Monday, October 30, 2017

Don't worry, I won't eat you! An intentionally provocative defense of conscientious omnivorism

A couple weeks ago, Professor Saray Ayala-López wrote a post entitled The ethics of talking about the ethics of eating, to which I offered a somewhat tangential comment about the ethics of eating meat. So as not to take away from the main point there, I decided to develop this issue separately here. I’ll include some of our dialogue there to begin the discussion.

Here are a few different views on eating meat:
  • Veganism: no use of animal products
  • Vegetarianism: no eating of meat, but use of some animal products
  • Conscientious omnivorism: conscientious and selective eating of meat and use of animal products
Here's my initial defense of conscientious omnivorism. 

“…I apply a standard of justice that relies on a baseline on nonhuman animals in their natural habitats or species-appropriate environments. A violation of justice occurs when we intentionally do something that places nonhuman animals below the baseline. I also do not assume that death is itself a bad thing; there can be good and bad deaths….[M]y standard of justice is violated:

  (1) when we consume more meat than necessary or healthy; 

  (2) when we engage in practices that involve additional pain and suffering beyond what an animal would experience in its natural habitat, or 

  (3) when we contribute to conditions that:
  • (a) create dependency (e.g., captivity) [and] invoke additional duties (of care, including with respect to (2) above) and;
  • (b) we violate these additional duties.
My view is motivated by the practices of some indigenous peoples, who also ate meat (and engaged in other practices involving nonhuman animals) in a way that avoided (1), (2), and (3). If a Native American hunted and killed a buffalo to feed his family, was this morally wrong? If a grizzly bear seeking food attacked and killed me, would that be this morally wrong? What makes these acts *morally* wrong depends on an intentional violation of some standard of evaluation.”

Saray noted:

“...Some people would respond to you that if you can afford avoiding inflicting the pain, objectification, and/or death involved in meat eating, then you have good reasons to stop eating meat….” 

Here, I want to address the objections to eating meat on the grounds that it causes pain, death, and objectification.

As a deontologist, I don’t think the consequences alone are morally relevant. Pain and death in and of themselves are neither good nor bad (e.g., pain of a medical intervention that is necessary for health or death of a soldier who sacrifices his life to save his troop). What makes the infliction of pain or death morally wrong, as mentioned in my initial defense, is when a person causes pain beyond what nonhuman animals would experience in their natural habitat. 

Objectification, unlike pain and death, is not morally neutral. A deontologist may believe some principle P that a person ought to treat another consistently with the other’s species-specific capabilities. Objectification may be defined as a violation of P or, specifically, a violation of P in which a person treats another as less than appropriate given the other’s species-specific capabilities. If I step on a cockroach, I am not objectifying the cockroach because I am not treating it as less than appropriate given the cockroach’s species-specific capabilities. If I use a chimpanzee as a test dummy for testing vehicles (which involves isolation, captivity, and other physical and psychological harms), then I am treating another as less than appropriate given the other’s species-specific capabilities.

One can argue that objectification does not occur when we kill animals for food. Consider a world where there are extreme and isolated conditions (e.g., base camp of Mount Everest) and a small population of advanced intelligent animals, A1, A2, A3, A4, A5, etc. After the A's deplete all their other natural resources, they turn to each other for food. They start with the sick, weak, and elderly among them and, because their rate of consumption exceeds their rate of reproduction, the population eventually dies. If A1 hunted and killed A100, who was elderly, we may say that A1 objectified the elderly. But what about when A1 hunted and killed her equal, A2? A1 did what was necessary for her survival. Setting aside other possible moral offenses, she did not treat A2 as less than appropriate given A2’s species-specific capabilities. Indeed, A1 may have had to devise inventive traps knowing that A2 was her equal in intelligence and the typical traps used on the sick and elderly were useless. She also may have had to ensure a quick kill, not wanting A2 to experience any unnecessary physical or psychological harm.

An objector may might say "Well, this may be fine for your imaginary world of scarcity, but that’s not our world. Today we have sufficient plant-based sources of protein as well as new and improved synthetic sources of meat."

Here are two responses:

First, when the synthetic sources of meat become as accessible as (and qualitatively similar to) real meat, I think there is good reason to transition to these synthetic sources (over a long period of time, given our evolutionary preference for meat).

Second, whether we are primitive and small in number or advanced and 7.6 billion in number, the killing of another for food does not necessarily involve objectification. It can be viewed as involving a kind of competition: a survival of the fittest. When one competitor defeats another, the intent is not to objectify (i.e., treat the other as less than appropriate given the other’s species-specific capabilities), but to win the contest for survival. In the same way that A1 does not objectify A2, humans do not necessarily objectify other intelligent animals. While spears and open plains have been replaced with large-scale farms and ranches, what is morally wrong is not that animals are killed for food, but that we have cut corners to save money rather than doing what is right and, as a result, have placed animals in conditions that are inadequate given their species-specific capabilities.

Chong Choe-Smith
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, October 23, 2017

Why we won't fix health care

The American health care system is insanely complicated. It is dysfunctional and corrupt in many ways. But there is one simple reason that it is so much more expensive than the systems of similarly well-off countries, and that is that we lack a mechanism for controlling spending.

By and large U.S. health insurance companies pay for the interventions that doctors prescribe, and U.S. doctors prescribe pretty much everything that can be justified. This is partly because most doctors work on a fee for service basis: the more diagnostic tests and interventions they order, the better their take-home pay. But it is also partly because this is what patients demand. When we are broken we want our physicians to pull out all the stops in an effort to make us well again.

This is easy to sympathize with. Health is a big deal. The problem is that today- compared to even 50 years ago- doctors can do a heck of a lot. They will be able to do even more tomorrow. That is the main reason why our health care premiums have been rising and why they will continue to rise without a dramatic change in the way that health care is administered.

In a sense it is odd to call this a problem. We do not complain much about the fact that the money we spend on home entertainment and dining out has gone through the roof during the last 50 years. There is nothing wrong with paying a larger portion of our budget for X if what we want (or need) is more X. That’s how things are supposed to work.

The real problem, then, is that, unlike Super Mario and Banh Mi sandwiches, most of the new stuff that medicine offers to suffering patients isn’t that great. (Of course, some, like artificial joints and cataract surgery are miraculous.) When someone has a chronic or life-threatening condition that resists standard treatment options, ordering every possible test, trying every possible medication, procedure or surgery tends to produce roughly the same result as doing nothing. (Sometimes, in fact, far worse.) This is simply because there is a world of difference between a possible outcome and a probable one.

At bottom, every country that has dealt effectively with this problem has found a way to tell very sick or broken people that certain medical interventions aren’t worth the money. Americans are not comfortable with this. Faced with the specter of socialized medicine, conservatives convulse at the prospect of death panels. Faced with market-based approaches that would encourage individuals to shop for the best value, liberals bellow about the moral necessity of equal access to the highest quality of care.

The political histrionics belie a fundamental agreement, viz., that we all want a health care system in which everyone, no matter how ill, how old, or how effective the available options, gets the full monty. Of course, we do not have anything like such a system, but the fact that we aspire to it is one of the main reasons it is killing us. And I don’t mean this figuratively. As health care consumes an ever-increasing percentage of personal, corporate and public budgets, the money available to do other things that save lives and promote well-being (education, infrastructure, public safety) dwindles proportionally. And the more we insist on an absolute right to treatments of little or no value, the less we are able to promote preventive practices of proven value.

What makes this problem particularly acute is that we, like every other industrialized country, have an aging population. People in developed countries are living longer and reproducing at ever decreasing rates. Hence, every year that goes by, the percentage of old people rises. Old people break constantly, and thus require medical attention and hospitalization far more often. This means that escalating health care costs are in large part due to our commitment to (a) keeping a growing percentage of old people alive as long as possible, committing us to (b) the use of expensive and ineffective means for doing so and, consequently, (c) spending a huge portion of the health care budget (e.g., about 25% of Medicare) on costs incurred during the year that people die.

What’s weird about this (and here I speculate irresponsibly) is that it's not obviously what most old people even want. Of course, most of us don’t want to die, but, given that we have no choice in the matter, I think we would prefer an end in which we accept death gracefully, feel sincere gratitude for the time we were given, and go gentle into that good night. (Bite me, Dylan Thomas.)

My feeling is that it is mostly the young who make this so very difficult. It is so hard to lose the people we love, and it hurts us to see once vital parents and grandparents just giving up the ghost. So, we insist that they fight and that the rest of the world fight for them, grasping at any straw the medical establishment has to offer. In this sense we are dealing with a problem of cooperation. It is easy for me to see how we are wasting money on useless interventions for old people. Just not the ones I care about.

I wish we had a system that would allow those close to death to transfer the money that would otherwise be spent attempting to prolong their own lives to the welfare of others who could really benefit from it. Childcare for a struggling single parent, or a home in a safer neighborhood, or an educational fund. That way people who are ready to pass on could make their deaths more meaningful and their acceptance of it as an occasion for sincere admiration rather than culpable capitulation. It would allow those of us who suspect we could have lived better to do something truly loving and helpful during our final days.

It wouldn’t fix anything, I know.

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

My thanks to Steven D. Freer, M.D., for many illuminating conversations on this topic.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The ethics of talking about the ethics of eating

It’s not uncommon to hear someone at a meal asking the vegan in the room “So, why are you vegan?”, often said while biting into a chicken leg. Similar to asking a person who came alone to the party “Do you have a significant other?”, or asking “Where are you from?” when we detect an unfamiliar accent in someone’s speech, confronting the vegan with such a question is a common and accepted practice that is however much more complex than may appear. Asking “why are you vegan?” forces the interlocutor into a web of complicated ethical questions, and drags the one who asks into it, too. Before asking, we should pause and consider whether we want to impose this on the interlocutor, who most likely just wants to eat their meal, and whether we are actually ready to get entangled in that ethical web.

Let me share a story. It happened to a friend; let’s call them Vegan. Vegan had one of those professional dinners during which everyone is supposed to relax after a long day of work conversations and planning collaborations, and get to know each other better in a more informal setting. Potential Collaborators knew that Vegan was vegan, and, when organizing the dinner, they made sure the fancy restaurant had vegan options. However, as it often happens, what the restaurant staff understood as “vegan options” were less than stellar. “They can have the side dishes, boiled green beans or spinach” said the waiter. ”Or the pasta without sauce”. Potential Collaborators looked at each other in silence. “Those are vegan”, added the waiter, showing signs of impatience. Having their veganism put on the spot was an uncomfortable, but – alas - a rather familiar situation to Vegan. Vegan mustered some excitement about an order of boiled spinach. Meals were served. The waiter placed in front of Potential Collaborators a chunk of salmon framed by roasted potatoes and zucchini, a carrousel of lamb ribs accompanied by mushrooms and carrots, and two servings of some part of a cow surrounded by a steaming mix of vegetables. On a smaller plate, the waiter placed in front of Vegan a pile of boiled spinach. The conversation, which had a pleasant flow until then, stumbled. Potential Collaborator 1 apologized, followed by Potential Collaborator 2, and before 3 and 4 could join in Vegan enthusiastically expressed their profound love for boiled spinach, and their satisfaction with the meal. For a moment it seemed as if they could just laugh at the absurdity (why were all those colorful veggies inaccessible to Vegan?) and overcome the awkwardness. Vegan inquired about the wine, desperate to diffuse the attention from their clumsy pile of boiled spinach. Great effort was invested from all parties in recovering the conversation. But then, it happened. Potential Collaborator 2 inquired “So, why are you vegan?”. At this point Vegan gave up and accepted this was going to be an uncomfortable night all along. Vegan summarized their (moral) arguments, and added how becoming vegan brought the satisfaction of finally feeling coherent, behaving in line with their values. As Vegan talked, Potential Collaborators suspended their meat-eating. “You shamed us” said 1, with a sincere, quiet look, and an increasing sense of internal incoherence (this I’m hypothesizing, it was not included in the story my friend told) (I also hypothesize that Potential Collaborators 2, 3 & 4 felt slightly annoyed at the thought of working with someone with what seemed like a sense of moral superiority). The relaxed conversation was never recovered. Collaboration never occurred.

Was my friend self-righteous, as vegans are often portrayed? Vegan was forced to behave as if they were so. Think about it: you are about to eat your meal and are asked why you hold a set of morals that diverge from everyone else’s in the room. Unless you start trashing your own values, whatever you say is going to question everyone else’s moral stance. Do we want to impose that burden on our interlocutor? We are often unaware of the moral streaks in seemingly innocent questions. 

Consider the two examples from before: when you ask the single in the room about their significant other, you are subjecting them to the not-always-welcome assumption of amatonormativity, assigning inflated social value to monogamous romantic relationships; when you ask “where are you from?”, you are conveying the way the interlocutor speaks seems to you more relevant than the content of what they are saying (you might additionally assume that your past trip to that country is something your interlocutor is interested in learning about). 

I’m issuing a warning here: be aware of the hidden moral magnitude of these questions. The vegan, like the single or the non-native, might have zero interest in getting dragged into a moral deliberation. They can actually be especially unenthusiastic about those questions (the vegan would rather eat than justify, again, what they eat, the single avoids that question at every social event, while the non-native gets it several times a day). Are you sure you want to invite into the conversation the moral spill-over that will ensue? And if so, do you think that using someone’s oddity as a trigger for moral considerations about that very oddity is a good way to go? If you still find good reasons to ask, consider then whether you are ready to engage in a good argument without getting defensive about your meat, your marriage or your assumed cosmopolitanism.

There are many interesting questions to discuss about the ethics of eating. For example, arguments in favor of veganism/vegetarianism might be based on attributing intelligence to non-human animals, or the capacity to feel pain. They can appeal to the economic and environmental inefficiency of animal farming, to the morality of torturing and killing animals, or they can be the inevitable conclusion of a strong commitment not to contribute to objectification, exploitation and violence. Arguments in favor of eating meat, on the other hand, might appeal to naturalness, cultural values, or economic accessibility. Some appeal to the idea that vegetarianism sets priorities wrong: with so many human needs, animal welfare is not the priority (Tania Lombrozo has a good response to this: being good isn’t a zero-sum game). All these questions bring together considerations from different disciplines (e.g. philosophy of mind, environmental studies, psychology, ethics) and are worth long discussions. These discussions are better had voluntarily (and preferably not while eating).

If when sitting next to a vegan at lunch, you feel the pull to ask “why are you vegan?”, consider whether the occasion invites or can handle the moral weight of that. The vegan might be just interested in eating their spinach.

Saray Ayala-López
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, October 9, 2017

Watching my weight

I’ve been watching my weight recently. This morning the scale told me that I weigh 184 pounds.

Or did it?

The scale is utterly insensitive to whether there is a philosophy professor on it, a pile of steaks, joints, and giblets (prepared, perhaps, by Lecter’s Specialty Meats), or the elementary particles composing me.

The (so-far!) undetached steaks, joints, and giblets, as well as the elementary particles, weigh exactly the same as me – or so I will suppose.

What is the scale actually weighing? I require some reassurance that the scale is indeed weighing me.

(No one ever said being a metaphysician is an easy road.)

It’s surely not weighing me, and my giblets, and my quarks (or superstrings, or whatever the most recent theory of the fundamental entities would require us to countenance). After all, the nature of the resulting values would be different even if the figure expressing them (184 lbs.) is the same. My weight is a single, non-composite integral number; the weight of my undetached joints, hams, and innards is a sum. As for my quarks or superstrings, I have only the haziest notions how their mass would produce a weight on a bathroom scale.

To refine the question, consider my liver. Suppose that the function of the liver is to filter toxins. Does this purple thing, just considered in itself, have the power to filter toxins? Of course not. By itself it has the power to make the scale register 3½ pounds; it has the power to reflect light. But the power to filter toxins requires the organism. That is, considered in itself that purple thing is not a liver. Call it a ‘shmiver.’

I can filter toxins from my body; I can circulate vivifying oxygen. (I can also hit an 8-iron, solve problems in predicate logic, and decide among courses of action.) I can do these things ‘because of’ my liver, heart, hands, and brain. But the organs don’t do these things; I do. I don’t depend on those organs for my existence and my powers; they depend on me for theirs.

Without me, my organs would lack the powers they bestow on me.

Read that last sentence again. It is a difficult, but crucial, claim to understand.

Why is it so hard to understand?

Consider ‘Elementalism’: the thesis that reality must consist of some kind or category of element as fundamental; other entities are either derivative composites of those elements or logical constructions out of them. The properties of elements and the relations among them ground, without remainder, the properties of the derivative or constructed entities.

Our contemporary commitment to elementalism is so deep that it next to impossible for us to discern that there is an alternative.

But examples of entities that cannot be made sense of, either as derivative from their elements, or logical constructions out of them, abound. I’m one. (So are you: I’m nothing special.)

My liver is as dependent on me as my shadow is. The only difference is that, absent me, nothing remains of my shadow, but a shmiver remains of my liver.

So there was a single entity standing on the scale this morning, and that’s what the scale was weighing. It was weighing me.

(Well, that’s a relief!)

The difficult question, of course, is how we should state the relation between me, my steaks/joints/giblets, and my elementary particles.

One description adopts a ‘mereological nihilist’ stance towards the relation. That is, appeal to organs is necessary to explain the powers of the whole substance; but this appeal is epistemic, not ontological. The claim that I can do things ‘because of’ my liver is a statement in a factitious scheme of classification of my powers – a bit oversimplified perhaps, but helpful. For example, it would be silly to say that I hit an 8-iron ‘because of’ my liver. But as a point of ontology, not explanation, it’s just as true.

On a stronger version of this view I do have organs, but strictly speaking those organs are not parts. At each level the independent reality of the composing entities gets subsumed by the reality of the simple entity with the relevant powers. The substance grounds the reality of the organs. Organisms extrude their organs as logical constructions.

This is an intellectually respectable thesis. (We can, I think, stipulate that a philosophical thesis intellectually respectable to someone as smart as Thomas Aquinas is an intellectually respectable philosophical thesis.) I find it attractive and am thinking hard about ways to support it.

The problem with it continues to be the difficulty that bothered early modern philosophers too. Such ‘formalist’ explanatory strategies seem to make substances resistant to the analytical methods of science. As Leibniz mordantly put it,
It is as if we were content to say that a clock has a quality of clockness derived from its form without considering in what all of this consists; that would be sufficient for the person who buys the clock, provided that he turns over its care to another.
University of Texas philosopher Robert Koons proposes a second description: I am indeed a composite entity, not a simple one. At each level my parts, considered just in themselves, have certain powers (shmivers weigh 3½ pounds, reflect light, etc.) However, those parts (in virtue of their composition) have additional powers when functioning in a composite at a higher level.

On Koons’s view, then, shmivers do have the power to filter toxins. Or rather, they have the-power-to-have-the-power, in association with the other organs. The persistence of the organism is dependent at each moment on the exercise of its organs’ ‘secondary’ and ‘tertiary’ powers. On the other hand, the power a shmiver has only in association with the other parts, the powers of a liver, is dependent on the persistence of the organism.

My liver is every bit as real as me. So we can explain in an analytical fashion how livers work in the body, and Leibniz’s difficulty is solved.

Tom Pyne
Sacramento State
Department of Philosophy

Monday, October 2, 2017

The meaning of spirituality

This week we asked Philosophy faculty this question:

What does it mean to be a spiritual person in the 21st century? Is this desirable? Is the lack of it a moral failing? Does it require us to believe in a non physical plane of existence?

Saray Ayala

I take spirituality to come in two flavors. One of them contains an ontological commitment to some supernatural entity or process. This supernatural something, which might or might not coincide with what existent religions postulate, takes care of making our mortal and minute lives meaningful. Endorsing spirituality in this sense gives us some solace about our mortality.

The other flavor contains no ontological commitment with the supernatural. It is rather a way to approach the natural (and social) world. In this other sense of spirituality, the natural world is special, complex, and even meaningful enough. No need to postulate anything extra. This second sense can be expressed in a profound appreciation of life.

Garret Merriam

In my experience, when asked about their theological views, many people like to say they are 'spiritual, not religious.' I take this to reflect both a disenchantment with organized religion, and a desire for the existential value that religion has traditionally supplied. Some of these people no doubt believe (or would like to believe) in a god of some variety, or at least a vague 'higher power.' Others, though, do not believe in a god of any kind, yet some kind of cognitive dissonance prevents them from accepting the label 'atheist.' That label has (erroneous) cultural associations with nihilism, relativism, amorality, and meaninglessness that many people wish to eschew, even if technically the label does fit them. Calling themselves 'spiritual, not religious' gives them a psychological buffer, a label they can accept in place of 'atheist', one that gives them an affirmative identity, rather than simply a negative one.

So what does it mean to be 'spiritual' in general? I'm not sure. But in at least some cases, it means 'I am an atheist, but not comfortable telling other people--or even myself--that fact.'

Mathias Warnes

"Spiritual" denotes to me some type of enrollment or participation of the self in a personal understanding of ultimate meaning, and an attendant commitment to self-development in harmony with this meaning. I tend to think of the spiritual in continuity with ideas of the spirit in historical traditions. The Hebrew ruach, Greek pneuma, Latin spiritus are all unfolded within scriptural or philosophical traditions that testify to the human experience of divine immanence, the numinous, world soul or world spirit, and the potentialities for human consciousness to fathom being, nature, life, the mystery, etc. To be spiritual still means for me something analogous to what the German Idealists called Geistesgechichte, or better, Heidegger’s Geschichte des Seyns (History of Being). 

It is desirable to be experienced in spiritual matters and initiations because they often combine aesthetic, ethical, and metaphysical insights in helpful or healing ways. To have metaphysical opinions about the existence or nonexistence of a spiritual world, or to partake in an epistemological skepticism, is a very different matter than having undergone an experience of spiritual immersion, for example, a vision quest or Peruvian ayahuasca ceremony. Human beings who are well versed in diverse spiritualities seem to me an asset in the 21st century. I do not believe spirituality requires us to posit a nonphysical plane, but I am open to the existence of such a plane. On these topics, I might recommend Schelling’s underappreciated attempt at a popular novel Clara: Or on Nature’s Connection with the Spirit World (1810).

Scott Merlino

I confess that I have no clear idea about what it means to be spiritual. ‘Spiritual’ is vague in the way ‘self’ and ‘race’ and ‘free will’ are. Most people disagree more than they agree on what such terms connote or denote. This is not to say ‘spiritual’ is useless or empty, especially in such utterances as “I am spiritual but not religious”. In this case I believe people express their personal attachment to some sort of non-material, enduring, authentic existence than what is offered in religious organizations. They are also taking care to distance themselves from conventional forms of religion, which for me is progress. It says, I think, that they are aware of the limits and risks of being religious, that there is a way to be compassionate, forgiving, and charitable without the trappings and authoritarianism of fusty institutions. The term ‘religious’ unlike ‘spiritual’ is vague at the boundaries, to be sure, but we can agree on some of the essentials. (See Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion for example.)

Marnie Binder

I believe that throughout history spirituality has resulted from our human inclination to have a need for meaning. We need explanations, we need meaning, and spirituality provides a sort of ad hoc answer to that – that, I believe, is key; that it can end search through this ad hoc essence of it. Spirituality crosses everything, and life without some sort of organized ontological, epistemological, and ethical explanation (not proof) can create so much anguish in people in that existential sense that Sartre so eloquently described. When we have no concrete proof, no satisfactory explanation, this is a time, among many, we may lean toward spirituality. Moreover, it can provide a particularly deep and comprehensive "meaning" for those who are very "spiritual," in whichever form it may manifest itself. Spirituality, I believe, is a circumstantial perspective to help us define our place in the world, and this is how any relativism, or at least consideration of relativism, in our experience of it may possibly be interpreted. We may start from an individual experience of it, and then proceed to find meaning in a more communal, situational circumstance.

David Corner

This is a difficult question to answer because the word “spiritual” is ambiguous.

I’m inclined to say that spirituality is an inherently religious notion, but that it means different things in different religions. Christians may associate spirituality with the supernatural, whatever that is- something non-physical, at least. But a Daoist might not. A Muslim would say that spirituality must involve a relationship with God. A Christian would agree, but a Buddhist would not.

Having said that, I do think that one can be spiritual, in a sense captured by some religion, without being an adherent of any religion. Hinduism and Buddhism might regard meditation as a spiritual practice, but one can meditate without being a Hindu or a Buddhist. Prayer is certainly a spiritual practice in the context of the Abrahamic religions, but one can pray without being a Christian or a Muslim.

On the other hand, the question of whether these practices are spiritual ones cannot be determined outside of any religious context. So, for example, one can imagine a Christian denying that meditation is a spiritual practice. A Buddhist might argue that theistic prayer, since it is predicated on belief in God, involves the denial of an important spiritual truth- the Doctrine of Dependent Origination. Such a prayer could be taken as incompatible with one’s spiritual wellbeing.

This seems to imply an odd conclusion: That one can be spiritual without being religious, even though one cannot decide what qualifies as spiritual outside of some particular religious framework.

Tom Pyne

The first “spiritual but not religious” sophisticate was the Greek philosopher Xenophanes (545 BC).

Thus Xenophanes:
Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and dark,
Thracians, that theirs are grey-eyed and red-haired.
He encouraged doubt about accepted religious practice like blood purification and the veneration of images.

But Xenophanes was no skeptic or atheist. In fact, he seems to have been an early practitioner of ‘Anselmian’ or ‘Perfect Being’ Theology:
…(W)hole [he] sees, whole [he] thinks, and whole [he] hears…always [he] remains in the same [state], changing not at all…completely without toil [he] agitates all things by the will of his mind.
So there is indeed a divine order – the realm of metaphysical perfection. (The ‘Omni-God’ as Matt McCormick calls Him.)

However, this is not where such sophistication always leads. Often it results not in transcendence of religious tradition but mere substitution: in observing the forms of religious practice minus the content. Food taboos turn into a preoccupation with an ‘organic’ or non-GMO diet; carbon offsets are just the sale of ‘indulgences’; religion as the locus of ultimate goods is replaced by politics.

I find it amusing that now the deepest, most systematic, most revealing acquaintance with the divine order is to be found not in abandoning traditional religious practice but by more thorough commitment to it. No author from the ‘metaphysics’ section of the bookstore could have anything to offer Thomas Aquinas or Gautama Siddhartha. No yoga instructor would have anything to teach Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz.

Randy Mayes

Human beings live their lives on at least four different value planes: material, social, intellectual and spiritual. To understand the spiritual we must distinguish it from the others.

Life on the material plane is about satisfying our basic needs and desires. Life on the others are attempts to transcend the material, seeking a source of value beyond ourselves.

Life on the social plane is about becoming a part of a larger human concern. This may provide material benefits, but the satisfaction that results from a willingness to sacrifice our material interests to those of our community is uniquely rewarding.

Life on the intellectual plane is an expression of our need for greater knowledge and understanding. Intellectuals are those who willingly sacrifice material and social benefits for the freedom to think. Science and philosophy are pursued most seriously by people who love ideas more than possessions or people.

Life on the spiritual plane is like life on the intellectual plane in that it attempts to transcend the social and material. But it arises from the feeling that there is an ultimate, fundamentally ineffable reality beyond intellectual comprehension. Spiritual people are those who make sincere attempts to connect with this world, even knowing that it is an intellectual absurdity to do so. Some forms of art, music, poetry, prayer and meditation are expressions of human spirituality.

This view of spirituality does not depend on religion or a belief in immaterial souls. But it may justifiably be accused of mysticism (whatever that means).

Russell DiSilvestro

My two parallel sets of answers to these four questions—with set (b) dependent on set (a)— reflect a book I read by Dallas Willard titled Renovation of the Heart.

1. What does it mean to be a spiritual person in the 21st century?
a. I am, or have, a “spiritual” dimension in a wide sense: an inner life accessible to me including thoughts, feelings, and a will/heart/”spirit” in a narrower sense: a capacity to choose or resist things. 
b. I live with an overarching goal of transforming my spirit(ual dimension).
  2. Is this desirable?
a. Yes—and unavoidable. 
b. It depends on both the means and the end of said transformation.
3. Is the lack of it a moral failing?
a. No—lots of good and beautiful things do not have a spirit and are not in the wrong for not having one. 
b. Yes—unless I am already morally perfect.
4. Does it require us to believe in a non-physical plane of existence?
a. Interestingly, no—while I believe my spirit(ual dimension) is indeed non-physical, and that “spirit” can be defined generally as non-bodily personal power, I also believe that one can be a non-physical entity without believing in a non-physical plane of existence.
b. Again, no: while I may not cultivate something well unless I believe the truth about it, I can often cultivate my spirit(ual dimension) despite having frequent doubts and flat denials about its reality and nature. Perhaps reality is surprisingly forgiving of such failures.