The first task assigned in my first English course at Santa Clara University was to define what it means to be human. Beyond varying physical features within our own species, our class made a general consensus that we, humans, are superior creatures, not because of our physical differences to that of other animals, but because of our higher intellectual capacities and psychological complexities. We are superior beings because we can critically analyze our world. We can combine our knowledge, experience, and emotion in order to make ethical decisions. However, the next question I pose is “do we?” Do we actually analyze our actions through moral lenses and change our ways when flaws are apparent? Too often we do not.
As college students at a top institution, I and many of my peers attend class each day and study facts—facts upon facts—so that we can be successful in terms of our own financial stability after we graduate and acquire responsibilities our parents once sheltered from us. We want an education of knowledge because in our minds knowledge means opportunity for own success. However, in his speech “This is Water,” David Foster Wallace suggests an alternative interpretation that success is “about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness.”
In 1747, poet Thomas Gray coined the phrase “ignorance is bliss” (99) in his “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.” Now in the twenty-first century, the phrase is used so often that it has become a motto of how to live your life happily. Many of us humans believe that what we do not know or understand will not hurt us. However, with further analysis within my English courses at Santa Clara University, I now realize that our lack of awareness of our own actions may not hurt ourselves, but it will hurt others. Most humans, especially in capitalist societies, go through life benefitting from the harsh realities that other creatures and humans must endure because of our selfish motives. Though ignorance may be bliss, ignorance is undeniably detrimental.
Awareness is only feasible when we try to see the world from a different perspective, not just our own. Most humans are trapped in their own point of view of experience. Whether it involves political issues, social norms, or interactions with non-human animals, humans often do not try hard enough to understand what it is like from the opposing perspective. After reading Godfrey-Smith’s “On Being an Octopus,” I was able to think critically through analogies of human experience to other beings. My findings reveal that observation of facts in life are not enough to draw affirmative action for changing flaws in people’s everyday routine and actions. If we can use our own experiences to compare what it might be like for another being to have an experience similar to ours then we have something to start with. Godfrey-Smith, a distinguished philosophy professor, asserts that even though we cannot be fully immersed in another animal’s perspective, there is opportunity for further understanding.
Though we may see an animal suffering in a crammed factory farm as they wait to be slaughtered, or we see people living in poverty because we only pay them minimum wage while we gain more money, we often do not envision what it would be like to be them. If we imagine we are them then we can better understand what it is like to experience the world as them. By placing ourselves in their perspective we can then ask, “how does it feel to be the victim?” As superior beings, are we doing the right thing if our adversaries become victims of animosity and ill-treatment? If we were the inferior beings in a negative situation it would be most unlikely that we would consent to such malice, even if it was unintended from the superior being. By placing yourself in the opposing perspective you are better equipped to make well-intentioned moral judgments. Humans must attempt to understand different perspectives so they can recognize how their actions affect other beings and adjust their doings according to what is morally right.
In the first half of my English courses most of my work dealt with hypothetical concepts like the idea in the previous paragraphs, but during the second half of the courses I further researched to understand situations in which humans actually do make mistakes because of their lack of awareness and desire to remain ignorant.
Lack of awareness in the factory farming system is apparent which has been revealed and fought against by animal rights organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Large factory farm corporations realize that their treatment of animals is quite disturbing to consumers, so companies cover up their actions by allowing few visitors into factories and using terminology on food labels that most consumers cannot interpret adequately to notice flaws in the system. When the facts are revealed, people’s blissful ignorance is destroyed, causing them to feel shame for allowing factory farming to increase in size. For example, DoSomething.org reveals that most consumers do not know that “egg-laying hens are sometimes starved for up to 14 days, exposed to changing light patterns and given no water in order to shock their bodies into molting.” When organizations like DoSomething.org and PETA use shock tactics of gruesome images and statistics of animal cruelty within the factory farming system, consumers realize that most of their consumption is directly linked to the continuation of brutality.
When we become aware of the negative impact our consumption has on other creatures then we finally see opportunity for change. However, because more often we are not adequately informed, we often do not make appropriate decisions while consuming meat products which ignites shame in us when we find out the drawbacks of our consumption. Therefore, we need to make the effort to see from the animals’ perspective to understand that our benefit causes them direct suffering.
“When people feel guilt about a specific behavior, they experience tension, remorse, and regret… [which] typically motivates reparative action — confessing, apologizing, or somehow repairing the damage done” (Tangney).
Guilt is a powerful tool for invoking confession of wrongdoings and obligation for change. However, most humans do not want to admit their continued mistakes because it may impede on their own benefit. Therefore, many people desire to remain ignorant to the issues they cause. If they do not know there is a problem then they claim they have no moral obligation to fix it. The real problem is that people need to admit their faults in order to make ethical decisions about their actions.
From the first Gulf War, photographer Kenneth Jarecke captured an image of an incinerated Iraqi soldier who failed to evacuate from a burning truck. So horrific and shocking, the dead soldier no longer resembled a human being.
Receiving overwhelming amounts of criticism, David Walker claimed it was “the photo that nobody wanted to see.” The public perceived the publication of the photo as a pessimistic view of reality, preferring to dismiss the negative image in a “see no evil” and “ignorance is bliss” mentality. People initially protested the image itself, but later realized that the harsh depiction in the image was worth being criticized. In war, we treat enemies so viciously that we strip them of their human dignity and treat them as lesser beings. Ignorance keeps us engaged in negative involvement. Though it might be challenging to admit privilege and fault, acknowledging the truth can catalyze a yearning for moral justice.
Compassion. We all have the capacity for empathy if we become aware of our surroundings and experience the world through other perspectives. True success positively impacts many lives, not just your own. When we accept the existence of problems and assume responsibility, we can sympathize for the victims affected from our selfish ways. So I urge us all to go beyond ourselves while striving for success. Go beyond yourself to imagine the possibilities, reach out your heart, and use compassion as the genuine measure of success.
Godfrey-Smith, Peter. “On Being an Octopus.” Boston Review . Web. 9 June 2014.
Gray, Thomas. “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.” Thomas Gray Archive. Ed. Alexander Huber. Web. 9 June 2014.
Kennedy, Liam. “Framing Compassion.” History of Photography 36.3 (2012): 306-14. Print.
Robertson, Lori. “Images of War.” American Journalism Review Oct. 2004: 45-51. Print.
Tangney, June. “After Committing a Crime, Guilt and Shame Predict Re-Offense.” Association for Psychological Science, 11 Feb. 2014. Web. 07 Apr. 2014.
Wallace, David Foster. “This is Water.” Kenyon College. Gambio, Ohio. 21 May, 2005. Commencement Address.
“11 Facts About Animals and Factory Farms.” DoSomething.org. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.