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Hi, my name is Jim Macdonald, and I have an odd assortment of interests. In no particular order, I love Yellowstone, I am an anti-authoritarian activist and organizer, and I have a background in philosophy, having taught at the college level. My blog has a lot more links to my writing and my other Web sites. In Jim's Eclectic World, I try to give a holistic view of my many interests. Often, all three passions show themselves interweaving in the very same blog. Anyhow, I think it's a little different. But, that's me. I'm not so much out there, but taken together, I'm a little unusual.

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    Sunday, April 20, 2008

    Why buffalo and why not the CUT deal? Against utilitarianism

    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.***


    Anonymous Anonymous said...


    How arbitrary are the accepted and contradictory values in this Culture of Make-Believe...

    As an animal activist, I've had people tell me ad nauseum that I should be putting my efforts towards better, more worthy causes (ie causes involving humans). The most ironic example was when I was on an anti-fur protest in front of a Neiman Marcus and women spending their Saturday mornings shopping in a luxury store were telling me and my fellow activists that we should not be wasting our time!

    It's OK for the reasons we are drawn to one cause or another to be arbitrary, but it is not OK for them to be contradictory.

    The rich particularities of our lives are our own, and follow from everything we are, everywhere we've been.

    It is beautiful, and even logical, that in your life with your particular tapestry of experiences, you are working for the buffalo.

    You rock in ways big and small, but always inspiring.


    4/21/08, 6:03 AM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Humans can call 911 animals can't That's a good enough reason for me.

    4/28/08, 12:00 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    This is a total waste of the tax payers money as well as the 13 million the government spent in 1998 buying land from the CUT for the buffalo.

    The park is apparently being managed by morons.... the wolves that cost the taxpayers additonal millions were supposed to keep the buffalo numbers in check. Everyone knew that wouldn't happen instead the population of elk, moose and big horn sheep have been devistated. The starvation of buffalo in the park isn't something I would travel to see.

    4/30/08, 7:31 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Buffalo DO act with a pretense of greatest good. This is evident in their actions towards the sick or wounded of the herd. When a buffalo becomes seriously sick or wounded but attempts to remain in the herd, the herd bulls attack the animal, forcing it down or killing it. Doing so, reduces predadation on the collective herd, protecting the majority.

    Please use your time to do more research regarding the buffalo and their behaviors before advocating a position concerning them.

    5/1/08, 10:16 AM  
    Blogger Jim Macdonald said...

    Perhaps, you missed the point.

    Do buffalo act for something they codify into a moral law called the "greatest good" that they expect all other buffalo and creatures to act upon?

    Or, do they simply act based on the interests they have?

    That's the difference. It's not a point of research; it's a point of understanding the logical fallacy involved in human moral systems, utilitarianism among the chief culprits.

    5/1/08, 12:41 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...


    Mustard Short Ribs

    * 4 lbs. ribs
    * 1/3 c. prepared mustard (I just use regular yellow mustard)
    * 1 T. sugar
    * 2 T. lemon juice
    * t. salt
    * 1/2 t. pepper
    * 2 cloves of crushed garlic
    * 4 medium onions, sliced

    Place buffalo ribs in shallow baking dish. Mix mustard, sugar, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and garlic; pour over the ribs. Top with onions. Cover and refrigerate, turning ribs occasionally, for 4 to 24 hours.

    Place ribs with marinade and onions in Dutch oven or any other oven proof baking dish, and cook at 350 degrees for about 2 hours. Check for tenderness. Cook longer, if necessary, for 10-minute intervals until the ribs are tender.

    *Another way I have used this same recipe is to just put it all in a crock pot and cook for 8-10 hours on low.

    *Instead of the mustard marinade, use your favorite BBQ sauce and spice it up with onions and garlic. There are many different marinades on the market right now that are really good. Have fun experimenting! Enjoy!

    5/2/08, 6:39 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    OR HOW ABOUT . . .

    Buffalo Meat Loaf

    * 2 eggs beaten
    * ½ c. milk
    * ½ c. crushed saltine crackers or Italian bread crumbs
    * ¼ c. dried onion
    * 2 Tbsp. Parsley
    * 1 t. salt½ t. sage
    * 1 ½ lb. Ground Buffalo

    Mix above ingredients well. Pat into a greased loaf pan. Bake for 1¼ hrs. at 325 degrees.

    * ¼ c. ketchup2
    * T. brown sugar
    * 1 t. dried mustard

    Spread over meat loaf and bake another 10 minutes until internal temperature reaches 160 degrees F. (Serves 6-8)

    5/2/08, 6:40 PM  
    Blogger Mike McCord said...

    Wow. I can't believe how open-minded you've become all of a sudden there, Jimmy. I go away for awhile, and now you're letting folks post ways to fricassee buffalo? And letting another post about saving elk?? I commend you, but I'm a bit dumbfounded. Doesn't the elk thing kinda encroach on you're turf? I mean, no one's shooting them every winter when they leave the park, right? Ah well, you never cease to amaze me.

    One thing that bothers me though, you've got some people here kissing your ass and agreeing with you, and you still dismiss some of their comments, or at least, you correct them. Granted, I think they're a bunch of nut-jobs, but that's me. I enjoy being on the top of the food chain, and I prefer not to anthropomorphize my food. So I would think that when it comes to you, you'd just smile and say, "Thankee kindly," instead of, "You're missing the point."

    I don't get it. I don't get it.

    5/2/08, 7:21 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    as an animal rightist, i found it offensive to see buffalo recipes posted here. animal rightists are few and far between, and we need safe spaces, as animals themselves need sanctuaries, when liberated from fur farms and factory farms.

    (while i have read the articles on 'property rights', i will admit that since i personally run sanctuaries for animals i have rescued from the hostile american culture, it turns out to do this i need to endorse property rights as a pratical matter. and for this, ineed money, and so through my real estate company I am now working to privatize anwar to fund my sanctuary.

    As Locke used human 'reason' (which 'jim' (TM) called 'dogma' ('dawg/ma' in dialect) at present we amynal rightists assume totally liberated sanctuary animals who are victims of human oppression differ qualitatively from wild animals, who hence are expendible when we are paving their habitat to build a sanctuary for freed lab mice. The 'greatest good for the greatest number' definately distinguishes greater goods from lesser 'evils'. (I wonder if evil knievel is still up in the air over hell's canyon; what a rough trip through paradise.).

    (wild animals, following Locke, are lower than liberated animals (as Hendrix would have said, they've 'never been experienced'(TM), or as Hahvad historian Orlando Patterson said, without slavery there was no idea of freedom). They typically have no value, unlike cows (apart from a few beaver pelts, or that polecat or whatever it was my neighbors kept telling me to shoot so it would stop eating my frozen salmons, for $45 too!!! (i did explain guns to it with a few blasts and philosophy---'greatest number for the greatest good, and don't touch my salmon (greedy mf ate half my winter stash---up till then it was my pet, which i had to feed). the 45$ was tempting to get my investment back).

    so, i can justify supporting my dependent animals, so far, so long as they do have 'reason' of the Hendrix/Patterson form above that of lower, thieving polecats. humans give them reason and rights, as god gave them to humans (see Peter Singer; they even get court appointed counsel if they can't afford it, and Pell grants). All that anwar oil can fuel some nice warm mouse cribs and AP tests.

    And, as a humyn, i too use 'reasons' and 'rights' to justify why neighbors should leave my sanctuary alone (though they don't want to). It may be fundamental, or pragmatic. (excercize left to reader.) (My sanctuary crib so far has 1 raccoon, 4 squirrels, 3 opposums, and on adjacent property 1 big fox, 1 baby fox who can barely walk, some deers and coyotes. I rescued them---using the 'underground railroad' model, meaning they followed me and took up shop in the crib. Fortunately, my anymals are sufficiently healthy, to support them, i simply point to where they can forage, and they do. (Of course, there is a curfew for ins/outs between 12am/12pm and its enforced, following Zeno's law). If the ANWAR privatization is halted, my prius i use to conduct real estate deals to serve animals will be unusable, so i may have to start charging rent as well as start selling acorns, grubs and trashcan access. i guess i could allus reconsider and open a pet shop, zoo or invite dick cheney to shoot his friends, too. as 'property is theft', so one can allus find a way to make an honest living---where 'honest' is defined by law.)

    however, as an animal rightist (who do have rights to a prius, and tenure in a university or at least a PETA funded plantation----i do refuse to pay anyone who works for me who eats meat or wears leather, damn straight), while 'buffalo wings' i find revoltingly offensive, because humans, as made in the image of God have no relation to animals (see David Berlinski in Commentary Mag on Intelligent Design), they have no such Lockean rationals (apart from animal rights sanctuaries) , and hence, though scorned in 'pc' or polite society, 'cannibalism' is something which is way ok. Any recipes?

    Because my Prius requires its daily diet of corn, to solve the food scarcity problem cannibalism may be the way out. If we ate humans, we would not need to feed them corn, so it could be exported to Haiti and Egypt, to solve hunger. As guns and roses put it, its so easy. I think a similar idea was discovered in the 1880's. Even sustainable 'biofuels' may have a source here (the Germans have been a pioneer in sustainable energy, with 6% of it currently from wind power, and in 1945 they pioneered other ideas; even Jimmy Carter was born again and then did this for solar in the '70's. )

    In, sum, to get to main point, the idea of Martin Luther 'rodney' King that 'an injustice in one place is a threat to justice everywhere' (or whatever the quote is) really I don't think is comparable to logical consistancy---except in one way which is common nowdays.

    First, a 'threat' is not the same as a real thing. People fear eclipses of the moon, terrorist attacks, eternal damnation (in limbo over hell's canyon with no knowledge of whether you reached what 'jim' (TM) morrison called 'the other side') etc. Not all of these 'threats' are 'credible'. (But people do like them, to talk about, emote about...'ohh the injustice, b-tch set me up'.)

    Like 'the good', threats vary from 'greatest' to least. (As noted the underprivildeged, hurt buffalos may need the most help due to threats from the dominants in the buffalo hierarchy----maybe you should deal with that rather than worrying about CUT. Environmentally, litter is a problem in yellowstone too, so maybe a 25$ million grant to pick up (only) camel cigarette butts would be better than CUT leasing---a cost/benefit analyses would be required, itself requiring an NSF grant. I could see earmarks devoted to each cause.)

    People forget injustices, even when they invoke that quote. How many indians work at Yellowstone? do they want or need the jobs (or are they drinking themselves to death on the res)? People can justify their injustices, dance by the lake on the graves of others.

    Justus may be the empirical reality, though the quote sounds good, like utilitarianism, like 'i have a dream, free at last, no money down'. the gift economy of stewardship---god gave it to me, its mine.

    Logically, if one says 'injustice' is like 'truth', then in a consistant logical system an 'untruth' in one place likely leads to untruth everywhere (godel). But in the real world, 'justice' and 'truth' often are temporal.

    There are 'temporal logics' which deny logical consistancy of the sort Godel endorsed as being particularily special or interesting. Resolutions of the 'liar's paradox' for example solve this temporally. 'i am a liar' for example may be 'true' meaning 'i was one' or 'i lied'. its a different logic, no more true nor false than any other. it may be empirically true. (even 'i' is a temporal concept for most lesser, mortal goods.)

    so MLK's statement is as meaningless as utilitarianism's slogan. i hear in new guinea and brazil there may still be cannibals; any injustice is a threat to justice. to save the buffalo, maybe we can get the squids to become vegan.

    anti-utilitarians are just lying or deluded, sortuh like anticapitalists, antiauthoritarians, antistatists etc. of course using temporal logic, these can be valid. one needs the 'metalogic' to know the mind of matter(s).

    5/5/08, 8:58 AM  

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