HUMANIST DILEMMA | I’d Rather Help Animals than People

Q: Years ago, I was very active in a local humanist organization. Now my wife and I are retired and give away all our money we don’t need for ourselves. We find as things get worse for humans, we give more—almost all—to nonhuman organizations such as PETA.

Here’s how we see it: people don’t seem to give a damn about the population problem; religions are trying to out-populate each other; and the fastest-growing religions are flooding the world with their (as Sam Harris would say) “boat load of bad ideas.”

I could go on and on with these types of thoughts. Humans torture, kill, eat, and use nonhuman animals for entertainment. That’s why my wife and I are giving up on the human animal.

—Sick of My Species

Dear Species,

Thank you for taking the time to write this. May I suggest that, by the very effort you expended to gather your thoughts and send them to a humanist publication that would broadcast them to its audience, I suspect you may perhaps not have completely given up on us?

I’m sorry you have grown disenchanted with your local humanist organization and with humans in general. It’s certainly understandable to feel as you do, especially in light of what’s making headlines in the world these days. It seems that much progress is getting undone in less time than it took to make that progress in the first place, and it will take as long or longer to repair the damage (if we can even hope for that). It feels as though people hate each other with a passion unseen before, or at least in recent memory. We may indeed be on a path of terrible destruction.

On the other hand, the world often has periods of darkness and despair between better times. How do you think things seemed during the American Civil War (or any civil war)? The Great Depression was a time of intense and prolonged suffering and despair. World War II was fought over stunning extremes of inhumanity and barbarism in supposedly civilized nations. There have been horrible conflicts and cruelty throughout human history, without any sign of their conclusion.

But some scholars, such as Steven Pinker (Enlightenment Now and The Better Angels of Our Nature), believe that over time the world is inexorably becoming a better place, despite all the setbacks that appear to contradict that assessment. It’s akin to a stock that steadily rises over the long term but runs into dips and steep drops along the way. I’m inclined to buy into that optimistic view, not only because of data that supports it and the changes I’ve witnessed in the course of my own lifetime (I remember the Vietnam War, segregation, when more gay people were closeted, when cities were crumbling and burning) but also because it makes me happier to look at things that way.

Most of us, at least once in a while, feel that humans are just too flawed, irrational, pig-headed, and otherwise inept and corrupt to ever make any real progress. If that’s how you feel, and you derive satisfaction from donating to causes dedicated to improving conditions for nonhuman animals, keep it up. If it weren’t for people like you, animals would be mistreated far more than they are. (Incidentally, where I live some animals kept as pets enjoy better conditions—food, shelter, medical care, recreation, even winter apparel—than a huge portion of the human population, which I find disturbing.) Anyway, keep up the good work on behalf of species that may be nobler than our own.

I can’t resist pointing out, however, that the money you donate to nonhuman causes is entrusted to humans to spend. Hopefully they do a decent job, but do your due diligence, since the intended beneficiaries can’t speak up, and those handling the funds are, unfortunately, only human.

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