5/31/10

No Paradoxes for the Gods?

In some of my favorite places, people have been insisting the paradox of the preface is no real paradox (more here), which gets me thinking: what is a real paradox?  I like RM Sainsbury's definition--there's a paradox when apparently true premises lead by way of apparently impeccable reasoning to an apparently unacceptable conclusion--usually, an apparent contradiction.  That's a lot of "apparentlies".  Identifying paradoxes is partly a matter of human psychology--of how things seem to people. Not, maybe, to everyone (that would turn everyday fallacies into paradoxes), but at least to people well-versed in logic, epistemology, and so on.

Once you identify a paradox, the next job is to solve it.  Which means:  to show why some of those appearances are deceptive.  The premises aren't really true, or the reasoning isn't really impeccable, or the conclusion isn't really contradictory or unacceptable.  Of course, an omniscient being wouldn't first be tricked and then discover the trick.  To God there are no paradoxes.  Right?  Well...roughly. (If there are counterexamples, it's going to be very, very tricky to say how and why.)

Sainsbury has an especially simple and economical way of explaining the paradox of the preface--
Recognizing his own fallibility, the author writes in the preface, with all sincerity, "Though I believe everything I've written, no doubt this book contains mistakes (for which I apologize." He believes each of the statements in the book, yet also believes that at least one of them is false, which is close to believing a contradiction; yet his position seems both modest and rational. The paradox stems from the fact that it cannot be rational to believe a contradiction. (from the Oxford Companion to Philosophy)
Initial appearance: the author rationally believes a contradiction.  But it can't be rational to believe a contradiction.  The solver has to dispel the appearance.

What really sustains a paradox is people working on it and offering conflicting solutions.  It's when you realize there are ten different views on what's wrong with the reasoning in the paradox of the preface that you really start to feel like you're in the presence of a paradox.  All alone in your head, convinced of your own favorite solution, it may seem like there's nothing puzzling here at all.

Which makes me think there's something singularly human about paradox.  For a solitary god who can't be fooled by appearances, and who has no one to argue with, there aren't any paradoxes. Or at least (I'm thinking of the liar's paradox and a few others) there are very few.

5/30/10

Got a Philosophy Question? There's an App for That

Ask Phil, the app version of the Ask Philosophers website, is now available at the itunes store. The Boston Globe's review mentions a tussle Oliver Leaman and I had over the question "Is it OK to kill ants for fun?"  Our replies are here.

5/28/10

Being Certain, Getting Along

Andrew Pessin has an essay at the Huffington Post that seems to have earned the Dumbest Thing on Earth Award from my friends in the atheosphere.  They seem to think he's a disgrace to the philosophy profession. (You can get a taste of the outcry here, especially in the comments.  See also here and here and here.)

Let's have a look (because it's a Friday afternoon and nobody invited me to Happy Hour).  Pessin writes that he's had an epiphany, to the effect that the Paradox of the Preface is the solution to all the world's problems.  Here's how he explains the paradox (which is nicely explained and discussed here)--
Imagine an author writing something like this as a preface to her work:

I am certain, of each and every sentence in this work, that it is true, on the basis of various considerations including the careful arguments and use of evidence which led me to it. And yet I recognize that I am a fallible human being, likely to have made some error(s) in the course of this long work. Thus I am also quite certain that I have made some such error somewhere, even if I cannot say where.

Such a refreshingly honest preface! So what is the paradox?

Well, there is the implicit, apparent contradiction. To believe of each and every sentence that it is true is to believe, in effect, that not one of the sentences is false; but to believe that there is at least one error in the work is to believe that at least one of the sentences is false, and thus to contradict the first belief.
Some people seem to think this will all get cleared up by talking about degrees of belief.  Maybe this is what they're thinking: if you believed each sentence in your book was just probably true, it would make sense that you would attach an even lower probability to the conjunction of them all.  Likewise, If you think there's a 97% chance of each of a million things happening, you won't think there's as high a chance of them all happening.

But it seems like this isn't what's going on.  Your certainty in the totality of your book doesn't drop off in the orderly way that probability theory would suggest.  It drops off because of evidence you have that you're fallible, that other smart people have different views, etc.  All that doesn't come into play when you look at the sentences one at a time (you just ponder the evidence supporting each one), but does come into play with respect to the total.

Where do you--you the author--go wrong (as you must, if you have inconsistent beliefs)?  It's not Pessin's goal to figure it out (there are lots of different views on this).  Rather, he thinks there's a moral to the story.   Believers in different religions (and atheism, and other things) would be well-advised to have the attitude of "humble absolutism" that characterizes the author writing a preface, even if that attitude is contradictory.  Believers should both believe they're most definitely right, and believe they could be wrong. If they would do so, world peace would be just around the corner.

Of course, he's not going to object if someone wants to go further and not be an absolutist at all. He's just offering some advice to the very certain. He's saying something lie this: "Go ahead and be very certain--like the book author is of each sentence in his book; but also recognize your fallibility, like the book author does when he thinks of the book as a whole."

How strong can your convictions be, when you are aware of your fallibility and the differing views of people no less smart than you?  Pessin seems to say "very strong."  I say "very interesting question."  FYI--I'll be discussing this in the next issue of The Philosopher's Magazine.

UPDATE:  Brandon has a very illuminating post on the paradox of the preface, with lots of great links.

5/27/10

Should We Aim for Extinction?

Sketch for a novel I will probably never write:  humankind becomes convinced of the argument in David Benatar's book Better Never to Have Been. At first only the intelligentsia come to believe in  ZP (zero population), as they call it.  (ZPG--zero population growth--is seen as old-fashioned.)  Only the "lower classes" go on having children, until the high and mighty manage to simplify and disseminate the message that existence is a harm.  Populations dwindle, children become more rare.  Then, with practically every woman alive over child-bearing age,  a very simple problem is found with Benatar's argument.  Is there time for procreation to start up again?  I think this will be very exciting, and I do want Sigourney Weaver to star in the movie version.  Let's have her be the one who discovers the error and  attempts to get pregnant at an advanced age

The book/movie will be exciting and thought-provoking. How much should we trust those brainy ethicists whose arguments normal people can barely understand? How much should we trust our gut feelings?  That's the "meta" question Benatar's book raises for me.

But what about "the error" Signourney will discover?  More work needed... But here's what I'm thinking about. The pivotal claim in Benatar's argument has to do with an asymmetry.  Absent pain is good, even if no one's experiencing the absence.  Absent pleasure isn't bad; it would take someone missing it for it to be bad.  (I summarize the rest of the argument here.)  You can test out your intuitions about this by thinking about an empty place, say Mars, or an empty island.  It will be prejudicial if you imagine dangerously high populations nearby, so don't make the island right off Mumbai, and you may want to picture Mars in a lonelier universe than ours.

Anyhow, Benatar points out that nobody mourns the absent pleasure on Mars.  Right. But nobody feels glad about the absent pain, either.  As he notes, "most people do not even think about the absent lives on Mars." (p. 35)  But let's force ourselves to contemplate these two absences.  At the dinner table a few nights ago,  I said, "assign a number (positive, negative, or 0) to the absent pleasure and the absent pain on Mars."  They said "Oh God, do we have to?"  Then one person (over the age of 13) gave a zero both to the absent pleasure and the absent pain.  Two (both age 13) gave -3 to absent pleasure and +3 to absent pain. There was no asymmetry intuition.  (I'll have a bigger sample in the fall, when I teach Benatar's argument. I wonder if any X-phi folks have studied this.)

The more I think about it, the more I think zero has to be the right number for the absent pain on Mars--a positive number won't do.  This is clear when you consider that it's impossible to pick a number.  Are all pains absent from Mars?  Or all possible pains absent?  Mars is certainly better than Earth, painwise, but that's fully represented by giving Earth a large negative number for pain and Mars a zero for pain's absence.  From my informants' standpoint, it's also OK to say (symetrically) that Earth is better than Mars, pleasurewise. There the score is a large positive number to zero.

If no asymmetry, then no call for extinction.  This is what Sigourney is going to argue, at the 11th hour.

5/26/10

From Humane to More Humane?

Tzachi Zamir argues (see my interview with him and this discussion of his article "Veganism") that the best future for chickens and cows is one in which we keep using them for eggs and milk, but we don't kill them prematurely or subject them to unnecessary painful procedures. That vegetarian utopia is better than a vegan utopia with no (or hardly any) chickens and cows. He thinks we ought to do what we can to bring about that future by supporting the more humane eggs and milk that are available in stores today. By selectively supporting more humane products, we will stimulate development of even more humane products, and we will gradually come closer and closer to the vegetarian utopia.

I'd sure like all this to be true, but is it? Is there a trajectory from more humane, to even more, to really humane? Technologically, it's possible (see "Milk without Killing," here) to have a mostly female herd of cows or flock of birds, but there's also economics and human preferences to consider. Can I really tell myself that buying free range eggs and relatively humane milk constitute a push in the direction of a vegetarian utopia?

5/25/10

Nauseating or Godly?

This "kumbaya" editorial from the Dalai Lama surprises me, and nauseates Sam Harris--

Nicholas Kristof, on the other hand, thinks the DL may be a living god (unless "mebbe" is weaker than "may be":

(Twitter sure is fun.)

I'm more impressed with the thinking of Buddhist sage Thich Nhat Hahn on inter-faith dialog.  In Living Buddha, Living Christ (good book!) he says when there's real dialog, each side is open to the possibility that the other is right.  The Christian and Buddhist (as it might be) aren't closed to changing their minds or determined to think they're both really saying the same thing.

5/24/10

Veganism vs. Vegetarianism: An Interview with Tzachi Zamir

Veganism vs. vegetarianism is a frequent topic on this blog.  For the most part, I frame the issue this way: if veganism is ethically better, is it nevertheless still excusable just to be a vegetarian? I love to discover a whole new way of thinking about things, so I was excited to read Tzachi Zamir’s article Veganism recently (thank you, Taylor).  Zamir rejects the idea of vegetarians as low-achievers, and argues for the counterintuitive position that vegetarianism is actually the ethically preferable diet.  I discussed the main ideas in the article here, but  had lots of questions about details.  So here we go, this blog’s first interview.

Tzachi Zamir is chair of the English Department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and author of Ethics and the Beast: A Speciesist Defense of Animal Liberation and Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama, both from Princeton University Press.

My earlier post stuck to the main lines of your argument, which I’ll get to, but one of the things I really like about the article (which became chapter 6 of your book Ethics and the Beast), is the detailed discussion of very concrete questions in veterinary ethics.  (In the book’s introduction you say your wife is a veterinarian.)  I wanted to ask you about some of those issues.

I was intrigued by your suggestion that invasive procedures should be judged based on whether they (a) benefit the animal or (b) enable the owner-pet relationship (without altering “what the animal is”).   An example of the latter you give is declawing a cat when an owner is on the verge of giving up the cat to save his sofa.  Declawing isn’t so profound a change as to alter what the animal is, so in those dire cases, you think it’s OK.  You say “muting a dog” couldn’t be defended in the same way.  Can you explain?

Before I respond to your question, I need to contextualize my answer in relation to the larger stakes in this particular discussion. Small animal veterinary medicine presupposes a paternal framework that is surely questionable. Anti-pet arguments issued from the standpoint of animal-welfare would oppose the very framing of a human-animal relationship in such terms, and would object to any acts that rely upon such paternalism. Keeping pets would accordingly be morally rejected. For reasons presented in my paper (and book), such a conceptually pure position isn't beneficial to pets or to humans. Responsible and loving pet-keeping can exemplify a form of non-exploitative relationship between humans and animals. You did not ask about this prior move, so I shall not expound on it.

We are accordingly assuming that some forms of paternalism in relation to pets is morally permissible, meaning that it's  legitimate for us to act in ways that they themselves would not pursue and even resist (vaccinating them is an example of such an act). In terms of veterinary ethics, the morally easy cases are the ones that either straightforwardly benefit the animal, even if the animal does not experience them as desirable (say, operating on a dog hit by a car), or actions that irresponsible owners ask to be performed, but are obviously detrimental to the animal (an owner asking to euthanize recently born puppies of his un-spayed dog). Veterinarians should find both such cases easy to deal with, complying with the former and not with the latter.

The morally problematic cases fall in the middle. These are cases in which a) the animal does not benefit from the procedure, b) the animal is either discomforted, maimed, or loses permanently one of its capacities c) the owner insists on having the procedure.

Such procedures fall into two groups. First we have procedures that involve short-term pain, and from which the animal recuperates (tail-docking, ear trimming, declawing-- actions for which circumcision is a reasonable human analogue). The second group involves procedures that permanently eliminate one of the animal's capacities (wing-trimming, spaying, neutering, removal of vocal chords). The distinction between these kinds of actions does not map onto what may or may not be done to an animal. Some of the requests for short-term painful actions are immoral. Cosmetic operations (tail docking, ear trimming), are not to be performed, because by cooperating with such requests, the veterinarian is not just acting in a non-beneficial way to the specific animal, but is actually supporting a practice (cosmetic modification) that should be abolished. On the other hand, spaying and neutering (for reasons elaborated below, should be performed). A person asking to remove the vocal chords of a dog is permanently destroying that animal's capacity to communicate. Such acts should not be done. Obviously, we can only speculate how the loss of this capacity is experienced by the dog, but my own sense is that maiming an animal in this way should never be performed, and that such owners should be discouraged from taking in animals in the first place.

Yet I also realize that such remarks are the privileges of a philosopher, who can simply prescribe what is right and what is wrong. Life is harder for the conscientious veterinarian, who isn't operating in a perfect world, and confronts tacit ultimatums, in which a problematic procedure is either performed, or the animals is abandoned and is likely to die. It is in this context that the suggestion above regarding declawing was made. People who care that much about their sofas should be discouraged from taking in cats. Sometimes responsible owners ask for this procedure, because recently born toddlers risk themselves when playing with the older house cat. Declawing is a painful procedure (the nail is removed including the topmost digit from which it issues), requiring a recovery period of several days. Yet unlike the loss of a voice or procreative capacities (which I will discuss below), I do not see an indication for a substantial loss in terms of the animal's own experience. Once the alternative for the cat is to be abandoned, it is overall better for the cat to be declawed. Here, then, is one of those uncomfortable points in which the anti-pet purist has an easier time: no pets means no spaying, neutering, declawing (outlawed in some places), and no seemingly self-serving attempts to justify such acts.

You say that (b) type reasoning is “foreign to human-human morality,” but the day I read your article, a friend of mine said she’d started medicating her daughter for ADHD because “we couldn’t take it any more” (there weren’t school issues, as far as I know).    Not that she was going to give the girl up, of course, but the relationship was suffering.   Does that seem beyond the pale to you, or justifiable in the same way as declawing

As you say, there was no question of turning out her daughter. The disanalogy between this example and my point relating to procedures that preserve the relationship as such, is that unlike pediatricians, veterinarians are constantly aware that owners may abandon their animals and that it is accordingly often beneficial for these animals to be subjected to otherwise objectionable procedures. This, I tried to say, should not serve as a carte blanche that is meant to sanction any cruelty. The veterinarian is morally required to factor in the kind of damage done, its duration, and its long-term modification of the animal's experience as far as we are able to imagine it (the strength of Nagel's skepticism and the fear of anthropomorphic projection are overrated). Like any issue in practical ethics, the veterinarian is also urged to consider alternatives and to suggest them to the owner, including finding another home for the animal. 
Let’s talk about spaying and neutering.   You say that “no evidence suggests that the pet conceives of its postoperative state as a loss.”  Perhaps you’re familiar with Tolstoy’s story “Strider, the Story of a Horse,” and/or Paul Auster’s novel Timbuktu.   In Tolstoy’s story, a male horse loses “zest” after sterilization, and in the novel, a male dog is similarly “diminished”.  They don’t cognitively reflect upon their state, but they feel the difference.  Physiologically, it seems plausible that diminished testosterone makes an animal feel quite different.  In fact, neutering may even “change what an animal is.”  No?

Spaying and neutering certainly change what an animal is. From an entity that can procreate and fulfill its sexual and biological instincts, it turns into something else. This is another point at which the anti-pet position comes out consistent and strong, whereas pet owners seem to be rationalizing. In fact, most of what you will morally accept regarding pets is likely to follow from the position you take on the question of spaying and neutering. Clearly, without such procedures, pet-keeping will become impossible. Those who imagine that they can keep fertile cats and dogs should understand that non-paternal ownership of such animals requires not merely avoiding the procedures that take away these capacities, but enabling the animals to actually act on their instincts. The implication is that one will be yearly responsible for a litter of cats or puppies as well as their welfare. Such cannot be practiced on a large scale, and it is doubtful whether it can be responsibly conducted on a very small scale.

Pet-owner relationships require that the animals will be unable to exercise these instincts. In "return" (though, again, this is not really a system of exchange since they  are not asked), pets "receive" longer lives, are cared for when they are sick, enjoy better diets and are often dearly loved and seem to respond deeply to the humans that care for them. They pay a substantial price to enter this relationship with humans. Yet given the beneficial outcome, I do not think that the relationship is exploitative.

It is perfectly consistent to claim that given such loss, the pet-owner relationship is exploitative and should not be supported. Yet if that's so, millions of cats and dogs as well as millions of meaningful relationships with these animals would not exist. As for the difference between this action and the removal of vocal chords, the latter involves losing a capacity that the owner ought to accept in the animal he is taking up. Dogs bark, and if you are fiercely discomforted by this, don't take one in. To put this differently, having a relationship with a dog, means that one will often be discomforted by its barking. The same cannot be said in relation to the dog's procreative capacities. The owner will not simply be inconvenienced by these, but will have to be morally responsible for their consequences. Breeders happily do this (though again, where and when these animals are permitted to procreate is highly controlled even then). Most pet owners, however, cannot.

This is one point at which a broader dimension of animal ethics should be mentioned. You notice that my argument above is inconclusive, hesitant, and is not meant to refute the anti-pet position. I am basically setting out the moral stakes, the long-term consequences of some actions, and stating a moral preference in relation to these. Most philosophers dislike such murky moves, which is why most writings in animal ethics prudently avoids commenting on the precise pro-animal alternative being envisaged. For me, that's too easy a choice (prudent, but unwise), one that should be expected in the first wave of a revolution, but cannot be sustained in the long run. I realize that my arguments will not generate universal consent (and not because no philosopher managed to attain that). My hope is to see an actual considered specification of the liberationist ideal (whether vegan or vegetarian) in the best writings on this issue, rather than repeating the easier move of attacking speciesism. Does liberationism entail a petless world? I think it should not, but I wish the question would be raised and discussed in these terms.  

Alright, let’s cut to the chase!  Here’s how I’d summarize your defense of vegetarianism as ethically best.  Step 1: It would be good for chickens and cows to exist in a relationship with humans that granted them life and us eggs and milk, so long as they were not prematurely killed or subjected to harmful procedures (apart from ones that enable the relationship and don’t alter what they are).  This “vegetarian uptopia” would be better than a “vegan utopia”  with no chickens and cows at all. Step 2: We ought to support today’s very flawed humane egg and dairy farming because it’s a step toward that vegetarian utopia, whereas abstaining from eggs and dairy is a step toward the inferior vegan utopia. Is that a fair summary?

Yes, though I spend a lot of time on how guarded we should be regarding "ought to support" in 2.

The points I made about Step 1 in my earlier post are dealt with in your book.  On the whole, I really find that step quite convincing.  So let’s focus on step 2.  I do buy cage-free or free-range eggs, which are mass produced by a local operation. In principle, I can see how the success of this company could spur a competitor to produce even more humane eggs, creating a trajectory in the direction of a wholly ethical chicken farm. The thing is, at some point that becomes commercially non-viable.  Right now, I pay 2-3 times as much to buy humane eggs, but I won’t spend 10 times as much.  So how can I really justify my egg consumption using your reasoning?

Money brings up several complex issues, since the mere fact that the progressive products cost more, creates a morally precarious association between the well-off and the just. That issue aside, the moral obligation is to support an emerging industry that professes to commit itself to higher moral standards, rather than to economic expediency alone. Such support remains effective even if some of these breeders are cynically using pro-animal sentiments to acquire a commercial edge for themselves. What matters is that breeders believe that there is a substantial market for "progressive" products. The mechanisms that will eventually verify that breeders live up to what they promise will develop because of economic forces (consumers don't like to be fooled).
How much more should you pay for such products? For me, any intervention in animal-ethics today, is part of a long-term process, and should be contextualized within a longer movement, in which minor changes for the better today, will be replaced by better solutions later (feminism and the abolition of slavery are my models for such long-term changes, in which an insistence on absolute purity and equality at the very early stages of the revolution would have been self-defeating and therefore morally unwise). At this stage, a liberationist is obligated to issue a financially-backed willingness to purchase some products that, due to professed self-imposed morally motivated restrictions on the part of the supplier, cost more. At a later stage of the hopefully successful revolution, such products should either be subsidized or altogether replace their immoral alternatives, so the comparison between the cheaper exploitative products and the progressive ones, would not exist at all.

An objection to the old “more animals get to exist” defense of meat-eating is that it ignores wild animals.  An animal-based diet requires much more land than a plant-based diet, and therefore takes habitat from wildlife. Why can’t vegans say their diet is  just as good as, or maybe even better than, a vegetarian diet for producing large numbers of animals, just not chickens, cows, etc?  Isn’t it just as good for a lot of rabbits, deer, etc., to get to exist?

According to estimates published by the UN Population Division, by 2040, the earth's population will near 9 billion. The likelihood of preserving feral populations of wildlife in such a context would be low. A world with a rich countryside is fast disappearing and is becoming a nostalgic mirage. By contrast, the vegetarian ideal tries to bring together economic interest, human needs and animal welfare in a way that can work for those animals. Given human needs, keeping large amounts of "farm" animals is mandatory. To turn this interest into one that can be subordinated to ethical considerations seems feasible, given sustained work by philosophers, veterinarians, experts on agricultural planning and others (a philosopher cannot provide all of this in a convincing way, since it is a task for several professionals. Much depends, too, on evolving technologies that can annul moral questions. I mention in the paper the use of genetic techniques involving selective fertilization in hens to prevent the birth of male chicks). Denying the possibility of such a future at this early stage of the hoped for revolution strikes me as defeatist. The next meaningful intervention in animal ethics would/should not be more arguments over the viability of speciesism, but a pragmatic proposal for large-scale moral production of milk and eggs.

At the end of your article (and chapter) you note that humane eggs and dairy can be hard to find and expensive.  Instead of saying people should choose vegan food at those times, you say it’s “excusable” but not “just fine” to buy factory farmed eggs. A reason you offer is that “taking eggs or milk does not create suffering or loss.” I wonder why you focus on the moment of “taking” as opposed to other aspects of egg and milk farming. You do say that breeding animals with kill-by dates and prematurely killing non-productive animals are indefensible.   In light of that, why don’t we have to be vegans when humane eggs and dairy can’t be found, though just vegetarians when they can (because of the trajectory you see to fully humane farming)?

To begin with, the strategy you suggest is perfectly consistent with my argument, that is, practice selective veganism and vegetarianism according to the available products. The reason I do not adopt this position, relates to broader considerations having to do with the nature of purity and guilt regarding these issues. More precisely, my position demands of the liberationist to explicitly face the points of moral failure in her conduct, the points at which she is cooperating with exploitation (terms like 'excusable' are intentionally chosen for the philosophical and moral discomfort they induce).
To explain this in greater detail, the broader point is that striving to attain moral purity in one's direct or non-direct relationship with animals is impossible. Veganism is not enough, since one is still relying on medication that has been devised relying on experimentation and death of millions of animals. The purist would have to avoid these too, and, when one is a parent, to avoid using medicine (as well as vaccines) in relation to one's children. Some surgical interventions were also developed by using animals, so the true purist should avoid undergoing these as well. Moreover, should the purist even socialize with people who eat animal flesh? Should s/he enable their child to attend a school in which the teachers mindlessly wear leather products? It is obviously silly to conclude from this that, since purity is unattainable, any monstrosity becomes excusable. Yet, given the unattainable point of non-guilt for all but rare saints, the moral objective at this stage is to advance meaningful interventions that can be practiced on a larger scale.

From this perspective, the position you describe, especially for a parent, is very hard to implement. Progressive products are not always available (it's not just a matter of buying, but of noting scrupulously what one consumes outside one's home), and there is a difference between cooperating with the killing of an animal by eating its flesh, and using products that rely on exploitation. Since the broader meaningful intervention at this stage is to get as many people as possible to practice moral vegetarianism on a large scale, it would be imprudent (and in the long run immoral) to insist on a much harder life-style, which is what the position described involves.

The usual counter-argument against what I have just said, is that it amounts to confusion between strategy and morality. A course of action can be strategically beneficial in promoting a morally desirable goal, but be itself immoral. Yet the plausibility of this counter-claim depends on the examples one has in mind. It's very easy to conjure up examples in which beneficial ends do not justify immoral means. Yet, in the case of long-term changes like liberationism, strategy and morality are interlinked: support a course of action that cannot be adopted by your projected reformers, and you undermine your larger moral objective. In a society in which recreational fishing goes unopposed, it seems important to consolidate a manageable and accessible moral objective that individuals and families can practice. To see why the same reasoning cannot be used to justify the selective eating of animal flesh, you need to examine the third chapter in my book with a specific critique of Hare's demi-vegetarianism.

Let me conclude by thanking you for sending these excellent questions. I appreciate your close engagement with my paper, and applaud you for dutifully locating each weak spot in my argument. I hope that you and your readers will have a fruitful disagreement with my responses. I will be regrettably unable to participate in a follow-up discussion of this interview, if such would develop. I do, however, urge critics of my responses not only to delineate the flaws in my position, but to risk specifying their own considered sense of the range and scope of the liberationist proposed reform.

I really appreciate your thorough, careful answers, especially because I know that right now you're very busy.  I'll resist the temptation to ask any follow-ups and makes this impossibly long.  But just two quick thoughts--yes, we need to think about how animals are going to fare in a world with 9 billion people.  And another quick point--for people who eat "as a family," things are extra complicated.  Thanks very much.

Sitting with Marina

The second post at the The Stone (the new and newly notorious New York Times philosophy blog) is about the MoMA exhibit "Sitting with Marina."  Most tiresome question you can possibly ask about a modern artwork:  what does it mean?  Why does it have to mean anything, in any simple "It means ____" way?  A bit better:  what's it about?  (Which could have a very long, inchoate, essentially non-verbal answer.)

Something that strikes me often in art museums, especially when I'm looking at contemporary or conceptual art, is how the museum makes the art.  Put "Sitting with Marina" in a subway station and you've got something completely different.  The stone floors and the MoMA name are doing a lot here.

What I can't figure out is why the sitters look so sad.


They look like they've just come face to face with the tragic inner essence of all of reality---by sitting across from Marina!   This kid is the only one who seems to have kept his wits about him--


His expression seems to say "Um, what's going on here with all this sitting and looking at each other?"

5/22/10

Travel Reading

When I travel, I love to have the perfect book with me.  Which means:  a novel set in the right location. Just by coincidence, I read Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishuguro's novel about a butler driving to Cornwall) on the way to Cornwall.  Heavenly combination, heavenly book. Last summer I had the hardest time finding a good Hawaii book, and settled on Molokai, a novel about a leper colony.  I probably don't need to tell you what was wrong with that choice.  In a few weeks I'm off to France and Italy.  Could there be a good novel traversing both locations?  If only  one location, then preferably Italy (we'll be there longer). I'm not averse to reading something fairly cheesy, but don't say Angels and Demons (saw it) or The DaVinci Code (read it).  Classics are fine. but let's not be ridiculous.  I'm not going to read Dante (never have--can it really be done?). I've read a lot of classic French novels (would it be crazy to reread The Count of Monte Cristo?  I loved it as a teenager...)  Ccontemporary would be good, but please, nothing gruesome (not another Molokai).  Literary novels preferred, but nothing too boring and experimental.  It's a vacation, for heaven's sake.  Sorry, that's a lot of constraints (which is just my problem). Anybody have any suggestions?

Look, Eat

Aren't the Chinese strange for wanting to look at animals in a zoo and then eat them for lunch?
After watching the beasts in their cages, diners at the zoo's restaurant can gnaw on the webbed toes of a hippopotamus, chew a kangaroo tail, nibble a deer's penis or slurp down a bowl of ant soup.
Weird, indeed. But it's not just those wacky foreigners.  Fish is standard fare in US aquarium restaurants.  It's not quite so flagrant. Attention is not drawn to the match between exhibits and restaurant fare.  But it's considered normal to first enjoy looking, then enjoy eating.

It's not entirely unnotable that US zoos have lots of mammals on the menu, if not the very same ones on display. We're just not supposed to see a conflict between marveling at okapis and zebras and then eating another ungulate, the cow.  At our local sausage factory, you can enjoy the antics of piglets at the petting zoo on the premises, and then sample the sausages.

So you see, it's not just the Chinese.

5/20/10

Vegans vs. Vegetarians

I have a natural sympathy with Tzachi Zamir's article, Veganism.  As a vegetarian, I'd like to be convinced by what he says: that my diet is ethically the best one.  Vegetarians, he thinks, are doing more than vegans to bring about the best world--one in which chickens and cows get to live in a mutually beneficial relationship with humans.

"Vegetarians" for purposes of the article are progressive vegetarians--they support humane eggs and dairy.  He talks about two types of vegans--vegans (simply) think it's never going to be right to consume meat, eggs, or dairy.  Tentative ("provisional" might be a better word) vegans think eggs and dairy could be ethically produced, but the products available now aren't ethically produced, so shouldn't be supported.

HUMANS AND PETS

Zamir sees the human-pet relationship as a model for other human-animal relationships.

A world with pets is good for the pets, as well as for their owners.  He's argues the same thing about a world with well-tended laying chickens and dairy cows. 

Keeping chickens and cows for eggs/milk will inevitably involve some invasive procedures.  Which are and are not permitted?  The model of pets is supposed to shed light on this. Here's an interesting distinction--

There are limits on what can be done "to maintain the relationship." Declawing might be justified as a last resort--

But keeping a bird in a cage is out of the question--

Basic principle of veterinary ethics:  Do what's necessary to (a) benefit the animal, OR (b) preserve the mutually beneficial relationship (as long as that doesn't violate what the animal is).

With all that in hand, we turn to the human-farm animal relationship. There are similar limits on what we can do to farm animals.  Invasive procedures are OK if they benefit the animal or preserve the relationship (without violating what the animal is).  Of course, killing animals is invasive and does neither.  Breeding animals with a plan in place to kill them at a a certain age violates what at animal is, he says. So using farm animals for meat is impermissible.  What he's defending is just a certain sort of ideally humane dairy and egg farming.

GETTING TO EXIST

The human-pet relationship is a good thing partly because the animals involved get to exist. Likewise, cows and chickens get to exist in a world that includes humane dairy and egg farming. This "getting to exist" business is mysterious and complicated.  Intuitively, it's good for cows to get to exist.  Maybe "enough said."

But Zamir tries to say more.  I'd be hard pressed to summarize what he says, because he shifts around a bit.

Here he rules out the "standpoint of a yet nonexistent entity that benefits or loses." I'm not sure how to interpret "standpoint," but it sounds like he's saying we are not to think of Bessie's existence as benefiting a non-existent Bessie that preceded her.  But in the next passage, he does seem to talk about benefits coming to non-existent things.  It makes sense to claim that "future generations benefit from ecological steps that are taken now."

A non-existent thing can benefit or suffer from a present action in the sense that if it would exist, it will benefit or suffer.  Those permanently excluded from existing are neither benefited nor harmed by being excluded.

Imagine a vegan utopia.  Billions of non-existent cows and chickens are permanently excluded.  That neither benefits nor harms them.  Now consider a vegetarian utopia.  Formerly non-existent cows and chickens are benefited by breeding decisions.  It's better to be "benefited" than "neither benefited nor harmed," so the vegetarian utopia is better for cows and chickens.

But why not make even more cows and chickens, plus pigs (etc), and use them for meat?  Wouldn't they, too, be benefited by being brought into existence?  No, he says, because it's not good for animals to be bred with built-in obsolescence.

So he's arguing for humane eggs and dairy, not for "humane meat."  Breeding laying hens and cows is good for them, but breeding beef cattle isn't good for them.

Vegans will argue that they have a pony in this race.  A 100% plant based diet takes up much less land, preserving habitat for wild animals.  Why is "better for chickens" more important than "better for deer" or "better for foxes"? Maybe the idea is that the human-farm animal relationship yields higher animal populations. Maybe he's factoring in the benefits to us? Not sure.

A STEPPING STONE?

Today's humane farming is far from perfect, by Zamir's own analysis.  In real world humane egg farming, it's built into the plans for the male chicks to be killed right after birth.  The females have a planned death after a few years of laying.  If planning an animal's premature death is wrong (because, as Zamir says, it violates what the animal is) then humane farming is unethical. Of course, factory egg farming is far worse because the amount of suffering endured is so much greater.

Fully humane farming would be very different.  Male chicks wouldn't be killed at birth.  Male calves wouldn't become beef.  Perhaps there would be selective breeding of females (the technology exists and it's already in use).  Animals would live out their natural lifespans.  There might be some invasive procedures, but they'd be either beneficial to the animal or "necessary to sustain the relationship" (so long as not a violation of what the animal is).

If today's humane farming is far from perfect, why are vegans wrong to abstain from it?  Because, Zamir argues, it's a step toward that preferable world where there is fully humane farming.  The abstainers are taking us to that other world, the vegan utopia that's worse for chickens and cows.  Omnivores are perpetuating the worse world (our world), where animals are bred with a built-in kill-by date.

Not only is it a step forward, but Zamir thinks today's humane farming is a significant step forward--

DOUBTS

Now for my main doubts about this defense of vegetarianism.  Humane farming is a lot better than factory farming, but is it a step that's ever going to lead to fully humane farming?  I don't really see how it could.  Maybe some day there will be selective breeding, so that fewer males are killed.  But allowing animals a natural lifespan seems out of the question.  Sure, here and there a few farmers could allow it, but not on any wide scale. It seems as if the egg and dairy industry will really always involve a certain amount of planned, premature killing.  So I don't find this "stepping stone to perfection" argument very convincing.

There might be some sort of stepping stone argument in the offing.   Every year, the humane offerings at my grocery store become more extensive.  Many small reforms are being made in the mainstream sector as well.  I think it's fair to say that supporting humane products sends the message to the industry that consumers care about animal welfare. There may be a benefit to all animals used for food production.

But here's the problem.  That would be an argument for buying not just humane eggs and milk but also humane meat.  And that's not the conclusion Zamir wants to wind up with!

You could also make the argument that not buying any eggs, milk, or meat sends the message that consumers care about animals.  Maybe the rise of veganism and vegetarianism also stimulate the animal industry to make reforms.  ("Better do something before we lose more consumers!") So there's a case for buying all humane products, and another case for being a vegetarian or a vegan. I find it very hard to see how it can come out that the very best option, focusing just on animals, is being a progressive vegetarian.
Of course, that's not a happy conclusion for me to reach, since I'm a progressive vegetarian.  I still haven't figure out if that's "just fine" (for reasons I still don't understand) or merely "excusable" (because veganism is hard), to use a distinction Zamir makes at the end of the paper.  Maybe somebody can convince me that Zamir is right!

Update: a few corrections made later in the day.

More: Scu has an interesting post about Zamir's article here, and there's more interesting stuff in the comments.

Interview X3

#1  My KERA Think radio interview is available here.  Correction:  of course, veal calves are surplus from the dairy industry, not the egg industry.  Entrees for vegans and omnivores who want to talk to each other:  barbecued seitan?  A nice curry?  I must have been hungry to hear the question that way.

#2  Blog interview at The Philosopher's Eye

#3  Julian Baggini asks an interesting question about interview ethics.  Suppose (contrary to fact)  I had been asked to supply the questions for interview #1 or #2.  Would that have have been a no-no, because of the resulting deception of listeners/readers?  It seems partly a question of the medium.  We expect more from an NPR interview show than from a blog.  So we draw different conclusions from what we hear/read in one case than the other.  Also, it's a matter of degree.  Some radio stations delay broadcast for  a minute or so and delete "ums", making people appear more smooth and articulate than they are.  KERA, um, doesn't, um, do that (blush).  Um-deleting is deceptive, but (surely) not unethical! If I'd suggested a few questions (I didn't), it wouldn't have been a big deal.  You can find out why he raises the question over there.

5/18/10

Vegetarian or Vegan?

Any day now I'm going to write a post about Tzachi Zamir's article "Veganism"--which defends vegetarianism over veganism.  If you'd like to read it before I tell you what you should think about it (just kidding), here's a link.

Squidophilia

Simon Critchley's New York Times essay about "the philosopher" has now attracted over 600 comments.  I suspect a lot of them are from real live philosophers who don't care for the portrait:  "the philosopher" is unworldly, a faller into wells, a ponderer without time constraints, but somehow (for all that) an incendiary world-changer.   If we must caricature, let's at least get it right.

I think there's something to the idea that "the philosopher" is (among other things) a hyperrationalist.  To wit: take Anders Sandberg's discussion of squidophilia here. The average person just lets himself say "yuck" to the practice and doesn't dig any deeper.  Sandberg is very much "the philosopher" when he says "why, why, why?".  If he can't figure out why, he's prepared to accept squidophilia. 

There is a good point in the post: disgust is not reliable. You should be prepared to examine your "yuck" reactions.  Philosophers are right to insist on this.

But then what?  If you examine them, some will go away.  Fine.  Why act on reactions that are transient? Some will not go away, but you will take them much less seriously and so (reasonably) decide to quarantine them so they don't affect your judgment. But some yuck reactions are persistent, and don't want to be quarantined.  A hyperationalist doesn't like these either.  If you can't explain, you must abstain.  That's the basic idea.

I don't know about that. The suppression of "yuck" reactions contrasts sharply with the way philosophers treat their own "intuitions."  If you have a very strong intuition that the fat man can't be pushed in front of the trolley to save the five, that's "data"!  It's par for the course to take such reactions very, very seriously.

Why so little respect for gut reactions that are tinged by feeling (squidophilia, eww!), and so much respect for non-visceral intuitions (push fat guy, no)?  Equal rights for visceral intuitions!

I don't know why it's bad to mix it up with squid, but I suspect it's not all about squid. If someone were making love to a metronome or a box of cereal I'd be just as concerned.  Why, why, why?  Not sure, but I don't plan on abstaining from the reaction until I can explain it.


p.s.  Any thoughts evoked by the squiddie picture are entirely your responsibility.

5/17/10

108th Philosophers' Carnival...

...is at Philosophy Sucks.  (My goodness.)

The Stone

Brian Leiter isn't happy about The New York Times's choice of Simon Critchley to moderate its new philosophy blog, but I think he's focusing on the wrong thing. It isn't Critchley's credentials that concern me, it's his inaugural essay. 

Here's what Leiter says--
I would urge readers to send a short note to the public editor, Clark Hoyt, stating, roughly, that you are pleased to see increased attention to philosophy in the NY Times, but are concerned that someone who is not taken seriously as a philosopher or scholar has been invited to serve as "moderator."  Keep it short and sweet.  If they get a couple thousand e-mails to that effect, maybe they will wake up to the spectacular mistake they've made.
I don't agree that the moderator has to be someone "taken seriously as a philosopher or a scholar." It just needs to be someone who could do a good job as a moderator.  That might be a philosopher who's especially good at seeing connections between philosophy and contemporary life, or someone with exceptional writing ability.  Or someone who's just interesting, insightful, and fun to read. 

Critchley's first essay is not interesting, insightful, or fun to read.  He asks "what is a philosopher?"  A good question, but then he makes the question about "the philosopher," as if philosophers were still a stock figure in contemporary life.  There's "the Wall Street banker" and "the soccer mom" and "the high-powered lawyer" and .... "the philosopher"?  I don't think so.

Anyhow, we are to be enlightened by what Plato said about "the philosopher" in The Theaetetus.
Socrates tells the story of Thales, who was by some accounts the first philosopher. He was looking so intently at the stars that he fell into a well. Some witty Thracian servant girl is said to have made a joke at Thales’ expense — that in his eagerness to know what went on in the sky he was unaware of the things in front of him and at his feet. Socrates adds, in Seth Benardete’s translation, “The same jest suffices for all those who engage in philosophy.”

What is a philosopher, then? The answer is clear: a laughing stock, an absent-minded buffoon, the butt of countless jokes from Aristophanes’ “The Clouds” to Mel Brooks’s “History of the World, part one.” Whenever the philosopher is compelled to talk about the things at his feet, he gives not only the Thracian girl but the rest of the crowd a belly laugh. The philosopher’s clumsiness in worldly affairs makes him appear stupid or, “gives the impression of plain silliness.” We are left with a rather Monty Pythonesque definition of the philosopher: the one who is silly.
Critchley goes on to refine this initial caricature, but evidently he sees some truth in the idea of "the philosopher's clumsiness in world affairs."  But why?  The philosophers I read are not clumsy.  In the Environmental Ethics course I just finished teaching, we read John Broome, the well known Oxford philosopher and economist, on the nature of the social discount rate, and how that figures into the ethics of climate change.  This is hardly "clumsiness in world affairs." In fact, yesterday's special "economics" edition of the Times magazine touched on the very same urgent question.

We also read David Schmidtz, the Arizona ethicist, writing about an issue as urgent and nitty gritty as how to preserve biodiversity in Africa.  Again, there was a connection to yesterday's magazine.  Like Cass Sunstein, Obama's OIRA chief, he espouses a sort of paternalistic libertarianism. 

Lots of philosophers today are right there in the middle of the discussion of world affairs, applying more abstract and abstruse work to timely issues, not falling into wells. If there are also well types, why identify the field with them?  Why do they get to be "the philosopher"?

Critchley does move on from here.  "The philosopher" isn't just a clumsy oaf.
But there is a deeper and more troubling layer of irony here that I would like peel off more slowly. Socrates introduces the “digression” by making a distinction between the philosopher and the lawyer, or what Benardete nicely renders as the “pettifogger.” The lawyer is compelled to present a case in court and time is of the essence. In Greek legal proceedings, a strictly limited amount of time was allotted for the presentation of cases. Time was measured with a water clock or clepsydra, which literally steals time, as in the Greek kleptes, a thief or embezzler. The pettifogger, the jury, and by implication the whole society, live with the constant pressure of time. The water of time’s flow is constantly threatening to drown them. The freedom of the philosopher consists in either moving freely from topic to topic or simply spending years returning to the same topic out of perplexity, fascination and curiosity.

By contrast, we might say, the philosopher is the person who has time or who takes time. Theodorus, Socrates’ interlocutor, introduces the “digression” with the words, “Aren’t we at leisure, Socrates?” The latter’s response is interesting. He says, “It appears we are.” As we know, in philosophy appearances can be deceptive. But the basic contrast here is that between the lawyer, who has no time, or for whom time is money, and the philosopher, who takes time. The freedom of the philosopher consists in either moving freely from topic to topic or simply spending years returning to the same topic out of perplexity, fascination and curiosity.

Pushing this a little further, we might say that to philosophize is to take your time, even when you have no time, when time is constantly pressing at our backs. The busy readers of The New York Times will doubtless understand this sentiment. It is our hope that some of them will make the time to read The Stone.
Philosophers take their time thinking about difficult things, but thinking about those very difficult things helps us get a grip on urgent, real-world business.  Lots and lots of philosophers are involved in making connections between the timeless and the timely, not just ethicists, but also people working on philosophy of mind and language, causation, philosophy of religion, philosophy of science, and so on.

Critchley goes from making philosophers seem like goofballs, to making them into leisurely ponderers, to suddenly making them out to be daring revolutionaries.
Socrates adds that the philosopher neither sees nor hears the so-called unwritten laws of the city, that is, the mores and conventions that govern public life. The philosopher shows no respect for rank and inherited privilege and is unaware of anyone’s high or low birth. It also does not occur to the philosopher to join a political club or a private party. As Socrates concludes, the philosopher’s body alone dwells within the city’s walls. In thought, they are elsewhere.
Um, the philosophy business is as elitist and rank-obsessed as any other.

Now we get into some serious preening.
Philosophy should come with the kind of health warning one finds on packs of European cigarettes: PHILOSOPHY KILLS. Here we approach the deep irony of Plato’s words. Plato’s dialogues were written after Socrates’ death. Socrates was charged with impiety towards the gods of the city and with corrupting the youth of Athens. He was obliged to speak in court in defense of these charges, to speak against the water-clock, that thief of time. He ran out of time and suffered the consequences: he was condemned to death and forced to take his own life.
A couple of generations later, during the uprisings against Macedonian rule that followed the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E., Alexander’s former tutor, Aristotle, escaped Athens saying, “I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy.” From the ancient Greeks to Giordano Bruno, Spinoza, Hume and right up to the shameful lawsuit that prevented Bertrand Russell from teaching at the City College of New York in 1940 on the charge of sexual immorality and atheism, philosophy has repeatedly and persistently been identified with blasphemy against the gods, whichever gods they might be. Nothing is more common in the history of philosophy than the accusation of impiety. Because of their laughable otherworldliness and lack of respect social convention, rank and privilege, philosophers refuse to honor the old gods and this makes them politically suspicious, even dangerous. Might such dismal things still happen in our happily enlightened age? That depends where one casts one’s eyes and how closely one looks.
Yes, well, philosophers could upset the world order, but not if they're spending their time falling into wells and enjoying endless slow meditation.

I'd prefer less artistry and erudition and a more straightforward picture of what philosophers do and how they contribute to public discussion of issues people care about.  They do make that contribution, but you woudn't know it, from Critchley's caricature.

5/16/10

There's Always Bing

We interrupt regular programming to bring you this open letter to Google:

Dear Google, I'm flabbergasted by your policy on "cougar" ads vs. "sugar-daddy" ads. It obviously discriminates against older women. What, that sugar-daddy stuff is family fare? You've got to be kidding.

There's always Bing.

Yours unfaithfully,

JK

p.s. If Bing had a sense of humor, those would be cougars.

5/15/10

Animals and Ethics

I enjoyed this interview with Angus Taylor, author of Animals and Ethics. Toward the end, the host talks about a point that's often made by my students.

"You can't really liberate animals like chickens and cows because they don't have an ecological place anymore, so there's not really an end point for them other than letting them die out...."

My students often assume that "liberationists" must want to throw open the doors and let the billions of animals out. How could liberating a species  mean exterminating it or radically reducing its size?

Their assumption about "liberationists" is understandable, considering the way animal rights authors  throw around comparisons to slavery. Abolitionists wanted a better life for slaves, not no life at all.

Angus points out that extinction is sometimes the right way to go. If some nefarious operation was genetically engineering submissive servants for majority benefit, the right thing would be to end it and phase out the servants, not keep breeding them and set them all free. 

OK, but I can see my students' puzzlement. If you wanted to phase out the servants, you wouldn't call that "servant liberation"! Should people against animal farming really think of themselves as liberators?

Well, what's in a name? But there's an interesting underlying issue here.  There really is some question who is the truest friend of domesticated animals.  If you're really "for" them, can you really think their lives are so pitiful and worthless that it would be better if they didn't exist? 

Anyhow... I need to get a hold of Angus's book. My little secret is that I have not read the entire animal ethics literature. I'm especially ignorant about recent continental writing about animals. This book looks to be the comprehensive survey that would solve all my problems.

5/14/10

Jaguar Corridors

Here's a role reversal that doesn't meet the eye, and people need to understand!  Once upon a time, wild animals could have been seen as a threat to humans and their domesticated animals. Now it is for the most part the other way around.  Grazing animals and human populations are crowding out wild animals to the point that many species are at risk.  Big surprise, but there's a conflict between being a big hamburger consumer and being a lover of lions, tigers, and bears.  If you want a world with lots of splendid wildlife, you need to use less land for food production, which means eating more plants.   Plus, wildlife conservationists have to become more clever. It turns out the old way--creating big nature preserves here and there--didn't allow populations to mix.  The new way is to create corridors between one preserve and another, as this article about jaguar corridors in Costa Rica explains.

Got suggestions for my radio interview next week?  Let me know.

Interspecific Love


Had to grab these two pictures from Jerry Coyne's blog (which is always interesting)--interspecific love #1 and #2.  The first is a doll for Inuit kids.  The second, well, no comment.

Animal advocates will notice that the doll is made out of animal parts. Doesn't that capture the essence of the animal conundrum? People really do love animals, while also viewing them as resources. Those attitudes are hard to reconcile.

5/13/10

Radio Interview

Next week (Wednesday May 19, 1-2) I'm going to be interviewed about my book Animalkind on Think, a one hour show on KERA, the NPR radio station in Dallas.  You can listen live, call in questions, or download the podcast later on.  One thing I need to avoid is something I often do on this blog--focusing my energy on animal advocates I disagree with, like you know who, the distinguished professor from you know where.  So--pretend you are Joe Q. Listener.  What's on your mind?  What do you want me to talk about? What are you going to call in and ask me?  I was on the same show 3 years ago, talking about my first book.  If you're utterly determined, you could listen here.

Torturing Babies Just for Fun is Wrong

Sam Harris has started an interesting discussion about the nature of morality.  It's puzzling how many of his usual allies have lined up against him.  

Let us review.  Harris is really a religion critic, not an ethicist.  His foray into ethics is meant to defuse what seems to be the leading attack on atheism.  Religious moralists say there are facts about morality.  Torturing babies just for fun is wrong.  Stuff like that.  They then say there's no accounting for these facts being facts without supposing there's a supreme being. We've got to believe that God disapproves of torturing babies just for fun.

Harris's move is to attempt to do what the religious moralists think cannot be done:  account for moral facts without supposing there's a supreme being. 

It surprises me that Harris's co-non-religionists are taking him to task for this.  In terms of addressing the religious moralist, what would they have him say?  That there really aren't any facts about morality? That torturing babies for fun isn't really wrong?  What a public relations disaster!

Strategically speaking, Harris is entirely right to embrace moral realism, and attempt an explanation in non-religious terms.  Furthermore, it shouldn't be though that he's embracing something naive or preposterous. In a recent survey of the opinions of philosophers--folks who know the arguments for and against moral realism well--the majority count themselves realists! In other words, they agree with Harris that it's a fact that torturing babies just for fun is wrong.


So: Harris is taking the right position on realism vs. anti-realism, strategically speaking; and there's nothing naive or outrageous about his position.  Now let's consider the arguments for a moment.

One thing folks are throwing at him is the sheer fact of moral disagreement. Does that undermine the case for moral realism?  Surely not.  Moral disagreements involve arguments. One side may be giving terrible arguments and the other good arguments.  So reason may be on one side, not on the other.  In light of that, it would be silly to throw up your hands and say "no fact of the matter!" simply in virtue of there being disagreement.

Another worry is that moral facts wouldn't be motivating, if they did exist.  Bad guys can encounter the "fact" that it's wrong to torture babies just for fun, and start torturing babies.  To which the right answer is: so what?  The complete story about morality is not about the facts alone. It's also about moral psychology. It deals with how we come to know the facts, how they do or don't motivate us, the virtues and vices, etc. 

Harris is strategically right in adopting realism, not at all naive, and quite capable of responding to basic criticism.  Must I then be on board with everything he says?  Not necessarily.  The rest of what he says is about the exact nature of moral facts. He says they are "scientific facts."  At the very minimum, that means they are natural.  The fact that torturing babies just for fun is wrong is the fact that doing this causes...something or other. (Details to come in Harris's book.) 

Beyond that, he might be saying that moral facts are discoverable using scientific methods, but I hope he's not saying that, because it's implausible.  Some of the discovery of these facts is in the hands of ethicists and other reflective people. 

My mind is not made up about the idea that moral facts are scientific facts, but I lean toward moral realism.  It's strategically the right thing for Harris to defend, not at all a naive or outrageous position, and holds up at least under the sorts of attacks I've been reading lately.

5/12/10

The Contractarian Element in Animalkind

If you made it deep into the interior of Animalkind, you know there's a contractarian element in there. That's not the main moral framework of the book, but I need it to explain a thing or two.

Take the rescue situation I discuss in Chapter 5: after Hurricane Katrina, there were days of waiting before rescue personnel showed up. People were stranded, including the elderly and incapacitated. Dogs and other animals were stranded as well. I argue that nobody could be dismissed as "just an animal" or "just an old lady"... or whatever. All were entitled to respect and compassion.

But difficult decisions had to be made. The first buses out of New Orleans could only save a subset of those in need. I argue that it was right (not just permissible, but obligatory) to make distinctions. You couldn't save hamsters before children. There's a difference between them that it's entirely ethical to notice. In fact, it would be unethical not to notice it.

With that endorsement of taking into account differences, I wind up with a hard question. If I'm for seeing differences, why not also see the difference between healthy children and incapacitated old ladies? To be consistent, do I have to be for leaving the old ladies behind with the hamsters? I sure hope not, because my mother would kill me if I said anything like that.

This is where the soupcon of contractarianism comes in. I argue that humans are entitled to draw a line just around themselves and ignore differences inside the line. We humans fear for ourselves, our children, and our parents. We'd rather be blind to potentially relevant differences (at least, a lot of the time) than constantly take them into account. Animals don't have these kinds of concerns. So it's not arbitrary or merely "specieist" to choose stronger kinds of equality for ourselves than we do across the board. There's no triage at an emergency room, based on which lives are really more worth saving (even though there might be real differences--be honest!). Everyone gets the same public education. All this ignoring of differences within a human society is all to the good.

The same leveling in an all-animal community wouldn't make the same sense. Imagine a zoo is being evacuated. If there is room to take the chimpanzees but not the entire reptile house, ignoring differences wouldn't have the same rationale it has in the all-human case. It wouldn't benefit the animals because they don't have a human being's ability to worry about future applications of a policy or about less capable others. Even the most advantaged human has an interest in seeing the least advantaged get good treatment. The chimpanzees really don't care at all about the iguanas.  So: leveling in that context doesn't make the same sense it does for humans only.

So far, so good. But then, here's the worry. When policies have an impact on both humans and other animals, equalizing within our subgroup sounds all very well, but it can be a setback for individuals outside of it. Equalizing within the category of humans gives an infirm old lady the same rights as a normal child, so advances her to the same position as the child--ahead of, say, Buffy, the world's most amazing dog. So what starts out innocently enough (equalizing withing the human community) winds up cheating the dog out of her "natural" place in line.

What to say? Ignoring intra-human differences is right and proper from one perspective, but problematic from another. If you take both of those perspectives seriously, there's no easy solution. Leaving behind the very infirm old lady violates "the social contract." But advancing her ahead of Buffy ignores real differences in who's most worth saving.

I do want the old lady to be saved before Buffy.  So I've given the human "social contract" priority over "the natural order."  It would be wrong to say that's "just speciesist," because the human social contract has merit and doesn't apply beyond humans for good reasons. There's a moral impulse behind the decision to save the old lady, not mere prejudice in favor of my kind.  However I may just have to say there's also a moral impulse behind saving Buffy.  Perhaps this is a bonafide moral dilemma, where good reasons can be given to do two different things.

The Banned Lecture

Here's a lecture Peter Singer couldn't deliver at the University of Warsaw school of law yesterday because protesters succeeded in getting the event canceled. He delivered the lecture at an alternative location. This is a good introduction to Singer's thinking about animals and ethics.

The Banned Lecture - Peter Singer from kuba kossak on Vimeo.

5/10/10

First and Second Generation Atheists

Chris Mooney interviewed Elaine Howard Ecklund about her new book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think on Point of Inquiry last week. I was especially interested in what she said about first and second generation atheists.  I think the case for atheism is strong and I enjoy making it, but I don't have the anti-religious zeal of the new atheists. This has always puzzled me.  Why can't I get on board?  Ecklund explained that my attitude is typical of second generation atheists.  (I grew up in a Jewish but godless household--there was no God talk, but also no anti-God talk.)  The vigorously anti-religious atheists tend to be first generation, she says.  I'm not sure if this was just her impression from the hundreds of interviews she conducted, or she collected statistics on the matter. (What's wrong with Borders?  They don't have the book!)

More interesting stuff--she found that many religious scientists are reluctant to admit to their colleagues that they are religious.  Those who are religious are certainly in the minority.  She found that roughly 1/3 of scientists are agnostics and 1/3 are atheists.  Some will dismiss her because of her Templeton funding, but she didn't sound like a propagandist to me.  In fact, she observed that scientists are less religious the higher up they are in the academic hierarchy. There's more religiosity among scientists who teach at community colleges.  That's not the sort of message the Templeton crowd finds appealing.  She's found 10 times as much non-belief among scientists as there is in the general population. That doesn't boost the Templeton message that religion and science go happily together.

Dumb and Depraved

Yesterday, after reading about morality and babies, I was feeling pretty proud of the humans species.  Aren't we wonderful, being born all ready to recognize goodness and badness, fairness and unfairness?  Later on we refine what we're born with, coming to notions of equality, universal rights, and the fine points of ethics. Isn't that nice? So why is it that so many people dumb and depraved?  I ask that after reading this article about AIDS in Uganda in today's New York Times.  I don't see how anyone could read this article and not get depressed about humanity. 

5/9/10

My Scratch or the World?

Paul Bloom's article about the moral lives of babies is a nice treat for the thinking mother...and everyone else.  (Happy Mother's Day, all.)  Here's a quote from Hume that appears half-way through the article:
'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.
Bloom uses the quote to make the point that babies have to have emotional reactions to good and bad, fair and unfair, before they can develop into moral adults.  Reason won't suffice to put them on that path.  "To have a genuinely moral system, in other words, some things first have to matter, and what we see in babies is the development of mattering."

OK, so other people's problems don't start to matter to us unless we have the right rudimentary responses, which appear to be innate.  If that's so, must it really be true that reason plays no role in allocating concern so the whole world's destruction matters more than a finger scratch?  Bloom actually gives a non-Humean nod to reason later in the article.
The notion at the core of any mature morality is that of impartiality. If you are asked to justify your actions, and you say, “Because I wanted to,” this is just an expression of selfish desire. But explanations like “It was my turn” or “It’s my fair share” are potentially moral, because they imply that anyone else in the same situation could have done the same. This is the sort of argument that could be convincing to a neutral observer and is at the foundation of standards of justice and law. The philosopher Peter Singer has pointed out that this notion of impartiality can be found in religious and philosophical systems of morality, from the golden rule in Christianity to the teachings of Confucius to the political philosopher John Rawls’s landmark theory of justice. This is an insight that emerges within communities of intelligent, deliberating and negotiating beings, and it can override our parochial impulses.
"Intelligent, deliberating and negotiating beings"are rational, right?  And they do not prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching a finger! So Hume was a little bit right, but not entirely. He was right that moral thinking doesn't get started without moral reactions, but wrong that it's compatible with reason to care more about the scratch.

Unfortunately, Bloom muddies the waters in the next paragraph--
The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology. There is no need to posit divine intervention. A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development, of the accumulation of rational insight and hard-earned innovations. The morality we start off with is primitive, not merely in the obvious sense that it’s incomplete, but in the deeper sense that when individuals and societies aspire toward an enlightened morality — one in which all beings capable of reason and suffering are on an equal footing, where all people are equal — they are fighting with what children have from the get-go.
A product of culture?  Transmitted by culture, yes.  That's got to be at least partly so.  But culture doesn't make the "general" and "universal" aspect of morality, if we come to it through "rational insight."