Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Biggest Lie People Tell At Christmas



Many people tell lies at Christmas. Sometimes we think we have good reasons to lie; some people think growing up with a magical view of Christmas is reason enough to lie to children about the existence of Santa Clause. But an even bigger lie is told by those who might not even realize it's a lie.

“Everything happens for a reason,” we are often told. Countless Christmas specials produce this cliche, often by skeptical characters who have been turned into believers. But we even get this pearl from relatively secular genres, and from characters who never again profess any sort of religious belief. Many people who would say this are not, as we normally understand the term, religious.

When there are certain considerations on the basis of which we act, these considerations are our motivational reasons. If everything happened for a motivational reason, every gust of wind and every vibration of a molecule, this would imply that the world is controlled at the micro level by some immensely powerful agent (or perhaps many agents). What's not exactly clear is where this would leave us: are our actions still our own? I think we can plausibly explain our actions as our own arising out of a causal universe, but I am less confident that such explanations work if the world is purely motivational, rather than merely causal, in nature.

There are also justificatory reasons, the facts that count in favor of our acting one way or another. If everything happened for a justificatory reason, that could either mean that all the actions of the above-mentioned being were just actions, or perhaps that everything that happens happens simply because it is good. That everything happens for this kind of justificatory reason is deeply implausible, for the well-known problem of evil. However, there is no reason to believe either possibility.

It seems the substantive implications of the more interesting assertions that everything happens for either a motivational or justificatory reason are smuggled into the imminently plausible, but mundane, claim that everything happens for a causal reason. This is precisely why we must watch out for ambiguous meanings and equivocation.

Also, Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

9 Tips for Charitable Giving


Since people like to give money during the holiday season, here are my tips for being an effective philanthropist. Because I believe that the world of animal-related charities is much more complicated, and that our efforts in that respect are best spent advocating veganism, I focus here only on charities helping humans.

1. Choose your charities wisely. There's no such thing as giving to "charity"; you give money to specific charities. Some charities are worse than others, and some are much, much better. Think about how much time you spend considering which car to buy, or which shoes to get. Your choice of charity will likely have a greater impact on the lives of others as these purchases have on your life, so it deserves at least as much careful consideration.

2. Donate to those who are far away from you. If you live in a wealthy nation, your money will go much farther to help people in poorer nations. Not only will a smaller amount go further for these people, but they are often significantly worse off than the people wealthy nations and so in more dire need.These two considerations combined count strongly in favor of donating to foreigners.

3. Don't volunteer your time. People like the idea of volunteering their time rather than giving money, but this is usually not an efficient way to help others. If you have the time to spare, pick up overtime at your work and donate the extra money to an effective charity. As an outside volunteer you will likely be a lot less effective than someone who does the work professionally. It's better that you do the work that someone is willing to pay you for (assuming it's not an evil job), and then use those funds to support the work of those who outstanding charities are willing to pay.

4. Donate money, not things. If no one would pay you for whatever it is you're trying to give away, then it's not worth very much. If someone would pay you, take the money and donate it to someone who wouldn't trade that amount for the object you're giving up. Or rather, give the money to a charity whose effectiveness at providing for essential needs has been extensively demonstrated. (GiveWell has written very persuasively about this topic.)

5. Administrative costs are irrelevant. A lot of people spend a lot of time wringing their hands over how much charities pay directly on programs and how much they pay to administrative costs. This misses the point. Any obligation we have to donate is to the individuals that are helped by the charity. What percentage goes to whom is not nearly as important as whether or not the programs are really effective in improving lives. Though these two factors are related, there is not a direct connection, and whether an intervention is effective should be the decisive factor.

This also creates a perverse incentive. If a charity could hire an administrator who could make their program several times more effective, they might refrain from doing so if they thought they'd get fewer donations in response to higher admin fees. This would result in the people served being left worse off for the purpose of appealing to the donors' sense of institutional purity.

6. Donate consistently throughout the year. This is less a rule than a personal preference. Charities expect to receive the most money around the holidays, so it's not a bad thing to give a large chunk then. But personally I find it much easier to give a smaller amount every month, taken directly from my bank account, than to donate a large sum once a year. It's also easier for me to increase this amount slowly over time to give a larger percentage of my income to others. If you don't think this would be the case for you, this tip can be ignored.

7. Donate now, not later. At least some. If you think there are some investments you can make that will pay off big in the long-term (say, in your education) then it's likely worth it to put off giving big donations now. But it's best to always give something, so that donating is always a part of your life of which you're conscious. It will make giving more natural when you have to ability to give more.

Also, in the same way that invested money will produce greater returns in the future, so will the effects of charitable donations. If you give money to a pregnant woman in poverty now, and her life is improved, then the child will have a better start to life in the future. If you instead waited a year for that money to earn interest, it's not at all obvious the child will be better off now with the somewhat larger donation than she would've have been had her mother received the donation during her pregnancy.

8. Talk with others about donating. Most people don't think too hard about where they donate, but it makes a huge difference. A more informed dialogue about charity would have enormous benefits. Also, don't shy away from mentioning how much you donate. People find exact figures to be crass, so I find percentages to be more socially acceptable. I donate between 10%-30% of my income(rough estimate because of a change in my financial circumstances), and plan to donate more when I'm not saving for my education.

9. Let others do the research for you. Investigating all the ins an outs of charitable giving is extremely time consuming and resource intensive. My views on this topic are greatly influenced by the work of those at GiveWell. They do excellent work and contribute an invaluable service. While I do not completely endorse their philosophical views, I think for the most part our interests are aligned. I recommend using their work as the basis of any research into charities, and personally favor their recommendation of GiveDirectly as a top charity.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Are People Really Good?



In my second year at university, all philosophy majors were required to take the general course on ethics. One of the first topics we discussed was whether or not people can be morally good.

There are some complex issues to get into on this topic, but some people hold a very simplistic and cynical view. Nobody, they say, really does anything for genuinely altruistic reasons. All reasons for action are essentially self-interested, and we are unable to act for the interests of others. This view is known as psychological egoism.

At one time, this view had some plausibility for me. I never believed it myself, but I could see why others did. Now, it seems to me the cynical view is really rather naive and deeply implausible.

WBUR had an article today that got me thinking about the subject. They tell the story of a woman who goes skydiving for the first time with a teacher, and this teacher risks his life to save hers when the parachute malfunctions. Essentially, he used his body to cushion her landing, and ended up paralyzed.

It's a riveting story, and quite a powerful indication that people really can do good. As the teacher in this scenario, he took it to be his job to protect his student, and fulfilled his duty in some of the most desperate circumstances one can imagine.

He thought he was almost definitely going to die saving her life, so it's hard to give an egoistic explanation of these actions. The best case and egoist can make with these sorts of examples is to suppose that had the teacher survived and not done his best to save his student's life, he would have been so racked with guilt that death was preferable. (There are questions here of whether the invocation of guilt nullifies this as an example of egoism, but for the purposes of rhetorical charity I won't assume this.)

This explanation won't do, however. Aside from it being implausible on its face, it seems the rational thing to do in such a scenario would be to save yourself, then see if you could handle the guilt after the fact, and kill yourself if you weren't able to do it. So the teacher's actions would appear to be a case of true altruism.

This example is an extreme one, but there are countless other, more pedestrian examples. I know dozens of people who have made it their lives' work to help others and make the world a better place, at significant cost. I know people who give large percentages of their money to charity, and people who tirelessly advocate for animal rights.

One of the most common egoistic explanations of why people behave morally is for the positive attention these people receive for doing so. But many of the people I know who do the best things are not socially rewarded for there actions, and sometimes even find that the opposite is true. There might be other explanations you could try to give to explain the apparent altruism as subversively egoist, but it's really hard to find such accounts plausible.

None of which denies the great evil that humans are capable of. I know plenty of people who, even by their own admission, do far less than what they think can reasonably be expected of them. Gary Francione has argued that people are inherently predisposed to be violent, and I find it hard to disagree. But there are clearly cases in which we put the interests of others above our own. And that is an important fact.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Would You Eat Your Dog?


Over at Slate, we get a piece by Rebecca Onion on the story of Marco Lavoie. It seems Lavoie got stranded in the wilderness with his dog, who Lavoie killed and ate to prevent starvation. Though some people support his actions, many people are very angry with Lavoie. Onion asks, "why does this infuriate us so?"

Onion is a historian, and gives us some interesting history of dog sledding. Apparently, it was seen as a virtue of whiteness by many European settlers that they would not eat their dogs as the Natives occasionally did. Oddly, though, Onion then acknowledges that this has very little to do with contemporary reactions to the case of Lavoie.

Even if there were a connection though, it seems like we're asking the wrong question. This, unfortunately, is emblematic of a larger problem is the media. The questions of why we would get upset about a man eating his dog is, most importantly, a moral question rather than a cultural one. But we don't know how to talk about moral issues, so instead we talk about history.

This happens all the time. A couple years ago This American Life ran a story about working conditions in Chinese factories, that led them to ask the question "Is it alright for us to buy products from these factories?" And to answer the question, they brought on an economist.

Economists are good at many things, but they are not experts on moral philosophy. Now, I don't believe philosophers are the arbiters of moral truth; obviously, there is substantial disagreement among philosophers on nearly every philosophical question. But if you ask a philosopher a moral question, you're much more likely to get a clear discussion of different relevant views about which features of a situation have moral importance. If you ask someone not used to talking about these matters, you'll just get obfuscation.

Back to the dog question. There is a good answer to the question. why are people mad at Lavoie? This answer also explains why there's disagreement on the matter.

As Gary Francione puts it, our society suffers from "moral schizophrenia" regarding animals. We have any number of conflicting beliefs about the value of non-human life. In our relationships with our pets, for instance, we often see animals as members of the family whom we love dearly. The animals on our plates we view as mere resources for our consumption. Even though there is no coherent moral distinction between these types of animals, we nevertheless draw imaginary lines of supposed moral significance. Our moral intuitions about our obligations to animals are thus unpredictable and erratic, because they do not come from any genuinely coherent moral framework.

So some people see this dog as a potential family member, and condemn Lavoie's actions. Others might suppress any sympathy they have towards this position, and condone the act as analogous to our (presumably acceptable) consumption of other animals.

However, the larger point that is missed is this. Even if it is permissible in this instance for Lavoie to kill and eat his dog, this tells us nothing about our general consumption of animal products, which is not forced by necessity. The fact that we think there might be something wrong in the Lavoie case suggests that there is almost certainly something wrong in the typical case. To raise the question of whether or not Lavoie should have eaten his dog assumes there's something at least prima facie wrong with killing and eating an animal; we wouldn't be raising this question if he had eaten some beets.

Some people would say that he shouldn't have eaten his dog because it was his dog. That is, they had a relationship, one of trust and of mutual benefit, that Lavoie unjustly betrayed. However, this argument will not do. We do not seem to acquire these relationships elsewhere--there's nothing I could do for my car or that my car could do for me that could give me any obligation not to tear it apart for scrap metal at the first moment that becomes convenient.

There is something different about a dog, which is that it is sentient being with a life of value. And it's very plausible that I can gain more duties to animal by forming a relationship with her. But for such a relationship to be possible, I cannot first have the option of regarding her as a thing without any value. You cannot build moral obligations on to something which you initially had the right to dispose of at your whim. Such obligations could never get off the ground.

We'll probably have disagreement for a long time about whether someone in Lavoie's situation should have eaten his dog. For my part, I think what he did was wrong. But the most important thing is that, for us to even take the question seriously, we need to break free from the moral schizophrenia that grips our society. We need to realize that if animals matter at all, we cannot use them as our resources. That mean becoming vegan.

These are serious questions, of great importance. And it's necessary that we ask such questions in the right way if we're going to have an hope of clarity at all.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

How Homosexuality is a Choice


The discourse around gay rights, despite its popular success in the US, has been deeply flawed. Much of the plea for acceptance of queer identities and relationships has been predicated on misguided prescriptions to "judge not." Many essentially have argued that the area of personal relationships between "consenting adults" (whatever that means) is beyond moral reproach. I've argued against such views previously. Here, I'll show that popular arguments about whether or not homosexuality is a "choice" in the gay rights movement have been similarly misguided.

I'll note only too briefly that what the "gay rights" movement is is a matter of some debate, as is what it ought to be. Certainly, "gay rights" is far too narrow a goal for the movement, but the argument I'm discussing most notably comes up in discourse around the rights of gays and lesbians.

The argument goes as follows. Some claim that homosexuality is unnatural and wrong, and in response to this it is claimed that homosexuality is not unnatural or wrong because it is not a matter of choice. That is, since homosexuals do not choose to be gay over being straight, they therefore should not be criticized for being gay.

This assumes, which is a matter of some controversy, that something cannot be wrong if one could not have chosen otherwise. But leave this worry aside.

More importantly, it's not clear what this "choice" business is supposed to make clear. Even if the major premise of this argument is granted, it's not the fact of being born with a homosexual orientation that those opposed to gay rights object to. They object to the practice of having homosexual sexual intercourse, and perhaps even homosexual romantic relationships. And these actions are clearly the result of choices an individual makes, if anything at all is. The fact that people don't choose to be gay doesn't, in itself, justify these actions.

What's even worse for this argument, though, is to consider its negation. Suppose it were true that having a homosexual sexual orientation were a matter or choice. What would this imply? It seems to me that it would imply very little.

This is because there would still be nothing intrinsically wrong with homosexuality. There might be, on certain definitions, something unnatural about it, but what of that? There are many things humans do that can be categorized as natural or unnatural, and yet these labels carry no moral force. We can always coherently say, "It's natural, but is it right?" or "It's unnatural, but is it wrong?" without any hint of contradiction.

Just because we're born with a certain predisposition does not mean we are justified in acting on that predisposition. And if we aren't born with a certain predisposition, but acquire it through choice or otherwise, this fact tells us very little of moral importance. What's important is the actions we take and the reasons there are for or against doing so. If people think there are reasons that homosexual acts are wrong, they need to clarify what those reasons are. Only then will we have be able to have a meaningful discussion about morality.

Once again, we've ceded ground to the religious, as if they're the only ones who have the right to talk about right and wrong. Since we don't know how to talk about right and wrong, we argue about interpretations of Bible passages or about what is and isn't "natural." Instead, we should consider the reasons our interlocutors present, and explain why we think they are good or bad reasons. As I've tried to make clear, this discussion of "choice" sheds no light on the matter whatsoever.

Some might say that despite my protestations, these arguments have been very successful in shifting public opinion. Perhaps. Alternatively, I find it plausible to imagine that the tide of public opinion was moving in a certain direction for a variety of reasons, and that these kinds of arguments are just the confused foam bubbling up from the wave. Either way, the ability of an argument to be successful in changing minds is not dependent on its being true.

In the end, I think there is something important about being gay that is a choice. When one finds oneself with a homosexual sexual orientation, one might choose to suppress those feelings. Or one might choose to embrace those feelings, identify with them as a gay individual, and choose to pursue pleasurable and meaningful homosexual relationships. The latter choice is likely the better choice to make.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Who Makes the Cut? (or) Sentience as the Unrelentingly Undeniable Sufficient Condition for Moral Consideration


Those who take seriously the question of the moral status of animals find it very difficult to preserve our common sense intuitions. Of the people I've known who have taken this question seriously, they have decided either that we ought to reject institutionalized animal use or reject the idea that we can have obligations to animals. The fact that intelligent people find themselves on the horns of this dilemma suggest that most people radically misunderstand our obligations to non-humans.

For those who seek to deny any strong obligations towards animals, and avoid arbitrary speciesism, the go-to method is proposing some criterion for moral status that most fully developed humans possess and that most non-humans lack. There are well-known problems with these arguments, as I've demonstrated repeatedly here and elsewhere. I believe these problems with these arguments to be insurmountable. However, it's useful to question even the basic methodology of these arguments.

Why should we start with an exclusivist notion of morality, and begin by limiting it to humans? We know that historically some of the great moral failings of our species have been to exclude many from full membership in the moral community. This alone suggests we should resist the impulse to begin with an exclusionary approach.

So why not begin with the assumption that everything is a legitimate candidate for moral consideration? We can then proceed by abandoning only those entities for which there can be no reasonable way in which they could be considered in a moral framework.

There are many things, in the set of everything that exists, that prima facie seem to have no possibility of placing moral claims on us. Abstract objects, like numbers, the laws of physics, have no causal relation to us, and so it is hard to see how the could possibly fit into the moral community. Space, time, and mystery are similarly non-starters as potential objects of moral obligation.

Next, we might consider more material entities, like rocks, planets, electrons. It makes more sense to imagine that I might have an obligation to a bolder than it does to imagine I could have an obligation to the number 9. But once we consider what kinds of obligations one could possibly have towards these things, non-living objects also appear to be non-starters.

It's possible I could have an obligation to leave a boulder alone, I suppose. But then, I could also have an obligation to push it down a hill. I would have no way of knowing which of these would be a better or worse thing to do, for the boulder. What's more, it's hard to imagine would could be better or worse for a boulder. I could smash the boulder to a million pieces, and you might say it's bad for the boulder. But I might just as easily say that it's a good thing for so many smaller rocks to come into existence, and for the boulder to be a part of that. There's no actual place to ground a discussion about what could be good for a boulder, or a planet, a star, or a river.

This is not true for plants, and other living organisms. It does make sense to say that growing and thriving are things that are good for non-sentient organisms. After all, those are things that we value in ourselves. So on the face of it, it might seem like we could have obligations to non-sentient organisms; at the very least, an obligation not to frivolously hinder their growth and flourishing.

I think under further consideration, however, this obligation does not make sense. For after all, some mountains grow, and sedimentary rocks can accumulate more mass over time. It's not obvious that this is necessarily a good thing for them.

And if we consider ourselves, it seems growth is not something we value intrinsically. Imagine I could grow another three inches, but it would give me mild pain and render me less physically competent. In this case, there seems to be no reason for me to want to grow at all. It's not even that the mild pain and reduction in my abilities outweigh the growth, it's that the growth has no inherent value to me at all. It would only be valuable if it somehow improved my skills, or otherwise aided achievement of my goals and values.

You might say that a plant could value its growth, even if we don't, and we should still respect that. But it's really hard to make sense of what "value" could mean in this sense. It certainly does grow, under many conditions, but it's not clear that means it values growing. Rivers do flow, and fires do burn, but that certainly does not mean we should attribute evaluative attitudes to these phenomena. After all, if I were rendered completely brain-dead after an accident, my body might still operate without any sentience. In this state, I don't think it's proper to say that that body values anything. Not in the way I value anything now. (It is no accident that we use the indelicate term "vegetable" to describe human beings who no longer have any mental faculties, and whom many think have no reason to continue living.)

Some defenders of obligations to plants will say that this is an overly humanistic conception of value. It certainly is a humanistic conception of value, but such a conception is reasonable. We're discussing what values humans ought to have. If there's some form of valuation beyond what human beings can understand, then it's hard to see how there could be any obligation on the part of humans to respect it. We can't possibly respect a value that is in principle incomprehensible to us.

Which brings us to other sentient organisms, the only form of which we're aware is animals. It seems hard to deny that things can go better and worse for sentient organisms, if by sentient we mean perceptually aware and capable of feeling pleasure and pain. Naturally, we'll think that at a minimum it's bad for these beings to feel pain, and better if they feel pleasure. We can imagine that they value pleasure and disvalue pain, for the same reasons we do. This is because by accepting that they are sentient, we accept that they share a good deal of what we consider good and bad about our lives. Although my sensory experiences are not all that is valuable about my life, they are a good portion of what is valuable. And it hard to deny that animals value their experiences in meaningful ways.

At this point, it's up to those who deny non-human animals membership in the community of moral consideration to explain why we should agree. And unlike the other categories of things I considered, it's hard to see how there couldn't in principle be a way to consider animals morally. We need a reason that we shouldn't care about the experiences of sentient animals. But when we approach the question from this direction, it seems to me this is obviously wrongheaded. We shouldn't be looking for reasons to deny the consideration of animal interests that are so directly analogous to interests that we already consider very important.

Consider how the form the denial has to take. We might posit that to be considered a member of the moral community one must be able to conceivably enter into a hypothetical contract. Or one must be able to conceive of oneself from another's perspective, or possess moral concepts. (Or less plausibly, one must be a member of the species homo sapiens.) Any characteristic we could propose would function as a reason not to care about the interests of animals. But it's already clear that they're open to consideration, in a way that obligations to plants or planets just could not be. To add further criteria for membership in the moral community misses the point of the moral project altogether.

Morality is about recognizing the other, and determining how their interests ought to figure into our practical deliberation. Once we recognize that a being is an other, another who possesses interests, we already have all we need to know they matter morally.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

How to Be a Superhero


Image Credit Eneas De Troya
In a recent episode of This American Life, we get the story of a woman named Zora who wants to be a superhero. For a long time, she set and accomplished goals on a long list, including learning martial arts, how to pilot a helicopter, wilderness survival skills, bodybuilding, and a few dozen other skills that comic book superheros always seem to possess. I recently had a conversation with someone who thought that we really should encourage others to be like superheroes, but in ways that make sense for the world we inhabit.

Lots of people want to be superheroes, I suppose. There's a lot of glamor in it, and fame of course, and it seems like a very exciting life. Most importantly, one would imagine, is that it offers a wonderful chance to help others.

But does it? Surely, the superheroes in comic books help a lot of people. But that's because there are often super villains who need to be stopped by superheroes, or else millions might die. Other than that, though, they do a lot of everyday crime fighting.

Is crime fighting really what we need more of? It seems that if that's what you thought, it would make sense to go into police work, or perhaps lobby for more money for law enforcement. Encouraging vigilantism hardly seems ideal. And because our world lacks the kinds of super villains that are best handled by superheroes, it's hard to see figures like Batman or Wonder Woman as practical role models.

The kinds of evils we face are much more subtle than those in comic books. A lot of evil is just apathy and ignorance. So the first place to start is just to educate yourself about the world, so that you are not, as best as possible, part of the problem. You can then play an important part in educating others, and fighting against the tide of ignorance. You might come to believe, as I have, some of the greatest wrongs committed in this world are towards non-human animals, and you can become part of a movement to educate the world about veganism.

You might also realize that there are billions of humans who live in much worse conditions than those in the most privileged nations. If you're a member of a privileged nation, you can research and contribute to ways that help relieve suffering in those parts of the world. These are both the places in which we can offer the most help and the places in most dire need, so it is doubly important to focus our efforts there. You probably can't solve all the world's problems, but you can do a lot to make the lives of some people much better. And this means all the world to them. You can even (statistically speaking) save lives, by giving significant, but not overly burdensome, amounts of money to charities like those at GiveWell.

It might not seem as grand as piloting a helicopter or fighting of muggers with your bare hands. But practical problems demand practical solutions, and this is where the real work needs to be done.

I'm sure there are those who would think I'm missing the point. Wanting to be a superhero is about wanting to do more than just statistically save lives or shift moral paradigms, it's about wanting to make yourself into a dynamic individual with incredible abilities who can do her part to save the world.

But what I'm trying to show here is that's already who many of us are. We already have the ability to get many important things accomplished, and that includes saving lives. We might have to give up on the idea that being a superhero means going on fantastic adventures and acquiring the wondrous skills. After all, if being a superhero means anything, it means you might have to give something up to do the right thing. Perhaps today's superheros are best advised to leave the super armor at home and put their efforts into the daily grind of trying to make life better for the worst off.

After all, if we imagine Superman or Spiderman staying at home, or just using their power to show off, I think we see something really wrong there. If they have the power to do a lot of good, then they should use it. And so should we.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

'Blackfish' Reveals More About Us Than About SeaWorld


 Image Credit Brian Gurrola
It should hardly surprise anyone that the killer whales who live in SeaWorld have a less than pleasant existence. But CNN's debut of the documentary Blackfish seems to have shaken many from their complacency on the issue, as many announced in tweets and posts that they plan to boycott SeaWorld over the treatment of their orca entertainment.

This Sundance favorite tells the story of the orca Tilikum, as he was captured as a two-year-old and trained for live performances. We're told of the carelessness of his captors who left him with hostile peers and trapped him for hours a day in cramped, dark enclosures. But despite what viewers might expect, this is a film decisively about workers rights rather than animal rights.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite continually emphasizes that Tilikum was a dangerous animal, and that SeaWorld should have known it. And by the time the death toll reaches three, it's hard to disagree. But what is the message here?

If the message were that Tilikum's interests in freedom, knowing his own family, and living out a life in his natural environment were being ignored, this would have been clear without any reference to his violent outbursts. Instead, we're delivered the message that the nature of his captivity is driving him crazy and making him act out in dangerous ways, putting at risk those who work closest with him.

Perhaps. But it seems just as likely that orca are complex individuals whose behavioral patterns might at times be erratic and unpredictable to members of other species. We don't need to posit marine psychosis to explain the fact that killer whales sometimes act in surprising and predatory ways.

What Cowperthwaite wants us to see is a repressed force of nature, beautiful in its own right, struggling against the hubris of its captors. Its captors, of course, being the corporate owners of SeaWorld, not the trainers who risk their lives. In this story, the trainers are like miners working in a faulty shaft, asked to take unnecessary risks for the sake of the bottom line. They are the victims.

It's not that the orca in Blackfish are supposed to be of no moral value. Several times the audience is assured that it's wrong to keep these animals imprisoned. But much more often we're told that it is the trainers who are in danger, and that SeaWorld is needlessly imperilling its staff.

If we're to take animals seriously as a moral matter, we've got to be clear that these issues are about them. The orca in SeaWorld are suffering because we chose to take them from the wild, trained them in captivity, and watched them perform tricks for food. We have wronged them and it is our fault.
Image Credit David Nestor
But given that the vast majority of our society consumes animal products at every meal, it is no surprise that we can't help but see them as resources for our use. The fact that we think we can use sentient beings for almost any purposes, regardless of the suffering and death we inevitably inflict on them, means cases like SeaWorld are hardly unique. The only proper response is to join the moral boycott of all animal use, and go vegan.

But this animal rights message is a bit too personal to make it to the big leagues in Sundance, or on to a special CNN broadcast. Its much better to talk about the beautiful, larger-than-life creatures who are beaten down by corporate monsters of SeaWorld. That way, we don't have to consider the ways in which we routinely and needlessly use and abuse animals daily.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Inside the Republican Mind

Via Matt Yglesias, we get the news that some Republicans are trying a new argument in the "negotiations" over the debt ceiling and funding of the government. Some now argue that breaching debt ceiling is not really that big a deal at all. I'm no expert on these matters, but I'm convinced by the confluence of expert opinion on the matter that this likely is a very big deal. But even if we disregard that, the Republican position on this front is nonsensical. If it weren't a big deal to breach the debt ceiling, then it wouldn't make sense that they are demanding so much in order to avoid a breach.

So why say such things? Well, for sure, one can never discount cynical political posturing. And in fact, as a negotiating tactic, it can be wise to appear as though one is irrational and willing to do the unthinkable in order to extract concessions. One doesn't negotiate with an irrational force, after all. You don't hold your ground with a mudslide and hope for public opinion to swing your way. The only option is to mitigate as much damage as possible.

But I think there's likely something else going on. I think many of the people saying these things may actually believe it. It's a classic resolution to the well-known problem of cognitive dissonance. The thought process might go as follows: "I'm negotiating over the debt ceiling. This implies that I must be willing to breach the debt ceiling. If I'm willing to do it, it can't be that bad."

We think this way all the time. I've come to think this is where a large part of the motivation for warfare comes from. We think (something like) that we wouldn't have an army unless military force were often necessary, and we do have a military, so military force must often be necessary.

These thought processes follow valid arguments, but the premises are not always true. We might have an army because we are excessively fearful, not because we truly need one. We might have negotiated over the debt ceiling because we wrongly believed the president would easily cave, rather than because we were actually willing to breach the debt ceiling.

We all know this. We are not perfect reasoners, and our past actions are often flawed. But when we deliberate, for a variety of reasons we are predisposed to thinking that we have always been behaving rationally. It's incumbent upon us to remember that we are not always rational, and that we cannot assume we haven't already made mistakes.

What this means is that to be a rational agent, we have have to recognize that we are consistently not, in fact, fully rational agents. This is where the ideal and the real must meet. We must always be striving towards being as rational as possible, but acknowledge that part of being rational is realizing that it is not possible (or even likely) for us always to be so.
Image Credit: Eli Christman

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Professors Behaving Badly

Over at Philosophy Bites, we get an interview with Eric Schwitzgebel about the ethical behavior of professors of moral philosophy. Surprising probably no one familiar with the state of academia, he finds that there is no evidence to think that ethicists behavior more ethically, by their own standards, than the general public.

This isn't surprising, but it is certainly disappointing. I often hope that much of the world's problems are just caused by confusion, and that if we could just get clearer on the ideas we're using, perhaps we could allay a lot of what ails us. Unfortunately, this study seems to suggest that even if people are clear on what the right thing to do is, they still might not do it.

One interesting tidbit: 60% of ethical philosophers think it's bad to "regularly eat the meat of mammals." About 45% of non-ethicist philosophers agreed, joined by only 19% of professors surveyed from all other departments. This should be quite shocking to most people, I think, given the ubiquity of animal consumption in our society. It shocks even me, despite the fact that I've repeatedly argued that there are just no good replies to the AMC and that I regard this argument as settled as a philosophical matter.

Of course most philosophers are not vegetarians, let alone vegans (a surprising number of very intelligent people ignore this distinction.) In fact, the study found that they were just as likely to have recently consumed the meat of mammals as the members of the other groups, despite disproportionately asserting that it was bad.

These results were consistent with results looking at other behaviors that ethicists are likelier to think are more important than others professors, such as voting or charitable donations. This indicates that ethicists are no more likely to be good people than other professors, but are more likely to be hypocritical in their espoused ethical opinions.

There are two ways to read this. On one reading, ethicists are worse morally than other professors, because they are more likely to do the acts that they either know, or falsely think, to be wrong. That is, they are more likely to do what is wrong from their own perspective. Alternatively, you could say that they are somewhat morally better than other professors (assuming their moral beliefs are correct) because even though their actions are not in line with moral truth, at least their beliefs are closer, and that counts for something.

In the interview, Eric Schwitzgebel gives a couple arguments in order to try and defend  the behavior of ethicists. First, he says, it might not be fair to expect ethics professors to both be experts in their field and to adhere to their moral beliefs, and he thinks this would be demanding a lot.

This is not persuasive. We expect all professors to follow moral guidelines, and they don't get a pass because they do a lot of work to become experts. It's hard to see how it's unfair to expect ethicists to do what they are morally required to do (from their own perspective). If they thought there was something unfair about being required to do it, how could they consistently think it is required?

A better argument he gives is that requiring ethicists to live by their own moral standards might have a distorting effect on their moral  views. Therefore, it's in the interest of having good moral philosophy to not demand philosophers to adhere to their own views.

While I think this is perhaps a good reason not to, for example, fire a moral philosopher for not living morally, it's hard for me to see how this policy implication has any moral force. Whether or not having such a policy has good or bad effects, this is no vindication for professors who are knowingly doing what they believe is wrong. They still ought to say to themselves "I understand why there's no policy to force me to act this way, but the reasons I have for thinking it's the right thing to do are exactly the same reasons I have for doing it."

In response to all this, Nigel Warbuton suggests that perhaps Neitzche was right when he suggested that moral philosophers simply rationalize justifications for their own behaviors, rather than reaching any moral truth. Schwitzgebel agrees, but this is completely backwards! What these studies show is that philosophers are very comfortable coming to moral conclusions that denounce their own actions as immoral. What better refutation of Nietzche could there be?

I wish there had been questions in the study about what meta-ethical beliefs the philosophers held. I would be very curious to know whether those who take a strongly realist view of morality were more likely to behave according to their own standards. 

There are also other really deep questions here, it seems to me, about what goes on when someone chooses to do what they think is wrong. What does that thought process look like, and how does it work? In fact, I think there's a good argument to be made that it's not possible to do what you think is wrong. More on that to come.
Image provided by Surachair / Freedigitalphotos.net

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Second Amendment is Killing Us

I received a lot of positive reactions to my post arguing that you don't have a right to your opinion, so I thought I'd do a follow-up on more rights you don't have. You don't have a right to your guns.

Now, as a matter of law in the United States we have the Second Amendment. So I should be clear that I'm talking about moral rights, the pre-legal rights that we think justify the legal rights we uphold. Though legal structures might exist to protect a certain legal right, this right might not be supported by a solid moral justification. 

Nevertheless, I think there is ground for questioning the legal right. I'll begin with my argument against the legal right. I'll conclude by arguing against the moral right, where I take my case to be stronger. If correct, this argument would justify our removal of the Second Amendment from US law.

Against the Legal Right

 

For reference, consider the Second Amendment:
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
The first thing that strikes me about this amendment is that it is not a well-written sentence. Because of that, it's not exceptionally clear. But what is important to notice is that regulation is mentioned by the third word. Since the need for "a well regulated militia" appears to be the justification for the right to keep and bear arms, we should take it that the founders took this right to be justified only insofar as it was regulated(indeed, "well" regulated, which implies substantial regulation is expected). 

Given this context, "infringed"  should not be taken to mean "limited," since regulations are a form of limitations. It seems more plausible to read "infringed" as meaning "prohibited." There is a lot of room for regulation to occupy before entering the realm of prohibition, so this very basic reading of the law gets us quite a lot further than many gun advocates would like.

Further, it is interesting to find the justification for the law within the law itself. Though I'm not an expert on law, I take this to be uncommon. This is particularly interesting because the justification, which was probably quite reasonable when it was written, no longer holds. A well regulated militia is not necessary for the security of a free state when you have the world's most powerful army, the national guard, state law enforcement, and local law enforcement. It is not a stretch to argue that this law invalidates itself given that its own explicit justification no longer applies.

So that's my take at the legal argument. I'm much more comfortable in the realm of moral argument, where my thoughts here have been greatly influenced by Jeff McMahan's writing on the subject. 

Against the Moral Right


The basic argument goes as follows. Though it may be rational for an individual to own a gun for their own protection, the greater the number of people who act on this fact, the less safe we become. The potential for misfiring, misplacment, and misuse all rise with increased gun ownership, lowering overall security. This is true despite that fact that gun ownership might make a gun owner safer, given an increasingly well-armed society. This is a classic prisoner's dilemma.

There are two ways to solve a prisoner's dilemma. The first option is for everyone to adopt a moral principle and act against their own self-interest in this case. The second option is for a governing body to change the rational choice by providing negative consequences attached to the problematic option (i.e., opting for gun ownership.) Since it seems undeniable that we would all be safer from gun violence with zero, or dramatically reduced private gun ownership, this is the direction that our laws should push us in. We cannot always rely on citizens to act against self-interest.

Some people believe that they need guns to protect themselves against the government. But this is ridiculous in a democracy such as the US. Although our democratic procedures are far from perfect, they are obviously superior to the constant threat of violent revolt. A decent democracy should always have mechanisms through which minority voices are heard, but it need not legally provide the means to its own destruction. Gun advocates who take this view should remember that they are not the only ones who might welcome a violent overthrow of the government. If we make the government easy to overthrow, you can't be sure who will be the ones to over throw it. The tools of democracy are almost necessarily the best ones for influencing the shape of government.

To believe this argument for gun ownership, you have to take it to be desirable that the government make itself weak enough to be overthrown by the private gun owners. Few actually desire such a government; you might as well desire violent anarchy. For the fact remains that the army will always be a superior force to whatever private militia you seek to cobble together, and to imagine it to be otherwise is to endeavor for a country too weak to defend itself. Either that, or an unending arms race between the country's citizens and its government, which truly makes none better off.

Some think that the practice of hunting animals justifies gun ownership. Any frequent reader of this blog will know I reject this outright. It suffices to say that the desire to maim and kill other sentient beings does not justify making our society less safe. Indeed, I think this just bolsters my basic argument. If the only reason we have for allowing private gun ownership is satisfyingg a desire to inflict violence on others, it is shocking that we have not banned guns already.

Perhaps, you might think, this all sounds nice in theory, but the country we have is filled with guns, and they aren't going anywhere. True. But this hardly requires us to just accept their legality.

I'm sure there are many reasonable suggestions as to how we could reduce the amount of guns in the country. We could offer financial incentives for turning in firearms to the proper authorities. We could have severe fines on having guns in public, and perhaps harsher punishments for any criminal found possessing guns (although I am always very hesitant to increase jail time.) Guns would not disappear overnight, but the number would slowly get reduced, and their use would be greatly stigmatized. These and similar proposals could greatly reduce the number of available firearms to the public, and that would almost certainly make us all safer.
Image from Steve Horder / Freedigitalphotos.net

Monday, September 23, 2013

What "Puppy Doe" Can Teach Us

From the Boston Herald, we get news of the death of a tortured dog. In response to this news, I wrote this letter:

I was saddened to read about the torture and subsequent death of the dog deemed "Puppy Doe." What the public outcry about these kinds of events misses, however, is that these kinds of events are not abnormal at all.

Literally billions of animals are essentially tortured and killed every year in the US in the ubiquitous practice of animal agriculture. The animals on whom we impose suffering and death for use in food, clothing, and entertainment have lives that are just as valuable as the life that was stolen from Puppy Doe. Their pain is just as real.

If we reject the unnecessary and unjustified abuse that this dog endured as morally offensive, then we must also reject the widespread use of animals in which such abuse is constant and unavoidable. This means becoming vegan. That is, we should stop consuming any animals products, and advocate ending the exploitation of our fellow creatures.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Judge Not?

Somewhat surprisingly, I've noticed a trend of late that marks a convergence of two seemingly disparate philosophies: New Testament theology and post-modern relativism.

The convergence of these two traditions is not deeply philosophical in nature, but is found in an attitude that people take to be reasonable with respect to practical ethical problems. The idea is basically that we should not judge the actions of others. In the Christian tradition, the reasoning behind this is that God alone is the ultimate judge. From the relativist's perspective, there is no ultimate truth about which judgments could be correct.

As I've been arguing, I take most forms of relativism to be incoherent, and the most coherent forms of relativism (something close to nihilism) to be implausible and unacceptable. The Christian view I'm describing here, to its credit, is perfectly coherent. Of course, only some sects of Christianity emphasize this particular part of the Gospel, and you can find passages in the Biblical texts to support any range of moral view.

I think, for the most part, we should reject this view. We are entitled to judge others, and we ought to. We ought be humble in the extent of the conclusions that we reach from these judgments, but judge we must. For example, in my work with children with special needs, there can be times when I judge the conduct of other staff to be inappropriate or wrong. If I refrained from judging others in this way, I would be neglectful in my duties to protect vulnerable children.

We judge murderers and thieves to be guilty of crimes, and we judge judges to be competent in carrying out their sentencing.If we grow up in a religious institution, there comes a time when we must judge the quality of the instruction provided therein.

Judgement of others plays a valuable role in the development of our own moral character. When we consider the actions of others, the moral reactions we have can play a key role deciding which actions we deem worthy of taking. Often it is hard to maintain objectivity about ones own actions, so adopting the spectator's stance on the actions of others can fine tune our own moral judgment.

The motivation for the "Judge Not" crowd is clear. Morality has often been seen as an insider's game for passing on top-down judgments of worth from a domineering hierarchy. And this hierarchy has often been wrong, and with grave consequences. But the antidote to bad moral leaders is not to abandon moral judgment. We should instead open up the ethical dialogue and come to better moral judgments.

People, often well-meaning, liberal people, will tell you that morality is a private matter. Nothing could be further from the truth. Morality concerns how we should treat each other, and what reasons we have for acting towards each other in the ways that we do. It is inherently not a private matter.

So when, in a discussion about homosexuality, someone tells me, "I don't judge homosexuals because the Bible tells us that God is the only judge," I am not relieved. I think we can judge homosexuality, and judge it to be absolutely benign. It is absolutely appropriate to judge the actions of others, and if we have reasons for believing they are wrong, then we should not shy away from that judgment.

There are some caveats. The "Judge Not" view has some merit, as we should not be overly-zealous in our convictions. Though we may judge others, our judgements should always be tentative, and we should always be open to changing our minds. You might say that we may judge, but we should not be judgmental.

One way to do this is to focus on evaluations of actions, rather than people. Since we never know another person's entire history, it is best to reserve judgement on them as a whole. We can still judge them to be acting wrongly in certain ways, but when engaging people about this judgement, we should focus on the reasons that make the action wrong. This is more likely to garner a positive response, and less likely to offend (although, there's no guarantee on either count!). Interestingly, this is not unlike the religious dictum, "Love the sinner, hate the sin," though the context in which this quote is employed often renders it deeply problematic.

We should not heckle, harass, or accost people just because we think they are wrong about something. This is ineffective at getting the point across and offensive in its own right. There also might be times when, though someone has acted wrongly, belaboring the point will benefit no one. In these cases, we should keep our judgments to ourselves.

Nevertheless, we need not fear a robust dialogue about morality. It's the only chance we have of getting things right.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Naive Foundations of Relativism

Many people find a relativist account of ethics to be plausible. There are different versions of relativism, of course, and most people probably don't have a specific flavor of relativism in mind.  What they are resistant to is a universal or objective account of morality.

In fact, many people take the debate to be settled. It's not infrequently that I'll hear someone declare, "Well, morality is purely subjective anyway, so..." They don't even assert this as their opinion. They're assuming that there's no fundamental moral truths, and seem to think it's the only reasonable thing to assume.

One motivation for this belief is a feeling that universalist accounts of ethics are arrogant and intolerant. It is the case that many people have done an awful lot of arrogant and intolerant things because they believed other communities had objectively wrong beliefs. They were bolstered in committing these injustices by a sense that they were objectively right. But the proper response to this is not to deny that actions can be objectively right or wrong. In fact, this ends up leaving us with no ground to stand on when we criticize the intolerant. The best response is to assert that it would have been objectively better if everyone had been less arrogant and more tolerant.

This relates closely to one of the points I made in my last post. Moral relativism is also often used as a defense mechanism for those facing moral criticism. If morality is relative, they will have no need to re-evaluate their views, and can dismiss the criticisms they are faced with. As I argued in that post, however, this defense is often directed as a moral criticism of their interlocutor, and so is self-defeating.

But even if some of the motivations for a relativist account of morality are dubious and self-defeating, this does not mean the account is incorrect. There are still some doubts about what kind of status moral claims have. As I've stated before, I believe the subject matter of morality is reasons, in particular normative reasons for action. Part of the argument for the objectivity of morality is an argument that people already think this way, that they deliberate by considering reasons, and that their beliefs about reasons make inherently universal claims.

Even if we accept all that, however, it might not convince us that claims about reasons are true. It will, at most, convince us that we cannot function without acting as though there are reasons. And still the worry persists, because reasons are a funny kind of thing. They are not like water, or the moon, or electrons. They're not even like the more interesting parts of the world, like shrubs, lizards, or human beings. In fact, we could likely give a full inventory of the entire universe and never use the word reason.

Daniel Dennett likes to say that this is because we're looking at the wrong level of investigation when we look for reasons in the same place we're looking for apples and carrots and centipedes. He's clearly on to something here, but talk of "levels" is a bit obscure. I worry that it merely sounds like it lifts more conceptual weight than it actually can.

A better way to think of morality, I think, is by analogy with something else that we won't find in our inventory of the universe. That is, time.

Like morality, many people have erroneously claimed that time is an illusion. Don't ask me for my theory of time, I don't have one. But it seems to me whatever you can say about time, it's not just an illusion. Events happen in time. Some things happened in the past, some more will happen in the future. These statements make sense, and are true. It seems to me this is as indubitable as any other claims we can make.

Yet people still question the existence of time. There exists a bias, I believe, of relatively recent origin, against truths that aren't the kind of truths you can express by banging on an object and asserting it exists. This bias is never argued for, just assumed. But of course we can say true things about time.

This is not to say that the metaphysics of time are obvious or simple. There is some interesting philosophical work done in this area and there's probably much of it that is too complicated for me to understand. But the thing we're not going to conclude after all this philosophy is that there's no such thing as time. It just, perhaps, needs a slightly more sophisticated account than that of tables and chairs.

Once we reflect on the nature of time, we can see that the mere fact that we don't find something among the planets, pebbles, or protons of the universe shouldn't necessarily cause us to doubt its veracity. Like time, morality is a concept that is, in part, about how we relate to the rest of the world. Its a feature of our experience of the world, which is why we shouldn't be surprised that its foundations aren't discoverable through science. But this doesn't give us any reason to doubt that it might be true.

Why do I focus on this issue? The tendencies towards relativistic, or even nihilistic, moral views in our culture lead to a troubling apathy. Most people don't appear to investigate their own moral beliefs to any depth. And many end up feeling so comfortable that most people share their moral views that they aren't even interested in whether or not their beliefs are true.

As a philosopher, I find this topic intrinsically interesting. But as an activist, I find this general apathy to be an indulgence to which I'm not privileged. I wouldn't be an activist if I didn't think it actually mattered what people do. If more people realized that there were truths about right and wrong, perhaps they'd be more interested to figure out the right thing to do.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

You Don't Have a Right to Your Opinion

One charge critics of the status quo often face is that of intolerance. I have personally been accused of intolerance with regards to my animal rights advocacy. A standard dialogue along these lines can go as follows:

A: The animals that you claim to love and the animals that you eat do not differ in any morally relevant ways. If you claim to be an animal lover, you should reject all animal use and become vegan.

B: I understand that you believe that, but it is only your opinion. I respect your right to have your opinion, so you should be tolerant of myself and others who think that eating meat is okay.

This response is mistaken in several ways. First, though many people claim it, I'm not sure there exists a right to one's opinion. You only need rights to protect things that are vulnerable to violation. There's no way for me to change your opinion by force, and so there's no need for you to have a right to have that opinion. Of course, you may have whatever opinion you want.

There is a right not to be jailed for having opinions, or killed, or forcibly silenced, etc., but all of those extend from the rights not to be unjustifiably jailed, killed, forcibly silenced, etc. Having an opinion is not something that can be protected because it's not something that can be attacked.

Though perhaps it might seem I'm quibbling, this is important. It is important because what I think these people are actually trying to claim is a right not to have their opinion challenged. No one actually claims such a right, because when it is accurately articulated, it is clearly ridiculous.

Another way in which this response is mistaken is that it is setting up a double standard. When B tells A that they should be tolerant of B's views, B implicitly accepts that she may offer moral criticism of A. The thought that A shouldn't be intolerant of B's opinion is morally loaded, and irreducibly so. That's why B feels that this is so powerful a response, because it reverses the direction of moral criticism. But if B is allowed to criticize A for conversational conduct, then surely A is allowed to criticize B for consuming animals products. And if it is wrong for A to criticize B for not being a vegan, then it is wrong for B to criticize A for offering up such a criticism.

This doesn't resolve the disagreement, of course, but it shows B's response to be self-defeating. And it is curious why this defense is so common, given how weak it is.

One of the reasons this response is appealing to people in B's position, I imagine, is that the victim at the center of B's moral criticism is present. The victim is B, whose opinion is supposedly not being respected.

However, though the victims who are the subject of A's moral criticism may often not be present, the claims on their behalf are no less sound. And even if there were some reasonable complaint that B had about her opinion not being respected, surely what is done to animals who are used for human purposes is far worse. But because the animals are not present when these conversations take place, B can imagine that A is just being self-righteous, rather than speaking up for those who are exploited. This failure of imagination is a large part of what allows the exploitation to continue.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Why Animals Matter

I recently had a discussion with someone who did not believe the basic premise of my animal rights advocacy. When tabling, I always begin discussions by asking "Do you believe it is wrong to harm or kill animals unnecessarily?" In this context, everyone always agrees, and then I do my best to argue that if you believe that, then you ought to be vegan. Really, it's not that difficult.

The subject came up in another general conversation about ethics. My interlocutor agreed that if animals matter, veganism is the logical conclusion. He disagreed, however, that (most) non-human animals matter morally at all.

His basic argument was this. It is "self-awareness" that makes experiences matter to individuals, and most non-human animals lack the capacity for self-awareness, and therefore it doesn't matter what happens to them. Now I'm not sure what self-awareness is when most people use it, but I accept that there are some higher-level, meta-cognitive and reflective functions of which fully developed humans, and perhaps a few other species, are fully capable.

The first line of defense against this argument is the AMC, but he accepted the radically revisionist implications that follow from his belief. Had I been tabling, and if I had other people interested in conversation, I probably would have moved on at this point. Since most people do believe animals matter morally, I think it is not efficient to engage with people who don't think animals matter. As a philosopher, however, I wanted to know what kind of response is best to this line of reasoning.

As I've discussed previously, I follow Nagel, Parfit, and others in believing that morality is best understood in terms of reasons. I take these reasons to be necessarily universal, which I believe gives morality its normative force. Let me explain.

Parfit's example of extreme agony is clearest. If I am in extreme agony, I have reason to not be in agony. What does it mean for me to have a reason to not be in agony? It means that the nature of agony, and what it is like to be in agony, count in favor of not being in agony.

"Counting in favor of" is best thought of as "providing a reason for," so I cannot further describe what a reason is better than this. Of course, I cannot really describe what agony is better than an extremely painful sensation that involves suffering, and extremely painful suffering is best described as agony. Though these definitions are circular, the context in which they are understood brings forward the relevant concepts in your mind. (One more useful thing to say about agony might be that it is something we have prima facie reason to avoid, though I mean this to be substantive rather than definitional.)

Now, because of the universality of reasons, I understand that the agony of other people also provides reason to avoid their being in agony. What of animals, then? Might their experience be different enough so as to not provide reasons to avoid their suffering?

If we accept that they are sentient (which is a hidden premise in my initial argument, but again, few people dispute this), then this means that their suffering is as real as ours is. Now, many people claim that most animals are not "self-aware," but I'm not quite sure what people mean when they use the term. One sense of being self-aware is being able to think about your own thoughts as thoughts, and being able to engage in self-reflection. It is this ability I engaged when I tried to explain what a reason is. With any luck, the reader will consider their own experiences, and how I have described them, and begin to formulate the concept I intend them to understand.

This is a very important ability to have--it is what enables us to be moral agents! But I think if my explanation of a reason is accurate, it should be clear that this ability could not be the quality that makes us matter morally. Because the very point I've made is that it is the nature of being in agony, what it is like to be in agony, that provides our reason for avoiding it. Our ability to perceive this reason allows us to deliberate conscientiously about what to do about these kinds of reasons, as we should. But if animals are sentient as we are, what it is like to be in agony for them is similar to what it is like for us to be in agony. Although there will likely always be a gap in our understanding of what it is like to be a bat, or a bird, or a lizard, there is no reason to doubt that the features of pain and suffering that we share with animals are the very features that provide reason to avoid it.

Perhaps it will seem I've begged the question.This is, indeed, a slippery point to make. But I think that to deny what I've said, which is that the painful experiences of non-human animals are meaningfully analogous to ours, is in fact to deny that animals are sentient. One could coherently deny this fact, though the overwhelming opinion in academic and conventional thought is that such denial is deeply implausible and ad hoc.

The reflective experience I've described is what I take to be best meant by self-awareness, if used as a rough-and-ready distinction between us and most other animals. Self-awareness in the simplistic sense, that is, an awareness of one's own body as distinct from others and the surrounding environment, surely something all sentient animals possess, if they are sentient in any meaningful sense. If a lion couldn't tell that it was its own paw that was injured, or its own cubs being threatened, or its own hunger being satiated, it would not be able to survive at all.

If I am right, then "self-awareness" as the distinction between us and the other animals is better called meta-cognition, that is, thinking about thinking. And meta-cognition could not be what provides the reasons that agony ought to be avoided. It is the method we use to discover that such reasons are there, and without it we would have no knowledge of reasons. But for meta-cognition, thinking about thinking, to reveal reasons, those reasons must be present, and logically prior. Which means that the reasons that exist to avoid agony derive from all forms of agony, whether or not it is experienced by a self-aware, or meta-cognitive, animal.

So why do animals matter (in particular, why does their suffering matter)? Well, when people ask "why" questions, the proper response is to provide a reason. And the reason animals matter is the same reason we matter.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Save the Rich!

Over at Bloomberg, we get the headline "Wealthy New Yorkers Call De Blasio's Tax Plan Offensive". Apparently, in the New York mayoral race, Bill de Blasio has proposed raising the taxes of individuals making over $500,000 to help pay for social programs for those less well off. Surprising absolutely no one, many wealthy people in the city are not happy with this idea.

Matt Yglesias picks out some choice quotes, and he suggests that these affluent individuals would have been happier in a society in which, before taxes, incomes were more equal across the board. Yglesias uses Maslow's hierarchy of needs to try to explain why this would be the case.

From my view, however, I think we'll get more mileage out of Hegel than Maslow on this front. These problems are classic instantiations of Hegel's famous master-slave dialectic.

Essentially, the point is that in a master-slave (or oppressor-oppressed, exploiter-exploited) relationship, neither one can truly be free. As social beings, we see ourselves through the eyes of others, and even the master cannot be free from the slave if they cannot see each other as equals. Rich people are happy to be rich, of course, but when they are confronted with the idea that they might not deserve their riches, or that others might need them more, they get a glimpse into how they are perceived by those in poverty.

So when de Blasio (surely not impoverished himself) proposes that larger tax burdens should fall on the rich, they are made deeply uncomfortable. They take this to mean that they don't deserve what they've earned, and that there is something wrong with them having so much. In self-defense, as many of us are inclined to do when we are face with moral criticism, they say the suggestion that they pay more taxes is offensive.

There is a simpler explanation, which goes like this. Rich people are privileged. Someone is threatening to take away their privilege, so they come up with whatever excuse possible to maintain their privilege.

Certainly, there is some truth to that. But as Yglesias suggested and I agree, these people would probably be happier in a more equal society. It's the discomfort that comes from the master-slave dialectic that is especially disturbing to them, not the thought that they might have a somewhat less massive sum of money. I think equality is a deeply held value for most of us, whether or not we are actively fighting for it.

I find this somewhat discouraging, though, because it suggests that we might not be able to just tax our way to equality. Perhaps the wealthiest will always resist in this way, making equality-producing tax schemes unsustainable. If this were the case, we would need to hope for a much more fundamental kind of societal shift.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Teleportation and Metaphysical Risk

Via Matt Yglesias, we get the news that teleportation technology is not going to happen. The basic gist of the problem is that the amount of information required to fully reconstruct the human brain and body would be so large that it's inconceivable that it could ever be superior to more traditional modes of transport.

Interesting stuff. As he mentions, it's long seemed likely to me that teleportation would be most efficient for transporting goods, rather than individuals.(Of course, if you have the technology to reconstruct goods using stored information, you wouldn't need the original item, and the technology would be closer to a Star Trek-type replicator rather than teleporter.)  However, there's reason to be skeptical about any definitive conclusions. I, for one, am not ready to throw in the towel for teleportation just yet.

It's easy enough to say "we don't know what will happen with future technology." If we did, it would be happening now, and it wouldn't be in the future. Predicting technological advances is inherently problematic for this reason.

But even more than just this, we know that many of the greatest inventions we have now would obviously have been inconceivable for our ancestors. And this is precisely because many inventions required paradigm shifts in science that made us think about the world and particular problems in a completely new way. If teleportation is to be a viable technology, it seems likely that it would require some kind of paradigm shifting revelation.

After all, one way around the information constraint problem Yglesias cites is not to worry about information transfer at all! Instead of scanning an item, destroying it, and reconstructing it elsewhere, you could move the item through space-time in such a way that it wasn't constrained by the usual problem of distance. Such an achievement could be possible if small, isolated, and controllable wormholes were technologically possible.

Obviously, that requires a stretch of the imagination; but then, so does a complete sub-atomic scan and reconstruction of an object. Given the information quantities needed for scan-based teleportation, my money is on wormhole-based teleportation.

And as an added bonus, wormhole-based transportation of animals (including humans) evades any metaphysical personal identity worries we might have about scan-based teleportation. The worry is that if the physical continuity of my body is disrupted, by being deconstructed and then reconstructed, the person who comes out the other side might not be me. Derek Parfit famously concludes that such worries are erroneous, but this is controversial, and even he acknowledges that he would hesitate to to undergo scan-based teleportation. Assuming the physics work out, wormhole-based teleportation would preserve physical continuity, and thus raise no metaphysical worries. For this reason, I've always preferred wormhole-based teleportation, and am not disheartened by its rival's potential pitfalls.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Against the Middle Ground

It's often been said that the United States is too politically polarized. This strikes me as a problem with no solution--which usually indicates that it's not a problem worth talking about. If lots of people have one view, and lots of other people strongly hold an opposing view, the interesting question is, who is correct? Perhaps both sides are wrong and there's an answer somewhere in the middle, or perhaps the issue needs to be re-framed altogether. But we need to figure out which view is the correct one to have, not just complain that we have differing views.

I say this, in part, because I have some radical views. There is nothing wrong with being radical, as long as your position is correct. We often get into discussions about radicalism, polarization, extremism, and people plead for a middle ground. But the middle ground is just another position that requires a reasonable defense. There is nothing special about being moderate between two poles that should give a position any extra credence.

Historical examples of radicals can help. It might have been radical in 1800 to favor abolishing slavery. John Stuart Mill was radical for proposing that women should have equal access to economic freedom as men in 1869.

I might want an eight-foot deep swimming pool in my backyard, and my partner might not. It helps neither of us to install a four-foot swimming pool.

This point is closely related to one of strategy in many movements. For example, when Obama administration first got into office, they proposed a stimulus spending bill far less than what many economists thought was necessary. They didn't want to overreach--but because they moderated their position, the stimulus failed to be a effective as it could have been. What's worse, this gave many people the impression that fiscal stimulus doesn't work at all.

Likewise, the modern "animal rights" movement has tried to be cautious. Many have thought that a vegan movement would have turned people off, so they instead have advocated vegetarianism, or slightly larger cages for exploited animals. In my view, this has deeply muddied the issue. I don't think we would have a vegan world if advocates had been clearer in the '80s, but we might be closer than we are now, and there would likely be more vegans. Instead, most people have no understanding of the most basic animal rights theory. One of the biggest struggles for vegan educators at this time is confronting an animal protection movement that has told the public it's okay to exploit animals for decades.

Obviously, many people will disagree with me, on both these examples. And there are other cases where strategically, some movements might correctly want to advocate for a middle ground. But this is certainly not always the case, and I think it often does harm.

When you advocate for a drastic societal change, many people might be sympathetic, but they may not be ready to accept the radical position quite yet. They will find their way to the middle ground, and hopefully (if you're correct) the culture will shift. But if you start out in the middle, they may still see you as extreme. And if now they find their way to some middle ground, they'll have progressed far less than if you had direct and honest to begin with.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Abortion, Animals, and Moral Disagreement

Many claim that despite the wide disagreements in moral theory, there is substantially less disagreement about what is often the right thing to do. Philosophers who make such claims often point to acts that are universally acknowledged to be bad, such as lying, stealing, making false promises, and most seriously, murder, as evidence of this general consensus.

I find this view to be rather mistaken. I think there is wide disagreement about what the right thing to do is. For example, I think consuming animal products is wrong; not only do most people disagree with me on that, but they disagree to such an extent that they consume substantial amounts of animal products daily.

Also, many people think all abortion is seriously wrong. I disagree strongly with this view, and support policies that they think are deeply immoral. I think that policies that limit women's reasonable choices about what happens to and inside their bodies are deeply immoral.

Those who believe in widespread moral agreement see these kinds of issues as disagreement "at the margins." Given the prevalence of abortion, and the extreme pervasiveness of animal use, it seems peculiar to me to think of these as marginal issues.And rather than being merely "marginal," our views on these issues derive from our position on other broader ethical and metaphysical views. Furthermore, there are many other deep divides.

Many people do not seem to care what happens to people in other countries. Although they would likely not assent to such a description of their views, the actual result of their practical views belies their protests. Thankfully, very many people do care what happens to people in other countries. I think some of our most pressing policy choices and personal choices concern our obligations to citizens of other countries.

Many people think that people who commit crimes or wrong actions deserve to suffer for it. Although punishment is sometimes warranted, I do not believe that it can ever be a good thing that someone suffers. Worse still, very many people believe that some acts can make you deserve to suffer forever.

Many people believe you can deserve to be impoverished just because you are not skilled enough to attain more wealth. They sometimes think that free market outcomes are inherently just, and that any redress to income disparities is wrong. This view is surprisingly popular, given how implausible it is.

And some people do not think that moral considerations are all that important. They think that the driving force behind their lives ought to be figuring out how best they can fulfill their own interests, perhaps with a few moral constraints on how they get there (see above, re: lying, stealing, etc.). Some people don't even think these constraints are important.

Perhaps my view is pessimistic, but I see a world full of deep and serious moral disagreement. One of my proposed solutions, naturally enough, is that everyone ought to study a bit of philosophy, and learn to engage in moral questions with one another. I think a higher degree of critical thinking in the world would do a lot toward solving many of these (and other) disagreements, thought presumably some rifts will persist.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Taking Beliefs Seriously

In arguing for the universality of moral reasons, I also argued for, but took as less controversial, the universality of epistemic reasons, or reasons for belief. I just recently had a conversation with a friend, however, in which they, to my surprise, implicitly denied the universality of epistemic reasons.

For the most part, people tend to assume that epistemic reasons apply universally. That's why we can have things like science, and court rooms, where standards of evidence are laid out, and though we expect inevitable disagreement, we also expect that if there is sufficient evidence for a particular conclusion, every reasonable person will have decisive reason to assent to the conclusion. (There are a few caveats that could be included here, but none are relevant to the present discussion.)

The area where some people diverge from this understanding of epistemic reasons is in the area of religious belief. Some people claim, as my friend did, that certain facts about the way the world is could count in favor of believing certain religious claims for certain groups of people, even though they don't generally count in favor of believing those claims for any one outside this group. In particular, my friend claimed that certain discoveries of science might be taken to be evidence of God for those who already believe in God, even they give atheists no reason to adjust their credence on the subject.

In denying this, and claiming that reasons for belief have to be reasons for everybody(i.e., universal), I was accused of being intolerant. Now, there are many volumes written on toleration, and I don't want to dive into that fray. I'll just note that I'm not sure what toleration is, and I'm not sure when and to what extent it is valuable. However, I do think my view is in fact more respectful of the religious and religious beliefs, whether or not it's more or less tolerant.

In claiming that my view is more respectful, I see myself as taking religious claims seriously. I don't want to carve out special exceptions for beliefs because they're "religious" (whatever that means), I want to examine them and assess them as I would any claim. I've yet to find any religious claims convincing, so I am non-religious. But I do think they could be true, and I think it matters a great deal whether or not they are true.

And in this way, my beliefs are closer to those of many, and I think most, religious believers, than those of my friend. If I meet a theist, and they say a certain set of facts give them reason to believe in God, and I say that those sets of facts do not in fact give them reason to believe in God, our disagreement is not helped by my friend's position. My friend would claim that we're both right--these facts give the theist reason to believe in God, but fail to give me reason to believe in God. But the theist and I, I imagine, would both disagree with my friend. Either these facts indicate that there is a God, or they do not. Since we both care about whether or not there is a God, it's important whether or not we're correct on this matter. Saying to me that "God exists" is true (or not) for me doesn't help me at all if I actually care whether or not there is a God whose existence might have some effect on the way I live my life.

And that's what the theist has to think too, isn't it? If a theist claims that the beauty of the stars gives them reason to believe in God, they're going to think that it should give me at least some reason to believe in God. But if I point out that it's perfectly easy to imagine that human beings would find certain aspects of nature beautiful with or without a God, and they agree, but still think that it gives them a reason to believe in God, I'm going to conclude that they're really not that interested in whether or not the proposition "God exists" is actually true.

Some people believe that the Ontological Argument is a proof  of God. If it were, it would provide decisive reason to believe in God. As it happens, it's a fallacious argument. Perhaps some people disagree with me that it's fallacious--if they do, we could have a discussion about it, as long as we were both open to the fact that reasons universally apply to all of us. If we thought that reasons could be selective in who they applied to, we might not have any desire to discuss it further, because we just cannot access each others' reasons. There would be little chance we could persuade one another.

Rather than seeing reasons as selective in this way, it is much more respectful to me to see each person as a reasonable agent, with equal access to universal reasons for belief, all of whom are able to work together to get closer to the truth.