I set out to write a rebuttal to some disturbing comments I had stumbled across on the ol’ interwebs. I intended to set the record straight regarding a misconception people had of me. What ensued instead was a series of philosophical questions…a deep inquiry, a peering into the very nature of existence. If you choose to read this, please read the entire thing. It may appear to be a series of circular unanswerable questions. But in the end, I feel that I arrive at a point worth considering.
My writing style can be a bit cumbersome at times (I’m no pro!). So please do your best to deal with me, while I do my best to ask these questions. I found it difficult to link all of my key points into a unified fluid piece. But I felt writing something good enough was better than writing nothing at all. Lastly, I would like to say, I feel quite vulnerable making this piece public. Exposing the deepest recesses of our minds is never easy, and exposing such things to the public is wrought with potential danger. I hope this query is met well enough by the reader to legitimize its drafting. But this is of course, no guarantee.
Questions of Value
One thing being on TV has bestowed upon me, for better worse, is an acute realization of what people think about me. Quite frankly, most of me doesn’t care to know what complete strangers think of me, but that curious little voice in the back of my mind often wins out, and I occasionally venture down a rabbit hole, scouring the bowels of the web to hear what every internet citizen has to say about Amelia and I. Consistently, I wish I hadn’t wasted my time, returning from the expedition empty handed and disappointed, unable to see any real evidence that the viewers of Live Free or Die actually “get me”. I hope this doesn’t sound too critical of our fans…in y’all’s defense, I have a hard enough time “getting myself”!….so it’s to be expected that most of my ethics and philosophies would be overlooked by our viewers. That’s OK, no hard feelings there. That is not the case with a particular perception that appears to be shared by a small demographic of our viewers…the idea that I, have no respect for life. This has been the only idea expressed by the public that truly upsets me. This idea appears to have been propagated due to the way in which I slaughter animals. Some people don’t appreciate my demeanor when taking an animal’s life. But the strange thing is, when I really started dissecting this idea, that somebody out there believes that Tony has no respect for life, I really couldn’t pinpoint what was so upsetting. I sat down to write a letter to our fans letting them know how much I respect life, and instead wound up writing an inquiry into the nature of existence…asking questions like, “What is life?”, “What is value?”, “Does value exist outside the human mind?” and, “Does the universe have an intrinsic value?”.
I would like to begin by discussing suffering. Since this whole inquiry has been prompted by the topic of slaughter, I feel suffering is a good starting point. Suffering is bad, suffering sucks. Whether you’re a lima bean or the Queen of England, we all agree, suffering sucks. This is the first point I would like to hammer home in this piece…the most useful thing we can possibly do in life, is diminish suffering. There are small ways and big ways to avoid suffering. Ending the legal ownership of slaves here on Earth has been a pretty monumental step towards the relief of suffering. Developing the rabies vaccine…pretty big step. The Clean Water Act, pretty big step. Then there are smaller ways that we as individuals can end suffering. Purchasing fair trade and organic goods, might, be a small way that consumers can end suffering. Buying local, is a tiny step that can relieve a little of the misery stemming from the over exploitation of fossil fuels, and some unethical labor practices abroad. And most relevant to this piece, the quick humane kill of our livestock and prey, reduces the suffering associated with slaughter.
When I take a life, I do it efficiently. I avoid giving the animal any cues that it is about to be killed. When I break necks, I do it with speed and confidence. When I remove heads, I drop the clever lightning quick, and when I pull triggers, I consistently deliver the bullet to the vitals. I have no interest in contributing to the suffering of my livestock or prey. At the same time I must remain emotionally detached from the situation. I do everything I can to avoid thinking about the fierce will to live, coursing through this animal. I do everything I can to avoid thinking about being in the animals shoes. And I avoid thinking about how damn awful it is, that natural selection demands that creatures consume one another, in order to go on living. This emotional detachment might, unfortunately, give me an air of carelessness when I take animals’ lives. It’s not that, I don’t care, but rather, I can’t care, during the moment of slaughter, or I simply wouldn’t be able to go through with it. I love to eat food, but I hate killing…this is a bit of a conundrum when you are trying to build a life of self sufficiency. The only workable solution I have found, is maintaining detachment from this awful position we omnivores find ourselves in. That we must kill to eat!
Now with regards to my showing gratitude for an animal’s life, this is where things start getting a little trickier from a philosophical standpoint. I am grateful for the food that is provided by the animals slaughter. That is not a terribly noble idea…to be grateful for food. Without it, we would starve, which is a rather ungracious position…starvation. I think all organisms are grateful for their food. But to “thank the animal for giving it’s life” is a very strange thing. This is a practice that a lot of hippies and rewilders engage in. Folks will slaughter a beast and kneel down beside it, giving thanks for the animals life…often times going so far as to say thank you to the very corpse whose life they just took. At the risk of sounding cold, I personally cannot see the logic of such a practice, and in some instances, these ceremonies have actually left me quite disturbed.
Animals have precisely zero interest in dying. That’s why their species exists. If a particular genetic lineage was comfortable with the idea of death, natural selection would quickly snuff it out, as such an organism would lack the fierce drive to survive in a hostile world. This is all simple enough. The strange thing is, when we thank our prey for “giving it’s life” we glance over this blinding fact that, nothing wants to die. If our prey knew how to use firearms, they would shoot us! I think it’s easier to take a life if you believe the animal is somehow willing to dye for your well being. But this a belief, it’s not fact. The cold hard truth is, carnivores and omnivores are killers. We murder creatures against their will for the sake of self preservation. This is a broken aspect of our universe. Natural selection cares nothing about suffering (if it could care about anything, that is). Natural selection sees to it that the biggest baddest animals kill, pillage and thrive, while the flesh of the young and weak are consumed. This is a nightmare. A terrible design if I’ve ever seen one. And this is why I just can’t bring myself to thank an animal for “giving” it’s life to me. To do so would overlook the true brutality of life on Earth, and would be a disservice to life as a whole. We must kill to live, and this disturbs me deeply.
OK, so I personally don’t like to partake in “ceremony” when I take a life…but why should I be bothered by someone else saying a prayer, or burning tobacco after an animal’s slaughter? In general, I don’t mind what other people do in life. Whether it’s praying over an animal, driving race cars, playing video games or doing drugs, my philosophy is live and let live. But sometimes, something will really get to me and I just have to get it off my chest. One such thing is called cultural appropriation. That is, taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. At the huge risk of sounding critical, I’ll say, I witness cultural appropriation, sometimes, in the rewilding community. Rewilders tend to be educated and often come from fairly privileged backgrounds. To put it bluntly, a lot of rewilders are rich white kids that dropped out of society. That’s all well and good. I have no problem with rich white kids!!! I used to be one!!! The problem starts when this dominant group adopts the customs of less privileged groups…like American Indians for instance. The cultural appropriation of American Indian customs is unfortunately kind of common in the rewilding movement. Yes, indigenous people have A LOT to teach the industrialized world. But this does not give industrialized people free reign to pick and choose indigenous customs and assemble them into some sort of neo-indigenous pseudo culture. There is enormous danger in this practice, and it continues an exploitation first conceived with colonialism. Stealing someone’s culture is a far cry from honoring it. If you admire a people’s culture, please allow it to remain their culture. I do everything I can to respect people’s culture and leave it intact. It’s not mine to reap windfalls from. It disturbs me to see white people employing Native American customs without proper understanding and permission to do so. Unfortunately, I personally know some folks who engage in American Indian ceremonies during animals’ slaughter who have precisely zero association with any Native American tribe. It’s one thing to take an animal’s life in the tradition of your culture, it’s another to take life in the style of a culture you have no association with.
I was not raised in a culture where people grow, hunt and slaughter their own food. I am not an indigenous person. I was raised in suburbia. I have no ceremonies for anything, because I was never taught any ceremonies. If I were to engage in ceremony after taking a life, it would have to be something completely home made, or require the appropriation of other people’s customs. Neither of these options sound appealing to me. The process of raising and hunting is my ceremony. Growing apples is ceremony, harvesting rainwater is ceremony, hunting is ceremony. I don’t personally find much value in dividing life into ceremony and non-ceremony. Perhaps, if I were raised in an indigenous tribe, I would see things differently. But I wasn’t, and I instead have been left to figure things out on my own, from the ground up. I hope these explanations clarifies why I don’t show much outward gratitude, or remorse, for the taking of an animal’s life. I have my own way of dealing with death, and it’s an internal process…a mental ceremony, so to speak.
I would like to reflect on my experience with hunting, so far. I am by no means a seasoned hunter. I think this was evident in my reaction to bagging my first deer. My response, for lack of any better term, was immature. Bagging that deer was an experience I never thought I would have in life. I felt the most intense sense of accomplishment and triumph I have ever felt. To put it bluntly, I freaked the fuck out. I can see how one might assume that I have no respect for life given my reaction. This, honestly, has left me with a nagging sense of shame. If anyone was offended by this, or lost any respect in me, I would like to offer a most sincere apology. It wasn’t the death of the animal I was celebrating, but instead, the accomplishment of a task I had once thought insurmountable. I have to assume, that as I mature as a hunter, my relationship to the hunt, and reaction to harvesting, will season, or mature a bit. I guess I could say, my reaction was a rookie mistake. But this doesn’t mean I don’t value life.
I feel like I value lives, and life in general. I feel like I value the lives of the rabbits, chickens, potatoes, deer and trees that I kill on a weekly basis. But is feeling like I value something the same as actually valuing it? This question has prompted me to look deeply into the concept of “value”. What is value? Has it existed since the dawning of time and space? Does value exist outside of the fertile imagination of homo sapiens? And ultimately, is there even any such thing as value? Let’s start by looking at the definition of “value”.
Here’s the gist of it.
A. The amount of money something is worth.
B. Something’s usefulness.
C. To be important or beneficial, have a high opinion of.
Ok, so given the actual literal definition of value, I do, indeed, have value for life. I see that lifeforms are 1. Worth money 2. Are very useful 3. Are important. 4. And worthy of high opinion. Items 1-3 are self explanatory. We are animals…we need to eat…so other organism are monetarily valuable, calorically useful and important to our continuation as a species. But item 4, this is the real kicker. I have a high opinion for life. I enjoy the fact that life exists in the universe and I enjoy the fact that my life enables me to be amongst lifeforms. But here is the problem. I am talking about my enjoyment of life, and lifeforms. These definitions don’t encompass the idea that life has value independent of my opinion. All of the above definitions require that a sentient being place or bestow value onto another thing. Is it possible that value existed before it had any…for lack of a better term…functional value? Can value exist simply for the sake of value? Can value exist without a “valuer”? This type of value is called “intrinsic value”.
Ok, here is where things start getting sticky…politically, spiritually and ethically, sticky. I simply do not adhere to the idea of intrinsic value. I am unable to convince myself that something has value independent of a mind to bestow such value upon it. Does life have value…to me, YES, YES, YES! Intrinsically, does life have value….well, uh, no, actually. Where would such an intrinsic value come from? What force would inject such a value into a universe that appears to be without cause, direction or purpose? It seems to me, for intrinsic value to exist, it must simply be believed in. If one believes in intrinsic value, then it exists. If one does not believe in intrinsic value, it ceases to exist. I am well aware of how unsavory this idea, or, “lack of belief”, must appear. But, so be it. I have no interest in lying to myself or anyone else for the sake of popularity.
(A couple of good philosophical arguments refuting the existence of intrinsic value)…
All right, let’s go ahead and take this query a step further. Does the universe have value, intrinsic or otherwise? Obviously the universe has value to you and I because it provides us with sunlight to make the plants grow which generates oxygen, and food for us, and our prey, and livestock. It provides water, and (usually) gravitationally stable planets to hang out on and make love, music, societies and, well…war. Last but not least, the universe provided the molecules and all the chemical reactions necessary to generate this weird thing we call life in the first place. Yep, to a human, the universe is a damn valuable place to set up shop. But, what if humans never evolved? This place couldn’t have much use to a species that doesn’t exist. For that matter, what if consciousness never evolved? How could the universe have value if there were no consciousness to bestow such a property upon it? The simple fact of the matter ( in my mind) is that nothing would have any nature of value, weather intrinsic or instrumental, if it weren’t for the evolution of consciousness. So, if there is an overarching intrinsic value to this world, when did it come into being, and who acknowledged it’s momentous entrance into the universe? Ultimately, I am led to believe that instrumental value arose with the evolution of life, and intrinsic value eventually arose with the advent of the human mind.
Alright, let’s take this another step further. Assuming intrinsic value is a product of the human mind, and the human mind is a product of the evolution of life itself, we must next ask, what is life? When and where did it begin? This is a difficult question to tackle, given the fact that we still don’t understand what exactly life and non life are. Humans can’t come to a consensus of what life is. We are simply unable to answer the question “what is life?”.
(A fine article about this very conundrum)…
This is especially relevant with regards to value, weather instrumental or intrinsic. If value is a byproduct of consciousness, and consciousness is a product of life, how can we determine when, or to what extent, value evolved, if we can’t determine what the hell life is, or when it precisely arose? Was there a dawning of value moment…where the universe had no meaning until it suddenly woke up and found value and meaning in everything that was itself? Seems unlikely to me. Perhaps life, and all of the value, experience, suffering, and consciousness that comes with it, is a spectrum? I think the black and white concepts of “life”, and “non-life” are misnomers, and it would serve us little to place a hard and fast division between these two concepts. Life, and the entire universe for that matter, is a spectrum of phenomena, varying greatly in its form, function and complexity. An incomprehensibly vast and mysterious spectrum in which the battle for meaning, purpose and value all too often evades us.
There was a time in my youth when I arrogantly knew the meaning of life. While it is embarrassing to admit, I at one time knew what people should be doing with their lives, and what we as a species should value. I adhered to the concept of intrinsic value, and along with it, came blinding political and spiritual beliefs. I had answers to questions I’d yet to ask. As I grew older, and worked up the nerve to question my beliefs, I found many of the assumptions I had been living under were flawed as hell. Letting go of these ideals, and admitting I don’t know, was a frightening and at times painfully depressing endeavor. It felt so dismal, leaping out of this comfortable womb of beliefs I had woven around myself. For a period, I felt like not being alive at all would be better than living in a world without purpose, direction or meaning. Suicide, at times, felt more appealing than living in a world that no longer had the type of meaning I once saw in it…an unshakeable, unyielding intrinsic meaning, that I once fooled myself into believing. Fortunately, I was able to to claw my way out of this rut. And I believe I am wiser for it. While the universe, to me, has no ultimate meaning, there is still hope. There is light in life, and the longer we search, the better we get at finding it.
Ultimately, for me, this is what it comes down to. There is no intrinsic value to anything. And asking questions pertaining to value appear to be a lost cause. We cannot definitively declare that there is intrinsic value to a rock, a worm, ourselves or the endless expanse of space and time we call “the universe”. We can however, create value. We have the opportunity, in life, to create meaning, and respect this world for the mere sake of respecting it. We can choose to take steps that make this world a little more hospitable. We have the opportunity to relieve suffering through our choices.
The Okinawa harbour a concept known as “ikigai”. To put it bluntly, ikigai is a reason for getting up in the morning. Ikigai is a reason for being. Finding ikigai requires a deep and often lengthy search of self. It’s discovery brings a satisfaction and meaning to life. I’m fortunate, in that I have found my ikigai…the cultivation of happy and productive landscapes. I am a gardener…this is my ikigai.
I believe ikigai is the meaning and purpose of the universe. And unlike the sterile, static concept of intrinsic meaning or value, ikigai is an evolving entity, sought out, honed, and perfected, with each generation, day in and day out. Ikigai is not an inherent meaning, but one that is built through our life experience; a truth that the individual finds for themselves. So, while life may not appear to have any blinding meaning, knocking at our doorstep, day in and day out, we are free to create meaning. Life is not something that is intrinsically worth living for; but in life, we can create something worth living for…something bigger than ourselves…something larger than our life.
Now is all we will ever have. So, saddle up and make something of it. Tomorrow is no guarantee. Breathe deep and stand firm, dive deep into this thing we call life. Sip and taste every moment, whether it harbor pain or pleasure. Hold on to what you love and shed the rest. And whatever you do…do it all the way.
More on intrinsic value…