Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Human Prejudice: Part 1

Bernard Williams was a hugely influential contemporary philosopher. His most important work as relates to my thought was his contribution to the book Utilitarianism: For and Against, in which he argues persuasively against utilitarian moral theories. (Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons contains many powerful rejoinders.)

Williams was also an unabashed speciesist, and wrote a piece called "The Human Prejudice." which I discovered in lecture format on YouTube. He makes many confusing points in this lecture, so I hope to spend a few posts deconstructing his main claims. As is often the case in his work, it's not at all obvious the route his argument is supposed to be taking. It's best to sit back, take in what he has to say, and try to figure out where you've ended up.

One of the clearest points he makes in these clips is at the very end, during a question and answer period. He says:
"There is a kind of potential contradiction in some lines of animal right thought. On the one hand they say, 'We've got to remember we're part of nature. We share the world with other species. We're one species among others. We weren't sent here as dominators of the world. Second, we're totally different from the other animals because we have moral consciousness. And therefore we can make ourselves into vegetarians.' Now there's an inherent tension between those two things."
He's claiming that we can't have it both ways. We can't say we have this deep connection with other animals, because if we really are so relevantly like other animals, than it must be permissible for us to be predators like them.

Which is, on the face of it, just wrong. There is really no tension in the two different kinds of claims that Williams takes the animal rights theorist to be making. I shouldn't be too harsh, because these are off-the-cuff remarks, but he really is most clear about what he thinks in this section of the talk. And the fact is that these two kinds of claims can be perfectly complementary.

First, you might claim that we're relevantly like other animals in that they can think, feel, love, suffer, rejoice, etc., in countless ways, just as we can. Second, you can claim that we are unlike the other animals, because we can reflect on this first fact in the following way. The fundamental way of experiencing the world that we share with animals makes them worthy of consideration in our moral sphere. As moral agents, we have obligations to treat individuals in certain ways. Some of these are individual with whom we share many qualities, but who do not share out moral agency. Where, in any of these thoughts, is there a contradiction?

Animal rights theorist might plausibly claim that most humans go wrong in two ways. First, they see animals as unlike ourselves, in the morally relevant ways, and thus as things to be used for our purposes. Second, they see themselves as animals who are permitted to live up to their carnivorous nature (Williams comes very close to making such a claim.) Again, these claims aren't in contradiction. This time, these claims just happen to be false.

Now Williams hedges in his remarks, by claiming that there is only "a kind of potential contradiction," probably because he realized there was nothing actually contradictory in what he was discussing. All the animal rights theorist is claiming is that we are more akin to animals than we usually suppose in some ways, and in other ways we're less akin to animals. That, of course, isn't the entire argument, but it's perfectly coherent.

Friday, February 22, 2013

How to Change a Mind

I should probably tip my hand to start and say that I don't know how to change a mind. However, I have convinced some people to be vegans, and have at least gotten a substantial other amount of people to rethink their obligations to animals. Part of the problem in advocacy is that everyone has their own unique mind, and they might all require different strategies or arguments to convince them one way or another.

One helpful tip is to know your audience. Which I generally hate as a "helpful tip," because most people do know their audience, and we are constantly adjusting the way we talk based on our audience without even realizing it. Despite this, it does help to break down certain potential pitfalls in conversation, especially with members of particular groups, as I addressed in my post The Argument from "Marginal Cases".

As my friend pointed out in the comments of that post, there can often be a lot of resistance to veganism and animal rights from those involved in other advocacy movements. In one sense, this isn't at all surprising. The thing about unjust privilege is that it makes it hard for you to realize that you're a beneficiary; it appears to the privileged as if it is deserved.

But in another way, one might accept that this group would be more receptive, because they're used to understanding and breaking down structures of privilege. To some degree this is true; the advocates for veganism I know often have involvement, or at least interest in other movements, and I wouldn't be surprised if members from those movements were on average more receptive to veganism. But all too often, advocates against other forms of prejudice resist any notion that speciesism is meaningfully analogous to sexism, racism, etc.

One especially troubled line of argument, I think, is analogies to particular atrocities, like slavery or the holocaust. These analogies, no matter the context, are often fraught with more complications than they are worth. You see this in discussion of civil rights for LGBT citizens; the analogy towards racial civil equality is obviously at least partially apt, but I think it often derails the conversation. Opponents of equality will offer many differences between these different forms of oppression, all of which may be accurate, but this hardly moves the conversation forward.

Most dreaded of all is the thought that one might be claiming that some tragedy is "as bad as" another. I've often heard that the death of a chicken cannot even compare to the murder of a human. Perhaps not! I'm inclined to think that the two can be compared, but my argument doesn't really depend on that. It's really not relevant. All I need suggest is that killing a chicken is wrong, and thus we should refrain from doing it. If you want to draw up a chart saying how bad each kind of animal death is compared to humans, and how bad each person's death is compared to every other person's, feel free. It's sounds like a terribly depressing exercise and I'm not sure what it would accomplish.

Instead, I prefer to think of our relations to others, and how these relationships shape our obligation. I think the most fundamental relationship is the recognition of someone else as an other, as someone who has claims to things and reasons of acting of their own. The most fundamental claim an individual can have is the claim on their own life, and their right to live it.

There are many ways our rights are infringed upon, and different forms of oppression may take analogous forms. Since each of these forms is reprehensible in it's own way, in can seem tacky or degrading to draw on these analogies to make a point, even if the point is apt. I think it's often best then, to avoid drawing analogies (when we can) and get people to think through the fundamental relationship with others, and reflect on what obligations are implied.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Human Diversity and Moral Rights

I want to draw somewhat more on the argument from "marginal cases," (AMC) which I discussed in the previous post. In doing so, I hope to make it clear why I use scare quotes. Much of my thinking in this area has been greatly influenced by Will Kymlicka.

When arguing against animal rights, people often claim that a certain number of qualities or capacities which humans alone possess are necessary for the foundation of rights. The AMC urges us to look across the diversity of the human population and realize that any quality or number or qualities would not be possessed by all humans, and thus could not justify "human rights" as conventionally conceived. Thus, the door is opened to considering non-humans as potentially eligible for fundamental moral rights.

There's another way for this argument to work. One could look not just across the diversity of the human population, but also across the diversity of experience in a single human life. It's clear in this case as well that there's a broad spectrum of qualities and capacities that an individual is going to go in and out of possessing, but again, we usually think of "human rights" as applying consistently over an entire person's life, and not co-varying with any particular traits.

One can try to fudge the metaphysics here a bit, and say that the fact that a human life will at some point possess the relevant characteristics, this is enough to justify the possession of rights. I think whatever metaphysical story one tries to tell here will be doomed; if someone is killed as a very young infant, there's no relevant sense in which it's future characteristics are morally relevant (at least not in any way that is different than the future characteristics of someone who is not yet conceived.) But the metaphysics here do get somewhat involved and tricky, which is why philosophers tend to focus on the "marginal cases" of the severely disabled (who could, in fact, never develop the relevant characteristics). The argument is nearly as effective in this limited form, and relies on less controversial premises.

However, because I think I'm right on this point, I dislike the term "marginal cases." If I'm right, everyone is at some point a "marginal" case, which makes them, of course, hardly marginal. I think acknowledging this also puts us in a more understanding relationship with the cognitively disabled, in which we conceive of them not as aberrations, but as individuals who possess a certain range of abilities on a broad spectrum.

After all, even if wanted to use rational agency as the foundation of rights, even typical adults are going to vary in their capacity for rational agency. This would seem to imply that those who are better at being rational agents deserve greater recognition of our rights. And again, it's not intuitive for us to conceive of our rights as varying to correspond to some moral measuring stick in this way.

All of which raises the question of what, in fact, is the necessary condition for the possession of rights. Another way to ask the question, to draw out what I think is the most intuitively plausible answer, is what quality would someone have to possess for us to start considering their interests (such that it could even make sense to protect such interest with a right)? Easily enough, it would seem, the answer is that they ought to at least have interests. Which, in other words, means they must have their own subjective experience of the world, that things can go better or worse for them, that they can feel (something like) pleasure or pain. That is, they must be sentient.

One might object that sentience is just another quality like any other, which will vary like any other, and is vulnerable to all the criticisms I laid out above. That's a great objection! However, I don't think we should have a problem denying any concern for a being that lacks sentience. That means, as I've said, that things cannot go better or worse for that being. There's an important sense in which it's not even right to call such a thing a being at all. And no one could be offended by what I've just said, because in denying rights to those lacking sentience, I'm not talking about anyone at all.

Also, you wouldn't get the problem of some people being more sentient than others, because it doesn't make sense to talk about being more or less sentient than someone else. I am, for example no more sentient than my dog or my mother. Once you pass the threshold of being a sentient being, there's nothing more to say about the matter.

The trickier complication is that there might be beings about whom it doesn't seem right to say they're sentient or that they're not sentient. Perhaps insects or mollusks fall in this group, in principle it's impossible to know. Our concept of sentience seems to be an either/or kind of deal(just like our concept of rights), either you haven't or you don't, but our knowledge of the world and of neurology suggests this is not the case.  So I'm not quite sure what we ought to say about these cases on the edge (about which it might in fact be apt to use the term "marginal). Tentatively enough, it seems that if we can avoid using or harming beings that might be on the fringes of sentience, then we ought to do so.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Argument from "Marginal Cases"

The argument for animal rights and veganism that convinced me was the unfortunately named "Argument from Marginal Cases." The argument essentially follows from the recognition of speciesism, which I discussed in another post. Basically, the argument goes as follows:

There are many basic rights that we believe are owed to all human beings, such as the right not to be killed, tortured, or used as property. If we're not going to be speciesist, we have to consider other animals as potential holders of these rights. Some people suggest that humans possess certain mental capacities that justify the recognition of these rights. Non-human animals are supposed to lack these mental capacities and hence lack the correlated rights. However, for any set of capacities that someone can deem important, there will be some "marginal" group of humans who lack these capacities (the cognitively impaired) to whom we still grant basic rights. Therefore, we have no rational basis for denying basic rights to non-humans.

I believe this argument is sound (though perhaps could be put more clearly.) There are a few possible responses to it, all of which I find rather ad hoc and hardly plausible. However, one might have observed that I do not in general use this form of argument to advocate for animal rights veganism, despite its incredible impact on my own thinking. It might even seem disingenuous of me that I offer other arguments instead of the one argument that actually convinced me of the existence of animal rights. Despite this worry, there are several reasons I do not rely on this form of argument.

The first reason is that some people might find it offensive towards the disabled, in comparing them to non-humans. I do not, in fact, think it is an offensive argument, because it intends to raise the status of non-humans rather than denigrate the disabled. It even focuses on the strengths of our convictions about the rights of the disabled to derive the force of the argument. Nevertheless, advocacy should avoid appearing offensive if possible, as offense polarizes otherwise helpful discussions.

A second reason for avoiding this argument is that it opens up the possibility for people to deny that we have obligations to the mentally disabled. I find such a suggestion indefensible, but I've heard versions of it articulated. For me personally, it's not a profitable line of dialogue to pursue, because I usually get too upset and defensive at the suggestion to carry on the conversation. I know some people who do think this way, and I'd prefer to not encourage this line of thought.

Relatedly, without relying on the intuitions about our obligations to the cognitively impaired, I am able to bolster support for such obligations while also arguing in favor of animal rights. This makes my advocacy and writing (hopefully)doubly effective, especially because I don't think our society focuses enough on our obligations to the disabled, and as I said, not everyone thinks these obligations are particularly strong. If I can advocate for animal rights and disability rights simultaneously, all the better.

Of course, I don't avoid the basic features of the argument altogether. Because even if I can convince you that animals have rights regardless of their capabilities, that obviously relates to the rights of humans whose capabilities vary from the "norm." There's no way of discussing animal rights and getting away from discussion of "marginal cases," which is probably how it should be. Which leads to a philosophical benefit of discussing animal rights without an explicit appeal to this argument, which is that if other forms of argument can lead to the same conclusion, that conclusion is further supported(and better understood.) As a side effect, these discussions can be more philosophically interesting, as well.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Philosophy and the Right Thing to Do

Susan Wolf has suggested, in a recent book and elsewhere, that what we have most reason to do, and the morally right thing to do, come apart. That is, just because something is the morally right thing to do might not give us decisive reason to do it.

It's important to understand this view properly, because it might be easy to mischaracterize. I don't think Wolf wants to suggest that we could adequately justify moral atrocities with appeals to personal reasons. But I do think she is wrong, I think that moral permissibility completely tracks what we have most reason to do. And I think one of the problems with the world is that people don't critically examine what the right thing to do is, and they don't consciously let morality play a big role in their lives.

For example, I'm very interested in philosophy, and get a lot of pleasure out of studying it. It's not clear to me that this is the best use of my time, but it does seem like a worthy pursuit for a few reasons. Most obviously, it helps me, with any luck, to better understand my moral obligations. Also, I develop my skills at philosophy and communication, which increases my ability to convince others on matters I think are important. And these skills can be usefully applied to any number of worthwhile tasks. Given my interest, it seems like a useful place to focus my energies.

Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps I ought to do something else with my free time, and I've just convinced myself otherwise. But one of the bonuses about being interested in philosophy is that there's probably no better tool to use to discover whether or not I'm wrong.