By Daniel Tarade
The cattle car is an enduring image of the Holocaust. Trains normally reserved for the transport of livestock en masse were co-opted for mobilisation of undesirables, to be shuttled to concentration camps for mass murder. The cramped journeys in stifling heat and with little to no water are powerful symbols of Nazi efforts to dehumanise those they sought to eliminate. Once, I had a conversation with a professor who discussed how everyone at the university was complicit with the horrors perpetrated by Western society. By becoming productive members of said society, we were all perpetuating a system that maintains systems of poverty and slavery on a global scale. The professor invoked the imagery of a train operator during the Holocaust. By performing their job with diligence and professionalism, they played a role in genocide. I previously wrote about Oskar Gröning, an accountant at Auschwitz, who was successfully convicted of 300, 000 counts of accessory to murder. The legal argument against Gröning, who had admitted moral guilt for his role as a cog in the Nazi machine, hinged on the concept of collective guilt. These arguments, played out during coffee breaks and in court rooms, are striking to me. For years, I had granted privilege to the concept of quality promulgated by Robert M. Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Quality is a culturally pervasive benchmark by which actions could be evaluated. Quality did not hinge on your profession or lifestyle but moreso on how you carried out your work and your life. There can exist quality custodians, telemarketers, and fish mongers. There too can exist doctors and lawyers and engineers of poor quality. Can there be a quality train operator, even if one is transporting human cargo towards their demise? I do not believe that there is anything in Pirsig’s concept of quality that explicitly says no. If the train operator cares about their profession and solved problems with attention to their immediate, ever-changing reality, would they not be performing their job with quality? What about their life as whole? It is tempting to say that a Nazi simply could not have lived a life of quality. Does the same apply to any German citizen during WWII? Unless someone was actively working to undermine the Nazis, perhaps not. But what about us, right here, right now?
Let us revisit the point made to me by an animated professor. To this individual, persons who seeks out a quality existence in our society are guilty of the same crime of the train operator, the maintenance of an unjust society. This argument may seem outrageous. However, the outrage must partly arise from the unique role of the Holocaust as the benchmark of evil.[i] Our Western society may not be actively shipping humans to the slaughter. That does not make us guilt-free. Our participation in the current market incentivizes and perpetuates child labour and slavery. Every T-Shirt bought. Every stock traded. Every home furnished.
Our society breed and kill animals on an industrial scale for our enjoyment and not out of nutritional necessity. First, I want to clarify that I am not drawing a one to one argument between the Holocaust and industrial meat and dairy consumption. I am willing to grant privileged status to humans. However, in keeping with Utilitarian principles, albeit qualitative in nature, animals are to be recognized as moral patients. As sentient beings, humans are burdened with moral agency. It is a consensus that humans can be held responsible for our actions. Animals are rarely held to the same standard but, as they can feel pain and suffer, are worthy of ethical consideration. In some contexts, this is not a controversial stance. If a person were to kick a dog or cat or turtle, they can be reasonably expected to be charged with animal cruelty. If not, admonished at the very least. However, the majority of individuals are comfortable with industrialized meat and dairy harvesting. Argument via analogy to animal cruelty laws and an appeal to the concept of moral patienthood, for me, is sufficient to argue that eating meat and dairy procured via factory farming is immoral and unjustifiable. Further, I argue that most of us are guilty of perpetuating a society where factory farming is common place and readily accepted. You do not need to personally kill a cow or pig or chicken to be guilty. Simply eating meat maintains demand. What if you order a vegan meal from a restaurant that also serves animal products? That action also serves to maintain systems of meat consumption but less so. What if one solely shops at vegan stores? By working a job and paying taxes, our infrastructure remains intact, allowing industrialized meat and dairy farming to continue. Is everyone morally obligated to exit society post haste and live independently off the land, subsisting solely off plants? That is where the argument seems to lead. At least if one desires to avoid being collectively guilty.
In two previous posts, I have argued for some degree of forgiveness to be shown towards Omar Khadr, a former Al Qaeda child soldier, and the aforementioned Oskar Gröning. My discussion centered on concepts of determinism, having recognized that their actions can be traced back to their upbringing. Pirsig also discusses cultural determinism in relation to quality;
The names, the shapes and forms we give Quality depend only partly on the Quality. They also depend partly on the a priori images we have accumulated in our memory. We constantly seek to find, in the Quality event, analogues to our previous experiences... We build up our whole culture in terms of these analogues.
I have come to realize that calls for clemency were easier for me to make as both individuals were far removed from their prior actions and do not pose a danger to others in society. In the absence of a potential harm to society, prison generally appears unnecessary. The goal of a judicial system should be to mitigate further harm and foster rehabilitation. Minimize suffering, maximize pleasure. However, what happens when the harmful actions are not recognized as illegal? What we now recognize as crimes against humanity were not illegal in Germany at the time. Only in retrospect. What some recognize as a crime against conscious beings, industrialized farming, is also currently legal. By our current standards, nobody is guilty of anything. The judicial system has no recourse in mitigating further harm or rehabilitating those who have harmed. I cannot read Hegel but for his soundbytes; “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” Collective guilt, on a societal scale, can only be applied retrospectively because during the acts people are not in violation of laws and standards of good practice. Quality people can commit horrible acts. The acts are just not horrible yet. That is the source of tension inherent with the concept of the quality cattle car operator. The wrath of the majority prevails until dawn.
Upon writing this all out, I feel somewhat defeated. Hegelian reasoning states that on infinitely long timescales, society becomes increasingly fair and compassionate. Similarly, Pirsig describes a similar cultural journey, "[Reality] is made up, in part, of ideas that are expected to grow as you grow, and as we all grow, century after century." But the process is piecemeal. A few steps forward and a few steps back, a drunkard stumbling towards their home. For those who are waiting for society to adapt to their ethical ideals of compassion for all conscious beings, it is agonizing. Akin to stewing in collective guilt. No wonder revolutions of all sorts leave their mark on history.
The cattle car is an enduring image of the Holocaust. Humans treated as animals. Perhaps the cattle car will also come to emblemize our systematic abuse and torture of animals. Animals treated as commodities, cattle treated as chattel. Perhaps.
Robert M. Pirsig passed away in 2017. As he did not explicitly answer the question, "can there exist a quality Nazi," my interpretation is speculative. In Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, Pirsig more directly tackles the concept of social values. However, I have yet to read this text. Other passages in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance also suggest that perhaps the individual can be held accountable for their actions despite pervasive cultural ideas of quality. For example, Pirsig states that "it's the [person's] choice of Quality that defines [them]." However, Pirsig's use of "choice" is not prioritized later in the same passage where cultural determinism, if not hard determinism, appear to be given top billing when saying "if two people had identical a priori analogues they would see Quality identically every time."
[i] Campbell, D. (2002). Atrocity, memory, photography: imaging the concentration camps of bosnia-the case of itn versus living marxism, part 2. Journal of Human Rights, 1(2), 143-172. A great discussion surrounding the imagery of the Holocaust and how its assumed position as the pinnacle of evil is used to silence discussion surrounding other atrocities.