Category Archives: personhood

The moral brain conference

I went to this conference at NYU a few weeks ago, and was thoroughly fascinated all the way through. It was a merger of two conferences – the first on ‘The Significance of Neuroscience for Morality’ and the second on ‘moral enhancement’ – and part one, in particular, was mostly new terrain for me. It was also the first time I used my new iPad/bluetooth keyboard/Evernote combo, which worked really well – and all of my notes are here. Hughes and Dvorsky (from the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, which I follow on Reader) were also posting updates here, here, here, here, here, and here.

I just sat and listened, absorbing the approximately 25 hours of talks. My general impression is that neuroscientists sure do like fMRI’s; I actually learned a good deal about the different parts of the brain and the different chemicals that affect our moral (and other) behavior. It was also interesting to see Knobe, Greene, and Haidt in person.

Topically, discussions were all over the place – see the links above – but focused on: experimental studies of the effects of seratonin, etc. on empathy and related behaviors, whether it makes sense to talk about a ‘morality pill’ (probably not), and what we’re talking about when we’re talking about moral enhancement.

My only real gripe is that the conference was so strictly anthropocentric. As usual, I saw lots of room for fascinating engagement with the nonhuman animal mind – we could, for example, use fMRI studies of neurotypical humans to assess emotional and maybe even moral states in other primates. Instead, the only discussion of other animals was as ‘animal models’, with a few very minor exceptions. It’s my own fault for not asking a question, though…but hopefully animal studies folks can bone up on this literature and have an overlapping conference of their own!




I have a number of collected links in my ‘blog fodder’ folder that haven’t made it into any posts recently, so here they are (starting with Belgian fast food ‘restaurant’ Quick’s ‘Darth Vader burger’, pictured above. This is real.):

Charles Barkley’s ‘White People Problems’ on SNL (and never mind that it’s effectively discussing class rather than race), implying that farm animal welfare doesn’t matter because human slavery existed. Huh.

And speaking of class: Mark Zuckerberg only eats (ate?) meat that he kills himself, and now the bison he shot is mounted in Facebook’s headquarters. Charming.

I just got my copy of Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson’s Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights, and I look forward to reading it stat, because I think Tyler Cowen’s dismissal of the concept of nonhuman animal citizenship deserves more serious consideration, in at least partially modified forms.

There are definitely some fascinating anthropological, literary, and cultural essays to be written on the emerging tradition of “Cooking Food Featured in Fantasy Novels”.

And I haven’t watched it yet, but this PBS video, “My Life as a Turkey,” looks really cool.

Finally, “The Narwhal Bacons at Midnight,” apparently. I’ll leave this last one up to you.


Science and politics, words and things

(From clusterflock, on rats and aggression) Sometimes I’m tempted to unsubscribe from Reason‘s feed–like when I read this piece from this month’s magazine: “Who’s More Anti-Science: Republicans or Democrats”. The basic premise is that both groups exhibit strong biases (Republicans on evolution and anthropogenic climate change, Democrats on animal research and biotechnology).

Which is fine, so far as it goes, but it’s the “anti-science” bit that bothers me. The rodent aggression research pictured above is eminently political as well as scientific, and to divorce to two is either naive or dishonest.

Questions about the scope and characteristics of things like personhood and mind can–and often must–be approached using the tools of science, but science alone will never tell us which policies best fit a given set of circumstances. With various caveats, I’m a cautious fan of plant biotechnology, but to just blanket the debate with the sledgehammer-simple dualism of pro- versus anti- science is, well, dumb.

And while I’m venting–Penn Jillette’s “10 Commandments for atheists” is philosophically illiterate, let alone uncritically anthropocentric. This would be more understandable in a Dominion-rooted religious perspective, but after Galileo and Darwin, this kind of hierarchical and teleological Thomism-cum-humanism needs justification, at the very least. In any case, at least Carlin’s is funny.

Dungeons and Animals

(Bear with me for a bit–this is about to get real nerdy.) This is a Thri-Kreen. They’re an insectoid race of sentient nonhumans from Dungeons & Dragons’ Dark Sun world. When I wasn’t playing a Mul psionicist, I liked to play Thri-Kreen warriors. Forget for a moment that I mostly like Thri-Kreens because they had double the usual number of hits per turn (notice the number of limbs), so I could game the system by souping up my character’s strength and fighting unarmed. Forget also that most of my friends who played D&D, Vampire, Mage, and Werewolf with me when we were growing up in high school have not subsequently engaged in any major way with animal studies. And bracket the question of how furries tie in to the question I’m about to ask–I don’t want to go there.

I suspect there’s a whole world of serious policy wonks out there who grew up playing D&D and other RPGs (here’s one, and here’s someone who’s probably transitioning between the two domains), but my question is this: does engaging with nonhuman sentient life broaden the horizons of our moral community in a way that works to deconstruct human exceptionalism and its corresponding anthropocentrism?

I can see various ways to answer this, depending on the person, so I’ll start with the person I know best: myself. I tell myself I’ve arrived at animal studies after a long and rigorous philosophical journey through an undergraduate monster of a thesis on Kant and the concept of progress, a subsequent affinity for anti-speciesist utilitarian consequentialism, and a realization that nonhuman animal interests were too often dismissed by otherwise caring, rational, and reasonable academics. But the fact is that I might care so much about animals because I was raised with dogs and rats, and I loved them. A third possibility is that my lifelong love of imaginative and speculative fiction has primed my empathy receptors in ever-broader ways. And the fourth possibility, which I hadn’t previously put into specific terms, is that RPGS in various forms–whether around the table with character sheets or on the computer)–can perform many of the same functions.

A possible counterfactual here is that I don’t actually have much of a gut sympathy for insect sentience, although I’m open to see more research. (And Mage was actually my favorite of the games we played, mostly for its open-endedness; there was a sense in which the boundaries of the potential was bounded only by imagination, creativity, and wit.) But like Ta-Nehisi Coates, I remember browsing various Monstrous Manuals, with an endless fascination for the diversity of sentient life. I just wonder how many gamers exclude all (actually existing) terrestrial nonhumans from the domain of the sentient…because they shouldn’t.


The human, the subhuman, the nonhuman

This piece  by Art Spiegelman in the NYRB (which features both of these images) is a handy locus for the discussion of symbolic representations of the human and nonhuman. As Berger and others have described, since modernity we’ve increasingly lived without animals, so we find ways to reintegrate them as family and as spectacle. But the result can often be quite curious. The ‘cheezburger empire’ actually says quite a lot about modernity, alienation, and the longing for meaningful relationships between species, but I’d like to focus here on the role of human-nonhuman animal comparisons and what they say about the state of humanism and its discontents.

The most obvious recent incident here would be PETA’s suing SeaWorld for the constitutional protection of Orcas’ 13th Amendment rights. There’s an interesting institutional backstory here–I think some of PETA’s tactics have to do with keeping the Tilikum incident in the public memory, and capitalizing on that crisis–but many would respond with a kneejerk anthropocentrism. (And this controversy goes back to Marjorie Spiegel’s The Dreaded Comparison and beyond…) But the symbolism in question hinges on how human persons perceive nonhuman persons.

As the images above attest, symbolic representation can serve multiple purposes–in both cases, the human is being depicted as a less-than-human, inferior animal. This narrative works only when the dominant discourse is unflinchingly anthropocentric, as it arguably still is; this is one domain where the potential for speculative fiction to shift our discourse is ripe. I’ve been reading a lot of specfic recently–I’m currently on John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, which baldly anthropocentric, masculinist, even realist, but is otherwise a fun jaunt–and I think the works of people like China Mièville and Ursula le Guin can do a lot to reconceptualize our vision of what constitutes the human. Whether humanity 2.0 becomes transhuman, posthuman, or something else is another question.

“Animal lovers” and the limits of (speciesist) empathy

[Picture, from boingboing, mostly unrelated…but for some reason it reminded me of this post.] I was talking to someone recently about what kinds of students my animal studies class draws, and I noticed that they had framed “animal lovers” as a distinct (and clearly preferable) category against “animal rights activists”. In light of David Brooks’ new column on the limits of empathy, this got me to thinking about ‘who counts’ and the impact of structural violence on nonhuman animals.

Broadly, the animal lovers/activists split could be said to correspond to the welfarist/abolitionist divide, but I think the comparison can only take us so far. I feel that ‘animal lovers’ implies supererogation, while ‘animal rights activists’ take the ethical debate into the uncomfortable terrain of basic rather than optional obligations. (This minefield is probably why many people I know call themselves ‘animal advocates’ instead…) And I think Brooks’ op-ed misses the point when it comes to nonhuman animals: empathy can help us move beyond a frame where animal interests are merely supererogatory goods.

Regarding empathy, we seem to be at a curious historical moment. On the one hand, academics are aflutter with empathy-related efforts (although Pinker’s vision, unlike Rifkin’s, has a heavy dollop of Hobbesian contractarianism). On the other hand, Tea Party America verges on the embrace of cruelty, not empathy (but hopefully debate outcries–regarding capital punishment, health care, and DADT–are the exception, not the norm).

The core of Brooks’ argument here is that focusing on empathy gets us “feeling good without doing good”. As far as this argument goes, it’s a reasonable one. But the argument for extending protections beyond the domain of the anomalous and universally egregious (which, arguably, is all the dominant anti-cruelty ethic protects against) is predicated upon our ability to empathize with other living, sentient beings.

But the argument that “empathy is a sideshow”–and that we should focus instead on moral codes–runs too great a risk of defining nonhumans out of the policy cycle at the definition stage. Yes, animal advocates are often particularly vulnerable to confirmation bias, and yes, over-reliance on empathy could muddle the rigor of animal ethicists’ arguments a la Dennett. But we need to guard against the dangers of an exclusivist and speciesist empathy that lock the doors behind the species wall, as some supererogatory ‘animal lovers’ arguably do.

Obligatory Planet of the Apes post

I just taught a class on biotechnology and animals, and am now being pummeled by a flurry of Planet of the Apes-related posts. As usual, such posts are a Rorshach-like template for the blogger’s political leanings, so I figured I may as well do the same. I haven’t seen the movie, and, thanks to our separation-anxiety doggie, probably won’t until it’s on Netflix, but I do have some thoughts, and I’ll channel them through this interesting piece on “Creating Non-Human People” from Oxford’s Practical Ethics blog. The trope of “super-intelligent, violent, most likely malicious animals taking over the world” is Hollywood Summer entertainment, but the interesting issues here actually concern the ethics of enhancement, personhood, and species integrity.

A lot of one’s views of biotechnology will be influenced by your views on science and whether you think the critique of ‘playing God’ is a useful one. (I don’t, for various reasons, but mostly because we’ve been playing God in the dark for 10,000 years, and the double helix let us turn the lights on. One’s view on this issue will also color a range of related issues–hence, for example, environmentalism’s uneasy relationship with science.)

That said, I think there are a lot of good reasons to proceed with a lot of caution. The ethics of animal cloning, and genetic manipulation more generally, raise a number of significant welfare concerns. The irony is that the lay bioethical position has turned a blind eye to all manner of grotesque nonhuman animal genetic manipulation, but anything resembling human chimerism is verboten. In other words, the ethical problem of creating cognitively ‘enhanced’ nonhuman animals is that they would then be more likely to qualify for personhood, and, as such, increased moral protection. Ironic because, as Rollin notes, this kind of Cartesianism is its own undoing–if it’s wrong to test on species that are sufficiently ‘like us’, but the reason we do the testing in the first place is because they’re like us.