by Daniel A. Kaufman
My friend and colleague Elizabeth Foreman has introduced a new version of an agent-centered moral philosophy, according to which the relevant locus of moral assessment is our attitudes, which can be either morally “appropriate” or “inappropriate,” depending on certain “normative facts” about their objects. Her main interest in developing this account is to deploy it in the area of animal ethics, though it is intended to apply generally, to any potential arena of conduct. (Foreman, 2015; 2014a; 2014b)
The theory in question is quite simple and easily stated, as in the following:
On the view that will be advanced, what lies at the bottom of judgments of wrongness is a bad attitude; when someone does something that is wrong, she does something that expresses a bad, or inappropriate, attitude. This sort of view is agent-centered, locating wrongness in the attitudes of agents and not in actions defined independently from facts about what the agent thinks. However, the normative grounding of the evaluation of these attitudes is not facts about the agent, as some virtue theoretical accounts would hold…; the normative grounding of the evaluation of these attitudes is facts about the objects of the attitudes in question. That is, facts about the objects of one’s attitude ground judgments of the appropriateness of that attitude… (Foreman, 2014a: 941)
Foreman says that she is following Kant’s lead, but the association can be overstated. For one thing, Kant’s view is not fundamentally attitudinal in nature. What’s wrong for Kant is not merely to have an improper attitude about something – which simply means to think wrongly about it – but to wrongly will things of it. Like Kant, when Foreman focuses on actions, she looks to our thoughts in judging them, but her view also entails that the thoughts themselves are subject to moral scrutiny and judgment, in a way that they would seem not to be for Kant. For him, the relevant question regarding principles (maxims) is whether or not one wills them and whether one could will them, under conditions of rational universalizability, whereas for Foreman, simply thinking about something in the wrong way is morally condemnable, whether or not one ever wills or acts on it.
[I]t is atrocious to think that the pain of another living thing is unimportant in the face of one’s own desires. But what is atrocious is not just the behavior that that thinking engenders, nor is it the fact that such thinking engenders an attitude likely to bring about bad behavior. The attitude itself is already morally wrong, whether bad behavior follows it or not… (Foreman, 2014b: 69)
Attitudes are not wrong because they lead us to do the wrong thing; actions are wrong because they reveal a way of seeing others (or even ourselves) that is inappropriate. (Foreman, 2014a: 949)
Foreman’s is certainly a very extreme conception of morality, one that demands of us a level of moral control that seems utopian (or dystopian, depending on your point of view) and which strikes me as being closer to Christianity than to any secular morality. (I am thinking of the passage in The Gospel According to Matthew, in which it is suggested that one who has merely thought about sleeping with another person’s wife has already committed the sin of adultery.) But beyond how we might feel about the notion that there are thought crimes, the more substantial problem lies with Foreman’s claim that there are objective facts about things that in themselves can determine what our attitudes towards those things should be. Kant famously thought that there were facts about rational personhood that require of us that we should act in ways that demonstrate moral respect for one another, but Foreman’s ambition is to extend the moral circle far beyond this narrow band of extraordinary beings. Not only does she want to include animals within the range of the things that demand our moral respect – and not just mammals, but fish, crustaceans, mollusks and the like – but nature, more generally – mountains, lakes, rivers, etc. – and perhaps even more.
Consider the case of Edward and his prairie. Edward inherits a beautiful tract of natural Iowa prairie land, but cares nothing for the beauty of the prairie, nor for the hundreds of rare grasses and flowers that are growing on it. In fact, he simply hates the prairie, and is resolved to destroy it. It is his prairie, he can do with it what he likes, and so he burns it, and turns the whole thing into a giant mud pit…
[One] way to understand the badness of this attitude is that it is simply inappropriate to view the natural environment this way. It is bad to view a prairie as worthless in the face of your desires… To view all other things as disposable at your whim is to fail to appreciate their worth, as well as to exaggerate your own…
A person cares about how her life goes and makes plans for that life, a prairie is beautiful and alive, a non-human animal has preferences and acts in order to satisfy them – these are all facts about people, and prairies, and non-human animals that make it the case that there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to view them. To view a person’s plans and cares as unimportant, or to want to destroy a living thing simply because it is alive, is to view that person or living thing in a way inconsistent with the right appreciation of what it is. That is to say, it is to view it in a way that ignores salient normative facts about it. (Foreman, 2014a: 948-950)
There are times when it seems that this is as far as Foreman thinks she needs to go. Different things will have different “salient normative facts” about them that determine whether various attitudes of ours are morally appropriate or inappropriate. At other times, however, Foreman suggests that there is a common, underlying quality – some more fundamental fact about all of these things – that grounds the demand for moral respect, and that is that they are subjects of experiences and of lives.
[M]ost non-human animals are the sorts of things that are subjects of the morally relevant kind. They lead their own lives from a privileged perspective (they alone know what it’s like to be them), and this means that we must view them as the self-guided creatures that they are. To see them otherwise, to see them as merely resources for one’s use, is to willfully ignore a morally salient feature of their experience. Non-human animals are … subjects of lives, and ignoring this subjectivity, or thinking that it is unimportant in the face of one’s own subjectivity, is to have an inappropriate attitude towards what is a fundamentally morally important experience. (Foreman, 2014b: 68)
This is not a new insight — Colin McGinn offered it in “Animal Minds, Animal Morality” — but it is rather thin stuff. (McGinn, 1995) The idea, as McGinn conceives it, comes from Frege’s rejection of idealism in “The Thought” that one can’t speak of experience without an experiencer, but beyond this purely grammatical (and thus, morally uninteresting) sense of ‘subject’, it’s not at all clear that most of the animals we eat are “subjects of experience” or “subjects of lives” and with regard to many of them – clams, shrimps, oysters, crabs, sea urchins, etc. – to suggest that they “know what it is like to be them” or know anything, for that matter, is patently absurd. Of course, this line of thinking won’t help us with the rest of nature either – with prairies, mountains, rivers, and the like, which aren’t “subjects,” in any sense of the word – and this sends Foreman in search of an even more general quality that will yield the results she wants, which she calls the “ultimate normative fact.”
My suggestion is that the ultimate normative fact is the fact of otherness, where this means that the object with which one is engaged is something that is, or has, a good independent from one’s own. Other people, other living things, other creatures in general – these all have a normatively salient existence separate from one’s own, and inappropriate attitudes are largely a matter of seeing the lives, concerns, and good of others as secondary (or even only relative to) one’s own. (Foreman, 2014b: 68)
The idea, then, is that merely by existing separately from us, things have their own independent good, which demands our moral respect. Foreman thereby extends the moral circle to include not just animals of every sort, but prairies, plants, bodies of water, mountains, and even inanimate objects. Indeed, at one point, in an apparent effort to demonstrate that the opportunities to moralize are potentially limitless, she tells the tale of a person who wrongs a copy machine:
[I]f Fran takes an axe to the Xerox machine in a fit of rage, that may well be wrong, and not simply because she has rendered the machine useless to others. Thinking that it is perfectly fine to wantonly destroy an object that upsets you displays a warped view of the object, and of what one has a right to demand of situations that involve it. (Foreman, 2014a: 950)
Significantly, this “ultimate normative fact of otherness” renders virtually any instrumentalist attitude on our part morally contemptible. After all, if one can wrong a copy machine, by violating its “otherness,” then what do we do when we cut down trees to make baseball bats or cabinets or bookshelves or dam rivers to generate hydroelectric power or desalinate ocean water to create potable water? Foreman’s excessive, overreaching conception of moral duty is like Kant’s humanity formula on steroids, as it is applied to everything in the world, down to the last pebble, twig, and drop of water, and the result is that the pervasiveness and scope of our immorality, in the modern, industrial era, is vast and overwhelming, for if she is right, most of us – the overwhelming majority of us, in fact – think and behave in ways that are morally “atrocious” on a daily and even an hourly basis.
Fortunately, for those of us who take a sunnier, somewhat more easy-going view of life, Foreman is quite wrong about both value and duty. Indeed, she is wrong in a surprisingly obvious way.
In the modern framework, what it means to say that something is valuable is that it matters to someone. When we speak, generally, of something as being a “good” – as John Stuart Mill does of happiness – we mean that there is a widespread consensus that it matters. And in the absence of anything mattering to anyone – as the situation presumably was, say, a billion years ago – there literally is no value. To think otherwise – to think that things just are valuable, period – is to embrace what J.L. Mackie called a “queer metaphysics,” at least if one accepts a modern, scientific view of nature that is, at its heart, non-teleological. (Mackie, 1977: 38) Aristotle could say of things that they had a good, independently of anyone’s valuations, because he believed that essences and purposes were objective features of reality. One could read a thing’s purpose and hence, its good, off of its form, and all three could be considered objective facts about it. But unless Foreman is hiding a teleological cosmology or some other essentialist metaphysics that I’m unaware of, such a move is not available to her – this indeed, was precisely the point made by both Elizabeth Anscombe and Alasdair MacIntyre in their respective critiques of modern moral philosophy (Anscombe, 1958; MacIntyre, 2007) – and she is left having to make the case that the things she wants to hold sacrosanct matter to us, as Mill does, in Utilitarianism, when he makes the case for happiness being the intrinsic good:
Questions about ends are … questions about what things are desirable. The utilitarian doctrine is that happiness is desirable as an end, and is the only thing that is so; anything else that is desirable is only desirable as a means to that end. What should be required regarding this doctrine—what conditions must it fulfil—to justify its claim to be believed? The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible is that people hear it; and similarly with the other sources of our experience. In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable is that people do actually desire it. If the end that the utilitarian doctrine proposes to itself, were not acknowledged in theory and in practice to be an end, nothing could ever convince any person that it was an end. No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except the fact that each person desires his own happiness, so far as he thinks it is attainable. But this is a fact; so we have not only all the proof there could be for such a proposition, and all the proof that could possibly be demanded, that happiness is a good, that each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and therefore that general happiness is a good to the aggregate of all persons. (Mill, 1979 : 34 (emphasis added))
Now, certainly, (most) people care about their own lives, plans, and the like. Perhaps some animals do too, and I emphasize “some.” (Prairies and copy machines obviously do not.) But it’s not enough just to show this. What Foreman has to do is demonstrate that the lives of people and clams and shrimps and chickens, not to mention mountains and prairies and streams, matter to the rest of us; indeed, that they matter so much as to render any number of instrumentalist attitudes towards them – not to mention actual uses of them – morally unacceptable. And we do commonly think this way, at least when it comes to other people, though even here, there are any number of circumstances in which we do not, as is the case when we are at war or when we are dealing with convicted criminals. But, it also would seem evident that the overwhelming majority of people don’t feel the same way about the rest of the things on Foreman’s list. We do not value the life of a clam more than we do our Linguine con Vongole. We don’t think a chicken’s liberty is more important than our Coq au Vin. We believe that the cabinets and baseball bats and bookshelves that we make are more important than the trees out of which we make them. And at least a lot of the time, we don’t care more about a prairie’s aesthetic or living qualities than we do about building places in which to live, work, and engage in the rest of our daily business. (We care just enough to protect a few of them in the form of national and state parks.) Clearly, Foreman doesn’t like this fact about the overwhelming majority of people, and that is her prerogative. But if she wants to engage in the blanket moral condemnation of billions of people for the most common, ordinary attitudes and behaviors, it’s not enough for her not to like it. She has to show that our valuations are somehow incorrect.
Hence Foreman’s effort to identify “salient normative facts” about clams and chickens and prairies, in an effort to demonstrate that these things have some sort of objective value. But are these really the sorts of facts from which anything objective about the value of the things in question follows? Let’s look again, at Foreman’s characterizations. She describes people as “caring about how their lives go on and making plans,” prairies as “beautiful and alive,” and animals as “having preferences and acting in order to satisfy them.” Clearly, these are not neutral characterizations or descriptions, nor are they the only ones that one could give of these things. The truth is, Foreman’s “salient normative facts” are nothing more than descriptions loaded with her own valuations, any of which a person could contest and none of which anyone need share.
Of course, if one characterizes people as “caring about how their lives go on and making plans,” it would seem to follow that they must be granted the greatest possible respect, but if one characterizes them as “enemy combatants belonging to an invading army,” it would not. Similarly, if one describes an oyster as nobly pursuing its personal prerogatives out in the seas, it might seem outrageous to think of molesting it in any way, but if one characterizes it as the crucial ingredient for a magnificent plate of Oysters Rockefeller, then the best thing to do would be to pull it off the reef, immediately. And if one describes a prairie as “beautiful and alive,” it may appear to follow that it should be left undeveloped and untouched, but if one characterizes it as “an ideal location for a subdivision” this needn’t follow at all. My wife, a diehard New Yorker, loathes rural environments and thinks the more city, the better. Is her valuation wrong in some objective sense, whereas Foreman’s is right? If there’s an argument to that effect – and I don’t see how there could be – Foreman doesn’t provide it.
The point just is that how you characterize a thing and whether or not you think it is valuable are intertwined with one another. If something matters to you, this will be reflected in your characterizations of it, and consequently, such characterizations of things are expressions of your valuations, not grounds for them. If I really wanted to be objective, in the modern sense of the term, I could give entirely scientific descriptions of the things in question – say, molecular-chemical descriptions of people and clams and prairies – but notice something about these kinds of descriptions, something that tells the whole story about objectivity and values, in the modern framework: they suggest no particular valuations whatsoever.
There are times when Foreman seems to understand this relationship between our valuations and characterizations, and at one point, she even favorably invokes Cora Diamond’s idea that our sense of moral obligation arises not from things satisfying certain generalizable criteria, but from their coming to bear certain “morally thick” characterizations, in which the relevant obligations are already contained. (Diamond, 1978) But Foreman ultimately misuses Diamond insofar as she rejects the crucial, Wittgensteinian heart of her analysis, which is that such characterizations attach to things in a haphazard, unprincipled manner that defies any effort at rational systematization. “Appealing to the sorts of categories we construct, and then reading morality off of these constructed categories, leaves the business of morality far too arbitrary,” Foreman says, but without any sort of argument (and none is offered), this claim is little more than an exercise in wish-fulfillment. (Foreman, 2014b: 62) For if Diamond is correct, in the modern – i.e. non-teleological – world, this arbitrariness is a feature of morally thick characterization, not a bug. Foreman may have come to see clams and shrimps and chickens as “fellow creatures” or “friends” or however she likes to think of them, but I and billions of other people have not. Rather, we see them as the chief ingredients for our favorite recipes. And there are no “objective facts” about them that make it the case that one must think about them Foreman’s way, rather than ours.
It is true that I would not eat my pet Bichon Frise, because, as Diamond indicates, pets are not things to eat, but if I was in South Korea, I might very well eat Boshingtang (dog stew), in a restaurant that serves dog. And if you asked me how something gets the status of being a pet and is thereby taken off the proverbial table, I couldn’t give you any kind of general answer. If my Bichon Frise “has a good independent from my own,” then so does the dog that wound up in my Boshingtang, and yet that dog was not my pet, while this one is. At best, I could tell you a particular story about how this particular dog came into our household, but nothing about that story would tell us anything about dogs, generally, that someone could then come along and define universally “appropriate” and “inappropriate” attitudes on the basis of. And the same point, of course, applies to people and prairies and copy machines.
Foreman thinks that we ought to characterize and value people and clams and prairies in the way that she does, and while I’m sure that would be very nice – we all would like people to share our valuations – what could the argument for it possibly be? As already discussed, in the absence of some sort of metaphysical essentialism and corresponding teleology, it’s just her characterization and valuation of clamhood and prairiehood against mine, my wife’s, and those of several billion or so other meat-and-fish eaters and enthusiasts for industrial forms of life. It may be the case that clams and shrimps and chickens “pursue their own ends” and that prairies are “beautiful and alive,” but nothing about this entails that those ends and lives are going to matter to us more than the world cuisine or the industrial development to which they contribute.
What Foreman either seems not to appreciate or just flat out ignores is something that we’ve known since at least Hume, namely, that in a modern, non-teleological framework, reason cannot determine our ends or indeed, any other fundamental value or good. (As Wittgenstein put it in the Tractatus, the value of things can be “shown” but not “said.” (Wittgenstein, 1922: 6.41-7)) Mill understood this, which is why, in the excerpt I quoted, he says, “If the end that the utilitarian doctrine proposes to itself, were not acknowledged in theory and in practice to be an end, nothing could ever convince any person that it was an end.” MacIntyre understood this, which is why he wrote, “anti-Aristotelian science sets strict boundaries to the powers of reason. Reason is calculative; it can assess truths of fact and mathematical relations but nothing more. In the realm of practice therefore it can speak only of means. About ends it must be silent.” (MacIntyre, 2007: 54) For Foreman’s attitudinal moralizing to work, one already has to agree that people and clams and prairies have fundamental value, but where there is no such agreement – indeed, where there is massive, overwhelming disagreement – the moralizing not only does not work, it is impotent to change those fundamental valuations. No one who doesn’t already think prairies are sacrosanct is going to be persuaded by moral exhortations not to build subdivisions on or make “mud pits” out of them, and no argument, moral or otherwise, is going to get anyone to think that prairies enjoy that special status.
It is worth meditating on this last point, as it provides some insight not just into why Foreman’s moralizing is so unpersuasive, but why so much of our moralizing, more generally, so often seems so ineffective. All the heavy lifting in her account is done by the assumption that certain things are fundamentally valuable, something that she does not in any way demonstrate and which, in any case, could not be demonstrated. The moralizing that follows, then, is fruitless and ultimately irrelevant: those who already agree that clams and shrimps and chickens and prairies matter, in some fundamental sense, hardly need to be moralized to with regard to how they should be treated, and those who do not will fail to be persuaded by such moralizing, no matter how many times their attitudes are deemed “inappropriate” or “atrocious” by Elizabeth Foreman or anyone else, and if they are, it will be because they care about the disapproval of their fellows, not because it has been proven to them how they should or should not act.
Foreman is hardly alone in this. Many seem to suffer the illusion that moral idioms carry within them some inherent force, while others, knowing that they do not, employ them, in the hope that their audience thinks they do. It’s unclear on which side of this divide Foreman falls, though one does get the impression, at times, that she realizes how unlikely it is that her most cherished valuations will ever be shared by a significant number of people – between 0.5 and 1.5% of Americans are vegan, as of a 2016 Harris Poll, and apparently, over 80% of them chuck it in at some point in their lives (Vegan Resource Group, 2016; Herzog, 2014) – and that her somewhat overheated moral rhetoric and posture is designed to lend her valuations an aura of necessity that they don’t really have.
Foreman, like many professional ethicists, has simply ignored the critique made by Anscombe “Modern Moral Philosophy,” where she observed that all the force that one finds in the distinctively moral “ought” comes from the wedding of a Greek virtue ethic with the idea that the virtues are required (and the vices are forbidden), which one finds in divine law traditions, like those belonging to Halakhic Judaism and pre-Protestant Christianity. (Anscombe, 1958) If one lacks the virtue theoretical component, one cannot appeal to an axiologically thick and yet, simultaneously objective reality – hence the quixotic quality of Foreman’s quest for “normative facts” about things like clams and prairies – and if one has eschewed the tradition of divine law and failed to find some viable alternative (and no one has), one’s ‘oughts’ have no compelling force, once they are, so to speak, “unmasked.” As Philippa Foot observed, “People talk … about the ‘binding force’ of morality, but it is not clear what this means if not that we feel ourselves unable to escape.”(Foot, 1972: 310) Such a feeling may come from a coercive or otherwise efficacious agency – as it does in a theistic framework – or it may come from something mattering to us; that is, from our caring about it. Christine Korsgaard characterized the force of moral obligation as stemming from the feeling that to violate it would be to “lose your integrity and so your identity… [T]o no longer be able to think of yourself under the description under which you value yourself and find your life to be worth living…” (Korsgaard, 1996: 102) But in the absence of any such source of efficacy, moral imperatives and moralizing have nothing but, as Anscombe so memorably put it, “mesmeric force,” which, the moment one realizes it, renders them normatively impotent. (Anscombe, 1958: 8)
Some have tried to suggest that one can have a conception of right and thus, of moral obligation, without any prior conception of what is valuable or good. Of course, this is not the place to engage that issue in any kind of detail (I’ve always found it dubious), but regardless, the point I am trying to make here is not one about the possibility of articulating a moral imperative, but about the force of such imperatives. Perhaps, Kant can express the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative, without any prior appeal to what’s valuable or good, but what force would it have? The statement “Act only in such a way that you can rationally will that the maxim of your action should be a universal law” might describe the conditions of rational personhood, but unless one cared about being a rational person – viewed rational personhood as a good – of what use is it? Certainly the Humanity formulation of the Categorical Imperative would have little force, if one did not already think human beings were valuable in some fundamental sense, and Kant’s effort to show that this is the case – his characterization of the good will, his account of the “Kingdom of Ends” – shows that he understood this, though, of course, he was mistaken in thinking that its value could be established by way of rational demonstration.
The point, then, is that ethical discourse, as it stands today, draws what force it has from the fact that people care about things – that things matter to us – without which no moral imperative has any potency whatsoever and with which no moral imperative is really needed. For those with concrete ethical concerns – the way we treat animals or the environment, for example – peoples’ values, what they care about, must be at the center of attention. But, in a modern framework, how does one get another person to value something, to think that it matters and especially, to think that it matters more than something else that he or she also cares about, given that caring and valuing are not the sorts of thing that one can be argued into or otherwise rationally convinced of? In all the manners of persuasion rejected by philosophy: rhetoric; sentimental appeals; propaganda. Anything to get the other person to identify or otherwise emotionally connect with the thing in question.
In a sense, then, Foreman is on the right track, when she engages in sentimental descriptions of animals and nature, as she does in her work. Where she goes wrong is in thinking that they provide some sort of objective grounds or rationally scrutable reasons for thinking that clams and chickens and prairies matter. As we’ve seen, they do nothing of the sort. What they might do, however, is get people to see animals and the rest of nature in the way that Foreman does and thus, care about these things enough so as to override certain other things they care about. Of course, this is advocacy and activism, rather than philosophy, but so what? If ethics is fundamentally practical in nature, as I and many other philosophers think it is, then what matters is that it works, and if this means admitting that it can only do so on the basis of what are ultimately non-rational appeals, so be it.
Anscombe, Elizabeth (1958). “Modern Moral Philosophy.” Philosophy 33: 1-19.
Diamond, Cora (1978). “Eating Meat and Eating People.” Philosophy 53: 465-479.
Foot, Philippa (1972). “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives.” The Philosophical Review 81: 305-316.
Foreman, Elizabeth (2015) “The Objects of Respect.” Environmental Ethics 37: 57-73.
Foreman, Elizabeth (2014a) “An Agent-Centered Account of Rightness: The Importance of a Good Attitude.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 17: 941-954.
Foreman, Elizabeth (2014b) “Good Eats.” Between the Species 17: 53-72.
Herzog, Hall (2014) “84% of Vegetarians and Vegans Return to Meat. Why?” Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animals-and-us/201412/84-vegetarians-and-vegans-return-meat-why
Korsgaard, Christine (1996). The Sources of Normativity. Cambridge University Press, New York.
MacIntyre, Alasdair (2007). After Virtue, 3rd Edition. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame.
Mackie, J.L. (1977) Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Penguin, Harmondsworth.
McGinn, Colin. (1995) “Animal Minds, Animal Morality.” Social Research 62: 731-747.
Mill, John Stuart. (1979) Utilitarianism. Hackett, Indianapolis.
Vegetarian Resource Group (2016) “How Many Adults In The US Are Vegetarian and Vegan? How Many Adults Eat Vegetarian and Vegan Meals When They Eat Out?” The Vegetarian Research Group. http://www.vrg.org/nutshell/Polls/2016_adults_veg.htm.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. (1922) Tracatus Logico-Philosophicus. Keegan Paul, London.