Tag Archives: consequentialism

Parsing rights and captivity: the problem with dignity and autonomy

(This video is only tangentially related to my post – but Tyson’s cautionary tale about nonhuman animal communication informs most of the following discussion on autonomy and dignity.)

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why I seem to be approaching animal studies from a different angle than most of the (largely abolitionist) animal-related blogs I follow. It’s probably mostly because I’m a stubborn contrarian who runs like hell from anything resembling groupthink. But I’m also a pragmatist who is loath to apply rights claims willy-nilly without thinking about implementation; a secularist who is skeptical of the idea that rights claims, whether human or nonhuman, are ever inherent rather than instrumental; a reformed Kantian who thinks, with some caveats, that Enlightenment reason has been unfairly pummeled by critical theory, but that ‘humanism’ is perniciously anthropocentric; and a Rawls-leaning semi-egalitarian who is reluctant to throw the capitalist baby out with the bathwater of inequality.

All of which is to say: the language of domination and liberation is not my preferred vocabulary, and nor is the language of inherent rights. So This essay by Anat Biletzki from the NYT Opinionator’s the Stone column (Boghossian’s “The Maze of Moral Relativism” has also been getting a lot of attention) caught my eye. A previous post, by Lori Gruen on the ethics of captivity, from the National Humanities Center’s ‘On the Human’ project, is also worth a read. I’d like to address an issue raised indirectly by Biletzky and directly by Gruen–the centrality of one’s view of ‘dignity’ and autonomy as it relates to rights claims for both human and nonhuman animals.

I haven’t done much research on the ‘dignity and rights’ subfield, but my impression is that dignity, when used in the human context, is too often a catch-all term that rapidly becomes void of specific meaning. I guess this is the consequentialist in me coming out, but I think it’s more useful to refer to the specific harms caused to an individual when its dignity is violated, and, where no such harms can be tallied, to look at what we’re really talking about when we talk about dignity (to re-paraphrase Raymond Carver). In some cases, I can see the point of dignity-speak (to take Gruen’s example: the assaults on dignity suffered by humans who have been incarcerated can be tallied using other language, but some of the less tangible psychological harms may be difficult to quantify), but it too often degrades into things like defending the dignity of a collection of cells in an embryo, which, to be blunt, makes very little sense to me. Bernie Rollin’s view on telos, which is closer to Nussbaum’s virtue ethical capabilities approach referenced by Gruen, strikes me as a better approach.

On autonomy, Gruen rightly points out that the term means different things to a neo-Kantian contractarian and to those who, like Gruen, adopt a broader definition that encompasses various forms of preference satsifaction. (This also gets us into Dennett/Frey/Cohen territory, all of whom deny, to various degrees and on various grounds, that it’s really “like” anything to be a bat–to use Nagel’s famous case–but I’m not going there right now). She also distinguishes between autonomy’s instrumental and inherent values:

Freedom or liberty is sometimes thought to entail acting autonomously and making our own choices and being in a condition in which there is an absence of arbitrary interference. Depriving someone of her freedom is also thought to be one of the things that can make a life go badly for that individual. There are two ways that denying individuals their liberty may negatively impact the quality of their lives. If we understand liberty to be an instrumental value then respecting an individual’s liberty is important because it is conducive to other things that are valuable, like pleasure and well-being. Doing what one wants, being free to make choices and to act on them, following the desires one wants to satisfy, and not being interfered with in the pursuit of one’s desires are all freedoms that are important, because they contribute to making an individual’s life go better by allowing that individual to satisfy her desires. Individuals who are confined, restrained, or subordinated cannot act freely upon their desires and live their lives as they want. But liberty can also be thought of as an intrinsic value, a value that in itself, regardless of anything else, is constitutive of living a good life.

Setting aside for a moment my view that what we call inherent values can just as easily be formulated as meta-instrumental values using a rule utilitarian metric, I think this paragraph both captures the nuance of Gruen’s piece (after all, all she’s arguing is that “Denying [captives] the freedom to exercise their autonomy by keeping them under captive control is…ethically problematic.” This seems to me unarguable.) and what I perceive to be one of its key shortcomings.

In the case of nonhuman animal captivity, the distinction between quality-of-life and autonomy is often very different from the same distinction in the case of human captivity. (Again, how one views this distinction will depend on one’s view concerning the scope of autonomy.) (One of) the reason(s) autonomy is perceived as inherently valuable in human society is precisely because it forms the backbone of the system of rights and property from which so many of our institutions emanate. In the case of, say, a farm animal, I think there’s a reasonably strong argument to be made, following Rollin on telos, that the animal in question has a different set of relevant parameters in determining its quality of life. A broiler chicken would not thrive in the forests of its genetic ancestors. Again, Gruen acknowledges this distinction when she says that we have to live with the structural legacy of nonhuman animal captivity–hence my guardianship of our research veteran beagle, Rodney…

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 ethics of food choices: down the rabbit hole

Contemplating the omnivore's dilemma?

I told my sister I would write a layman’s post on “Animal Ethics 101” soon, and was planning to make that my next post, but as you can probably gather from the title of this post, I’m putting that off for a bit. Tonight’s dinner–gnocchi with tomato and broccoli sauce and a side of mussels–got me to thinking about food ethics and whether something like veganism is necessarily deontological rather than consequentialist in nature. I don’t imagine many vegans would eat mussels, even if they don’t technically ‘have a face’, but the ethics of food choices are way too multifaceted for me to be able to put them in a single, convenient moral compartment. Let me explain what that means to me.

To start from the top: the second law of thermodynamics and the nature of ecological pyramids essentially guarantees that no trophically high-up omnivores (I’m using this in the biological, not normative, sense here) can have a truly guilt-free diet. There are just too many factors involved, especially for the now-majority of the world’s population that’s urbanized and increasingly ‘alienated from the means of production’ (I was just teaching on Marx…). This is not to say that some diets will have bigger or smaller ecological footprints–a diet that eats lower down on a food chain/web (whether sardines or soy, etc., depending) will, ceteris paribus, have a smaller net impact on the world’s biogeochemical systems, which are coming under increasing pressure as the world’s consumption patterns balloon. Rather, it’s just to point out the obvious fact that livings things keep living by converting other living things into usable energy. This will remain true until humans develop the means to become autotrophs.

More concretely, I want to return to two points from my previous post on Rorty. 1) that we live in a tragically configured moral universe, and 2) that the aesthetic private impulse and moralizing public impulse may not ultimately be reconcilable. Rorty would have us coexist comfortably with this uncomfortable knowledge–indeed, this is the main challenge for the liberal ironist–but the reason I bring this up here is to point out the disconnect between the foodie vocabulary and the vegan vocabulary, to the extent that both can be pinned down. In its most civic-minded manifestations, the former tries to bridge aesthetic-moral divide by embracing both food-as-pleasure and a certain kind of food ethics, while the latter is more specifically concerned with food as morals.

Food activists of an animal abolitionist bent would respond that ‘mere gluttony’ is not a sufficient ethical justification for what they perceive to be animal slavery, but I think there’s a problem here–food choices are deeply embedded in our social and cultural lives, and to dismiss them as gluttonous, full stop, is to drastically simplify a complex picture.

To return to the first point–Isaiah Berlin’s claim that we live in a tragically configured moral universe–the ethics of food choices are as complex as we’re willing to track the positive and negative externalities down the food supply chain. In my environmental studies class, I just had my students hand in a life cycle analysis paper (the assignment was to track the environmental costs of a given product from resource extraction through manufacturing through distribution through consumption through disposal, imagining improvements along they way wherever feasible). I’m not implying here that food activists–whether vegan, locavore, or other–don’t understand the moral complexity of their food choices. Many do. I’m just pointing out that the least harm principle gets very confusing very quickly, and the moral high ground can fade frustratingly into the distance.

To combat this risk of paralysis, different people inevitably prioritize different things to care about in there lives, and I think this is one of the reasons that there’s a lot of blowback about the moralization of food choices, at least in Tea Party-era America. For us to take seriously the idea that all of our consumption choices have ecological and ethical as well as economic impacts (broadly, these are the ‘three pillars’ of sustainable development: social, environmental, and economic) is to radically reconfigure what for many is a Lockean vision of property in which all this talk of ‘negative externalities’ is just more unwanted government interference.

For a case in point: the first comment I read on this recent post from The Oil Drum, “Beyond Food Miles”, misses the point entirely by writing “so much for the food miles idea.” Instead of denigrating locally produced food, this article could as easily be seen as a call to reduce at-home food energy costs (also keeping in mind that the study is only focusing on food energy, and not on the Nitrogen, water, or various other footprints). Similarly, one could look at a vegan diet comprised of soy products and vegetables and decry the murder of field mice killed in threshing machines, the deforestation of Amazonian rainforest and the resultant loss of animal habitat, and the human rights abuses of migrant laborers doing stoop labor all day. This would, of course, be an unfair caricature–one could look at the same scenario and see instead a Brazilian economic miracle that’s lifting millions out of extreme poverty. But caricatures are easy to remember, so they persist.