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.