Tuesday, October 31, 2017

10 plagues of families

If you have kids, you probably have sufffered a plague or two.  What do I mean?  Well, I am thinking of one month during which our family suffered fleas, mice, and flies in the house, all at once.  My mom joked that it was like the plagues of Egypt!  And she wasn't wrong.

The more kids you have, the harder it is to get rid of some of these, because they pass things among themselves.  Sometimes we've gone months where we can't meet up with anybody because we've all got something contagious.  Venture out just once, and we bring home something else!  This is one of those times; we've had colds, fevers, and sore throats circulating among us since school started.  It's pretty horrible, but on the bright side -- it's not vomiting!

Here are the ten plagues I know most about.  None of this constitutes an admission that we've had any of these!  I admit, some of these are nasty and embarrassing.  But that's all the more reason to find out what they are and how to deal with them before they happen to you.

1. Ants

Let's start out with something not too scary: ants.  I hate them, especially if they get on me.  Nothing like sitting on the ground and then finding out you sat on an anthill.  But in the house, they're more an annoyance than a threat.  You find lines of them getting under your door or through the cracks in your window frame, and they just keep coming back.

How to prevent them: Don't leave food around.  Easier said than done!  It's a good policy to keep food contained in the kitchen and dining room only, not all over the house, especially not in carpeted areas where it's hard to clean the crumbs.  Store food in places the ants can't get to, like in the fridge or in sealed containers. We keep pet food in sealed pails because the ants were getting into it when we left it in the bag.

How to get rid of them: For an occasional ant trail, wipe down the area where they are walking.  This erases the chemical trail they lay, so they aren't able to find their way back where they were.  The best thing for this is probably citrus vinegar -- vinegar you've soaked citrus peels in for a week or more.  Ants hate it and run like crazy if you spray it near them.

For a more serious problem, those little plastic ant traps are the best.  They have poison, but the poison doesn't touch any of your stuff.  Still, keep them out of reach of curious toddlers.  You can put them out at night, inside cupboards, or on counters where ants have been spotted.

If there's a certain spot you are always finding them, you might consider sealing the cracks if possible.  Or, if there's a nest very close to your door, you could pour water on it steadily for a day or two (leave the hose trickling on the nest), making it an inhospitable spot for them.  I had great luck with this when the nest was inside a flower box outside.

2. Fruit flies

How to prevent: Again, don't leave food out!  If you keep tomatoes on the counter (which you should, they aren't good refrigerated), check them daily and use or throw away any that has cracked skin.  The same goes for any other room-temperature food, especially fruits and vegetables.  If you have a frequent problem, you might want to confine fruit to inside a cupboard or under a cloth.  Take out the trash every couple of days, even if it's not full, and throw out a compost bucket daily.

How to cure: Clean up all food fragments.  Sweep the floor and wipe down the counters.  Pour boiling water down your drains, because they like to breed down there (ew!).  Then make a fruit fly trap: one piece of fruit or some fruit juice or cider vinegar, in a jar of water, with a squirt of dish soap.  You don't need to cover the container; when the fruit flies land on the water to taste it, the dish soap makes them sink.  You'll see them at the bottom of your jar.

3. Mice

Our old house was prone to mice.  I'm not scared of mice, but I didn't like finding their droppings in my silverware drawer either.  A couple of them, I was able to catch with oven mitts on (you don't want to risk them biting you) but in the end I had to resort to traps.

How to know you have them: Little black droppings like black tic-tacs are an obvious sign.  So are chewed holes in food packages.  You may not see any mice at all, but if you have these signs, you have mice.

How to prevent: Block up holes leading into your house.  Our weak point was the gap around the oil pipe leading into our basement.  Some expanding foam took care of that easily.  You can also plug any mouse holes you find within the house, where they might hide or travel from room to room.

How to cure: Those cheap spring traps are really the best option.  Poison is dangerous to have around, and you run the risk the mice will die inside your walls.  The smell is unbearable when this happens, and you basically have to wait for a month or so while the corpse rots away.  Don't do it!  Get the spring traps from the hardware store and put them out, with a bit of peanut butter on the pedal, wherever you saw mice.  When you find a mouse in one, it will probably be dead (they usually kill instantly, which is at least humane) but if it isn't, you'll have to put on heavy gloves to handle it.  It's up to you what you do with it at that point, but let me warn you -- if you catch and release, and you haven't blocked all your holes, the cute little mousey will be right back in your kitchen with its uncute droppings by tomorrow.

4. Fleas

Fleas are both unpleasant and embarrassing.  You don't want to have friends over and have them discover you have fleas -- much less carry them home!  But if your pets are bringing them in, they can get out of control before you even notice them.

How to know you have them: A pet who has fleas will scratch a lot.  You may not see any fleas, but if you brush the pet over a light-colored surface, black "dirt" will fall out of their coat.  Get the "dirt" wet, and it turns a rusty color.  That's the flea's poop, which contains your pet's blood.  If you see it, it's a sure thing, whether or not you see any fleas.  A flea infestation may also be discovered when you find bites.  They are red, flat circles, often in a pattern, like the flea was grazing along your leg.  If you're awake when you get them, flea bites sting.  Later, they itch.

How to prevent:  Talk to your vet about the best flea prevention for your pet.  The drop-on-the-back-of-the-neck kinds are really effective, but they can make your pet sick, and they're not safe for children who snuggle the animal either.  Frequent flea baths and combing are toxin-free.  Simplest of all is to keep your cats inside and walk your dogs instead of letting them roam outside.  If your pet picks up fleas in your yard, it is possible to get the yard sprayed for them.  If your pet always sleeps on the same bedding, wash it weekly.

How to get rid of them: Oh, we tried so many things, in an effort to stay all-natural.  We swept, we vacuumed.  The eggs and larvae hatch and grow in the environment, not on the pet, so if you can keep them out of the environment, the cycle will be broken.  However, that's pretty near impossible to do.  We stripped all the beds and put all bedding and rugs in the laundry room.  Started washing and drying the stuff, only to find out that heat and humidity (which was put out by the dryer) triggers hatching.  Within a day there were fleas so thickly in the laundry room that to go in there, you had to pull socks on over your pants to avoid having them go up your clothes.  Then when you came out you had to rip off all your clothes and throw them back in the laundry room, because they were hopping with fleas.  It was a nightmare.  We dumped diatomaceous earth, we made traps with lightbulbs shining into bowls, and these things only made tiny dents in the problem.  So in the end we turned to chemicals.  This is the stuff: Ultracide.  You spray it on all the carpets and upholstery and baseboards, then spray again a week later when the eggs hatch.  It's not supposed to be toxic for humans, but I did take the kids out of the house for awhile while John sprayed.  It worked immediately and (perhaps in part thanks to many miserable baths for the cat and dog, and much flea-combing) the fleas never returned.

5. Pinworms

These are disgusting, but they say most kids get them at least once.  So try to make it through this section, because you're going to need to know.  Children ingest the eggs, and the worms live in their gut for about 1-2 months before starting to lay their eggs at night on the child's anus, causing intense itching and sleeplessness.  They aren't harmful except for the itching, but you should still treat them immediately so you don't spread them to other children.

How to prevent them: Have children wash hands after playing in playgrounds or other public areas.  Encourage kids not to suck thumbs, pick noses, or bite nails.  The eggs stay on surfaces, and children who are always touching their mouths will ingest them.  Direct contact isn't necessary for them to be infected.

How to know you have them:  Children will wake up screaming at night and wailing that their butts itch.  If more than one kid is doing it and you don't see rashes, I'd consider that a positive diagnosis on its own.  But a doctor can look for eggs with swab and a microscope.  You won't see the worms themselves unless you get a flashlight and look at your child's butt at night.  They are about half an inch long, white, and as thin as a thread.  If you get infected, you'll notice intense itching that you really cannot ignore.  Mild itching when reading this post is probably psychosomatic.

How to deal with them:  There's a medicine you can buy, which is sometimes shelved with the first aid stuff and lice treatments, and sometimes behind the pharamcy counter, called pyrantel pamoate.  You do not need a prescription.  Everyone in the family should be treated, with the exception of infants and pregnant women, who shouldn't have the medicine.  (The worms will clear after a few months, provided you are scrupulous with hygiene to not reinfect anyone.  Don't even try that route with toddlers, they are just not clean enough.)  After everyone has had a dose, it's time to clean.  Wash all bedding, cut everyone's nails, wipe down surfaces.  You may want to do all this again in a week, because that is how long the eggs live.  Keep kids, as much as possible, from scratching, and make sure they wear underwear or diapers at all times.  They can have a bath, but make sure it's hot and involves soap.  No swimming or wading pools.  Within a couple days, the itching will go away.

 A week or two later, give everyone a second dose.  You may think you got rid of them the first time, but the kids have almost certainly reinfected themselves.  A second dose will kill all the juvenile worms in their guts.  If you don't do this, two months from now they'll all be screaming at night again and you'll wonder where they got it this time.  Answer: they got it from themselves.  That is how long their life cycle is.  The second dose prevents this and hopefully you won't ever have to deal with the disgusting creatures again.

6. Impetigo

Impetigo is a staph infection of the skin.  It's usually not serious, though it can get bad if you leave it too long untreated.  And it's very catchy -- the doctor told us he once treated a family of ten that all had it.  Imagine the cost of ten doctor visits.  Yeah, don't let this get out of hand.

How to prevent: Put neosporin or another antibiotic ointment on all cuts and scrapes.  Neosporin kills most strains of staph, which usually gets in through small cuts.  If one child has it, avoid sharing cups, utensils, and food.

How to know you have it: Sores like bad cold sores, whether on the mouth or elsewhere on the body.  They might be blistery-looking, oozy, or even green or purple.  Basically they look nasty and infected, and may grow instead of healing.  Impetigo by the mouth looks almost exactly the same as herpes cold sores, but the good news is, you don't really have to know which it is.  Antibiotic ointment will cure it if it's impetigo, and if it's a cold sore, it will heal on its own.

How to treat it: If neosporin doesn't work, or if you're first noticing it and the child has multiple large sores, take them in to the doctor and get prescription ointment.  The doctor may also prescribe an oral antibiotic.  If it's just one spot and it's small, go ahead and try neosporin first.  If it's working, the sore will start shrinking within a day or two.

7. Stomach virus

The bane of all families everywhere.  If one child gets it, you're all doomed.  I hardly know which is worse -- for everyone to be puking at once, or for you to drop one at a time, so that it takes ages before everyone is well again.

How you know you have it: Oh, you know.  Vomiting is not something you can miss!  If anyone has vomited in the last 24 hours, just assume it's a virus.  It might be food poisoning, it might be carsickness, it might be choking, but can you really take the risk?  Unless you are positive it's something else, stay home for 24 hours after an isolated case of vomiting and 48 hours after full-blown illness.

How to prevent it: Never ever for any reason go over to the house of someone who has just had it, or have a playdate with someone who might have it.  The virus lives up to a week on surfaces and is extremely catching.  It can't hurt to wash your hands often and avoid touching your face, but if you have children, you can safely assume that any contact with the virus will result in illness.  I once got it from my siblings a solid week after they'd gotten better.  Spent half my Christmas vacation in a sleeping bag feeling the room spin and wishing for just one sip of water, which I knew I couldn't keep down.

How to cure: Alas, you can't.  I have heard of drinking grape juice as soon as you feel queasy, but I have no idea if this works.  Just wait it out.  Give children small sips of water or pedialyte -- no food until they've been vomit-free on fluids for several hours.  Infants may breastfeed, but what I do is nurse on one side only, so they're getting a bit less than usual.  That way they're getting some fluids but not too much.

Children cannot possibly make it to the toilet in the time it takes them to realize they're about to barf, so give each child a bowl to hold in their lap or put beside their bed.  Wrap everyone in easily-washed blankets and keep rags handy.  If you are puking yourself, taking care of them may be very difficult.  Keep the TV on and everything you need handy.  I wish you could get help, but unfortunately anyone who helps you WILL get it, so most likely no one will want to do that.  If they offer, they clearly would take a bullet for you.

When the children start to recover and are asking for food, start slow.  Do the BRATY diet -- bananas, rice, applesauce, toast, and yogurt.  Start with a bite or two, wait a bit, then let them have more.  Once everyone in the family is well, wipe down all surfaces with lysol, bleach, or straight vinegar.  Don't invite anyone over for at least a week, but the family can go places again once everyone has been vomit-free for 48 hours.

8. Carpenter bees

So much less of a big deal than germs.  Carpenter bees are big bumblebees that come out in about May and eat holes in your deck.  They like untreated wood best -- fences, porches, trellises.  Mostly a nuisance, but if you let them be, they'll eventually destroy all your wooden things.

How you know you have them: Holes appear in your wood, about a quarter to half an inch around.  They're slanted, so you won't see inside very well.  Sawdust may appear below the hole.  And in the spring, big black bumbling bees fly around.  They rarely sting, but my kids are terrified of them anyway.

How to prevent: Treat all wood in your yard by painting or sealing it.  Once you've got the bees, they may not be deterred, but if you don't have them yet, they will probably not get established.

How to cure: Traps are the best way.  This kind can be made yourself, or your hardware or garden store might have them.  At first, our trap didn't catch anything.  I heard it was because they prefer weathered wood and it was brand new.  But elsewhere I heard that you can attract bees by catching a female bee (the one with a black head) in the jar.  I happened to find one stuck on our screen porch, so I scooped it into the jar.  Sure enough, by the next day I was starting to catch bees.  They prefer pre-existing holes to having to chew new ones, so you'll catch more if you plug up all their old holes with caulk, wood glue, or expanding foam.

9. Bathroom mildew

Mildew is just gross-looking.  It's never caused us any harm, but I still don't like it and want it gone.

How to know you have it: black or gray patches growing on your bathroom ceiling, toilet lid, or any other damp place.  How do you know it's not dangerous black mold?  Well, the main way is that mildew comes right off, while black mold doesn't.  Here are some more tips.

How to prevent it: Ventilate your bathroom.  If it has a fan, turn it on when you shower.  If it has a window, open it after you shower.  There is mildew-proof primer you can paint your bathroom with, which may help.  Hang towels where they have air all around them, and spread out the shower curtain to dry.

How to cure it: Scrub it down every time it starts to reappear.  I use straight vinegar but bleach will also work.

10. The common cold

Alas, much, much too common.  We've been passing around different strains of it since school started.  It's usually no more than a nuisance, but coughing and stuffy noses can interfere with sleep.  And sometimes children get fevers even with colds that give adults few or no symptoms.

How to prevent it: Wash hands.  I know.  Encourage kids not to touch their faces.  One of the most common places they'll get a cold is from you, the parent, so try not to swap germs with them more often than you have to.  If you go somewhere without them, or the other parent does, wash hands when you get home.  Each child should have their own sippy cup rather than drinking yours.

How to know you have it: You know the drill: sore throat, runny nose, sinus headache, cough.  With a baby who can't talk, you'll only see the snot, so very often the first day of the cold, they'll just be inexplicably fussy.  Then the next day, they have a runny nose, and you're like "ohhhhhh."  The main difference between colds and allergies is that colds have a progression of symptoms while allergies keep the same set of symptoms, just more or less off them, as long as you have them.

How to cope with it: You can't cure it, obviously.  But plenty of rest will help everyone get through it as painlessly as possible.  A day off school isn't a bad idea.  I like to make chicken soup with lemon, garlic, ginger, and cayenne -- it really blasts the yucky feeling away.  Medicine isn't really necessary unless people feel really awful.  Unfortunately, cough medicine isn't available for children under four, but for older children you can give some before bed.  For sore throats, sore ears, and sinus headaches, ibuprofen or tylenol are available.  Ibuprofen works better and lasts longer, and there's less risk of overdose, so it's what I choose.

If their forehead feels hotter than usual, as well as dry, they probably have a fever.  (A hot face and neck is common with a cold even if they don't have a fever.)  I leave it alone unless the child is very distressed and uncomfortable, or if they can't sleep.  If it gets over 102, it's good to bring it down with ibuprofen.  They say medicating a fever doesn't make it less effective, but it can make a child feel so much better he goes back to playing, while a fever will make them rest.  With a baby, if they're not medicated, I keep them against my body as much as possible, so that I have a sense of how hot they are and my body will cool them down.  You really break a sweat doing this.

If a child has a fever, keep them home for 24 hours afterward.  Fevers often peak at night, so never assume that a fever that disappears in the morning is gone for good.  It could come back later.

Best wishes, and I hope all these plagues stay clear of your family!  But if they do befall you, I hope my experience helps you out.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Nature is beautiful and terrible

This morning I went to let the dog out, as I do every morning.  Normally he runs over to where his chain is and I clip it onto his collar.  He stays out there for twenty minutes or so, does his business, and then I bring him inside again.  I wish we had a fence, but it isn't really practical with our set-up.

We do, however, have a fenced garden -- a high fence, to keep out the deer.  But lately I've left the gate open, since nothing much is growing in there and we haven't had a problem with deer getting in.

Anyway, I opened the door and let the dog out, but instead of going to his chain, he bolted into the garden.  There I saw three deer, browsing on the weeds in there.  When they saw the dog they went crazy, trying to leap away but crashing into the fence, too agitated to find the gate they came in by.  The dog went nuts, lunging for their throats and seizing their legs in his teeth.  I screamed and screamed at him but he had gone completely wild, ignoring me in his lust for prey.

I did, eventually, with a help of a long garden stake, beat the dog off the deer and drag him inside by the collar.  But for a little bit I thought, in my fear of getting bitten by him or kicked by the deer, of just letting him kill the deer.  It's nature's way, right?  I could stand there and watch him tear their throats out and see them die in terrible pain, just like those horrible nature documentaries.  I'm glad I didn't, but even though these deer got away, many wild animals did get torn apart by predators today.

In theory, I like nature.  It's perfectly balanced; the wolf eats some deer and some deer live another day, the deer eat some plants and so the plants grow some more.  On every level, nature is intricately complex, balanced, and beautiful -- if you don't particularly care about any of the beings involved.

But if it's close up, if you care about the person infected by that beautifully flourishing germ or if your heart has been softened by that adorable harp seal in the documentary ... it's the opposite of beautiful.  It's hideous and heartless.  Nature is beautiful in a very cold, uncaring way. It's an alien sort of beauty that would be created by a very alien sort of mind.

Someone told me yesterday, "If God actually intervenes directly to control the exact outcome of everything, he's kind of a douche."  They felt that a God who actually meant our world to be as it is must be cruel and sadistic, because after all our world is full of suffering and awfulness.  But I don't believe so. There's also breathtaking beauty, and I don't think a sadist would come up with anything like that.

But if you're trying to deduce God's personality from nature alone, you'd have to attribute to him all the coldness and impartiality that nature has.  Nature, by keeping the balance between the harp seal and the polar bear, has to be impartial.  It isn't swayed by the cuteness of the harp seal or the intelligence of the polar bear.  It isn't swayed by the suffering of a child dying of measles any more than it has any particular love for the measles virus.  It lets us all fight it out -- in fact, it demands we fight it out.  The only way we can survive -- and we must want to survive; nature requires us to -- is to throw all our efforts into beating all the other creatures.  God does not protect us from smallpox or hurricanes; that is entirely up to us.  Our own efforts can save us, while God won't.

Yet at the same time, God isn't biased against us either.  He simply is (if he is at all).  He builds (or allows to happen) all the complex, beautiful systems we see.  And that includes things repulsive to humans.  He lets my dog tear out the throat of a helpless deer.  If that is to be prevented, it's up to me.

I don't hate God or nature.  But at the same time, I think it would be madness to expect whatever power is behind the universe to be on our side.  We can appreciate the beauty of nature, but we shouldn't expect her to be a friend.  There's no placating her, but she isn't out to get us either.  Sometimes I look at the universe, or whatever parts are nearby, and feel awe and wonder.  But I don't pray, because I can't believe it cares.  It isn't loving or kind.  It's beautiful and terrible.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Questions about ethics

It's been two years since I stopped believing in God, but most people in my life still don't know.  When I do tell someone, invariably the first question they ask is some permutation of this: "How can you be moral without God?"

I find this strange, because at the tail end of my time as a believer, my main worry was, "How can I be moral while being religious?"  After all, religion constrains your choices; sometimes you might have to abandon something your conscience wants you to do because your religion forbids it.

But I do try to answer the question, because it's important.  Even if the asker never leaves religion, I want them at least to be thinking about which of their moral choices would still make sense in a godless universe.  Call it the Reverse Pascal's Wager -- act in such a way that, even if there isn't a God, you still haven't done anything horrible.  Believe in God without the Inquisition, is what I'm saying.  And the only way to do that is to know what would be moral if God didn't exist.

I've talked about this a lot before, so you can read all my posts on the topic if you haven't already.  Today I want to talk about a few other moral questions which I've untangled lately.

Question 1: But don't you need objective morality?

I really am not sure what people are asking for here.  Morality is mainly about being objective -- to stop being stuck in your own wants and needs, and consider what is best for humanity as a whole.  Imagine you could pop out of your own body and float above the earth, looking down.  Don't ask "what's best for me" or even "what's best for my friends" but "what's best for everyone?"  The answer that you get from that is a moral answer.  If what is best for everyone is for your nation to, say, allow refugees in -- because the risk to your nation is small but the benefit to the refugees is vast -- then that is the moral thing to do.

Ah, my interlocutor would say, but why should I care what's best for everyone?  You have to give me an objective reason to care.

Well, there is no such thing as an objective reason to care, because caring is a bit subjective, isn't it?  I could tell you there is an omnipotent being who cares, but that is a statement of fact, not a reason for you to care.  I could tell you you'll go to hell if  you don't care, but even that doesn't bring you to an "ought" -- you could claim that you don't mind going to hell.  So no, there is nothing I could say that could universally make you care about this.  It is an observable fact, though, that most people do care.  They don't actually want to make the world a worse place.  And if you really go over it with them, they might admit that they do, in fact, want to have positive relationships with other people, and you get that by being good to people.  The specific arguments against all the various evils people might attempt would be a longer conversation, but I think the arguments could be made.  It won't be an objective proof, though.  It will depend on what the person actually wants, and what their ethical concerns are so far.

Question 2: But why is it moral to care for all people, rather than just some people?

Here's a question that has troubled me for awhile.  A person who's not endowed with much empathy or conscientiousness might be talked into some basic decency because they want to have friends.  They might want to be loyal to their friends; most people at least like to think they are.  But why should they be decent to people who aren't in their tribe?  They might define their tribe as "people they regularly interact with" or "people of their religion" or "people of their race," but that still gives them plenty of people to have positive relationships and engage in trade with, without having to be moral toward strangers.  And human nature doesn't really give us much to combat this tendency with, because it naturally is suspicious of strangers.  This is why there's so much racism and ethnic cleansing and so on -- because neither our reason nor our instincts put the brakes on this tendency very much.

But it occurs to me that the basic game-theory motive for moral action still works on this level.  I am kind to the cashier who scans my groceries because we are both better off if we are both kind, while we will both be worse off if we aren't.  I could be mean, hoping she is still kind, so that I get what I want without being moral, but that doesn't work, because if I'm mean once, she'll be mean in the future.  And this is true of groups as well.  My group can practice reciprocal morality with other groups, just like I can with individuals.  It is better for the US to get along with Canada than for us to fight with Canada, so Americans should be nice to Canadians.

Of course, Machiavelli might say this only holds true if some group, in the future, might have power to hurt us.  If we wipe them out entirely, they can never get revenge on us, so we'll be better off.  And all I can say is that history does not bear this out.  Wiping out an entire race and everyone that cared about that race is virtually impossible.  It didn't work for Hitler, it didn't work for Milosevic, it's not going to work for you.  Keeping them as a powerless subclass doesn't work forever, either.  Haiti is an example of this.

Now the best way to solve tribalism is probably to increase inter-tribal interaction and relationships.  If you have several black friends, and they're actually close, odds are good you won't want to join the KKK.  If you have a Syrian friend on Facebook, you might stop suggesting "bomb the whole region from space" as a solution to the unrest there.  Basically, once you realize that the stranger is not all that different from you, that they have feelings, hopes, aspirations, and loved ones like you have, you will want to be kind.

Still, even if you're a heartless xenophobe, if you really think about it, you should be able to see that a world where people interact positively with one another is better for you to live in than a world where all nations are constantly at war and you're always watching your back in case one of your slaves shanks you.

Question 3: What is a person?

That's a brief way of asking, "How do you define the class of beings that are morally significant?" or "Who has rights?" or possibly, "But who is my neighbor?"

I was brought up keeping it simple: humans.  Humans are morally significant; no other life form is morally significant.  But that sort of leaves out aliens.  If we were to discover intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, I would argue that we should treat them ethically, for all the reasons discussed in question 2.  They would be able to participate with us in reciprocal morality -- perhaps they might share their technology with us, for instance.  Whereas if we tried to wipe them out, we'd probably get a reputation throughout the galaxy of "these people are mass murderers, kill on sight" long before we managed to wipe them out.  So on that ground, even if we're completely selfish, we should try to be nice to aliens.

Further, just as we can empathize with a fellow human from a different country, with different experiences, because we have many things in common with him ... so too would we have things in common with intelligent aliens.  Their culture and minds would be vastly different from ours, but their experience must have some commonality with us if they're rational like we are.  We might find they make interesting friends.  And our instinct not to kill a being that has hopes and dreams and friends will likely kick in, once we get over our squeamishness over their different appearance and start communicating with them.

But of course once you draw the circle larger than "the human race" you open a massive can of worms.  Are animals morally significant as well?  Should we respect the lives, liberty, and happiness of animals?  How are we to know whether or not we should?

This is a really, really thorny problem and it isn't something I'm going to be able to hash out in its entirety here.  I do think that, to some degree, intelligence matters.  A pig or a dog, which can be trained, read a human's intentions, and solve problems seems a lot more likely to be morally significant than a shrimp or a snail, if only because the "higher" animal will experience longer, more complex kinds of suffering if it's mistreated, while the snail doesn't seem to be capable of it.  (It may be impossible to say for sure.)

My general feeling is that it is good for animals to exist and not suffer.  However, for them to die is not such a big thing.  I know this sounds odd, but animals generally do not seem to comprehend death, and so they aren't upset by being in a situation where they will die, unless they are otherwise afraid or in pain.  Most domesticated animals don't mind a lack of liberty, either, so I don't consider them to have a "right to liberty" the way humans do.

Of course the reason this is so thorny is that humans like to eat animals.  So I feel like I should be able to justify, morally, why I eat meat, or else stop doing it.  My current reason is this: either we farm domesticated animals like cows and chickens, or these animals, with a few lucky exceptions, cease to exist.  If people stopped eating meat, farmers would probably kill their breeding stock, sell them for dog meat, and go out of business.  If there is no money in cows, there is no reason for cows.  They eat a lot, and humans cannot afford such a huge drain on the world's food resources unless we're going to eat the cows.  (We also kill an awful lot of mice and birds to keep them away from our crops, but that's a whole other problem.)  Cows and chickens cannot survive in the wild; they are too thoroughly domesticated.  Pigs can, but pigs are environmentally devastating if you let them run wild, so humans would probably end up having to cull them anyway.

Given that the cow is not distressed, per se, by being kept in captivity and then painlessly killed, it seems that if it had the capacity to choose, it would prefer to live a short time than not at all.  This might change if its life were guaranteed to be full of suffering, as the lives of many farm animals are.  But if you take farming in the abstract, if it were perfectly done, I don't see a problem with eating any animal that cannot visualize and be upset by the prospect of its future death.  It's going to die at some point, anyway, and Temple Grandin pointed out that, if she were a cow, she'd rather get knocked on the head than eaten by a lion.  "Nature is cruel, but we don't have to be," is a catchphrase of hers.

I do think that any animal that can suffer, should be treated humanely so that it doesn't suffer.  We shouldn't scare dogs on purpose, or keep pigs in tiny crates, or cut off chickens' beaks.  It's not my life's crusade or anything, because there are still so many humans being mistreated all over the earth, but ideally, we would be humane to all feeling creatures because we too are feeling creatures and can understand that no one wants to suffer.

This isn't something I am able to prove, per se.  There is a great deal of argument on either side of the question of animal rights.  But for the moment, I'm not vegan and have no real intention to be.  I am hoping to buy some pastured beef soon, though, because the more I find out about conventional meat, the less I want to eat it.

Question 4:  Is there any limit to how selfless you're supposed to be?

I've been bothered by "utilitarian guilt" for some time.  I mean, I've rationally worked out that I'm no more important than anyone else.  Then how can it possibly be justified for me to spend more effort on myself than on anyone else?  I just ate some ice cream.  Someone elsewhere in the world died of malaria.  Why did I buy the ice cream instead of a bed net?  Am I a monster?

I was going to call this scrupulosity, but I think if I were really all that scrupulous I would have bought the bed net.  Nah, I'm as selfish as the next person, but it does kind of bother me how selfish I am.  I mean, I could always be doing more.

And the answer, which I got from John -- whose lack of angst on this topic is refreshing -- is this: if you make the world a worse place, you're a bad person.  If you leave it the same, you're an okay person.  And if you make it better, you're a good person.  Instead of trying to divide it between "stuff I do for me" and "stuff I do for other people," why not take it as given that I, as a human being, am going to take care of myself, because that's what we do.  If I eat ice cream, and I pay the person who made it, I'm breaking even.  I didn't do anything good, but I didn't do anything bad either.  I'm still at the neutral place between good and bad.

But if once a week I skip the ice cream and give a buck to the Clean Water Fund, then I'm edging into positive territory.  I haven't done anything that great, but I did a thing and I don't have to weigh it against all the things I did for myself.  Taking care of myself isn't an ethical negative, it's a zero.

I do feel every person has an obligation to do good and not simply avoid evil, but perhaps there is no minimum amount of good you have to do before you count.  If you do something, that's good, and if you do more, that's better.

I am not sure if thinking about it this way helps anyone else, but I'm throwing it out there.

Does anyone have any other questions about morals -- either in the abstract, or my moral reasoning specifically?  Don't be bashful, I like talking about it .... to the point that I often mistake idle questions on the topic for Serious Curiosity and take up hours of somebody's time. 

(If anyone is wondering why I have been posting so rarely .... it took me a solid week to write this post.  That is how little time I have these days.)
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