Course Notes – Bernard Williams, “The Human Prejudice” — The Electric Agora

by Daniel A. Kaufman The last unit of my introductory level “Ethics and Contemporary Issues” course is devoted to the question of moral concern for non-human animals. We begin with excerpts from Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics, then move on to Cora Diamond’s “Eating Meat and Eating People” (which I discussed in a This Week’s […]

via Course Notes – Bernard Williams, “The Human Prejudice” — The Electric Agora

This is a great essay, Daniel, capturing with clarity the central intellectual dilemma.


I am astonished by the moral vacuity of all analysis that assigns significance to our material being. As a person of spiritual experience, I recognize that our significance to God is in the capacity we have for facilitating spiritual transformation. The conditions of our material experience are more or less propitious to that end, but are not sufficient. We must understand the nature of love, and discipline ourselves to its expression in all of our relationships.

That includes rendering gratitude for the sacrifices made to support us – including the food and weather. Our ancestors prayed for everything, and gave gratitude for everything.

They experienced more joy in the world – and we call them “superstitious!” Of our European reductionism, the Native American elders offer the rebuke: “You insist on learning the hard way!”

Furthermore, as we are late arrivals on the planet, our spiritual weight is slight, and God’s purpose for us includes redeeming the spirits bound to less evolved species. That does mean caring about them. I know that those in your Agora will argue against this, much as theologians once argued against Galileo. The Italian saw things with his telescope that compelled him to write, and in bowing to the perceptions of the heart of Christ, so am I.

Why Monotheism?

When I was in high school in the ‘70s, global politics was dominated by a penis-envy contest called Mutually Assured Destruction. The Soviet Union and the United States amassed huge stock-piles of nuclear weapons that Carl Sagan concluded could wipe out the enemy without even falling on their territory. Simply setting them all off at ground level would raise enough dust in the stratosphere to cause a global winter. The collapse in food supplies would push humanity to the brink of extinction. That the instigator of the war would share the fate of their enemy justified the acronym ‘MAD’. But there were a lot of institutions that spent a lot of money building weapons delivery systems that were faster, more lethal and more accurate – money that might have been better spent improving the educational and living standards.

While Khrushchev threatened that the Warsaw Pact would bury the West under the weight of Soviet armor (pounding his shoe on the table for rhetorical effect), ultimately it was America that buried Russia under a mountain of dollars. Remember – this wasn’t a strategic conflict with concrete goals. It was a penis-envy contest, and letting the other guy get away with more was unacceptable. So Russia bankrupted itself attempting to match the West weapons-system for weapons-system. The United States cynically engaged this policy of “escalation” in many theaters of conflict. Simply introduce more and more sophisticated weapons systems, until the enemy was financially exhausted, then bring them to the table to figure out how to make money together.

We’ve seen this same logic invade our religious arguments over the last hundred years. You know, “My God is greater than yours.” At one point, the Buddhists prided themselves on remaining above the fray, but when I went down to Deer Park Monastery five years back, the speaker was proud to observe that Buddhism had never instigated a war, unlike those Christians and Muslims. I wondered to myself whether Buddhists were running any countries, and now recent events in Myanmar seem to bear out the corrupting influence of political authority.

Religious breast-beating can be traced to theological escalation. Polytheism was accepted practice in the ancient world, and those that cultivated relationships with multiple gods would have been likely to consider themselves shorted in a relationship with a single god. What if the one god doesn’t approve of your goals? Why wouldn’t you want to bargain with another deity? The response from monotheism was often to assert that “Our one God is more powerful than all those other gods put together. In fact, our God is the god of all things seen and unseen, the creator of everything, the ultimate purpose, and look at how our warriors beat you up on the battlefield when we carry his banner!”

I am going to denounce this logic right here and now: monotheism is not the celebration of a god for the purpose of claiming his or her power. Monotheism is, in fact, the original humanism. It was to recognize: “Geez, there’s a lot of spiritual power brought forward from the past, power built up in trees and animals and fish. It’s really hard to be human in this world! Let’s band together and worship a human god, and create a place for ourselves.”

Why was this important? Because our minds are so incredibly powerful. This is recognized in Eden, where after eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve are cast out before they can eat of the Tree of Life. Humanity has a dangerous capacity: the capacity to create ideas, which is to reorganize spirit. The serpent tempted Eve because it knew that it could assault heaven itself with that power, and that is evident in the actions of God himself in the aftermath: an angel with flashing swords is set up to prevent our return to the Garden.

It is also evident in the punishments meted out for creating the golden calf, the judgment against the kings of Israel for allowing polytheism to flourish, the scourges suffered by Ezekiel and the passion of Christ. When humanity is polluted by primitive tendencies, God insists that they be purged. This is also the purpose of the Law: animals are opportunistic and instinctual. They don’t apply abstract systems of rules to moderate their actions. Reasoning about the consequences of our actions is a uniquely human capability.

The full glory of human potential is celebrated by Christ when he announces to Peter [Matt. 16:9]:

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

In other words, the Apostles were trained as a corps of spiritual surgeons.

In confronting the power of this capacity, the ancient predators had only one response: keep us from banding together. This is described in Revelation, where John recounts how the dragon (the spiritual avatar of the serpent that appeared in Eden) causes humanity to pursue animal worship, and when we get over that, corrupts our religions from within [Rev. 13:15]:

The second beast was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed.

Sound like MAD, anyone? Claim that your god is the best, threaten the enemy, and bankrupt yourself spiritually.

The goal that I offer today, thus, is to put away monotheistic escalation. The ultimate nature of God is beyond our understanding. What is important is to use the divine relationship to most fully refine our human capacities. Our unique skills – the skills of understanding, imagination and creativity – must be strengthened. Ultimately, it is intended that those skills should replace the brutal urge for survival and reproductive opportunity that characterize the animal kingdom.

In guiding us to maturity, all of our great religious traditions hold that there will come an avatar who will help us bring peace and justice to the world. Their name or ethnicity is unimportant, for in that era the divine authority will be manifested in all of us.