“We’ve made a civilizational error” – Philosopher John Sanbonmatsu – Sentientism Ep:171

Find our Sentientist Conversation on the Sentientism YouTube here and on the Sentientism Podcast here.

John is a writer, philosopher, cultural critic and magician. He is best known for his book, The Postmodern Prince, and for his more recent work in Critical Animal Studies where he edited the collection “Critical Theory and Animal Liberation“. Also in that field his book “The Omnivore’s Deception: What We Get Wrong about Meat, Animals, and the Nature of Moral Life” will be published by NYU Press in 2024. John was raised in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and received his BA from Hampshire College and his PhD in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He has taught at the University of Illinois Chicago, DePaul University, and the University of California Santa Cruz, and is currently Associate Professor of Philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, where he teaches ethics, politics, existentialism, and other courses.  In his spare time, he performs as a professional magician and mentalist.

In “The Omnivore’s Deception” John argues for complete elimination of the meat, egg, dairy, and fishing industries. He says “However, it is no more a book about veganism than Rosemary’s Baby is a movie about becoming a first-time mom. Rather, it’s about civilizational error. It’s about what happens when we organize society, economy, and daily life around a radical evil, then engage in elaborate self-deceptions to keep the truth of that evil from ourselves.”

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”

Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” In addition to the YouTube video above the audio is on our Podcast here on Apple & here on all the other platforms.

We discuss:

00:00 Welcome

02:10 John’s Intro

– Philosopher

– Critical theorist “begins from the perspective of the world being unfree – and works from there – how do we build a world that is free?”

– “Since a kid I’ve been very interested in justice – social justice for all beings”

– Anti-nuclear weapons movement in college

– Solidarity movement against US interventions in Central America

– “When you become interested in claims of justice – it’s a slippery slope – you broaden yourself out from there”

– Reading Peter Singer‘s “Famine, affluence and morality” (Peter Singer Sentientism episode here) #utilitarianism “we should all give 90% of our income”

– Singer’s “Animal Liberation… turned me into a #vegetarian… got me on this path”

– Growing up in Massachusetts

– “Concerns oriented around liberation and justice”

– Professional magician & mentalism

05:10 What’s Real?

– Brought up Unitarian

– Father “pretty much an atheist”. Mother “Jewish but mostly a secular Jew”. “I kind of think they met in the middle.”

– “The pilgrims would have been horrified by the liberalism of the modern Unitarian church”

– Celebrating Passover “the liberation of the Jews… a narrative about freedom… more general liberation”

– “In the 70’s people believed in psychic phenomena… ferment around supernaturalism… almost animism… maybe there are aliens… maybe the plants are listening to us”

– “#UriGeller was a big inspiration to me at the time… I would spend hours in my room trying to move pennies with my mind”

– “What I thought was real at the time turns out wasn’t real :)”

– Japanese American father “I grew up in a completely white town… I experienced a lot of racism… that experience was real. Ordinary events were shot through with the potential for harm or vulnerability… grounded me… an attentiveness towards suffering – my own suffering and the suffering of other people.”

Charles Mills‘ “Blackness Visible” criticism of Descartes’ cogito ergo sum… “Do I really exist” isn’t a question black people are really asking. “They know they exist because they’re getting beaten up – they’re aware their body is real… it takes a certain privileged position to doubt your corporeal reality”

– “I was getting beaten up as a kid… that was pretty real”

– “When you’re on the outside of a social system or circle… who grew up with trauma or some awareness of how power works… helping them [people in the animal movement] empathise with non-human beings… the ultimate ‘other'”

– Growing up with cats & dogs “that was very significant – my parents really loved our companion animals”

– “As a boy I loved being outside in nature.”

– “We’re in the positivistic, scientistic paradigm of knowing… view sceptically the knowledge we gain from our own bodies, our own senses”

– Merleau-Ponty’s “Phenomenology of Perception”

– “We’ve been knowing the world… for literally hundreds of thousands of years. It’s these bodies of ours that allow us access to the experiences of others through empathy. That’s a capacity that we share with many other beings.”

– “Not feel apologetic about the fact that we have feelings, intuitions, empathic capacities… a kind of sixth sense… to be able to experience vicariously what’s going on with the other”

– “Other animals are empiricists”

– Chimp, corvid, seagull intelligence and knowledge “They are knowers… we’re not the only knowers”

– “We forget these earlier modes… of knowing”

– Post-modernism, critical theory, solipsism, standpoint epistemology, subjective vs. objective truths

– Karl Marx, socialist and anarchist-left thinkers, Hegel

– “The praxis of social movements… revolutionary movements… The theorists were simply trying to catch up with what was going on on the ground”

– John’s book “The Post-modern Prince” “I’m a critic of post-modernism… I’m part of the tradition that identifies more with… western Marxism… Adorno… Marcuse… radical feminist theory.”

– “Post-structuralist move… away from the experiential… a reaction against Humanism… – ideal that we could arrive at a universal truth…”

– “You and I – we’re are not just guys sitting here… there are these vectors of force and history, discourse, power… gender, race, class… that impinge on our subjectivity and have created a ground for knowing the world and the assumptions that we bring to the world – that’s true”

– Foucault “put truth in brackets… it becomes a way of creating power relations…” “There’s something to that… but you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater”

– “Truth claims really matter… have an ontological dimension… we are talking about some thing that is actually real… Truthiness”

– “The best of critical phenomenology acknowledges the fact that you and I, our perspectives, have been shaped, by gender say, in ways we’re not even aware of… we can understand that through understanding gender and socialisation… but that doesn’t exhaust what we can say about each other and it doesn’t mean that we don’t share a whole bunch of similar existential and psychological conditions and structures”

– Standpoint epistemology “If you’re on the bottom [of a structure]… you tend to have a privileged vantage point on the structure. The person who is in power, the boss… doesn’t notice the other people because they don’t have to.”

– “The point there is not that if you’re a marginalised or oppressed person you have the gods truth of everything… it does mean that you tend to have a better epistemological vantage point for understanding social structure… and I think that’s right”

– Hegel’s master/slave dialectic “The slave or the servant… therefore has a view of the totality”

– Talking to an old friend “he had no idea I’d had these experiences [of racism]… I would be attacked by other children, adults, even teachers but because he’s white he’d never had those experiences… so there was this whole realm of experience that my friend was ignorant of”

– “When critical race theories talk about while privilege that’s what they’re talking about… it’s not like my friend was a bad person… it’s just that because of where he was in the hierarchy he just didn’t have to deal with that stuff… and therefore doesn’t understand, even now, what racism is as a kind of lived experience or a structure.”

– Humility “we need to be open to new possibilities… why don’t you listen? Be compassionate… have empathy”

– “Our socialisation can get in the way of our understanding the other and having compassion for the other”

– “The cats had their own lebenswelt, their own life-world, that was particular to their species… they saw and smelled things that we couldn’t see or smell or hear – there was an epistemological abyss… to some extent… their otherness is something to acknowledge and to honor – they’re not me… but I don’t need to incorporate them into my world for them to have value. Even though they had their own life-world… it overlaps with ours. Two things can be true at once.”

– “We need to be able to acknowledge our differences from the other… we can learn from them…”

– “The Unitarian church I went to was very anti-metaphysical and anti-supernatural”

– “I don’t believe in supernaturalism per se. I am open to psychic experiences as a possibility but I don’t think it’s magic… I think we don’t understand yet.”

– Dark matter, dark energy and the limits of current scientific knowledge

– “I don’t believe in an afterlife, I don’t believe in a supreme being – I think these are ludicrous ideas… but… I’ve become more open to talking about a kind of spirituality”

Philip McKibbin’s “Politics of Love” (see Philip’s Sentientism episode here)

– “I’ve been coming around more and more to the importance of love… providing us almost with an ontological ground for knowledge and for meaning… that’s a spiritual view…”

– “The idea that the world is better for us to help others is a spiritual view. As opposed to the utilitarian view which is that ‘suffering is bad, pleasure is good’ – you don’t have to have any spiritual anything to be a utilitarian you just follow abstract principles – you could just be a robot or a psychopath… psychopaths make wonderful utilitarians because they can do the math – they don’t have to think about the feelings”

– “That squishy word that we often shy away from… spirituality… is something we should take seriously”

– “I don’t agree that love is information processing… that language… you can draw a straight line to Rene Descartes.. and the idea of living beings being machines”

– “For me to have consciousness… there’s a physical process going on that makes it possible for that to happen – but the phenomenon of consciousness isn’t the physical thing that’s going on”

– “We don’t really understand what consciousness is… but we do know this… that it isn’t information and it isn’t physical process – it’s something else. Why? Because we know it is.”

– “To validate… in terms of Sentientism… is to think about the integrity of consciousness as something that eludes and will always elude physical description. The map is not the territory – it never will be… it’s a category mistake. We can’t describe something that exists outside the physical realm in physicalist language.”

– “That’s the nature of consciousness – it’s a singularity. It is itself alone.”

– Plant sentience? Artificial sentience?

– The risk of slippage between intelligence, information processing and consciousness / sentience

– “I disagree with the panpsychists… I disagree with the idea that machines are ever going to become conscious or sentient… it’s unhelpful ethically”

– The evolutionary context: Mark Solms and Walter Veit episodes

43:12 What and Who Matters?

– A utilitarian in college “I still joke that I think of myself as a recovering utilitarian”

– “I am… pretty pluralistic… we can get a lot out of the phenomenology of sympathy… empathy”

– Feminist care ethics – Donavan, Hamington, Vetlesen’s “Perception Empathy and Judgment”

– “We’re only able to perceive morally salient situations because we have a capacity for empathy”

– “I think that ontology is prior to ethics… If I want to know how I should treat a cat I need to know what a cat is… a cat is a consciousness, a cat has a point of view, a cat has experiences… persons… they have their own integrity of experience”

– “When we talk about experience or sentience it’s in a vacuum unless we’re talking about a particular being who has those things”

– “There’s someone home” Donaldson and Kymlicka’s Zoopolis

– “That’s the problem with the utilitarian view… beings almost like vessels [of suffering]… it’s not like that… that isn’t what it’s like to be a person… to be a knowing, feeling thing.”

– Martin Buber “I and Thou”. “We enter a dialogic relationship with the other without any prior conceptions… and without any desire to mould them into our categories… or worse to manipulate and control them” (Gruber’s “The I – It”)

– Kant “we should never treat another rational being as a means to our ends”

– “My Octopus Teacher” – “He is experiencing this octopus as an individual person… but then there are these inflection points… where he lets the scientific rationalising schematising thing come between him and this being… the octopus is attacked by a shark but he’s not going to interfere because that’s somehow wrong to interfere with the ‘natural order’ but everything the guy has done up to this point is interference with the natural order!… Everything he’s done is an intervention… but when it comes to showing solidarity with this being…”

– “What matters to me is compassion and a recognition that the self is an illusion… if this other person suffers… it is me suffering… it’s just that it’s a different me suffering”

– “The diver in the film has this incredible empathy for this individual octopus but then, because of masculinity and science he shuts it all down and does not show solidarity with his friend”

– Can we get the best of both worlds? An expansive impartial moral scope but also am empathic, caring solidarity with individuals?

– Barbara Deming’s non-violent activism “We can’t get to know every other human being on the earth but we can still imagine what it is like to be another person”

– Terence: “Nothing human is alien to me”

– “Critics of feminist care ethics have rightly pointed out… that it can lead to a kind of parochialism or nowness – but I don’t think it has to”

– “I can feel sorrow and horror and rage… I can care about them even though they are strangers”

– “I can imagine what it’s like to be them”

– “The problem with utilitarianism is that it misses the forest for the trees… care about suffering, but not whether the being necessarily lives or dies”

– “The utilitarian forgets that suffering and pleasure mean nothing except to a person – but utilitarianism doesn’t have respect for persons, fundamentally… There’s a fundamental disrespect for the individual that has always been there in utilitarianism – and you just can’t get it out.”

– “We need a cosmic empathy – and I think it’s possible… If I hear about the suffering of some creature on another planet… oh my god that’s horrifying… I wish that being well from a point of view of love and compassion”

– “I think we can have a universalist ethics and an objectivist kind of ethics out of a caring approach and an empathetic approach”

– “You see this problem particularly in Effective Altruism… a tendency towards quantitative reasoning… Will McAskill… the individual just really gets shoved under the bus.”

– “If you don’t start from the point of view of fundamental respect for persons then the utilitarian project is going to undermine its own goals”

– Singer: “Conscientious omnivorism is OK”. “You’re saying that we can fundamentally disrespect the personhood of all these beings by killing them and yet that can happen without us causing them suffering”

Karen Davis (previous Sentientism guest here) “What the ‘humane’ myth does”

– “Utilitarianism – it’s principles end up being self-defeating. It’s not that we can’t take insight from utilitarianism… the consequences of our actions… trying to make people happy – these are good things – but there are other values besides suffering and pleasure to take into account. I think love, for example, is an intrinsically important quality.”

– “Love makes us vulnerable to grief and suffering and loss – so from a utilitarian point of view you we’d say ‘just get rid of that… if you love your cat you’re going to be crushed and devastated when your cat dies’”

– “It’s a mistaken view of the nature and purposes of existence and the human condition. A world without love is a world that’s even more unthinkable than a world without happiness.”

– The risks of maximising ethics (either eradicate sentience or mass breed “net positive lives”) JW: “I’m sure there is some middle way… that is more attuned to the interests of each of the individual sentient beings”

01:00:55 A Better Future?

– The civilisational error described in “The Omnivore’s Deceptions”

– “We really do think of our relations with other animals as a trivial thing”

– Climate change discourse “eat a little less meat, Meatless Mondays… when I hear that I think ‘well I’m only going to commit sexual assault on Tuesdays and Fridays and I’m not going to be a racist on Wednesday… Animal issues are so trivialised”

– “Whether we brutalise and kill this animal or we love this animal – they’re seen as ‘those are both acceptable and they’re the same thing’ – they’re not the same”

– “What this does to us… We are making an existential choice to organise civilisational existence – the human condition… around massive violence… murder… genocidal violence at scale… people have no idea what’s going on”

– “If you pull back… animal agriculture… is arguably the largest cultural artifact ever produced by our species… It dwarfs everything else we’ve ever constructed on the earth – our cities, our roadways…”

– “Psychically, culturally, socially, economically – everything that we’ve done and built has been premised on… being against the animal other”

– “This civilizational error has now led to an ecological apocalypse… the entire ecosystem of the earth is collapsing… mass species extinction”

– “All of these pathologies really come down to this civilizational mistake – of treating other beings as objects… rather than as… persons to be respected”

– “If we hope to save ourselves we need to have a new ethos and a new ethics and a new politics in our relation with other beings”

– “The problem with environmentalist discourse right now is it continues to treat other animals purely as objects and instruments of our own needs… we need the honey bee to produced honey… to pollinate our crops…”

– “No, the reason it is bad that all the bees are dying… it’s bad for the bees… let’s start with that.”

– “The environmentalist movement has engaged in this category mistake of ontological conflation where rocks and rivers and trees and animals are all lumped together into ‘nature’ and therefore they all have a kind of significance only within a totality of usefulness… it is indeed an anthropocentric worldview.”

– “You can’t get there from here… you can’t get to the point of wanting to actually do something to protect the living earth and its beings unless you care about the individual beings who are affected and who suffer… it’s self-defeating”

– The WWF putting a monetary value on ‘nature’ “Nature’s service to the world economy.” “If you take that instrumentalist view the game’s over… you’re never going to get out of the paradigm that’s led you into the hole in the first place… we need a completely different way of viewing other beings.”

– Rights for rivers, but not for farmed animals

– Ecocide is increasingly recognised, but what about senticide (killing a sentient being)?

– John’s essay on “bad faith” “a kind of self-deception… the meat industry is propagandising everyone… but it’s that people don’t want to know what’s going on and they don’t want to rethink their life values and choices.”

– “So the problem cannot simply be cured through giving people the right information… we have to keep it up, but… moral suasion isn’t enough because there are these deep psychological, cultural reservoirs of violence and aggression against other animals…”

– “No one has the silver bullet”

– “The animal system is implicated with, intertwined with the capitalist world structure… the commodification of animal life… human life… the exploitation of most human beings on earth by this system… is a huge part of the problem… there’s no way to have animal liberation under capitalism”

– Compassionate capitalism? Exploitation is built into capitalism

– “The nature of the commodity system… is to mystify the nature of production… we don’t know how our own clothes are made… that’s all hidden from view”

– “You can’t have production of goods without exploitation of nature… nature has to be a kind of free resource for the capitalist”

– “Even if we went to an all vegan world… orangutans are still going to be homeless… because Cargill is going to be doing monocrop production of palm oil”

– “We can’t disaggregate the question of animal agriculture and fisheries from the larger scale ecocide… that is destroying the conditions for animal life on earth”

– “Mining in the oceans – that’s not a vegan question – it’s about the structure of capital accumulation”

– “Patriarchy is a big part of it – how we’re socialised to fear ‘effeminacy’… ‘that’s just showing weakness if you care about someone else’”

– Rodeos “men wrestling down calves… it’s a performance of masculinity”

– “We need a movement… that tackles the structural nodes of this system… it’s not enough to convince your neighbour to become vegan – that’s great. We also need to pay attention to the state, economy, socialisation…”

– The risk of bypassing the core ethical issue

– John’s criticisms of Effective Altruism, clean/cultivated meat, welfarism & incrementalism…

– “There’s no work being done if you’re just getting people to buy a tastier product, a cheaper product you’re actually not chipping away at the central problem of civilisation… the nature of our contempt, really, for other life-forms… in fact you’re reinforcing the triviality of these other beings lives and interests by saying ‘you should try clean meat because it’s good for the environment and it’s healthier…”

– “It’s garbage… that people are going to switch [to clean-meat] because it’s a misunderstanding of the nature of meat… a whole semiotic and cultural history that’s tied in to power over nature and animals”

– “I’m glad there are Beyond Meat burgers… as a transitional object”

– “There is no latent ethics of compassion or love for animals… that has to be inculcated… people just don’t give a shit about animals… they don’t care enough to the extent that they do care… they just don’t get them in a lot of ways”

– “There is something to build on there – it’s not like there’s nothing…”

– “When I talk to people in ordinary life they’ve never heard the term speciesism… I talk to PhDs – they don’t even know what I’m talking about!”

– “Shine a light on the totality… so that people can see it… it’s partly the animal rights movement’s fault… they see little pieces… some puppy mill… the elephants… they don’t understand that this is the basis of material life and it has all these aspects to it.”

– “Unless we’re challenging people’s understanding of what and who other animals are and spotlighting our violence against them – I don’t think there’s any work being done. No matter how much clean/cellular meat you’re going to have.”

– Links between the far-right and animal agriculture/exploitation. Jordan Peterson and Andrew Tate. The carnivore diet.

– “The left tradition ought to be interested [in the animal issue]”

– “The political right… a tradition of hierarchy, authority, machismo, violence, aggression… othering”

– “The left… ostensibly a movement for liberation, against injustice, [JW: solidarity, anti-oppression]… there are reasons why animal liberation should be a left issue… but leftists are human beings and therefore suffer from the same anthropocentric biases and ideological enculturation that everybody else does”

– “Because capitalism really interferes with our ability to grasp the nature of the production system… fisheries… animal agriculture… biomedical exploitation of animals… that’s really strategic”

– John’s article for Z-magazine on animal rights and the left in 1989 “The left doesn’t want to look at… partly because leftism has been tied to humanism… the dignity of the human being”

– “The left needs to understand that… when black people and people of colour are compared to animals – the reason that’s possible is because we view other animals with contempt. If you take that away… then I becomes harder to ‘other’ humans.”

– Is there an anti-capitalist system that avoids authoritarianism and oppression?

– “I’m in favour of a democratic socialism – not social democracy… I’ve never heard [Bernie] Sanders say ‘let’s get rid of capitalism’ – I think capitalism is something that has to be gotten rid of. I’m part of the western Marxist tradition so I believe in democracy… I don’t think a democratic socialism is an appealing one unless at the root of it it has an animal liberationist conception of the world… spiritual in nature… compassion and empathy… words that hardline Marxists don’t want to think about feelings.”

– “I don’t see why we can’t have all of these things in one movement – a feminist movement.”

– “There aren’t that many – but there are historical examples of more equitable economic social arrangements like Salvador Allende’s democratic socialist movement in the 1970’s in Chile. Unfortunately the US CIA helped overthrow him… then death squads & fascism.”

– “We mostly think of the Soviet Union or China or North Korea – these horrible, horrible totalitarian regimes”

– The Mondragan Corporation network in Spain “A proto-socialist economic organisation that’s co-operative, peaceful, non-violent”

– “We’re in this very dispiriting historical moment where we see a cascade of interlocking crises that are ecological, political, economic, social, cultural, spiritual… a crisis of hope itself.”

– “I am not hopeful… Based on what I see going on in the world and the history of this species – I do not see a learning curve… from the sling-shot to the atom bomb [Adorno].”

– “That said – we have to try!… As Gramsci said, we need a pessimism of the intellect and an optimism of the will.”

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