Thoughts while shearing

Thoughts while shearing

I have found that I have mixed feelings after the annual shearing. During the year any dagging (removing the soiled wool at the rear end) or crutching I do myself by hand, but for the annual shearing of the fleece I rely on a young lad on the next farm to do the work.

He has all the equipment; a shearing trailer (which acts as a holding pen while the work is going on), the electrical shears (which give a neat trim) and moccasins (so that he might hold the sheep with his feet without hurting them). But more importantly he has two other advantages. Firstly he has the strength and stamina; shearing is hard work, grappling 50kg of reluctant, wriggling ewe or ram and trying to operate heavy electric shears at the same time is a young man’s job. It is difficult for an old codger like me. Secondly, and most importantly, he has the skill. Knowing how to hold the animal, how to turn them as you shear, how to avoid cutting the animal and managing to take off an entire fleece intact is a hard earned skill. Watching someone who knows their craft is very impressive.

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I usually like to use the least technology possible, to try and find the most natural way to do a task. However, there is no way to shear a sheep without tools and modern tools make this easier. Primarily they make it easier for the sheep. The procedure is painless but it alarming to the animal, it has no conception of what is happening and is afraid. There is no way to share, with them,  the knowledge that they will feel better during the summer and be at less risk of fly-strike, lice, ticks and a variety of other plagues. It is always stressful and therefore anything that shortens the time it takes is good news. Hand shearing by an expert takes about 15 minutes, hand shearing by me takes about an hour, electrical shearing by our neighbour takes about 2 minutes. There is really little contest, electrical shearing wins hands down.

So why then do I have mixed feelings about it ? Well, this time it started when another neighbour, who was helping, recalled shearing when he was a boy. On the shearing days up to 20 men would sit in a line on benches at the edge of the field and shear the flocks by hand. During the season many hands were needed to do the work. Now one or two men, with good machinery, can do the same job with less effort and stress. It is the reason that agriculture, though it produces much more than it ever did, uses less labour. It is why there are few jobs in the countryside and why the population has shrunk. Though there are less jobs in farming this mechanisation has created its own jobs – there is now a need for factory workers to work the lathes and milling machines that make the equipment. There is less call for young men to learn how to shear in Wales but the demand for young men to work in factories, often abroad. With less people living and working in the countryside there is less call for shops, schools, churches, doctors and the like and this is why we see that now the majority of people live in urban areas.

This specialisation is at the core of capitalism and it is the great irony of the twentieth century  that it has been capitalism, not socialism,  which has pulled many people out of poverty. Through mechanisation and specialisation great increases in wealth have arisen. This increase is so great that, even when it is badly and unevenly distributed, the majority of us benefit. In the west, going back 100 years, no-one could have anticipated our current wealth. The idea of personal transport by automobile, central heating or air conditioning, personal computers and telephony would be unimaginable to people who thought that books and electric light to read them by were a luxury. So it seems I cavil , especially as I post this on the internet, when I cast doubt in these changes. However, I’d argue that not all of this progress has been without cost and, although agreeing that a market economy is the best way to ensure efficient production, I’d propose we have to be careful that we know where we’re heading as individuals and as a society.

It was often said that these mechanised and specialised changes would benefit us because they are “labour saving“. Each new gadget, from the washing machine to the smartphone, has promised to save us time and to leave us more leisure time for ourselves. This should lead to increased pleasure as we do things we enjoy rather than need to do.  However, our pleasures are relative. Once we become accustomed to something it changes from a luxury to a necessity (People will not venture outside now without their phones). Thus the prior luxuries become part of our life and, if missing, a source of our unhappiness. There is no evidence that individually we are any one jot happier than people 100 or 200 years ago. The Victorian got just as much pleasure from his night at the music hall as we do from an evening at the 3D IMAX cinema. The Victorian felt as euphoric when his lover agreed to become his partner as we do now (Well possibly they had greater pleasures in this area as society was more restrictive on the whole).

Our luxuries don’t seem to bring us pleasure but perhaps they at least give us time. It would seem unfortunately this is not the case. As we have more, we need more and want more and thus we work more.  In his book Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari notes that the time we spend as a species working for others has always increased and certainly if one were to look over the last two generations this trend is evident. 50 years ago a skilled manual worker, working well, could expect to provide for his family to the standards of his day. Now both parents will have to work outside the house to provide for their family with all the consequent changes that we have seen in child rearing and family life.

It seems that once we have escaped scarcity, once the basics (hunger, thirst, safety, warmth, etc) are dealt with we do not know what is “enough“. We are good at acknowledging what is too little, we have built in warning systems in our biology when there is too little food, or water, or heat. However, we don’t seem to be able to determine what’s enough in term of what is “too much”.  Consequently in our post-scarcity world, in the west, our major problems are those of excess – obesity  or substance abuse as individual problems for example and global warning and the plastic pollution of our seas as global examples.

This is possibly the reason that all the major religions had as an important focus the advice to avoid excess. Gluttony, avarice, lust and covetousness are sins to be avoided and all the main religions advice that we should try and control our desires.  Going back to the stoics, they advice that we should try to have and want less, to not be controlled by our desires. It is possibly a perfect storm in the developed world, that as the productive powers of capitalism reaches its zenith the advisory power of religion  plumbs its nadir.

Thinking about the changes that have occurred in how we shear sheep has made me think that if we want to survive we need to change. As individuals we have to learn to rein in our desires which I think will require a rebalancing. We will need to rediscover localism so that our wants and needs play out on a smaller stage. We need to reduce the size of the states we live within so that they are no more than is necessary and allow individuals to create small communities on a more human scale. We have to learn when enough is enough and this going to be difficult. As individuals we are going to have to break out of the role of being primarily consumers and reclaim our private lives. This is no easy feat but as Tolstoay said “In order to land where you wish, you must direct your course much higher up.”

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No more virtuous but a little less sinful

No more virtuous but a little less sinful

Looking back over 2017, in preparation for starting the new year, I decided that if I could not be especially good in 2018  perhaps at least I could try to be less bad. Perhaps in 2018 I could make less errors than usual and become a little better by altering the balance sheet, not by gaining more plus marks but by loosing less negative marks.  I good place to start, I thought,  might be the Seven Deadly Sins. If I could not be virtuous hopefully I can be less sinful.

There is not one of the seven deadly sins that I have not committed. Perhaps not often nor repetitively for many, but there is a clear theme in the seven sins which applies to me and my failings.

  • 800px-Tableau_de_mission_-François-Marie_Balanant_tableau_1-Lust
  • Gluttony
  • Greed
  • Envy
  • Wrath
  • Sloth
  • Pride

When listed in this order, the warnings about desire and want are very easy to see. The first four sins all take this theme :-

  • Lust – the desire for pleasures of the flesh
  • Gluttony – the desire for the pleasures of food an drink
  • Greed – the love for material possessions
  • Envy – the desire for things rightly possessed by others.

The christian church is clearly of the opinion that avarice and greed are dangers that we must avoid. Indeed it holds that greed “is the root of all evil and a sure path to corruption“. Islamic teachings share this concern as revealed in the Hadith saying “Watch out for greed because the people before you perished from it. Greed led them to be miserly so they became misers. Greed led them to break the ties (of kinship) so they broke them. Greed led them to sins so they committed sins” (Abu Dawud). One of the three poisons of Buddism is Raga or greed, and in the Hindu theology lobh (greed) and kama (lust) are the passions of the mind which prevent one from finding salvation.

Leaving the major religions and looking at the views of the ancients the same advice comes clearly to the fore. Plato detested greed and the accumulation of wealth as did the cynics and stoics who saw that the purpose of life was live a virtuous life. This virtuous life  would lead to happiness and, to be virtuous, necessitated the avoidance of greed and materialistic desire. The more recent philosophers concur; David Hume felt greed was one of the most destructive of vices.  Despite the protestations of Gordon Geko that “Greed is good” Adam Smith did not believe so. Though he felt that self-interest was a valuable human trait he deplored the application of this if it were to the detriment of others; cooperative self interest was good, that which tried to obtain more than a fair share (greed) was viewed in a very poor light. As he wrote :-

“To be anxious, or to be laying a plot either to gain or to save a single shilling, would degrade the most vulgar tradesman in the opinion of all his neighbors”

Adam Smith championed the view of voluntary self-restraint, the avoidance of greed, and held that this underpinned the healthy operation of a market economy and society as a whole.

Therefore it would appear that the consensus of religious and philosophical thought form the ancients until now is that greed is one of the major sins and problems to which mankind is heir. Certainly in our modern affluent, post-scarcity society, many of our problems do appear to relate to greed and avarice rather then need and lack. In terms of health, in the west, conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and obesity all seem to be markers of excess consumption.  Looking at mental health services these seem to be drowning under the dual tides of people damaged by substance abuse and those dissatisfied and disillusioned by life not meeting their desires.In social terms our family structures, which helped us develop a successful caring society, are being jettisoned in preference for satisfaction of our erotic desires. In politics greed drives increasing sequestration of wealth and increasing inequality between rich and poor. In global terms our greed rapes our natural resources and threatens our continued existence. Unless we all tackle greed our future looks increasingly bleak. Everything has to start somewhere and I am going to start with me and my own problems with greed.

So, while I may not be able to be much better in 2018 (I am not going to give myself targets to which I will never adhere) I am going to have the low aim of being less bad. I am going to pay attention to my desires, curb my tendencies to want things I don’t need, consider giving things to others rather than holding them for myself.Generally I am going to consume and want less.  Perhaps if I do all of this, perhaps if I am just a little less bad, it will be almost like being good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Charity presents ? I’d prefer nothing at all.

Charity presents ? I’d prefer nothing at all.

As it is December, and Christmas nears, I have been reminded by the incessant TV adverts that I should really get down to the serious task of present buying. It is, after all, the meaning of the season and the sooner we get down to buying and consuming the better.  I have written before that I won’t be joining this type of Christmas, in a post-scarcity world I have no desire to take part in this feast of over-indulgence. I would, however, be keen to try and rekindle an older sentiment of the season, that being the call for “Goodwill to all men” .

My initial thought was that I could change to issuing charity gifts for friends and family and, likewise, they could send these to me. However, on further deliberation I don’t think that this is a good idea. I fear that charity gifts never really benefit the sender or receiver and are not the most effective way of benefitting the charity either.

I want to be charitable, and to do so, I must take something of mine and decide to give it, without desiring any reward, to someone who needs it more than I. If I had decided to spend £20 on John’s Christmas present but instead made a £20 charity gift on his behalf then I have not really donated to charity. I did not forego anything to make the donation so I can hardly be thought of as having made a charitable act. In fact, it might be argued that I deprived John of his gift and stole the £20 from him to make my charitable donation.

Similarly John has not made a charitable act in receiving the gift. He did not forego anything nor did he make any conscious decision to make an act of charity. Indeed, had he chosen to act charitably he may not have concurred with my decision, he may not have felt that my donation to the “Campaign to save the Guinea Worm” was the most pressing of the world’s  concerns. So neither of us has managed to act charitably by the exchange of this gift. But there are further problems.

When we make acts of charity it is generally wise to keep these private. As the bible enjoined us But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,”.  It is helpful not to “sound a trumpet” before us to publicise our actions. If we wish to give without thought of reward or recompense we should avoid this publicity, it is possible that the publicity and good regard we obtain could be thought of as a reward for our donation. These issues are not minor, as thoughts of how we might be viewed for our donation might influence which causes to which we donate. By not publicising our intentions it might free us to consider charitable causes which might be less popular but actually of more merit. So this publicising is not good for me, as the donor, and can only act as some virtue signalling to John who now gets a present which simply reminds him that I feel virtuous after giving his present to charity.

It would have been more honest and appropriate to put £20 pounds in an envelope and send it to John with a note suggesting he might want to donate the money to any charity he so desires. This would circumvent another problem. Charities are aware that  sometimes recipients feel these gifts are less festive and thus they bundle a gift  with them – in my case a lovely cuddly, fluffy guinea worm toy! The £10 that manufactured, packaged and posted this gift cut the charitable donation in half making this type of giving less efficient. Rather than giving gifts to each other, with a charitable component, we should give directly to those in need.

Christmas used to be powerfully special. It had the strength to stop the madness of World War I, for an all too brief few days. It gave a temporary respite to the hell and madness of the Western Front. The importance of Peace and Goodwill was what marked Christmas apart from those other winter festivals which we use to raise our spirits in the middle of these dark, cold days. Indeed, there are even new occasions, such as Black Friday, to give us an excuse to loose the reigns on our consumption  and counter any qualms we might have about over-indulgence.  Unfortunately, however, this tendency has begun to affect Christmas also. If you were to look at the paraphernalia surrounding Christmas  (the adverts, TV programs, shop windows, cards, craft fairs, grottos, etc) you would clearly see the theme of maximising our personal pleasures. With the emphasis on consumption and indulgence, and the loss of any sacred elements, Christmas has been hollowed out. It has no core nor substance, the traditional virtues of this season have been lost, but all is not lost, we can recover the situation.

This is what we need to do to reclaim Christmas. We must stop giving presents to those who already have, to those who we know, and start giving to those who have not, and to those we don’t yet know. We must start to show “goodwill to all men”  and start to spread the benefits that we enjoy so that they can be enjoyed by othersTherefore I want no presents, not even charity presents, and hope that with any money you save you may be able to use for your own charitable activities. I, for my part, pledge that I will keep my part of this bargain and ensure I do likewise. Between us we can start to recover some of Christmas’s significance and its power to make the world a better place, even if only temporarily. We may be clutching  at straws but if we do not act we might lose Christmas forever.

Don’t be to tempted to force people to be altruistic.

Don’t be  to tempted to force people to be altruistic.

It is quite likely that altruism was one of the human traits which allowed our species to develop and progress. It is possible that this ability to behave in a way which is to the benefit of others, while being at our own expense, underpinned our development as a social animal.

Some scientists have proposed that “cooperative breeding” is at the core of this issue .

Humans are generally highly cooperative and often impressively altruistic, quicker than any other animal species to help out strangers in need. A new study suggests that our lineage got that way by adopting so-called cooperative breeding: the caring for infants not just by the mother, but also by other members of the family and sometimes even unrelated adults. In addition to helping us get along with others, the advance led to the development of language and complex civilizations,” (1)

Although cooperative breeding is not unique to humans, 10% of birds act in this way, it seems that we are the only group of primates which act in this manner. Whether is was cooperative breeding which initiated this change or not it has long been recognised that altruism is an important human characteristic and possibly the defining human characteristic.

Even before the evolutionary scientists and psychologists started to think about altruism the great thinkers had already considered it as an intrinsic and defining aspect of human nature. Indeed Adam Smith opening his major work with the following sentence :-

“No matter how selfish we suppose man to be, there is obviously something in his nature that makes him interested in the fortunes of others and makes their happiness necessary to him, even if he derives nothing from it other than the pleasure of seeing it.” (2)

We, as individuals in our species, gain pleasure from helping our fellows. Smith believed that this combination, of having a drive to look after oneself (self-interest) combined with the experience of deriving pleasure from making others happy (altruism), allowed us to develop a trading and commercial society where everyone looked after their own interests while at the same time promoting the common good. This type of society, capitalism, has allowed us as a species to greatly expand our wealth(3), reduce poverty (4),  extend health and longevity over the globe (5) and even, possibly, reduce the likelihood of wars (6).  It may even reduce the rates of materialism and consumerism (7).

However, we need to be careful and be clear what altruism actually is. There is a danger that, if we neglect the nature of altruism and clumsily try and promote good behaviour, we might actually damage on of  the most valuable aspects of our behaviour. Altrusim is defined as :-

“Disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others”:(8)

Its synonyms include charity, humanitarianism, generosity, benevolence, self-sacrifice and goodwill. At the core of this definition is that something is done by someone which is either not to their benefit, or possibly to their disadvantage, and it is done purely for the pleasure of making the other person’s life better in some way. There is no aspect of altruism which weighs up the potential future benefit the the giver, the altruistic action is performed simply for the pleasure of the other person. One doesn’t pay good wages altruistically, one pays good wages to ensure better staff. It is not altruistic if one undertakes an act in the hope that the consequences will benefit you in the future. If one is altruistic one doesn’t give money to the poor because you hope it will make your life more secure by reducing the likelihood that he will rob your house. It is not altruistic to donate money to a medical charity trying to find cures for the illness that troubles your sick child. These may be wise steps but they are not signs of your altruism.

People are altruistic as it is in their nature, it gives pleasure in its own right. If we try and force good behaviour on people, in the hope that this will promote altruism we will be mistaken. There is pleasure to be had from looking after a sick relative, positive feelings will also be felt when we give money to the poor, and we will feel good, and possibly pride when we place ourselves at risk to defend a friend or fellow from attack. These positive feelings allow us to know we have behaved well. They have their counterpoints in the shame we feel we don’t intervene to tackle an injustice, the regret when we missed an opportunity to help an ailing family member and the guilt we might feel if we judge ourselves to have been greedy while there are still people in need. We need to feel these emotions to guide our development as people. If we are to become better people we need to have some idea of what constitutes a “good“man or woman. We need to know this in order to allow ourselves to become better.

If altruism is replaced by state compulsion this is lost. When I arrange for for a sitter for my relative it is a chore. When my taxes go to help some group in need, there is no pleasure, I have no relationship with the good which occurs. If I am conscripted to defend my fellows I will do my duty but there will be no pride. None of these things allow me to choose my intervention, to experience the decision and to feel the consequence of goodwill to my fellows. In all of these I am no better, or worse, than anyone else. I do not get the opportunity to expand my moral development, to think about benevolence and charity, and how I might become a better person. Indeed with time, I will start to think that it is not my role to help others, I am just an individual after all, it is the role of government, the authorities, the state, certainly somebody else to make sure good works occur.

This is dangerous. There is evidence that, as welfare states expand, the amount of charitable activity and charitable giving reduces (8). We take away the individuals connection to altruism while doing nothing to alter their feelings driving them to self-interest. This is a recipe for decreasing the effectiveness of our market economies in spreading wealth more equitably.

States have always urged us to be altruistic. Early religions promoted the ideas of self-sacrifice for the common good, later nations promoted the need for us all to pull together, or tighten our belts, for the good of us all. But as they have removed our individual right in this process they have damaged altruism. If I have no choice, I am not acting well, I never chose to pay taxes for armaments for whatever war  was deeded necessary. Indeed often I feel my taxes are used for morally questionable interventions (Though at least I have no personal responsibility for these either). No-one can force someone else to be altruistic. While the altruistic soldier can volunteer for the suicide raid, the soldier sent by order on a suicidal mission does not die altruistically. Our rulers compel us to make donations, pay taxes, for good causes. These good causes help maintain the state that those in power run. Thus, they benefit directly from this action. There is no altruism on their part, simple self-interest and maintenance of the systems of power is their motive.

We need to bring benevolence and good will back to the individual so that we may benefit from its positive effects. We need to wrest it out of the hands of the state, despite any dire warnings of the tragedies which might befall us. If we really want these good works to continue, and I am sure most of us wish to look after our communities and our fellow, we will voluntarily contribute for them. This would also have the beneficial effect of allowing us to play a part in determining what we feel we wish to promote. I would guess that the call for voluntary payments to support the bombing of some distant upstart country might fall of deaf ears, and that would be a good thing.


Prompted by the Daily Prompt : Tempted“>Tempted


  1. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/08/human-altruism-traces-back-origins-humanity
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Theory_of_Moral_Sentiments
  3. http://www.wealthandwant.com/themes/Free_Market_Capitalism.html
  4. http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/01/what-oxfam-wont-tell-you-about-capitalism-and-poverty/
  5. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/10412499/The-world-has-never-had-it-so-good-thanks-partly-to-capitalism.html
  6. http://stevenpinker.com/publications/better-angels-our-nature
  7. https://mises.org/library/does-capitalism-make-us-more-materialistic
  8. http://www.thewelfarestatewerein.com/

Tempted

All fur coat and nae knickers.

When I saw the Daily Prompt today was “ostentatious” this stirred something inside of me. As someone who was born and brought up in Scotland, and who now lives in Wales, this is possibly one of the worst, possible sins. I grew up with repeated warnings against the sins of pride and greed. It seemed to combine both the sin of pride and also that of greed or avarice.

Ostentatious displays of wealth were considered both vulgar and morally wrong. It was held to be bad form to display one’s wealth for two reasons. Firstly as it was rarely the case that wealth was imply earned by ones own endeavours; often accidents of birth or fortune, or the endeavours of co-workers and friends, underpinned the wealth, and on some occasions the source of the wealth was frankly underhand and at the expense of someone else. Secondly, it was generally held that, in a society with noticeable inequality, it might be seen as cruel or unpleasant to make lavish displays of wealth or consumption when there were others in straitened circumstances and in need.

Therefore when I see ostentatious behaviour I still find it jars with me and makes me feel less about the person behaving thus. Even when this conspicuous consumption involves good works, or charity, I find it difficult to feel benevolent to the donor,  tending to side with the New Testament’s instruction (Mathew 6:2-4) to donate quietly and unobtrusively .. ..

So when you give to the needy, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be praised by men. Truly I tell you, they already have their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.…

However, I feel that my feelings tend also to date me. I seem to harking back to an older time before we had the exhortation that “if you’ve got it flaunt it“. Today, it appears that displays of wealth are something to be admired if my reading of the popular TV programmes is correct. The whole point of “Real Housewives”, The Kardashians and other reality programmes seems to be to wallow in the apparent success of others. If I felt that this inspired ambition I could perhaps feel better that it might act as a spur to endeavour by others, but I fear that it may simply act as fuel for envy by others, which is to no ones benefit.

Envy, pride, and avarice I seem to be recalling the moral teaching of when I was young. These were things to avoid if one wanted to be a good and proper person. Now they seem to be, at best, minor discretions and, at worst often promoted as virtues. How the world has changed – I recall decadence meaning decay, decline and deterioration now it appears to be a virtue and a way to sell a chocolate ice-cream.

via Daily Prompt: Ostentatious