2014-08-08

How Does Art Help?



Bridge over a pond of water lilies

Claude Monet
1899

Discussions of art in The Philosopher's Mail take a self-help approach, in the best sense of that term, toward the aesthetic. Art does matter, and people daily pay a high price for the dearth of quality art in their environment. It's well to have this loss pointed out, and a richer way of living suggested.

Six works of art that could help you live

How does art change us? I'd say that life experience changes us, and that art provides life experience.

Thanks to Sophocles, for example, we don't need to wait for dramatic things to happen to us in life in order to be changed. We can watch a tragic play and, through sympathy with the characters and situations, be changed in that way. We get some of the same benefit as if we had lived through the protagonists' experience ourselves. When real life tests us later it finds us a bit readier, a bit better rehearsed. In this way art can help us grow up a little faster. We possess a greater maturity than we otherwise might have at a given moment, thanks to our richer experience.

I'm wary, though, of putting too neat a label on the boon. Fine art, like most of our life experience, is not utilitarian. Monet and Debussy didn't set to work with the goal of lifting my mood or teaching me tidy moral lessons the way a nurse might offer me aspirin. Fine art is no more utilitarian in its purpose than a natural disaster or a good friend is. These things just are. Still, when we experience art, and disasters, and friends, we do learn.

When we open ourselves to experience, when we allow the new to go into us, we may never be able to say in words all that this new content encompasses. But that's OK, says art (and life). Some of our most profound realisations defy being put into words at all.

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2014-07-20

Eagle



I can still draw it. Happy anniversary!

2014.07.20
felt-tip pen on whiteboard
© Alton Thompson 唐博敦
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O Farther Sail!


O, vast Rondure, swimming in space!
Cover’d all over with visible power and beauty!
Alternate light and day, and the teeming, spiritual darkness;
Unspeakable, high processions of sun and moon, and countless stars, above;
Below, the manifold grass and waters, animals, mountains, trees;
With inscrutable purpose—some hidden, prophetic intention;
Now, first, it seems, my thought begins to span thee.
 ....

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

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with warm regards to Samuel Jones
composer of The Seas of God
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2014-06-05

1001 Nights

My first electronic book is now available:


This book offers a short story retelling of the Shahrazad legend from the classic One Thousand and One Nights (also known as The Arabian Nights). This brief version can be enjoyed when reading in silence, yet lends itself to presentation by live storytellers. It stands on its own, yet also makes a good effect when read as a spoken introduction to an orchestral performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade.

Smashwords makes 1001 Nights available in a variety of formats. Look for it soon in Amazon, Android, Apple and Barnes & Noble stores.

I hope you'll give it a look. I priced the book at the minimum: US$0.99.

ISBN: 9781311719171
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2014-05-18

Google Glitch

At the moment this blog is give me a little trouble with display. The material that normally appears in the side column when viewed in a full-page browser—search and subscription tools, contact information and links—is being pushed below the posts.

I've tried to create a template that works. No luck so far. Until things improve, my apologies for the inconvenience.
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Florida State Seminoles: Leading Lady

We Florida State alums have been talking quite a bit lately about logos and attendant art work. This seems a good time to offer a suggestion for adding a new touch of elegance to a lady I have always admired: the icon of women's athletics.


Florida State had a distinguished history as a women's school through the first half of the twentieth century, and the first national titles the co-ed university earned were in women's sport. The logo adopted for use by women's athletics has been popular since its inception. Here's the design by the original artist that was adopted by the university:


Circles and ovals interact in a stylish way that leads the eye around the image and back to the face. In the hair strands the circles spin out into Art Nouveau curls. What's not to like?

Well, for me, just that single word State. As an identifier it's hardly distinctive. There are many states. Fortunately, the school has long since abandoned that approach, preferring to identify itself on the international stage with more informative constructions like Florida State and FSU.

The school's recent development of a uniform pattern based on traditional Seminole patchwork offers a chance to retire that lackluster detail. Going with the so-called 'heritage pattern' in the headband gives the lady a more realistic and elegant look. Happily, the central symbol in the patchwork pattern implies both an F and an S.

Here's the lady again, with my recommended update:


Just a suggestion, for the good of the order. Go, Seminoles.

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2014-05-10

News from Taiwan

HUALIEN COUNTY

Today the mountains near Taiwan’s east coast are growing even taller. The ravines are being carved even deeper. Mountain springs and rainfall send water cascading down hillsides. It drops off cliffs from skyscraper heights and splashes into streams. It polish chunks of rock into rounded stones as it rushes past boulders the size of urban buildings standing on the riverbanks.  The water rushes to the Pacific Ocean as the boulders attest to violent earthquakes that dislodged them from their original perches in mountainside far above and away.






This is Taroko Gorge.


Today the residents go about their business as their ancestors did millions of years in the past. Spiders construct silk traps in the shade of tree-sized ferns. Beetles sip dripping water from leaves. Birds tend to their young.


None of this is to suggest that Taroko has not seen dramatic changes. 250 million years ago only ocean existed here. Layers of sediment lay flat on its floor. As forces under earth's crust pushed the Pacific plate into the Eurasian plate, the seafloor buckled and rose. The resulting underwater mountain range continued to rise until its peaks broke the ocean's surface. That mountain range, known today as the island of Taiwan, continues its rise as you read.



Taiwan's peaks are today the highest in Asia east of the Himalayas. Powerful forces continue to shape the land.


Recently—seven thousand years ago or so—human beings approached the island.


They had taken to sea with no instruments of navigation. They knew ocean currents, knew how to navigate on overcast days and moonless nights, knew when land lay beyond the horizon. Using an Austronesian language, they passed their seafaring know-how from one generation to the next through songs and rituals.


They landed on the beaches. When they scouted the terrain, they found Taroko Gorge.






The new arrivals settled along the island's coasts and rivers. Their languages eventually gave names to Taiwan and to the gorge settled by the Truku people. Their descendants call the area home today.


As you read, Taroko’s geckos chirp in search of mates, caring not at all that a well-known sports figure just got fired. The boulders stand unmoved by fluctuations in interest rates. Heedless of new developments in mobile computing, Taroko’s residents today renew their ancient pursuits.


We generally don't like being made to feel small. Yet when one of nature’s cathedrals puts us in our place, the experience can be liberating.





Thousands of years hence, long after we and our daily concerns have disappeared, Taroko's waters will continue their rush to the sea, and its mountains their climb to the skies.



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Story and Images: © Alton Thompson
Model: Mandy Weng 

2014-02-13

Barber's 'Knoxville' as Mixed Media

New technology makes possible new artistic creations. Musicians have long grown accustomed to mining the vein of other art works for material. Composers have adapted poems and plays to the causes of song and opera. Increasingly, we musicians are finding our own medium mined. Musical musical works--complete in themselves--drawn upon as material for dance, film and visual art.

Regardless of which direction we go--bringing art works into music or exporting music into other art works--the basic questions for art remain the same. The resulting works are new works in their own right. Each is simultaneously both more and less than the original work it draws upon--and equally valid as a creation.

For my money, 'valid' is a word that deserves more of a workout than it gets. Passions over personal likes and dislikes regarding beauty run high everywhere--and nowhere do they run higher than among those who have dedicated their lives to art. That's why validity is such a useful term.

The word says nothing of personal likes or dislikes (though some may mistake it for that). Validity just says that a thing has its place in the world. It has its integrity. It's a legitimate endeavour. Acknowledging as much is exactly that--acknowledgment. Personal affinities are another subject.


James Agee wrote a prose piece in 1938 entitled 'Knoxville: Summer of 1915'. In it, an adult narrator reflects on a memory from childhood. The art form is literature--a medium of written and spoken words.

Agee's piece stood on its own. It did not need anything from any other medium to help it makes its intended effect. Still, Samuel Barber set Agee's text to music in 1947. In doing so he created a new art work. His 'Knoxville' is an art song for a singer and chamber orchestra. The medium is mixed. It is music that incorporates literature.

We are each experts on what we like and dislike. There is nothing to debate on that subject, as each of us is already correct.

 The path of reasoned discussion, though, opens up some new possibilities. We may notice some things together and find that we can make some worthwhile general observations. That in turn may bring us real personal benefit and open us to new possibilities.

---

'A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt: a loud auto: a quiet auto: people in pairs, not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually, the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard, and starched milk...'

Agee's description is vivid. It's easy to understand how the imagination of a composer would find inspiration in words like this.

At the same time it's plain that Agee's text hardly requires 'enhancement' to make it come alive. We can enter the scene easily just from what Agee tells us. His work is complete. It doesn't need music. 

Barber added music anyway.

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Q. How does Barber's 'Knoxville' offer more that Agee did?
A. By offering music as well as words.

That's an obvious statement, of course. And it just goes to show that not everything we say about art can ultimately be punted away as a matter of opinion. That in itself is worth observing.

 ---

Q. How does Barber's 'Knoxville' offer less that Agee did?
A. By limiting our experience of Agee's words to Barber's treatment of them.

Other readings are possible. Our own inward voices, as we read the words, will create their own take on the text. Actors reading Agee's words aloud would make different choices about pace, tone, and emphasis. Any number of composers could make their own settings of Agee's text. Agee's prose could inspire painters and sculptors or dancers. The same situation would apply: each artist would have choices to make. Each artist would make different choices.

Musicians are well acquainted with this phenomenon. The same situation obtains when different performers render a work of music. Each interpreter offers a perspective. And that's OK. Great works allow different perspectives. No single performance gets all angles.

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Q. Is Barber giving us Agee's 'Knoxville'?
A. He's giving us a 'Knoxville' that is a combination of Agee's and his own.

The new art work is simultaneously more and less than what it was before.

Here's how Agee describes the family: 'One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me.'

Straight exposition. Four people, four identifying statements. The rhythm is balanced, the tone matter-of-fact. Is that how Barber sets it? Not quite.

Barber follows Agee's straightforward approach for three family members but singles out one for special treatment. At the mention of that person, the pace lingers as a warm surge wells in the strings. A statement that was balanced with Agee is a bit lopsided with Barber. Barber no doubt tells it as he feels it. One could fairly decide, though (and Agee might), that his music at that moment works a bit against the text.

It's a detail that goes to show how an art work created by adaptation and combination becomes a new work in its own right. We find something of one creative mind and something of another. There is a collaboration that results in an alchemy, a synthesis of these visions.

Another composer could set the text differently. A composer could treat all four family members the same as Agee does, or single out another family member, or combination of family members, for the extra touch of espressivo. The choice would be no less valid than Barber's for being different.

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Q. Which art work--Agee's or Barber's--creates its own world?
A. Both do, even as they both invite us to a better experience of the world in which we live.

All art inhabits an artistic space. Inside this space the ordinary world does not intrude. The events and objects in this space are artistic events and objects. We set off this special artistic space from the ordinary space around it by using a frame.

All of us are familiar with this feature in visual art. Inside the frame lies the world of the painting, outside the frame lies the world of museums and restrooms and tour guides and taxicabs. In a theatre the edges of the stage, the curtain, and the lowering of house lights help to define the boundary between the normal world and the world of the art.

In the case of Agee's text, the blank margin around the printed words might act as the frame. In the case of a reading, the silence that precedes and ends the reading would mark the boundary. In the case of Barber's combination work, the frame will be the silence that begins and ends a performance of the piece.

After we inhabit an artistic space for a while and contemplate the world we find in that space, we are returned to the everyday world outside the frame. If all goes well, we return having gained some insight, some revelation, some new thing of value for having made our artistic journey. We return with a boon. We may not be able to put into words exactly how we have gained, but we return to the mundane world richer for the time we have spent with art.

Time is life. Art, in taking some of our time and giving meaning to that time, becomes itself an aspect of life. The experience of Agee's 'Knoxville' was a feature of Barber's life just as surely as Agee's childhood memories were a feature of his. That's why Barber can make his own art about it. Life experiences have always been material for art.

---

Q. Is Barber giving us a 'pure' literary experience?
A. No. Agee did that.

Q. Is Barber giving us a 'pure' musical experience?
A. No. His music incorporates literature.

Q. Is Barber giving us a 'pure' multimedia experience?
A. Yes.The media he mixes are literature and music. The result is pure multimedia.

That addresses the matter of purity, for anyone concerned about purity.

All art is pure that gives us a pure artistic experience.

---

We've just examined a case in which the original art work consisted of words and someone added music. The issues and trade-offs remain essentially the same, though, if we begin with music and add dance, instead. Or with a stage play and add music, or with a novel and add film treatment, or with music and add visual art, or with visual art and add music, or with a folk tale and add music and ballet.

In each case the result will be a new work. The result will be a multimedia work. Any success it achieves will be due to the alchemy that occurs in multimedia works when sincere creative minds respond in genuine ways to existing works of art.

Notice that this discussion has not touched on likes and dislikes. Our shared observations don't depend on personal approval. They are not rationalisations of likes and dislikes. One may or may not like what Agee did or Barber did. Personally, I'm glad we have both. But regardless, we've shared observations from experience that have a good chance of standing.

That's the value of reasoned discussion. It gives us a chance to move past personal affinities and, while not negating our personal responses, maybe say something of worth about more general features of human experience.

As musicians we can get possessive about our medium of choice. We can say no one should mine music for material. But nothing fuels a creative mind like a prohibition. Creative minds are rarely slowed down for long by words like 'should.'

It's best to make peace with it: multimedia art has always been with us, it has already brought us many joys we would never willingly do without, and there is more to come. The inventive minds of the future will continue to enrich human existence in ways that today we can scarcely imagine.

Here's wishing everyone a happy Valentine's Day.

2014-02-03

A Kinder Capitalism

A problem being faced in my native country right now is a rigidly ideological laissez-faire philosophy that has come into fashion. It finds voice on the Net.

The statutory minimum wage in the States is currently 7.25 USD per hour; a recent proposal is to raise it to 10.10. Here is an argument an opponent of the proposal—let us call him Mr Snyder—made in a forum recently.

As Adam Smith said, two individuals will not enter into an agreement with each other unless they both believe that it will be beneficial to them.  Once they have reached an agreement what gives you or anyone else the right to change that agreement?  What makes you more special than the rest of us?

Notice the argument Mr Synder is not making. He is not saying that the current proposal on the table is an impractical idea at this particular point. He is saying all laws regulating employment conditions are illegitimate. Once two parties have agreed to a contract, no one has the 'right' to change step in and change the expectations.

My response follows.

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As you know, Mr Snyder, slavery is an extreme form of exploitation. But slavery is not the only form exploitation takes. Sometimes exploitation takes the form of a voluntary contract between two parties.

Extremity, misfortune, lack of options, desperation—these ongoing realities you cheerfully ignore. Sensible people take note of reality. And they see that some realities compel people to sign contracts that are lopsided.

Adam Smith understood this. People who quote him? Not always.

History shows that people in positions to take advantage of the desperate often do. When money stands to be made, the admonishment of conscience to treat another as one would be treated is often a poor enforcer. Those who exploit others are not bad people, understand. They just have pressures of their own. They must beat the competition. They must keep costs down. They are running businesses, not charities.

How 'free' is a lopsided agreement entered into by a person with little bargaining power? As free as any agreement can be that one makes with an ax at one's neck.
_

A time existed in Europe and its territories when workers, for lack of alternatives, 'freely' agreed with their employers to labour for long hours in dangerous jobs for very low pay. The pay was so low that supporting a family on the income proved impossible. The employers magnanimously began employing their workers' children as well. So off the children went to work long hours in dangerous factories, in the process missing out on their chances at an education or any sort of childhood we would recognise as proper. The children would grow up to continue working in factories as they lacked skills for anything else. They would need to send their own children to work in turn, and the pattern would repeat for generations.

Workers who got injured, as many did, lost their jobs. There was no insurance, there were no pensions. Permanently disabled workers faced bleak prospects. Their wives would often turn to domestic service if they could, to prostitution if they couldn't, or to begging in streets if they could do neither.

Now, you can argue (as you may be sure factory owners of the time did) that these working families still reaped some benefits from all this. Weren't they paid wages? Didn't they get to eat? Didn't they enjoy honest employment rather than sinking to the level of thieves and beggars? Weren't they free to leave their jobs for other jobs? You could, if you want, call the arrangement ideal. Everything about it was the result of pure business logic.

Many people at the time, horrified, called the arrangement other things. William Blake shared his word for it in a poem titled 'Jerusalem'. Referring to a legend that Jesus of Nazareth had visited the British Isles as a boy, Blake asks:
And did the countenance divineShine forth upon these clouded hills?And was Jerusalem builded hereAmong these dark Satanic mills?
That was Blake's word for what he saw. Satanic.

Years later a philosopher, Karl Marx, looked upon an industrial situation that was little improved. Like Blake he was appalled. Marx decided the answer was to do away with profit altogether. Workers would have to band together, overthrow their employers, and take direct control of industry. As Marx imagined it, this would launch a new society with no bosses or governments; needs would be met spontaneously by selfless workers in a classless society. His vision was too utopian to be realistic, but Marx's dream was a comforting one in a world of nightmares on every side. And it has proven seductive.

Marx's biggest mistake, though, was this: he underestimated the power of open societies to reform themselves. As democracy took root, and with it an independent press, discussion continued about the factories. Outrage built and led to changes. People decided that cruel exploitation was a blight on a community. They saw that the waste of human potential was waste for which all paid a price.

Laws were enacted to limit hours in the work week, pay overtime rates to those who voluntarily took on more work, compensate the injured and disabled, outlaw child labour, and pay a minimum wage.

No worker, the community decided, should have to put his children to work in a mill in order to pay for food and a roof. The community found it reasonable to expect business owners to pay workers enough for their hard work that they could manage to stay out of desperate poverty. Any business that could not afford to do this much could damn well fail, and good riddance. Let those businesses take the lead who best meet human needs.
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Which bring us to today. The people who are talking about a living wage have paid attention to the lessons of history.

I notice that your opposition, Mr Snyder, is not to this or that hike amount, but to the idea of having a wage floor at all. You really are advocating a no-protection-for-anyone, let-owners-do-as-they-will society.

Unfortunately, Mr Snyder, your way of doing things has been tried. Previous generations saw that business will ever and only do what is good for business. It is up to a community to do what is best for a community.

You tell us we need more Satanic mills. We choose instead our bows of burning gold, our arrows of desire, our spears as clouds unfold, our chariots of fire.

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2013-12-25

One Picture

Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available—once the sheer isolation of the Earth becomes known—a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.
– Sir Fred Hoyle, British astronomer, 1948

In my earliest childhood, when we were taught that the earth is round, it meant the earth was limitless. There is no edge to fall from, as people in centuries past had imagined. You can travel around the world and never stop. The scenery will start repeating but your journey can go on and on. Where people in the past imagined a finite world, modern people like us knew a world that was boundless and ever renewing.

The pictures of earth we saw in our textbooks were necessarily artists' renderings. The planet looked like a flat disk with large areas of brown and green, like a map with borders and labels missing. A few wisps of white appeared here and there to suggest clouds. Space on every side of the disk teemed with comets and stars and other celestial objects.

Then the first photos came back from Apollo 8.

Copies sprouted everywhere. Every classroom had a portrait of the earth posted in the front. Eyes of young and old were drawn to what they saw.

Who could look away? Everything about that world was new and surprising: its brightness, its aquatic blues, its dynamic swirls . . . and all that black, all around.



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Image courtesy of NASA

2013-11-27

Believing the Unbelievable

Glad to see this article by the always worthwhile Michael Shermer:
'Why We Believe the Unbelievable' in the Los Angeles Times. Shermer examines the role of cognitive dissonance, monological system of belief, and confirmation bias in the never-ending stream of far-fetched conjectures about the Kennedy assassination.

I'm glad to see Shermer's mention of a facet of these things I've also observed: cognitive dissonance. The emotions have their own irrational 'logic.' One feature of it is expecting big shocks to have big causes.

When JFK is killed millions of people were thrown into shock.

Realistically, it makes all the sense in the world that a lone assassin could make that happen. The fewer people in on the plot, the better his chances of success. Anonymity works to his advantage while fame works to the disadvantage of his target. The imbalance enables him to gather information about his prey's whereabouts while his prey remains unaware that he even poses a threat.

But emotions rebel at the imbalance. A single malicious, insignificant person has the power to throw the world into such chaos? No way. Great pain must have great cause.

It's much more acceptable—even consoling—to the emotions to believe it takes all the king's men—Mafia, Communists, CIA, political rivals, Evil Overlords from the Middle Ages—plotting for months to get a thousand unlikely things to come together and make such a thing happen. One may cling to the feeling that events, if not under the control of good people, are at least under the control of someone somewhere. With luck, maybe our shadowy overlords won't let things like this happen every day. After all, these things are so much work to plan.

So hope the emotions. The universe, though, is notoriously indifferent to our emotions and does not respond readily to supplications.

Reality: the world is run by a giant committee that never meets and has no mutually held goals. Each one of us is on that committee. So is each person we meet. So is each animal, rock, and cloud.

In 1963 JFK was on that committee, as was Oswald, as was everyone on the parade route. Each individual knew the big picture about as well as you or I. And each affected it.

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2013-11-25

The Vegan Wars, or, But won't someone think of the pigs?

Another happy hour at the local tavern, another debate. This one began with vegan friends pointing out the inconsistency of treating some animals as pets and others as meat sources. It trailed off when the same vegans found it hard to defend their concerns over the treatment of farm animals given their lack of similar concern for the well-being of cockroaches, gnats and blood flukes.

For what it's worth, here's my take.


Two personal approaches that work

Science tells us that our primate ancestors were originally vegetarian and subsequently evolved the ability to eat meat. This expanded diet has been part of the way hominids do things for roughly a million years or more. Structurally, though we are omnivores, we operate as apex predators in every ecosystem we inhabit. That's thanks to our cerebrums, which have evolved in a highly specialised way. Thanks to those same cerebrums, we are likely the first apex predators on our planet to raise the questions we do about sustainability, biodiversity, and ethics.

Given this situation, I'm satisfied that two approaches merit the respect of any fair-minded person.  Both recognise that the decision is personal.

Vegan: 'I choose not to eat meat because eating meat is not a necessity for my survival and I prefer to eliminate as much suffering from the world as possible. Nature deserves respect.'

Carnivore: 'I choose to eat meat because my strong instinct to do so evolved over many millennia for good reasons. Nature deserves respect. No apex predator causes unnecessary suffering to prey.'

In each case you have a personal choice based on respectable priorities.


Two ideological approaches that don't work

Two approaches don't work. Both are encountered fairly often.

The first is moral absolutism. As we've noted, the lines concerning animal treatment are personal. One works with one's own instincts, drives, and comfort levels. All lines that people draw, vegan and non-vegan alike, will show an arbitrary quality under close inspection.

It's always a bad idea to insist on a moral standard that is not only impossible for any individual to meet but stigmatises already well-developed instincts. The result will not be consistent or even erratic behavioural change. All one has done (if manages to put one's pitch over) is increase the amount of unnecessary guilt and hypocrisy in the world. Neither is something we need more of.

The second unworkable argument is 'rights' beyond our species. If rights are regarded as an interspecies absolute, we have the impossibility of consistency already noted. If I am to be arrested for eating a chicken, what about the fox that eats a chicken? If our argument is not based on rights as moral absolutes, but as features of the democratic social contract, we have a different problem: the social contract is an intraspecies, not an interspecies, arrangement. It helps individual members of the species Homo sapiens get along; other creatures couldn't care less.

I can say, if I wish, 'Citizen Crocodile, I recognise your rights to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and association, and redress of your grievances. In return I expect you to respect mine.' But she won't listen to any of that—and if she's hungry, I'm lunch.

To talk as if animals are fellow citizens of our republic is an anthropomorphism. The real issue is respect of nature, including respect of the other creatures with whom we share our planet. It's understandable that when urging others to show respect we might use the language of 'rights.' It's a habit we have. It sounds good (as long as listeners don't listen too closely) to speak of animals as one might speak of cruelly exploited migrant workers or unjustly incarcerated democracy activists. The problem is that the analogy doesn't work. The crocodile, as Job knew, will not make a covenant with us. She as her own ways of handling interspecies encounters. And she's hardly alone.


Ultimately, we're left with respect of nature and respect for personal choices. Personal choices will differ.

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