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by Jan Sand
2006-12-31 11:21:23
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One of the fundamental capabilities of a living organism is the power to kill. Each living thing is a neat package of tasty edibles. Life either takes its energy directly from solar radiation and its substance from the soil and the air or appropriates those tempting packages to its own purposes.

A good many creatures consume each other while still alive. People do so with oysters but these are exceptions. In general, like vultures, we prefer our animal food no longer wriggling. It requires something of a sophisticated imagination to connect a slab of packaged meat with a living total animal. Modern packaging does its best to weaken if not destroy that connection. People in modern life tend to prefer ignorance of where their formerly lively food came from and the gory details of how it was reduced to comestible status.

We are not so fussy with vegetables. If vegetables were as vocal as animals the uproar from fresh salads would be rather upsetting for the compassionate ear.

Farmers, fishermen and other professionals who do the dirty work necessary for maintaining life have accepted that catching, culturing and killing other life forms is a very basic, very ordinary, very necessary procedure.

And yet, there seems to be, in a large percentage of humans, a reluctance to accept these facts. Recently there has been discovered a section of the brain concerned with mirroring other’s activities. See http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/ramachandran06/ramachandran06_index.html
This capability enables humans to capture within themselves the emotions and attitudes of others. As long as this talent is applied to other humans it can be very useful in transferring survival skills and traditions. But modern life has insulated the mass of population from basic food operations and this mental blockage permits the mirroring to broaden to creatures other than human. It grants that they may have some of the emotional attitudes felt by humans about staying alive. Walt Disney in particular has made his fortune on this aspect of human psychology so that the reality of living things rendering each other to pieces for meals is never realistically visually detailed in Disney products.

Empathy is governed by the acceptance that a victim shares humanity with the perceiver. It is common knowledge that the infliction of brutality in ordinary times and especially at war is presaged by the removal of common humanity from the victim. Wartime sets combatants into a situation where one must kill with no guilt in order to complete the required mission and survive. So the enemy is degraded to less than human as a psychological necessity to preserve the inflictor’s self respect. In combat situations this very frequently gets out of hand so the current term “collateral damage” was invented to let soldiers off the hook of guilt for the horrors they are forced to commit. Nevertheless a good many veterans suffer years after war experiences from their internal basic decency that sees through the obvious hypocrisy.

It is not unusual to hear people who experiment with hunting to become dismayed at the reality of watching a living creature die for entertainment value because of their action but the majority of hunters dismiss any feelings in that direction and many of them react enthusiastically to their capability to kill. Considering the evolutinary demands of existence it is difficult for me to condemn either reaction although I personally am repelled by an act of unnecessarily destroying the technically sophisticated and beautiful structures of living things, not to speak of the empathy I feel for a fellow creature.

Although the death penalty for crimes is banned in many civilized countries it still exists in China, the USA and several other countries. The logic behind the procedure is surrealistically grotesque and several motives are obviously in play. Some of this grows out of the fact that the crime of murder results from various widely different bases and motive is crucial in determining the punishment. The law is often a grossly blunt instrument devised by legislatures with small understanding of or even interest in what may occur in a human mind stressed to commit murder.

Cases, both recent and in the past, of mentally incompetent people legally executed pose questions of where the morality might lie in these official functions. Prosecutors frequently excuse their zeal in demanding the death penalty by insisting that the victim’s family would not feel closure if the death penalty were not invoked, even though many of these same sufferers deny their desire for the death of the criminal and are repelled by the sentence. Carried to its logical conclusion, these sadistic lawmen should require that the victim’s family should be permitted satisfaction by physically beating the criminal to death or using some other form of brutality to give them mental comfort in dispensing justifiable pain and suffering.

But, very oddly, several states in the USA have recently suspended executions on the logic that the criminals may suffer on their way to oblivion. Since the legal system regularly metes out sentences specifically for the purposes of punishment (and it is difficult to conceive of a punishment that does not involve suffering of one kind or another) I am totally puzzled over the minds of people who decide about these things.

It would seem to me a total waste of resources to throw away condemned criminals if society was really serious about obtaining some payback for a heinous crime. These individuals would prove extremely valuable in medical research where there welfare was no longer of concern. And their body parts would be very useful for people needing transplants. Unfortunately, once this was accepted our commercial society might see such benefit in condemning prisoners that the practice would be subject to gross abuse.
Something of this sort seems to be taking place in China where internal organs are heard to be in plentiful supply for the right price.

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