Monday, March 11, 2013

What We're Up Against

One thing I've tried to focus on in this blog is the form of unjustified bias, specifically biases that limit our moral consideration of other individuals on the basis of morally irrelevant characteristics. Most salient in my discussion thus far has been the bias of speciesism, which entails the privileging of members of certain species, typically homo sapiens. I've argued at length that this is unjustified, and will continue to do so.

One of the features of this case that contributes to my confidence in the indefensible nature of speciesism is structural similarities it shares with other forms of bias, such as racism and sexism. Most intelligent people in my culture at least purportedly reject racial and sex discrimination, but this has not always been so. Given the racist and sexist history of the world, we should not be surprised to find other unjustified biases that are still widely accepted, and this thought in part led me to my own investigation of the validity of a human/animal ethical divide.

But there are other unjustified biases that exist that still command widespread acceptance, and are not the subjects of well-publicized advocacy. One that I've been thinking about more recently is the extent to which many (if not most) people are quite nationalistic. For example, as I've discussed, the benefits to people in other countries of our immigration policy is mostly ignored in public debate. But people in other countries, who want to come here, are nearly by definition worse off than we are! That's the most compelling reason to want to come here. You can talk about the immigrants who are here, whether legally or illegally, but it's practically unheard of in mainstream politics to consider what we owe to those people whose lives could be vastly improved (indeed, some of whose lives could be saved) by moving here. This is outrageous.

Another form of bias, perhaps even more controversial, is bias against criminals. I think we likely have good justification for punishing criminals. But this is a very different from the view that it is a good that criminals are punished and suffer. I think there is something deeply regrettable about the fact that criminals have to be made to suffer, even though we have good reason for it. We should therefore go out of our way to make sure they do not suffer excessively, and we should offer them tools for re-entry to society. I think our current incarceration system is a huge site of enormous injustice, but even some of those who might agree to that statement still don't feel a great urgency behind it. It's so easy to forget about the criminals, because we just assume that they deserve what they get. I don't believe it's true that people can deserve bad things to happen to them (though again, we might have justification for a system of punishment), but even if they did, it's even more difficult to believe that they deserve what incarceration often provides.

Each one of these kinds of biases demands it's own arguments, and requires a lot of work to even try to begin to dismantle. There are certainly more than I discussed here, and there are likely some that I'm not aware that I ascribe to. I've been focusing on speciesism, for many reasons, but I think it's important to understand and oppose all the forms of prejudice we can. It's a lot of work, but it's what we have to do.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Appeal of Consequentialism

I am inspired by many consequentialists and utilitarians. For example, I think the staff at GiveWell do really interesting work. If we want to fulfill our obligations to the worst off, we should very critically examine the aid organizations that purport to use our money well in providing services. GiveWell does an excellent job of promoting well-researched methods of providing aid done by programs who can effectively use large inflows of capital. This is good and important work that people of a utilitarian or consequential mindset (like those who started GiveWell and many of its supporters) seem very skilled at doing.

I find it to be a failure of many non-consequentialist philosophers that, though their theories would demand strong levels of support for meaningful philanthropic work, they often fail to sufficiently support this kind of action. Many are reluctant to give specific prescriptions of how individuals can better meet their moral obligations, which to me comes close to rendering moral philosophy pointless. (Gary Francione is a particularly important exception to this trend.)

Nonetheless, I find non-consequentialist moral theories compelling, and think there are many things wrong with consequentialist or untilitarian moral theories. Despite my (admittedly anecdotal) observations about the actions of adherents to the different theories, I think there are very good reasons to reject consequentialist moral theories, which I've discussed in brief previously (also here and here.)

But if the implications of consequentialism are implausible, as I argue, why do people believe in it? Well, as I've been discussing, there are often good reasons to accept conclusions that at first seem implausible.  When confronted with a surprising consequence of a theory, there are a few ways of responding.

First, you might be facing a dilemma. There might be an implication of a particular theory that is implausible, but denying that theory as a whole has even less implausible implications. We should in these cases accept the most plausible alternative.

Another way to respond without appeal to prima facie  plausibility judgments is to show that the reason a given implication appears implausible is because we are have an unjustified bias against what is implied. This is how my argument against speciesism works. Obviously, to many people it is implausible that animals should be granted fundamental rights. However, if speciesism is a bias just as sexism and racism are, it's no wonder that animal rights are counter-intuitive. We should expect overcoming such a pervasive bias to lead us to conclusions that contradict deeply-held beliefs we held previously.

So many consequentialists see the supposedly "implausible" implications of their view as the result of our unjustified bias towards consequentialist morality. As they might rightly point out, our minds are infused with a variety of biases and predispositions towards fallacious inferences, it's hardly surprising we would intuit wrongly about some moral issues.

Just as I see the fall of speciesist prejudice as continuing a history of the (one can hope) fall of sexism and racism, a consequentialist might similarly see non-consequentialist judgments going the way of the belief that the earth is flat, or that the phase of the moon controls behavior. A bias against consequentialist reasoning is not going to function like racial bias, but something more akin to psychological effects such as confirmation bias. Some ways in which we are predisposed to think are fallacious. There might be any number of reasons why we are predisposed to think them, but once we have a good theory to sort out the fact from the fallacy, we might as well jettison whatever we got wrong.

The problem with this line of argument in favor of consequentialism is that there is not good enough reason to believe that, for example, the principle of utility is the fundamental principle of morality. It may look alright, at first glance, that we should maximize happiness for the greatest number, but it's obvious enough that other things matter as well. For example, I think certain forms are inequality are inherently bad, even if many people are made very happy by them. It's conceivable to me that the greatest happiness for the greatest number could involve some insidious inequality that would make me strongly loathe such an outcome. Perhaps this is just some irrational bias of mine, but who says? Why isn't feverish devotion to the utility principle the unjustified bias?

So you might say the utility principle isn't inherently more probable than a theory that has a greater variety of values in it, such as equality. But why shouldn't we want to find some maximally optimum balance of equality and happiness (and perhaps some other values)? Well, certain forms of this type of consequentialist theory can be compelling, but my post against the maximization of friendship is a pretty good rejoinder to these. Some important values do not appear amenable to maximizing treatment. And again, why should we think of a maximizing moral theory as inherently more appealing than a theory that can make sense of our common views on friendship?

One reason that I think holds some sway over many consequentialists is the relative simplicity of their theories. If consequences are what matter, it's very clear how to choose the right thing. The tricky part is adding up the different probabilities of different outcomes, assigning values to different features of the situation, and weighing these all against each other. But as I noted at the beginning of the post, many utilitarians are very good at doing all this, and do an admirable (!) amount of good in so doing. It's a lot messier if there are attitudes of respect to consider, and deontic contraints, distinctions between killing and letting die, etc. There are likely to be some meta-ethical concerns about the truth value of non-consequentialist theories, which would have to apply to more than just features of the natural world. (I'll pursue this topic later.) Many people appreciate the beauty of a simplified theory.

If we have good reason for doubting that there is such a simplified theory, then another example from the history of thought comes to mind. When Newton discovered the laws of motion, they were truly revolutionary and brilliant, and they had fantastic predictive powers. One can imagine getting very excited about such a genuinely elegant theory that held together so well and explained so much. It took Einstein and a lot more work to discover that around the edges, the theory didn't explain everything, and on certain scales was not as accurate as had been thought.

Sometimes theories have to be intricate and complex to explain all the features of the world that we encounter. Simplicity can be a virtue of theories, but it can also lead to obfuscation. Perhaps it would be easier to live in a simpler landscape, but I certainly enjoy the process of discovery.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Some Bad Replies to the AMC

I recently finished Babies and Beasts: The Argument from Marginal Cases by Daniel Dombrowski. The entire book is dedicated to the debate surrounding the AMC. Unless you're excessively interested in the topic, as I am, I don't recommend that you read it. It's not very interesting.

By which I mean no disrespect to the author, he handles the material fine and writes quite clearly. But in truth, there's really not a lot to say on the matter. Though a lot of writers have opposed the AMC, most replies to it are clearly ad hoc or question-begging. A lot of the book is repeating the same few objections and fallacies over and over, with slightly different phrasing and context. I've never before read a book on a single debate and thought one side was so obviously correct. (And this is not bias on my part--remember that I was initially convinced of animal rights by this very argument.)

There is one reply, however, that might appeal to someone who does not share some of my meta-ethical views. This I will call the Sentimentalist Reply.

Let's review the argument. Most simply, it tells us:

1. There are some members of the human species who share mental capabilities on a par with non-human animals, such as babies and some cognitively disabled humans.

2. These humans (i.e. the "marginal cases") are entitled to the basic human rights that we accord every normally functioning human.

3. Species membership is not a morally relevant quality.


4. We ought to accord nonhuman animals the same rights we accord to all humans.

There are two versions of the Sentimentalist reply, which deny either 2 or 3.  If you deny 2, you can say that "marginal cases" are not entitled to rights, but we just grant rights to them because we have a non-rational emotional response to them (some people might claim that no one has any rights, and all morality is non-rational responses.) But this is false.

If it were true that babies or the cognitively disabled had no rights, there would be no objection to abusing them. If my neighbor enjoyed killing babies, and I don't, my disagreement would be as significant as our disagreement in movie choices. I don't enjoy killing babies, but he does, which is alright, because it's also fine if he likes watching romantic comedies, even though I don't. Morality is not like this.

Some people might just say that babies and the cognitively disabled have no rights, and we have no reason to treat them well. I feel no need to talk to such people.

A sentimentalist could also deny premise 3. They could say that we do have an emotional response to "marginal" human cases, and this is what makes species membership morally significant. But this reply is really little better than the first. Not everyone necessarily has this emotional reaction-- does this mean it's okay for some people, but not all, to fail to respect the rights of some individuals? On the other hand, some people (myself included) have strong emotional reactions to the lives of animals--does this mean we should accord them rights?

To me, it seems obvious that asking how we feel is the wrong question. Our emotional reactions are important, but what's important is that we have good reasons for them. If everyone in the world had the same sentimental regard for couch cushions as (most) people have for babies, that wouldn't mean couch cushions are actually as morally important as babies. Everyone would be making a mistake.

The right question to ask is this: do we have good reason to have strong emotional reactions towards others? Which others, and which kinds of reactions? The AMC helps us, in part, answer these questions.