Nomadic Ethics

I’m interested to hear what you all think about some ethical “issues” I’ve been contemplating lately.

Do you think that nomadic peoples (my e.g. will be Australia’s Aboriginals) should hunt animals for food? How do you think ethics applies here? Should Aboriginals partake in a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle? If so, does the ecological and geographical environment Aboriginals live in enable them to freely cultivate the land (mainly desert) to grow vegetables and fruit? Do they need to cultivate the land? Is it enough that the only animals Aboriginals can’t/wont kill are those animals [displayed] on their personal totem?

Note. This is not a racial or political attack on the Aboriginal peoples. This post is purely intended to focus on the relativism of practical ethics, if there is relative practical ethics.

Posted by Nathan


21 Responses to “Nomadic Ethics”

  1. 1 Simon January 13, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    Nath, I think that you need to do quite a bit more research into this matter. These issues are not so ‘black and white’.

    Not all Indigenous Australian peoples were nomadic, and attempting to classify all of Indigenous Australia into a single category is just wrong. There are/were hundreds (if not more) of independent Nations of peoples Indigenous to this land, all of which had/have different languages, beliefs, customs, religions, cosmologies etc.

    I do see your point, though, regarding relative ethics and there are quite a lot of texts that focus on the issue of ‘primitive’ cultures and their ethical norms. For example, if it’s wrong for me to eat meat now then was it wrong for the Gubbi Gubbi Nation (the Nation that my suburb is situated within) to partake in seafood?

    Is this the sort of discussion that you’re intending to spark?

    I’ll see if I’ve got some electronic texts that I can send you. Also, if you’re interested, and this has little to do with Philosophy and more to do with Sociology and Religion, then look up some works by Berndt & Berndt and Prof. Stanner (Late of ANU). They’ll shed some light on some of these issues for you. Particularly in limiting the scope of your argument.

  2. 2 Waz January 14, 2008 at 9:27 am

    hey Nath

    As far as my memory serves me, I do believe that most of the indigenous populations never invented agricultural tools. They were/are the classic example of the hunter-gatherer. Why would they bother cultivating a land that already provided ample?

    Unlike the indigineous populations of a lot of Europe, and the Anglo invaders of the “New World”, the aborigines never hunted for fun or profit, they only hunted what they needed to survive, so they never depleted an area of either animals or plants.

    If one considers the environment of Australia, before invasion, only a select few areas would be able to support a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle, and even then there would need to be a change in lifestyle to include agricultural practices. Who knows how this would have changed the history of Australia?

    As for ethics? I am not sure, from what I remember and can work out, the indigenous populations of Australia only did what they needed to survive, with what tools and resources that were available to them. As Simon says there were 100’s, if not more, of nations residing here, each with their own way of surviving. The most important thing is the respect they had/have for nature and what it provided them with. They never abused nature, the way we have with all our concrete and petrol, everything was in balance and sustained not only for the people, but also for all the flora and fauna. There was no chance of species becoming extinct in pre-invasion Australia!


  3. 3 Karen January 14, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    Hi Nath,

    Nomadic people move around (not just the tribal, who’s movements followed the natural environment flow, but also the “gypsies” who traded goods and skills with other cultures) it would be quite difficult for any of these peoples to “cultivate” land, as that requires maintenance of said land.

    If all traditionally nomadic peoples HAD stayed in one place, so much knowledge would NOT have been learned by the other tribes/cultures who benfitted from the travels and experiences of these nomadic peoples, i would have to wonder if the world would be as knowledgeable as it is, indeed would “ethics” even exist.

    You asked should Aboriginals hunt animals for food (will assume you mean in the present, not historically) …. the farmers are killing the kangaroos (and dingoes etc) because they are on the cultivated lands…… with the Kangaroo being on our coat of arms…. does that mean we as (now multi-cultural) Australians are responsible for murdering our national personal totem??

    Perhaps we should ask – is it ethical to kill off the animals solely for the purpose of cultivation of fruit/vegetables etc?


  4. 4 Simon January 14, 2008 at 10:29 pm

    I don’t think extinction should play an explicit role in looking at this relative meta-ethical question. There are too many variables and the extinction argument can bolster the meat eating argument, something that I think Nath is opposing.

    What are your reasons for, if indeed it is for, a vegetarian position and are they universally applicable? In every spatio/temporal location? Does this help your position?

    For example, is the position that the avoidance of killing animals for food is ‘good’ because the animal has some intrinsic value or is it because factory farming, or just contemporary farming practices, are ‘wrong’. If the latter then the position is certainly not universally applicable in every spatio/temporal location.

    I won’t go on too much Nath as you haven’t had an opportunity to reply yet but I will state my position on the matter….I’m an meta-ethical moral relativist. I know that’s a bad word in contemporary moral philosophy but there it is.

  5. 5 Nathan January 15, 2008 at 12:11 am

    Unfortunately, and to my detriment, I have underestimated the enormity of the issue I have introduced. My initial thoughts were to nut out those of us who are moral relativists and those of whom are ardent objectivists.

    I have been a vegetarian for a little over a year now, though are making efforts to become a vegan; unfortunately to against my doctors advisement. I am continuing to maintain this position in the face of my detractors; in a round about way, they are the ones who initiated the thought in me.

    My underestimating the depth of the issue has led to some misconception of my knowledge of the Aboriginal people whom I have selfishly used to spark debate. I live in the Blue Mountains (Sydney, Australia), originally the home of the Wiradjuri clan of the Darug nation. These peoples are some of those who in fact traveled between sites depending on the seasons. These are the people I had in mind when writing the original post. It was certainly not meant to disregard those clans and nations that did not travel from site to site.

    My aim here is to focus on those ancient peoples who are not, in any regard, open to the technology and Western capitalist culture of today. With this in mind, my question remands: Should, or ought, the nomadic peoples of any land hunt animals for food? How is ethics applied, practically, with regard to the environment(s) these peoples existed? Can we assume the ethical values of vegetarianism and veganism apply here?

    I agree, in some regard, to Simon’s criticism of my breadth of knowledge with concern for this issue. I am my own worst, that is best, critic when it comes to my academic [in]ability. With this in mind, I will give a brief outline of my thought.

    One does not need to look to hard at the cultural landscape of today and realise that things are a little different now, to what they were 3,000 years ago, let alone 50,000 years ago when it is believed the Aboriginal people first inhabited this land. However, one not need to take one’s approach so far back. Today’s capitalist culture sees the mass production of almost all commodities to the point where the food produced has little or no nutritional value; let alone the conditions animals are kept in, and the natural resources used, to maintain the mass production of meat, dairy products, and eggs. It is with this in mind we can come to the inclination that the two cultures that have now come into question are starkly different and a relative approach can be considered. On the opposite side of this coin we can imagine nomadic peoples as the embodiment of the “hunter-gatherer”: those of whom only hunted what they needed, utilising a majority of the carcass, if not all of it: meat for food, skins for clothing and binding, and bones for tools and weapons.

    The geographical landscape of today sees the demolition of vast flora for the construction of homes, factories, and farms as part of the capitalist machine that drives our culture. Compare this with the geographical landscape of these ancient peoples and we can envisage dense forests covering mountains and plateaus alike, countered with sporadic open plains. Again, we can see the stark contrasts between todays landscape to that of the landscape inhabited by those ancient peoples.

    With these basic points in mind it becomes clear that the symbiosis between human and animal are worlds apart. In ancient times, human and animals could even be regarded as spiritually conjoined, lending itself to a no less an ethical position to that of a vegetarian or vegan in todays society. Human kind may have in fact benefited from the consumption of animal products in the past in the process of biological and spiritual evolution, however, today, the consumption of animal products has become completely hedonistic in nature and does not lend itself to the ethical or spiritual symbiosis of those who came before us.

  6. 6 Waz January 15, 2008 at 10:23 am

    I am tempted to throw in the “scientific fact”, that it was early humans who started eating meat (in addition to all the fruit and vegetables) that kick started our evolution in the humans we are today… I am not 100% sure of all the details, but basically what it did was enable our brains to physically grow over time. Something physiological within humans as opposed to other omnivores like chimpanzees and other primates.

    But as I don’t know all the details I don’t think I will…

  7. 7 Simon January 15, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    There’s quite a bit of contention over this ‘fact’ but I’m not sure it’s relevant. Hitler wanter to create an Ubermensch but that doesn’t justify human experimentation.

    Nath, once again I think it depends upon why you value animals. Look at Bentham’s famous quote – ‘The question is not, can they reason? nor can they talk? but rather, can they suffer?’. If one takes Bentham’s position and is also not a relativist then, and I’m sure you’ll all agree, any person that kills an animal, and for whatever purpose, is committing an ethical wrong.

  8. 8 Nathan January 15, 2008 at 3:25 pm

    Even if I value animal life on the grounds that can suffer, how does this correlate to two starkly differing cultures and how each culture values animal life, that is all forms of value? Perhaps I’d have a different view I had lived 30,000 years ago?

    Personally, I think that the treatment of animals prior to slaughter is possibly more “inhumane” than the actual slaughter. However, this is obviously not to down play the severity of animal slaughter. Perhaps one could also argue that a particular focus toward animal suffrage in contrast to human suffrage or pre homo sapien development is a little misanthropic?

  9. 9 Simon January 16, 2008 at 7:39 am

    The differing cultures doesn’t matter if you’re not a relativist…the culture that acts against your principle is simply wrong.

  10. 10 Nathan January 16, 2008 at 9:27 am

    I’m aware of and understand that factual point between relativism and objectivism; however, that just doesn’t cut it for me. I was looking for something a little more “feeling”, something a little more caring, something a little more… existential perhaps.

    No matter which way you look at it there is violence at play. Say we show hospitality toward animals as “other” and not kill them for food. What this entails, in part, is not keeping them in an artificial environment, allowing them to exist freely within their “own” natural habitat. This is an argument is leveled by some vegans toward the non consumption of eggs: chickens are kept in an artificial environment so as to produce eggs. Conversely, though only seemingly, chickens’ eggs are fertile in a natural environment with the introduction of a rooster. So, again, we show hospitality towards animals and not kill them. However, if we keep along this same line of hospitality we see again the violence of having pets. To have a pet dog or cat is to, in essence, keep them in an artificial environment, therefore “unethical”. This would be the argument of the objectivist.

    Because animal is “other”, animal is, as Derrida would suggest, “wholly other.” This is the violence displayed. Because animal is “other” we want to show hospitality toward the animal; though, because animal is “wholly other” we don’t want it near us. There are always conditions in place. Can we settle on something that is a little more caring, something that is a little more (be)coming of us with our flaunting of ethical principles, something that is a little more… ethically Whatever [quodlibet]?

    Agamben writes in The Coming Community:
    “The fact that must constitute the point of departure for any discourse on ethics is that there is no essence, no historical or spatial vocation, no biological destiny that humans must enact or realise. This is the only reason why something like ethics can exist, because it is clear that if humans were or had to be this or that substance, this or that destiny, no ethical experience would be possible — there would only be tasks to be done” (p.43).

    The objectivist only has tasks to be done — they are, only this or that substance, this or that destiny. The gap we create, or perhaps, the divide we make being [un]hospitable in whatever [quodlibet] form, is of our own making. This is what is ethical; this is ethical discourse.

  11. 11 Simon January 16, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    Your critique of Objectivism reminds me a lot of critiques of Utilitarianism, arguing that being entirely objective and rational in all circumstances is not becoming of ethics.

    I suppose this is why Heidegger fancied inviting hermeneutics into his philosophical discussions.

    But I suppose all ethical positions have to begin somewhere, be they purely rational and analytical or be they emotional and historical. Where do you find yourself leaning, Nath, and what reasons, if reason in fact plays a part, do you appeal to for your position?

  12. 12 Nathan January 16, 2008 at 11:32 pm

    Within reason, reason does play a part in my ethical appeal. I am passionate, enthusiastic, and intense; however, I’m also aware of the responsibility I own with regard to the consequences of my actions. I am existentially caring.

    I could not do justice to my own position within the confines of a response post, though, lets just say that I would not hold in judgement the killing of animals by the nomadic (and non-nomadic people alike) of the prehistoric age.

    You still haven’t outlined you own position, Simon. What is your ethical appeal?

  13. 13 Simon January 18, 2008 at 5:54 pm

    As a Vaisnava, the foundation for my ethical position is the Vedic literature. Reason, however, plays a fundamental role in my thinking relative to ethical decision making and judgments. As I’m not a believer, or not a firm believer, that persons can be entirely objective all of the time I place a fairly high expectation on the process of reason relative to ethics. In this situation, nomadic and animal ethics, reason plays just as fundamental a role in the ethical outcome…are the reasons just? Are there alternatives?

    However, I place a very high intrinsic value on many things, all animal life being one of those things, so any particular reason would have to be fundamentally substantial to outweigh such intrinsic value.

    As to my relativism, well as I mentioned above I’m a Vaisnava so I follow the ‘rules’ of Karma as laid out in the Vedic literature. When this is combined with a system of reason, intrinsic value, and, perhaps most importantly, the position that persons are fallible and can not be entirely objective, then you begin to see where my position begins.

    Do I think that the killing of animals by nomadic people is unethical? Well, it’s pretty hard to say without knowing all of the details but I would say that I feel it’s far more ethical than a given Australian adding milk to their Nescafè.

  14. 14 Nathan January 18, 2008 at 11:59 pm

    “Do I think that the killing of animals by nomadic people is unethical? Well, it’s pretty hard to say without knowing all of the details but I would say that I feel it’s far more ethical than a given Australian adding milk to their Nescafè.”

    I think you can see my point!

  15. 15 Waz January 19, 2008 at 10:11 am

    So what you two are in essence saying is that while you both agree that today animals are treating unethically (in what ever guise), you can both see that the indigenous population of Australia (or just about any country) were not unethical (I won’t say ethical) in their actions of hunting for food, and other resources.

    As we all know most of Australia is desert, and if the indigenous populations did not hunt would there have been enough plant foods to sustain them? I think not – the majority of the inland populations also included insects and other invertebrates – are these not animals too? Without them, the populations would have surely perished.

    Personally I don’t think you can apply any ethical theory to the original population as ethics is a luxury. Yes the ancient Greeks talked about ethics, but they still ate meat, still farmed, and all the other points made, but they could only talk about ethics because they were not worried about survival of the clan/tribe/group. As most of the indigenous population of Australia were hunter/gatherers, survival was the first priority.

    Ok, I think I have made my point


  16. 16 Simon January 19, 2008 at 10:20 am

    In essence, yeah. To me, ethics exists in degrees. A may be entirely ethical with B being less so and C even less again. C may not be seen as unethical (unless unethical means in relation to A) but certainly less ethical.

  17. 17 Nathan January 19, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    On this note of “ethics,” I agree with Simon.

    I personally think that the term “ethics” is bantered around to much; it has lost any real meaning for my liking. When one speaks of ethics, what do they mean? If you were to deconstruct, so to speak, their argument, you may find that there is nothing “ethical” about it.

    I also become a little concerned when people use the term intrinsic, with regard to ethics, and don’t, or can’t, follow up with an argument. For me, (and I will stress, this is just my opinion), it imbues too much religiosity. (I’ll be writing a reply to Kevin Rudd’s essay Faith in Politics on my blog soon, concerning this issue). Religion, in my mind, has little to do with ethics; or at least ethics under the guise of religion is abhorrent. I believe it suggests that I as an Atheist, for example, don’t, or can’t, hold a “true” “ethical” position. More on that later though.

    Again, though, I do agree with Simon that ethics exists in degrees.

  18. 18 Simon January 19, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    What do you find concerning about the term intrinsic?

  19. 19 Nathan January 19, 2008 at 8:54 pm

    What is intrinsic? And by virtue of what? More intrinsicity?

    The Stoics had a term for that which was morally indifferent: adiaphora. One thing that was morally indifferent was life. For the Stoics, the end of Man was to live harmoniously with nature. There was nothing intrinsic about being one with nature: it was and end in that there was no immediate connection with life and Man’s end.

    What does this mean for animal life then, or any life for that matter? Is their life in, or an, immediate connection with their end? I tend to side with the Stoics on this matter. Man, nor animal, have an intrinsic nature that provides an immediate with their end; however, life does indirectly contribute to this end. Life, therefore, is divided into differing acts: preferable, inferior, and indifferent. What, then, makes an act ethical? Not something that is intrinsic, but that which is preferable.

  20. 20 Waz January 21, 2008 at 9:33 am

    I agree Nathan, there are a number of concepts which have been appropriated by (in general) business. Ethics being one, another is of course intrinsic, but the one that really gets my goat is philosophy!

    Most businesses now boast of having a philosophy! A philosophy? A philosophy of what? here is an example from Macquarie Group (nee Macquarie Bank)

    What makes Macquarie different?
    Key to Macquarie’s success is a unique management style that provides individual businesses with a balance between operating freedom, controls on risk limits and observance of professional standards. This philosophy encourages a sense of ownership and entrepreneurial endeavor among our people, and has produced a stream of major financial innovations throughout Macquarie’s history.

    Macquarie’s growth strategy is to expand selectively, seeking only to enter markets where we perceive there is a genuine opportunity to add real value. Two of the primary advantages this offers are:

    flexibility to enter new markets as opportunities arise
    freedom to respond to the special requirements of individual markets around the world.
    Our international presence reflects this philosophy, with individual businesses operating in discrete markets in 24 countries. In many cases our strategy when entering new countries is to establish an alliance with a leading local provider. This approach enables us to combine our technical expertise and specialist skills with the market presence and infrastructure of a leading local player.

    This is not a philosophy, it is merely a statement of how they do things. A guideline perhaps, but not a philosophy.

    Have a look around at some “business” sites and you will see what I mean.

  1. 1 Brain Strain » Mis-appropriation of words Trackback on January 21, 2008 at 9:54 am

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