Ethics at Lunch by Bill Puka


Posted on October 11, 2013

August had meant, for a few decades, walks by the dunes of Larry K’s ocean beach in Wellfleet where he countenanced only “deep-thought” conversation.  Vegetarianism would sometimes come up, him being highly critical of it, me, a vegetarian, trying to get out of the discussion.  For those of you who perhaps might not be familiar with his name, Larry Kohlberg was a merchant marine and child magician who got interested in psychology, getting his doctorate in a year at the University of Chicago with a study that continued for the rest of his life and went worldwide, and continues today.  How children develop their own sense of justice, right and wrong was its focus, as was helping them along in the classroom.  From the Center for Moral Development he established at Harvard, he helped created a revolving set of communities – Just Communities, they were called, extending to Europe, South America and Asia — that recall the Center and the scholars there as something like utopia.  Kohlberg created a community of people, the first of AME, that none of us who were in it can ever hope to find again in academics.  It was a true family, and we still hold onto that sense of each other from afar.

Walking on the dunes, I’d say, “Look, when it’s time to eat, I just don’t reach for mangled animal cadaver — that’s it.  Roadkill, either.  I have no position on the matter beyond ethics:  don’t harm, and don’t conspire in torture and harm.”  There was a notable doctoral study published at the time showing that Hindu respondents generally reasoned at what we might call a vegetarian stage 5/6 level —  reverence for life of all kinds seemed their highest principle.  Larry saw a defect of differentiation there in “showing respect” — animals aren’t people, and don’t deserve it, he argued.  I agreed on the last part, but wondered aloud “how so many Hindus could be wrong,” including Gandhi; “might there be something here we’re not seeing due to deficiencies in our own moral point of view?”

Like some non-careerist AMEers, I spend a lot of each day in, let’s call it, applied ethics – being experimental with better ways to be in life, better ways to act.  This past year I’ve tried eating shell fish, to be more flexible. They seemingly cannot suffer or feel pain due to a lack of peripheral-central nervous system differentiation.

A funny thing happened:  I found myself less able to kill anything at all, even ants. Have you seen the video with this kid questioning his meal of octopus?  Talk about a worth-see!  Makes a good case for regression — regression in rationalization, that is.  I wrote to the mother who shot this video, a famous TV newscaster in Brazil. She assured me of its authenticity and of her being touched by her son.  Her response showed a beautiful person. (I send you the hollywoodgossip site for the video to further assure its credibility.)

It may be that some of us take longer to grow up morally — to perceptually, intuitively grow up, let’s say.  Surely those of you my age have noticed how much sweeter most things are — blossoms in the garden, angled light in the afternoon, birdsong at dawn, babies and children, simply being alive. Maybe not killing is like that.  It gets more sour with “matured” sensibility, simply aged sensibility. For those of you engaged daily in moral life experimentation, salutations and keep up.


Bill Puka is Professor of Philosophy and Psychology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY.

Opinions expressed in these Op Ed pieces are solely those of the author and not intended to represent AME. AME chooses to publish pieces that will foster discussion on issues related to moral psychology, philosophy, development, and education.