I’m hearing lots about how it’s an obvious result that Effective Altruists should be vegans. This seems like a possible result to me, but not an obvious one. Here’s why.
A few months ago, I had an appointment on my calendar marked “Death”. A friend had asked me earlier for help figuring out why she was afraid of death. At first I thought that surely philosophers must have addressed this question, so with my education I ought to be able to provide something relevant and illuminating. But all I could think of was attempts to cure the fear of death, not attempts to explain it.
When I asked my former classmates, they had the same problem. Unless our memories are defective, or unless we simply aren’t as widely read as we think, this is an embarrassment for philosophy, a failure to be curious about a fundamental question. I asked a librarian friend for help, and she turned up some resources, but these were mostly empirical in nature – descriptions of how fear of death is expressed in our and others’ cultures, not a causal explanation of why we fear it.
So I used the last tool in my box. I offered to ask her some clarifying questions and engage in dialogue for an hour. By the end, my thinking on death was clearer too, and I realized that a true understanding of how to think about one’s own death ought to involve answers to these questions:
- Should I expect to die?
- How should I compare being dead with being alive?
Today is Yom Kippur, the last of the ten Days of Awe. The Days of Awe begin with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the day on which judgments are inscribed in to the Book of Life. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement and the Day of Judgment, the last chance to repent for the sins of the prior year before the Book of Life is sealed and your judgment is finalized.
In Jewish law there’s something called a Neder, which is a vow any Jew can swear, promising to do anything, that thereby becomes a divine law. This is important because it allows you to take a voluntary act of dedication and consecrate it into a commanded act. (In Judaism, fulfilling obligations gives you more points than doing superfluous stuff.)
In practice this can be disastrous. There’s a carefully worked out legal framework to make sure the received commandments are not onerous, but you can say anything and make it a Neder. This is dramatized in the Book of Judges, with the story of Jephthah: