three lectures on ethics and animals

by Daniel A. Kaufman

____

Three lectures from my Ethics and Contemporary Issues course on the subject of animals and ethics.  I cover material from Peter Singer, Cora Diamond, and Bernard Williams.

First Lecture: Peter Singer on Our Ethical Obligations to Animals

Peter Singer, a contemporary philosopher at Princeton University, is most famous for two things: (a) arguing that we are obligated to give most of our wealth away to the poor; (b) arguing that we are obligated to be vegans and never to use animal products.  He has offered these arguments in a series of influential articles and books, notably “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (1972) and Animal Liberation (1975).

Singer is a Utilitarian and arrives at these positions by applying utilitarian considerations to matters of poverty and animal welfare. 

Equality, as a basic value, is based on the principle that we should consider the interests of individuals equally.  It is this principle that has been used, historically, to argue for the equal treatment of people of other races, women, gays and lesbians, and others, on the grounds that they have interests that should be respected, just as we do. [p. 1]

What it means to “have interests” is to be the sort of being that has the capacity for both pleasure and for suffering.  I have an interest in that which advances my happiness and well-being, while that which undermines my happiness or well-being is contrary to my interests.

As a result, sentience – the capacity to feel and experience – is what is relevant for moral consideration.  Given that animals are sentient – they have the capacity for both pleasure and suffering – they have interests that it is our duty to consider.  As Singer points out, it would be nonsense to say that I have violated a stone’s interests by kicking it, as it has no capacity for pleasure or suffering, but it is perfectly intelligible to say that I have violated a dog’s interests by kicking it. [p. 2]

In the case of racism and sexism, we fail to consider the interests of racial minorities and women, so Singer coins the term ‘speciesism’ to indicate a failure to consider the interests of animals [p. 2]

That morally we must consider animals’ interests does not mean that we always must treat them the same as we do people.  The many physiological differences between animals and people mean that certain things that cause one to suffer may not cause the other.  In this vein, then, as Singer points out, it is worse to slap a baby than a horse.  But there clearly is a point at which one also can wrong the horse, and in certain circumstances the animal in question may deserve greater consideration than a human being. If we temporarily imprison a person, for example, we can communicate to him the impermanent nature of his incarceration, but when we lock up an animal, we cannot explain to it that it soon will be let out again.  Consequently, in these sorts of cases, the animal suffers more and must be given greater consideration.

This obviously has enormous implications.  For the overwhelming majority of us who do not require animal products to survive, it entails that we eschew all use of such products, out of moral respect for the animals’ interests.  [pp. 3-4]  While medical experimentation in certain circumstances may be morally justifiable – the suffering of the mice experimented on in the course of cancer research will be overwhelmed by the happiness caused by more effective cancer treatments, for example – many other sorts of animal experimentation – like the animal testing done by cosmetics companies – will be deemed morally impermissible. [pp. 4-5]  And clearly, the use of animals for entertainment, such as in circuses and zoos, which by necessity involves their imprisonment, will also be deemed morally impermissible on Singer’s account. 

Singer considers a number of potential objections to his view, among them the claim that we cannot know that animals feel pain and the observation that since animals eat one another, there is no reason why we shouldn’t eat them.  Singer finds neither of these particularly credible.  He points out that the way we know that animals feel pain is in the exact same way that we know that other people feel pain, namely through their observable behavior.  [One cannot see into the minds of other people any more than one can see into the minds of animals.] And he notes that unlike most of us, predatory animals cannot survive without eating other animals and beyond that, are not capable of the sort of moral reflection of which we are capable.  In that sense, our greater mental capacities entail greater responsibilities.

Second Lecture: Cora Diamond’s “Eating Meat and Eating People”

Diamond does not suggest that animals do not feel pain.  What she will reject is the idea that we extend moral concern on the basis of criteria, or at least, the sort of criteria that Singer appeals to, namely, capacities of various kinds.

The Singer view proceeds in three steps:

  1. We do not eat/enslave/otherwise exploit people, because they have certain characteristics that we take to be morally relevant. (They are subjects of experiences of pain and pleasure)
  2. Animals have the same morally relevant characteristics.
  3. Given (1) and (2) we ought not eat/enslave/otherwise exploit animals.

Diamond’s first observation is that (1) is false.  This is not why we don’t eat or otherwise “use” people.  For example, we do not eat our own dead, even if their deaths were not unjust and the meat is fit to eat.  We do not eat human body parts, even if their removal was painless and justified and the meat is fit to eat.  (p. 467)

Given that (1) is false, (3) cannot be a sound conclusion.

It is worth noting that vegetarians and vegans also will not eat dead animals who have not been wrongly killed or the body parts of animals whose removal was achieved by unobjectionable means and where the meat is fit to eat.  (p. 468)

Similarly, someone who thinks it is OK to eat lamb will not eat their pet dog.  Notice, however, that if one had a pet lamb, one wouldn’t eat it either, and if one went to a country where dog was on the menu [as is popular in South Korea, where Bosingtang (dog stew) is a delicacy], one very well might.

The differences between how we think of animals and other people, then, is not on the basis of their possessing different basic characteristics. The difference is not simple in that way.  Rather, it is a difference marked in the difference between a funeral for a person and a funeral for a dog / the difference between interracial sex and inter-species sex / etc.  It goes directly to our conception of the kind of thing a thing is.  “Pets” are not things to be eaten [though “livestock” may be].  And neither are people.

This is not because people have some right, based on some characteristics that they have and animals lack.  It is more like the sense in which it would be wrong not to name someone, but to give them a number instead.  Notice that we also give pets names and treat them in much the same way that we treat people.  And this is not because of some capacity my dog has that the lamb I just ate does not.  (p. 469) 

The point, in part, is that the concept is prior to the principle.  It’s not because they have a right not to be eaten that we don’t eat people.  It’s because they are people that we don’t eat them.  And part of understanding the difference between people and animals is that we do things like sit at tables with other people and eat animals. (p. 470)

Our idea of moral concern of various kinds, then, is built into our concepts – it doesn’t serve as a criterion for the application of those concepts.   The question arises, then, as to how the concepts get formed to begin with.  There is no easy answer to this, but it clearly is not on the basis of criteria.  Why a particular dog gets to be a “pet” while the lamb out on the farm doesn’t, is not because of some intrinsic difference between the dog and the lamb – there is no such difference.

The point is that it is entirely possible for a person to extend the special kind of consideration non-vegans give to their pets to all animals.  What Diamond simply wants to make clear that when one does so, one does not do it on the basis of criteria that invoke intrinsic characteristics like rationality or the capacity for suffering.

Third Lecture: Bernard Williams, “The Human Prejudice”

When Williams speaks of “the human prejudice,” he means the view that we [people] are deserving of special consideration that we do not extend to non-human animals.  It is this that Singer objects to and describes as “speciesism,” as we have already seen.

Williams associates the human prejudice with Humanism, more broadly.  Humanism is the view that human beings have a special significance and value, a view that one finds expressed throughout Greek antiquity, the Abrahamic religions, late-Medieval Christianity, and of course the Northern and Italian Renaissances

With regard to the Abrahamic religions, Williams points out that the idea of human specialness remains true whether the attitude towards humanity is optimistic or pessimistic.  The Protestant tradition associated with Luther and Calvin believes humanity to be endemically broken and wretched, requiring supernatural assistance to transcend its condition, and yet that it do so is deemed something of supreme importance.

Luther’s vision, for instance, in which man is hideously fallen and can do nothing about it simply by his own efforts. The assumption is still there—indeed, it is hardly an assumption, but a central belief in the structure—that that fact itself is of absolute importance. The cosmos may not be looking at human beings, in their fallen state, with much admiration, but it is certainly looking at them. The human condition is a central concern to God, so central, in fact, that it led to the Incarnation, which in the Reformation context too plays its traditional role as signaling man’s special role in the scheme of things.  (p. 136)

But in the absence of religious assumptions like those one finds in Christianity, what becomes of the human prejudice?  Why should we think we are of special significance or deserve special consideration?  Stripped of these kinds of assumptions, there is no objective sense in which we are especially valuable. Indeed, the only sense in which we are so, is to ourselves. As Williams puts it, “If there is no such thing as the cosmic point of view, if the idea of absolute importance in the scheme of things is an illusion, a relic of a world not yet thoroughly disenchanted, then there is no other point of view except ours in which our activities can have or lack a significance.” (pp. 137-138)  Again, this does not mean that we are in any sense objectively more important than other creatures.  Just that we are more important to us.  (p. 139)

It is this that Singer and others dislike.  They view it as an irrational prejudice on our own behalf, akin to the irrational prejudice against minorities, etc.  The idea that we just blindly prefer our own because they are our own and devalue others, because they are others. (p. 139)

But, as Williams points out that these other kinds of prejudices typically are not the result of mere blind preference for one’s own and blind hatred of others.  Rather, they are the result of having substantive, though false negative beliefs about others as members of groups. Prejudice against Jews or women or black people are based in false, negative characterizations of them as groups, it is not based merely, solely on blind preference for one’s own group.

It is interesting to note that it really is only the human prejudice that is blind in this way.  We treat human life as deserving of special consideration, period.  Imagine, for example, that a building is on fire.  That there are people in there is sufficient reason to dash inside for the purpose of a rescue.  And notice that who, specifically, the people are adds or subtracts nothing to or from the urgency in doing so.  It’s not as if “there’s a brain surgeon inside” makes a rescue attempt more urgent than “there’s an unemployed man inside.” That there is a person inside is all that matters. (p. 140)

So, if the human prejudice is bad, it cannot be because it is like racial or other forms of prejudice, which are based on slandering the relevant other. What is bad about it then?  Singer is going to have to say that blind prejudice is as bad as slanderous prejudice, and we should turn to rational thinking, in the form of moral philosophy, to determine to whom or what we should extend concern.  It is moral philosophy, Singer believes, that gives us this “objective” sense of what is valuable, in the absence of a religious framework.

Williams thinks this is a self-delusion. Notice that the quality that the Utilitarian claims is morally significant – the capacity for suffering – is a quality that matters to us.  It is not, in some way, “objectively” valuable.  Moral philosophies, Williams argues, are themselves expressions of the human prejudice.  And it is worth noting that the animals who benefit from this prejudice – and to which we extend moral concern — are the ones who are the most like us.  It is not bombardier beetles or plankton that Singer is concerned with, but cows, horses, sheep, and the like.  I.e. those animals who have capacities for the sorts of things that also matter to us.

One last thing that is worth noting and which is telling in the degree to which it demonstrates that concern for animals is itself an extension of the human prejudice: The very term we use to describe the proper treatment of animals is “humane.”

Papers Cited

Peter Singer on the Equality of Animals (with annotation)

diamond eating meat and eating people

Bernard Williams The Human Prejudice

 

7 comments

  1. This seems to be a discussion in a sort of gray area between meta-ethics and ethics. I think it is an interesting discussion but I think it would be good to separate out the meta-ethical issues from the first order ethical issues.

    “Notice that the quality that the Utilitarian claims is morally significant – the capacity for suffering – is a quality that matters to us. It is not, in some way, “objectively” valuable.”

    He seems to be sliding from “moral” considerations to what is “valuable.” Something might be morally significant even if people do not value it and people may value things/actions that are morally wrong.

    If he means to say
    “Notice that the quality that the Utilitarian claims is morally significant – the capacity for suffering – is a quality that matters to us. It is not, in some way, “objectively” [morally correct].”

    I think this is a non-sequitor. Just because something matters to us that does not mean it is not also objectively morally correct. I think this is just discounting moral realism by assertion.

  2. Singer’s welfare view, or the view of various animal “rights” thinkers, are incompatible with any plausible form of ecological philosophy.

    1. Yes, one of its basic problems is that it is wholly conceptual and abstract, largely divorced from any practice that would have real-world consequences.

  3. At what level of the phylogenetic tree does “suffering” gain salient relevance?

    Here in South Florida there are strict legal guidelines how to dispatch the ubiquitous invasive Iguana. Freezing, for example, was subsequently found to be unacceptable because it was discovered that crystals were formed in the brain cells that must cause pain. Can an iguana suffer in terms that resonate with our subjective or objective understanding of pain and suffering? Can there be true suffering in the human sense without some degree of thought and self awareness or is animal. pain only an automatic reflex to evasive action? I don’t know.

    Am I little better than Mengele, if I bait my hook with a worm, crab, fish, or frog? I don’t know. Are most of our concerns about pain and suffering only our projections onto a simple biological survival mechanism that we embellish with what pain and suffering means to us? The closer we get to mammals and even birds, the more tenuous this assumption becomes.

    Of the three lectures, I find Singer’s the least persuasive.

    1. I think there are many problems with trying to make suffering the cornerstone of ethics. For example it turns out that negative empathy seems to be stronger than positive empathy. That is people feel worse witnessing horrible things happen to someone else as compared to how much better they feel when good things happen to someone else. If this is true and empathy comes a package deal with positive and negative it would mean that empathy is something we should try to avoid instilling in people. Of course we do the opposite.

      I do like Singer because he at least tries to give a more substantive answer even if that shows the weakness of his case. (and I do not agree with the case he makes) I am not sure the others really offer much of a substantive justification for how they treat animals – or if they do it is not explained in this article.

      Diamond I think properly points to problems with Singer’s view. “Our idea of moral concern of various kinds, then, is built into our concepts – it doesn’t serve as a criterion for the application of those concepts. The question arises, then, as to how the concepts get formed to begin with. There is no easy answer to this, but it clearly is not on the basis of criteria.” I think her view is correct but it leaves us with more questions than answers.

      Williams seems to say no such substantive justification is likely. All (many?) moral views about animals are indeed just “human prejudice” and any attempt to be rational about morality to animals is delusional. (although I don’t know about Williams other than what I read in this article so I may have that wrong) But it seems Williams thinks “human prejudice” involves slander and therefore might be bad but he thinks it is somehow Singer’s burden to show that animal prejudice that apparently doesn’t involve this slander element is still bad.

      “So, if the human prejudice is bad, it cannot be because it is like racial or other forms of prejudice, which are based on slandering the relevant other. What is bad about it then? Singer is going to have to say that blind prejudice is as bad as slanderous prejudice, and we should turn to rational thinking, in the form of moral philosophy, to determine to whom or what we should extend concern. It is moral philosophy, Singer believes, that gives us this “objective” sense of what is valuable, in the absence of a religious framework.

      Williams thinks this is a self-delusion. Notice that the quality that the Utilitarian claims is morally significant – the capacity for suffering – is a quality that matters to us. It is not, in some way, “objectively” valuable. Moral philosophies, Williams argues, are themselves expressions of the human prejudice.”

      I think he makes a good point that not all prejudice is necessarily bad (assuming you don’t take the term prejudice to imply malice). But I am not sure people will be satisfied with his blind prejudice is fine argument and basis for our moral beliefs.

Comments are closed.