article brief, I will not go into potentially lengthy arguments for passing the buck upwards. While McGrain’s picture of the status of the American political situation is influenced by the work of Noam Chomsky, his solution of passing the buck downwards is his own. In place of long argumentation, I will only make a few suggestions here.

First of all, from an ethical perspective, placing added burdens on a class that is already by definition burdened ought to be suspect. The labor of the lower classes already produces the wealth of the upper classes, why should they also carry the guilt of being responsible for the future?

Dwight Eisenhower was the first to warn of the Military-Industrial complex.

Dwight Eisenhower was the first to warn of the Military-Industrial complex.

Secondly, a question of efficacy arises. No one will argue that acting as an enlightened consumer is a bad thing or that it does not bring benefits, but the counterargument is that it simply may not be enough. One’s purchasing decisions largely have to do with one’s own life. Certainly, if we all began buying local, used, and ethical, one would see vast changes. But, the more constrained one is financially, the less power one will have over ones buying decisions. It is also unclear how individual purchasing decisions would dismantle something like the military-industrial complex–the so-called Iron Triangle–which is an economy unto itself, supported by tax dollars. Even if it could work theoretically, it may not be efficient enough in practice to avert disaster.

This leads to the third argument: the concept that the environmental, social, and political future can be secured by virtue of a non-legislated agreement among the ruled is utopian. The more people are involved, the less likely will be a consensus of opinion. The hypothetical agreement among the masses will never be achieved in practice.

These three arguments tie together and lend support to one another. Why is a universal or majority agreement impossible and utopian? It is partly because the laboring class is too constrained for time, money, and education to make such agreement possible.

To these three arguments, one can add a fourth. Placing faith in the concept that the laboring class will secure the social, political, and environmental future of its own volition could have the affect of lessening the urgency of the ruling class to provide solutions. It ought to be in the interest of the ruling class to maintain peaceful conditions, if only to retain their own privileged status. If they believe that changes will be handled by the lower class, it gives them free reign to continue unchanged.

Deconstructing Veganism

Veganism might be considered the example par excellence of passing the buck downward because adopting a vegan lifestyle is conveyed as ethical, environmental, and healthy, and requires no legislation whatsoever. A vegan lifestyle would tie in nicely with the ideals placed by McGrain.

Why this is so should be widely known.  A UN report found that animal agriculture was responsible for more greenhouse gasses than the transportation industry. This finding was bolstered by a 2009 study by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, which concluded that, if everyone went vegan, there would be an approximate 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gasses by 2050, along with a surplus of land. (40 percent of grains raised in the US are used to feed livestock. ) This does not even bring into account the water usage, deforestation, animal suffering, and potential diseases caused by the factory farming of meat. In fact, the UN itself has suggested a global shift towards a vegan diet. In other words, the UN has suggested that the buck be passed downwards.

While veganism renders very real and measurable benefits, the suggestion that veganism take hold of its own accord and avert environmental catastrophe is an extreme form of passing the buck downward, and, as such, it is implausible and utopian. If we consider the consumption of meat to be an evil, it is a recalcitrant evil, like the trade in illegal drugs.

The illegal drug trade/war on drugs is a useful schema by-which to understand the complex relationship between the environmental benefits that we desire of veganism, the law, and the nature of the public. It becomes obvious that, while veganism cannot be legislated, some of the environmental benefits of veganism might be retained by placing constraints upon factory farming.

At the same time that some of the environmental affects of meat consumption can be mitigated through legislation, one can also assume that they cannot and will not be eliminated. Veganism will not prevail, either through legislation or through voluntary means. This realization leads one to focus on what may be perhaps the only solution: focusing on limiting worldwide population growth.

Once we grasp the fact that the entire planet will not go vegan by 2050, or at any point in the foreseeable future, we can begin the process of rational, incremental, top-down change to stabilize environmental situation for future generations. One way of doing so would be to focus on the limitation of the human population itself.

The Way Forward

Throughout this article, I have attempted to emphasize that the efforts of individuals ought not to be discounted. They may be a necessary condition to secure the future, but they will not be sufficient. It is a dire necessity to force both guilt and responsibility upon the privileged few on account of the proven efficacy of the top-down approach. It has not gone beyond notice that Americans in particular have become disillusioned with government, and government is viewed as already having been thoroughly corrupted by capital. As a result, we suffer from a socio-political cognitive dissonance.

If McGrain’s idea is that we detach from politics and vote with our dollars instead, this article suggests that a renewed political vigor is also required. What form that vigor takes is an open question, but ours is a time when achieving enlightened legislation is more important than ever. Given the degree to which politics is already tied to capital, the necessary measures may not even be legal, requiring a form of civil disobedience. Even extreme forms of civil disobedience would be preferable to genuine revolution. Presumably, placing limits on the global population will have to be a part of any workable scenario.

The Portman/Foer Correspondence Revisited


Jonathan Foer

On July 14, Jonathan Safran Foer published an email correspondence between himself and Natalie Portman in the New York Times Magazine.

The correspondence we read is not the private correspondence of Foer and Portman. The email correspondence is essentially meant to take the place of a face to face interview for the magazine, and Foer says as much in the beginning. This leads to an inevitable awkwardness at the start of the correspondence, because the first email is not merely “for” Portman, but it also has to be “for” the reader. There had to be a separate dialogue between Foer and Portman setting up the “interview”. We might say that, in that sense, it lacks the authenticity of a genuine exchange between two people who are speaking in confidence, and it is burdened by the constraint of the knowledge that there is a wider audience of observers. In other words, it does not and cannot begin with a mere “sup?”.

Natalie Portman

By taking this unconventional approach to the interview, the interviewer and the interviewee unwittingly or perhaps wittingly put themselves at great risk. If the American public wants anything with the whole of its heart, it is to read a private correspondence between an A-list celebrity like Portman, well known for her intellect and “nerdiness”, and the successful writer of “Everything is Illuminated” that is Foer.

The media fallout was mostly thoughtless, gossipy, and takes the easy, obvious approach of laughter and ridicule. From the generally illiterate social media perspective of Twitter, the most important issue raised was “where are Portman’s pants?”, referring to the fashion magazine type photo shoot of swimwear-clad Portman that accompanies the article. If and when the media trolls take the time to look at the actual words of the article, from their perspective, Portman generally comes off much better than Foer, who can seem obtuse and boring. On the other hand, if viewed more closely, one can see that Foer is making a more strict attempt at Letters with a capital L. Overall, I believe that the correspondence can be seen as an attempt at authenticity.

What is missed in the media coverage is that this is an attempted development in journalism, and it deserves recognition as such, whether it turns out to be a dead end or the first spark of something new. It is an interesting attempt at a more literary approach to the interview. It is an attempt at Letters, and not an easy one, because of the overwhelming constraint of the knowledge that they will be viewed by a large audience. It is all too easy–when anyone attempts something novel–to ridicule, but those ridiculing are quite often on the wrong side of history.

Perusing the letters yet again, I see it. There is both awkwardness and beauty there. The appeal of the letter is its ability to capture something about a relationship that even the relationship itself is oblivious to. One can say that they are good letters or bad letters, but that misses the point. They are letters, damnit, and letters are a good thing.

An Unconventional Argument: Isolationism

In philosophy, argumentation is elevated to being an art form. Arguing for something that might be generally considered absurd can be considered a useful exercise from a philosophical point of view, with a long tradition that dates back at least as far as Socrates. This writing is an example of an unconventional argument.



A protest by the 15M movement in Madrid, 2012

It has been widely commented that, in general, the media does not make us happier as individuals. When we look at social media on our phones, we are immediately inundated with an ugliness that in all likelihood does not exist in our present environment: police brutality, violence against animals, terror attacks, other violent attacks, protests, racism, fights, and so on. I don’t deny that these things happen. I don’t deny that for some unfortunate people, a “volatile” atmosphere is a fact of life, and it’s also true that no life, however seemingly secure, is free of risk. Here I would like to argue something that may at first sound absurd and counter intuitive: you should isolate yourself as much as possible from any and all knowledge of what is going on outside of your immediate sphere of experience and, when new information does enter that sphere, you should try your best to ignore it and not do anything whatsoever about it.

Lets say that you are vegan and, in looking for butter alternatives, earth balanceyou landed upon Earth Balance at Whole Foods. You felt for a while that you were doing the right thing, but then you find out through social media that Earth Balance is made of palm oil, and that palm oil is responsible for the destruction of the native habitat for the endangered orangutan.

My argument here is that, even so, you should still continue to purchase Earth Balance, and only when the crisis is knocking on your front door should you do anything whatsoever to change your behaviors.

This argument of course is difficult to make and flies in the face of ethical theory. My behavior of continuing to purchase Earth Balance cannot be universalized for all, as would be suggested by a Kantian approach, without my also consenting to the destruction of the endangered species of orangutan. It’s equally difficult to justify from a utilitarian perspective. Allowing oneself to contribute to species extinction does not seem to promote happiness for humans or animals. It’s clear that traditional ethical theory does  not bode well for my behavior, much less an environmental ethic.


Yet, there is no real contradiction in it if I am the sort of person who will willingly assent to the destruction of the orangutan. The point was clearly stated by Hume in his devastating critique of moral theory, which concludes concisely: “Since reason alone can never produce any action or give rise to volition . . . . It is in no way contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”

If there were only a dozen people on this planet, that dozen people would pose no environmental threat to this planet whatsoever, however they behaved. They could kill orangutans, lions, fish, really anything that they were capable of killing. They could pour oil into the water, burn tires, spray aerosol cans, and they would simply be incapable of making a dent in the vast well-stocked Eden which they inhabited. Their lives would likely be impoverished and barbaric, equally likely to perish as to survive as a species. Even if they did survive and reproduce, it would be a long while before their descendants were able to bring about the sort of global catastrophes we hear about on the news everyday.

One can view overpopulation as the fundamental problem that is leading to all of the other problems humanity has to face. Why are there factory farms in which innocent animals suffer and die? Why is the wilderness being destroyed for farm land.

If you view it in this light, there is very little you or I can do about it in our lifetimes, whether or not you do have kids. If you already have kids, it’s not like you’re going to kill them off. If you don’t have kids, then I suppose you can pat yourself on the back. I suppose you could decide to “not have” that other kid you were thinking about having. But, all this is in a way beside the point.

This is because even if you live your life as a saint, foregoing Earth Balance, following the Categorical Imperative, and going childless or not having that other kid, some guy down the street who abides by different ideals is going to take three wives, have twelve children, and negate or ruin the Eden that you spent your meager, solitary life trying to build. Not only that, but once you die with your ideals, his children, who are more likely to inherit his ideals, are going to continue to overpopulate the world, and the world will once again find itself in the same situation.

Incidentally, not overpopulating the world is one thing that Americans are good at, with a total fertility rate of 1.84, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. Our increase in population is the result of immigration. Of course, we offset this by our consumption. Our five percent of the world population is said to consume 20 percent of its resources.

It may be argued that this stance is a consequentalist one. If one takes the opposed Kantian/deontological approach, then one can theoretically say that certain acts are wrong/immoral in themselves. Thus, from the Kantian perspective, it’s always wrong to tell a lie, and it may always be wrong to purchase Earth Balance.

I don’t buy it, and I do not believe that it is even possible to construct an ethical theory that does not give a thought to consequences. Kant suggests to us that we universalize the maxim upon which we are acting in order to assess its moral value, and ask ourselves if we could assent to the results. Therefore, according to Kant, my act of telling a lie is wrong because I would not agree that it is ok for everyone else to do it.

One does have to think about consequences in order to apply the Kantian ethic. We always have to ask ourselves: what would happen if everyone acted this way? And this is a good thing. We don’t want an ethic in which we have all behaved in a saintly way, but in which we leave a hell for our children. But we also need to keep in mind that Kantian theory fails to overcome Hume’s critique. Even if everything were to go to hell if everyone lied all the time, it is in no way irrational to assent to it.

This brings another point unconventional point to light. Lets say, in sympathy with an environmentalist ethic, that I do not agree to the destruction of the orangutan or the planet’s environmental degradation (plastics in the water, clear cutting of forest, species extinction, global warming, etc.) It may be the case that the large part of the work that I am capable of doing is determined by whether or not I decide to have children and how many I decide to have.

If I believe that the world is overpopulated already, then my decision to have more than one child is forbidden by the Kantian ethic itself. If I have two children, then I have neither contributed nor helped the problem. If I have more than two, I have made it worse.

If, as I have suggested, we always have to think about consequences when determining our behaviors, it is important for us to think about whether or not little efforts like forgoing Earth Balance, or larger efforts like going vegan will or will not make a difference in the long run given the steady increase of the human population, because it is that increase that is driving the demand that is causing the destruction. If we believe that our efforts will result in no net benefit, then it’s just as well we not trouble ourselves with them. In the words of Shakespeare: “Things without all resolve should be without worry, what’s done is done.”




Exposition and Critique of Nietzsche’s “On the Genealogy of Morals”: Part I

book-on-genealogy-morals-ecce-homoNietzsche is and ought to be considered both icon and iconoclast in philosophy. “On the Genealogy of Morals” is considered to be his greatest ethical work. The work is made up of three essays, and this essay will involve an exposition and critique of the first essay. My plan is to continue this series by writing two more parts, covering the entirety of this masterwork of Nietzsche’s.


The first essay is entitled “Good and Evil/Good and Bad.” In this essay, Nietzsche finds two separate historical meanings for the term “good”: one of which was prior and more natural, and the other arose as a reaction to the original term. The term “good” originates as a sort of feeling of pride that a certain type of person feels towards hirself. One might imagine an ancient warrior-ruler looking in the mirror and feeling pride in hirself and hir power. That feeling is, for Nietzsche, where the word “good” originated. It is a sort of naive, bro-ish view for modern tastes: anti-intellectual and self-centered, with an emphasis on healthiness, dominion, status, beauty, and excellence. It is naive in the sense that the original expression of “good” is unaware of the possibility of there being other forms or interpretations of the term. Being a philologist, the evidence that Nietzsche brings to bear is linguistic. Originally, the opposite of “good” was not “evil,” but it was rather the elite contrasting themselves with the “common,” the “bad.”

[W]hat was the real etymological significance of the designations for “good” coined in various languages? I found that they all led back to the same conceptual transformation–that everywhere “noble,” “aristocratic” in the social sense, is the basic concept from which “good” in the sense of “with aristocratic soul,” “noble,” “with a soul of high order,” “with a privileged soul” necessarily developed: a development which always runs parallel with that other in which “common,” “plebian,” “low,” are finally transformed into the concept “bad.” The most convincing example of the latter is the German word schlecht [bad] itself: which is identical with schlicht [plain, simple]–compare schlechtweg [plainly], schlechterdings [simply]–and originally designated the plain, the common man, as yet with no inculpatory implication and simply in contradistinction to the nobility. (i.4)

This is the core of Nietzsche’s argument in the first part. He draws attention to it in an uncharacteristically straightforward manner, saying:


Nietzsche, small mustache

With regard to moral genealogy, this seems to me to be a fundamental insight . . . (i.4)

With regard to Nietzsche in general, and this work in particular, the issue of Nietzsche’s “racism” and “anti-Semitism” has to be addressed early on. It ought to be common knowledge by now that an accurate reading of Nietzsche shows that he was neither racist nor anti-Semitic. Kaufmann gives a thorough treatment of the issue in Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. The soiling of Nietzsche’s reputation was precipitated by his sister, who laid claim to his work after his death and ruthlessly attempted to appropriate it for Nazi use in full knowledge of Nietzsche’s true opinions. Her case of academic deceit cannot be attributed to ignorance. In correspondence with her as well as in his published writings, Nietzsche never misses an opportunity to slander the anti-Semitism which was growing in Germany at the time. Reading Kaufmann’s vindication of Nietzsche is truly a delight, because Nietzsche not only makes his opinions known, but he does so in his characteristically clever manner.

N3Yet, in reading this first essay in particular, one can see how easily the Nazis could appropriate Nietzsche’s work for their use. By altering or ignoring details, one could construe Nietzsche as racist, especially because, in the course of his “genealogy,” he must allude to different races and conflicts between races. One race can be construed to be “superior” based on the fact that it came to dominate another race, as the Romans historically came to dominate the Jews. The Nazi lie about Nietzsche was a subtle one, like accusing someone interested in anthropology of being a racist. Kaufmann has shown that Nietzsche’s “blond beast” is just a creative way of saying “lion.” Yet, Nietzsche, aware of these opinions and the desires of others to misconstrue, takes pains to separate himself from a racist interpretation. To cite but one example:

[B]etween the old Germanic tribes and us Germans there exists hardly a conceptual relationship, let alone one of blood. (i.11)

Let us now leave the question of racism and return to the gist of Nietzsche’s argument. We have on the one hand the original meaning of “good,” an interpretation which I have described as bro-ish, that originated in the ruling class, and these rulers contrasted themselves with the “common” and “bad.” The original rulers were, in fact, rather simple. For them, “evil” literally did not exist. In their world, the commoners were to be pitied, and their enemies were respected with the respect that fighters give to other fighters.

The second meaning of the term “good” arises as a reaction when those ruled by the bros have to look themselves in the mirror. This interpretation of the term might be called the “evil twin” of the original, because it arises from a suppressed emotion, which Nietzsche calls by the French term ressentiment. When the ruler looks hirself in the mirror, hir notion of “good” is one of pride and is aligned with health, power, and physical beauty. Yet, those who are ruled, the subdued class, powerless to counteract the rulers, appropriate and invert the term, and now to be truly “good” is described as to be humble, meek, impoverished, ugly. What was formerly “good” has now become “evil:” the exertion of power and the subjugation of the weak. Christian religion in particular, coming from the Judaic tradition, is the preeminent example of this inversion, and the religious doctrines of Christianity act as a fantastic justification of this view through recourse to an other-worldly metaphysic. Yet, it is not the only example of such an inversion. Nietzsche also includes in this group the “indifference” or “detachment” (Kaufmann does not use the term in his translation) of the Chinese religion. The latter interpretation of “good” is conveyed as the product of an “inactive,” “festering” psychology, plagued by ressentiment.

The primary conflation of the debunked Nazist interpretation is to view Nietzsche’s work as prescriptive rather than descriptive. Nietzsche invents a form of linguistically-based historical psychology to explain the origin of moral tastes and preferences, showing how the tastes of one group influenced and overcame those of another. He attempts to explain what happened, for better or worse, not what “ought” to happen in the future. In fact, as Nietzsche sees it, intellectualism itself originates in the subdued class, and we ought to never forget that, in the end, the slave morality was victorious and became what is perceived as “fact.”

A race of such men of ressentiment is bound to become eventually cleverer than any noble race; it will also honor cleverness to a far greater degree: namely, as a condition of existence of the first importance . . . .(i.10)

While the slave class is the originator of intellectualism, members of the ruling class are conveyed as beasts of prey, and something intrinsic to them wants to get back to nature.

One cannot fail to see at the bottom of all these noble races the beast of prey . . . this hidden core needs to erupt from time to time, the animal has to get out again and go back to the wilderness . . . (i.11).

Nietzsche ends this first section with a lengthy Latin quote from Tertullian’s “De Spectaculis,” an essay about the notoriously gruesome “public games” of the Romans. Tertullian’s piece might be called the written expression of ressentiment incarnate. The lengthy passage of the early Christian father might be paraphrased as follows: If Roman games in the arena are considered enjoyable, imagine how enjoyable it will be when Christ returns and all of his enemies throughout the world are consumed by flames of wrathful fire, and the Christians get to watch for their own enjoyment.

Pollice Verso, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, oil on canvas, 1872Critique

A genuine critique of Nietzsche’s work would involve a critique of his methodology and would require an entire work of its own. My “critique” here instead accepts Nietzsche’s argument more or less wholesale and looks for inconsistency in details. That said, I would like to focus on Nietzsche’s interpretation of Judaism.

Nietzsche paints the Jews with too broad a brush. Judaic writings of the Old Testament have more in common with the “warrior class” ethos than that of “slave morality.” Consider Ecclesiastes, King Solomon, the Psalms, which are said to be from his pen, the (fictional) story of the wandering Hebrews, led by Joshua, overtaking the fortified “promised land.” In other words, Judaism needs to be contrasted with the Christianity that is a later development.

The following passage is, and ought to be, extremely perplexing.

About the time of the Thirty Years War, late enough therefore, this meaning changed to the one now customary. (i.4)

That Nietzsche places the slave revolt in morality so late shows who he considers his audience to be. It is at once charming and alarming to the modern reader to realize that Nietzsche is talking, not about world history here, but about German history. Yet, everything he says about a slave revolt in morality ought not to be about Germans versus Jews, but about Romans versus Jews. The whole construct fits together perfectly: As the Romans overtook the Jewish “promised land”, the powerlessness of the Jews gave rise to ressentiment. The resulting psychological unrest among the Jews resulted in factionalism, which eventually gave rise to Christianity.

Considering that Nietzsche’s focus is on German history, a more involved critique would require answering the question: Does Nietzsche’s genealogy apply accurately to German history? My suspicion is that it does not. To establish this, however, would require more time and space than we have available here.

Activists Make Last Ditch Efforts to Prevent Controversial Primate Tests


Last July, Noah Philips wrote an article in which he exposed some controversial upcoming animal research that had been approved at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Under the direction of lead researcher Ned Kalin, 40 rhesus monkeys would be taken from their mothers at birth. For their first weeks of life, they would not be socialized. They would be placed alone in incubators with feeding bottles and a “soft surrogate,” and masked researchers would give them only the bare human contact necessary to keep them alive. After this initial period, the infant monkeys would be placed together in pairs to be “peer raised.”

Throughout their first year of life, the infant monkeys would be exposed to threats in an attempt to evoke an anxious temperament. The test protocol calls for the use of not only the monkeys, but a live king snake. The rhesus monkeys have a genetically programmed fear of snakes, and that is why a large, intimidating snake was chosen. Researchers would attempt to terrify the monkeys in other ways as well. One method includes the introduction of an unfamiliar human who approaches them without making eye-contact.

The test protocol is vague about what the difference would be between how the control group and the test group would be treated. Previously, Kalin published a paper on a similar experiment in which he selectively brain-damaged a group of test monkeys and then exposed them to stressors. This was accomplished by applying acid to the amygdala. The presumed end result of Kalin’s research, of which this experiment is only a part, is developing a drug for use on adolescents at risk for developing anxiety disorders.

The tests will take place at the Harlow Center for Biological Psychology on the UW Madison campus. The center is named after the psychologist Harry Harlow who first introduced maternal deprivation experiments on rhesus monkeys. In now famous and infamous experiments, Harlow removed newborn monkeys from their mothers and gave them the option of a wire mother that had a feeding bottle or a cloth mother. The infants would feed from the wire mother, but cling to the cloth mother, spending the majority of their time with the cloth mother.

UW Madison has received about half a million dollars of federal funding from the National Institutes of Health for Kalin’s upcoming experiment. It is part of a larger research grant from the NIH that totals about $1.5 million. According to Rick Bogle, co-founder of the Alliance for Animals and the Environment, UW Madison stands to make much more money than this if it results in a patented drug.

In response to Kalin’s proposed experiments, the Animal Legal Defense Fund requested information on the approval of the experiment. Universities are required by the Animal Welfare Act to gain approval for all use of animals in testing by an Internal Animal Care and Use Committee. When UW Madison refused the records, the ALDF sued. According to the ALDF, it was in response to this that Scott Walker attempted to introduce an amendment into the Wisconsin state budget bill to protect UW research from the state’s open records laws. The amendment was thrown out of committee this month.

Last year, Dr. Ruth Decker wrote a Change.org petition opposed to the experiments. At this point, the petition has over 400,000 signatures.

The petition notwithstanding, UW Madison has shown no indication of reconsidering or delaying the experiments. To date, there have been five separate protests, as well as leafleting campaigns, conducted by activists associated with the Madison-based group, the Alliance for Animals and the Environment. Last fall and winter, there were two protests and a candle light vigil. On April 10 of this year, protesters stood outside the UW regents meeting in Waukesha holding signs and attempting to engage the regents. On April 20, there was a “sit-in” protest at UW Madison, outside of the Harlow Center for Biological Psychology, where the experiments are slated to take place.


Animal Rights activists outside of the Harlow Center at UW Madison, April 18, 2015

Prior to the protest, UW Madison had placed an anti-protest sign, seen above, leading people to a website of its own that defends animal testing.

With tests slated to begin in June, time is running out for Kalin’s monkeys. UW Madison has conducted tests on primates since Harlow joined the faculty in the 1930s. Currently, UW Madison houses approximately 2,000 primates for research between the Harlow Center and the adjacent Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, of which 1,500 are rhesus monkeys. According to the Harlow Center website, all of the rhesus monkeys used there were born on site.

Given that primate testing has gone on at UW Madison for over 70 years, one wonders what would be necessary to see a stop to primate testing at UW Madison. Some animal rights activists claim that animal testing is ineffective and outdated, pointing to statistics showing that most drugs that are successful in other species do not succeed in humans. The truth may be more complicated. Animal testing may lead to scientific advances and breakthroughs, but, like testing on humans, it may be considered ethically unsound and should be regulated anyway. It may be the case that animal testing can only come to an end in any country if a federal law is made granting animals protections, and thus shielding them from scientific testing.

The U.S. lags behind other countries in protecting animals. In 2002, Germany made strong constitutional provisions to protect animals under their Animal Welfare Act, provisions that extend to lab animals and farmed animals. Experiments that are currently legal in the U.S. would be illegal in Germany. Still, there are no species-specific provisions in German law to protect primates.

In 2007 the parliament of the Balearic Islands, an autonomous community in Spain, granted personhood rights to all great apes, and urged Spain as a whole to do so. If approved, the law would “ban harmful experiments on apes and make keeping them for circuses, television commercials, or filming illegal under Spain’s penal code.”

New Zealand has forbidden the use of five great ape species in research and teaching.

Austria, the Netherlands, and Sweden have all banned the use of great apes in testing.

The U.S. has shown the smallest glimmer of hope via a New York judge’s recent decision to grant habeas corpus to two chimpanzees.

At the same time, there are no protections for other primates, such as rhesus monkeys. Philosophers are quick to point out a contradiction. If rhesus monkeys are similar enough to us for us to use them to gain valuable insights into our own psychology, then they should be granted a corresponding degree of legal protection. A lot of animal research may be considered to be good science but bad bioethics.

It is no coincidence that philosophers are willing to speak out against animal testing. When we farm and test on “lower” animals, we are treating them in a way that we would not want a stronger life form to treat us. We are also behaving as if there is a strong distinction to be made between the human and animal world, a distinction that science shows simply does not exist.

If it is the case that research institutions will not voluntarily leave behind the cash cow of animal research, and the only way to prevent primate experiments is through granting them legal protections, then activists are fighting an uphill battle. Although the great apes are protected from research in some places, those places are the minority, and there are no specific protections for primates in general. It appears that research will continue on primates, dogs, cats, and other species for the foreseeable future, and activists will continue to speak out against it, hoping for a long-term change.

Walker’s Attempt to Close Open Records at UW Madison: Not Just an Animal Rights Issue

rhesusLast July, Noah Phillips broke a story about some extremely cruel research that had been proposed and approved by UW Madison. Ned Kalin, chair of psychology at Madison, had proposed a study in which 40 rhesus monkeys would be removed from their mothers on their first day of birth, denied any form of human or animal contact, and raised in an incubator with a “soft surrogate” (think: small pillow), and a feeding bottle. After living like this for some weeks, the monkeys would be paired with others their same age to be “peer raised.”

Throughout, the young monkeys would be exposed to threats to attempt to cause anxious temperament and depression, such as exposing them to live snakes and menacing humans.

The experiment would bring over half a million dollars to UW Madison from the National Institutes of Health.

After 18 months, all of the monkeys would be euthanized, and throughout their short lifes, they would be subjected to a barage of tests including spinal taps and blood draws.

The news sparked outrage, and about 400,000 people signed a Change.org petition to stop the experiments. In the aftermath, Kalin decided that “maternal deprivation” was not necessary for the experiment, stating: “We’re changing the experiment based on science, not based on pressure that I’ve had.”

The Capital Times article that broke the news of the change to the study was misleading in one crucial regard: it neglected to mention that the monkeys would still be removed from their mothers at the age of 6 months.

One could just as easily say that the experiment is more cruel and inhumane for this reason, because the baby and mother will bond for six months before being separated.

A similar omission was made in a Badger Herald Article.

Meanwhile, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) had requested details of the proceedings for the approval of the research from UW Madison in order to ensure that they followed the federal Animal Welfare Act. When UW refused to provide the information, the ALDF sued UW Madison. In response to the lawsuit, Scott Walker proposed an amendment to this year’s budget: UW would be exempt from Wisconsin’s open records policy.

It may be the case that Scott Walker’s actions were actually not a response to the ALDF lawsuit, but something that he was planning on doing anyway, because this is his third attempt at it in three years.

In 2013, proponents claimed that the exemption was in order for UW Madison to have a competitive advantage for grant money. The 2014 lawsuit happened to also coincide with a lawsuit from PETA regarding treatment of sheep at UW Madison. Both of those attempts failed, of course.

Now, the National Association for Biomedical Research and the Foundation for Biomedical Research, both front groups for the animal testing, animal breeding, pharmaceutical, agribusiness, and processed food industries, are claiming that the amendment is necessary for the protection of researchers from animal rights activists.

This is misleading, at best, because, according to Bill Leuders of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, under current law, information that can be shown to be “harmful” if disclosed is already exempt from the open records policy, and information that reaches the people that request it has already been redacted.

Animal rights groups and advocates for freedom of information in government both have a stake in ensuring that this amendment is not passed into law.

Although Wisconsin research is still open to the public, 24 other states have already passed laws granting them some form of exemption from public records.

In response to this issue, people acting in association with the Alliance for Animals and the Environment have been attempting to spread the word about the issue through leafleting campaigns.

Although animal rights activists have taken up the cause against the open records amendment, there is, of course, more at stake, given the sweeping wording of the proposed resolution.

More information about the ALDF’s attempts at keeping records open can be obtained from Kelsey Eberly, the attorney working for the ALDF on the lawsuit, and also Bill Leuders of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. More information about taking a stand against the amendment can be obtained by contacting the Alliance for Animals and the Environment.