One Christmas morning, years ago, I woke up and found myself in Malaysian Borneo. After delightedly taking note of the date and location, I decided to celebrate Christmas in the style of the locals. In the Dayak regions of Malaysia where I then resided, all holidays are more or less the same, and are observed by engaging in the serious business of visiting and hosting. You choose some portion of the holiday in which you will serve as a host, feeding and entertaining all of your visiting friends. Then you choose some portion of the holiday in which you will serve as a guest, eating your friends’ food and being entertained by them. There are a few customs that differ for each holiday, but the main business of visiting and hosting is the same every time and is observed assiduously and conscientiously.
My first visit of Christmas morning was memorable. A local man, a family man and a good one, had invited me to help prepare his Christmas feast. Upon arriving, I found that he did not mean that I would wash vegetables or set the table. He greeted me in front of his house with a toothy smile, a live chicken, and a knife whose size would have made Jim Bowie jealous. It was clear that I would be helping to take the life of a defenseless creature as my first official act on Christmas morning.
I had never personally killed an animal before, and I have not done so since, excepting insects and spiders. Though it was years ago, I still remember the warmth of the chicken’s body and the smell of its blood. I remember feeling surprised at how complicated its anatomy was and how difficult it proved to sever the tough sinews and tissues of its neck. I remember the rainforest humidity and the sweat under my collar. It was a unique experience and I am glad that I had it, if only for the sake of adding to the diversity of the experiences of my life.
My lack of experience killing animals has not prevented me from eating animals. I eat meat frequently and enthusiastically, and I do not believe that doing so is morally wrong. In our specialized economy, the animals I eat are raised by one person, slaughtered by another, packaged by another, transported by another, prepared by another, and delivered to my door by yet another. I pay dollars for the meat I enjoy but I do not usually pay the emotional price that would be required by killing an animal with my own hands. For this I am glad, because I am squeamish about blood and would rather avoid seeing the animal’s death even if I ensure it by my diet.
The separation between eater and abattoir has drawn us into a cycle. We are squeamish about killing the animals we eat. So, we push the killing further away from our daily life. As the killing of animals is separated from us, we have even less exposure to it and we are even more squeamish about it, and push it further still away from ourselves.
One consequence of squeamishness, if it is not a synonym of it, is physical cowardice. My squeamishness or physical cowardice was such that I was scarcely able to participate in killing a chicken. If I were drafted into military service, imagine how difficult it would be for me to kill a human being, not necessarily from a moral perspective but only because of my physical revulsion at the sight of blood and damaged flesh. If I were overcome with rage and desired to kill someone I knew, I would be stopped only partially by my moral qualms, and more effectively by the purely physical revulsion I feel when flesh punctures. If this prevented me from committing wanton murder, then it has helped me. But it could also prevent me from defending someone who was threatened with death, or acting in self-defense in an appropriate moment. This physical cowardice is a result of my cushy bourgeois life of soft couches and air conditioning and outsourcing, a life that has the advantage of never disgusting me, but the disadvantage of never building my physical strength or courage.
One of the conversations that always repeats among thoughtful people is the debate about progress: can it exist, and is it happening now. Recently, some believers in progress have compiled statistics on a variety of metrics, including time trends in violent crime and deaths in war. They have claimed to find a steady decrease in violence over the last few centuries, and have alleged that this has been due to social progress, or in other words an improvement in the moral or even spiritual level of humankind. According to some, this progress can be traced back to the Enlightenment, a time when Whig ideals like liberalism and democracy supposedly began their trajectory towards the cultural ascendance they enjoy today.
The claim of decreased violence has been challenged on purely mathematical and statistical grounds. But even supposing that violence has decreased, the more crucial debate concerns whether this represents genuine progress. Superficially at least, since an act of violence is often an act of moral depravity, it is reasonable to think that if violence has decreased, then so has moral depravity. But my experience with killing a chicken has persuaded me otherwise.
It seems to me that any decrease in violence that has been observed over the centuries can be explained by physical cowardice as much as by personal saintliness. Suppose that we hate each other just as much as we ever did, that we get angry as much as ever, hold grudges as much as ever, and wish harm on each other as much as ever, but with each passing year we become weaker and more cowardly and less capable of physically attacking those we hate. This would represent criminological progress as fewer violent crimes were committed. But it would not represent spiritual progress – we would still wish to commit crimes, but we would be prevented by our own inability rather than our goodwill or restraint.
A decline in physical courage, if one has really occurred, would not be an immediately disastrous thing because so many of us can live in today’s world without it. But it would be a real loss. There are certainly evil people in the world, and there are some evil people who can only be stopped by acts of physical courage. To the extent that we have lost our courage, we have become more vulnerable to evil people who wish us harm. We are currently in an unstable equilibrium in which a courageous minority (the military and police) protects a cowardly majority (the rest of us like me who can’t even kill a chicken). If our collective physical courage continues to decline, there will no longer be a minority capable of properly protecting us and we could finally reap the awful consequences of our cowardice.
Even if our physical cowardice does not precipitate a public catastrophe, it could bring about private crises. We are designed, whether by God or Nature, to live in a physical world and confront the good and the bad that that entails. To be pusillanimous regarding the physical world is in some way to fail to be our fullest selves. To fail to prepare a chicken dinner on Christmas could lead to failure to protect our loved ones when they need it. Even the strongest evidence for progress could hide a secret and awful regress.