Category Archives: utilitarianism

‘Man is by nature a political animal’


(Image from Tim Flach’s amazing More Than Human collection.) I haven’t written a new post here in almost nine months, mostly because my recent pursuits have been decidedly non-animal studies related. Time to remedy that. Lots of animal politics-related news has come and gone, particularly trade (seals and foie gras) and cognition (octopus personhood) issues.

For my part, I’ve been deep in quantitative political science land as a first-year PhD student at UCSD, where I’ve been exposed to a view of the world as filtered through rationalist lenses of human behavior. Man is by nature a political animalAll the while, I’ve been asking myself about the role nonhuman animals play in political science, as distinct from political theory. I don’t have answers to this question right now, although I have been working on international research about norm diffusion and animal welfare norms. And I still tend to look at the world through consequentialist but anti-speciesist goggles–where ‘what matters’ is the interests of sentient beings–but my present foray into continental philosophy and animal studies is tempering and may eventually change this outlook. For now, though, I’d like to think out loud for a moment about the effects of looking at the world through rationalist lenses.

Briefly, some context: the rationalist project in political science presents a view of actors rooted in assumptions about agency that preference interest maximization at the expense of systems-level cultural or social influences. A ‘thin’ conception of rationality assumes that preferences are rank-ordered and transitive, while a ‘thick’ conception assumes increasingly egoist preference content, whether power, material gain, or, mostly simply, money. I could go on about this at great length, but for the purposes of this post I’m more interested in the effects of looking at the world through these speciesist and methodological individualist lenses.

The stated purpose of the rationalist project in political science is to be an accurate predictor of empirical reality, and, when discussed on those grounds, it should be evaluated on those grounds. But there’s always a risk that prescription will creep into description, ‘ontologizing’ or ‘reifying’ what are meant to be mere analytical tools. What immediately strikes me in the context of animal studies is how strongly this project reinforces human-nonhuman dualisms; indeed, political science has been doing this since Aristotle’s Politics, to mixed effect.

This is also particularly interesting to me in light of Cary Wolfe’s research on posthumanism and animal studies (for which see Zoontologiesmy current Goodreads…), as distinct from the traditional literature on animal rights. (And as if to reinforce the rights-studies split, the two literatures are shelved on different sides of the UCSD library.) Just as Cora Diamond argues (in the recent Philosophy and Animal Life) that “the language of rights is…meant to be useful in contexts in which we cannot count on the kind of understanding of evil that depends on loving attention to the victim,” the language of interests that predominates in the rationalist literature is antithetical to the kind of reckoning with animality that animal studies in the vein of Derrida and Levinas call for. (In part, this is just a restatement of the analytical-continental divide, but the animal lens brings it to the fore.)

These are some of the thoughts I’ve been having while grappling with regression models and the canon of modern political science and international relations this quarter. Mostly I’ve been keeping it to myself, because pulling the speciesist-humanist rug from under the discussant’s feet would be destabilizing, to put it mildly. But it’s something I’ll keep at, and, in the meantime, I’ve got a few weeks to read, read, read. (The image below is from Ed Wray’s Monkey Town, which is meant to be more of a meditation on the poverty trap than on animal welfare, but which also serves as a potent illustration of Diamond’s attempt to reframe the discourse from rights and interests to one in which we attend to our ‘fellow creaturehood’, our “fellows in mortality, in life on this earth.”)


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!



Horse slaughter

A number of my animal studies students have written interesting research papers on the law, policy, and ethics of horse slaughter. I’ve found the issue to be an excellent case study for various key animal politics issues: determining the boundaries of the moral community; understanding whose voice counts, and why; and parsing the the national and international political economy and trade law issues under consideration. The image featured above is from a campaign for electoral reform–“We Need More Party Animals”–but most of the things I came up with when I image searched ‘horse slaughter’ were too nasty. (And speaking of political animals and animal lovers, here’s one)

I actually changed my views quite substantially on this issue over the last few years. Originally, my approach was mostly utilitarian and anti-speciesist, and I couldn’t help but think that if some of the millions of people who called their congresspeople about horse slaughter-related issues (it’s the number one thing anyone in Congress gets called about..) would chime in instead about the billions of other animals sent to slaughter, it would have a better net effect.

But the more I learned about some key issues–the difference between slaughter and euthanasia; the welfare problems inherent in shipping and slaughtering skittish animals whose skulls are not an easy target for captive bolt guns; and, yes, the relational issues that arise from killing animals who traditionally have a strong human-animal bond–the more my views on the issue started to shift closer to a capabilities approach.

Here are some recent pieces on the topic, both of which I felt were lacking, but in different degrees and for different reasons: Josh Ozersky (Time food writer), “The Case for Eating Horse Meat“; and philosopher Mike LaBossiere, “They Eat Horses, Don’t They“.

And here‘s a piece on the growth of the animal studies field in today’s NYT: onward and upward!


I have mixed feelings about this Onion clip. On the one hand, yes, many foodie pursuits are hedonic at best and elitist/wasteful/violent to animals and nature at worst. On the other, I know a lot of foodies for whom these issues are not effete bullshit, but are, to varying degrees, central to their pursuit of satisfaction in the world. To dismiss all gustatory preferences as ‘merely hedonic and therefore morally insignificant’, as I’ve known a lot of people–especially animal advocate friends of mine–to do, is to misconstrue the complex relationship people have with food. (As an aside, I also wonder whether many of the people who make these claims have less developed palates, for any of a number of reasons?)

None of the above is meant to imply that we can’t judge or evaluate the ethics of food choices–of course we can, should, and must. It’s just problematic when we dismiss certain pursuits as morally irrelevant relative to others…this can take is in some unsavory directions.


Labels and diet

(No, not that kind of food labels…) Next week’s human-animal relations class will be on diet and food choices, and I’m interested to see how my students engage with the topic. As a semi-vegetarian (on mostly utilitarian grounds) who has thought about the issue of food choices more thoroughly, it appears, than Andrew Sullivan (above), I still feel there’s always room for discussion. To borrow from Levi-Strauss: food, like animals, is ‘good to think’.

There have been some interesting discussions on food ethics in the blogs I follow recently. A post on the ethical distinctions between eating dogs and pigs in Talking Philosophy (engaging, but not really attuned, in my reading, to some of the moral arguments at play). A piece in the Smithsonian “food and think” blog on the interstitial relationship between vegetarianism and social activism (most recently at OWS). A ridiculous clump of caricatures about vegetarianism in the Guardian.

But what most caught my attention is a story that lit up the vegan blogosphere on how the Happy Herbivore author Lindsay Nixon “left” veganism after being repeatedly badgered by the ‘vegan police‘, who accused her of not really being a vegan. Some sympathetic vegan bloggers chimed in.

My initial response is no diet can be cruelty free, and that the best any of us can hope for is to be cruelty as-light-as-possible. Theoretically, someone living completely off the grid using only veganic methods of agricultural production could satisfy their caloric and nutritional needs with minimal harm to sentient animal life. But the moment you start eating crops produced from anything resembling an intensive system of agricultural production, animals are going to die, sometimes in quite large numbers, and sometimes quite brutally (being ground up in a thresher does not sound pleasant).

This is emphatically not to reject the ethical force of veganism. I think it’s a powerful statement that, on balance, is trophic-and-ecological-levels of magnitude better than the world-consuming Western diet. But the social politics of in-group identification–and the accompanying dangers of groupthink and comfirmation bias–are some of the main reasons I’m reluctant to label myself.

A rose by any other name

There have been lots of interesting pieces recently on humanism, morality, and the more-than-human world. My first response to Joel Marks’ supposed rejection of morality is to side with Andrew Sullivan, who has been covering a lot of relevant issues recently. My second was to realize that these issues are bound up with our discussions of secular humanism and its discontents. I agree that something like ‘secular humanism 2.0’ would be an improvement over the current anthropocentric and self-defeating myopia, and I don’t think we need to agree on the primacy of one moral vocabulary to get there.

To briefly recap Joel Mark’s “Confessions of an Ex-Moralist” from last week’s NYT Stone piece: Marks transitions from being a deontologist  who fought for the inherent rights on (especially) food animals to a pragmatic/utilitarian person who, less sure of the external moral validity of their core deontological beliefs, “now focus[es] on conveying information” about the conditions on industrial animal ag facilities. I don’t always agree with Coyne, but in this case I do: this looks to me like a distinction without a difference. But that’s also because I’ve come to terms with the fact that most of us exist along a multidimensional plane balancing the poles of the above chart. The best we can do, in my view, is to maintain equilibrium — if it has shown us anything, history teaches us that single-moral-foundation graspings at utopia always tend towards dystopia instead.

As for humanism and its discount tent, well, that’s a big one. As I noted a few posts ago, the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes film is acting like a confirmation bias-y Rorshach test. To take two examples: this post from Salon argues that the human-nonhuman divide remains very large, while Sue Savage-Rumbaugh’s responses to the film (as recorded in this episode of On Point) mistakes CGI ape intelligence for the considerably less dazzling real thing. My position is somewhere  between these poles, but I’m making the connection here just to point out that our position on the role of homo sapiens in a “post-Darwin” world is very likely to dictate, or at least inform, our morals–or our ethics, if you’d rather call them that.

The paradox of happy meat?

So the big news this week is the HSUS-UEP deal over egg-laying hen wefare. I’ve been putting off writing about it, because I just started my Summer Animal Rights & Animal Welfare class, which runs intensively and keeps me pretty busy. It’s also hard to write about these issues, when the welfarist middle ground is openly scorned from both sides. Now that the dust has settled a bit, I want to use this case a springboard to talk about some fundamental differences between welfarists and abolitionists.

I played some of this video of Francione on moral schizophrenia in class yesterday, and the core idea, reiterated in Francione’s take on the HSUS/UEP deal complements James McWilliams’ new piece in the Atlantic arguing against ‘humane meat’ (indeed, he seems to be arguing the same thing there, over and over). To say that people consume animal products merely because they “want to”, or because “they taste good”, is at the core of McWilliams’ and Francione’s arguments. Indeed, they are arguing pretty much the same thing, I think, but McWilliams is probably trying to reach a different audience. But this is a problematic argument: it reduces our social and evolutionary history to a mere gustatory preference. For Francione to say, as he often does, that he can persuade anyone to be vegan in 15 minutes if they accept the premise that unnecessary suffering is morally wrong, demonstrates both hubris and myopia. (In my Rortyan opinion, of course; I have no doubt that others would view this very differently, but the ‘final vocabulary’ of “minimize harm” has to be balanced against various other vocabularies. The problems of fertilizer, runoff, and global veganic agriculture, for one…not that this is an insurmountable problem–actually, I don’t know the answer to this–but it’s a demonstration of how looking at these issues through one lens only shows you the elephant’s tail, so to speak.)

I’m not saying that ethical veganism doesn’t have powerful arguments in its defense. It does. But to trivialize all non-vegan diets as being “merely for pleasure” is, in my view, to frame the premises of your argument dishonestly. (It also opens up the whole Puritanical critique of aestheticism-as-luxury-and-therefore-morally-corrupt argument, which can be powerful but often runs the risk of collapsing into anti-consumption extremes.) This is also the logical conclusion of looking at the world through critical theory-tinted glasses that reflect only power relationships of oppression and inequality (Marxian rather than otherwise left-Hegelian). Viewed in this perspective, bigger cages aren’t the answer, and they never can be.

On to the matter at hand: the reactions were as varied as one might expect, and they read like a Rorschach test of political persuasions. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition presents a reasonably editorial-free overview. The Oregonian raised the scare flag of 8$ eggs. Humane Watch is as amusingly shrill and shill-y as usual, as is their industry-driven front, the Center for Consumer Freedom. Vegan Soapbox (from which I lifted the picture above) presents what I think is a balanced and honest overview that maintains a vegan ethic while acknowledging that this really is a big deal. I can’t find any specific commentary from the AVMA, although I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re playing their hand close to their chest, given their less-than-progressive record on farm animal welfare.

My view is that this is a big deal, and, pace this reasonable counterargument over at Grist, that it’s an example of effective policy pluralism at work (I just taught a class on public policy and five of the main schools of thought: pluralism, policy science, policy specialism, public choice, and critical theory). This is a case where interest group competition (the two lobbyists in question, the HSUS and the UEP, represent very different minipublics. Obviously.) overcame private interests to serve something resembling a public interest that takes nonhuman animal interests into account. I think this case will make for an important case study of interest group bargaining in the domain of farm animal welfare, just as the back-and-forth between PETA and McDonald’s accelerated the process of hen welfare standardization in the last decade.

Looking at the two images above, I don’t agree with Francione that they’re both clearly being ‘tortured’. Yes, implementation will clearly take a very long time. And yes, the fact is that enriched cages on the level of production market demand ‘requires’ will still likely involve large-scale animal suffering. But that doesn’t mean that two wrongs, to paraphrase Asimov, are equally wrong.


As if on cue, this 777-pound behemoth regains the ‘biggest burger’ title for America, fast on the heels of the “Meatful Monday” and the Coney Island eating contest. The interwebs are abuzz with fascinated Kobayashi profiles and light-hearted statistical analyses. Never mind the myriad human, animal, and environmental harms involved; this is America, goddamit. Sigh.

Eating, ethics, and regulation

What do competitive eating competitions, in vitro meat, and banning the sale of kosher/halal slaughter all have in common? One’s position on each of these issues will probably correspond to one’s location on the food ethics spectrum. The popular position in the US, for example, is that eating competitions are silly but fun, in vitro meat is icky and taboo, and banning kosher/halal slaughter practices goes too far in infringing on religious freedoms. I disagree on all three counts – let me explain why.

Competitive eating, to me, is morally repulsive rather than just frivolous. I feel the same way about many of the ludicrously wasteful lengths people go to for a shot at Guinness records (biggest burger, etc.). When we contemplate the multi-system damage done to the environment, humans, and animals by the world food system, such exercises in wanton profligacy are just, well, dumb. Similarly dumb is the president’s need to appeal to the average Joe by showing that he can eat all manner of junk food, Michelle be damned. So thanks, Onion, for articles like this.

Regarding in vitro meat and its fecal cognates…I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but never got around to it. Let me focus here on in vitro rather than “poop” meat, although the latter raises most of the same questions, if with a substantially larger “ick barrier” (And Colbert’s “schmeat” schtick is already blurring the line here…) The fact is that in vitro meat has enormous potential in a world of skyrocketing demand for meat and limited arable land for pasture and/or crops. It would also effectively address most of the current arguments in favor of ethical veganism. On the other hand, the Marxian critique–that this is just one further step in our alienation from the forces of production–is problematic. This is definitely an issue to keep an eye on, even if the current state of the New Harvest facility is quite modest relative to all the hype.

The case of banning undesirable practices is another troubling one. On the one hand, I can see the libertarian argument that bans are the wrong way to go about public policy, but in some cases I think they can send a powerful and useful message (I also disagree with the idea that a “nanny state” is necessarily pejorative; I mean, aren’t nannies nurturing and supportive?). In practice, the Dutch ban on religious slaughter exemptions is turning into a mess of ugly anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. This is unfortunate, but the fact remains that such slaughter practices were humane only by the millennia-old standards of desert nomads. We can do better now, and the limits of religious freedom don’t extend to treatment of other sentient beings.

The recent proposed ban of pets in ban-happy San Francisco is another case in point. On the one hand, they’re on the vanguard of social policy, and such actions could foreshadow similar moves elsewhere. (You see a similar logic at work with HSUS’s ballot initiative against sow crates in Florida as a preface to Prop 2 in California – it builds momentum by starting in a place that doesn’t really have the relevant industry in-state…a deceptive, even undemocratic, but effective tactic.) On the other hand, you run the risk of blowback; the double-edged sword of celebrity endorsements for the likes of PETA (i.e., it’s a “frivolous Hollywood cause”) is apposite here.

So should competitive eating be banned? In principle I want to say yes, but I know that this is just too out of whack with the American zeitgeist right now. Hopefully our stomachs for compassion will grow faster than our stomachs for, you know, eating. Happy 4th!

Ethics and the fact/value dichotomy

I went to the first day of this conference at Harvard on Tuesday. My main takeaway was a humbling one: I realized that I have a lot to learn about 20th century American philosophy, and that I dislike detailed discussions of ontology. Keeping in mind that I still have a lot to learn, it also reinforced my faith in neo-pragmatism and my skepticism of both analytic and continental philosophy.

I was only able to make it to the first day of this four-day tribute to the life and works of Hilary Putnam; my wife just got a job, our retired research beagle has separation anxiety, and one day of ‘camp’ was expensive enough. The day was divided into three sessions: one on ontology, one on ethics, and one on perception. The first and the third, while fascinating, flew right over my head.

The second session, on science and ethics, contained an interesting talk by Tim Scanlon on the fact-value dichotomy. This idea, originally from David Hume’s assertion that ‘you can’t get from an is to an ought’, has been getting a lot of play recently: Peter Singer’s embedded video agrees, and he argues that the biologically natural and the normative are two distinct spheres; Sam Harris’ recent work is on the other end of the spectrum, denying, at least partially, that the dichotomy even exists.

My main impression of both ethics talks (the other was by Mario de Caro, who provided less original work and more of an overview of Putnam’s positions) was that Aristotelian virtue ethics was much more important to most people in the room than were either consequentialism or deontology. Indeed, de Caro explicitly stated that Putnam rejected both positions in favor of moral particularism. De Caro distinguished between ontological realism, semantic realism, and ontological/semantic non-realism, placing Putnam in the semantic realist camp. I definitely hope to learn more about his views when I get back into grad school.

Scanlon’s talk addressed facts and values by setting up a the following 4 place relation: R (p, x, c, a). He distinguished between pure normative claims, pure non-normative claims, mixed normative claims, and the the impact of ‘thick’ concepts like cruelty and cowardice. His central point was that purely non-normative claims have nothing to say about pure normative claims, and the fact-value relationship only holds for mixed normative claims. This was also how he got around supervenience and covariance (the idea that normative facts are fixed by non-normative facts, and that normative facts depend on non-normative facts, respectively).

As the argument is constructed, this makes sense. And, indeed, Scanlon agreed in the Q&A that utilitarians are using the same moral vocabulary but have different ideas of what constitutes a pure normative claim. All that was really missing here was an accounting of what actually counts as a pure normative claim…but this wasn’t the point of this particular discussion, I guess. I gather than Scanlon’s conception of the domain of the moral is centrally concerned with rational agents rather than with a broader conception of sentience, so this explains where we would part ways. I would like to read more of his on the justification for different moral claims.

In the Q&A, someone asked Putnam “how can we prove that the Nazis were bad”, to which he responded “rigor can only go so far in ethics.” I agree both with this claim and with Scanlon’s configuration of the purely normative versus the non-normative and the mixed, but this necessary lack of rigor–and this is where something like Rorty’s ironism comes knocking–is problematic once we start tearing down anthropocentric barriers. Some would say it’s cruel to serve coffee with gallons of factory-farmed milk at a conference on ethics, for example. Just sayin’.

Putnam stated that he believed some societies were crueler than others (Sparta, Nazi Germany, and Stalinist Russia were examples), but I’m wondering what, if anything, either Putnam or Scanlon has written on the structural violence committed against nonhuman animals in the industrialized West. Putnam also professed his faith in the Enlightenment project, so his corresponding (speciesist) humanism makes sense in this context.

I really enjoyed the ethics Q&A. There was lots of engaging back-and-forth on the possibility of ‘objectivity without objects’, on Dewey, on ‘degrees of cruelty’ and the concept of moral progress. In fact, I wish it had gone on for eight hours, and that we could have skipped over the philosophy of perception and ontology. My general takeaway from this lecture was that I need to learn more philosophy, at the very least so I can understand what people are talking about when they talk about disquotation and mereology.

Oh, and Bittman’s Opinionator piece in today’s NYT, on how we’re dangerously addicted to meat, is excellent. As usual.

The fraught necessity of speaking for the animal other

This review of Jason Hribal’s Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance by ‘renegade historian’ Thaddeus Russell caught my attention–as any Reason piece about animals inevitably does. I haven’t read Hribal’s book, so am only going off Russell’s critique here. My first impression is that this article isn’t really about nonhuman animals at all; Russell is using Hribal’s politicized animal as an intentionally farcical springboard for his subaltern critique of the New Left’s tendency to speak for–and thus define and appropriate–marginalized groups.

Indeed, Hribal’s attribution of political consciousness to nonhuman animals is problematic, to put it mildly. But, unsurprisingly for a libertarian column, Russell’s critique overlooks the fundamental challenge of expanding the moral circle beyond the species line. By using the case of nonhumans to support his subaltern ‘history from below’, he draws an arbitrary speciesist line below which nonhuman animals can neither speak for themselves nor have another speak for them. Setting aside the equivocations from various camps about ‘what animals want’, this analysis may well work for humans–indeed, it’s drawing on many of the same arguments as William Easterly’s “white man’s burden” conceptions of humanitarian aid. But it doesn’t work at all for nonhuman animals. On the other hand, Hribal’s politicization of nonhuman animal agency is also problematic.

To me, the world is made up of beings with interests. Part of the work of humanities is to prime our empathy. Part of the work of the social sciences is to foster cooperative nonzero relationships both within and across species lines. And part of the work of science is to reveal the type and degree of human and nonhuman animal preferences. But as this recent SciAm blog post on why animals play points out, we don’t have all the answers.

So Russell is right to be skeptical of speaking for the other–but in the case of nonhuman animals, we have little choice but to try.

The moral landscape – Bentham through the back door


It seemed appropriate to follow up a post introducing moral philosophy with my thoughts on Sam Harris, science, and morality. Harris’ new book, The Moral Landscape, has been getting a lot of attention from various camps, with some of the most cogent reviews, in my view, here and here. In lieu of having the actual book on hand to critique, this interview with Julian Baggini provides a handy overview of Harris’ position that I hope is generally representative. Briefly put, it looks like Harris is trying to ride roughshod over debates in moral philosophy by saying utilitarianism won but calling it science.

A lot of the research I’ve done over the last few years involved competing definitions of what it means to be “science-based” in the domain of farm animal welfare, so Harris’ work immediately caught my attention when I saw the above TED video last year (which I’ve played bits of for my Intro to Political Thought students). An engaging Facebook back-and-forth with an aspiring cognitivist I met in Canada also got me to thinking.

With some caveats, I’m on board with Harris’ critique of religious normativity, although he and his New Atheist brethren could use a primer or three in diplomacy. (The caveats are from reading people like Huston Smith and Karen Armstrong.) Not surprisingly, I have a problem with his other attack, on Hume’s ought/is distinction in particular and, apparently, on moral philosophy in general. The irony here is that what he is espousing is essentially an empowered utilitarianism in which moral values have been upgraded to moral facts–incommensurability and indeterminacy notwithstanding.

Kennan Malik writes in The New Humanist that “the issue is not so much that wellbeing is a fuzzy category as that it can, in specific cases, be well-defined but in a number of different ways that are often conflicting in a manner that science cannot resolve.” I think this is right, and we needn’t look beyond moral philosophy to see it. Plato, Nozick, Rawls, and Tronto will give you fundamentally different but internally coherent visions of moral reality. I need to read more of Harris’ work to get a clearer view of how he supposes we can overcome these differences–but I fear he just dismisses them out of hand as being irrelevant.

My core problem here returns to Berlin’s idea (filtered through Sandel) that we live in a “tragically configured moral universe”. If this is the case, and I think one can make an argument based primarily on the second law of thermodynamics that it is, science itself isn’t going to tell us which preferences and which values deserve prioritization over which others. Especially once we acknowledge that “well-being” extends beyond the species line to all conscious entities (which Harris does), how do we go about making the inter-species valuation of preferences that will distinguish between right and wrong courses of action? I’m not saying that this isn’t desirable as an endpoint–indeed, It’s one of my core goals–I just don’t see how merely revealing preferences will let us figure out policies that balance them equitably.

I was especially struck by the hubris of this closing assertion from Harris’ interview with Baggini: “I view philosophy as essentially the womb of the sciences. Whenever a question is not experimentally tractable, not quantifiable, then it’s squarely in the domain of philosophy. The frontier between philosophy and science is never clear. But the moment you start actually talking about data and neurophysiology it would seem you’re playing more the language game of neuroscience than philosophy.”

As someone who’s spent a lot of time at the disciplinary intersection between the social sciences and the humanities, a few things leap out here: the ‘womb’ analogy–and Harris’ central assertion–presume that quantification is both possible and desirable in all cases. While it is theoretically possible to quantify all the possible mental states of all the possibly conscious inhabitants of a given ecosystem, the difficulties of performing this kind of moral calculus dwarf even the more common criticisms of utilitarian aggregation. More problematic still is the power and influence this would grant to “experts” at the expense of everyone else, including other experts.

Again, I haven’t read Harris’ book yet, but I suspect he may underplay the extent to which science is enormously political in practice–from the fight for grant money to the funding of research by pharma giants to the positioning of Monsanto and co. in the fight over IPR–and to just categorically preference quantitative over qualitative knowledge runs the very serious risk of turning a democracy into a technocracy.

Then again, the impression I get is that Harris using a relatively fast-and-loose definition of “science” that accords more closely with the Enlightenment project in general, so maybe Harris’ work has more in common with the likes of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History than it does with Dennett’s take-down of consciousness or Dawkins’ FSMism.

Animal Ethics 101

My sister told me it would be a good idea to do an ‘introducing animal ethics’ post, preferably at something like a fifth grade level. Here goes, probably sans the fifth grader part.

The image above is from the core sourcebook I use for the two sessions of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare I’ve taught at UML (which I wanted to simply call Animal Ethics, but the Philosophy department would have none of it). I think it’s a great anthology, as it presents both Regan and Cohen, Dennett and (Marian) Dawkins, DeGrazia and the Animal Ag Alliance. I’m going to focus here on the first section of this book, which deals with animals as ethical subjects, and I should preface this by saying both that the second section–on animal cognition and capacities–necessarily informs the insights of the first, and that the following is only an introduction to normative ethics, and not to any other framework of what constitutes moral reality.

There are five (sometimes overlapping) schools of ethical thought that are applicable to the way we engage nonhuman animals: utilitarianism, deontology, contractarianism, virtue ethics, and the feminist ethic of care. Of these, the ‘big two’ are utilitarianism and deontology. Very few people, however, belong entirely in any one of these camps–for most of us, it’s more a matter of whether we tend towards one or the other of these positions.

The difference between utilitarianism and deontology can best be explained by the role consequentialism plays in each. To oversimplify a bit, utilitarianism is consequentialist because only the consequences of any given action matter, morally. In other words, the end literally justifies the means; for a true consequentialist, nothing else can! Under deontology, or rules-based thought, certain actions are “just wrong” because they violate a given principle. The phrase Fiat Justicia ruat caelum (“do justice though the heavens may fall”) comes to mind; this would make sense to a true deontologist, but a utilitarian would respond that letting the heavens fall probably can’t count as doing justice. To provide some caricatures: Jack Bauer is a utilitarian, and pro-life activists are deontologists. The fact that many pro-lifers may be ‘hard-on-terrorism’ in the Jack Bauer sense could take us on a number of interesting tangents…

In addition to being consequentialist, utilitarianism is generally interests-based while deontology is generally rights-based. I say ‘generally’ because of the distinction between act and rule utilitarianism, and because deontology, rooted in Kant’s categorical imperative, is technically duty-based rather than rights-based, but the terms are sometimes used interchangably in common parlance.

What sets utilitarianism apart from other consequentialist interests-based views, like egoism, is that utilitarianism seems to produce, in Jeremy Bentham’s famous words, “the greatest good for the greatest number.” For modern deontologists like Robert Nozick, on the other hand, rights are “side constraints on actions,” and are inviolable regardless of how many people might benefit. To put it in a current context: Obama is being a utilitarian on the budget (the interests of the rich, who are few, matter less than the interests of everyone else, who are many), while Ryan is being a deontologist (it’s their money, and it violates their rights to take it away).

Coming to animals, it’s important to understand that both utilitarians and deontologists can, for our purposes, be divided into two camps: the speciesist/anthropocentric (or, to use a more generous framing, the ‘human exceptionalist‘) and the anti-speciesist. For example, most welfare economists and trade liberalizers are utilitarians, but they only sum the utility and disutility of human agents in their moral calculus. In the case of deontology, the rise of the human rights culture in the wake of the Holocaust has been explicitly “humanist” in the sense that includes even marginal human cases like acephalous humans, while still excluding nonhumans from moral consideration to varying degrees. Thus did Kant argue that yes, animal cruelty is wrong, but it’s only wrong because it increases the likelihood of later human-on-human cruelty.

A utilitarian anti-speciesist like Peter Singer, on the other hand, combines Bentham’s greatest good principle with the equal consideration of interests. If the species boundary, like race and gender, is not a morally relevant category of itself, the acephalous human (or the human in a permanent vegetative state, the difficulties of understanding ‘what’s going on in there’ nothwithstanding) has fewer clearly recognizable interests than the adult dolphin, chimp, or probably even mouse (the ‘probably’ is where research on human and animal cognition becomes crucial…). Utilitarians are often classified as animal welfarists, while deontologists are rightists, but looking seriously at the equal consideration of interests may require something closer what is often considered a rights position. Many other utilitarians accept that nonhuman animals have interests, but they may discount those interests on a sliding scale. Precisely how this scale is rigged becomes problematic, but the dominant view isn’t even one of the five schools I’m looking at, although it is closely related to both the contractarian and feminist views on animals: it’s the relational view under which different animals have differing moral status based on their relation to us. (Hence what Gary Francione calls the moral schizophrenia of treating your dog one way and your steak another.) This view is clearly incompatible with Singer’s brand of utilitarianism, where the core moral doctrine is the principle of utility. From the perspective of aggregate utility–and setting aside my own utility–it simply doesn’t matter whether it’s ‘my’ dog or a stray.

Many actions that could be justified by a utilitarian animal advocate like Singer, however, would be off-limits for a deontologist like Tom Regan, who bases his view instead on the idea that animals are subjects-of-a-life, and as such we don’t have the moral right to exploit them except when it accords with the least harm principle. This is closer to the foundation of most abolitionist animal advocacy, which views all forms of human-animal interaction as necessarily exploitative and therefore unjustifiable. Many actions that would be viewed as permissible or even beneficial to utilitarians and welfarists, such as pet keeping and animal husbandry, would be viewed as suspect by a lot of deontologists who extend rights beyond the species line (precisely how far rights are extended raises difficult questions about drawing the line).

If both of these camps seem unnecessarily divided from each other, that’s partially because most of us live our lives sometimes as utilitarians and sometimes as deontologists, but it’s also where the virtue ethical response comes in. Building originally on Aristotele’s teleological ethics and philia (in which every thing has a telos, or purpose, and the way to find happiness, or eudamonia, is to live in accordance with that purpose by according to the doctrine of the mean) and drawing more recently on moral psychology and Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach, virtue ethics says that the language of virtue and vice is richer than the language of interests or duties, and that it makes more sense to live virtuously according to the mean–to be courageous but not foolhardy or cowardly, to be self-assured but not hubristic or self-negating, and so on–than to spend one’s live constantly doing cost-benefit analyses to figure out which utilitarian calculus is preferable (=act utilitarianism) or constantly running up against situations in which adhering to rights (the ‘Indian killing’ scenario comes to mind) becomes self-defeating. This is the sense in which virtue ethics is described as a ‘middle way’ between utilitarianism and deontology, insofar as it seeks to avoid the brittleness and inflexibility of deontology while avoiding the boundary problems and indifference to potentially useful social taboos of utilitarianism. Applying this to animal ethics, then, a virtue ethicist would simply say “be compassionate, and everything else will fall into line.”

A utilitarian would respond that this is precisely the function of the rule utilitarianism as fleshed out by J.S. Mill. We can use rules of thumb–such as rules in favor of free speech or rules against killing–even without redoing our utility calculus in between every action we make, because we’ve determined that such rules provide net utility and prevent mental paralysis. The difference between rule utilitarianism and true rights-based views, though, would be that a utilitarian would acknowledge that the rule should be broken if the circumstances require it. The deontologist would then retort: then what the heck was the purpose of having a rule? This back and forth could go on for a while…

Whereas utilitarianism and deontology are premised on abstract principles arrived at by reasoned thought, contractarianism and, especially, the feminist ethic of care, point out that we exist in a network of social relations, and abstract theorizing without attending to the rights, obligations, and relations of those networks is to miss the trees for the forest. Contractarians draw on the social contract tradition in Western political thought that draws most heavily on Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. As with deontologists and utilitarians, contractarians can be either for or against taking animals seriously, depending on how the contract is structured.

The ‘standard’ formulation is a rehashing of Diodotus’ speech (from Thucydides), in which he says “we are not at law with [you], and so have no need to speak of justice.” Similarly, many contractarians would say that rights only exist where there are correlative duties, so we can’t speak of owing rights to animals when they (arguably) can’t join into contracts of reciprocal obligation with us. (The caricature one often hears of “giving rights to animals” is relevant here.) Others, like Bernie Rollin, would respond that we have obligations to animals whether we like it or not, precisely because we’ve accepted a contract with them when we become their guardians (etc.). This is also a tie-in to the religious Stewardship/Dominion view of animal ethics outlined in Genesis, which is championed both by conservative speechwriter Matthew Scully and, more recently, E.O. Wilson’s Creation.

Another formulation of contractarianism as applied to animal ethics, however, would be to adapt John Rawl’s veil of ignorance under the hypothetical original position beyond the species line. I don’t have the time or inclination to do justice to Rawls’ original position in a few short sentences, but here’s the short version: in an effort to minimize the effects of arbitrary luck on one’s place along the social hierarchy of a given society, assume for a moment that you didn’t know anything about what kind of person you would be in a society. This would include attributes that you probably take for granted, like your level of intelligence (however calculated), your charisma, your physical fitness, as well as characteristics like the traditional triumvirate of race, class, and gender. Using what he calls the difference principle and a number of other devices, Rawls concludes that people in such an original position under the veil of ignorance would choose to live in a liberal (read: regulated capitalist democracy) society, because they would have the best chance of not being as bad off as the worst off in a laissez faire capitalist society, but would also have the opportunity to be better off than in a society of forced egalitarianism. (And let’s set aside the recent work on relative versus absolute in equality in books like The Spirit Level…). Bringing animal ethics back in: one could imagine an original position that includes nonhuman animals, such that those in the original position would be more inclined to pick a society that treats sentient animals well, whether due to a stewardship mentality or a rights-based ethos.

Finally, the feminist ethic of care would have us supplement our existing conceptions of justice (for Plato: harmony; for Nozick: non-violation of rights; for Rawls: fairness) with a conception of justice as care, and to acknowledge how pervasively we undervalue the role of caring in our society and how broadly we construct dualities and dichotomies–key among them the self/other divide–and how this Manichean dualism perpetuates existing hierarchies of oppression and domination. In other words, to supplement an awareness of androcentrism with an awareness of anthropocentrism. Having just taught a session on feminism, I am again reminded that there is no one feminism, but whether we’re talking about equality or difference feminism, a common theme is that we need to acknowledge caring, nurturing, and empathy-fostering work as work.

Okay, I think that’s about all I can handle for now. I didn’t actually get to how these schools relate to animal ethics specifically as much as I wanted, but it’s important to realize that you’re standing in a building before you go poking about in the different rooms. Hmm…I wonder if that was an androcentric metaphor.