Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Human Prejudice: Part 2

Read Part 1

One of the threads throughout Williams' lecture reflects the deep moral skepticism he was known for. The exact nature of Williams' skepticism is open to debate, though I am quite sympathetic to Parfit's view that it, under inspection, dissolves into nihilism. That is, Williams' attempts to make sense of normative claims and avoids any appeal to true objective facts is futile. Either normative claims are meaningful and true or they're not. Any attempts to water them down into statements about natural facts strips them of any significant meaning.

In the talk, Williams urges us to remember that there is no "cosmic perspective" from which human beings might be thought of as important or unimportant. There is only the human perspective, from which it is obviously important that we are important. So when humans decide to privilege other humans in our moral assessments, and downgrade the value of non-human animals, this is not a judgment of cosmic significance, just of significance to us. Given that we're humans, it's no surprise that we would value humans far above other animals.

There's a clear push to a relativist view here, which is not surprising given Williams' other views. One useful response, as always, is the argument from marginal cases. Like others who have tried this line against the animal rights position, Williams' view leaves wide open the path to obviously vile implications.

But aside from those usual criticisms,  it's useful to realize what Williams' view implies for other moral positions that are less controversial than animal rights. For example, he has no defense against someone who wanted to defend the view race-based prejudices could be justified from our human perspective. Perhaps the devaluation of a single race would not make sense from this perspective, but one could easily justify a prejudice in favor of members of any given individual's own racial group. As Williams says about the human prejudice, one could just say that a preference for one's own race is "hardly surprising."

Yet the question should not be, "Is it surprising?" (lots of horrible things are unsurprising) but, "Is it justified?" Williams thinks this cannot really have an answer, because we just have our own limited perspective, and there is no cosmic perspective. However, our moral perspective is precisely the point from which we naturally universalize. That's why a moral preference for one's own race, though perhaps unsurprising, is seen as deeply perverse. We don't think racial criterion can, in fact, justify differences in moral regard. Under sufficiently critical reflection, we should not see our race as playing a role in our moral status, and likewise, the moral status of others.

On the whole, Williams' view is consistent, I believe. His meta-ethical views do, in fact, entail  that a truly committed racist has no reason not to  be racist. Williams therefore could coherently claim that he had no reason to refrain from using non-human animals as means. So many who might want to join Williams in his conclusion of rejecting animal rights must beware that they do so a great cost. He is able to embrace speciesism because he's not convinced he truly needs to justify any of his ethical beliefs

Friday, May 17, 2013

Is Moral Philosophy Trivial?

Philosophers are known for disagreeing with each other a lot, sometimes in a way that gives people the impression that the whole pursuit is fruitless. Of course, the view that philosophy contains some irreconcilable disagreements is itself a philosophical position. Even if you don't like philosophy, you aren't able to avoid taking philosophical stances.

One reason people think philosophy is a trivial enterprise is that it is perceived that all philosophers do is argue about the meaning of words. And many famous disagreements are of just this sort! Scanlon and Parfit argue about the correct definition of the word "rational," and Judith Jarvis Thomson has argued vehemently that there is no subjective sense of the word "ought." Some race theorists argue that, properly understood, minority racial groups cannot truly be "racist."

However, if you think that these are the only kinds things philosophers disagree about, you are wrong.

When I make the claim, "You ought to be vegan," you and I can agree upon the same definitions of those words and still disagree on the truth value of the statement. This indicates fundamental moral disagreement.

Conversely I might also say "It is rational [Scanlon's sense] to be vegan" or "It is not rational [Parfit's sense] to be vegan," and both of these statements could be true (this is not, in fact, where their disagreement about rationality lies). Once everyone in the discussion understands the way the words are being used, disagreement disappears.

What Scanlon, Parfit, Thomson, and others are doing when they disagree about the meanings of these words is a bit complicated. I think in general, they are trying to say that the most natural reading of the word fits their definition. They will all admit that if you stipulate that the word carries a certain meaning in a particular context, then it can mean whatever you like. However, they also have normative views about how we ought to think and behave, and they think that the fact that a normatively loaded word (rational, ought, racist) has their particular natural reading gives credence to their substantive view.

Some people find this kind of disagreement tedious and futile. At times, I am tempted to agree. If you are insistent enough that a word means something, I might agree, but the relationship between a word and its definition is essentially trivial. If I say "Murdering people is always wrong," but by "murder" I mean "wrongfully kill," then I've essentially said "Wrongfully killing people is always wrong." Which is true, but quite uninteresting.

When I tell you that I believe that we ought to avoid the unnecessary suffering and death of animals, I expect that you'll agree. I hope that a further understanding of this principle and the world will get you to go vegan. However, I am not relying on the mere fact that we have definitions in common to motivate you. Rather, it is the truth of the fact that unnecessary suffering and death is bad that is compelling.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Robert Garner Says Vile Things

If I've never said it this way before, I'll say it now: if you don't believe in animal rights, the argument from marginal cases is your biggest challenge.

Take Robert Garner, who co-wrote The Animal Rights Debate with Gary Francione. Garner is an advocate of animal welfare reform, and he certainly thinks there is a great deal wrong with the current state of animal exploitation (honestly, this is nearly nonsensical to deny). However, he does not take a strong rights position, merely claiming that animals have an interest in not suffering (and not an interest in not being used or killed.)

At one point he gestures at the argument from marginal cases, indicates that it's very controversial in the literature, and suggests that he has reasons to doubt its validity. Of course, he fails to actually spell out these reasons.

Essentially he claims that because of the diminished capacities that animals have compared to humans, they lack the ability to have an interest (and therefore a right) in continued existence. This is a bizarre claim on its face, because its hardly implausible that to go on living is prima facie a good thing for anyone with a chance at a decent life. Nevertheless, this argument implies that there are some humans who have diminished capacities and thus also lack this right. Most people will regard the idea that a sentient human doesn't have a right (in some sense) to their own life as vile.

What of the option of denying the argument from marginal cases? Well this would result in arguing that species is a moral criterion. And it's very difficult to see how this argument could plausibly be made, without providing equal justification for racism, sexism, and indeed, ableism.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Working Conditions and Worker's Choice

Matt Ygelsias gave an interesting post inspired by the recent deaths in a Bangladesh factory collapse. Many people took issue with his argument, and he responded to their criticisms in a following post.

There are some points to be made about the clarity of Yglesias' original post, and perhaps appropriateness of his post in light of the tragedy. However, I think this kind of debate takes up far too much of our time. Rather, I wish more people engaged with the substance of Yglesias' original post, which is really about international inequality. (Most mainstream inequality discussions focus on national inequality, but even brief reflection will lead one to conclude that the levels of international inequality are graver.)

So Yglesias argued against the notion that their ought to be universal international safety standards for factory workers. Instead, he says, different, and indeed lower, safety standards an be appropriate for poorer countries to choose. This is because safety standards increase the costs of production, which may lead to either lower wages or fewer jobs. If people in a given country decide (as a community or as individuals) to have riskier jobs instead of having lower wages or not job, then we ought to let that be their choice.

Obviously, (as Yglesias' work is known for) this thought goes against the grain of liberal sentiment. It seems rather perverse to say it's okay to let desperate workers put themselves in risky environments so we can have cheaply made cardigans.

Yet we do ourselves no favors when we uncharitably interpret the work of others. So is this really what Ygelsias is trying to say?

I think not. There are some separate questions to be untangled here. First, most people of a liberal disposition, favoring egalitarian principles (and to my mind, any reasonable person) would ideally want there to be enough equality across the world that no one has to work in desperate conditions. That's the kind of world we want. However, since we don't live in that world, we can ask: what we can do to make this world better?

And though equal safety in working conditions would be a part of a perfect world, it does not follow that pursuing that narrow end is the right course of action. Because though it might be risky to work under certain working conditions, it's also very risky to not have enough money to feed your kids. Or to fix a your house, or educate yourself. (I'm not an expert on the living conditions in Bangladesh, but obviously these points apply more broadly.)

Enforcing American-level safety standards on poorer countries is not the answer. Because safety regulations do impose financial burdens, they might mean that a certain factory doesn't open, or hires fewer workers. So this means that the international safety standards decide for the potential workers what risks she ought to take (e.g., working in a dangerous factory vs. not making enough money.) And that's not what we should be in the business of doing, individuals are most often best situated to make these choices. (As Yglesias notes in his post, there are collective action problems about risky workplaces, but these are problems best solved by the local collective, not international fiat.)

These are facts about economics. However, as I have noted in the past, we ought not let studying economics make us bad people. What I mean by this is that even though this might be the right prescription for policy choices, this line of reasoning does not justify personal action. This is where the liberal intuition that Yglesias is saying something perverse comes from, because it sounds as though he is justifying sweatshop labor. This intuition is important, but misunderstood if one takes it to apply to the economic argument.

I think we should pay a reasonable price for our goods, such that the workers who make them should not have to work in unsafe conditions. Because of this, we should try to buy products that we know were made in safe and fair conditions. As a result, a greater portion of our income might go, for example, to clothing, (or perhaps we might just buy fewer clothes.) We should try to act in a way that demonstrates our willingness to accept costs to live more equally with others.