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.