Though we've not had a link to an article in The Stone for a while, I encourage you all to keep a look out there, as it's a steady source of interesting articles.
I can't resist throwing up a link to this article by Kelly Oliver: "Pet Lovers, Pathologized," as it hooks into both our moral sense and feminism episodes.
Our inconsistent treatment of animals is one of the key signs that something is wrong with our cultural values. I've got a new puppy in the house now, and like any responsible pet owner, I acknowledge a real moral responsibility toward her. It's very much like having a toddler in the house, and if I really just considered her property or a toy or something, I wouldn't put up with any of it. But the issue is not just our hypocritical "I love my pets, but they have no moral standing" stance. As Ms. Oliver points out:
The animal rights and animal welfare debates continue to be dominated by discussions of whether and how animals have minds or intentions like we do. This discourse continues to measure animals against human standards in order to judge whether or not they deserve legal rights.
We were pretty dismissive of Peter Singer in our utilitarianism episode because thinking about moral respect for animals in terms of animal rights breaks down: so each animal counts as morally equivalent to a human, including mosquitos? As long as we see morality as a calculation (like the utilitarian), it's hard to see where animals could fit in (though they're much better about including them than Kantians: Read about the issue at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
Moral sense theory, being not about abstract rules (Churchland was pretty clear on this), better accommodates our reactions towards animals, and provides a good test case for discussing the progressive, transcendent character of a moral sense theory like Smith's. If our moral sense theory is too literal, i.e. we're just taking a poll of what people think about animal issues, than we might well have a lot of animal-insensitive people reinforcing the attitudes that Oliver is complaining about in the article. It's only through an ongoing dialogue that we negotiate toward a social view that a pet lover's respect for animals is nothing to be ashamed of, and needs to be accommodated in a rational moral framework. This is a case where, invoking Mill's notion of competent judges, I can confidently say that the pet lover simply has a greater insight than his insensitive opponent. How to best update ethics to give animals their due is complicated, and I'm not confident about the details, but I can say that a human-rights-based approach a la Kant is fundamentally flawed. The point for the moment is that that this kind of deliberation can fit within the moral sense theorist's project: though ethics is based on an appraisal of our current moral reactions (and our judgments in hindsight about those reactions), the notion of the ideal observer allows us to make use of the ideas of competent judges and social progress.
A bit of background: Kelly taught at U. of Texas when we were there, leading us (Wes and I) through a punishing intro to continental course required for all philosophy grad students, and Seth knew her better than we did. She's a big-time feminist philosopher (Kristeva and the like), and though I will admit that I did not enjoy her writing or her teaching at the time and was not particularly polite about expressing that, I'll also happily admit that I was an immature, egostistical boor. Progress is possible!
“so each animal counts as morally equivalent to a human, including mosquitos?”
I’m not sure that accurately describes Peter Singer’s position. I think he’d argue that the interests of a mosquito (eg. not to be killed by an insecticide-treated bed net) would be very easily outweighed by the current & future interests of the child sleeping under the bed net.
Family pets, at least those in the homes of pet-lovers, are probably accorded more or less the right kind of moral standing. I think a utilitarian & a moral-sentiment theorist could agree on that. Some of Singer’s more challenging arguments are in respect of animals that don’t currently enjoy such standing – those in factory farms or labs, for example.
Singer obviously enjoys the controversy that he generates. I respect the consistency of his position, even while I don’t find it in myself to act on those principles myself.
Daniel Horne says
Even though Mark’s mosquito comment caricatured Singer’s approach, it was service of an otherwise valid objection to Singer’s argument. As Mark correctly summarized on the Utilitarianism episode, Singer argues that it’s an animal’s “capacity to suffer” which matters most. Thus, yes, Singer accepts that a mosquito’s diminished capacity to suffer accordingly discounts its “status”.
But Mark’s (and every other sane person’s) fundamental anti-Singer point stands: Singer’s argument breaks down at the limit cases. I’ll make one up, but the permutations are endless:
Does Singer really expect us to save 10 Navy SEAL-trained combat dolphins from their mine-sweeping chores at the expense of letting a raft-bound baby die, even if it has diminished mental capacity? What if it’s your baby? Or how about a perfectly intelligent 99 year old grandmother? What if it’s your grandmother? Etc. etc.
When presented an opportunity to address this obvious and commonly-raised objection, Singer evaded, dodged, and otherwise refused to confront the objection straightforwardly on its merits:
If Singer’s not willing to do the basic work necessary to address the most oft-cited objections to his argument, then why not dismiss him?
Ethan Gach says
Or come up with ways other than executing dolphins to save our floating babies.
But aside from dolphins, grandmothers, and babies, the objection you re-raise here Daniel seems unsolvable.
Correct me here, but it appears as though your asking, well no one would feel like that was right…so how can that be right. When taking it to the masses it seems like any moral scheme that strays from traditional consensus will be ruled ridiculous on its face.
Perhaps those of us who feel the baby should be saved should give a more rigorous explanation of why we are justified rather than just raising our eyes, lowering our jaws, and exclaiming, “You can’t be serious Dr. Singer?!”
Daniel Horne says
Again, talking about “other ways” to save the baby is to sneak away from the problem — what do we do while we’re engineering the robot drones? Until they arrive, it’s dolphin slaughter in the service of saving babies. Or, to be less silly about it, it’s untold rat/monkey slaughter in the service of medical experiments which may (or may not!) save the lives of dozens or thousands or millions of people. That this is OK is the consensus view, it’s how every society currently operates (excepting perhaps parts of India, but that’s due to religious and not rigorous philosophical arguments).
“Everybody’s doing it, so it can’t be that bad,” or “Nobody’s doing it, so it can’t be that good,” is worth citing in an ethical discussion, because it’s a relevant indicator of the viability of an argument for change. If literally _no one_ would choose to feed a starving dog over a starving baby, then yes, that says plenty about which is the better moral choice.
That was also the gist of Judge Posner’s objection in the exchange to which I linked above, and Singer had no real rejoinder. If Singer wants to persuade people to change their intuitive assumptions, he’s got to explain why people who don’t share his opinion feel the way they do. Simply hectoring them for being insufficiently morally evolved will convince no one, and an argument which convinces no one is a poor argument.
This was the heart of Posner’s point: They weren’t really disagreeing (so much) about whether to eliminate gratuitous cruelty to animals. Posner was challenging Singer on the power of an intellectual / philosophical argument to change anyone’s mind on ethical issues. At best, the advocate can attack the factual assumptions that underpin the opponent’s position. But I can’t think of a single “rights” movement which was assisted — even a little bit — by appeals to abstract utilitarian principles.
It’s not society’s burden to justify itself to Singer’s standard; we’re cool with the status quo with respect to _homo sapiens_ being seated at the head of the table. It’s Singer’s burden to convince all human societies that the status quo should change. And if he really takes his job seriously (and by my standards he doesn’t), then it’s his burden to do the hard work of actually convincing people. He can’t just strike a hectoring intellectual pose that merely flatters the tastes of those already on his side. Well, he can, but then he should prepare to be dismissed by the rest of us outside the tent.
The fact that he’s unwilling to do the hard work of convincing people says plenty about the merits of his argument, and I daresay his moral commitments to his own causes.
Ethan Gach says
Border cases are often the least important because they rarely, if ever occur (in keeping with your concern for practicality).
Dolphins, mines, and babies is hard. But what about slaughtering hundreds of millions of animals so we can eat yummy meats? A much clearer example (if only because our own sacrifice in that scenario is so little). And yet if there is no difference between our treatment of animals in one case and our treatment of them in the other, why are we persuaded when it’s easy and not when it’s difficult?
I’m sorry Daniel, but you seem to unfairly be mixing the practical difficulties of convincing lots people who haven’t and won’t reflect on a complex and deep problem, with the actual merits of those opinions won’t truly consider. Singer’s ability to convince the masses, while an important question for those concerned with the politics of the issue, has little do with deciding the validity/soundness of his arguments.
You seem, though I’m sure I’m misreading you, to be implying that if only he had a knockdown argument for the masses you’d be on board, but since his philosophy seems woefully inadequate to current public sentiment his ideas are thus less justified.
Rebutting a moral argument on the grounds that most people wouldn’t buy into it, or it doesn’t make they/me feel good, or I wouldn’t want to obey it, is lacking in just as much rigor as you accuse Singer’s arguments of doing.
If we admit a continuum of good/bad, moral/immoral, better/worse, something that utilitarian and consequentialism seems to require, there’s nothing wrong with saying that in a morally superior world we would not sacrifice dolphins to save neglected children. Doing so is what provides the moral impetus to find ways to stop doing it.
So we don’t all stop eating meat now, full stop. We use the immorality of such an action to provide the justification for moving away from it.
Why do you find Singer so abhorrent/disingenuous?
Why not, like Socrates, pick up your fellow’s argument where it stumbles and help it along, rather than pointing incredulously at its author’s apparent failure?
If you feel Singer dodges the question, perhaps you can make up the difference. But the dismissiveness comes across from the apparent lack of any desire to analyze, build up, and break down the argument rather than the man.
Ethan Gach says
You guys were pretty dismissive, unfairly citing caricatures or weakly framed versions of his arguments, rather than taking them on their own terms and demonstrating some logical contradiction.
The consensus seemed more or less to be, well his morality would just be too darn hard and maybe even compel me to do things I don’t want to do like give away my things.
While he might be wrong, and certainly his view has it’s shortcomings, a refutation based on subjective moral impulses hardly seems thorough or legitimate.
If morality were simply our initial reactions reformulated, we’d hardly have the problems that generate moral discourse in the first place.
Seth Paskin says
This is the last time I’m going to defend myself from the accusation that I in any way misrepresented Singer’s argument. See my comment on the thread from our Utilitarian cast. If I’m being unfair or misrepresenting, I’d like someone to point out how and where.
My apologies for re-opening what seems like an old wound. But Seth, I think the previous comment you linked to there is an argument against the position Singer takes in The Life You Can Save, rather than his broader arguments in e.g. Practical Ethics.
In the context of The Life You Can Save, you deny to his premise 3, that distance should be no object, in the terms that: “It isn’t clear to me that relationships, proximity, community, language, culture, etc. don’t play a role in determining our moral oblgations.”
I think you’re right, that those things very often do play a role in practice. And I think that as well as setting us the challenge to draw the circle a little more widely, Singer anticipates & responds to your objection that overseas aid may often be mis-directed, if I remember correctly from his interview about this on Philosophy Bites. He says that those with any justified doubts about the efficiency or suitability of specific overseas aid programmes should instead make their donations to well-chosen worthy causes more locally.
Singer’s position, as I understand it, isn’t so much that each animal counts as equivalent to a human as it is that each animal counts as equivalent to a human *insofar as we share the same capacities.*
This is a very important distinction because you can make an argument that we are similar in, for instance, the fact that we strongly dislike physical pain, but different in important respects such as “planning for the future” or “regretting our mistakes.”
As such, if you want to be a Utilitarian after Singer, you can happily prioritize a human life over that of an animal, should the question arise (because animals aren’t, for instance, invested in plans for their retirement or whatever), but still make a strong claim that causing lots of animals physical suffering (e.g., via factory farming) is strongly morally objectionable according to a Utilitarian calculation.
Whether or not you agree with Singer, there’s definitely something really odd about the fact that as a society, we abhor (and legally punish) cruelty to dogs and cats but have no problems with equivalent cruelty to cows and pigs. And the reason, to my mind, is clearly that we are familiar with the former as beings deserving of moral consideration because they share our homes and that we ignore the latter because they don’t.
Oh man. Also, I should have guessed that this has been a contentious issue on this blog that’s probably been done to death a million times. New commenter here. I’m listening through from the beginning.
Ethan Gach says
“What I took issue with was premise #3. It isn’t clear to me that relationships, proximity, community, language, culture, etc. don’t play a role in determining our moral oblgations. At the very least you would have to tell me why I should care more about Somalia than Austin on the same issues/obligations.
Also, I feel like Singer represents a kind of naive 80s global view – at least politically – when he says things like:
Expert observers and supervisors, sent out by famine relief organizations or permanently stationed in famine-prone areas, can direct our aid to a refugee in Bengal almost as effectively as we could get it to someone in our own block.
That is just patently false and has been proven so over and over. The reality of corruption, theft, violence, etc. and the difficult political situations many ‘third world’ countries entertain render views like this simply ridiculous, to me.”
So there’s the moral consideration of whether our duties to those we know and are near are different than to those we don’t know and can’t see.
And then there’s the practical consideration that getting aid to those who need it is difficult and in some instances probably makes doing something not worth it.
The first appears, at least to me, to be unrelated to the second. If we determine the duty exists, then our practical inability in the meanwhile to effectively assist those in third world misery merely suggests a need to come up with more effective organizations, mechanisms, channels for assisting, not that assisting itself, because it isn’t currently feasible, is no long morally obligatory.
As to why it should be morally obligatory in the first place, failing to distinguish in kind the duty to a human being we know vs. one we don’t know, it seems that our responsibility to give would be one of degree.
So unless we can come up with important distinctions in the people we know and the people we don’t know, to account for why we owe people we know something, but not those who we don’t know, who are even worse off, Singer’s obligation seems to stand.
But I’m not well versed on these things, and I don’t recall finding you comments very dismissive Seth, though it’s been a while since I listened to that episode, but distinctly remember Wes feeling that since it didn’t appeal to him the moral argument was moot, with Mark being more defensive, but likewise coming to the conclusion that it just didn’t seem “reasonable,” whatever that means as a criterion.
Daniel Horne says
Sorry, not sure if this is going to track below your last comment.
I think addressing border cases is essential if one is to create an ethical rule, as opposed to a set of working guidelines based upon common moral sentiments. Most utilitarianism is flawed where it pretends to create a calculus where one can’t be created. I’m not suggesting that Singer needs a perfect intellectual argument in support of an ethical rule, because I don’t think one exists.
But I do suggest that ethical arguments (as opposed to metaphysical wanking about ontology) require better advocacy than he provides, because the stakes are higher.
If Singer thinks he has a credible argument to effect social change, he should be working harder to establish the argument in the face of its most obvious objections, particularly when presented by thoughtful and charitable opponents like Posner. Otherwise, Singer should get out of the business of making intellectual arguments, and instead focus on his activities which actually have more cash value, like the “Life You Can Save” project, RSPCA work, etc. But note that what he’s doing there is facilitating and empowering those who are already predisposed to give to charity, and were likely to give to some other organization had his not come along. Good on him for doing so.
But if Singer wants to change the intellectual status quo (as opposed to the political status quo), the burden is on him to address the intellectual objections, unless he really doesn’t care about persuading anyone. As a utilitarian, I would expect him to act more like a results-oriented consequentialist with respect to his own advocacy.
Singer’s not abhorrent, but I think I’ve explained as much as I can why certain of his arguments can be so easily dismissed by those who weren’t already predisposed to agree with him. These things aren’t determined by intellectual arguments.
I’m tempted to say that I don’t quite understand why Singer attracts such a lot of ad hominem vitriol. But of course, I do understand exactly why. He’s proposing some changes to everyday behaviour that many (myself included) would find quite difficult to implement, and he’s doing so on the basis of a key premise that many of those very same people (utilitarians and others, and again myself included) find unexceptional – that suffering is bad, and should be avoided or minimised where possible. So the temptation is strong to prove him wrong, trip him up, bring him down to size, make him go away.
Daniel, earlier you said: “But I can’t think of a single “rights” movement which was assisted — even a little bit — by appeals to abstract utilitarian principles.”
The most obvious example here would be the movement that shares it’s name with Singer’s own book, Animal Liberation.
Daniel Horne says
Neither the book Animal Liberation nor the movement owes its success due to its appeal to abstract utilitarian principles. There are plenty of more other reasons and bases to want to fight animal cruelty without trying to make comparisons between animals and people, and that process started long before Singer came on the scene.
I also believe you’re misusing the word “ad hominem”. I’m not discounting his argument due to attacks of his character. I am willing to make certain judgments about his character due to the way he appeals to arguments that don’t persuade the already-convinced. It’s not the same thing.
Anyway, it’s you and Ethan that are using this “Why must you hate him so?” situation. I don’t see any vitriol in my comments, and it’s Ethan who’s injecting words like “abhorrent.” It’s OK to point out that key aspects of Singer’s arguments (and indeed utilitarian ethics itself) possess deep flaws. Seems to me that’s kind of the point of this show and this blog.
Saying that “suffering is bad, and should be avoided or minimized” is not the flaw in Singer’s argument. Nor did Singer invent that argument.
Hi Daniel –
You said: “Neither the book Animal Liberation nor the movement owes its success due to its appeal to abstract utilitarian principles.”
Have a look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_liberation_movement. Maybe not the most authoritative source, but it will do.
To quote: “It was in a review of Animals, Men and Morals for the New York Review of Books that Australian philosopher Peter Singer first put forward his basic arguments, based on utilitarianism and drawing an explicit comparison between women’s liberation and animal liberation. Out of the review came Singer’s Animal Liberation, published in 1975, now regarded as the “bible” of the movement.”
So I think as a matter of history, it’s fair to say that the movement drew on utilitarian principles for support & inspiration. No doubt amongst other arguments, but it was in there.
You might or might not believe that utilitarianism provides the best account of our ethics. I agree with you that it has trouble in the limit cases – where it runs most counter to common moral intuitions.
But common moral intuitions tend to change over time, often in direct response to pressure from activists like Singer.
I appreciated the link that you posted to the Posner vs. Singer debate. Seems like Posner was pushing hard for the primacy of moral intuitions, whereas Singer as we’d expect was all out for his version of utilitarian ethics. Back in the real world, I believe that we continue to need both intuitive & theoretical approaches to act as constraints on each other. Whenever pure intuition or pure theory goes off-beam & produces wacky results, we can draw on its opposite to bring us back to our senses.
We should all drop the ad hominem charges. I’ll start: consider mine retracted.
Ethan Gach says
But Daniel, what has his ability to, or effort invested in, the persuasion of society writ large have to do with whether he’s right?
I’m not sure how you get to talking about bang for the buck, and practical consequences, and social change, and then get hung up on bizarre scenarios involving no good options.
Why must a moral scheme give absolute answers in every scenario, rather than guiding us toward what is better and away from what is worse? Requiring such strict determinations seems to doom any moral framework in advance.
Especially when the answer is given as well as the justification, and it is simply dismissed as unworkable by our initial sentiments and previous social norms.
Often times social critics are attacked for their own hypocrisy. In Singer’s case, at least to my knowledge though I’m open to correction, lives what he’s arguing. So with that ad hominem closed down, critics instead attack him for not doing even more, or an even better job of, or even being more hardworking, when it comes to bringing about the change he thinks is necessary.
If we tentatively accept that Singer might be right, why wouldn’t we as responsible for pursuing the argument and spreading the critique as he? Why throw it all back on him and say, well you haven’t convinced me so try harder. The base plausibility of his claims and their wide spread consequences should be more than enough to make those with moral concerns interested in exploring them.
Just because it may be difficult to compare x number of less aware life forms with 1 more aware life form, or 1 life form who may one day be aware, does not mean we couldn’t come up with criteria to do so.
When and if we find out that various animals have certain broad abilities to experience suffering, as well as some notion or instinct of the future, vs. the past, the calculation would become easier. Though Singer may not know what his argument may end up recommending in a given scenario, doesn’t mean that it’s not sound, just that there’s more work to do.
The basis of the Singer critique seems to me to be that, animals are likely to have some sort of awareness, and maybe even the ability to experience time, and thus have some lose awareness of death. As other forms of life, we our unable to make claims, outside of unfounded metaphysical ones, that the life of animals is essentially different than the life of humans (i.e. both have some form of consciousness). As such, our interactions with them, as well as animal’s interactions with other animals, may indeed carry moral weight and imply various moral obligations.
Ethan – completely agreed. Seems to me that if we’re at all interested in giving utilitarian positions a fair hearing, we’ve got to give some serious thought to where Singer is leading.
Maybe we’ll like where he leads us, maybe not. But remember that Mark started this blog post like so: “Our inconsistent treatment of animals is one of the key signs that something is wrong with our cultural values.” Singer has been banging that drum for 40 years, and living the resulting values. For me, the very least he deserves for that is our respect.
Daniel Horne says
My point — such as it is, and anyway better articulated by Posner — is that one can’t be “right” in an ethical debate using intellectual arguments–it’s an incoherent concept. Words like “right”, “wrong”, “true”, or “false” can’t meaningfully enter into ethical debates. We can appeal to moral sentiments, no doubt, and that will work when it works, and fail when it fails. I think good arguments in the ethical realm succeed only when they demonstrate errors in the fact statements which might underpin an opponent’s case.
Just to take a positive, rather than negative example, I thought David Foster Wallace’s “stealth” argument in his essay “Consider the Lobster” well demonstrates how an argument (posed more as a rumination) can more effectively undercut the factual assumptions which underlay a lobster afficionado’s willingness to rationalize away the cruelty inherent to eating lobster. The fact that his essay first appeared in Gourmet Magazine(!) made it all the more subversive:
Look, I’m not attacking all of Singer’s very being — I think you’re reading too much into my prior comments. As I mentioned before, I think he does good work with the “Life You Can Save” project, and I’ll just assume he’s done similarly good work during his tenure with the RSPCA. So I praise him for that.
But those who presume to lecture others on how to change their behavior should be (and in any event will be) held to higher scrutiny, particularly if the foundation of the lecturing principle is that one should direct one’s efforts to maximize utility for the greatest number. By that score, Singer gets an “A” in my book for leveraging his elite status to create institutions whereby real change can be effected. He does a good job of rallying people that are already on his side, and more power to him for that.
He gets a lower score if graded on developing ineffective arguments which provide as much ammo to his opponents as armor to his allies. In short, if you’re not persuading people, and you think it’s important to persuade people, then change tactics or get out of the persuasion business.
Hi Daniel –
You say this: “Words like “right”, “wrong”, “true”, or “false” can’t meaningfully enter into ethical debates”
And also this: “good arguments in the ethical realm succeed only when they demonstrate errors in the fact statements which might underpin an opponent’s case.”
At the risk of straying over into one of this blog’s other recent hot topics, would you anticipate any problems here related to the is/ought distinction?
Daniel Horne says
I think that section of the blog has been quarantined until further notice, so I’ll politely decline to comment!
Ethan Gach says
“My point — such as it is, and anyway better articulated by Posner — is that one can’t be “right” in an ethical debate using intellectual arguments–it’s an incoherent concept. Words like “right”, “wrong”, “true”, or “false” can’t meaningfully enter into ethical debates.”
Could you refer me to a more extensive analysis/explanation of this idea? It seems obviously false to me which means I’m obviously missing something.
Daniel Horne says
Cop-out answer #1: Please see my last response to Rinky.
Cop-out answer #2: Please refer to L. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
“So the temptation is strong to prove him wrong, trip him up, bring him down to size, make him go away.”
What? You mean the keen rationality of philosophy is actually subservient to animal emotions? And in the case of animal suffering, if the stringer, smarter animal wants bacon cheeseburgers, it is just too darn bad for pigs, chickens, and cows, because we can use reason to create industrialized Holocaust for them.
Ah, rationalization, what a cruel thing you are.
That we buy pig flesh from industrial concentration camps for animals to feed our beloved pets is so irrational it defies any defense. Remember that pigs are highly intelligent and make pets for many people.