Sunday, July 13, 2008

Speciesism, Potential and Normality


(about 2,000 words)

Abstract

Philosopher Roger Scruton and others have attempted to justify our discriminating between pigs on the one hand and equally dim humans on the other by appealing to the notions of potential and normality. Even dim humans have, or at least once had, the potential to be smart sophisticated creatures like ourselves, capable of entering into rich, complex moral communities. Moreover, human beings will, under normal conditions, develop into such individuals. Pigs won’t. That is why we are under a powerful moral obligation to care for and nurture dim humans, but can in good conscience send equally intelligent pigs off to the abattoir. This paper presents a thought experiment designed to bring out the inadequacy of this type of justification.

Introduction

Why is it typically wrong to kill and eat human animals, but not other sorts of animal? What is the difference between our species and others that justifies us in treating them so differently?

This is a notoriously difficult question to answer. There is no doubt that we do quite properly morally discriminate between different kinds of being. For example, we treat children differently to adults. We restrict what children are able to do; we don’t allow them to vote, and so on. But this is justified. Children are not sufficiently rational or responsible to be able to look after themselves properly or to exercise the vote. There’s a morally relevant difference between children and adults that warrants this difference in treatment.

Not all differences are, in this respect, morally relevant. Take skin colour and sex, for example. Both black people and women were at one time denied the vote. Their freedom was also heavily restricted, and in some places still is. But while black people and women have been discriminated against, the differences between them and their oppressors did not and does not justify the difference in treatment. When it comes to the right to be free and to have the vote, what’s morally significant about race or sex? Nothing at all. Those who discriminate on the basis of race or sex are guilty of racism and sexism: forms of prejudice and bigotry against those who are different.

The challenge facing those of us who believe it is morally acceptable to kill and eat, experiment upon, etc. other species but not our own is, in effect, to point out the difference between us and them that morally justifies this marked difference in treatment. Unless we can point up some such difference, it seems that we, too, are guilty of a form of bigotry: the form for which Richard Ryder coined the term speciesism.

The appeal to mental sophistication

It is widely supposed that the difference between humans and other species that justifies this difference in treatment is that the non-human species are comparatively unintelligent and unsophisticated. The members of other species cannot master language. They are incapable of entering into or even grasping the complex social relationships that bind we humans together into moral communities. It is this, some argue, that gives us the right to kill and eat them, experiment upon them, and so on.

Despite it’s popularity, at least among the general public, this sort of justification runs up against a well-known counter-example. What are we to say about human beings who are no more intellectually or morally sophisticated than is, say, the average pig? If the morally relevant difference between humans and other species lies in this kind of mental sophistication, then these humans will be no more deserving of our moral respect than is a pig (which is, no doubt, deserving of some moral concern, though of course nothing like the level concern we afford to all human beings, no matter how dim the latter might happen to be). Those who wish to discriminate on the basis of intellectual and moral sophistication must say either that it would be morally acceptable to kill and eat, experiment on, etc. these mentally impaired humans, or else we must say that, if these human beings are sufficiently mentally sophisticated to qualify them for the right not to be killed and eaten, experimented upon, etc. then so too are pigs.

That is not, of course, how we currently discriminate.

The appeal to potential and normality

How, then, might we justify discriminating as we do, if not by a straightforward appeal to mental sophistication? I now turn to one of the most popular responses to this challenge.

It has been argued that it is not what a mentally impaired human being is that is important, but what he or she might have been. While the impaired individual may not now have the potential to be smart, there was a time in the when, had things been different in a not-so-improbable way, they would have turned out smart.

Suppose for example, that someone is mentally impaired because as a foetus they were damaged in the womb, or because their father was accidentally irradiated, causing damage to the sperm from which that individual then grew. We can say about this person that the potential to be a smart, morally aware individual was once there, even if it has now been lost. And that, some suggest, is the morally relevant difference between this individual, on the one hand, and a pig, on the other: the difference that morally permits us to kill and eat, experiment upon, etc. the pig but not the human.

A slightly different move is to suggest that the pertinent difference between pigs and mentally impaired humans is one of normality. Human beings, under normal circumstances, develop into smart creatures belonging to moral communities. Pigs do not. It is the fact that human beings normally develop in this way that qualifies even atypical members for special moral consideration far beyond that which we extend to pigs.

The appeals to potential and normality are not quite the same. After all, while each member of a species may have - or once have had - a clear potential for X, it does not follow that becoming an X is normal for members of that species. While each bee once had the potential to become a queen, bees do not normally become queens.

Scruton’s suggestion

Roger Scruton attempts to justify our discriminating between pigs etc. and similarly dim humans by appealing to both potential and normality:

It is in the nature of human beings that, in normal conditions, they become members of a moral community, governed by duty and protected by rights. Abnormality in this respect does not cancel membership. It merely compels us to adjust our response… It is not just that dogs and bears do not belong to the moral community. They have no potential for membership. They are not the kind of thing that can settle disputes, that can exert sovereignty over its life, that can respond to the call of duty or take responsibility on a matter of trust.

Scruton concludes that, because of these differences between pigs, etc. and similarly dim humans, we are morally justified in discriminating as we do.

There is, I think, something deeply unsatisfactory about Scruton’s attempt to justify our current discriminatory practices. Consider the following thought experiment.

Thought experiment: a dim parallel species

Suppose that on a planet many light years from the Earth there has evolved a species that bears an uncanny resemblance to we humans. They look much like us, and indeed are physiologically and genetically very much like us. However, they are dim. They have no moral or aesthetic sense. In fact, they are no more mentally sophisticated than is the average pig. As a species, they are not, to borrow Scruton’s phrase ‘the kind of thing that can settle disputes, that can exert sovereignty over its life, that can respond to the call of duty or take responsibility on a matter of trust’.

Now imagine we are presented with two groups of individuals. The first group are orphan offspring from this other planet. They are dim because individuals belonging to that species are normally, naturally dim. The second group are terrestrial human beings: the orphan children of men and women like ourselves. But they too are dim, as dim as the extraterrestrial group, in fact. The second group’s mental impairment is due to a nuclear mishap. Their fathers were accidentally irradiated, resulting in damage to the genetic code handed down to them.

Let’s suppose these two groups are otherwise identical. Indeed, they are molecule-for-molecule duplicates of each other. The immediate cause of their dimness is in each case the same: their genetic code. However, while the two groups share the same code, they possess it for different reasons. The terrestrials possess it because they are the unfortunate victims of a recent nuclear accident. The extra-terrestrial group possesses it because of their evolutionary ancestry.

Note that while the members of the extra-terrestrial are ‘normal’ for their kind, the terrestrials are not. Human beings, under normal conditions, develop into smart, sophisticated creatures like ourselves. They are that kind of thing.

Also notice that, unlike the extraterrestrials, the terrestrials once had the potential to be smart. Had their fathers not been involved in that nuclear accident, they would have been as mentally sophisticated as ourselves. The extra-terrestrials, on the other hand, were always going to be dim. That is their nature.

Let’s now test our moral intuitions with the following question: Are we morally permitted to discriminate between these two groups? In particular, would it be wrong to kill and eat, experiment upon, etc. the second group but not the first?

If we are permitted to kill and eat, experiment upon, etc. those who belong to species the normal members of which are dim, but not those who, while dim, are members of a species that, as a kind, is morally and intellectually sophisticated, then we may kill and eat, experiment upon, etc. the dim extraterrestrials, but not the dim terrestrials. If what matters, morally speaking, is what under normal conditions the members of a certain kind will become, then while we are morally obliged to extend to the dim terrestrials special treatment, we can kill and eat, experiment upon, etc. their molecularly-indistinguishable doppelgangers with impunity.

Similarly, if it is potential that counts, then while we have a special duty of care towards the terrestrials, their extra-terrestrial doppelgangers can in good conscience be loaded onto the truck bound for the abattoir.

But of course this verdict is profoundly counterintuitive. How can we possibly be justified in treating these molecule-for-molecule duplicates so very differently simply because they differ in terms of potential and what is “normal” for their kind?

Suppose a mistake is discovered: a couple marked out for the special care centre we have designed to look after the dim humans are suddenly discovered to be of extraterrestrial origin. Would there be anything wrong in diverting these two to the abattoir instead? Surely there would.

What this thought experiment elicits (in me, at least) is the very strong intuition that the difference between the terrestrial and extraterrestrial groups in terms of both normality and potential does not justify such a difference in treatment.

Indeed, the question arises: Why are we justified in discriminating between humans and other species on the basis of potential and what is normal for the species. Why suppose that this difference justifies us in supposing that, while we are under a powerful moral obligation to care for the dim humans, the pigs can happily be sent off to the abattoir?

Clearly, it is not enough simply to assert that it justifies such an attitude. The onus is on Scruton and those who wish to discriminate in this way to explain why we should consider this difference between pigs and dim humans morally relevant. After all, when it comes to having the vote, a racist might simply assert that race is a morally relevant difference, and a sexist might just baldly assert that sex is a morally relevant difference. But that’s not good enough. We need to be told why race and sex are relevant.

The right response to the racist who points out that black people differ in colour from white is: “But why is that difference morally relevant?” The right response to those who wish to discriminate between pigs and dim humans on the basis of what is “normal” for the species is, similarly, “But why is that difference morally relevant?” The onus is on them to explain why this difference justifies such radically different moral attitudes.

What this thought experiment brings out, I hope, is that not only has Scruton not provided such an explanation, it is extremely difficult to see how the difference in what’s “normal” for the species could possibly justify this discrimination.

84 comments:

Papilio said...

What if the dim aliens would be considered de facto humans, so they'd be part of the set of all humans? If you treat them as a group and say 'the average potential of a human is z', then the dim aliens share this average potential.

Not that I agree with Scruton. I don't eat bacon. My own standard has been 'if it has to be killed, I won't eat it.'

Indirectly I have benefited from animal experimentation, of course...

Stephen Law said...

Dim aliens de facto humans? Yes that is the bit of this argument I am still working on. As a first move, I'd point out that origin seems to be a necessary condition of same species membership. E.g. if tiger-like species evolved on another planet, causally entirely related to Earth, they would not be tigers, just very (perhaps even indistinguishably) tiger-like.

I think I can do better than this, though....

The Barefoot Bum said...

Why should we need any more reason? Why can't we just like dim human beings more than equally dim animals just because we're the same species?

It seems difficult for philosophers to understand that ethics, an entirely human invention, are complex, and cannot and need not be reduced to simple absolute universal principles.

Kosh3 said...

If indeed it is ones potential that is the morally relevant thing, then it seems the door is opened towards those who want to see abortion done away with.

Stephen Law said...

Why should we need any more reason? Well, because otherwise we're bigots. Indeed, we can no longer criticize violent and abusive sexism and racism, for example. That bothers me. Doesn't it bother you?

Anonymous said...

Stephen - Do you not have a problem with your use of "species" here? In supposing that the two groups are "molecule for molecule" identical they will in fact be able to interbreed successfully and in so (in fairly crude) biological terms be of the same species. The dim aliens would no be just "de facto humans" they would be humans.

This raises a related question which is how close in genetic terms would a species need to be to humans to get the same rights automatically. Chimps? Australopithecines? Neaderthals?

On an unrelated point the use of age, colour, sex in denying the vote are often simply markers used to identify those people who were thought to have insufficient rationality. We now believe the use of skin colour and sex to be poor markers but this has not alway been the case. Is our slipshod way of grant in or denying the vote these days based on age that much better. I can think of several examples of thoughtful young people who consider their vote far more rationally than some of their seniors.


On the "Why should we need any more reason?" thread, sexism and racism would still be deplored because they applied to members of our own species. No one seriously criticizes sexism amongst spiders do they?

Anonymous said...

papillio -

Does that mean if it was accidentally killed or died of old age you will tuck in or that you thrive on a diet of exceedingly rare edible minerals? Perhaps supplemented by a bit of photosynthesis?

Or does the stricture apply only to bacon?

Anonymous said...

Oops - "is our slipshod way of grant in or denying the vote these days based on age that much better."

Should have read
"Is our slipshod way of granting or denying the vote these days based on age that much better?"

Apologies for that, the spillchucker didn't catch it.

Anonymous said...

i think that there are several different forces in play here.

(1) Evolutionary advantage in respecting other members of ones species. This probably exists for very good evolutionary reasons. Any creature that habitually destroys members of its own species will, other things being equal and assuming they are not in competition for resources, reduce the chances of its genes spreading.
There are also good biological reasons to avoid eating conspecifics that die from natural causes. e.g. kuru, BSE, etc.
Once we have evolved this tendency I suspect that this carries over to animals that share our characteristics. We would find it harder to kill and eat an animal that looked like us irrespective of its intelligence or otherwise.


(2) "Army loyalty" not a good term but I ant think of anything better at the moment so it will have to do. The sort of rule that says "no comrade will be left behind." Armies will expend great amounts of materiel and risk many lives to recover wounded or captured comrades or even the bodies of fallen fellows. Why? These are the same organisations that send groups out with orders which may lead to probable destruction after all. They do it because of the powerful message that it sends to members of the group. "We will look after you if this happens to you". I think it could be argued that this develops in many groupings and applies to civilizations in general whether or not they are based on ethical principles or the members engage in conscious philosophical examination of their motives.

3) Recognition of other moral or sentient beings. Perhaps this is simply a different level of the species based feelings. Instead of common characteristics denoting genes we recognise commonality though expression of thought, self awareness and ability to feel and to communicate. If you like there is a sort of common "species of the mind".

If one found a pig that really could demonstrate intellect I suspect that most people would take care of it and not eat it because of (3). Thereafter it would be more difficult to enjoy bacon sandwiches from dim pigs but this would be because of a variant of (2). It would also become harder to eat things that simply looked like pigs through (1)

I appreciate the preceding explains our feelings but doesn't validate them.

Papilio said...

Anonymous - yes, that was a little imprecise of me. Even vegetables die.

However, re your point 1: isn't this arguing for group selection, which has been shown to be unimportant?

Also, remember about ten years two pigs escaped from an abattoir by leaping a fence? All their comrades were rendered into bacon, but when Butch and Sundance, as the tabloids named them, were recaptured, they weren't converted to bacon but sent to an animal shelter to live out their days.

This is what I'd call bigotry. It seems that anything with a name is safe from the butcher's blade - does that apply more widely also? Is mere sentimentality so crucial?

Anonymous said...

Papilio - Hmm... Group selection. Wasn't thinking of that so much really as it usually gets applied to social insects and such but I take the point. I thought GS had a bit of a renaissance of late anyway. Still I did suggest that it only really came into play when competition for other resources is not a factor. If there is a food shortage or overcrowding many animals will resort to cannibalism. Secondly that there was not really a pressure to collaborate per-se just to not kill and eat. In any case I wasn't at this stage trying to pin down exactly what evolutionary mechanism is the best one to explains this, simply observing that any species seem to do it to a greater or lesser extent and that there are one or more Darwinian drivers behind it. A (weak) form of GS or avoidance of parasites and disease are plausible candidates I think.

I don't think naming saves you from the chop! Ask Hugh Fearnly-Wittingthingey or Gordon Ramsay. All depends on your publicist.

Anonymous said...

Having a lousy day with spelling etc.

"any species.." should have been "Many species.."

I'll go away and practice typing for a bit...its difficult with trotters...

Psiomniac said...

I think the idea that origin is a necessary condition of same species membership is arbitrary.

Suppose, due to some cosmic space-time displacement accident, we came into contact with organisms that were biologically identical to us, but from another galaxy. Perhaps this same accident randomly shuffled the two populations between their respective home planets.

Can you give a non circular justification for distinguishing between two individuals after the accident by saying that they are from different species because one came from elsewhere? All the biological conditions for being in the same species obtain after all.
Wouldn't it make more sense to talk about their origin directly in order to distinguish between them?

Anonymous said...

Hrmmm, perhaps I'm odd, but all I can conclude from the thought experiment is that if we run out of pigs, dim humans are a possible option if I desire a bacon sandwich...

Papilio said...

Anonymous: you've made me come up with two more thought experiments that might muddy the waters even more (hopefully not).

a) cloned human muscle tissue, grown in vats: allowable to eat?

b) i) Baron von Neustein creates a human-porcine hybrid. The result is an abomination, 50% human, 50% pork. Is it edible?

b) ii) The Baron successfully breeds his monster with a thoroughbred pig. The progeny are 25% human. Can they be eaten? We can carry this on ad infinitum until the proportion of human->0. At what point does the creature become fair game?

We hear figures bandied about regarding how genetically similar to other species we are. We share a large number of genes with bacteria. Wikipedia gives the figure of 94% for chimps - the following figures I found in an article by Sharon Begley, don't know if they are accurate:

As a result, mice share around 85% of their genes with humans. Yeast shares 46%. Those tiny annoying fruit flies that descend on overripe bananas share 60%. Oh, and the banana itself shares about 50%.

A genetic cutoff is going to end up being pretty arbitrary, I think.

Anonymous said...

Papilio - Yes the shared genes thing is a problem. Certainly makes life difficult for some types of vegetarian.

Also consider if you eat a banana and at the same time ingest a fruit fly which is also dining on it. What degree of genetic overlap would there then be between eater and the composite mouthful?

On the Baron's experiments. Why auotomatially assume that it is an abomination? Now that is speciesist as well as being a bit of a swipe at European aristocracy. Why would it not have the best qualities of both man and pig? Or even exhibit some unforeseen virtue? [ The Baron should have been von Neuschwein I think.]

Off the cuff - No - The Baron cannot carry on ad infinitum because genes are based on discrete components, patterns of DNA.

Could we isolate the genes that make the difference between a tasty snack and a loved relative e.g. ones needed for certain types of brain development say? This is certainly compatible with the "potential" line. Without the correct combination of genes there is no potential.

I think the strongest argument against Scrutons "what is normal" test is the queen bee one or something along those lines.

A worker becomes a queen by being fed royal jelly as a larva. Let us suppose that something similar is developed artificially for pigs. It turns them into pigs with superior intelligence and boosts the language centres of the brain. The new litter of Uberschwein demonstrate all sorts of markers of sentience, they show knowledge of what is being said to them, they respond, they perform simple reasoning tasks, simple arithmetic, recognize themselves in mirrors and construct novel sentences using a specially adapted snout actuated keyboard.

Have they demonstrated that the pig species has passed the threshold necessary to avoid the butcher? Not according to Scruton because this is not "normal" state for a pig. So what proportion of the piggy populace need to be in this state for it to be deemed "normal". Not 100% by his own admission.

Does an arbitrary threshold make sense?
What happens if we temporarily exceed the limit?

Lets say we get to a state where there are quite a few super-piggeries around the world either in Universities, research facilities or charitable foundations dedicated to improving the lot of pig-kind. Disaster strikes. A really nasty strain of swine flu sweeps the globe and wipes out a great many ordinary pigs. Because of the risk of it being passed to humans most of the remainder are culled. Except of course the super-pigs who are kept in medially clean conditions and have had all their shots. So now they form over 50% of the world pig population. Surely they are normal enough now? And the treatment once used to create a super-pig becomes a medical necessity which we are morally obliged to provide to future generations of pigs to avoid the slipping into an essentially handicapped condition.

Anonymous said...

I was at a party and they had suckling pig, now I could not bring myself to eat it - when I'll happily eat bacon sandwiches or a nice bit of pork belly. What difference should it then make that it is a baby pig? I mean I eat lamb...

Then in the UK we balk at the thought of eating a dog (I've been told it's bitter) or a cat (just like a rabbit). Are we affording some form of special charity to dogs and cats?

a) cloned human muscle tissue, grown in vats: allowable to eat?

Scarey thought, by the arguments given I can see no reason why it would be wrong to eat - it was never sentient or capable of moral or intellectual sophistication. (Although I'd want a bit of fat thrown in, as that is where the flavour comes from...)

Here is a refinement on the question:

a2] What if I decide to clone some of my own tissue to eat, is that wrong?


b) i) Baron von Neustein creates a human-porcine hybrid. The result is an abomination, 50% human, 50% pork. Is it edible?


If the brain transplants are possible:
i] What if it is a brain of a pig in a human body - is that edible?
ii] Or a human brain in a pigs body?

Psiomniac said...

Ok, maybe the thought experiments weren't such a good idea...

Paul C said...

Why should we need any more reason? Well, because otherwise we're bigots. Indeed, we can no longer criticize violent and abusive sexism and racism, for example.

With all due respect, Stephen, this is nonsense. Simply because one possesses bigoted opinions in one area does not mean that one isn't allowed to criticise other people's bigoted opinions in another area. Most people are "bigots" in certain areas to some extent - it appears to be built in to human nature - so by your argument here nobody is ever in a position to criticise anybody else.

It also seems like you're aware that this is a weak argument, since the only reason you've given for holding an anti-speciesist position is in order to be able to criticise sexist and racist. Either anti-speciesm holds up on its own terms, or it doesn't. So I'm with the Barefoot Bum on this one - do you have any other reasons why we need more reasons?

Papilio said...

Paul C:

Does this mean that, say, chimps are fair game? We may not need a reason in practical terms right at this moment - but it is definitely an interesting question.

Whilst there are no intermediates in intelligence between us and chimps, what if there were? Would they be fair game if chimps are? If chimps aren't fair game, where do you draw the line, and more importantly, why?

Paul C said...

Does this mean that, say, chimps are fair game?

No. I should have clarified my views before answering: I support the extension of limited human rights to sufficiently intelligent animals.

However it also seems to me that the boundary of species - no matter how difficult to defend it might be in purely philosophical terms, as we've seen here - is far more embedded in our view of the world than race and gender. As a result, it's not enough to make a philosophical case if we actually want to change our relationship to animals - we have to present reasons why other people should want to.

I was simply pointing out that Stephen - while his arguments here may be sound - has not in my view presented sufficient reason why anybody else should consider those arguments. I think that this is the point that the Barefoot Bum was making as well - the brute fact of the species boundary is sufficiently strong that it requires more than just a really elegant argument if you really want to effect a change in the way people think about it.

I know that this is a philosophy blog, not an activism blog, but these things do need to be considered when we're formulating arguments. My point was not that Stephen's arguments were wrong (I think they're largely right) but that he doesn't seem entirely sure about why anybody should care about those arguments.

Whilst there are no intermediates in intelligence between us and chimps, what if there were?

There are. They're called "children". I think that Peter Singer's arguments in this area cannot be seriously challenged unless you automatically give humanity a privileged position - as Scruton does, but more often that privilege comes from religious belief. Philosophically I cannot give humanity that privilege - but practically I know that if I was in a burning building with a child and a chimp, I would save the child first (possibly unless the chimp was a close personal friend).

Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

I don't think Barefoot Bum and Paul C are off the mark at all, here.

Everybody is a speciesist (?), it's just a matter of degrees. The arguments put forth against speciesism are certainly logically valid, but so what? They could equally be delivered against the vegetarian, who is also guilty of taxonomic bigotry, if on a broader scale.

That organisms consume other organisms is an absolutely basic property of ecosystems. If it did not occur at every level, there would be no cycles, and without cycles there is no sustainability. So it is certainly not a rational position to say that eating meat is morally wrong. On the other hand, a specifically human argument could certainly be made that inflicting unnecessary suffering in the process could be morally wrong. Simply because we have sufficient empathy to understand, if somewhat crudely, when animals of close relation to ourselves are likely to be suffering. That said, it would not be a universal moral imperative that drives us to be compassionate, but simply a choice made on the basis of a balance between our needs and our conscience.

There are very few species throughout all the kingdoms that, simply by virtue of their existence, do not in some manner attenuate the quality of life of another species. Ecosystems are naturally competitive; it is how they flourish and how natural selection is driven. Based on the mechanisms of life on this planet, the Eden of the Bible wouldn't have lasted the week it took to create. It would have been an unsustainable system.

Of course, vegetarians are no more removed from the narrow speciesism perpetrated by we steak-lovers. Our need to eat cereals and vegetables does not come without a cost of its own, in "pest" control (pest being the buzzword for other animals that just happen to be naturally competing for resources we consider valuable) and habitat displacement. The thousands of hectares cultivated with soy are most certainly not environmentally sound, and are certainly the cause of much suffering for the various ecosystems that are ransacked in order to give the veggies their Quorn fix. The same charge can absolutely be leveled at the meat-eaters, whose farms are equally disruptive, both to the animals within them and those beyond.

The hypocrisy is very much shared when it comes to deciding what is acceptable treatment of our distant relatives and what is not.

Time spent pondering whether it is reasonable or unreasonable to eat meat (it really doesn't matter, because either way, eating meat is completely rationale from an evolutionary standpoint) is wasted, imho. The real issue is worth addressing is the conditions and environmental sustainability of current farming practices, both livestock and otherwise, which are inefficient, destructive, and cause unnecessary suffering.

As for dim aliens, I would happily eat a smart alien if the pickings were slim. It would not be immoral. Similarly, I would not insult the alien with such a claim if he were to have the culinary urge to make a human BLT out me. I might make the bastard fight for it, but I wouldn't call it unfair. As for dim humans, I'd rather leave those to the bears and sharks.

Stephen Law said...

Look at it this way. If you find sexism or racism wrong, my guess is because you find something like this principle plausible:

We are justified in discriminating between a and b only if there is some morally relevant difference between a and b that justifies this difference in treatment.

If you don't sign up to some such principle, why would you consider sexism or racism be wrong? (possibly you would appeal to some other principle) Sexism and racism are wrong, I think, because discrimination that is unjustified by some morally relevant difference = bigotry, and is wrong. And skin colour and sex are not morally relevant when it comes to most racial and sexual discrimination.

Trouble is, this principle then gets us into trouble with other species. Unless there's some morally relevant difference, our discriminatory practices come out as bigotry - speciesism.

Stephen Law said...

Timmo

Good point. Mind you an opponent can step round it by saying x is deserving of our full moral concern if either:

a: is fully rational, etc., or
b: is member of a species members of which are normally rational, etc.

Your parrot would fail on b but still qualify on a.

Paul C said...

If you don't sign up to some such principle, why would you consider sexism or racism be wrong?

Simply because you were raised in an environment where sexism or racism are wrong. Remember, most people don't engage in much reflection of this sort, and definitely not to this level around their own species - that's why people are usually repelled by Peter Singer's arguments when they first hear them. (Like you I would like them to reflect more, but that's the world we live in.)

This is why I say that you need to present a more compelling reason for them to consider speciesism in a similar light.

Unless there's some morally relevant difference, our discriminatory practices come out as bigotry - speciesism.

The morally relevant difference would be that most people consider that humans are the only animals with moral relevance, i.e. that only humans have the capacity for moral judgments. Clearly this distinction breaks down at the borders, as it were - but that is exactly why speciesism makes sense.

I consider it impossible in practice (and I would argue in theory, although that is weaker) to set up a rule of sophistication that says exactly which humans have sufficient moral capacity to be considered part of the "moral community" and thus subject to moral considerations (such as the right not to be experimented upon).

If you agree that it is impossible, you must then agree that we need a heuristic to decide who is included in our "moral community". The obvious boundary is exactly where it is at the moment, with our own species, since this presents an obvious and visible line of demarcation that has the added benefit of being an instinctive human response.

Anonymous said...

Stephen - "We are justified in discriminating between a and b only if there is some morally relevant difference between a and b that justifies this difference in treatment."

This applies only if we look for a moral justification. Can there not be pragmatic ones depending on the situation? I would agree that the dim aliens case is carefully constructed so as to avoid this.

In any case have you managed to rescue the example from the "molecule for molecule identical" bit yet? Don't forget if two animals are close enough to inter-breed and produce fertile offspring then you will have a hard time convincing old time biologists that they are not of the same species. DNA equivalence will convince the more up o date ones. Immediate origin does not matter. We may have some hard explaining to do as to how they got to their respective birth places but a lot of geology has rested on just this sort of thing.

Anonymous said...

One of the lines I have heard several times (usually from parent to child) against sexism, racism etc is "They are human beings just like you"

Inherently speciesist but very much anti-racist.

A similar line against mis-treating animals - "They are living creatures just like you"

There is a definite hierarchy here.
I have yet to hear a mothers scold a child for abusing yeast.

Timmo said...

Stephen,

Thanks for the reply. I guess that's the way the dialectic in philosophy goes: propose a good counter-example to an opponent's theory and she makes her theory disjunctive! That's sometimes OK, of course -- we want to refine our views to apply as broadly as possible.

You seem to be making this point with your twin earth example: the properties which give someone moral status are always intrinsic properties. Scruton relies on an extrinstic property on which to base moral status, namely the property of being a member of a species which has other members that have the potential to be, or are actually, rational. What matters for moral status are the qualities of the individual herself, and not the qualities of others. Would you say that's right?

Also, what do you think Scruton would say about the following case? To say that it is normal for a kind K to have property P is simply to say: typically, if x is a K, then x has P. It is normal for human beings to have the potential for rationality because, typically, if someone is a human they have the potential for rationality. (Drop time for the moment). So, Scruton's new thesis becomes:

(1*) If X has moral status, then either (a) X is a rational being, or (b) X is a member of a species for which it is normal to be rational.

Imagine that nuclear war breaks out and the world's cities are covered with damaging radioactive debris. In this post-apocalyptic world, most people in the following generations will never develop rationality due to fundamental changes in genes worldwide as a result of the nuclear holocaust. Suppose Johnny is a infant during this time:

(2*) Johnny is neither a rational being nor a member of a species for which it is normal to be rational.

Remember normality means it typically or usually happens, which is no longer the case in the post-apocalyptic world. It follows from the new Scruton thesis:

(3*) Johnny does not have moral status.

Intuitively, that's wrong! Why should the fact that Johnny was born after the world became a nuclear wasteland disqualify him from moral status?

Stephen Law said...

Hi Timmo - yes I think the intrinsic/extrinsic distinction is relevant here. I think this all needs a lot more unpacking actually. I sense there is some interesting things to dig out here, if I ever get another 5 minutes to do some thinking....

Hi Paul C - the fact that most humans consider the human/non-human boundary morally relevant does not, I think, make it so. Otherwise the fact that most people considered e.g. skin colour morally relevant would make it so, and thus make their racism justified...

Of course, my arguments may not convince anyone. I admit that! But let's not conflate causal efficacy with rational force!

Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"Trouble is, this principle then gets us into trouble with other species. Unless there's some morally relevant difference, our discriminatory practices come out as bigotry - speciesism."

Inevitably. As Paul C points out your argument holds, but it presents a challenge to every organism in existence, herbivore or otherwise. Your reasoning naturally ends with the conclusion that there is no consistent and entirely fair way of discriminating between species, and thus we should not do so. But the logic of this argument does nothing to the brutally plain fact that we exist as replicating life forms precisely because our natural selection has been driven by our capacity and propensity to discriminate.

Stephen Law said...

The conclusion is not that there's no consistent or justifiable way to discriminate. There is - we could discriminate on the basis of morally relevant properties. Discriminating on the basis of skin colour or sex or indeed species is not usually morally relevant.

It can be, of course. E.g. sex is relevant when it comes to to e.g. breast cancer screening. No unfairness in making it freely available only to women. But sex is irrelevant when it comes to the vote.

The challenge is to explain why their merely belonging to a different species justifies us in treating other species as little more than foodstuff.

Why is being of a different species morally relevant?

Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"It can be, of course. E.g. sex is relevant when it comes to to e.g. breast cancer screening. No unfairness in making it freely available only to women."

Wouldn't the argument from survival apply as a morally relevant property? Not that I'd use this argument in defence of people - particularly from developed countries - eating meat, but it demonstrates the fact that there cannot be a universal position here. The lab rat and the child with leukemia can both present arguments from survival that, I think, would be equally morally legitimate, and yet completely the opposite.

But to bat the question right back at you, what exactly are your criteria for acceptable speciesism Because it goes without saying that you must also subscribe to this form of bigotry, and that we're really just haggling over the finer points as to whose criteria are the more morally relevant. What is the morally acceptable way to discriminate between the rights of small vertebrates, invertebrates, plants, fungi and all manner of life from another category of life forms more worthy of our protection?

Paul C said...

Stephen:

the fact that most humans consider the human/non-human boundary morally relevant does not, I think, make it so.

It definitely makes it morally relevant - the question is only whether it is morally justified.

The conclusion is not that there's no consistent or justifiable way to discriminate. There is - we could discriminate on the basis of morally relevant properties.

I would argue that a) "possessing the capacity for moral thought" is in fact a morally relevant basis. If b) humans are the only species that possess the capacity for moral thought, then c) speciesism is entirely justified (as per the heuristic approach that I mentioned).

If you disagree with a), then I would be interested to know on what basis - I think it's possible to argue against, but difficult. If you disagree with b) then you would need to demonstrate which other species possess this capacity - I think it might be possible to demonstrate in the great apes, but difficult.

Of course, my arguments may not convince anyone. I admit that! But let's not conflate causal efficacy with rational force!

Unfortunately you're arguing for an extension of rights, which is a legal argument as much as a philosophical one. Surely this requires that the arguments are not merely logically successful but rhetorically successful?

Paul C said...

There's been something bothering me about this discussion since I started reading it, and I've only just worked out what it is:

Morality != Rationality.

In fact I'd go further and say that morality is only loosely related to rationality / intelligence / "sophistication".

Does this alter anything?

Anonymous said...

Regarding "morally relevant" and Morally justified" is there not an element of circularity creeping in here? That is to say we are in danger of only accepting a feature as morally relevant if it can be used in the moral justification we are considering....

So how do we decide if something is "morally relevant" independently of whether it an be used to provide a moral justification in a particular case?


Paul c said
"...If b) humans are the only species that possess the capacity for moral thought, then c) speciesism is entirely justified"

Agreed but in many case species is simply a marker indicating a high likelyhood or possibility of the morally relevant attribute at hand. In the same way as we use age as a proxy for some form of mental competence when granting the vote. You can be disenfranchised by reason of infirmity but we are not usually subjected to any test.

Are we also making the wider assumption that humans are the only species that can possess the capacity for moral thought?

If we had other evidence that a member of another species possessed the attribute we would need to re-assess.

In some ways this is not unlike some forms of sexism. Women were thought to be in the main, mentally unsuited to certain roles in society, despite a number of individuals who, even against this bias, proved otherwise. Only when it became accepted that sex was a largely useless marker of competence did this change and I suspect that only once this information was absorbed were sexists labeled as bigots.

I think perhaps speciesism has to be justified on a species by species basis. If we find for instance that chimps have moral capacities we need not automatically grant rights to fish or even mice.




Scruton's "normality" gives him in effect two get-outs. Firstly he can deem rare or unnaturally altered members of a species to be "not normal" and so continue discrimination against the bulk of the population. This is either pragmatic or lazy.

Secondly he is left able to discriminate in favour of members of a species (humans) that for any reason have been shown to lack the required attribute. This is really desirable for reasons of "army loyalty" (see above).



"Surely this requires that the arguments are not merely logically successful but rhetorically successful?"

Well yes but only when the case comes to court. Let the paid advocates do the rhetoric!

Anonymous said...

paul c -

"Morality != Rationality"

Funny enough I was sort of thinking along similar lines with respect to intelligence, self awareness etc particularly in the case of the chimps. I sort of skated over it by assuming it to be a casualty of the cut and thrust of informal blogs. After all what would we do if chimps are self aware but amoral?

Paul C said...

Agreed but in many case species is simply a marker indicating a high likelyhood or possibility of the morally relevant attribute at hand.

Exactly; which is why I proposed that we continue using the heuristic that we currently use, where species is a simple and effective demarcation line.

If we had other evidence that a member of another species possessed the attribute we would need to re-assess.

We would have to extend the same rights to them as we apply to ourselves. The question is, what evidence would we require that another species has this moral capacity?

After all what would we do if chimps are self aware but amoral?

This is the question is most interesting for me. What would we need to see to demonstrate that chimps are amoral, rather than just having a radically different morality?

(It's also worth noting that communication may a key marker here, since that is what makes possible our assessment of others having moral capacity.)

Anonymous said...

Paul - "What would we need to see to demonstrate that chimps are amoral, rather than just having a radically different morality?"

Well I suppose they could claim to be amoral themselves. That would be awkward. I think we would probably grant the rights anyway just to be on the safe side in this case. After all we would have to satisfy ourselves that the chimp making the claim wasn't a psycho or extremely radical philosopher or simply wrong. It would probably be even worse if they claimed to be moral but continued to act as if they weren't. After all if you are intelligent, amoral and vastly outnumbered by humans you'd lie wouldn't you?

Actually I think I would still support them having rights even if they were shown or claimed to be amoral provided they can be shown to have self awareness. Making any sort of claim about themselves would automatically qualify them.

Psiomniac said...

Regarding "morally relevant" and Morally justified" is there not an element of circularity creeping in here? That is to say we are in danger of only accepting a feature as morally relevant if it can be used in the moral justification we are considering....

It might be a danger but I think it can be avoided by an appeal to consistency.

Suppose I value conscious self aware entities and that my ethical stance is that it is wrong to cause harm to them. It follows then that whether or not an entity is self aware is morally relevant to me.

Anonymous said...

Psiomniac

But have you not just determined the moral relevance by reference to your ethical stance which in turn would only be justified if was based on something of moral relevance? Consistent yes, but still circular.

Apologies if Ive misread you but it just serve to highlight the pitfalls.

Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

There's much talk of making moral distinctions on the basis of fuzzy concepts such as "rationality" "self awareness" etc, but this does not rise above the level of intellectual curiosity unless there are ways to accurately measure these abstract metrics. In addition, if we could measure them, how would we justify the points at which we mark our line differentiating those who are worthy of moral consideration and those who are not? And how can we be sure that we are not applying bias to what we consider to be evidence of reasoning?

Even using a metric that would appear as intuitively obvious as the capacity for suffering, we will find ourselves in difficulty trying to make accurate inferences, particularly for organisms further removed from our own ancestry and thus not displaying the behaviours that we can more readily empathise with as identifiers of suffering.

Psiomniac said...

But have you not just determined the moral relevance by reference to your ethical stance which in turn would only be justified if was based on something of moral relevance? Consistent yes, but still circular.

It depends what you mean by circularity. It makes no sense to ask what is the moral relevance of an attribute might be, without reference to any moral framework. If we then turn to what the justification of that moral framework is, then you are right to imply that sooner or later we will probably have to offer things for which there is no further justification. I gave an example when I mentioned that I might value particular attributes like conscious self awareness. We might be able to get a bit further with that and give some reasons why I value this or consider it morally relevant, like the fact that it is a prerequisite for suffering. But sooner or later we hit rock bottom and I will have to say the equivalent of 'suffering is bad', for which no further justification can be given.

So my argument is that all derivations are either part of an infinite chain or they terminate. The latter must rest on something like a set of axioms. If you are saying that all of these are therefore circular, then this renders the term trivial doesn't it? I'd rather reserve 'circular' for more problematic instances of question begging.

Paul C said...

Anonymous:

Well I suppose they could claim to be amoral themselves. That would be awkward.

It would actually demonstrate that they had moral capacity, since they would have to understand morality to declare themselves amoral. So their rights would be safe.

Actually I think I would still support them having rights even if they were shown or claimed to be amoral provided they can be shown to have self awareness.

So would you say that self-awareness - rather than moral capacity - is the dividing line on which rights are based?

Timmo said...

Stephen,

Is it a problem for the way in which you formulated your thought experiment that a molecular duplicate of a human is also a human and not some other species? The essential properties of a biological species are ultimately rooted in the genome of that species. I suppose Scruton might claim that there is a fundamental, structural difference between human beings and your imagined extraterrestrials: human beings instantiate a range of properties which destines them to rational autonomy; the extraterrestrials are not "made" for anything further or more profound.

Scruton doesn't need "normality" in the sense "what typically happens with that kind," just what that kind was made to do. I suppose it's rather like saying that human beings, in virtue of being the natural kind they are, have a certain Aristotelian potentia. The humans and extraterrestrials in your thought experiment are different insofar as they have distinct telos.

Now, I don't want to be understood as endorsing this line of argumentation! I feel there is something rather illegitimate about this sort of discussion.

Timmo said...

Anonymous and everyone else,

Actually I think I would still support them having rights even if they were shown or claimed to be amoral provided they can be shown to have self awareness. Making any sort of claim about themselves would automatically qualify them.

Are you aware that non-human animals exhibit a range of kinds and degrees of self-awareness? There's a vast literature on animal cognition, but you might try: Bekoff & Burghardt's The Cognitive Animal: Empirical and Theoretical Perspectives on Animal Cognition. There's a philosophically acute survey of the animal cognition literature in De Grazia's Taking Animals Seriously.

Anyway, if you are uncertain whether a particular creature might exhibit self-awareness or some other trait which qualifies them for moral status, shouldn't you play it on the safe side and simply assume that they really do have it? Isn't that the responsible thing to do?

Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"Anyway, if you are uncertain whether a particular creature might exhibit self-awareness or some other trait which qualifies them for moral status, shouldn't you play it on the safe side and simply assume that they really do have it? Isn't that the responsible thing to do?"

This is sound reasoning, much as Stephen's arguments against speciesism are sound, but... it only challenges an argument that attempts to justify the allocation of moral status on the basis of an abstract metric like cognition.

Going back to Barefoot Bum's original interjection, I don't think it is necessary to attempt such a justification for speciesism in the first place. We exhibit bias tendencies towards species with which we can cooperate (namely our own, but sometimes others), because there are distinct benefits to such cooperation. There's no universal principle in play, here, simply pragmatism. Species for which we have no such meaningful relationship are merely competitors, as we are to them, in a global ecosystem. That's not a choice, incidentally; our very existence, whether we choose to abstain from meat or not, is in direct competition with other species. Our presence is destructive to the welfare of others, as their's is often destructive to ours.

IMHO, the strongest position for vegetarians to assume is the argument from suffering. In this case, we can avoid complicated moral discussions and go with our evolved empathic instincts that generally cause us to balk at unnecessary or unprovoked suffering irrespective of reason. The vast majority of people who eat meat would be utterly appalled by the processes involved in putting that meat on the table. Few would be able to actively partake in these processes. Few would be able to say with any degree of conviction that the higher mammals that make up the bulk of our meat industry are deprived of the sensory apparatus that facilitates our own sensations of pain and suffering. That alone is a strong argument for a fresh perspective on the issue of contemporary animal husbandry. I don't think we need to waste time getting tied up in knots over who gets a pass and who doesn't on the basis of some fluffy notions about universal moral principles we can't even say with certainty exist.

We simply have to say, "If we don't have to eat meat, and it plays no significant role in our survival, is there any reason why we should inflict the inevitable suffering in order to procure it?"

Timmo said...

rev. dr. incitatus,

We simply have to say, "If we don't have to eat meat, and it plays no significant role in our survival, is there any reason why we should inflict the inevitable suffering in order to procure it?"

Notice that this argument already rests on an "abstract metric like cognition." The argument goes something like:

(1) Chickens (say) have the capacity to suffer. [premise]

(2) If an organism has the capacity to suffer, then it has a right to not suffer needlessly. [premise]

(3) Therefore, Chickens have the right not to suffer needlessly. [from 1, 2]

(4) Preparing chicken products is unnecessary and would cause chickens to suffer. [premise]

(5) Therefore, we ought not prepare chicken products. [from 3,4]

This argument rests upon the claim that the capacity to suffer, call it sentience, is a sufficient condition for moral status.

The argument is no good against a though-going speciesist -- they will simply deny (2), and insist on some other standard which is harder to meet.

Anonymous said...

Psiomniac - re cirularity.
I guess I am calling for more clarity in what are our axioms,



Paul_c & Rev. Dr. Incitatus

I think self awareness is a useful attribute, but am cautious that it is not the only one and also that it may be difficult to quantify. Furthermore I would not consider it an automatic path to "full citizenship" if you like.

However we determine whether or not the attributes are present and in what degree we are still left with the issue of "Speciesism == bigotry" and whether Scruton's appeals justify discrimination grounds of species.


Timmo - you said that a speciesist would deny that "If an organism has the capacity to suffer, then it has a right to not suffer needlessly. [premise]"

I do not think this is the case. There are many who seem to qualify as speciesist who assert this. e.g. all those celebrity chefs campaigning for animal welfare, most farmers, pet owners. Surely the speciesist simply assert that simply that "The wants/needs of my species take precedence over any rights of other species irrespective of any other consideration"

Psiomniac said...

Anonymous
Psiomniac - re cirularity.
I guess I am calling for more clarity in what are our axioms,

I think that's reasonable.
I think a successful counter to the accusation of speciesism would then consist in a derivation from these axioms of our moral stance regarding animals which is consistent with our treatment of dim humans.
What Stephen has illustrated is how hard this is to do, or perhaps that it is not possible.
As the infamous trolley problems suggest, even with quite simple thought experiments, people find it very difficult to match what they say they would do with what they profess to be their moral reasoning.

Anonymous said...

"people find it very difficult to match what they say they would do with what they profess to be their moral reasoning."

True enough but moral reasoning does not preclude other influences which may win out in specific circumstances e.g. learned behavior, instincts etc. where snap judgments are required. The great success of certain heuristics in the bulk of cases makes them very powerful factors in peoples decisions.

Anonymous said...

On a lighter note there is a piece today in the Telegraph which highlights our odd relations with other species

Psiomniac said...

Anonymous,
I agree, moral reasoning is perhaps best regarded as a useful adjunct. Sometimes it is useful when our heuristics break down, and in the longer term I think reason can be used to reset some of the parameters of our day to day heuristics. Perhaps on rare occasions for some individuals a total change of behaviour can result from a shift in moral stance which has been facilitated by reason.

I should add the obvious caveat to my last post that it is of course a lot easier to provide such a derivation of a consistent stance if you are either against eating animals or in favour of eating dim humans. Similarly for experimentation and so on.

Anonymous said...

psiomniac - Indeed. I would argue that for many, vegetarianism is such a heuristic. After all not wanting to be even in part or at arms length responsible for the death or suffering of an animal does not preclude a tasty bit of roadkill does it? Or sausages from pets that that die in peaceful old age? And then theres people that were carrying donor cards...

Might be indigestible and un-appetising but not immoral by reason of being a cause of suffering.

Paul C said...

Perhaps on rare occasions for some individuals a total change of behaviour can result from a shift in moral stance which has been facilitated by reason.

I'll pipe up here, because that describes my experience with this issue, since I became a vegetarian on what is usually termed "moral" grounds but not because I was desperately upset by animal suffering. My reasoning was as follows:

1. I do not wish to cause unnecessary suffering to other living beings.
2. It is not necessary for me to eat other living beings in order to survive.
3. Therefore I should remove as many of those living beings from my diet as possible.

However there are three caveats here. The first is that this vegetarianism is a question of shifting the boundaries of what you eat, rather than applying absolute injunctions against certain types of food. The second is that this line of reasoning, while compelling for me, is not sufficiently compelling for others or for me to imagine that it is reasonable for me to insist that others comply with it. The third is that, over time, my vegetarianism has become a heuristic rather than a rational response; I now simply no longer see meat as food, even in a potential sense.

Make of that what you will.

Psiomniac said...

Paul C,

That is interesting.
One of the reasons that I have always regarded suffering as only part of the story, is that if I could provide an abattoir which was free of suffering, then according to your reasoning, you would be able to eat meat from there.
Not to mention that if suffering were the only criterion, it would be ok to painlessly kill orphan humans under some circumstances. Did you notice the word 'orphan' in the dim human thought experiment? I assume this is to get around the problem of grieving parents.

The Celtic Chimp said...

Racism and sexism are only morally wrong becasue we have decided, fairly recently that they are. A majority used to think they we're ok. The entire earth operates on coersion. If women were larger and stronger than men, would men discrmintating against women be what is generally meant by sexism today? If Africans had been technologically and militarily more advanced than europeans would white discriminating against black be the assumption in terms of racism? We kill and eat pigs because we can, most people don't really care and becuase pigs don't organise marches, mount armed resistance or in any other way protest their treatment. Are we biggots? Probably. I doubt any morally relevant difference exists. We really are giving ourselves too much credit to suppose it even could be moral to wholesale slaughter another species becasue they taste good.

Timmo said...

anonymous,

Thanks for your comments. You write,

I do not think this is the case. There are many who seem to qualify as speciesist who assert this. e.g. all those celebrity chefs campaigning for animal welfare, most farmers, pet owners. Surely the speciesist simply assert that simply that "The wants/needs of my species take precedence over any rights of other species irrespective of any other consideration"

Yes, a speciesist could take that line, but I would want to refrain from calling that a right. It is simply too weak: sentient non-human animals have a right not to suffer needlessly except for when human desires conflict with that right. It's hardly a right when it can be overridden by a trivial desire, like that of desiring a hamburger or a steak. So, I still count that as a denial of (2).

Suppose a white supremacists granted that people of color have rights, but went on to hold, "the wants/needs of my race take precedence over any rights of other races irrespective of any other consideration." Would we really say that he believed they had rights?

Anonymous said...

Timmo. Possibly. Perhaps in the instance of a conflict of interest between two non-whites, the racist might argue that the matter should be resolved by an appeal to the rights of the respective parties, as opposed to the toss of a coin or trial by combat.

Anonymous said...

Re celtic chimps comment about the recent developments against racism and sexism.
I noted before that (at least some) people used to think that race and sex were functionally significant in terms of mental capacity. The black on white thing is I think mostly a Western artifact. One can find plenty of brown vs black discrimination in India etc and I daresay in China too.

Historic perspective on race wasn't entirely derogatory either; certain races were thought to exhibit neutral or admirable characteristics such as being particularly hard working, clever or being determined and brave warriors.
The racial and cultural stereotypes persist.

As far as slaughtering for food goes, I think one could argue it is at least morally neutral if the species in question doesn't exhibit morally signifiant attributes. e.g. tomato plants. Perhaps for the avoidance of moral hazard we should kill and eat only things that taste bad?

Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Anonymous

e.g. tomato plants. Perhaps for the avoidance of moral hazard we should kill and eat only things that taste bad?"

Funny you should mentions fruit. One could argue on the basis of natural selection that fruit is the only thing we can eat with a completely clean conscience, because the consumption of the fruit is crucial to the plants survival. It's the reason fruit evolved; so it would be consumed.

Essentially, fruit bearing plants are the closest thing we have to the cow that wants to be eaten.

Paul C said...

One of the reasons that I have always regarded suffering as only part of the story, is that if I could provide an abattoir which was free of suffering, then according to your reasoning, you would be able to eat meat from there.

Yes, absolutely true. However I don't believe that it is actually possible to create an environment for the slaughter of animals that would be entirely free of suffering. Another interesting twist: I would have no problem eating an animal that I would have killed myself, so I think the question for me is really one of taking responsibility for one's actions.

Not to mention that if suffering were the only criterion, it would be ok to painlessly kill orphan humans under some circumstances.

Don't reduce "suffering" to "pain" - they are not entirely the same thing - and again it's hard to see how this could be done in practice. Useful in a thought experiment, I suppose - but I also notice that it's hard to imagine suffering (rather than pain) without the element of self-awareness - so we're back there again.

Anonymous said...

Rev. Dr. Incitatus

Hmm - I sort of realised tomato plants weren't the best example as soon as I'd hit the post button, something where the plant gets uprooted would have been better. Still, it did prompt you to bring out a neat point. Following on from that then, it has been argued that in the case of domesticated animals we provide essentials for their survival and successful procreation; if we did not eat cows or pigs for example how any of them would be in existence today? Would the varieties that are currently so numerous even exist at all in the wild? While we do not form part of the lifecyle of the wild boar perhaps, Gloucester Old Spots would be nowhere without us.

Psiomniac said...

However I don't believe that it is actually possible to create an environment for the slaughter of animals that would be entirely free of suffering.
I'm not as convinced as you are on that point, partly because, ironically I don't equate suffering with pain. In any case, your argument becomes one that is against method rather than the action itself. Also, for a meaningful calculation shouldn't you consider the average amount of suffering that an animal would encounter anyway and see if the slaughter process alters that significantly?

Another interesting twist: I would have no problem eating an animal that I would have killed myself, so I think the question for me is really one of taking responsibility for one's actions.
But on the other hand I am traumatised by the act of plumbing. I just can't face it. Yet I benefit from the fact that other people do plumbing every day. Does that mean I am ducking my responsibility?

Don't reduce "suffering" to "pain" - they are not entirely the same thing - and again it's hard to see how this could be done in practice.
I agree with you about self awareness as a prerequisite for suffering. But killing something painlessly need not involve suffering, whether or not it is self aware.

Anonymous said...

paul c

Re: killing it yourself. I sympathise with this although strangely I believe that it would probably be better for the animal if a trained slaughterman were to do the job. Nonetheless i would feel a hypocrite if I were not at least prepared to do the deed.

Would you eat an animal that had just expired of natural causes?

(Obviously provided that there was no possibility of your bringing about its end or its having been reared specifically with that fate in mind. Jeremy Clarkson once said that it was illegal to take a deer that you'd just run over but that the next person to drive by could have it for the pot. Presumably this removes any motive for running down deer. Even Clarkson admitted this may not have had a shred of truth behind it but you get the point.)

Re suffering != pain

Animals also show signs of stress, fear boredom, loneliness even in the case of ones used to living in groups. Most of the animal welfare people are very keen to provide conditions which allow animals to indulge in natural behavior e.g. pecking and scratching for chickens, rooting for pigs. Depriving them of natural these outlets seems to cause them stress and ultimately distress.

Anonymous said...

As food for thought on making animals last moments easier, have a look at
at this Grauniad article.

Paul C said...

Psiomniac:

In any case, your argument becomes one that is against method rather than the action itself.

I'm not sure that it is, because I wouldn't eat meat even if it had been produced completely humanely. The Cow that Wants to be Eaten is a good example - I wouldn't eat the cow even if it wanted to be eaten.

Also, for a meaningful calculation shouldn't you consider the average amount of suffering that an animal would encounter anyway and see if the slaughter process alters that significantly?

No. By that argument, it would be legitimate to make the same calculation for everybody and everything you meet, and justify killing them on that basis. It's just too complex to be workable, and would seldom produce desirable results for both sides

I benefit from the fact that other people do plumbing every day. Does that mean I am ducking my responsibility?

I don't know, do you have any responsibility to do the plumbing?

The responsibility is for the suffering of the animal. As far as I know, no animals were harmed in the plumbing of this toilet. So I think you're talking about a different type of responsibility. Feel free to continue this line of thought - I'm not clear on it myself right now.

But killing something painlessly need not involve suffering, whether or not it is self aware.

This isn't meant to be a trick question, but have you ever killed anything yourself? The chance of suffering not being involved is virtually nil.

Anonymous:

Would you eat an animal that had just expired of natural causes?

If this is a purely philosophical question, yes - but in the real world, I wouldn't. I assume that this is because my vegetarianism has become a heuristic and it's easier to simply avoid meat altogether than to waste time on individual cases.

Psiomniac said...

paul c,
I'm not sure that it is, because I wouldn't eat meat even if it had been produced completely humanely.
But to justify that you would need a different argument, which is one of the reasons why I said suffering must be only part of the story.

No. By that argument, it would be legitimate to make the same calculation for everybody and everything you meet, and justify killing them on that basis. It's just too complex to be workable, and would seldom produce desirable results for both sides
I disagree, because most people have other overriding concerns when dealing with people as opposed to animals.

Besides, you are in favour of heuristics and I think in practice most people have already carried one out, and reached the conclusion that the suffering incurred in humane slaughter is not disproportionate given the base rate of suffering in an animal's life.

I don't know, do you have any responsibility to do the plumbing?

My point is that I am benefiting from having passed that responsibility to an expert and that there is nothing inherently wrong in that.

So I think you're talking about a different type of responsibility.
In what way? I am partly responsible for plumbing being done because I paid for it. You could argue that if I had done it myself I would have taken a greater share of the responsibility for it, but then we agree there is nothing wrong in plumbing in itself.

By the same reasoning, either it is wrong to kill animals for meat, or it isn't. How is the way in which you divide the responsibility for actually killing an animal relevant? How can you consistently hold the position that it makes a moral difference if you killed it yourself?

This isn't meant to be a trick question, but have you ever killed anything yourself? The chance of suffering not being involved is virtually nil.
So far, we have not really gone into what suffering really involves. You have pointed out that we shouldn't equate suffering with pain. I haven't killed anything myself but I have seen it done. It can involve a very quick transition for being conscious and not in pain to being unconscious.

Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Anonymous said,
"While we do not form part of the lifecyle of the wild boar perhaps, Gloucester Old Spots would be nowhere without us."

We can turn it around and consider our own fortune as a food source for other predators. We have, of course, evolved our smarts partly from learning how to catch food, but a quick and artful mind has also been sharply selected for by cave lions, crocodiles and heaven knows how many other hungry beasties with a taste for the long pig.

Timmo said...

Stephen,

In case you aren't aware, Tom Regan takes a similar line as you do against the kind of position Scruton advocates. Regan talks about a criterion for moral status proposed by Fox, according to which being a member of a species which is typically rational (or whatever) qualifies you for moral status. I hope it helps:

Regan, Tom (1978) "Fox's Critique of Animal Liberation" Ethics 88: 126-133

Paul C said...

Psiomniac

But to justify that you would need a different argument, which is one of the reasons why I said suffering must be only part of the story.

Possibly. In practice - and definitely in my case - people seldom have a single argument for why they do things. There wasn't a single point at which I decided to stop eating meat, but a gradual accumulation of circumstances and reflections, all of which resulted in the heuristic that if it's meat, I don't eat.

Reconsidering this basic principle every time I am presented with a meal would be an unbearable burden; and add a philosophical component to something which frankly doesn't need it. Presumably the fact that I maintain the heuristic even in this situation does not mean that the original argument that lead me to vegetarianism is invalid.

I disagree, because most people have other overriding concerns when dealing with people as opposed to animals.

I'm not sure how that refutes my point?

Besides, you are in favour of heuristics and I think in practice most people have already carried one out, and reached the conclusion that the suffering incurred in humane slaughter is not disproportionate given the base rate of suffering in an animal's life.

I would disagree here. Whenever I discuss vegetarianism with anybody from a meat-eating culture - which is whenever they find out I'm a vegetarian) - I always ask them why they eat meat. The response is usually (95%+) confusion - there isn't a heuristic involved, it has simply never occurred to them to think about why they eat meat. (As soon as the conversation is over, most people stop thinking about it.)

By the same reasoning, either it is wrong to kill animals for meat, or it isn't... How can you consistently hold the position that it makes a moral difference if you killed it yourself?

It isn't wrong to kill animals for meat; it's just something that I choose not to do. This is where it gets tricky, because I don't believe in the possibility of objective morality, and I expressly placed "moral" in inverted commas when describing my vegetarianism - and I don't think I ever said that killing it myself made a moral difference, did I? I think it was simply a question being more comfortable taking responsibility for my actions.

I haven't killed anything myself but I have seen it done. It can involve a very quick transition for being conscious and not in pain to being unconscious.

It can but it seldom does, especially when carried out on an industrial scale. And I'd be interested to know exactly what sort of killing you witnessed?

Psiomniac said...

Presumably the fact that I maintain the heuristic even in this situation does not mean that the original argument that lead me to vegetarianism is invalid.

Presumably not. Just to be clear, though I'm sure you have already realised, I am not arguing for or against vegetarianism here.

I'm not sure how that refutes my point?
It refutes the implication that you seemed to make that:
By that argument, it would be legitimate to make the same calculation for everybody and everything you meet, and justify killing them on that basis.
because the overriding concerns make such calculations about people illegitimate. And if your heuristic doesn't invalidate your original argument, then the same applies for somebody who did the base rate/aggregate suffering calculation for the slaughter process once and then applied this generally for animals.

I always ask them why they eat meat. The response is usually (95%+) confusion - there isn't a heuristic involved,
I stand corrected. Most people don't think about stuff much. Who knew? Although, I could argue that their lack of ability to articulate is a hazard of heuristics. You are the exception rather than the rule in this regard perhaps?

I think it was simply a question being more comfortable taking responsibility for my actions.
Are you saying you are just squeamish? If so it seems odd to use the language of responsibility. That is what the plumbing example was about.
If it is more than that, it seems likely that there is a moral component. Whether or not morality has an objective element seems irrelevant to me.

As for the killing, I'm talking abattoir. I think the problem for us is the interpretation of animal behaviour, as Temple Grandin demonstrates. My conclusion is obviously different to yours.

Paul C said...

because the overriding concerns make such calculations about people illegitimate.

What are these overriding concerns, though? That's what I was trying to get at.

And if your heuristic doesn't invalidate your original argument, then the same applies for somebody who did the base rate/aggregate suffering calculation for the slaughter process once and then applied this generally for animals.

I'm sorry, I'm a bit slow today (!) and I can't follow this.

Are you saying you are just squeamish? If so it seems odd to use the language of responsibility. That is what the plumbing example was about.

No, I'm not squeamish in the least; in fact, I seem to have a far higher tolerance for violence and slaughter than most of the meat-eaters I know, which is something that puzzles me.

If it is more than that, it seems likely that there is a moral component. Whether or not morality has an objective element seems irrelevant to me.

I'm not even sure what morality means anymore, except that it has something to do with force of habit. Here's the thing: is there a moral component to my meat-eating friends persistence in eating meat? If yes, then why doesn't that moral component appear in their thinking or actions? If no, then why does there have to be a moral component to my persistence in not eating meat, once the initial decision is reached?

As for the killing, I'm talking abattoir. I think the problem for us is the interpretation of animal behaviour, as Temple Grandin demonstrates. My conclusion is obviously different to yours.

My conclusion is that killing an animal always involves suffering, whether to greater or lesser extent, and I choose not to be part of that suffering. This is in the same way as I acknowlede that war always involves suffering, and I choose not to be part of that suffering either. I can't escape from either in the end, but I can do my best to minimise my responsibility for either.

Stephen Law said...

Timmo - no have not read that piece. will do. At some point I want to develop this a bit more....

Psiomniac said...

I don't want to get into the overriding concerns-they are the obvious ones which prevent us all from sizing up everybody we meet as potential meat. In other words, our overriding concerns involve living according to morals that allow us to live in large cooperating groups.

I'm sorry, I'm a bit slow today (!) and I can't follow this.
You said:
"No. By that argument, it would be legitimate to make the same calculation for everybody and everything you meet, and justify killing them on that basis. It's just too complex to be workable, and would seldom produce desirable results for both sides"
It wouldn't be too complex to be workable because we would use heuristics. Nor would it be legitimate because of other moral values to do with how we treat people as opposed to animals.

I suppose I am making a similar point to the one you are making about morality in general-that most of the time it works on autopilot. We might occasionally do some difficult introspection and radically change our behaviour. But after it is up and running we don't have to do difficult soul searching every time.

My conclusion is that killing an animal always involves suffering,
Mine is that it doesn't always and that if it is well run, an abattoir need not produce an amount of suffering in general that is disproportionate to the base rate. I'm not sure if settling that one is possible.

Nate said...

I have a question on how you deal with Hume's 'Is ought Gap' in light of the moral responsibility you are attempting to showcase through your argument?

With this aside. I feel the individuals who advance the theory of capability being a justifiable manner in which to consume animals;fail to take into consideration the fact that we breed animals to be stupid.

Would their response be the same if we intentionally bread a species that had the possibility of eventually becoming advanced to be stupid as a food source? Would this not violate the rights of a possible future sentient species?

Paul C said...

In other words, our overriding concerns involve living according to morals that allow us to live in large cooperating groups.

Isn't that just dressing up a social norm in moral clothes (you may believe that morals are just social norms, I don't know)? If our attitudes towards animals are also social norms dressed up in moral clothes, what's the difference between the two?

It wouldn't be too complex to be workable because we would use heuristics. Nor would it be legitimate because of other moral values to do with how we treat people as opposed to animals.

That's what this post is about though - I would argue that speciesism is a heuristic. Now it's a good heuristic that makes sense on many levels, but it's not necessarily a good idea to use it as the foundation for further moral arguments in itself.

Mine is that it doesn't always and that if it is well run, an abattoir need not produce an amount of suffering in general that is disproportionate to the base rate. I'm not sure if settling that one is possible.

Yes, that's the way most of my discussions on vegetarianism usually end. However I think you're being slightly disingenuous with the "disproportionate to the base rate" argument, since that is not usually a feature of why people eat meat, why they justify eating meat or why they dismiss people who don't eat meat. At the same time, it doesn't seem to be a strong argument in other cases, e.g. animal experimentation.

I get the feeling that I've argued myself round in a circle. What can I say, it's been a rough weekend.

Anonymous said...

Another bit in support of speciesism as evolved behavior (possibly along with morality?) is the observation that some of the more daring naturalists seem to avoid the jaws of the animals they study by making sure that the adopt appropriate behavior for the species, whether this involves displays of dominance/submission etc. it often means acting like a member of the species being studied. At the very least they must not behave like a prey species.

Psiomniac said...

paul c,
Isn't that just dressing up a social norm in moral clothes you may believe that morals are just social norms, I don't know)?
I don't see why. Without morality there would be no social norms, but I don't see them as identical. If somebody walks past you in the street and doesn't steal everything from you and kill you, that is not just becuase it is bad etiquette.

That's what this post is about though - I would argue that speciesism is a heuristic. Now it's a good heuristic that makes sense on many levels, but it's not necessarily a good idea to use it as the foundation for further moral arguments in itself.
But I haven't advocated that, rather I have just countered your 'unworkable' point.

However I think you're being slightly disingenuous with the "disproportionate to the base rate" argument, since that is not usually a feature of why people eat meat, why they justify eating meat or why they dismiss people who don't eat meat.
Each of us has an impression of how people justify eating meat. The fact that you are confident about yours doesn't mean I am being anything other than sincere in proposing a different view. If you have good evidence for yours then present it, I'm open to persuasion.

Paul C said...

Psiomniac, you originally said,

Also, for a meaningful calculation shouldn't you consider the average amount of suffering that an animal would encounter anyway and see if the slaughter process alters that significantly?

I initially assumed that you meant that you would do this on a case by base basis, which is what I feel would be unworkable. You then qualified that you meant it would be a heuristic - that you would do one calculation for all potential animals that you might eat.

I would argue that this is also unworkable because I don't think it is realistic for most people to evaluate the "average amount of suffering" against the "suffering caused by slaughter". This heuristic would make everybody a vegetarian, since any suffering caused by slaughter is in addition to the base rate of suffering in their life up to that point.

Perhaps you mean the "average amount of suffering" over an animal's entire lifetime - but this doesn't really make much sense since it's entirely theoretical. If we are allowing theoreticals then there is nothing to stop us saying that the "suffering caused by slaughter" should be evaluated on the basis of the worst possible slaughtering experience that an animal could have.

It seems much more reasonable for people to simply decide if they care sufficiently about the suffering of animals or their role in it to stop eating meat. This is the heuristic that most people use, and the answer is that they don't care sufficiently. (I have no problem with that, but I observe that they usually avoid thinking about the suffering in too much detail in order to maintain their position.)

Each of us has an impression of how people justify eating meat. The fact that you are confident about yours doesn't mean I am being anything other than sincere in proposing a different view. If you have good evidence for yours then present it, I'm open to persuasion.

My evidence is purely anecdotal: people simply don't even think about justifying why they eat meat, they only eat it because that's where they were raised.

Psiomniac said...

I would argue that this is also unworkable because I don't think it is realistic for most people to evaluate the "average amount of suffering" against the "suffering caused by slaughter".
All they would have to do is look at how abattoirs slaughter the animals they propose to eat in general. They might come to the conclusion that they will source their meat from well run abattoirs that do not inflict significant suffering. They would not need to keep doing this calculation.

This heuristic would make everybody a vegetarian, since any suffering caused by slaughter is in addition to the base rate of suffering in their life up to that point.

I disagree, you could still come to the conclusion that it was negligible compared to the base rate suffered up to that point. Also the animal will die in the end so you can also make a probabilistic assessment of how much suffering it would likely undergo in a typical death by natural causes.

Perhaps you mean the "average amount of suffering" over an animal's entire lifetime - but this doesn't really make much sense since it's entirely theoretical.
It is a judgement about how much an animal of a given species might suffer during its life. If you disallow such judgements then I'm afraid you must disallow your own because in both cases we must make assumptions.

If we are allowing theoreticals then there is nothing to stop us saying that the "suffering caused by slaughter" should be evaluated on the basis of the worst possible slaughtering experience that an animal could have.
I don't think this follows. Besides, by a similar mode of logic we could also say the quicker an animal is slaughtered, the less suffering it is likely to endure in total, because life is hard.

It seems much more reasonable for people to simply decide if they care sufficiently about the suffering of animals or their role in it to stop eating meat.
I just don't think that is enough. It seems much more reasonable to me that people decide whether they care on the basis of their best estimates of what is likely to be the case rather than simply relying on unexamined intuition.

My evidence is purely anecdotal:
As is mine. I suppose I can speak for myself only really, as although I know people with similar views to the ones I have expressed, I have no evidence that this is typical.

Paul C said...

Hum.

We're talking about exactly the same heuristic, since an individual's judgment will be about how high their level of tolerance for the suffering of animals is, no matter how they calculate that suffering. The problem - from a point of view that values people taking responsibility for their decisions most highly - is that most people in industrialised societies do not engage in this reflection and indeed seek to avoid it as much as possible.

Paul C said...

And as a nice way of closing off this discussion, here's an ambiguously related piece on the status of animals

Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

This discussion has taken a queer turn.

"Make love, not beef!"

I'm not sure we're ready for the full intent of that message just yet.

Jamie Self said...

I guess atheists don't believe in souls, so mentioning the idea that humans have souls and pigs (or intergalactic bears) don't would be "silly".

So I won't bring it up.
--jamie