3/31/10

Science and Ethics

Some bits from Sam Harris's super-long response to his critics, with my comments--
My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind.
Maybe one day everyone will agree on some naturalistic story about right and wrong, like "right actions maximize happiness."  If that day ever comes, we'll be able to turn to scientists to find out what's right and wrong. However, to get to that point, you have to struggle with which account of right and wrong is correct.   The folks who do the struggling are not doing science; they're ethicists, philosophers, judges, writers, you and me.
Some of my critics got off the train before it even left the station, by defining “science” in exceedingly narrow terms. Many think that science is synonymous with mathematical modeling, or with immediate access to experimental data. However, this is to mistake science for a few of its tools. Science simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in this universe, and the boundary between it and the rest of rational thought cannot always be drawn.
Uh oh. If science "simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in this universe," then it's going to cover practically anything.  Ethics is easily going to turn out be part of science, but then so is theology, at least as far as theologians are concerned.
Many people seem to think that because moral facts relate entirely to our experience (and are, therefore, ontologically “subjective”), all talk of morality must be “subjective” in the epistemological sense (i.e. biased, merely personal, etc.). This is simply untrue.
Good point.
When I speak of there being right and wrong answers to questions of morality, I am saying that there are facts about human and animal wellbeing that we can, in principle, know—simply because wellbeing (and states of consciousness altogether) must lawfully relate to states of the brain and to states of the world.
The tricky part is the equation.  How would we know which facts about wellbeing are relevant to questions of morality?  Not by doing science. 
Many of my critics piously cite Hume’s is/ought distinction as though it were well known to be the last word on the subject of morality until the end of time.  
I sympathize with Harris's impatience.  It's a perfectly respectable position in metaethics to say there are facts about morality, Hume notwithstanding.  "Cognitivism" (the view that there are such facts) is probably the majority view. (Note:  "facts" doesn't have to mean "scientific facts.")
In fact, I believe that we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What’s the alternative? Imagine some genius comes forward and says, “I have found a source of value/morality that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings.”
The thing is, there are lots of different states of mind that could be relevant to a theory about rightness, and lots of ways to use them to build different theories.  It ignores all the complexity to say "consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value."
And those philosophical efforts that seek to put morality in terms of duty, fairness, justice, or some other principle that is not explicitly tied to the wellbeing of conscious creatures—are, nevertheless, parasitic on some notion of wellbeing in the end (I argue this point at greater length in my book. And yes, I’ve read Rawls, Nozick, and Parfit).
OK, so in some way, shape, or form rightness has something to do with consciousness.  It doesn't follow that the science of consciousness is going to tell us what rightness has to do with consciousness. We need ethicists for that!

I worry that a public intellectual like Sam Harris is waging battles that don't put him in the best possible position to do good metaethics.  The public respects religion and respects science. If you're going to pull morality out of the religion column, an effective way to make that palatable is to put it in the science column.  But does it really belong in the science column?  By all means, not yet.  And it's at least possible not ever.

There are metaethical options that dissociate ethics from science.   It could just be that "torturing babies for fun is wrong" is true like "2+2=4" is true.  Though pain is a natural phenomenon studied by science, wrongness might just be a property beyond the scope of empirical science, like mathematical equality is. For purposes of wooing the public away from religion, certain kinds of metaethics just won't do.  But they might be worthy of consideration anyway, if the goal is just figuring out the truth.

"Science Can Determine Moral Values"

More about Sam Harris, who argues (here and in a forthcoming book) that "science can determine moral values"--

Harris's real goal is to face down critics of his anti-religious stance in The End of FaithIf you don't have God, the argument goes, you can't have morality.  That concerns Harris a lot, because he very much wants to have morality.  What drives his first book is a horror at appalling things done in the name of religion--the 9/11 mass-murder, honor killings, the slaughter of innocents prescribed by God in the bible, etc.  "But if God does not exist, everything is permitted!"  Harris wants to answer that sort of critic.

So:  morality is objective, he thinks. In other words, honor killings are really wrong, and not just wrong to us, while permissible for others, elsewhere.  There are robust, non-negotiable truths about morality.  And they're not based on anything up there in the sky. Those are his intuitions, and they're mine too.  But now how does science enter into morality?

Let's have a vivid example, and not one of the overworn ones. In the February issue of National Geographic I read an amazing story that mentioned (among many other things) a practice called "mingi killing."  The Kara people of Ethiopia have a belief that babies have to be killed under certain conditions, including when their top teeth erupt before their bottom teeth.  Otherwise the mingi might spread, causing bad luck.  The author tells of a woman who bore and killed 12 children. How?  "Sometimes the child is abandoned in the bush, its mouth filled with earth; sometimes it is hurled into the river."  You'll be glad to know the Kara king recently decided to ban this practice, at the urging of the Ethiopian government and NGOs.

OK--so mingi killing is morally wrong, and was wrong even before it was abolished by the king.  That's what Harris would probably say, and I agree.  The religious moralist wonders how we can be entitled to that view, if we don't countenance a supreme being who objects to mingi killing. I'm just guessing what will be in Harris's book, but I'll bet he's going to say it's pretty weird to look skyward for a reason why mingi killing is wrong.  The wrongness doesn't proceed from some supernatural realm.  It's right here in our world--in the Kara tribe, to be exact. You can see the wrongness by looking closely at the facts themselves--babies, killing, parents, what it's like to have dirt in your mouth, etc.

So how is science supposed to help?  More guessing.  What would the NGOs have said to discourage mingi killing?  They might have gone into the science of tooth development, making clear that it's equally normal when top teeth erupt first.  They might have collected some data to show that tooth eruption patterns make no difference at all to future events.  If the Kara thought babies don't suffer when abandoned or drowned, they could have given them evidence that they do.  Surely they knew that parents didn't like exposing their kids (they don't) but I suppose they could have gathered data that showed the trauma lasted for years, or that relatives were affected as well. It's possible that the impact on the tribe wasn't fully understood.

So--for the Kara to see the wrongness, they don't need religion, they need science.  So, perhaps, the argument goes.  But here's what bothers me.  All that science could be persuasive, but it will have leverage only if the Kara already believe something like this basic principle--

(P) It's morally wrong to kill a baby if you have no good reason to do so.

The science relates to whether they have a good reason to kill these babies, and whether they have good reasons not to.  But the science doesn't tell them whether or not to accept this principle.  To decide, you need to delve into some difficult issues.    Do babies really count, just like adults?  There are reasons to say they do, reasons to say they don't.  If they do count, just what is it that makes killing wrong?  There are reasons to say this, reasons to say that.   I think reasonable people, after a long careful discussion, will converge on agreeing to P.  It's the most reasonable thing to think. But science isn't going to prove it.

So--yes to the idea of objective wrongness.  Yes to the idea that it doesn't rain down from the heavens. Yes to the idea that science can be enormously helpful in revealing what's right and wrong.  But no, science does not, all on its own, determines moral values.  There's also such a thing as rational reflection on right and wrong, which can be fruitful, progressive, and gradually generate consensus. That's what secularists have to proffer as the alternative to religion-based ethics.  Sadly, "rational reflection" doesn't have quite the stellar image of "science," but the truth is, we can't discover what's right and wrong without it.

3/30/10

Is Meat Green?

No, it's not, but how ungreen is it?  In my book I relied on a statistic from the UN report "Livestock's Long Shadow"--livestock account for 18 percent of greenhouse gases, " a larger share than transport."  An animal scientist has now challenged the statistic, saying it misleads. In the Columbia Journalism Review, Curtis Branard writes:
The problem Mitloehner highlighted is that the FAO performed what’s called a full “lifecycle analysis” for the livestock industry. In other words, it added up emissions from things like fertilizer production and land-use change in addition to those from cow burps and manure. It did not do the same for the transportation industry, however, tabulating the emissions from fossil-fuel combustion, but not from automobile manufacturing or road construction, for instance.
As Branard notes, Mitloehner and the media are making much too much of this problem.  If the comparison is misleading, it doesn't follow that we should stop worrying about how meat contributes to climate change.  (He also says that reporting on Mitloehner ought to be more transparent about funding he receives from the beef industry.)

Looking back on how I read the statistic, did I really misunderstand it?  Perhaps not, because I saw it for the first time in an article by Mark Bittman.  He juxtaposed it with other statistics:
A study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.
What's being compared in that passage is generating 2.2 pounds of beef (which does take fertilizer, land, burps, and manure) and driving a car for 155 miles (not manufacturing it).  I think I read the FAO statistic the same way.  Generating meat produces greenhouse emissions comparable to driving planes, trains, and automobiles.  But yes, people who read the "Livestock's Long Shadow" statistic as a lifecycle-to-lifecycle comparison would have gotten the wrong idea.

Over here, Don Le Pan wonders why environmentalists don't promote veganism.  But if your concern is just the environment, why would you?  Wouldn't this be like telling people to buy bicycles instead of just encouraging them to buy smaller cars?  To be green, you'll want to eat leass meat, but also make distinctions between different animal products, as the chart (from this article) makes clear.   Of course, climate change isn't the only "green" issue.  But just concentrating on that, it makes a big difference whether you eat chicken or beef.

3/29/10

Capitalism, A Love Story

OK, it's a bit simplistic (our alternatives are not "democracy" or "capitalism") but Michael Moore's latest movie is worth seeing and thought-provoking.  It happens when I saw it over the weekend I was at the height of my latest rant about the Catholic church and its problems with pedophilia, secrecy, gender, sexuality...and a lot of other stuff.  (Isn't it obvious the pope should resign?)  So it caught me off guard to see the Catholic priests in this movie--men who help laid off workers, identify with the poor, and talk passionately about social justice. In fact, Michael Moore confesses that he once wanted to be a priest himself, and he's pretty clearly a believer--at least in the moral message of Christianity--and a church member.  Moore needs to do a documentary on religion--wouldn't that be interesting?

3/28/10

Animal Stories

Nice line in the New York Times Book Review today from Rebecca Goldstein--"ambivalence is a sign of an interesting mind."  It worries me when someone responds in a simple, clear, confident way to an issue that's in fact difficult and complex.

The New York Times covers the treatment of animals a lot.  I'd say the gray lady is ambivalent.  And maybe that's all to the good--because the animal question really is difficult and complex. Today's stories touching on animals--

First we've got a big story about small, traditional farmers in New England having a hard time delivering meat to the locavore market.  It seems there aren't enough slaughterhouses (and mammals have to be slaughtered in USDA approved facilities).  So animals wind up having to be transported hundreds of miles away, which defeats the "humane" label and also yields lower quality meat.   Reaction: (A) meat is murder, or (B) quick, somebody build a new slaughterhouse?  I appreciate the way the article triggers the question.

Second, a paean to hunting in the magazine's "Lives" column.  82 year old half-blind food writer Betty Fussell goes deer hunting with her son, who calls hunting "earning your food."  She says--"Although I've spent a lifetime buying, cooking and eating food, this would be the first time I'd ever hunted and sought to kill.  Others had always done that for me."  Okay....so hunters confront the reality of killing animals.  That's honest of them.  Upside of eating wild animals: they did get to have much better lives before dying, compared to factory farmed animals. Downside:  the killing can be sloppy.   Question--if a half-blind woman is allowed to run around shooting deer in the woods, hardly "humane slaughter," then pray tell:  why can't those humane farmers in the previous story shoot their own pigs?

The "sensitive hunter" story is a very predicable genre.  Inevitably there will be allusions to Native American rituals. People are going to thank The Great Spirit for the dead animal, and they're going to get really mushy about how close they feel to the animals they kill. This article doesn't disappoint.  "Even though I long ago abandoned my forefathers' Calvinist God, it's him I thank for the fellow creature I've killed."  Question: how much does that make up for the problem that the deer doesn't get to enjoy the rest of her day, or life?

Finally, mother and son sit down to eat the heart at dinner time.  Just to let us know they are not brutes, she mentions that she skipped the garlic, onions, and barbecue sauce usually called for in recipes for deer heart.  No, they just used "salt and pepper in order to taste the grilled flesh pure."  Well, that was decent of them!  She adds "Men use fire; other animals don't." (So?)  And then:  "But I have never felt the bonds of creaturehood so intensely." Somebody at the New York Times really ought to put a moratorium on this sort of thing. Either that, or make the next person who indulges add a paragraph about how this bonding thing is supposed to work.  (Am I missing something because I never experienced the ritual of holy communion?  Or because I don't belong to one of those tribes that goes in for funerary cannibalism?) It seems to me, you really aren't entitled to feel good about your bonds with a deer after you've deprived her of the rest of her life.

OK--so we've got nice animal farmers and touchy-feely hunters. What else?  We have vegan pancake making from Richard Melville Hall (aka Moby).  (See picture above.) We also have an interesting reference to vegetarians and vegans in an article about extremism.  The author says that "in groups organized around a cause, it's the most extreme members who rise quickest."  His example:  "Among vegetarians, vegans are accorded high status."

Yes, I accord vegans high status, unless I'm focusing on the online abolitionist vegans.  They are not just deeply committed to animals, but contemptuous of anyone who falls even a notch or two below their standards.  I suspect tolerant, pragmatic vegans are accorded high status by most animal advocates (most of whom are neither vegetarian nor vegan).  Or so I would think. We need a New York Times story that digs into that question.

3/27/10

Jonathan Balcombe

To buy or not to buy... I'm thinking about reading Jonathan Balcombe's book Pleasurable Kingdom or his latest, Second Nature.  I rather like the topic of the first book--pleasure and happiness in (non-human) animals.  People with ethical concerns tend to focus on animal pain, and lose sight of the good experiences animals enjoy.  The book seems to be "positive psychology" for the animal kingdom, but without the self-help overtones. Cool!

I'm a tough customer, so I listened to an interview with Balcombe to help me make up my mind. Here he is on the Diane Rehm show.  He's really articulate and knowledgeable, but this is my reservation:  there's never a moment in the entire interview when he seems skeptical or puzzled.  Isn't it actually rather difficult to get a grip on animal minds?  For that matter, isn't "animal ethics" a difficult subject? Hmm.

Anybody out there familiar with Jonathan Balcombe's books and willing to comment?  UPDATE:  Taking the plunge....will report back on this book later!

3/26/10

Why have children?

I am starting a new book about parenthood--or perhaps I should say, to be cautious, a new manuscript.  (Whether it winds up being a book remains to be seen!) 

For the longest time, I've been stuck on the most basic of basic questions--What's a good reason to have children? I'm also interested in the more straightforward question--why do people have children?  But let's focus on the more "normative question"--what makes sense as a reason to have a child (in today's world)?  Here are your options:

(1)  To benefit myself in some way (care to specify?)
(2)  To benefit the child.  (explain!)
(3)  To benefit other people (eg, to benefit a sibling)
(4)  To make the world a better place (in a sense different from any of the above).
(5)  No reason necessary. (Why not?)  

I mainly just want to listen.  Any comments will be appreciated.

3/25/10

Francisco Ayala

Based on a quick read of a wikipedia article about him, I don't see how this year's Templeton Prize winner, Francisco Ayala, could be seen as anything but a good guy. I'm looking forward to reading what the anti-Templeton crowd has to say.

UPDATE:  Ah, he's a "NOMA" guy.  So "not good" from the anti-Templeton crowd's perspective.  Still, he couldn't be a more foreceful advocate for science.  Here's a useful discussion by Mark Vernon. (How did he come out with that so fast?)

Philosophers on Twitter


I've been shyly entering the Twitter-sphere, held back basically by two issues: (1) It's not like I'm Sandra Bullock. Nobody really cares what I ate for breakfast, or even what I thought about after breakfast. (2) There's a certain stigma, shall we say, to Twitter-osophy. What, are we shallow teenagers, or serious grownups?

But then, philosophy has a tradition of "short and pithy." In fact, there's no doubt that philosophers as illustrious as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein would have tweeted.

"What does your conscience say?—'You shall become the person you are.'" (Nietzsche, The Gay Science) Yup, it's under 140.

"The world is all that is the case." (Wittgenstein, Tractatus) Well under 140.

So you see, it must be OK. It also must be OK because Gilbert Harman is on Twitter--and you can see he's following lots of other philosophers. I've been following (and enjoying following) Sam Harris, Peter Singer, Julian Baggini, Nicholas Kristof, Jeffrey Sachs, William Easterly, Philosophy Bites, The Philosopher's Magazine, etc.  You can see my whole list here.

3/24/10

They Eat Meat in Texas


Whenever I wander in Texas, I'm struck by all the evidence that...they eat meat in Texas.  And a lot of it.  Suddenly, the "vegan vs. vegan"  and "vegan vs. vegetarian" debates you can read about online (including here) seem as irrelevant as can be. 

To wit--there are cows, goats, and horses grazing everywhere you go. I find this bucolic and pleasant, but my two kids don't see it that way.  Comment from one of them:  they're doomed animals.

Here's a recipe for frustration:  try to buy a pack of veggie dogs at a Walmart near Waco.  (We were getting ready to head into the wilderness--so to speak--to do a little camping.)  Not gonna happen!  But what a vast meat department. 

Vegetarian options on the menus in San Antonio?  Well, yes, if you don't mind eating enchilladas every night.  We looked up vegetarian restaurants online and wound up (somehow) at a place with veal on the menu.

Our last stop was Austin, where we had a fantastic lunch at 24 Diner.  It would be silly to be anything but pleased to find 4-5 vegetarian options and a vegan option on an otherwise meaty menu.  "The world is vegan, if you want it," is the slogan I read in certain quarters of the internet.  The folks don't seem to want it. You might be able to convince the public to ease up on the factory farm and slaughterhouse cruelties (even in Texas, I think it may be possible), but we're not going to be a meatless state anytime soon.

This is what animal advocacy can look like, here in Texas (I heard this story on NPR after the trip): so a rich Dallas oilman owns a 20,000 acre hunting ranch in west Texas, where he keeps buffalo for people to shoot, and the buffalo escape to the neighboring ranch.  That's annoying, so the manager over there kills all 51 of the animals.  The impassioned owner cries foul:  "murder," he says, "slaughter"!   (What he really meant was:  those animals were supposed to be killed by my paying customers on my land!) 

In Austin we stopped in at the fantastic book store Book People and I bought myself a vegetarian cookbook--Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian Cooking.  I've been cooking from it every night since we got back.  Wow--it's great!  I'm not the least bit jealous of what Jerry Coyne is eating while he visits Texas. Here's a picture from over at his blog.


Funny, but the longer you go without eating meat, the more things simply look different to you.  Eek.

This is more like it:



Who knew cauliflower could be so good?

3/23/10

Sam Harris on Morality


You have to simplify in a 20-minute public lecture, but Sam Harris really does oversimplify...and even mislead.

The thesis of the talk is that (S) science can answer moral questions. Does he support it? Not really.  He actually blurs that thesis with another-- that (M) moral questions have factual answers.  For example he makes an impassioned case that it's in fact wrong for men to respond to a daughter being raped by killing the daughter.  I'll buy that, but that's support for (M), not (S).  In a brief Q&A period, Harris imagines we could somehow learn the moral fact about the wrongness of honor killings by doing brain scans on fathers and daughters. But what would we be looking for?  What scientific fact would prove (or disprove) the moral fact? 

I think he's imagining that we might find out that honor-killing men are very miserable after they kill their raped daughters, and that (of course) the daughters suffer horribly, and lots of other people suffer in a society where rape is taken care of by killing rape victims.  But surely those facts would not suffice to show that honor killings are wrong.

How can that be?  The book about happiness I just read helps make the point.  Carol Graham has collected massive amounts of data about what makes people happy and unhappy around the world.   Graham found that people living in very bad conditions are surprisingly happy.  The poorest of the poor in Africa turned out to be exceptionally optimistic, and optimism correlates with happiness.   The people of Afghanistan also turned out to be comparatively happy, despite all the problems that beset them (war, terrorism, poverty, very high infant and child mortality rates, inequality, etc).

When people's standard of living goes up, their expectations go up, and that's when they start getting very grumpy.  In times of fast economic growth, people are particularly unhappy.  People who have access to good health care are not quite as satisfied with their health care as people with no access.  And on and on.  There are all sorts of odd findings in Graham's book. 

If this is the science that "answers moral questions," then the answers we would get are awfully strange.  One lesson learned:   we should be very careful before helping the poor.  We don't want to raise their expectations, thereby probably making people less happy.  But there are other things we could consider important, besides happiness.  The very poor have many factually false beliefs. Their optimism is based on erronenous ideas about the future.  Does ill-founded happiness count for less?  This is something science simply isn't going to tell us.  The question might have an answer (if you accept M, you'll think so), but I don't see how it could possibly have a scientific answer.

Another interesting finding from Graham's book: in the US, inequality doesn't bother any sub-group besides wealthy liberals!  The people in the lowest income brackets aren't troubled by their comparative poverty. In fact, they are buoyed by the fact that others are so rich.  The majority of people in the US think one day they will be in the upper income bracket themselves. They can't all be right, and some of them are downright unrealistic in their optimism.  But thinking this way makes them happy.  Again: does their happiness count for less because it's ill-founded? This is a moral question, not a scientific question.

Getting back to honor killings. If happiness is all that matters, and they cause unhappiness, then they're wrong.  But there are lots of other things that could matter.  We're not going to settle that by doing brain scans.

I think it's great for Sam Harris to spread the word that moral questions have factual answers (M), and that science is an input to morality.  We are in a much better position to make sound moral decisions if we know the facts about happiness, and many other facts as well.  It's just not true, though, that (S) science will answer our moral questions.

3/22/10

The Gloomy Atheists

Carol Graham's book Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires is full of "paradoxes"... about those peasants and millionaires, more later.  One of the most head-scratching is about religiosity.  In a study of 90,000 people across 26 European countries, Andrew Clark and Orsolya Lelkes found that "to belong to a religion is positively correlated with life satisfaction."  You can see how that might be.  Belonging increases the chances of believing.  And believing increases optimism ("God will provide, protect, prevent, etc."), which is strongly correlated with greater happiness.

Now here's the surprising part.  Everyone is more satisfied with life in areas that are more religious, including the atheists.  And everyone is less satisfied in places with more atheists. "Having a higher proportion of atheists has a negative spillover effect for the religious and for atheists alike."  Apparently, to some considerable extent, our attitudes about life are held collectively.  We don't individualistically base our outlook simply on the beliefs lodged within our own skulls.

The moral of the story is...what?  Stay away from atheists?  Send your kids to Sunday School, whether you believe or not?  There are puzzles like this throughout the book.  If we thought maximizing happiness was the prime directive, the book would lead to many very counter-intuitive choices and policy recommendations.

Bill Irwin Defends Blank and Philosophy

Here. I have nothing in principle against these volumes. In fact, I enjoyed reading one (The Simpsons and Philosophy) and contributed to one (Twilight and Philosophy). What bothers me is that they're proliferating like kudzu. There's only so much room on the philosophy shelves at my local bookstore, and I've noticed over the last 5 years that they are increasingly dominated by philosophy and pop culture volumes.  Which means other stuff is less available. And no, it doesn't seem as if these books are whetting appetites for more philosophy.  Over the same time period, I've also seen the philosophy sections shrink at Borders and Barnes and Noble.  When it comes to this sort of thing, perhaps a little less would be a little more.  That being said, one new volume did catch my eye--Climbing and Philosophy.  Nice topic.

UPDATE:  Climbing and Philosophy is part of a new Blackwell series called Philosophy for Everyone.

3/18/10

Getting Pied by Vegans

I sure hope it never happens to me. It seems some vegans feel a special hostility for animal advocates who are ex-vegans (the woman who was pied), pre-vegans, or non-vegans (me). You can see this if you frequent abolitionist blogs and twitter feeds. It is disconcerting--in fact saddening.

Note at the end of the post how Smith manages to collapse distinctions between pie-throwing types and the good people at the Humane Society. You see, it's all one big organism. The tentacle that threw the pie is connected to the same octopus as the tentacle that's trying to pass a referendum in Ohio right now. (Which reminds me--I need to send the Humane Society a check.  I want that referendum to succeed.)

Smith makes the same mistake about ethicists that he does about animal organizations.  No, it's not one big organism. It's not even two organisms--welfare and rights. No, we don't have to choose between the very conservative idea that we should keep doing all the usual things to animals, but do them nicely, and the radical idea that every rat, pig, and mouse has super-strength rights just like ours.

Since Smith calls one of his blogs a "bioethics seminar" I'm going to offer him a reading list. Outlooks inbetween "rights" and "welfare" include utilitarianism, Martha Nussbaum's "capacities" approach to animals in Frontiers of Justice, and David DeGrazia's approach in Taking Animals Seriously.  And mine, in Animalkind.

3/17/10

Synthesized Food

My family has grown tired of me.  At the dinner table last night they wouldn't even weigh in on the question Dom raised yesterday--
Imagine that to avoid animal suffering required a wholly artificial diet - perhaps one synthesised in a replicator like the ones in Star Trek. Let us stipulate that the amount of pleasure experienced in the eating of such food is exactly akin to that currently involved in eating good quality vegan cooking. In that case the answer to 'is it necessary' might be yes, or might be no - depending on what you mean by necessity.  But would we be ethically required to adopt this diet?
Dom says "Absolutely!" The residents of my house said "pass the salt!"

Well.  I will just say--there are two questions here.  Pollan is worried about two links being broken:  (1) The link between food and nutrition.  He says "no" to vitamins, supplements, fortified foods, etc.  Food should be nourishing.  That's a problem for a vegan diet that has to be supplemented with lab-created B12.  (2) The link between food and the natural world--you know, sun, soil, grass, crops and such.

Here's how it's all supposed to work, according to Pollan:  the earth yields food in a natural way and then food nourishes us.  If you let all that happen in the old-fashioned way, the whole thing isn't pain-free (field mice are killed by combines, chickens are killed, etc) but there isn't the perversity and misery of a factory farm or modern slaughter house.

In Dom's thought experiment, one of these links is broken--link #2.  Food doesn't come from the natural world in the normal way.  Yet nutrition does come from food.   So, the replicator is bad (in one respect) from Pollan's point of view, good from the point of view of reducing suffering.

I do argue in both of my books that pain and pleasure are not all that matters.  But they do matter a lot. So it's not an easy thing to argue that Pollan's scenario is preferable. (In short, I'm thinkin' on it, as we say in Texas.)

Up is Down

Two things to file under "up is down" this morning.

Here's Julian Savulescu talking about the negative side of being green.  Small measures like recycling make you mean, some new research shows (you did your bit, now you can be selfish). They also deceive you into thinking environmental problems are being taken care of when they're not.

Must we help the poor because they're so miserable?  It turns out they're not so miserable. See: Happiness around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires, by Carol Graham.  Here's a New Yorker review.

3/16/10

Killing Kittens, Eating Food

To my mind, the critical question we should ask before harming an animal is "is it necessary?"   A lot of the time, it's easy to say.  In a review of a book about taxidermy in Sunday's New York Times, we learn about 
... victorian follies like Walter Potter’s creations: “The Kittens’ Wedding” (featuring “20 kittens in black morning suits and cream-colored brocade dresses”), “The Guinea Pigs’ Cricket Match” and a re-enactment of the funeral procession from “The Death and Burial of Cock Robin.”
There's the 1890 diorama above.  Those are real kittens!  If Walter Potter had asked "is it necessary?" he would have had to say "no".  That's really clear.

"Is it necessary?" provides a more permissive standard than "animal rights," but a less permissive standard than "animal welfare".  There really is plenty of space between welfare and rights, a fact that seems to be anathema to both rights supporters and conservative welfarists.  Both sides wants us to think "if you reject this, you'll be stuck with that," and it's not true.  Rights OR welfare is a false dichotomy.

If we ask "is it necessary?" we'll have to stop doing many things to animals that we normally take for granted.  We'll have to stop making dioramas out of kittens, upholstering sofas with leather, creating pretty hats out of baby seal fur, putting animals on display at circuses, etc.

What about eating animals?  Is it necessary?  I've been rereading Tom Regan's 1983 opus magnum The Case for Animal Rights, and it's interesting to see how adamant he is that animal products are unnecessary. Every single nutrient in meat (he focuses on meat) can be obtained from plant foods, he says.

The latest thinking on this seems to say otherwise.  If you only ate plant foods, the nutritionists now say, you would wind up deficient in vitamin B12 - a vitamin that grows from bacteria in animals and has no plant sources.   Long term, B12 deficiency can cause serious problems, so vegans are advised to make up for what they're missing by taking a vitamin supplement that's grown from bacteria in a lab.

When Regan said meat isn't necessary, he meant other foods deliver the same nutrients.  A revised version of the book would have to say that meat and other animal products aren't necessary, because we can get the same nutrients from a combination of plant foods plus a pill.  Some will say--but if plant foods don't deliver all the nutrients we need, then animal foods are necessary after all!

Which goes to show:  the rough notion of the "necessary" is serviceable, up to a point, but then we need to clarify what we mean.  When we say X is "necessary," partly we're saying that we get some important benefit from X.  We'd lose something that means a lot to us if we gave up X.  Inevitably, we also have to make a judgment of balance--are there enough benefits to justify the cost?  We can think about costs, benefits, and balance in lots of different ways, the utilitarian way being just one.  But those are the key ingredients when we judge that X is necessary (or not): costs, benefits, balance.

So--what do we gain by getting our nutrients from food (and just food)?  Michael Pollan says food is more trustworthy because it delivers packages of nutrients, without our having to analyze what exactly is in the package. But when he urges us to "eat food" (his first commandment), what's at stake is partly "existential."  What are we going to put inside of ourselves--earth's bounty, so to speak, or a chemist's concoctions?  Pollan thinks it's good to continue being what we are--animals--and continue that elemental connection animals have to food.  

What weight should we give to eating food and just food?  I have always followed Pollan's first commandment, and I'm also a reluctant consumer of medicine.  So the food argument has some attraction for me.  Are we entitled to get our B12 from real animals, instead of from lab-grown bacteria? Not if the costs to animals are enormous.  But what if we treat animals humanely, as Pollan urges us to do?  How far must we go toward artificiality in order to be ethical?

UPDATE:  Who was Walter Potter? How did he come by the kittens?  This is informative.

3/15/10

If Kant couldn't do better, can we?

Eric Schwitzgebel has an interesting post about wildly insane ideas in Kant (lookie here, you'll enjoy it).  Just quirky and amusing, but so what?  He thinks not. 
First, from our cultural distance, it is evident that Kant's arguments against masturbation, for the return of wives to abusive husbands, etc., are gobbledy-gook. This should make us suspicious that there might be other parts of Kant, too, that are gobbledy-gook, for example, the stuff that transparently reads like gobbledy-gook, such as the transcendental deduction, and such as his claims that his various obviously non-equivalent formulations of the fundamental principle of morality are in fact "so many formulations of precisely the same law" (Groundwork, 4:436, Zweig trans.). I read Kant as a master at promising philosophers what they want and then thowing up a haze of words with glimmers enough of hope that readers can convince themselves that there is something profound underneath.
Okay, well that's taking him down a notch!  But now he draws conclusions about us.
Second, we cannot expect ordinary people to be better philosophical moral reasoners than Kant. Kant's philosophical moral reasoning appears mainly to have confirmed his prejudices and the ideas inherited from his culture. Therefore, we should be nervous about expecting more from the philosophical moral reasoning of people less philosophically capable than Kant. 
Here's the thing, though.  Kant is grandiose.  You can practically hear the trumpets blaring in the background.  There's a lot of systematizing and beholding the amazingness of mankind, and heavy breathing amid all the brilliance. Perhaps the trumpets etc. got in the way of clear thinking.   So--take heart!  When we're thinking more plainly about moral matters, it's not impossible that we do better than Kant, despite Kant being ... Kant.

3/14/10

Dawkins at the Global Atheist's Convention

Greg Mulherin at the ABC Religion site reports on Richard Dawkins' talk.  Here's the beginning--
“The fact of your own existence is the most astonishing fact you will ever have to face. Don’t you ever get used to it.”

With those words Richard Dawkins launched an interesting, and less-polemical-than-the-others, talk spanning the origins of  species, of life, of the universe and perhaps of billions of universes.
The universe we live in and the fact of our existence is truly a cause for gratitude. Gratitude for our individual existence and for the process of evolution which from the blind forces of physics produces all that we know and gives it the illusion of design.
This make for an interesting contrast with David Benatar's suprising contention it would be "better never to have been."  Each and every one of us is actually unlucky to exist!  Later in the week, I'll be getting back to puzzles about procreation.

***

LATER

Another snippet:
As for gratitude, Dawkins suggested it might be the by-product of the need, prior to the use of money, to keep mental accounts of what is owed and owing. Children  early on develop a sense of fairness and in some cases it operates without a real target, for example “it’s not fair that it is raining on my birthday.” Sexual lust too still operates although its original reproductive benefit is no longer ‘the target.’
Dawkins suggests “we have a similar lust to calculate debt, gratitude, fairness and it’s so powerful that it goes off in a vacuum.” Such psychological dispositions might also lead us to postulate God, he said. In a pastoral moment Dawkins assured us that “this sort of vacuum activity is nothing to be ashamed of” and that the first part his talk gave sufficient reason for gratitude to be alive even though it is gratitude in a vacuum.
Hmm. So gratitude is explicable, Dawkins seems to say ... but not reasonable.  Gladness, on other hand, is surely unassailable.  We feel glad to be alive when we ponder that we didn't have to be, and that life is good.  We are grateful for x to y.  Gladness fastidiously leaves out the y.

The Global Atheist's Convention

ABC Religion, an Australian website, has been live-blogging the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne.  Here's Greg Mulherin report on Peter Singer's talk:

Ethics without religion was this morning’s topic for Peter Singer, perhaps Australia’s most prominent philosopher and renowned activist for animal rights, who is now based mostly at Princeton in the US. The talk introduced some light philosophy laced with plenty of intuitively attractive examples to carry the argument.

Oft quoted words from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov are the standard launch pad for arguments about whether we can be good without God. “If there is no God everything is permitted… “ But, says Singer, tongue in cheek, the lie was put to that last night at dinner when someone’s wallet was left unstolen after lying unprotected on a table in a room full of unbelievers.

Singer’s philosophy today started with Plato’s Euthyphro where Socrates asks about the source of the good. Is something good because the gods oblige it, or do the gods oblige it because it is good? Now is not the time to tease out the issues, but it’s no surprise that philosophers and theologians over the centuries have challenged the dilemma in various ways. Nor is it a surprise that Singer hasn’t “seen a satisfactory answer.”

Singer cited examples of Christians selectively cherry-picking morality from the Bible. After various Old Testament examples, Singer said “some will say ‘that’s the Old Testament, we follow Jesus.’ But,” he continued, “Jesus is not really much better.” He cited Jesus’ attitude to divorce and then elided Jesus with his followers by commenting on rich Christians who don’t seem to be following Jesus’ example. (How often the Galilean is judged by those who follow him! A logical fallacy but a powerful wake up call to Christians.)

Singer also challenged the idea that the motivation for being good was to be found in religion, quoting the fact that three of the four biggest philanthropists in history have been atheists (Gates, Buffett, Carnegie. Rockefeller was a protestant.) A poor anecdote to make the point. Singer also emphasised the need to be balanced: atheists don’t have a great history either: Stalin and Pol Pot got mentions.

I resonated with the words of Henry Spiro [that's "Spira"], a significant animal rights activist and civil rights campaigner, when asked about what drove him to work for others: “I guess one wants to say that one’s life has been more than consuming products and generating garbage… to do whatever one possibly can to reduce pain and suffering.” Applause followed.

So where does morality come from? asked Singer. His answer: morality is a naturally evolved phenomenon. That is why moral practices are more universal than you would expect, given the diversity of religions; because morality has evolved as a common feature of humans. So a comparison of religious cultures reveals common judgements: look after your children is universal, reciprocity (tit for tat in both the  good and the bad) fosters cooperation. Things work better if we work together.

Singer doesn’t agree with those who say that Jesus was a great ethical teacher. He said some laudable things but turning the other cheek is simply impractical. It would lead to perpetrators thriving and reproducing with the result that society will be based on using force to get what you want. So retaliation is a better way to go although ideally through the legal or social system.

Singer alluded to some indications that morality is hard wired into the human brain but warned that even if that were the case we should not take it as a moral guide. (Is he having it two ways here?) Nature and the good are not to be equated, he said, because our moral judgements have evolved for situations we are familiar with and might give us the wrong answers in new situations. For example, while there may be some biological component to an instinctive racism, it “is something we need to get over because the world is a very different place to what it was. We shouldn’t fall into a trap of thinking that a natural response is necessarily right.” For example we have no evolved response to the plight of strangers on the other side of the planet, nor to eating non-human animals, nor to the climate change implications of turning on our air conditioners, driving our gas guzzlers, or eating ruminant animals.

In the end Singer’s measure for morality is rooted, not in the divine, nor in nature but is a subtle version of the pleasure principle [odd way to characterize utilitarianism!]: of maximising the well-being of all sentient beings. But this too must be recognised as a moral intuition. It is not grounded in empirical evidence, especially if, as Singer did today, we rule out a naturalistic basis of ethics. I’m not sure whether that will satisfy the ruthless empiricists that dominate this conference.

Finally, an interesting quotation from today’s talk: “A glass has no intrinsic state of good and bad but we do, and non-human animals do too because we have consciousness.” Did he mean to say intrinsic? [why not?]

3/12/10

Animalkind Review

Here's James Garvey's review of Animalkind in the curent issue of The Philosophers' Magazine.  I really appreciate his tolerance for shades of grey.
Our thinking about animals is a mess. We moo at a cow in the countryside, maybe pat a little lamb on the head, then enjoy burgers and kebabs for lunch. Philosophers have tried to tidy things up in two ways. The old school argues that animals are more like things than people, so why not treat them as we wish? Recent philosophers say that animals are like us in some morally relevant sense, and we must therefore treat them with the respect owed to human beings. Liberate them from zoos, labs and factory farms, give them rights, and so on.
My fellow blogger and tpm columnist, Jean Kazez, explores a middle path between these views in her book, Animalkind. Animals aren’t just things, she says, but they’re not our equals either. Our lives matter more, but animal lives do still matter – we have to treat them with all due respect, depending on the value their lives have. It’s complicated – and you have to think things through carefully, case by case. Kazez takes the world’s ragged edges seriously. The result is a readable, compelling, and thought-provoking account of our difficult relationship to animals.
Some animals are like us in some senses, not at all like us in others. Marshalling evidence, she says that mammals, birds and fish are almost certainly conscious, but creatures like ticks are probably not. Some animals seem to do some thinking – not human thinking but still thinking – while others don’t. The jury is out on whether certain creatures have a sense of self. Different interpretations are possible concerning the future-directed thoughts of animals. There’s no such thing as chimpanzee moral philosophy, but there’s enough fairness and reciprocity in their behaviour to give us pause.
Kazez’s point is that sharp lines separating animals and people are hard to find – we have differing abilities and complex similarities. Animal defenders and their opponents see clear boundaries and obvious facts which lead to loud but conflicting conclusions. Kazez sees many shades of grey, all the while guided by a certain notion of respect.
She arrives at it by thinking about the different capacities creatures have. “If capacities are what give value to a life, then to compare animal and human lives, we must compare animal and human capacities.” We have a large number of valuable capacities. We can think about the future and the past, about ourselves and others; we have culture, aesthetic abilities, language – and some animals have some of these capacities too, to varying degrees, and other abilities as well. All of this adds value to animal lives, but human lives are especially valuable in comparison. Animals are somewhere on a sliding scale below us, deserving of consideration depending on their particular abilities. We are not all equal, but animal lives are nevertheless worth something. Human lives, though, are worth more.
Before you ask, she does wonder why we should think that human capacities are more valuable. Why think that having a sense of self trumps a cool set of claws? If I could breathe underwater, I’d never stop talking about it. We can try to curb our arrogance, but “we must make judgements, because real-world choices depend on doing so. The judgement most of us arrive at is that there is something special about our capacities and thus about us….[w]e have to move on with our understanding of the way things are, imperfect though it may be.”
The respect we owe animals depends on a complex view of values. The caveman is right to spear the proto-cow, because his family is owed more respect than his prey. Rescue parties are right to save humans before animals, because people are owed more respect than pets. But when we kill animals for something that is not worth the loss of their valuable lives, we are not treating them with the respect they deserve. No ivory trade, no hunting for fun, no leather, no fur hats, no unnecessary animal testing, and no eating meat just to satisfy a taste for it.
Even this final conclusion about our dietary choices is a complicated one. Eating meat because you like the taste is closer to killing for a pretty pelt than a worthwhile medical experiment. However, and this line really got me, “For most people, being good is a work in progress, never to be completed.” Kazez knows that we struggle to be good, and it’s not an all-or-nothing affair. She tells us a lot about her own efforts, including her inability to give up milk with her cappuccino. Some dietary choices are imperfect but still better than others.
There’s no easy answer on any page of this book. There’s no jargon, symbolic notation, or numbered distinctions – just plain, clear English. You are as likely to hear about recent primate studies as the views of philosophers. It presupposes curiosity and intelligence but no special background. It’s the effort of a philosopher doing honest work in the world.

36 Arguments for the Existence of God

Book review week continues...

Julian Baggini's review of Rebecca Goldstein's new book is here.  I agree with him about all the smarty-pants characters.  So beautiful!  So brilliant!  So...boring!  I'm awfully sorry to say that the book sags badly in the middle--and by the middle I mean about 300 pages.  I did love the first 50 pages though--really loved them!  My next column is about the book, so I won't say more.  By which I mean--next after the current issue (in which I review Avatar).

p.s.  I couldn't disagree more with this explanation why Avatar lost. It lost because it was Disney-like and predictable, despite being utterly gorgeous. 

PETA and Euthanasia

I've got to stop reading Gary Francione.  I'm going to wind up with a permanent frown.  Francione reports that PETA euthanizes 90% of the animals in its shelter.  He draws a couple of conclusions.  First, PETA must be euthanising healthy animals.  He writes, after presenting the statistic--
That is a disgrace. “Euthanasia” is death that is in the interest of the human or nonhuman euthanized. Euthanasia is never in the interests of a healthy being.
Why assume the animals were healthy?  This is what Ingrid Newkirk wrote, after an anti-animal-rights group started a campaign about how PETA kills animals (I discussed the campaign here). 

Second, he surmises that PETA accepts a theory he attributes to Peter Singer. 
PETA apparently shares Peter Singer’s view that a relatively painless death does not constitute a harm for nonhuman animals because, unlike humans, most nonhumans are not self-aware and cannot grasp what it means to “have a life.” In order to have an interest in your continued existence, you must be human. So those 2352 animals that PETA killed weren’t really harmed. They did not care about their lives anyway. Nothing was taken from them when they were killed.
But this isn't even Singer's theory,  His theory is that death harms human beings in more ways than it harms animals, not that  death doesn't harm animals at all.  For a human and an animal, death harms by taking away future satisfactions.  Death merely harms humans in an extra way, by taking away satisfactions they explicitly want.

This difference does have some practical implcations. If you could run a farm where animals are painlessly killed and bred, so that every bit of happiness lost was replaced, Singer thinks that would be different from running a people farm.  The absence of desires about the future makes animals (of most species) replaceable.  But euthanizing animals at a shelter doesn't involve the combination of killing and replacing.  So Singer's "replacement argument" has no relevance.

Frown.

3/11/10

Do you tweet?

As you can see, I've added an "uptweet" gadget to this blog.  That's because Twitter is a really good way to spread stuff around.  I'd particularly like to see my review of Smith spread around.  Here's a little url for it:  http://bit.ly/aMOhjU

I rather like the strange compressed language of Twitter--just for fun I fake Twittered my column at The Philosopher's Magazine not long ago.  But so far I'm not a Twitterer.  I have a Twitter account (JeanKazez), but use it just to follow people like Nicholas Kristof, Sam Harris, Peter Singer, and so on. Then again, that might be what everyone says at first.  Tweet, tweet.

3/10/10

A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy

The title of this book comes from something Ingrid Newkirk once said.  Longer version:  "When it comes to having a central nervous system, and the ability to feel pain, hunger, and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy."  Opponents of animal rights like to quote the short version.

Anyway, I got interested in this book because my new book challenges egalitarianism, and yet advocates for animals.  How, I wondered, would Wesley Smith get from "not equal" to a scathing attack on the animal rights movement? Even if a pig is not a boy, aren't we doing terrible things to pigs, and aren't animal organizations entirely right to work for change?

Let's start with a false dichotomy

In chapter 1, Smith starts by distinguishing between "animal welfare" and "animal rights". The animal welfare approach says pretty much any use of animals is legitimate, and only concerns itself with "how". Want a pair of alligator shoes? Fine, just be nice to the alligator. The animal rights view sees animals as inviolable. No alligator shoes allowed.

I think the welfare/rights dichotomy is simplistic and unfortunate. Suppose you think we should only use animals for our benefit when it is necessary. In essence, you're against gratuitously harming animals. That will mean no alligator shoes. So you'd be more radical than the animal welfarist. But you wouldn't have to go further and believe in animal rights. You might think some animal research is OK, since it's in some robust sense necessary, unlike alligator shoes.

What could justify seeing animals as usable, but only when necessary? After all, that's not how we see human beings. That's what my new book is about. But my book is not the only one that occupies the middle ground between "welfare" and "rights." By my lights, most of the interesting work in animal ethics today occupies that middle ground.

Oh come on, do I have to read Animal Liberation?

But recognizing moderates wouldn’t serve Smith’s purposes. In Chapter 2, he grudgingly admits that Peter Singer actually is a moderate: he's not just a welfare advocate, and not in favor of animal rights. But he’s quick to say that Singer's influence is on the wane.
Despite Singer’s guru-like status among most animal rights afficionados, the movement’s uncompromisingly radical spirit has passed him by, to the point that he is now viewed by some prominent liberationists as something of a conservative and even, of all things, a speciesist. (p. 24)
He gets this view of Singer from "abolitionist" Gary Francione, whom he warmly thanks in the acknowledgments. Not that Smith really respects Francione’s ideas. He thinks he’s a loon. But it serves his purposes to make it seem as if Francione is the brains of the animal movement.

3/9/10

Eating People

This is book review week, apparently. I recently read Animals, a novel by Don LePan about a future world where animals have gone extinct, and a growing subclass of mentally impaired humans serve as (a) pets and (b) meat. 

LePan's future humans are doubly prejudiced.  Their prejudices about mental disabilities convince them that the impaired are not human.  Then speciesism takes over.  "Not human" means "morally unimportant" in their minds.

The novel makes us see what a terrible thing it is to be prejudiced, and how that attitude can blind us to important truths.  Bravo.

[Pause for emphasis.  Really, bravo!]
The thing is, LePan invites us to go further--to see a moral equivalence.  The kids are kept in filthy pens, fattened up, castrated, tagged, etc.  We are to think "That's just what we do to animals!"

Is it the same? LePan's human livestock are impaired children, so presumably no more knowing than cattle. Yet he focuses on a boy who's been miscategorized.  He's just deaf, not mentally impaired. So he is aware of what's going on and suffers accordingly.  There's no way to equate the boy's plight with a farm animal's.

Most of the "childstock" in Animals don't understand what they're going through.  So there's a stronger case to be made for an exact equation.  Certainly lots of ethicists think so--the argument from "marginal cases" is ubiquitous in the animal ethics literature.  The novel is that argument in fictional form, with lots of "essaying" interspersed with a brief story. 

Myself, I'm not wild about the idea that animals and impaired children are morally interchangeable. In LePan's novel,  children can wind up being eaten by their own parents.  Surely that relationship matters.  If there's one duty we can all agree on, it's the duty not to eat your children!

To think animals and impaired children are morally interchangeable, you'd have to think it was morally irrelevant that impaired humans are "the weak among us"--not only children, but particularly helpless children.  Note: we have extra solicitude not just for impaired humans but for impaired animals.  Think about all those stories about beached whales being helped by humans that turn up in the newspaper periodically.

When we think "how terrible!" about the treatment of the childstock in Animals, there are lots (and lots) of factors that enter into that assessment.  (I explore all of this at length in my new book--see chapters 5 and 6). It's not inevitable that we must think exactly the same thing about eating childstock and eating livestock.

Animals is compulsively readable, but truly sickening (perhaps the author will take both descriptions as compliments).  After reading it, I decided to go on a people-eating diet.  No, I'm not cutting back on eating people, but cutting back on people-eating books and movies.

In the last year, I've read/seen an awful lot: The superb and amazingly creepy novel Under the Skin, by Michel Faber.  Cormac McCarthy's The Road.  The movie War of the Worlds.  In the end, nothing's really going to make us equate eating animals and eating people.  Cora Diamond makes that point very effectively in her memorable essay "Eating Meat and Eating People."  If you're going to get into this territory, I'd start with that.

Against Animal Rights

Coming soon:  my review of the new book A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy, by Wesley J. Smith. The title comes from something Ingrid Newkirk once said.  Longer version:  "When it comes to having a central nervous system, and the ability to feel pain, hunger, and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy."  Opponents of animal rights like to quote the short version.

Anyway, I was interested in the book (and asked the publisher for a copy) because my book challenges egalitarianism, and yet advocates for animals.  I wondered how Smith would get from "not equal" to his diatribe against the animal rights movement.  Can't we see ourselves as different but also recognize the wrongs we do to animals?

The book turns out to be interesting on another level.  Before requesting the book, I saw that Smith was affiliated with "The Discovery Institute."  From the bland website, this looked like some plain vanilla conservative organization.  I googled again last night and realized he's affiliated with the Discovery Institute-- the Seattle organization that promotes the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. 

That sheds light on Smith's main theme:  human exceptionalism.  He sees animal rights advocates as dangerously threatening the supremacy of the human species.  We're yielding our pedestal to the rats, pigs, and dogs of his title.

Must religion really lead us down this road?  Just to make things interesting, I'm simultaneously reading Why Animal Suffering Matters, by Andrew Linzey, the Oxford theologian.  Animal suffering does matter, he says, but not because there are no important differences between humans and animals.

Even conservativism doesn't have to lead us down this road.  Matthew Scully, the speech writer for George and Sarah, wrote Dominion, one of the finest books on animals there is.  In National Review, he writes this about Smith's appeal to human exceptionalism:

The great challenge hanging over the book is how to square the abuse of animals -- if not the worst of sins then surely among the lowest -- with Smith's grandiose talk of "human exceptionalism." It makes a mighty fancy defense for cheap meat, fine furs, and the like, and in practice seems to mean that instead of making informed moral choices we can just keep granting ourselves exceptions. "Human exceptionalism" is offered to us as some sort of all-purpose absolution for every human excess or iniquity at the expense of animals.
More on the book soon.

3/8/10

David Benatar, Interviewed

This interview with David Benatar is awfully interesting, for several reasons.  Let me count the ways--

First, the interviewer (Redi Direko) takes many sentences of her introduction from my unpublished review of Benatar's book without attribution.   Odd fact:  that review is the most popular item on this blog--see WRITING in the right column (yes, I can tell what's popular). It's at the top of the list if you do a google search on "David Benatar".

Update (I'm still listening): I'm simply amazed by the way the interviewer keeps reading from my review, without attribution, half-way through the interview. 

Second, I've never heard Benatar talk, and he's surprisingly sunny.  I suppose I expected a more dark and dour tone from someone who believes it's a mistake to create new people.

Third, the interview is directly relevant to the posts about procreative ethics I've been writing here lately.  Benatar's book raises lots of interesting questions about creating people, but also raises a meta-level question about what views we must contend with.  Must we take the time to logically dissect any wild idea anyone comes up with, no matter how strongly we recoil?  I discussed that meta-question back at Talking Philosophy.

The Cove

Hurray, The Cove won the Oscar for best documentary!  

3/7/10

More Procreative Ethics

I just saw Gattaca last night.  Three thumbs up!  (Gotta see the movie to get the joke.)  I can't imagine a better movie for starting a discussion about procreative ethics.

In an earlier post I was talking about Kavka's example of the couple that creates a slave child for a very bad man.  The child winds up with a life that's worth living, and he wouldn't have existed if he hadn't been created at that time, and under those conditions.  So where's the harm? That, in a nutshell, is the puzzle.

Two major possibilities (but there are others):

(1)  To condemn creating the child, we must point to harm. If  there really is no harm, to the child or to others, then we should withdraw the condemnation.  People who see it that way say we must only condemn creating new people for "person affecting reasons."

(2)  "Harm or no harm" is not the critical question.  Rather, we should ask whether by creating the child the couple maximized the good.  If there was something else they could have done which would have created more good, then they should be condemned.  This is the approach of "total utilitarians."

If those are our only two options, I lean toward total utilitarianism.  It seems very odd to think the only critical question, where the child is concerned, is whether (in essence) he could complain about his birth. It doesn't seem to me that the people we create merely ought to be not better off dead.  Creating people is a very big deal.  New people have to live with themselves, and we have to make way for them, responding to their interests, rights (etc.).  Let us be careful when we exercise the almost magical ability to create new people.

But how careful?  What does "careful" mean?  The total utilitarian approach is odd too--leaving aside all the usual objections to utilitarianism.  There are lots of things to worry about, but one is that the total utilitarian seems to have to not only condemn the couple for creating the slave child, but enjoin them to create a different child, a happier child.  What we really want to say is that the couple shouldn't create the slave child, full stop.  What they do next is their business!

What's so terrible about saying they should create a different child?  Well, we have a very deep-seated belief, in societies where women's equality has been hard fought and largely won, that it's up to a woman whether she has children.  Of course, accepting total utilitarianism doesn't mean supporting any sort of coercion.  But it does seem to lead to the view that it's good to have (happy) children. 

For many ethicists, that's the fatal flaw of total utilitarianism.  We must shift to the person affecting view, or some other view, rather than accept that happy children are total-good-increasing entities.  It's that crazy to say that anyone ought to have children, just because of the goodness thereby created.

But shifting to the person affecting view doesn't really help, or not all that much.  On that view, it might sometimes be obligatory to have children to bring about benefits to others. If "only children" were really miserable, it would be good to create second children.  Some women would be enjoined to have children because the new generation is too small to take good care of the old (think about the problems created by Europe's shrinking population). If it's unappealing to think anyone has any obligation to have children, it's unappealing whether they're asked to do it "for the sake of the child" or for others.

is it really so obnoxious to say that it's good to have children? There are a couple of mitigating considerations:

(A)  Whether a new kid really will add to total goodness depends on the time, the place, the circumstances, the woman, etc. etc.  I think it's very unclear that a woman living in an affluent country today, and bound to have a child with a large ecological footprint, is racheting up total good by having a child.  Maybe just the opposite.  So saying that it's good to have children doesn't translate into child-making duties for everyone living right now.

(B) Some people who don't want children wouldn't be good parents; their children wouldn't be so very happy; and by being parents they would lose opportunities to do good in other ways.  Those people would not have an obligation to have children.

(C) Utilitarianism is generally a "demanding" moral theory. It tells us we must do all sorts of things that are very hard for us to do.  Inevitably, we will not completely discharge our obligation to maximize total good. If I don't want to have a child, but should (on utilitarian grounds), this is one of the most arduous obligations I have.  It helps me digest the idea that there's some obligation to have kids when I think of it as a "hard" obligation, the sort (like give enormous amounts to the poor) that understandably won't always be fulfilled.

Picture the world 15,000 years ago, when humans were sparsely distributed over the face of the planet.  Your tribe is dwindling.  The youngest kids are surly teenagers.  You can picture the forests devoid of human laughter and conversation  (Disney images are coming to your mind, 15,000 years before Disney).  If things continue this way, there will be fewer and fewer people.  Wouldn't you be making the world a better place if you created a new human being?

If there's a problem with total utilitarianism (and there may be!), I don't think it's simply that the view means that some people, at some times, in some places, ought to have more children.  That's not actually a ridiculous thing to think.

Vegan-Bashing

More vegan-bashing from Gary Francione here.

I really hope people who read Francione don't take his word for it when he attributes positions to Peter Singer.  For example, in paragraph 5 he says Singer maintains that being a "conscientious omnivore" is a "defensible ethical position." But when you follow the link, you read this passage from an article in the Guardian, written by Patrick Barkham--
Is Singer arguing that, ultimately, veganism is the only ethically defensible position? [Singer said:] "I wouldn't phrase it in such absolute terms. It's pretty difficult to be a conscientious omnivore and avoid all the ethical problems, but if you really were thorough-going in eating only animals that had had good lives, that could be a defensible ethical position. It's not my position, but I wouldn't be critical of someone who was that conscientious about it."
Francione forgot to include the phrase "It's not my position."  If you read Singer's writing about humane meat, it's very clear what he thinks.  It's better than regular meat, but no meat is best.  See his excellent book The Ethics of What We Eat.

Francione says Singer is a "'flexible' vegan who will be non-vegan when it is convenient."  That makes you think Singer eats hamburgers in airports, or something.  But no. Follow the link (to a very interesting interview in Satya) and you'll find out what it means.  His example is that he will eat dishes containing ghee at Indian restaurants. 

Francione says Singer maintains "that we may have a moral obligation not to be vegan in situations in which others will be annoyed or disconcerted by insistence on veganism."  What, he thinks vegans should eat hamburgers at family barbecues? No, no, no.  Follow the link (that Satya interview, again), and it turns out Singer was talking about something very specific.
I think animal people should think more about the impression they’re making on others because my ethics are based on the consequence of what you do. I think it’s more important to try and produce a change in the right direction than to be personally pure yourself. So when you’re eating with someone at a restaurant, and you ordered something vegan but when it comes there’s a bit of grated cheese or something on it, sometimes vegans will make a big fuss and send it back and that might mean the food is wasted. And if you’re in company with people who are not vegan or not even vegetarian, I think that’s probably the wrong thing to do. It’d be better off just to eat it because people are going to think, ‘Oh my god, these vegans…’
Francione is right that Singer thinks killing animals doesn't have the same moral import as killing (normal) humans. In my new book I make the same objection Francione does. But that doesn't mean I find Singer's view scurrilous.  The whole issue of killing is very, very difficult if you delve into it with any philosophical sophistication (for evidence of the complexity, see Jeff McMahan's extremely intricate book The Ethics of Killing).  Smart, well-informed people who care about animals simply will not reach all the same conclusions.

Then we get Francione's summary of the abolitionist approach, and his commitment to the idea that animals are persons.  He wants us to see that an abolitionist vegan has to be a 100% pure, full-time vegan.  But really, I don't see why.  Being a very pure vegan has consequences and opportunity costs.  On any moral theory, that has to matter. Surely what does no good at all for animals, or even alienates people from animal causes, cannot be morally required, no matter how you look at animal ethics.

Related:  Meet the Vegetarians

3/6/10

Animals and Human Ethics

You'd expect that by thinking about a philosophical problem for a long time, things would become clearer...and clearer...and clearer...until the problem was resolved.  But for the most part, to really appreciate a philosophical problem is to find it puzzling, maybe even forever.  Far from being pleasingly concrete and easily resolved, "the problem of animals" is really vexing.

Here's something that puzzles me a lot.  It's fundamental, from many moral perspectives, that each individual counts, and in some sense counts equally. Utilitarians say each counts for one, and none for more than one.  That's not to say that every individual warrants the same treatment, but the interests of one individual warrant the same consideration as the like interests of any other individual, regardless of race, sex, etc.  From a Kantian perspective, each person is as inviolable as the next. None are to be used merely as a means. 

Suppose you think that animals "count" morally.  So we can't simply exploit them to benefit ourselves.  There are limits on what we can do to them, though the nature of the limits depend on which moral perspective you generally find more plausible. OK...so far so good.

But now let's go out in the wild.  What happens when we try to apply this individualistic and egalitarian thinking to animals who have a completely different way of life than we do? Take, for example, wolves.  A wolf pack is not an equal opportunity affair. The alpha male has all the fun with the ladies.  Lower status males surely suffer much frustration. 

Suppose I am a utilitarian, and I want to maximize total good. Granted, I'm not actually going to get out in the woods and try to alter wolf behavior--there are much more pressing problems in the world.  But I can't even conceive of what the greater good is, when it comes to wolves.  Is it better if every male wolf satisfies his individual interest in copulating and reproducing? Or is it better if the whole pack functions "as nature intended"?

Can it really be that "good" and "bad" out there in the wilderness beyond us is just as we've come to think of it, as a result of thousands of years of living in a human society, time spent coming to grips with what a good life is for us, given our nature?   That simply sounds absurd.

Push comes to shove at the interface between ourselves and animals. We're not going to go into wolf country and demand equal rights for bachelor wolves, but we have to decide whether it's right or wrong to hunt wolves.  There's a huge controversy about the question in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, where wolves that were restored to the area in the 1990s are now public enemy #1.  Basically, the problem is that they're challenging human hegemony, killing prey that some humans see as theirs (livestock and elk).

To hunt or not to hunt?  To answer the question, we have to confront this most basic of questions:  does each and every wolf count, as an individual?

National Geographic has a good article about wolves this month.

3/5/10

Meet the Vegetarians

One of the attitudes of abolitionists I find most absurd is their country club view of other vegans and vegetarians.  "Not good enough" is the constant rallying cry.  Gary Francione recently pronounced that "vegetarianism is not morally preferable to being an omnivore." He also routinely excoriates "not good enough" vegans like Peter Singer, the folks at Vegan Outreach, and vegan.com writer Erik Marcus.  He keeps his club very exclusive indeed.

Thinking about this makes me feel like an evolutionary biologist devoting time to attacking creationism, but the fact is, Francione has a band of  followers who uncritically repeat absolutely anything he says (for example, all of his arguments are repeated here).  So, because of the influence, not the merits, let's give this a look.

First of all, what is a vegetarian?  I've been surprised to find that some animal advocates don't know (or pretend not to know). For example, here's a definition at the Friends of Animals website (they're not in league with Francione, as this interview makes clear)--
Millions of North Americans identify themselves as vegetarian or vegan. A vegetarian is someone who enjoys a plant-based diet. A vegan is a vegetarian — one who avoids eating the flesh of any living animals and other products taken from other animals (milk, eggs, cheese, honey and so forth) — and also embraces a lifestyle of respect for all sentient beings. That respect factors into clothing decisions and selections of “cruelty-free” cleaners and toiletries, and so forth. Thus, while “vegetarian” may describe a diet, “vegan” embodies a lifestyle — an ethical commitment to live, as far as possible, in harmony with the planet and all its inhabitants. (italics mine)
So--vegetarianism is only a diet, and not driven by respect for animals. Maybe that's what Francione also believes (or pretends to), but he goes further by making some peculiar assumptions about a vegetarian diet. He thinks vegetarians take meat out of their diets and replace it with eggs and milk.  So--where an omnivore has a hamburger, a vegetarian will have an egg-burger. Or something. (See here for more on that sort of diet and whether it benefits animals--it actually does, somewhat.)

This is an extremely tendentious definition of vegetarianism. It's designed to make vegetarians look like the ugly stepsisters of Cinderella, the animal-respecting vegan.  To which I just have to say: meet the vegetarians.

"Kate" was a student in my animal rights class recently.  She is passionately committed to animal causes and plans to focus on animal law when she goes to law school.  She eliminates most animal products from her diet, but not yet all of them, so calls herself a vegetarian, not a vegan. She wears non-leather shoes and apparel and has been involved in animal causes in her community.

"Ned" is a philosophy professor who teaches an animal rights class and writes influential articles on animal ethics.  His diet is nearly vegan, but not completely, so he calls himself "vegetarian." He eats fish, because he believes they feel no pain. He eats honey, because he believes bees are non-sentient.  He's an accommodating husband and father, so compromises a little to have a harmonious family life. He wears no leather and avoids other animal products.

Kate and Ned are typical of the many vegetarians I have known.  They are ethically driven.  They put their ethical convictions into practice in many areas of their lives, not just with regard to diet.  They are well informed--not at all ignorant of the ethical problems with milk and eggs.  They are close to vegan, but not total vegans, partly out of conviction (Ned doesn't think there's a moral problem with eating fish or honey), but also for many other personal and practical reasons.

Now, Francione is entitled to be bothered that people don't change more quickly.  He's entitled to be frustrated that many animal advocates aren't persuaded by a rights perspective that sees animals as persons (Kate and Ned both find Peter Singer much more convincing than rights authors).   True, Kate and Ned aren't thinking and doing everything that he would want.  So by all means, they shouldn't be allowed into the abolitionist country club.

What you can't say is that being a vegetarian is morally equivalent to being an omnivore.   If you think animals matter, then you'll assess that statement in terms of how much killing and suffering vegetarians like Kate and Ned prevent, compared to omnivores.  You might even add up the rights-violations, if that's how you think about these things. Clearly, they're doing much much better than the typical omnivore. 

And don't tell me Kate and Ned are rare.  I have met lots of vegetarians in the course of teaching an animal rights class for nearly 10 years, and I haven't encountered these ugly stepsister vegetarians--the ones who gorge on eggs and cheese, don't know a thing about the dairy and egg industry, and aren't generally concerned about the treatment of animals.  Among people who care about animals, there are lots and lots of Kates and Neds.

Maybe these folks just think by misrepresenting and denigrating people like Kate and Ned, they'll turn them into 100% vegans.  If that's it, they might want to give a little more thought to the recipe they're following.  I don't think you can make vegans by chopping up vegetarians.