The Life You Can Save

My review is in the most recent issue of The Philosopher's Magazine.

What to Read Now

Interesting list. I like that Random Families, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, is so close to the top. A lot of stuff on there I haven't read...but now hope to.


Philosophy as Confabulation

Confabulating. That's what we're doing, says psychologist Jonathan Haidt, when we have a strong intuition and try to make up reasons to support it. You have a strong intuition that gay male twins shouldn't have sex with each other (ack! I read about a case like this in a book about twins), so you make up a reason why that's the case. The reason is not in fact the source of the intuition, and doesn't sustain it. The whole exercise of trying to defend your view creates an illusion that your view is a conclusion arrived at rationally when it really isn't.

How often is philosophical reasoning really confabulating -- i.e. making up stuff to give a veneer of rationality to some pre-determined conclusion? And why, on a perfectly lovely Sunday morning, am I worried about this question? I'm worried about it because I've been reading a recent article by Peter Carruthers, he of the view that animals have no moral standing.

Carruthers has been arguing for 20 years now that animals don't count. OK, he's a contractualist, and on the social contract theory, animals are left out. But perhaps not completely left out--"Responding appropriately to the value of other creatures is part of morality in the broad sense." That's from Scanlon, another contractualist. Carruthers wants animals to be completely left out, to not count whatever, for their own sake.

I say he "wants it to be the case" because he's worked so mightily and for so long to make this conclusion seem reasonable. You really get the impression of confabulation when you look at his latest effort. Back in 1989, he published an article that said animals don't count because they feel no pain. The basis of concern was completely absent in all our furry and feathered and scaly cousins. (His articles can be accessed here.) Now, amazingly enough, he's mounting just the opposite argument (see the 2010 article). The basis of concern is no longer missing in animals, but present in practically all of them, even in insects.

Well, if that's what he thinks, aren't we stuck simply having to be concerned with practically all animals? No, no, no. "That would be absurd." It simply can't be that spiders are proper objects of concern. Just can't. That rock bottom insight sends Carruthers back to square one. The basis of concern that's so ubiquitous can't really be the basis of concern after all.

So what's the basis of concern that can't really be the basis of concern? It's the awfulness of pain. Right, it seems like we ought to be concerned about someone suffering the awfulness of pain. That's common sense. But not so fast! The awfulness of pain is diagnosed by Carruthers as being something a little different than we might have thought. The awfulness is the sheer wanting to get rid of it we feel when we're in pain, but not being able to; it's the caring about it. Boiled down to the essence, the awfulness of pain is really just "goal frustration."

But dogs have goal frustration, and birds do, and fish do, and bees do, and spiders do...and that's a hell of a lot of goal frustration. And there's no possible way it can be true that spiders count. So it's not true after all that the awfulness of pain is the basis of obligatory moral concern. Q. E. D.

This argument strikes me as terrible, through and through...with all due respect to Professor Carruthers, who is probably a very nice guy who never kicks his dog. Let me count the ways.

(1) I don't think he's got the right story about the awfulness of pain. Let's say someone desperately wants to be rich. He's desperate to get rid of his non-richness, and just can't do it. That's an instance of goal frustration, but it isn't pain. The awfulness of pain may have goal frustration as a component, but it involves a specific type of goal frustration. Pain is more intense the more that we want to get rid of IT.....i.e. pain.

(2) Animal species vary in the degree to which basic pain generates thoughts about wanting to get rid of it. The brains of different species are wired differently. Human beings have more of those "wanting to get rid of it" thoughts than dogs do, for example. Thus, it's reasonable to think that human pain is compounded, compared to dog pain--which is not to say that dogs feel no pain. For evidence and argumentation, see this interesting article by Temple Grandin. Even if insects have goals and goal frustration, we don't know if they suffer basic pain sensations, compounded with "wanting to get rid of it" thoughts.

(3) It's no good arguing that the awfulness of pain can't be a basis of obligatory moral concern if insects have awful pain. Obviously, this plays into cultural prejudices about insects that can't be taken as unassailable truths.

(4) It's no good arguing that the awfulness of pain can't be a basis of obligatory moral concern on grounds that too many animals would thus be objects of concern. Really, this is silly. Wander around the streets of Manhattan, and you'll get the feeling that nothing makes all humans objects of concern. There are just too many of them to be concerned about. Or wander around any big city in India and you'll have that feeling cubed. Whether we have to be concerned with this X doesn't turn on how many other X's there are.

(5) And yet....and yet. Sure. What we have to do for this X might turn on how many other X's there are. It might be a good excuse for not running around helping all the Xs that there are a million of them just in your own backyard. But we can't say they don't matter at all on sheer grounds that there are so many.

Why does Professor Carruthers so badly want to argue for animals not counting at all? Since he's been doing so for 20 years, I think it's only fair that he spend a couple of hours watching PETA and Humane Society videos of animals being tormented in slaughter houses, fur farms, and animals labs. When he is all done, I'd like to know if he still thinks what he thinks he thinks. Can it possibly be true that the animals in those videos, in virtue of their suffering, deserve nothing better from us? I recommend this Humane Society video for starters.


Goodbye, Michael

Interesting how the death of Michael Jackson touches a nerve. I was in a grocery story yesterday when I found out and people were passing the news around. Such an incredible talent. Maybe, in retrospect, we all feel bad about all the things we once said. Did we have to be so nasty? I'm going to enjoy the tribute shows that are surely right now in the making. What a dancer...what a voice!



As it happens, PETA president Ingrid Newkirk visited my animal rights class the day after I finished reading Zoe Heller's novel The Believers . The book (which will be the topic of my next TPM column) is great fun and probably shouldn't be read as saying p or q, because novels aren't in the business of saying p or q. But if I really had to pin a p or q on it, The Believers says "don't be a Believer." Sure, we all have beliefs, but don't be militant, overcertain, dogmatic, fanatical.

The characters Zeller focuses on happen to be left-wing atheists but it's clear she'd be happy to satirize any super-Believing crowd. What fun she'd have with Ingrid Newkirk and the gang at PETA headquarters. They really, really Believe that animals are horribly mistreated in our world, and something has to be done about it. Or is Heller's point more subtle? Maybe the Believers in the novel are Bad because they lack empathy, they don't listen, they don't think. I was extremely impressed with Ms. Newkirk yesterday because not only was she passionate and inspiring and full of interesting information, but she was a very good listener.

We need to be careful about this sin of over-belief, because the world needs Believers. The last Believer I listened to was Rachel Andres of Jewish World Watch, head of a project that supplies Darfuri refugees with solar cookers so they don't have to risk rape by walking miles to collect firewood. To do work like that, it will not do to hem and haw, see the truth on two sides, and just believe with a small b.

As a philosopher, it's my duty to be circumspect, but true believers in good causes are a treasure.


Does God Hate Women?

I notice that the book Does God Hate Women? is catching some flack for its title. Madeleine Bunting, a critic of the "shrill and militant" tone of "the new atheists," complains at Comment is Free...
Instead of 'Does God Hate Women?', the question is 'Do Men Hate Women?' And of course the latter is an absurd question because some men do and some don't.
Some of the commenters on Bunting's column ask how authors Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom can think God hates women, if they don't even believe in God. What an insight!

But then, if we're going to press them that way, let's be fair. Here are some questions people failed to ask of a whole crew of religion-sympathetic writers.

Karen Armstrong, A History of God. "Karen, what's up with that? A history begins and ends, right? If you don't think God does, how can you write a history of him?"

Robert Wright, The Evolution of God. "Robert, Robert, evolution is for frogs and fish and nematodes. Is God that sort of thing?"

Jack Miles, God: A Biography. "Groan. What do you think, God was born in Brooklyn?"

David Cooper, God is a Verb. "Really? If he's not a part of speech, can he be a verb?"

Karen Armstrong, The Bible: A Biography. "So you think the bible is a person? Uh, where was it born? When did it die? Where did it go to school?"

John Eldredge, Walking with God. "What's next, having a bite to eat with God? Going to the movies with God?"

Barbara Bradley Haggerty, Fingerprints of God. "Does God have ten fingerprints? Or, since he is infinite, does he have an infinite number of fingerprints?"

Now look, fair is fair. If Benson and Stangroom have to name their book "The Misogyny that Permeates Religion" (and thereby sink into obscurity) then Karen Armstrong can't have "A History of God"--it's got to be "Concepts of God in the World's Major Religions." (And she can sink into obscurity too.)

So much for that.


I love this evocation of fatherhood (and motherhood) in today's New York Times. It's a nice change to read something about parenthood by someone who's actually good at it.


The Meaning of Respect

The concept of respect seems to resonate with a lot of animal activists. Jane Goodall and Mark Bekoff use the language of respect in 'The Ten Trusts" and so does Ingrid Newkirk in her new book, "The PETA Guide to Animal Rights." My new animal book is respect-centric as well.

What a squishy word. There's "take your hat off" and "say sir and ma'am" respect. There's super high-brow Kantian respect--the kind that you're only supposed to feel in the presence of the moral law, whether in the abstract or as planted in the breast of one of your human fellows. And then there's just...respect. We all know what we mean, and we're quite capable of feeling it for animals. Actually, Kant himself is a good evincer of respect in this ordinary, broad sense. Talking about the different roles of love and respect in friendship, he writes--
For we can regard love as attraction and respect to as repulsion, and if the principle of love commands friends to come together, the principle of respect requires them to keep each other at a proper distance. (Doctrine of Virtue 470)
Precisely. Respect makes you back off. Kant is famous for saying that we have no moral duties to animals, for the precise reason that we owe them no respect (there's no moral law planted in their breasts), but his own words belie his official doctrine. He writes--
The more we come in contact with animals and observe their behavior, the more we love them, for we see how great is their care for their young. It is then difficult for us to be cruel in thought even to a wolf. Leibnitz used a tiny worm for purposes of observation and then carefully replaced it with its leaf on the tree so that it should not come to harm through any act of his. He would have been sorry—a natural feeling for a humane man—to destroy such a creature for no reason. (Lectures on Ethics)
He speaks of love here, but what is the feeling that makes Leibnitz put the tiny worm back on the leaf? Is it really "come together" love, or "back off" respect? It seems there's a large element of backing off. It's one thing to pick up the worm to study, another thing to then squash it.

Not only does Kant understand and feel respect for animals, he even grasps the first principle of animal ethics. Thou shalt not "destroy such a creature for no reason."


Ethics, Undercover

I just finished watching "I Am an Animal," an HBO video about Ingrid Newkirk and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Great movie, fascinating stuff.

The most fascinating of the fascinating elements: the story line about people who go undercover into slaughter houses and animal labs to videotape the goings-on. They do the work they completely abhor in order to be in a position to videotape other people doing it. They spend days and months killing chickens, inflicing pain and bodily injury on monkeys, etc., and come out with extraordinary footage that shows both "business as usual" in these places and the excesses of their more sadistic co-workers.

Here's what I wonder. Is it a sign of being less than absolutely opposed to these things to be willing to do them even for the purpose of creating damning footage? I can't imagine abortion protestors getting themselves inside clinics and assisting in abortions (or am I wrong about that? has it been done?). I really can't imagine a death penalty opponent wanting to work down at the Huntsville, Texas prison (death penalty capital of the western world).

Could it be that the animal activists are less than convinced of their position? I'm going to say that's got to be the wrong interpretation. It's got to be that they have reasoned that it can't possibly do any good for animals for them to keep their hands clean. Somebody's going to take those jobs if they don't. They know their investigations have done a lot of good.

But is there any line here...anything a good person just can't possibly do, even for the good of the cause? Hmm.


Random Acts of Kindness

Should we commit random acts of kindness? There's a bumper sticker that says we should. Oprah tells this story (in the "dog" issue I read in my doctor's office yesterday): she adopted a puppy at the animal shelter and days later the dog was dangerously ill with a parvovirus. The puppy wound up in the animal hospital getting antibiotics, "probiotics" (?) and a plasma transfusion. At huge expense, the puppy survived.

All that money poured into one dog, when a dog is euthanized in an animal shelter every 6 seconds! The same money could have been spread around to lots of animals and saved lots of lives. But wait--isn't it somehow a good thing to treat an individual dog as an irreplaceable being, worthy of every expense?

There's an intriguing story in Tracy Kidder's book Mountains Beyond Mountains. Paul Farmer has a critically ill boy airlifted out of Haiti and flown to a hospital in the US, where vast sums are spent to try to keep him alive. The same money could have been spread around at his clinic for the desperately poor, and could have saved far more lives. Farmer's coworkers at the clinic are skeptical, but he's willing to give one individual a kind of "infinite" worth just this once.

So...random acts of kindness in both cases. If we can't always invest that way in every single life, it's good to make an exception when we're inspired to do so...I think. It's puzzling. Good for whom? Good for the honing of a caring attitude in the person who performs the act. Good for the recipient. But not good for the other needy people or animals who might have been helped if the money had been spread around.

Somehow it seems good and right anyway to perform random acts of kindness...thought I can't explain why that is.

* That's Punky having a nap. Parents new puppy. No random acts of kindness there...it's all kindness, all the time.


Bad Mothers

I'm a little worried about the parenthood books that have been coming out lately. To wit, we've got Bad Mother, by Ayelet Waldman--apparently a confession of mommy mischief, and Home Game, Michael Lewis's new book on fatherhood, in the same vein. There seems to be an evolution of thinking here that began with Judith Warner's Perfect Madness. First parents were given permission to be imperfect--for example, we learned we didn't actually have to puree our own baby food. Now we're getting a free pass to go even further, and be bad parents. Whippee!

Silly me, I don't actually want to be a bad mother. When I catch myself being one, it bothers me. For example, a few weeks ago I sent my kids to school for field day without wearing any sunscreen. When they came back sunburned, I thought to myself "you idiot," not "so what?" or "hilariously imperfect me!"

But I think the error of these books goes much deeper. It's not just that parents want to be good parents. The beauty of being a parent is that it shifts your focus beyound yourself. You want to remember sunscreen for your child's sake (period). Parents value their children's well-being just for itself, and keep it constantly in mind. I'm actually skeptical that many parents spend a lot of time thinking about whether they are good parents are bad parents. They simply do their best--for the sake of their children.

Unless, I suppose, they're totally screwing up. My kids made me watch the movie Liar, Liar recently, in which Jim Carrey screws up as a parent very badly. At the movie's climax, he realizes he's a bad parent, and then starts to transform himself. In extremis, I suppose people shift their attention to themselves. But normally? No. That's not what it is to be a parent.


Dr. Tiller's Death...

...is on the minds of women everywhere. Feminist Philosophers offers suggestions for honoring him and protecting abortion rights here. I wish I'd known about the vigil in Dallas last night.


Animal Rights Website

The new website for my animal rights class is here.

Thank You, George Tiller

Gunned down at church, for being an abortion provider. Yes, it isn't pretty, it isn't easy, but millions of women would find their lives blown completely off course, if they couldn't end unwanted pregnancies. Morality would preclude abortion if a fetus really were morally like a baby, but I don't think so, and millions of women don't think so, and Dr. Tiller didn't think so.

Apparently he was particularly controversial because he performed late-term abortions, but we shouldn't give abortion opponents control of what that looks like. A friend of mine had such terrible hyperemesis (vomiting during pregnancy) that she nearly had to end the pregnancy in the last trimester, to save her own life. That's at least one sort of case that should come to mind when we talk about "late-term abortion."

Dr. Tiller could have been a safe and respectable ob-gyn, but chose a hard calling. I bet there are thousands of women today who feel indebted to him, thankful, and bereaved. Symbolically, anyway, I am one of them.

Mango Power

This is just a public service announcement. Did you know that the skin of a mango contains urushiol, the ingredient that makes poison ivy poisonous? If you are highly allergic to poison ivy, don't peel a mango with your bare hands. I'm serious. Really. Don't.

(Right, I did, even though I knew better.)