Friday, December 28, 2012

Veganism is Not About Compassion

Veganism has nothing to do with compassion. I'm not sure I have a satisfactory account of compassion, but I know that compassion has nothing to do with the fact that I don't torture and kill other people. Likewise, refraining from participating in the torture and killing of non-humans is not a compassionate act. It's a prerequisite for regarding another morally, the first step in approaching just relationships with them.

Compassion is often regarded as supererogatory, above and beyond the call of duty. Perhaps it's something we should all be striving for, but it's expected that we'll all fall short to varying degrees. This is problematic if we think of veganism is deriving from compassion or being an expression of compassion. We must move to an understanding of veganism that is not just something that an elite few achieve because they are so virtuous, but an imperative for us all. It also trivializes that injustices toward animals by suggesting that their slaughter is simply a the result of our not being nice enough.

Animal advocacy groups with names such as "Compassion over Killing" and "Mercy for Animals" (mercy being another dubiously applied concept) add to great confusion on this matter. The most important thing we owe non-humans is justice, which requires not treating them as things or killing them for our purposes. Let's talk about compassion once we have more consensus about what justice requires.

Friday, December 21, 2012

How Studying Economics Makes You A Bad Person

John Rawls famously argued for his maximin principle of distributive justice in A Theory of Justice. Essentially, the principle states that we ought only to allow unequal distribution of resources insofar as it increases the welfare of the most disadvantaged members of society. Rawls basically accepts an egalitarian principle, that everyone deserves a (roughly) equal distribution of society's good. But, because of the realities of human life, we recognize that giving some people a larger share of the resources may result in raising the living standards of everyone, including the worst off. The worst-off could thus not rationally object to the inequality, because they would personally be even worse-off if such inequality were eradicated.

There's been much debate about this principle and the arguments surrounding it. For me, one of the most interesting critiques comes from G. A. Cohen. He argues that if we expect our society to be just, we would imagine that the citizens in the society endorse the principles of a just society. The problem this raises for the maximin principle is that if everyone endorses the fundamental egalitarian premise, then there could be no justification for inequality. Everyone would fulfill the duties of their position in society to the best of their abilities, without anyone thinking they deserved a larger share of the resources for doing so.

In this way, the maximin principle wouldn't necessarily be wrong, just irrelevant. There would be no need for inequality because everyone would do what would contribute most to the general welfare. No one would argue that doing their part meant they deserve more, because by hypothesis, they're egalitarians.

Now there's much more to be said about this argument, obviously, and some people disagree with Cohen (others think that the difference between the two views is rather trivial.) And you might say that even if Cohen is right in terms of moral theory, Rawls' principle is the best we could ever hope to achieve in reality. Perhaps that's true, though I think it's best to remain optimistic about human potential. Regardless, Cohen's point is still extremely important either way.

I first came across Cohen's argument in If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Right?. There's a lot to say about this book, but what's relevant to this post is the way the titular question is addressed. It's a question asked of an individual. This is important because even if you could justify the maximin as a pragmatic reaction to the world world, that still doesn't justify any individual demanding more of society's goods in order to perform their valuable services.

If you study economics, you might try to think of ways to construct policies that incentivize people to do what's best for society. And it's probably great that people do that. But just because we realize that on a large scale, we need to implement such incentives to produce good results, it does not mean that any one is justified in failing to do what's right in a society without those incentives.

I fear that, in a world that seems to value studying economics over ethics, many people confuse what is necessary for what is just. If you discover that modeling human behavior is best done by assuming everyone is a self-interested value-maximizer, you might think that it's perfectly fine for you to act that way in your life. But in truth, that is a complete non-sequitur. What people in fact do has no logical connection to what people should do. Thinking too much about the former might cause you to neglect thinking about the latter, and that can easily make you a worse person.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Why You Should Be Vegan

Some arguments are pretty spectacularly wrong. One such argument in favor of the existence of god is Pascal's Wager. There are so many ways to decisively rebut this argument, it can be hard to know where to start. It's such a fallacious argument that even if many of its controversial elements are accepted, it could be slightly modified to be an argument for atheism. It fails to be convincing on pretty much every level on analysis.

Some conclusions, by contrast, work the other way. Even if you jettison many of the strongest features of the arguments in favor of a given conclusion, you may still reach the same (or a similar) result. There are just so many individually persuasive reasons to believe that it is hard to see how belief in the conclusion is plausibly denied.

One such conclusion is that veganism is morally required. To be clear, veganism is the practice of avoiding the exploitation of non-human animals for food, clothing, etc. Personally, I think there is good reason to accept a strong animal rights, abolitionist view, which rejects the species distinction as morally relevant. I also think that many of the qualities that are thought to draw out important differences between animals and humans are largely irrelevant with respect to what rights one has. However, even if you reject the controversial elements of my views, the rest of your moral beliefs regarding animals still rationally require a form of veganism.

For example, some people reject "rights" in general as a legitimate moral category, most notably utilitarians. But within the utilitarian tradition, there is a strong history of recognizing animal welfare as comparably important to human welfare. Often, human welfare is given higher priority, supposedly because we have a higher capacity for pleasure. I find this assumption totally unfounded; just because we might prefer pleasures that an animal cannot experience (like the pleasure of reading a philosophical text), that doesn't mean that the "lower pleasures" of animals are less valuable for them. This is obviously a speciesist assumption, and in fairness we should be agnostic about whether or not some species have higher or lower capacities for pleasure.

Regardless, if we take this non-rights utilitarian approach, we should still be vegan, because of the immense suffering that is perpetuated in animal agriculture. Many utilitarians argue as much (Peter Singer, for example, though I should add the caveat that he thinks veganism is a more flexible requirement than I do). Even if you disagree with my take on the capacities of human and animals for pleasure, it's clear that there is great suffering involved in animal agriculture, so this disagreement has a negligible effect on the force of the argument.

Singer also believes that the painless death of an animal is not bad in the way it is for a human. I'll be posting on this topic in the future, but it suffices for now to say that I think he's absolutely wrong. Nevertheless, as before, even if you take the weaker claim in defense of animals, that their painless deaths are not wrong, one still cannot justify participating in the stupendously painful lives that animals live. Even if we imagine that their lives aren't nearly as terrible as most of them certainly are, there is still more pain involved in exploiting these animals than in helping them live happy lives, and very little that we get out of their suffering. Given that many vegans appear to live happy and healthy lives, whatever preference one currently has cannot justify the ongoing costs to animals that such preferences cause.

Suppose instead that you don't buy into utilitarianism. Perhaps you accept something more like a common sense morality, and you think a speciesist bias is acceptable. You might not think that "rights" makes much sense when applied to animals. Still, most people think animals command some moral consideration. At the very least, we shouldn't impose unnecessary suffering and death on creatures if it can be avoided without much cost. But what is being non-vegan than the imposition of suffering of death on animals? The production of meat, dairy, eggs, and other animal products is torturous for those animals. And as any vegan will tell you, this exploitation is certainly not necessary by any stretch of the imagination. Gary Francione argues very persuasively along exactly these lines.

Even if you reject anti-speciesism arguments, arguments in favor of rights, arguments about the commensurable nature of human and animal pleasures, arguments about the badness of animal death, you still accept that unnecessary suffering of animals is wrong. And most of what veganism amounts to is the avoidance unnecessary use and suffering of animals.
Perhaps some people think animals aren't morally relevant at all. Descartes purported to believe as much, but few today defend such a view. I find such a view to be so implausible that I feel no need to argue against it.

I think the views I have about the moral status of animals to be correct. These views are extremely controversial and unpopular, but it's also true that there have been times when other true moral beliefs have been controversial and unpopular. In fact, I think it's prima facie more plausible than not that our current society is seriously mistaken about some moral matters of great importance. But my belief in the necessity of veganism is even more strongly supported than my beliefs about the moral status of animals, as I have just tried to show.

It's also the case that most vegans I know have similar views about the moral status of animals as I do, even though as I've argued, one does not need to accept these views to see veganism as required. This further fact suggests, though not definitively, that our current practices of animal exploitation bias us towards speciesist views.

So you might think I'm crazy for arguing against speciesism. I think that there can be no rational basis for a bias in favor of the human species qua species, and I think there are exceptionally good reasons for according fundamental rights to all sentient animals. But even if I'm crazy, you should still be vegan.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

What is Mental Illness?

This is going to be one of those posts where I don't really have an answer. The reason I'm writing about it is that many people don't realize that it is a particularly difficult question. I think there's often a sense that because psychology is a science, we can have (relatively) precise definitions of what mental illness is. In fact, many of the judgments that go into defining mental illness are independent from any particular scientific discoveries.

I'll just note first that defining illness in general is substantially complex. It's not, for example, any kind of impairment that my esophagus and my windpipe are connected. However, if there were some people whose esophagi and windpipes were totally separate systems, such that they never were in danger of choking, my condition would look extremely perilous and maladaptive. There are also problems of vagueness, how bad does a certain condition have to be before we consider it a disease or an illness, etc. These problems might be conceptually a bit puzzling, but most often are not that troubling in any way. Mental illness, as a concept, is much more troubling.

The distinction between the two is this. Illness, in whichever sense, is a normative concept, insofar as it defines something as a problem based on how it deviates from certain standards of functioning. You can run into some controversies around this, for example from some individuals in the deaf community who do not see deafness as an impairment, and find the "standards" to which I appeal to be oppressive. There are some interesting points to be made about such a case, but for the most part I think there are some satisfactory answers to be given to these sorts of problems.

When we apply the concept of illness to people's mental states, it is a normative concept in a very deep sense of the word. It's normative in that it defines what a standard in, but the standard has moralized implications. We think there's something problematic about the kind of person someone is. And this is quite a different judgment, in my view, than the judgment that there's something wrong with, e.g., an arthritic person's joints.

I don't mean to imply that we are blaming people for the mental illnesses they have. But the judgment that they are mentally ill is a much deeper one than a judgment that their immune system is malfunctioning.

Think, for example, about how homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder (This American Life has fantastic episode documenting the history of this.) Some people think of this as bad science, but that's not right. The treatment of mental disorders is a science (and the science on treating homosexuality is, as far as I know, quite fallacious), but the classification of mental disorders has a lot more to do with (moral) normative judgments. The judgment that homosexuality is a mental illness is a judgment that homosexuals should be treated as mentally ill. If it were morally wrong to engage in gay sex, it would make sense to classify homosexuality as a disorder.

One brief point to make here is that the "born this way" arguments are a red herring. Consider kleptomania. It's conceivable someone could be born a kleptomaniac. Even if they were born this way, their theft would still be wrong, and it would make sense to classify it as mental illness. So the fact that gay people might be born with a predisposition to be gay does not count in favor of it being unobjectionable. The reason there's nothing wrong with homosexuality is that it's permissible to have homosexual relationships or homosexual sex. (This isn't circular, because it's a separate question whether having homosexual sex and relationships is permissible, which I'm assuming here that it is.)

So for homosexuality to be deemed not a mental illness was a cultural and moral step, not a scientific one. Society has slowly come to realize that there's nothing wrong with people being gay, so there's no reason to treat same-sex attraction as an illness, or some problem to be solved.

To take a somewhat different example, consider depression. Now, we do not exactly think it's morally wrong to be depressed, but we do think it is desirable not to be depressed. So deeming something to be a mental illness is not just a moralized judgment in terms of what obligations individuals have towards others to engage in (or not) certain kinds of acts, but we think there are better ways of being and not being. It's better to be generally happy than not, and it's better not to be constantly anxious.

Now these examples are not unlike cases of physical illness or impairment(it's better to be able to see than not.) But because our lives are complex, some interesting questions that arise. Is someone depressed when they're grieving the death of a loved one? This is a question that is currently being wrestled with in the DSM-V. I think this particular question, at least, comes down to a pragmatic judgment. Is it better to classify grieving people as depressed, or say that that's just a natural part of human life that we should accept? This, in part, depends on a moral question of whether or not we think it's fitting or appropriate that someone experience the bad feelings to come along with grief, or should they be avoided as much as possible?

All of which is not to say I have an answer. I will have more to say about this topic in the future. But for now I just hope to make the point that judgments about mental illness are based on pragmatic, moral, and normative claims, rather than the basis of scientific judgments.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

We Should Have to Vote on Civil Rights

Somewhat related to the previous post is another argument I hear from people, often in the context of gay marriage. It's the claim that we shouldn't have votes on civil rights. As nice as that sounds, it's wrong. We should vote on civil rights, and often have.

Now, there's one sense in which the people who say this are obviously right, but it can't really be what they mean. That is, we shouldn't have to vote on civil rights, because everyone ought to know what civil rights we deserve, and so it shouldn't be up for discussion. And yes, in a certain, trivial sense, everyone ought to have perfect moral knowledge, and not need to be convinced of anything, because it is right, after all. But in this sense we shouldn't have to have a government, because people ought to know which percentage of their income they need to give to public education, and all the other good works that a government does. This might be true, but only trivially so, and I assume that when people make this point they aren't making a trivial one.

This misunderstanding comes from an overblown view of what the role of judiciary is. I actually have a very favorable view of the role of the judiciary branch in government. Its purpose is to engage on particular questions of constitutionality, precedent, and reasoned argument. It will always be needed to make sense of circumstances that particular lawmakers might never have foreseen, but also to introduce a form of rigorous reasoning and reflection that might otherwise be absent from a lawmaking body that solely relied on elected officials.

But the best way to make sense of this branch of government is a working in conjunction with the legislature, not sending opinions down from on high. So if the courts decide that a certain group, for example homosexuals, have been denied civil rights to which they are entitled, this is the beginning of the dialogue and not the final word. Based on the court's interpretation of the constitution, precedent, and the legal argument, homosexuals ought to have more civil rights. If the legislature disagrees, they don't have input about the precedent or legal argument, but they can move to change the constitution. In some forms of democracy there are higher bars required to change a constitution than others, and perhaps one of these forms is more preferable than the other (your position on this will probably change based on your opinion of the judiciary.)

Or instead of going to the legislature, it might go to a referendum. You might quibble over what kind of bills should be put on the ballot or not, but I don't think you can a priori rule out all "civil rights" votes. What we're trying to decide is whether or not they should be civil rights after all! And just because we're happy with the decision of the current judges does not mean democracy stops.

Imagine, then, what would happen if the court could declare "civil rights!" and then nothing more could be said about the matter. If the opposition to the court's decision were strong enough, I think it's obvious what would happen. People would just ignore the court. And what would the court be able to do? The law enforcement is under the executive branch, and if the president sided with the majority, and decided not to listen to the court, the court wouldn't have anything else to say about it.

Why doesn't this actually happen? Because the majority of the population, to some degree at least, accepts the legitimacy of the court. If the executive branch decided to ignore the court, there would be an extreme backlash. The legislature would listen to the electorate and impeach the president. However, the only reason we see the court as legitimate is that it stays within certain bounds, and functions in tandem with the other branches. The process I described above, the checks and balances of government, are in part what gives government its legitimacy.

If you still don't agree with me, consider this. PETA (of whom I am not fond) recently brought suit to the courts claiming that killer whales ought to be considered legal persons, and thus their captivity at Seaworld was a form of slavery. I think they're right morally, but suppose the court actually decided to classify all animal ownership as slavery, and thus illegal. Obviously the legislature would amend the constitution and make it explicit that non-humans could be owned as property. But if there we weren't supposed to vote on civil rights, then the legislature wouldn't have a say in this issue. But then neither could the court, because obviously everyone would just ignore them.

The role of the people in creating laws, including laws regarding civil rights, cannot be diminished without undermining the whole system. Unfortunately, that means that people will often vote and make the wrong decision. The judiciary works as a counterbalance to the tyranny of the majority, but justice doesn't always win out.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Antonin Scalia's Good Question

Justice Scalia asked a good question recently:
"If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder?"
Not how I would have asked the question, but he is getting at something very interesting. Some of the reaction, however, has been frustrating to me. Some have been offended, because how could a prominent public figure compare homosexuality to murder?

Which is fine, I suppose. I think some people like to get angry at people who disagree with them about important topics, and this is certainly an important topic. Perhaps you could even make a pragmatic argument that angry reactions are more likely to stigmatize heterosexist viewpoints, and thus progress us more quickly towards a more accepting society.

For me, though, I think it's likely more helpful, and certainly more interesting, to deal with the substance of Scalia's claim. As he subsequently pointed out, he was engaging in a form of argument called a Reduction to the Absurd. Basically, you assume that a given premise is true, and then show that it has absurd implications, and thus must be false. It's a great form of argument!

The way Scalia has phrased the argument is not the best. It's not clear what place "moral feelings" ought to have in any kind of decision procedure, legal or otherwise, so it's not a helpful concept to employ. Nevertheless, I think we can show the Justice the respect of trying to understand his argument in the best possible light. That way, when we successfully criticize it, we can be more assured of our own position, and more likely to convince others.

I think Scalia is best understood as making an argument as follows. All moral arguments rest on some kind of intuitive judgment of right and wrong. Most people judge murder to be wrong, and some judge homosexuality to be wrong. But both of these judgments are based on similar kinds intuitive judgment, and if you disregard the kind of intuition that some have that homosexuality is wrong as illegitimate, you have no reason to rely on the more widespread intuition that murder is wrong.

This argument could be responded to by saying that since the intuition against murder is nearly universal, it's more legitimate than the intuition against homosexuality. Perhaps. But as a Justice, the interesting question would be, what kinds of judgments are illegitimate even if the majority of citizens hold them? In the case of legal discrimination against homosexuals, for example, we might want to say that the minority of homosexuals ought to be protected against the majority's bigotry. But then shouldn't the minority of murderers be protected from legal sanction against the majority?

So what's wrong with Scalia's argument, as I have re-cast it? Well, for one, intuitions are not the sole basis of ethical judgment. One of the things we have intuitions about, after all, are moral principles, and applications of these principles can lead to conflict with our other intuitions. So we have to do is work through various kinds of cases, and various renditions of principles, to arrive on more considered moral judgments. It's a very complex form of reasoning, but we do it all the time!

One of the great foundational principles of liberal democracy is J. S. Mill's harm principle. That is, that one's freedom extends only so far as one is not harming someone else, and at this point the state has a right to intervene. Now, there is some controversy around this principle, and much vagueness in what constitutes "harm." But it certainly gives us a clear distinction in the reasons we have to object to murder and the reasons some object to homosexuality.

One thing that is less clear, however, is how to distinguish between reasons for legal discrimination towards homosexuality, and reasons for motorcycle helmet laws. Some might see this problem and conclude that motorcycle helmet laws (and the like) are as illegitimate as discrimination against homosexuals. There are some good alternatives, though, such as arguing that the benefits to wearing a motorcycle helmet are so overwhelming, and the costs of wearing it (and enforcement of the law) are some trivial that the public does have an overriding interest in accepting such laws. This kind of defense is tricky, and requires a lot of spelling out to make persuasive, but I think some version of it is plausible. Regardless of this particular issue, we should definitely see ourselves as having a heavy burden for any legal restriction of liberty that is not in accordance with the harm principle.

But, once again, I think it's much better to have this kind of discussion about the foundations of moral and legal judgments than to just sneer at cooky old Scalia who was right to ask the question. He's wrong in his implied answer, but he's wrong for interesting reasons.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

How to Argue Effectively

I have various positions on an array of philosophical issues, many of which are interrelated, and with variable levels of confidence. With any luck, I can form a generally cohesive philosophical framework that makes sense of many of my beliefs. I am quite doubtful, however, that I'll ever get many people to agree with the entirety of my philosophical beliefs.

When I try to advocate for a particular ethical view, then, I'm going to try to leave out anything else that I think grounds it. For example, if I'm going to try and convince someone that animals have rights, I'm not likely going to try and persuade them to share my views on personal identity. Animal rights are quite controversial, and so are my views on personal identity, so if I want to convince you on animal rights, it's best to leave out as many controversial premises as feasible. I will however, argue against utilitarian conceptions of duties to animals, because I think these exclude a proper understanding of animal rights. But for the most part, I don't need you to accept many of my other controversial ethical views if I want to convince you of animal rights.

This relates nicely to my discussion of speciesism and the qualities that individuals have by virtue of which they have moral rights. Now, in a broad reaching moral theory, there's a lot to say about what how certain qualities demand recognition of certain rights, and what it is about our own nature that makes it rational to respond to the moral features of others. These are interesting questions, and I hope to write about them here! But they're complex, and controversial. So the best way to get you to see, for example, that high intelligence is not a necessary criteria for moral consideration is to make you think about individuals with very low intelligence, whom you, in fact, judge to be worthy of moral consideration. It's a much better way to convince you than trying to argue about reflective endorsement, or how your prudential reasons are analogous to altruistic reasons, etc.

It's also better to argue this way because it puts more pressure on my own views. If obligations to animals could only be understood as plausible under one obscure moral framework, that should give me less confidence in my beliefs about such obligations. But since this is not the case, and since I think obligations to animals can be defended in a variety of ways, by appealing to many commonly-held intuitions, I can feel much more confident in my views on this matter. And hopefully, with any luck, I can thus be more convincing to others.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Bit More on Potential

For the unpersuaded, James McWilliams has a good post on the irrelevance of "potential" for certain qualities to moral status.

One of my hobbies is spending time in the philosophy sections of obscure book stores, looking for books that address animal ethics, and seeing what creative lengths people go to in order to justify speciesism. There are, of course, the religious arguments. Some of these are worth engaging, insofar as many people are open to moral discussion and secular reasons translate easily enough into religious ones (given the right interlocutor). But often people just use religion to dig their heals in about speciesism. Once you've started quoting scripture, you've lost me.

I once read something in defense of speciesism along the lines of, "You don't get it, it's a matter of kind." As if italics somehow make the point. "Kind" is just another word for species. And speciesism is just another form of prejudice.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Williams on Speciesism

I don't wish to belabor this point, but I think the quote from Bernard Williams in the previous post could use some more unpacking. The view he expresses is not uncommon as a response to the charge of speciesism. Simply put, he accepts that his view is speciesist, but does not see a problem with that. One might say that there's no need to find any justification for a preference in favor of humanity, it's just a brute fact about how we think and how we morally reason.

It's important to remember, however, that humans have often been very wrong on any number of moral issues. This fact is so mundane that I won't even elaborate on it. But this fact also carries the implication that we would be foolish to assume that our present society is correct in all its moral judgments. We must be vigilant in our own reflection and self-criticism, and not take our initial prejudices as the final word on ethical matters.

This relates back to my first post, when I discussed what matters and why philosophy is important. There is a sense in which much of what is important is obvious, and doing what is right is clear. But people often take from this observation that all of ethics is clear, which is false. And if we take seriously the moral progress that has been made in human history, as we should, we should take seriously our place in the moral progress that has yet to take place. This means that we must be very critical of our views, to avoid falling prey to the moral failings of our day.

Williams ascribed to a particular flavor of moral relativism, and this no doubt permeated his moral outlook. If you don't believe that there might be ethical truths that you don't yet grasp, you will likely fail to sufficiently criticize your own beliefs. Many people I've discussed these topics with have ended up proposing some kind of moral relativism in which their speciesism is unobjectionable. But even most of these people do believe in other moral truths, such as the wrongness of racism and sexism. If you think that these are serious charges, and that others should re-evaluate any racist or sexist viewpoints they espouse, then you cannot rationally accept your own unjustified speciesism.

The Problem with Speciesism

One view that I have very little time for is speciesism, or anthropocentrism. This is the view that human beings have an intrinsically higher moral status than that of non-human animals, by virtue of species membership. This view is quite popular, and I once subscribed to a version of it, so I do have a great deal of patience for the people who express and hold such views. But I find it relatively indefensible, and instead accept the view that moral rights (such as the right not to be killed, or used as property) are due to individuals on the basis of their sentience alone. In this post, I'll try to explain, partially, why I think that is. This is a topic I will certainly revisit often.

So I'm claiming that a bias in favor of human beings is analogous to a bias in favor of individuals based on their race or sex. The label of "speciesism" is meant to bring to analogy to the forefront, in a way that "anthropocentrism" does not. Central to the accusation of speciesism is that this bias is a deep-seated disposition that permeates many other beliefs, just as racism and sexism do. Thus it is unhelpful to the anthropocentrist's case to argue from intuitions about certain cases, because part of the speciesist charge is that we should expect our intuitions to be biased. What the defender of speciesism as a legitimate viewpoint needs to explain is how a difference in species could be structurally significant to the assignment of moral categories. This task, I believe, is insurmountable.

These debates have been hashed out pretty thoroughly over the past forty years, but I will give a brief summary of how they tend to go. The anthropocentrist proposes a certain quality or set of qualities that humans possess (such as capacity for moral deliberation, or have complex relationships, or the ability to make plans) that animals do not, and argue that this gives them higher moral status. The animal rights theorist reply is two-fold. First, there's no prima facie reason to believe that such qualities give rise to superior moral status. Second, and more definitively, whatever qualities the anthropocentrist can name, not all humans possess these qualities, and some animals might possess them. Some humans are quite young and have not developed yet, and some have impairments that prevent them from having certain abilities. Yet we still allow that all human beings are entitled to fundamental moral rights.

Some defenders of anthropocentrism try a very ad hoc move. They argue that it's not about possessing those certain characteristics, it's about having some kind of "species-potential," that makes you a member of the rights-bearing group. It's hard for me to see how this can have any plausibility at all, but some people do hold such a view. There is, however, no reason to suppose that anything like "species-potential for certain traits" could have significant moral implications. No one supposes such a thing until they've been backed into the corner by the argument in the previous paragraph (which is why it is ad hoc.) The reason it may sound plausible to some is that it backs up their intuition of human superiority, but I've already explained why that is inadmissible.

There is another direction to go, and if someone were to try to take this tack with me in personal conversation, I would probably walk away. One could stick by the claim that it is certain qualities that give human beings their moral rights, and that those humans who don't possess those qualities don't have the fundamental moral rights that other humans have. They will then likely argue that we feel sentimental towards those who are intellectually disabled, or babies, or whomever, and so we should treat them well because of that. But that is completely wrong. We, quite obviously, have strong moral duties towards such individuals, dependent on their intrinsic features, not on our particular emotional whims. To suggest that it is some act of generosity that we consider them members of the moral community, or that they are candidates for charity rather than justice, is deeply offensive. Thankfully, this is not a view that is often defended.

Other claims have been made, all on weak ground. Some claim that we are part of a human community, and we only have (strong) obligations to members in our community. This begs the question. We're trying to answer, "Who should be among the individuals we consider in the moral community?" It's no argument to simply assert that only humans belong in that category. Similarly, in an essay called "The Human Prejudice" Bernard Williams writes of animal rights theorists,
"They suppose that we are in effect saying, when we exercise these distinctions between human beings and other creatures, that human beings are more important, period, than those other creatures. That objection is simply a mistake . . . These actions and attitudes need express no more than the fact that human beings are more important to us, a fact which is hardly surprising."

Such an claim could just as easily be made in favor of giving significantly less weight to the interests of intellectually disabled humans, and most of us would rightly reject it. This is just the affirmation of the speciesist bias, not a defense of it.

I'm not assuming here that the speciesist position is incorrect. There might be a rational basis for the prejudice that Williams is describing. However, because there is reason to be deeply suspicious of prejudices, Williams needs to provide a strong argument for the moral importance of species membership, that could not apply to racism, sexism, ableism etc.

It may appear as if I'm picking and choosing weak arguments. But I am not. Consider an analogous moral question, which I imagine most of my readers share my view on, gay marriage. The arguments against gay marriage are surprising parallel to the arguments against animal rights. Opponents to gay marriage often say that there is a unique quality that heterosexual couples possess, such as the ability to have children, which give them the right to get married. Proponents of gay marriage say that it's morally irrelevant quality with regards to state protection of romantic unions, and further that many heterosexual couples choose not to or are unable to have children (yet obviously should be allowed to get married.) Opponents then make a weak and unpersuasive argument about "potential," when clearly it's not potential that matters. These days, opponents to gay marriage often are just defending their right to hold such a view (a right that has never been challenged). That's because there's really no further step in the argument to make. Once you start claiming that there's some kind of special moral significance to the "potential" to have some quality, it's clear that you've run out of substantive moral ground.

Why is "potential" as irrelevant as I claim? In part, it's because potential is an extraordinarily vague concept. There's a sense in which I have the "potential" to become a pianist, and also a sense in which I have the potential to become the first man on Pluto, or the first walrus-human hybrid. It's not clear what kind of potentials are supposed to matter for moral argument, other than the ones stipulated by those trying to defend prejudiced views. In fact, what matters are the actual qualities I have. I'm a citizen of the US, who is of age, so I should be allowed to vote here. I go to work and provide services for a company, so I'm entitled to my paycheck. Most importantly, I'm a sentient being for whom things can go better or worse, and so I'm entitled to recognition of my moral rights.

Species itself is a vague concept. Speciation comes about gradually, and is only rather loosely defined. When thought about this way, it's hard to see how it could have such central moral significance. Rather, I believe, it's the intrinsic features of individuals that should determine whether or not that are considered members of the moral community, and have rights. The right to be eligible for a driver's license might require some pretty sophisticated capacities. But to be entitled to the right not to be unjustly killed or used, all that one has to be is sentient.

Speciesism is difficult to defend, because it is structurally identical to other irrational prejudices. In fact, most of the arguments I've discussed are not actually arguments in favor of speciesism, because once you start naming other qualities that you think justify prejudice against non-humans, it's those qualities that are important, rather than species membership. People make these arguments because, despite the deep-rooted nature of our prejudice, it's not hard to see that it is irrational.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Bad Arguments for Animal Testing

The previous three posts, while I think addressing important ideas in themselves, were intended to set up another point. Most people agree that the standards for testing experimental medicine on people should be very strict, that informed consent should always be explicitly obtained, and that no one ought to be forced to be a experiment subject against their will. Most of us believe this even when we consider that our medical capacities would progress far more quickly, and we could save countless lives, if we were much more devious in our experimental guidelines.

Of course, you could say that the negative consequences of living in a world with such duplicitous testing methods would end up outweighing any potential benefits. This, however, is uncertain, and it depends on how much more lax our standards of practice would become. Regardless, there's an easy fix to this theoretical complication. Imagine a world in which the duplicitous testing methods were unknown to most people, perhaps only done on the orphaned, or on isolated populations. Still, I think, most people would find this extremely perverse. The ends, as they say, cannot justify such foul means.

Which is all just to point out that those who point to the successes of non-human animal experimentation, in its defense, are missing the point. It's easy to acknowledge that there have been positive outcomes from unjustified forms of medical experimentation. We have learned a lot, and benefited a lot, from various forms of injustice (depending on who you count as "we"). This does not get you on the path to justification, as most people would agree in the human case. There are certain practices we agree we should not engage in, despite the potential for positive outcomes.

All of which doesn't prove my point, which is that most non-human medical experimentation is wrong. But it does rebut the most common defense of such practices. The work a defender of such practices has to do is show that these positive outcomes for some reason serve as justification in the non-human case, when they wouldn't in the case of humans. (It's also important to remember that much non-human animal experimentation is not even justified on utilitarian grounds. That is, the potential human benefits of many experiments often do not even come close to balancing out the costs in terms of non-human welfare and life. Many utilitarians oppose many forms of animal testing.)

A further complication for the defender of animal testing is this. The closer an animal is in terms of similarities to us (e.g., primates), the more useful it's going to be as an experimental model. But primates and animals that have a lot of similarities to humans are often thought to have a closer moral status to humans than more distantly related animals(say, birds.) But often, the farther an animal gets in terms of similarities to humans, the less helpful it is as a model for humans.

One final note: all of this discussion assumed that legitimate humans benefits would be gained for any animal testing. This assumption is often dubious, if not wholly illegitimate. I've heard of no one who plausibly defends harmful animal testing for frivolous need (make-up, hygiene products), and yet the vast majority of people support such practices.

Friday, December 7, 2012

One More Against Maximization

There's one more counter-example from Scanlon I'd like to give against the maximization of value central to consequentialist theories. I'm doing several posts on this because I think maximization, initially, seems like a very appealing way to go in terms of moral theory. Many people who seek moral theories, who are coming from a non-religious standpoint, find consequentialism very plausible in it's relative simplicity. If we can decide that somethings are valuable, and then decide that we should promote value, there's no need to invoke anything supernatural to inform us about morality. However, I think when you really start to imagine what consequentialism prescribes, it produces some very counter-intuitive results. And there's no reason to prioritize the intuitive appeal of simplicity over our intuitive reactions to these cases.

So here's the case. You're a technician at a television station, broadcasting the World Cup. Millions of people are watching, obviously getting a lot of pleasure out of the game. Accidentally, a co-worker of yours trips and gets entangled in the equipment, where he starts getting painful electrical shocks. You know the only way to save him from the severe pain is to turn off the equipment. It takes awhile for the equipment to turn on, so most of the game will not be televised. Millions of people will experience a lot of disappointment due to the fact that the game is not televised.

I think almost everyone would save the co-worker. Clearly, the disappointment of millions of fans would, in the aggregate outweigh the pain that your one co-worker is feeling. It's not hard to imagine that disappointment is at least one-millionth as bad as being shocked. But despite the mass number of people who would mildly suffer, the dire need of one individual in severe seems to be a much stronger reason for action. And I think it only helps my case that if all the millions of people were informed of what happened, they would like agree it was the right thing to save the co-worker.

On Scanlon's theory, what makes this the right thing to do is that no one could reasonably reject a principle that required such action. Any of the individuals watching the game could not reasonably claim that they were more entitled to see the game than the co-worker was not to get shocked. And the co-worker could reasonably reject a principle that allowed you to act otherwise.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Consequences of Forced Organ Donation

So the case of friendship is helpful as a jumping off point for understanding non-consequential moral reasoning. But I want to note that non-consequential reasoning is quite ubiquitous, and almost everyone has strong non-consequentialist intuitions. For example, take another well-known thought experiment. You go into the doctor's office for a minor illness, and while you're in the waiting room, they discover that there are five other patients on the brink of death, all of whom could be saved by a transplant of one of your organs. Should the doctors surreptitiously kill you, and then harvest your organs for the other five people? Clearly, the world in which at the end of the day five people walk out of the hospital alive, rather than just one, is in one sense a better outcome. But almost everyone agrees that this would be abhorrent.

Of course, consequentialists always have ways to try to explain away these intuitions. It's often said that a policy of doing such a thing would create such harmful effects, in terms of people not trusting the doctors, and general societal unease, that the consequences actually count against such action. There's something obviously true about this. But of course we can always alter the case, such that it's unlikely that such a circumstance will occur again, no one will every find out, etc., and I think we still retain our initial judgment that it would be the wrong thing to do. And, at least for me, the initial reaction to the case is not, "The policy would have terrible consequences that outweigh any potential benefit," but rather that "The doctors have no right to use me in that way." Of course, a consequentialist would likely provide an error theory about why our intuitions are confused in this way. But it's hard to think of my reaction to this as a kind of confusion.

There's another response, which hopefully I'll be able to give a longer treatment of later, which is to distinguish between act-consequentialism and rule-consequentialism. Act-consequentialists assert that the consequences of the act are all that matter in our moral evaluation, whereas rule-consequentialists think we should act according to the rules that would have the best consequences. This is an enormous topic, many different versions of both theories have been put forward. Nevertheless, I think rule-consequentialism, at least in terms of a moral theory in which justification comes only from outcomes, is inherently flawed. There will always be slippage back towards a more act-consequentialist view, which falls prey to the type of counter-examples I'm discussing.

I find this case helpful because it also helps to disabuse one of the notion that these questions aren't important. Obviously, this exact case is rather implausible. But our reactions to it will help us make sense of how we react to other cases in the real world that might share similar features. And if it strikes you as important that you not be made into a forced organ donor, and that others not be made into forced organ donors as well, then ethical philosophy has some importance. It is good for us to think about and discuss the salient features of these cases so we can better understand what matters, and also what we have most reason to do.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Against the Maximization of Friendship

One way you might propose to answer the question "What should I do?" is to say "Promote what matters." I've already said that sometimes philosophers seem to think that promoting what matters and doing what one ought are the same thing, which inclines them toward (however subtly) consequentialism. A consequentialist believes that we should find out what matters, what kinds of states of affairs are most valuable, and go about promoting them. Utilitarianism is a common type of consequentialism, which is the view the only thing we should promote is the amount of utility (often conceived of as happiness, or pleasure) in the world. There are (to my mind, more plausible) versions of consequentialism that say that lots of different things matter, like happiness, success, relationships, art, etc. These values might not all be commensurable, such that a loss in one is adequately made up for by a gain in another, but ultimately what we should do is promote these values as much as possible.

Non-consequentialists do not see moral obligations in terms of this kind of value maximization. So one question that naturally arises is, what other ways can you answer the question of what one ought to do?

T. M. Scanlon (most particularly in What We Owe to Each Other) is a good example of a philosopher who has taken this question head-on. Korsgaard also discusses it at length, and in a quite compelling way, but many aspects of her answer are quite involved and rely on other controversial arguments. When addressing a question like this, its often best to just stick to relevantly common premises.

One value that Scanlon proposes that is best responded to in a non-maximizing way is friendship. What this means is that to properly value friendship, one cannot simply go about trying to make sure there is the most amount of friendship in the world. Suppose I think friendship is really valuable, so I start a website dedicated to people making friends, and I start a campaign for recognizing the importance of friendship in our lives, and try and make it as easy as possible for people to be able to spend time with and keep obligations with their friends. But all the while that I'm doing this, I don't have any friends of my own. Most people would think I've made a mistake. I got something right, in that I recognize that friendship is important, and I've done a lot to help others. But it seems I haven't really understood the value of friendship unless I've tried to have friends.

I think that captures the intuition pretty well, but a decision scenario might make it clearer. I believe Scanlon gives an example similar to this. Suppose I have a friend, and I've made a promise to this friend, and the continuation of this friendship rests on the keeping of this promise. Imagine also that if I do keep this promise, through no fault of my own, and no wrong-doing on my or my friend's part, two other friendships will end. These are friendships of people I don't know, and have no special obligations towards. Now, regardless of what someone thinks I might actually ought to do in this situation (though, the facts as the are, I think I most likely ought to keep the promise) we can ask the question, what would I do if I were most properly valuing friendship? It seems to me that there is something intrinsic to the value of friendship that demands being a good friend rather than promoting as many friendships as possible.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A (Somewhat) Sentimental Note

I've fallen inconveniently ill, and without much energy to write anything too involved. But I would like to make one point.

If one starts to recognize the suffering of animals as morally significant, such that one starts to actually adjusts one's actions accordingly, it can feel like a heavy burden. When others point out to you, accurately, "It's much harder on the animals than it is on you," it's little consolation. Hearing numbers like "56 billion land animals killed per year" in worldwide animal agriculture, can be incredibly depressing, and discouraging. It's also not helpful to realize, as Darwin in part revealed, that wild animals often have very brutal lives.

But there is a flipside to the badness of the suffering, which is of course the goodness of the pleasure that animals can experience. The suffering almost undoubtedly outweighs the pleasure, so it's (appropriately) not a complete comfort, but it shows something important about the expansion of the moral community. There's a lot more suffering in the world to worry about before one seriously took animals into account, but there's a lot more joy in the world as well. So recognizing the importance of non-human animal life is not simply a burden. And that is significant.

As a sidenote, I'd like to add that there is something philosophically and phenomenologically interesting about the shift one undergoes when one accepts some version of an animal rights theory. Because of course everyone knows that there's a lot of animal suffering in the world. It just has a different effect on the individual once they conclude (or perhaps, by virtue of them concluding) that animals have rights. (This point is especially vivid if you consider that many people who work in animal agriculture have even more direct knowledge of the kind and amount of suffering that goes on, and yet are likely not heavily weighed on because they assume animals do not have significant moral rights. On the other hand, I have to assume that it weighs on them in some sense.)

My thoughts are not all that clear on this point, but I intend to think about it further.

Sentience and Moral Rights

I've asserted that it matters how the lives of animals go. Specifically, I think sentience is the specific quality that (some) animals have that give them moral status. Who has sentience, and what is it? The answers to these questions are a bit less clear, and I think inherently so. Nevertheless, I do have some basic thoughts on the matter.

We can think of sentience as the capacity for sensation, particularly sensations that have negative or positive associations with them. It's possible that the capacity for sensation never arises without either something like a capacity for pain and pleasure. But I think it's possible to imagine a being, even a human, who was able to perceive the world, through sensations just like ours, but to whom those sensations were all of equal (that is, zero) value. And it seems to me that there would be no way to wrong or harm that being. It would die quickly, naturally, because it would have no motivation to do anything. So sentience, of the significant sort that I am discussing, is a type of subjective experience for an individual of the outside world, which necessarily assigns (or perhaps perceives) some sort of value to its sensations.

It seems reasonable to assume that sentience emerges based on the complexity of a nervous system. Most animals we routinely exploit (chickens, cows, turkey, horses, dogs, many types of fish, etc.) have obviously very complex nervous systems that rather undoubtedly suggest sentience. It will likely always be unclear where to draw a line for which animals have sentience, and which do not. For example, mollusks and insects may or may not be sentient, and to varying degrees.

There are some tricky points around here. Gary Francione argues that sentience alone is sufficient for the possession of moral rights. These include, the right not to be unjustly killed, harmed, or, as he most emphatically puts it, the right not to be used as property. Jeff McMahan, on the other hand, thinks that moral status increases with the psychological complexity of the individual. So, a typical adult human has greater moral status than a dog, and a typical grown dog has greater status than an inch worm.

For many practical purposes, I'd like to point out that both views give similar prescriptions. Veganism is the proper response to the moral status of animals, whether or not you accept Francione's view or McMahan's. (McMahan has in fact stated that he is a vegetarian, but thinks he ought to be vegan. And in fact, I think he would have little problem consuming honey, silk, or products from animals with sufficiently rudimentary psychological capacities.)

I'll have more to say on this later (spoiler: I mostly agree with Francione). However, I would like to say here that both views get traction from very plausible intuitions. Francione's view corresponds very nicely to our idea of rights as being rather explicit limits. My right not to be murdered does not wane as I get older, and have less life to left to live. And someone else may live an objectively much more fulfilling and worthwhile life than I do, but I still cannot be forced to donate my heart (or even just a kidney!) to save their life.

McMahan's position gains plausibility because of how nicely it fits in with a plausible model of the development of sentience. Just as (to use a common analogy) a single molecule of water is not wet, a single neuron is not sentient. Is an animal with two neurons sentient? Ten? One thousand? Obviously, there is extreme vagueness in the concept of sentience, which is most likely ineliminable. So to have a view of moral status that varies by degrees, and thus contains a corresponding vagueness, seems appealing.

Friday, November 30, 2012

What Matters and What I Should Do

Considering the two quotations I used in the previous post, it occurs to me that in one way, they're offering answers to two different questions. Korsgaard is, in part, responding to the question "What do I have most reason to do?" or "What should I do?" Nagel, on the other hand, can be seen as answering the question, "What matters?"

Parfit, from whom I lifted Nagel's quote, seems to see these as the same question. This is one way of understanding his strongly consequentialist leanings (Nagel, arguably, ends up leaning toward consequentialism as well.) If you believe the answer to "What should I do?" is "Promote what matters," you will likely end up endorsing some sort of consequentialist moral theory. However, if you see these questions as more distinct, allowing for the possibility that what we have most reason to do at any given moment might not be value-maximizing, then the door is open for a non-consequentialist theory.

I'm not attempting to argue that these questions necessarily are distinct. Perhaps the best way to do that is just to see whether or not consequentialist theories are plausible moral theories. But it's important to notice that the way we ask these basic questions, at the very fundamental level of ethical inquiry, has downstream implications for the structure of moral theories.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Philosophy and Animal Life

"...Your animal nature is a fundamental form of identity on which the normativity, your moral identity, depends. It is not just as human but considered as sensible, considered as an animal, that you value yourself and are your own end.... If you don't value your animal nature, you can value nothing. So you must endorse its value. ....

When you pity a suffering animal, it is because you are perceiving a reason. An animal's cries express pain, and they mean that there is a reason, a reason to change its condition. And you can no more hear the cries of an animal as mere noise than you can the words of a person. Another animal can obligate you in exactly the same way another person can. It is a way of being someone that you share. So of course we can have obligations to animals."
Christine Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity, pp. 152-153

Many people don't see much use for philosophy. We know what's important, we do what we think is best, it's not hard to realize what the right thing to do is. Some people will even glibly say that they don't worry too much about morality, they just look out for themselves. But a lot of people do see reason to care about others. Thomas Nagel writes:

"There are so many people one can barely imagine it... what happens to them is enormously important, as important as what happens to you. ...what happens to anyone matters the same as if it happened to anyone else ... the elimination of the worst sufferings and deprivations matters most ... The alleviation of misery, ignorance, and powerlessness and the elevation of most of our fellow human beings to a minimally decent standard of existence, seem overwhelmingly important."
Equality and Partiality pp. 11-13

This seems obviously true, and not requiring much argument. But it also seems to miss a lot. There are even more, many times more, individuals who are not humans, whose lives are very important as well. Some argue that their lives are less important; perhaps this is so, but their staggering outnumbering of humans seems to count in their favor.

What happens in the lives of animals, human and non-human, matters a great deal to them. There are many arguments (for example, Korsgaard's, summarized above) that it should matter to us. To some extent, we need no argument. We know that these things matter. But humans have also historically gotten morality very wrong, so it is imperative to be vigilant about these topics. Most people today still give far too little weight to the interests of non-humans, or particular groups of humans. And oftentimes, even when we acknowledge those whose interests matter, it's not clear what obligations follow. Discussion and analysis of the issues at hand can make it clearer who matters, and what we should do about it.