Anyone actively engaged in a cause will surely be asked at some point whether they might be doing something else better with their time? For me in particular, I have been asked why I was in the anti-war movement when there are people starving in the streets of Washington, DC, as one example. More recently, I have been asked why I have been involved with promoting the cause of the buffalo in and around Yellowstone when surely there are other things that are more seriously wrong in the world. This sentiment has been expressed to me in comments to one of my recent essays, and its sentiments are urged in the closing chapter of a popular Yellowstone fly fishing Web site.
The question, then, is whether what we care about is as serious or as important as something else we might otherwise be doing?
Along those same lines, in terms of the buffalo issue itself, we see success as a line we can make progress towards one step a time. Just last week, the Governor of Montana - Brian Schweitzer -and the Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park - Suzanne Lewis - alongside the Church Universal & Triumphant (CUT), as well as allied mainstream environmental groups (National Wildlife Federation, National Parks Conservation Association, Montana Wildlife Federation, and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition), announced a deal where in exchange for $2.8 million, CUT would sell their cattle and lease grazing rights to 25 (and in later years 100 buffalo) for part of the year to Yellowstone's buffalo population (which has been shrunk dramatically from 4,700 to less than 2,300 over the course of the winter). Those buffalo would be tested for brucellosis, fitted with vaginal transmitters, and then forced back into the park after a certain date. A spokesperson for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition has called this an imperfect but "good step."
Is this a good step, or is there something else we might be doing? It's the same question. As an advocate for buffalo but a critic of the deal announced last week, how can I answer that I should be acting on behalf of Yellowstone buffalo but reject that we should be taking this route?
This essay aims to answer both. The common thread that clarifies how we should look at this is a rejection of basing our ethical decisions on utilitarianism, or the belief that we should always "act for the greatest good for the greatest number."
On the face of it, one cannot easily reject doing the greatest good for the greatest number. Doing good should be good, and the more good, the better. The problem, of course, is that it's a truism. What is good, what makes it great, and how can one know how to make the good better, for the greatest number of what? To reduce our decisions in life to this maxim tells us absolutely nothing about what we should be doing, how we could figure that out, or for whom we should be acting.
Is the greatest good common sense? Do we know what the good entails? For the classical utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the greatest good was to be grasped by the happiness principle. By "happiness," Bentham and Mill took it to be the same as pleasure. Yet, we haven't really moved further. Pleasure is either so broad as to be meaningless or so specific that there's no way of knowing whether maximizing it is good.
The problem with identifying our actions simply with the "greatest good for the greatest number" is that we can have no idea what that means except in specific contexts where good is defined. If we are playing baseball, the batter's greatest good is not making an out, for instance. Yet, life is not baseball. What is the rulebook or definition of "the good"? In the end, utilitarianism doesn't take us any further toward the basic ethical question. What is good, and what is it should I be doing? How will I know that what I do is good?
A lot of people are very sure they have a sense of what is more or less serious, more or less good. We hear all the time that those who gave their life (or killed in war) for a greater cause have done something more noble than those who have received the supposed benefits of their action. We hear that great leaders - let's say Abraham Lincoln - who achieve great ends for a great number of people have lived better or more meaningful lives than those who simply live in a world provided as a consequence of those actions. We might get a whiff of Aristotle in the suggestion that that which is nearest the cause is greater than that which is merely a consequence of it. However, most won't resort to Aristotle; they will simply resort to what they take as common sense. For some, people mean more than animals. Americans mean more than Iraqis. The citizen means more than the foreigner. It used to be men meant more than women and whites meant more than blacks, and civilized meant more than uncivilized. The king meant more than his people. All of these things at some point or other were common sense notions of good. John Locke, for his part, would have argued that the property owner meant more than the property he owned, and so the slave owner meant more than the slave. And, let's be bold here, there are people who work on the buffalo who will argue that the wild animal means more than the domesticated animal - that is, the buffalo means more than the cow. However, others who support livestock interests will say just the opposite.
In truth, very few people argue why their supposedly common sense notions of good mean what they do. They just will be quick to point fingers when they are sure that what you believe in is worth something less than something else. It is very easy to say that something is more serious; there will always be a group who will listen. It's not easy at all to justify it, and it adds nothing to promote a calculus of greatest good for the greatest number when no one can figure out what that means.
So, what is the good? Can we figure out what a greatest good is? I know that there had better be some answer for it or else there is no room for any of us to stand in criticism of the choices of others. We could let the "Judge not lest ye be judged" stand as that. Yet, as actors in this world, we must pass a judgment of sorts, or we would be paralyzed into inaction, which is actually not even possible. Even those who do not seem to move inject an influence on the world by their very inactivity.
One of the few things I have come to realize about ethics - but a profoundly important intuition - is that we must be consistent. Meaning of all kinds depends upon consistency. That is, we must not do things which are grounded in contradiction. The good, if it means anything at all, cannot be identical with the bad. While this limitation on acting seems a trifling thing that hardly limits action at all, in fact contradiction has been at the fore of so many actions.
For instance, positing that one should act for the greatest good for the greatest number but failing to provide any meaning that would allow the maxim as serving as the basis for action is contradictory. It cannot be done because it is meaningless, and one cannot be called to do that which one cannot make sense.
However, more seriously, insisting that there are greater and lesser types of beings is one of the contradictions on which human society has been based. It is one thing to say that most humans will in fact favor those of their own kind, which is simply an observation. It's another thing altogether to say that they should, and that society should be constructed by the different beings that humans tend to value. People tend to value their dogs and cats but not as much as their boys and girls, and so some say we should generalize that tendency and make a social and ethical hierarchy based on that. Yes, ranchers value their cows for the livelihood they bring to them, their family and their loved ones, but is that a reason for banishing buffalo behind the borders of Yellowstone National Park? Yes, wildlife lovers value free moving wildlife, but is that a reason to uproot people and their way of life? We do not know that the cow is more sacred than the buffalo or vice versa. We cannot pretend to construct values based on those we perceive to be greater than others. We do not have any idea what the greatest good for the greatest number is. We don't know who is greatest; we wouldn't know how to construct the world for them if we did.
Yet, knowing that there is something contradictory in our social constructs, we know right off that this is not something we should be doing. It may not tell us exactly what we should be doing, but we do have very clearly knowledge of some of the injustice in the world.
But, having knowledge of injustice does not tell us what injustice is more unjust. One contradiction is the same as any other, in terms of being contradictory. There are not "more blatant" contradictions. Anyone who says that does not understand what a contradiction is. And, while some contradictions may affect more of certain kinds of beings (like World War II killed at least 50 million people, or the Holocaust killed 6 million Jews, or the genocide of American Indians wiped at least 95% of indigenous Indians from the earth), identifying the quantity of a particular kind affected with the level of injustice stills falls prey to the trap of prejudicing one kind of being over another.
As Martin Luther King Jr. once said in his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," an "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." This is not simply a quaint statement; it's because logically, it follows. In logic, one contradiction implies the truth of every other. That is, one contradiction holding true destroys the very fabric of truth, and this can be described very easily in logic. In a world where any injustice is tolerated as permissible, all others follow.
Yet, injustice is everywhere. Humans are finite. There is no way for them to be everywhere and fight everything. Every human will make choices about the injustices they will speak out against. So, while every injustice is connected, each being who can recognize injustice must necessarily choose particular injustices to combat. Our only guide are our emotions and experience, none of which are subject to judgment. We will roam as we are inclined to move. Where we are moved, where we recognize injustice, the good thing is to take action against it. Whatever that means, it means at the very least that we must be consistent and fight inconsistency.
So, why the buffalo? Why is the buffalo a cause for justice, but the cause of the livestock owners who are protecting their investment not a cause for justice? If wild buffalo is not necessarily any better than the domesticated cow, why choose one over the other? First of all, no one should be taking action on those utilitarian terms. A better reason for standing for the buffalo is that there has never been a good reason to stop them from moving outside of Yellowstone National Park. The reason they have been denied their movement has been because the livestock industry has historically enforced the notion that the land is better used for agriculture than it is for allowing wild animals to move, especially those animals that directly compete for grazing lands. That is, our current situation does not arise from asserting the greater good of buffalo over public lands but from directly the opposite - the assumption that buffalo are a detriment to the greater good. That being contradictory, an affront on reason, an arrogant assertion of ownership over land for a particular purpose, standing for the buffalo is a direct rebellion against the mindset that put them caged into Yellowstone National Park in the first place. Their being stuck there was a product of injustice; their still being stuck there is a product of the very same injustice.
I am drawn to the buffalo for no better reason than life has put them in my way in the Yellowstone that I adore. There's no good or bad in that; it's an emotive response. However, the defense of the buffalo is a defense against an arbitrary boundary, an assertion of a greater good where there isn't. What happens after those boundaries are down, what happens after the rationale disappears is anyone's guess, but the decimation on the basis of a contradiction will be gone.
Likewise, when the environmental groups who have sold out the buffalo alongside the state and federal government promote this as a good step for the buffalo, we must be critical. On what basis is this a good step? It can only mean, if I am right, that this is a good step toward eradicating the unjust boundaries that have created this mess. However, it is not. Twenty-five buffalo will not have more land to roam because they will still be under the arbitrary control of the government, not allowed to stay, and not necessarily allowed to come back. The basic parameters of control remain; only the terms of the boundaries have changed. This only replaces one injustice with another, and so the grounds for fighting it have not changed one bit. It's not a greater good for some number; it's the same injustice faced by us all.
The only way to justify the notion that this is a "good step" is to suggest that this moves the process along in such a way that it will make it more politically reasonable in the future for more buffalo habitat to be accepted. It is as if the buffalo must prove themselves here before they will be allowed. It's the sort of argument that black male suffrage advocates argued against woman suffrage advocates, who told the latter that it's the "black man"'s turn when voting rights were a hot issue after the Civil War. Of course, putting aside that it took women another 50 years to get voting rights, the argument is incoherent. There is nothing for buffalo to prove. They are the victims of an arbitrary assessment of value. And, the only way to call this a "good step" is to make the very same arbitrary assessment of value. It's another inconsistent claim to know what the greatest good is and what the steps are for getting there.
We take steps, we make progress, we move forward, but we do so only when the terms are defined. Whether we are talking about ethics at large or the deal this past week with the buffalo in particular, we do not have a defined good with which we can make the proper measurements.
Until someone can show why advocating for the buffalo is a contradiction, I will continue to do so. From looking at their behavior, we can call to mind a lot. They have values, they protect their loved ones, they have favored foods and favored lands. However, when has a buffalo ever constructed a social and an ethical system based on their movements? They act without pretense of a greatest good for a greatest number. They simply act, and we discern their values and preferences based on how they act. We, however, live in a society based on arbitrary values, and we act based on assumed notions of greater and lesser, which is backwards. Those values are contradictory, and that we know is wrong. The buffalo, among so many other beings, are caught in this injustice. For a lot of autobiographical reasons, I am drawn to this injustice, but I don't pretend that it is the most important thing we should be doing. All working on injustice are working on the same thing.
So, to the extent we can, let's fight against injustice together. And, for those of us drawn to the buffalo, let's be fervent in taking action against what doesn't allow them to roam. That, among other things, means rejecting this deal and all those groups who are trying to make it happen.
***disclaimer: I'm now in a new buffalo advocacy group in Bozeman, Montana (as yet unnamed); this essay is my own and does not necessarily represent the views of the group.***