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The Modern Anti-Conscience

“It won’t make any difference, so why bother?”

The modern social and political (anti)conscience.

There has been an appreciable shift in the past few decades in Australia from action based ethics to outcomes based standards with regard to the nation’s social and political conscience. The moral value of an action is no longer judged deontologically, but by how much difference it will make to society and the world. Therefore, individual responsibility on national and global issues is frequently negated. This transition is most salient in cases of large-scale, systemic abuses and in the widespread disillusionment with the Australian political system.

Take individual consumer ethics, for example. 99 percent of Australians are opposed to animal cruelty, yet around 96 percent regularly eat meat sourced from intensive factory farms and less than one percent of the population adheres to a vegan diet – much less a vegan lifestyle. In Australia, it is legal to castrate and mule (to slice skin off from the rumps of livestock to prevent fly-strike) animals without any pain relief. As a by-product of the egg industry, over 12 million male chicks are gassed or ground up whilst still alive in Australia every year. A pig’s natural lifespan is 10-12 years, but the average age of slaughter is six months; suckling pigs are killed as early as two weeks old. Even “free range” eggs certified by the Australian Egg Corporation Assured can come from farms that cram 10-14 hens into each square metre. Furthermore, many of these animals are intelligent enough to be aware of their own suffering and experience intense boredom, depression and psychological trauma. Adult pigs have the intelligence of three-year old human children and are innately very social animals; dismantling of their natural social hierarchies and systems of intimacy is developmentally and psychologically destructive. Cattle are as, if not more, intelligent than horses and yet in 2010 when a Perth butcher advertised horsemeat for sale he received death threats

Florida_chicken_house Florida chicken house. Image credit: Larry Rana – USDA.

While many people will not be aware these exact facts, it is common knowledge that gruesome animal cruelty comes hand in hand with intensive farming practices. So why do so many turn a blind eye and fail to act? Fundamentally, one individual adopting a vegetarian diet is not a good outcomes based decision. One person removing himself or herself entirely from the system of meat production will not change the world. It will not even change the way meat is produced in Australia. It will do next to nothing. Thus, the modern mentality of “it won’t make any difference, so why bother” intervenes to supersede individual consumer responsibility. For many, the infinitesimally small financial difference made to the meat industry by becoming vegetarian is not sufficient to make it a good teleological action. Even worse, this ethical paradigm is also very absolutist and can disengage people from the issue entirely or abort the consideration of middle-ground responses. As a less extreme alternative to vegetarianism, one can substitute beef or chicken with kangaroo meat (which is sourced almost entirely from wild kangaroos killed as part of wildlife management culls) or eat meat only four days a week. The ubiquity of factory farms is also compounded by the fact that eating meat is so culturally engrained as an acceptable lifestyle that many consumers view meat consumption as the default, passive position not an active ethical choice. While considering the broader context is very important when appraising any socio-economic issue, the trend towards using the question “how much difference will it make?” as a moral guide has allowed consumers to circumvent their own ethical responsibility for financially supporting institutionalised animal cruelty. Consummers forget that both buying and not buying meat have an equivalent financial effect; so if the outcome is equally negligible then one can only judge meat consumption as an act in and of itself. In which case, which is more moral? – being part of a system that mutilates and effectively tortures animals or removing one’s contribution to that system?

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Hog_confinement_barn_interiorIntensive pig farming. 

The same removal of individual morality is also present in the Australian political system, and is visible in the recent public disillusionment with the major parties and with the preferential system itself. Particularly, voters from safe seats often feel that voting is meaningless because it won’t make a substantial difference. To use our current Foreign Minister as an example, Julie Bishop has held the Western Australian seat of Curtin since 1998. In the last election she received 62.1 percent of the first preference vote and the Liberal win emerged as 67.4 percent after preferences were counted. She is the only female member of a cabinet that is planning to cut billions of dollars to welfare finding whilst spending $24 billion on 58 fighter jets and $243.8 million over four years to put chaplains in schools in place of qualified psychologists. The Greens’ Judith Cullity, on the other hand, received only 15.3 percent of the first preference vote. Her party supports marriage equality, equal pay for men and women, efficient, high speed public transport, and investment in renewable energy. From an outcomes based ethical standpoint, there is no difference between a resident of the electorate voting for Julie Bishop or Judith Cullity; the result will be the same. However, a vote is still a gesture of support whether or not it makes an appreciable difference, and can be morally judged based on one’s own standards. If one is passionate about gender and marriage equality, one’s vote for the Green’s becomes an ethical imperative based on one’s own values on social justice. Likewise, if one ardently supports the decriminalisation of euthanasia for the terminally ill, voting for the Australian Sex Party in the senate is a deontologically good action. This vote may not bring about new legislation (the Sex Party received less than two percent of the vote in 2014), but it is still a symbol of support and will contribute in a small way to the Sex Party’s continued funding and campaigning. One cannot always look to substantial external signifiers for one’s moral direction; sometimes the only difference between right and wrong is one’s own conscience.

March in March Melbourne 2014: Image credit: Mike Lowe.

This shift towards basing one’s ethical standards on macro-economic and macro-political effects is manifestly a result of globalisation and population explosion. In a world of 7.046 billion people, one feels incredibly insignificant and that one’s own actions matter very little. Furthermore, many modern injustices are global problems in which hundreds of countries and international corporations – by act or inertia – participate. However, we should not allow our individual moral judgement to be subsumed by a teleological social and political (anti)conscience. Our ethics should not be paralysed by the magnitude of the modern world; we need to adapt, as we always have, to the situation in which we find ourselves. One’s actions as a consumer still financially support certain industries over others, and one’s vote is still counted, even if it doesn’t count significantly. Our actions may not seem to matter to the world at large but they can still change things, either in a very small way or simply to oneself. We need to stop asking ourselves “how much difference will this make?” and start asking “is this a good thing to do?”

Annathea Curry is a First Class Honours graduate from the University of Western Australia, with a BA in English and History.  In a family of entomologists, psychiatrists, doctors, physiotherapists and engineers she is the literary exception.

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