Category Archives: Rights v. Welfare

“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.

Oppression-speak and myopic “clarity”

This interview with UChicago’s Robert Pippin got me to thinking about the effects of seeing the world through oppression-tinted lenses, especially after rereading (for class) Jeff McMahan’s recent piece (from which the image above is lifted) on the desirability of mass predator eradication. Setting aside the fascinating discussions on Hegel, art, and modernity, I want to narrow in on how Marx famously ‘turned Hegel on his head’, and the effects of viewing the world through zero-sum oppressionscopes. Viewed in such a light, various complex symbioses can immediately be reduced to hierarchical power differentials of oppressors and oppressed. But is this accurate, and would ‘liberation’ lead to a better world? I’m going to have to equivocate: sometimes symbiosis is indeed mere parasitism, but sometimes it’s commensalism and sometimes it’s mutualism. We want to shoot for mutualism. (Duh.)

(Full disclosure: I’m a graduate of Wesleyan University, and although my major–the ‘dead white men’ College of Letters–set me on its own course, the PCU-ness of many of my classes left an undeniable mark. Personally, I loved being able to study a core of ‘great books’ while being challenged by a range of broadly ‘left’ disciplines in my coursework. While my gripe at the time was more with what I perceived as the nihilist tendencies of postmodernism (we’ve since come to terms, albeit cautiously), the idea that hierarchy and inequality were categorically unjust seemed an unquestioned axiom of many of my peers.)

I’ll start by saying that some forms of human-animal relations are, indeed, pretty overtly zero-sum in this respect. Battery cage egg production comes to mind, as this blog post rejecting incrementalism points out, but this is as much because of the economics of “commodity” production in an age of economic globalization as because of anything inherently wrong with animal husbandry. (There’s a whole literature rejecting ‘humane livestock’ and what Francione terms ‘new welfarism’, and others neocarnism, that would reject animal agriculture as inherent parasitical. I don’t want to get in to that argument right now, other than to say that I think it’s logically coherent–indeed, with the exception of some nutritionally vulnerable groups, we’re not obligate omnivores–but ignorant of “the way the world actually is”. In other words, yes, I’m an incrementalist.)

Maybe it’s because I’m a Rortyan pragmatist who cringes when I hear single-premise constructs about ethics and policy (hence the contradictory ‘myopic clarity’ schtick). Especially in the case of food politics, I don’t see the other 98% of the world agreeing with the vegan ethic’s principle of harm avoidance overriding all of our other distinct moral premises anytime soon.

Maybe I’m cynical, but I’m cynical in the sense that nobody, not even the most dedicated vegan, is truly “cruelty-free”, especially those of us urbanites who live under what Marx accurately termed alienation from the means of production. This even follows from the second law of thermodynamics and the nature of ecological pyramids: in order for us to live, other living matter must die. This is true for any organism that is not an autotroph…so until we start figuring out how to photosynthesize or chemosynthesize, we have to remove energy from the world to live. So yes, we should all endeavor to eat and live lower down on the resource/food web. But these kinds of ethical concerns are distinct from harm/care/suffering, and they need to be balanced against each other.

And I don’t say this as a cheap rhetorical tactic (to merely prop up counterarguments as if they somehow changed the reality in question: see the Dawkins elevatorgate (just Google it) for a primer on how not to say “your issue is unimportant because other important issues exist.” Which often descends into the caricature: “Why care about animals? Kids are starving in Africa!”)

I guess all I’m saying is that I think we live in a tragically configured moral universe (as Sandel said of Isaiah Berlin’s views), and while I’m not a conservative, I have a lot of respect for the Burkean idea that social engineering projects don’t take you where you think you want to go (cue the ecological nightmare that would be mass predator eradication). Then again, if I see compelling evidence that we can restructure the global food system–or global predator-prey interactions–to bring about a broadly sustainable vegan future, I’m down. I mean, if the Vulcans do it…But large-scale veganic agriculture without massive synthetic fertilizer use (and resultant dead zones) and backbreaking stoop labor is not on the near-term horizon. (This also gets us into a whole other debate: the Vandana Shiva small-scale future versus the Economist techno-sustainable large-scale future. Again, I don’t want to go there right now.)

That said, I think the rich world needs to start eating about 90% less meat and dairy, and I think serious policy efforts need to be made to keep the rapidly developing world–especially China–from following in our dietary footsteps. But things aren’t looking good. But just looking at all animal husbandry as equally illegitimate is to paint with a comically wide brush. But I guess that’s why I’m a welfarist. (It’s also because I don’t believe that rights–whether human or animal–are anything other than a(n enormously useful) social construct)…but that’s a topic for another post.)

It’s a stretch to say that the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity, but, sadly, Yeats was on to something.

Symbolism redux and posthumanism(s)

“Why does Hollywood make animals act like humans? As The Atlantic’s James Parker has pointed out, the answers lie in philosophy. The French film critic André Bazin wrote of our relationship to onscreen animals as an “ontological otherness”—a connection with an outside world that reminds us of ourselves—or what’s also been called the “human gaze” by animal ethicist Randy Malamud. We’ve become accustomed to seeing “animals doing silly things for the audience’s amusement—things they don’t usually do, and have no reason to do,” Malamud argues. When we see Free Willy’s whale flip through the sky, it’s not for his entertainment so much as ours. The same is true of a cute YouTube video of a hamster eating broccoli or a LOLcat pleading for a cheeseburger, an amusingly discomfiting image. It’s also funny to see Zookeeper’s animals talking on a cell phone—or, at least, it’s supposed to be.” (from this article, on Zookeeper, Project Nim, and animal symbolism)

John Berger pointed out in “Why Look At Animals” that the pervasiveness of nonhuman animal symbolism inversely correlates to the presence of actual nonhuman animals in our lives. I haven’t seen Zookeeper, and, given the controversy surrounding the treatment of its captive animals and the mediocre-at-best Kevin James, I don’t really plan to. (Project Nim, on the other hand, I look forward to.) But this caustic article posted on Minding the Campus (a generally conservative counterpoint to the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s Brainstorm — or at least that’s how I parse it) got me to thinking.

Mary Grabar’s “Literature Professors Discover Animals” ranges from Foucault to the Institute for Critical Animal Studies (ICAS) to Steve Best to posthumanism (as against transhumanism – see this post at IEET for the distinction). The audience, apparently, is supposed to know why such studies are “ominous”, because she never explains her position. She is also lumping together two related but distinct things–posthumanism and critical animal studies–about which I have two different opinions.

As this muddled and contested Wikipedia page indicates, the term posthumanism (like the field of animal studies) means different things to different people. I’m ambivalent about the term, but I still can’t accept the bald anthropocentrism of humanism, much of which I otherwise agree with.

Critical animal studies, on the other hand, tends to specifically embrace the post-Marx continental philosophy in which all of reality can be viewed as a hierarchical power struggle of otherness, alterity, exploitation, and domination. This is, of course, an oversimplification, but I’ve been to both CAS conferences and to the HSUS’ TAFA, and the two are very different in scope and sensibility. One is broadly welfarist, the other abolitionist. At this stage in the social movement for animals, I think we need both movements, just as we need both PETA and the ASPCA, ADI and IFAW. The two are, indeed, distinct, sometimes even mutually hostile (which is unfortunate, but not surprising).

My reaction to Grabar’s piece, then, is threefold: 1) she lumps a range of different material under the same header, leading the reader to assume that all academic work in animal studies is Foucauldian, etc.; 2) she presumes her argument to be so obvious that it doesn’t need mentioning (why, exactly, is this an ‘ominous’ development, and what’s so great about the existing Judeo-Xian ethic?), which it isn’t, and it does; and 3) the result is that this ends up resembling an ‘ivory tower hit job’ in which posthumanism becomes anti-human, which it needn’t be, and where animal studies becomes, falsely, nothing more than CAS.

Bad humanism

This is what happens when you reject moral nuance. I don’t see why anyone not arguing from a natural law (i.e., religious) perspective would choose to think in such Manichaean terms. Although I agree that many animal advocates overplay the cognitive abilities of some nonhuman animals (a form of confirmation bias, essentially), this article is making all the wrong points, for all the wrong reasons. This shouldn’t surprise me, as she has apparently written posts with such titles as “Animals are useless, unless humans make use of them”. I’ll address at least the core problem here: whereas she argues that taking nonhuman animal interests seriously results in a denigration of what it means to be human, the opposite is in fact true: by engaging in such large-scale and thoughtless structural violence against the rest of the sentient world, we construct a world that can never know peace.

Granted, her argument is progressing along a different track–she mocks the foodie elitists and the celebrity activists, and spends a bunch of time talking about the near-nihilist John Gray’s excellent book Straw Dogs (this is the only ‘near-nihilist’ book that I would admit to calling excellent–it made me question some of my core Enlightenment principles, but I came away from it the stronger for having grappled with it.)

The argument that celebrity activism a la Pamela Anderson does more harm than good to the cause of serious animal advocacy is a reasonable one, and it’s one I’ve debated with various people. But Guldberg’s argument is sneakier: she progresses from ‘rich cause’ postmaterialist activism to a ‘humans are cancer’ anti-humanism. This legerdemain is unjustifiable. Some animal advocates may view the rapacity of the human primate with skepticism or even disdain, but this is nowhere near a consensus view. Just as her argument is predicated on an all-or-nothing dualism under which only humans can matter morally, most animal advocates I know acknowledge that caring doesn’t have to be zero-sum, and that we don’t necessarily have to harm people to help animals.

That she picks the case where harming nonhuman animals does have the chance of helping human animals–biomedical research–to champion her total dismissal of nonhuman animal interests is as unsurprising as it is intellectually dishonest. Yes, there are cases where harming one individual might help another (note that this moral hypothetical can and does apply within as well as between species), just as there are cases where treating one individual better might cause another individual some economic ‘harm’. (as with the case of humanely raised meat, which she anthropocentrically dismisses as a non-issue…and which makes me wonder how some people can be so cruel, frankly.)

But to then claim that nonhuman animal interests should be categorically disregarded (she paraphrases the old Kantian saw about how being cruel to animals is only bad because it fosters cruel behavior that might later hurt humans…) rather than merely discounted (a welfarist view, often based on cognitivist differences) is radical, indefensible, and unnecessary.

To return to my original claim: I forcefully disagree with the premise that taking nonhuman animal interests seriously is, in the long run, harmful to human interests. The opposite is true, and our moral sensibilities will never progress beyond a fractured anthropocentric schizophrenia until we realize this. This doesn’t necessarily mean worldwide veganism or abolitionism, mind you, but it definitely doesn’t mean exclusivist humanism either.

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.