On killing humanely raised animals

A lot of people agree that we cannot morally justify the way we treat animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses. The question of whether there might be ethical ways of raising animals for food is more contentious. It is a widely held belief that if an animal is raised with kindness and lives a happy life, there is nothing wrong with killing it quickly and painlessly in order to consume it. Even one of the founders of the animal welfare movement, Peter Singer, thinks that there might be acceptable ways of raising and killing animals in some circumstances.

The belief that motivates this sort of attitude seems to be that while animals have an interest in not suffering, they don’t necessarily have an interest in continued life. Why is this? In Practical EthicsPeter Singer claims that with the exception of dolphins and great apes, animals don’t have the necessary cognitive sophistication to have such an interest. They don’t have the requisite kind of self-awareness. They don’t have, in Singer’s words, “an understanding of what it is to exist over a period of time” or “the capacity to think ahead and have hopes and aspirations for the future.”

Before I actually examine in this claim, I have to make three quick points. First, claims about the cognitive capabilities of animals are empirical claims that we have often been wrong about in the past and may well be wrong about today. In fact, most farm animals are a lot more self-aware than we previously imagined. Second, “humane” farming is almost certainly not going to be economically viable in the long run – we simply don’t have the money, land or resources to give enough animals happy lives to feed billions of people. Finally, everything Singer said about the cognitive capabilities of nonhuman animals applies to some humans, such as the severely mentally disabled of all ages. So presumably there would be humane ways of raising them for consumption too, and I think very few people would be willing to accept this. These are all good reasons to give up animal products entirely, but I want to provide a more principled reason for why it’s wrong to end the lives of animals (and cognitively impaired humans).

Recall that the argument for why animals don’t have an interest in continued life goes something like this: Most animals don’t have the ability to see themselves as individuals or “selves” persisting over time – they don’t have the concept of “staying alive” or “continuing to live,” and hence cannot have the conscious desire to stay alive. And if a being doesn’t have a desire to stay alive (so the argument goes), it doesn’t have an interest in continued life. The problem with this view is that it takes an overly narrow view of desires and what constitutes a desire. In The Death of the Animal Paola Cavalieri gives the example of our desire to breathe oxygen. We almost never have the conscious desire to breathe oxygen, in the sense that we don’t go around thinking “I want to breathe oxygen” all the time. But it would be ridiculous to conclude from this that I don’t have the desire to keep breathing. In other words, in addition to all the conscious desires we hold, we also have background desires. In Do Animals Have an Interest in Continued LifeAaron Simmons calls such a desire a dispositional desire: “we would likely experience this desire given the appropriate circumstances.” In other words, I might not consciously desire to breathe right now, but I would if I found myself suffocating.

A lot of our desires are dispositional desires. The desire for life, food, shelter, a financially stable future, love, companionship… We don’t consciously hold these desires most of the time. Simmons connects the concept of a dispositional desire with that of enjoyment. What does it mean to say I enjoy something? Simmons uses the example of art: to say that I enjoy painting doesn’t necessarily mean that I currently want to paint; I may not be in the mood to paint right now. But if it’s something I enjoy, it’s something I will keep returning to. To enjoy something means, to quote Simmons, that “one is disposed or motivated by one’s behavior to pursue that thing,” which in turn means that one has a dispositional desire for that thing. What different animals enjoy varies according to species. But roughly, we know they enjoy certain activities since they engage in them repeatedly – eating, sleeping, playing, sex, etc. Animals may not be able to tell us using language “I enjoy doing these things and want to stay alive so that I can do them,” but that doesn’t mean they don’t desire these things. And since animals have these dispositional desires, they indirectly have an interest in continued life. By killing an animal, you are indirectly thwarting his or her desires. Life is the means by which animals pursue everything of value to them.

If animals have an interest in continued life, overriding that interest without a very good reason is morally unjustified. Since most of us in modern industrialized nations can nourish ourselves in ways that don’t involve the death of animals, it would follow that killing them is morally unjustifiable – painlessly or not.

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Speciecism and the Argument from Marginal Cases

In her book The Animal Question : Why Nonhuman Animals Deserve Human RightsPaola Cavalieri describes our current moral beliefs about animals in the following way:

Clearly, what we are dealing with today is a stratified moral community. Both we and the members of other species belong in it, but while we are first-class moral patients, members of species other than Homo sapiens are confined to second-class status. Phrases such as “to love animals” and “to be kind to animals” well summarize an attitude based not on respect but on a more or less benevolent condescension.

This kind of attitude is sometimes called “speciesism,” and is likened to other forms of prejudice like racism and sexism. We all recognize that most animals we interact with are sentient creatures, that they can feel pleasure and pain, and that like us, they have interests. So why do we think their interests don’t matter, or don’t matter as much as our own? Why do most people believe that even trivial interests of ours, like the pleasure we experience when eating meat, consistently override the much more fundamental interests of farm animals, such as their interest in staying alive or avoiding suffering? We don’t think we can treat other human beings this way, so why is it acceptable when done to animals, simply because they belong to a different species? How are we different from those who think it’s acceptable to treat certain people differently because they belong to a different race?

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The most common line of response to this charge is to claim that this difference in treatment is not based on something arbitrary like species membership. Those who reject the accusation of speciesism usually point to significant differences in the cognitive abilities of humans and nonhuman animals. The claim is usually that human beings, unlike nonhuman animals, are rational, autonomous agents and have superior intellectual capacities, and hence possess certain rights that must be respected. The problem with this view is that some humans, like those who suffer from severe and irreversible brain damage, don’t have all of these capabilities. Their powers of cognition are usually similar to those of farm animals like pigs or cows and often even less developed. Do we think it would be acceptable to kill them (even painlessly) to serve relatively minor interests of ours? Of course not – we would be horrified by such a suggestion. In fact, we usually think that we have an even greater responsibility to treat such people with care and respect. But notice that if we think this about humans but not about animals with similar cognitive abilities simply because they belong to a different species, the charge of speciesism continues to stick.

The argument I outlined above has come to be known as “the argument from marginal cases” and is one of the most widely discussed arguments in the animal rights debate. How might one respond to it? Well, there’s a family of counter-arguments that focuses on the moral relevance of what is normal for a member of a certain species. Carl Cohen, Tibor Machan, Robert Scruton and several other moral philosophers have argued along these lines. Here is Carl Cohen’s take on the subject in The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research:

The capacity for moral judgement that distinguishes humans from animals is not a test to be administered to human beings one by one. Persons who are unable, because of some disability, to perform the full natural functions to human beings are certainly not for that reason to be excluded from the moral community. The issue is one of kindWhat humans retain when disabled, animals never had.

Kenan Malik says something very similar in his debate with Peter Singer on granting rights to animals:

Most intellectually disabled people are sufficiently socialised to be members of the moral community. There are, certainly, a small number who are so disabled that they are denied a moral sense. (There, but for an accident of nature, go you and I.) But children and the mentally handicapped are of the same kind as you and me: the kind whose normal instance is a moral being.

I think this argument should immediately strike you as somewhat odd, because it seems to be based on a view that beings should be treated not on an individual basis, but based on what is normal for their kind. Where else do we apply this kind reasoning? In The Animal Question, Paola Cavalieri argues that such a view is not just odd, it is downright irrational. She responds to the argument by asking what we would do if we discovered that women are generally not as good at performing certain jobs as men, though some women are still better than some men at those jobs. If someone said that we should still give those jobs to men who were not as gifted as those few women because men are usually better at the job, or because it is normal for their kind to be better at it, we would (rightly) find that irrational and unacceptable. Why should it be any different when it comes to moral rights or obligations? Shouldn’t we be looking at individuals, and not kinds?

There are other ways of attacking Cohen’s and Malik’s argument. In Darwin, Species and Morality, James Rachels asks what we would do if a chimpanzee somehow (as the result of an advanced science experiment, perhaps) gained the ability to speak, read, write and reason like human beings. Would we think that this chimp should be denied the opportunity to go to university, or that it should be confined in a zoo, simply because normal chimps don’t have the ability to reason and use language like us? That just doesn’t feel right.

It doesn’t end there. Cohen and proponents of similar arguments must also explain why humans with severe intellectual disabilities share all the rights that other humans do, but none of their responsibilities. Usually, we think of human beings as moral agents who can be held accountable and sometimes punished for their actions. Why not extend this to the marginal cases too, since it’s normal for their kind? Would we think it’s acceptable to morally condemn or punish unfortunate victims of severe brain damage if they did something we would under normal circumstances find blameworthy? I don’t think too many people would be willing to bite the bullet here.

One last thing that needs to be said here is that any statement of the sort “Humans have capabilities X, Y and Z, while animals don’t” is almost certainly going to turn out to be false. Whether it’s rationality, self-awareness, the ability to use language, or the ability to experience complex emotions and be part of sophisticated social structures, it’s simply not true to say that humans have these abilities and nonhuman animals don’t. All of these capabilities come in degrees, and some animals possess them to a greater degree than others. They aren’t all-or-nothing issues. To illustrate this with even greater clarity, I turn to a point often made not by an ethicist but by an evolutionary biologist.

Richard Dawkins asks us to imagine what we would do if all the intermediates that connect us to chimpanzees, like Homo habilis and Australopithecus and the rest – all of whom were very similar to us – turned out not to be extinct. If they were all around today, we would have an unbroken chain of intermediates that extended from modern Homo sapiens to chimpanzees. We would have the ability to interbreed with a lot of these intermediates, and they would be able to interbreed with each other and so on, all the way back to our common ancestor with the chimpanzee. What would speciesists and proponents of the normal-for-their-kind arguments do in such a situation? How would they decide if a certain individual had human rights? Would they propose, asks Dawkins, that we set up courts to decide if a particular individual “passed for human,” like courts in apartheid South Africa were set up to decide if someone passed for white? I trust that I’m not the only one who finds such a suggestion obscene.

What we are left with, then, is what James Rachels calls “moral individualism.” When we want to know how we should treat a certain being, we look at the being itself, not what groups it may be a member of. I think it is safe to conclude that this is the simpler, more compassionate, and, as I have argued, more rational approach. It also has the consequence that what applies to the marginal human cases applies equally to nonhuman animals. They should be given the same rights and protections.

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Looking back after a year of vegetarianism

Growing up in India, I didn’t get to eat meat as often as I would have liked. In most households in many parts of India, the diet is mostly vegetarian, and ours was no exception. Meat wasn’t an everyday thing, it was a treat. We got meat once or twice a week at the most, and I ate it with gusto and relish when we did. Incidentally, most of my friends were vegetarian for religious and cultural regions, but we never spoke about meat or the ethics of meat-eating. It was just something that never came up. It tasted great, I didn’t think about it, I ate it.

When I moved to America after high school, I was eating meat at least twice a day, every day. It felt like a dream for a long time. I didn’t pause to think about where my food came from or the ethics of eating meat. The thought of giving up meat didn’t even begin to cross my mind. But things would change, slowly.

I took an Intro to Philosophy class in college and loved it. I had a great professor. We spent a good chunk of our time going over moral philosophy, although we never discussed animal rights or vegetarianism specifically. What I discovered through the class is that I really enjoy moral philosophy, and it was a subject I payed some attention every now and then, ever since. I still ate meat this whole time.

Much later, I sat down to read the works of Peter Singer, the ethicist who touched off the Animal Liberation movement of the twentieth century, and arguably the most influential living philosopher. Suddenly, things began to change. I was attracted to his utilitarianism and I couldn’t help but agree with pretty much everything he wrote on the subject of animal welfare. But I also couldn’t bring myself to accept his conclusions. I didn’t want to give up meat. I looked around desperately for arguments I could use to justify eating meat. I searched for the best objections I could find to Singer’s arguments. I ended up reading a lot more of the literature on animal ethics than I had ever intended.

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After a while, I had to admit that I’d lost. I could find no ethical or rational justification for my position. But I’m not purely rational, so I continued eating meat. I knew about what animals go through in factory farms – Singer describes them in chilling detail in Animal LiberationI knew what I was doing was wrong. But I didn’t stop. My conscience was not clear, but I didn’t stop. 

In May 2014, for the first time, I watched some video footage of what typically happens to animals at a factory farm. It was a short video, barely over a minute long, but I couldn’t watch the whole thing. I was very close to tears halfway through it. What pages and pages of philosophical arguments and written descriptions of factory farms couldn’t do for me, the video did in a matter of seconds. I made a decision almost instantly: no more. I couldn’t be party to this. I initially wanted to go vegan immediately, but I thought about it for a while and decided to take smaller steps. I would be a vegetarian first, and then slowly give up all animal products and eventually go vegan. May 20 was my last day as a meat-eater.

They deserve to live too.

They deserve to live too.

So I’ve been a vegetarian for a little over a year now. The transition has been much, much easier than I thought it would be, probably because my diet in India was mostly vegetarian. It was somewhat inconvenient for the first few weeks though. I missed meat, but the craving soon stopped. I can look at non-vegetarian dishes I wouldn’t have been able to resist a year ago and not feel a thing now. Finding vegetarian food hasn’t been hard either.

A number of other things have changed as well. My approach to animal welfare was initially based on my utilitarian leanings. But I continued reading the literature on animal rights / welfare, and was also very impressed with Tom Regan and his deontological approach to animal rights. My thinking slowly began to evolve, and ultimately, I rejected both utilitarian and deontological frameworks and settled with virtue ethics. My opposition to factory farming and my reasons for abstaining from meat are probably best captured by a passage from Rosalind Hursthouse’s paper Applying Virtue Ethics to Our Treatment of Other Animals

Can I, in all honesty, deny the existence of this suffering? No, I can’t… Can I think it is anything but callous to shrug this off and say it doesn’t matter? No, I can’t. Can I deny that the practices are cruel? No, I can’t. Then what am I doing being party to them? It won’t do for me to say that I am not engaging in cruelty myself… [T]he virtue of compassion is what I am supposed to be acquiring and exercising. I can no more think of myself as compassionate while I am party to such cruelty than I could think of myself as just if, scrupulously avoiding owning slaves, I still enjoyed the fruits of slave labor.

Also, the excellent SisyphusRedeemed (@SisyphusRedemed on Twitter) was kind enough to email me a copy of his dissertation on virtue ethics and our treatment of nonhuman animals. I learned a huge amount from it about meta, normative and applied ethics. Reading his dissertation has also strengthened my conviction that eating animals cannot be justified even if the animals in question lived good lives and died painless deaths. Thanks again, SisyphusRedeemed!

As a matter of practice, I’ve been trying to move closer and closer to veganism. I’ve given up most animal products: only cheese remains. I’ve cut down my cheese intake as well. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before I stop using animal products entirely.

Is there anything I regret about all this? I’m not sure. I feel uneasy and somewhat ashamed by the fact that the rational arguments weren’t enough to motivate me to give up meat. I shouldn’t have needed a horrible video to shake me up. By far the most disappointing part of this journey, however, has been the time I’ve spent talking to other people about these issues. My family has been pretty supportive and I think I may have won my mother over to vegetarianism, but with most friends, as with most strangers on the Internet, things haven’t gone so well. I’m saddened by the constant displays of callousness and complacency that I come across.  I’m tired of having to deal with the same set of bad arguments that try to justify meat-eating over and over again. So I don’t try to convince people to give up meat anymore. It just doesn’t feel worth it.

What about the future? There are two books I want to finish reading at the earliest. One is The Animal Question: Why Nonhuman Animals Deserve Human Rights by Paola Cavalieri. The other is The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional Lives of Farm Animals by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. And as I said earlier, I also want to complete my transition to veganism. If all goes well, I won’t be using any animal products a year from now.

animalquestion pigmoon

Posted in animal rights, animal welfare, applied ethics, vegetarianism | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Chapter Two: Reason And Action, Part 1

This is the second installment in my ongoing series of posts on The Point of View of the Universe by Peter Singer and Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek. The previous post was an introduction and overview of sorts. I recommend reading it first for some context. In this post, I go through the first half of the second chapter of the book and examine the authors’ arguments against normative internalism and metaethical subjectivism. I should point out at the outset that the book doesn’t use these specific terms, and lumps them both together under the category of “subjectivism.”

Normative internalism 

David Hume famously argued that reason “is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” This view of practical rationality falls under the category called normative internalism. Normative internalists argue that the only kinds of reasons for action that exist are “internal” reasons – reasons that depend on our desires, emotions and goals. If I desire A, or a have goal to achieve B, then I may have a reason to do X, Y or Z. If I want to get good grades, I have a reason to study hard and not waste a lot of time. But it makes no sense to talk about reasons that exist independently of my subjective desires and interests. This is a widely accepted and, I think, highly intuitive view. But this is the view that most of this chapter argues against.

Recall that Sidgwick’s view on moral “ought” statements is that they are precepts or dictates of reason. When I say “You ought (morally) to do X,” I mean that you have an overriding reason to do X, or that it would be irrational of you not to do X. But if normative internalism is true, there aren’t any objective reasons for action, and Sidgwick’s moral realism falls apart. Singer and Lazari-Radek spend some time discussing how Sidgwick defended his view of ethics from the challenges of normative internalism, and then provide their main argument against the view, which draws on the work of philosopher Derek Parfit.

Consider Parfit’s thought experiment of a man with ‘Future Tuesday Indifference (FTI).’ This man cares about pleasure and pain most of the time, like all of us, with one difference. He doesn’t care about his pains if they happen to him on a future Tuesday. This is not because he holds any false beliefs. He simply doesn’t care about what he feels on future Tuesdays. If he had to choose between slight pain today and extreme agony on a future Monday, he would choose the former.  But if he had to choose between slight pain today and extreme agony on a future Tuesday, he would choose the latter. Now, intuitively, it seems that there is something irrational about this person. As Parfit says: “That some ordeal would be much more painful is a strong reason not to prefer it. That this ordeal would be on a future Tuesday is no reason to prefer it.”

How could a normative internalist agree that the person with FTI it is irrational? If he only has reasons for action that depend on his desires, then he has no reason not to prefer an agonizing ordeal on a future Tuesday over slight pain today.  Singer and Lazari-Radek consider many possible responses, the strongest of which goes along these lines: “The person with FTI can predict today that he would, on the future Tuesday, regret choosing something that led to a lot of pain. This gives him a reason to prefer slight inconvenience today to agony on a future Tuesday.” But this won’t do. The FTI-person knows perfectly well that he will probably feel regret on a future Tuesday, but right now, he does not care about his future feelings. Unless I have a present concern about future feelings, I do not have a reason to act now in a way that takes into account my future condition. So if I am a person with FTI, I have no reason to act so as to avoid agony on a future Tuesday. And that just doesn’t feel right. It’s highly implausible that there’s nothing irrational about this kind of behavior. It would appear, then, that Hume was wrong, and normative internalism is false. There are objective reasons for action.

The authors recognize, of course, that FTI doesn’t really exist, but point out that we all act like FTI-people every now and then:

We may postpone going to the dentist, for instance, even though we are well aware that the postponement will mean more pain in future, overall… Our acting in this way seems clearly irrational but, if it is the best means of satisfying our present desires, a subjectivist [i.e., normative internalist], cannot say that it is irrational (p. 46). 

There’s some more discussion on this topic in the part of the chapter that deals with moral motivation. I’ll try and go over it in the next post.

Metaethical subjectivism 

Metaethical subjectivism is the view that moral statements are utterances of personal preferences or opinions. More precisely, moral statements are descriptions of what one feels when considering a moral issue. So when I say “Killing innocent people is wrong,” what I mean is, “I disapprove of killing innocent people,” or “Killing innocent people disgusts me.” I’ve always found this to be a highly implausible view. Singer and Lazari-Radek address it in a short section entitled Why Morality is Not Like Football. I don’t think their discussion adds anything new to the debate. This is not a surprise, since they spend a very short amount of time on this topic. But there are some very strong arguments against moral subjectivism (which I’m pretty sure is an extreme minority position among philosophers) out there. For a brief introduction to these arguments, check out David Enoch’s highly accessible Why I Am an Objectivist About Ethics (And Why You Are, Too).

Singer and Lazari-Radek ask us to imagine the experience of trying to persuade a friend to do two things: support Brazil in the next FIFA World Cup, and help victims of a recent famine. When we talk about the latter, it seems like we would appeal to independent reasons to justify why we think that not helping famine victims is wrong, and to persuade our friend of the same. On the other hand, the authors point out:

[W]e would acknowledge that one’s choice to support a football team may be arbitrary. Perhaps we would explain it – by saying, for instance, that we had a close friend from Brazil, with whom we used to watch the games. But this is an explanation more than it is a reason, and it is certainly not a reason for others to support Brazil (p. 49-50).

In other words, helping famine victims really matters, in a way that football (soccer) doesn’t. Our first-person experience of a discussion about the former, as well as the content of the discussion itself, make it seem like we’re arguing about a matter of objective fact and not just personal preference. Hence, it seems like metaethical subjectivism is false, and ordinary moral discourse presupposes objectivity.

And that’s it for today! The next post will cover rationality and moral motivation. Thanks for reading, and please keep an eye out for the next post.

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Blogging through The Point of View of the Universe

In The Point of View of the UniversePeter Singer and Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek defend a non-naturalistic form of moral realism. Moral facts, the authors argue, boil down to facts about what kinds of things we have reason to do. When we say that someone ought to do X, what we mean is that they have an overriding reason to do X. In other words, it would be irrational of them not to X. These reasons exist independently of our desires and emotions, and we can arrive at them by starting with some basic moral truths that human beings apprehend through rational intuition.

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The subtitle of this book is called Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics, and Singer and Lazari-Radek build on the system Henry Sidgwick laid out in his 1874 work, The Methods of EthicsSidgwick argued in favor non-naturalistic moral realism, moral intuitionism and hedonistic act-utilitarianism. Now, Sidgwick isn’t as well known as the other classical utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, but the authors of The Point of View of the Universe argue that as a philosopher, he was the best of the three. I will admit that I tried reading The Methods of Ethics once, but found it too dry and difficult a read and so had to put it down. Singer and Lazari-Radek, however, write in a clear, engaging and highly accessible style, as they polish and strengthen Sidgwick’s arguments and respond to his many critics. I haven’t gotten through the whole book yet, but I’m really enjoying it. Oh, and in case you were wondering, the book’s title refers to a phrase from The Methods of Ethics, where Sidgwick talks about

…the self-evident principle that the good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view (if I may say so) of the Universe, than the good of any other…

Singer and Lazari-Radek, like Sidgwick, call this a moral “axiom” that we intuitively grasp to be true.

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Peter SInger (left) and Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek (right).

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Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900).

I’m learning a lot as I read this book, and have had several of my views about meta and normative ethics challenged. To clarify all of this in my mind, I’ve decided to blog through the book. I’m planning to focus on the chapters that I found the most thought provoking, outline the major arguments in each chapter in a couple of posts, and then maybe raise some concerns and doubts I have at the end. These are the chapters I’ve tentatively planned to focus on:

Chapter Two: Reason and Action

This chapter is an exhaustive treatment of the nature of rationality, reasons for action and the different varieties of moral motivation. It lays the groundwork for the rest of the book. What’s central to this chapter is the controversial claim that a person can have normative reasons for action that exist independently of the subject’s desires. This is a frontal assault on the widely accepted and highly intuitive Humean theory of practical rationality. Hume thought that reason by itself could not yield action, and was merely instrumental. He argued that reason is subservient to an agent’s desires, interests and emotions and therefore wasn’t an adequate foundation for morality. By rejecting this instrumentalist view, Singer and Lazari-Radek maintain that reason does indeed play a more foundational role when it comes to morality than Hume thought.

Chapter Five: Justification in Ethics

Here, the authors outline and defend moral intuitionism and Singer’s axioms of ethics. These are the Axiom of Prudence, the Axiom of Justice and the Axiom of Rational Benevolence.

Chapter Seven: The Origins of Ethics and the Unity of Practical Reason

In this chapter, Singer and Lazari-Radek respond to common skeptical challenges to moral realism. The notorious evolutionary debunking arguments that one hears about everywhere these days are discussed in great detail. They also aim to resolve to the supposed conflict between morality and self-interest, and argue that we have reason to believe that benevolence is more rational than egoism. This chapter is probably my favorite, although I’m not sure I agree with everything in it.

Chapter Nine: Ultimate Good, Part II – Hedonism

Chapter Nine is an outline and defense of hedonistic utilitarianism. The authors discuss concepts such as pleasure and happiness, and internalist and externalist theories of the Good. Familiar challenges to hedonism such as Nozick’s thought experiment about an experience machine” are dealt with. There is also some more discussion of evolutionary debunking arguments and how they relate to hedonism.

If I have the time, I might also spend a few blog posts on the final chapter, Distribution. The focus here is on specific issues such in applied ethics, such as animal welfare, population and the environment, and effective altruism.

Phew. This isn’t going to be easy, so wish me luck! And stay tuned.

Before starting on my series of posts, I recommend checking out this short video, where Singer talks about the book:


Also take a look at the first published review of The Point of View of the Universe. It says that the book is a “spectacular display of philosophical fireworks.”  I wholeheartedly agree.

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An Argument from Queerness Against Theism?

You can probably tell from my last two posts that moral error theory has been on my mind a lot lately. Another thing that has been on my mind is theism. In this post, I want to look at one of the most widely discussed arguments for error theory: the argument from queerness. I’m then going to see if a similar argument can be run against theism (i.e., for atheism). I don’t intend to construct a rigorous argument with premises and conclusions here. Don’t expect a polished, well thought-out essay. It’s just going to be a jumble of thoughts, mostly.

In his highly influential book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, J.L. Mackie constructed an argument against the existence of objective moral values that he called the argument from queerness. This argument has two different versions, one metaphysical and one epistemological. I’ll be focusing on the first version here. Mackie argued that objective moral values, if they existed, would “be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.” He thought that it was easy to make sense of hypothetical imperatives of the form “If you want X, you ought to do Y.” But objective moral values would have to be categorical imperatives. They would have to be binding on an agent no matter what he desires. You ought not to torture innocent people, end of story. No ifs involved. It was these sort of “objectively prescriptive,” or what are nowadays more often called “irreducibly normative” facts that Mackie found queer. What place would such entities have in a world of quarks and protons? Surely it’s much simpler to deny the existence of these entities and explain why we believe in them with something like an evolutionary account?

JL Mackie

JL Mackie

Now, that’s a very rough sketch of the argument. Mackie defends every step of it in his book, which I strongly recommend that you read. My aim here isn’t to convince you that the argument is sound, but to give you an idea of the general structure of the argument. I want to then see if a similar argument can be run against most forms of theism or deism. I want to state up front that this isn’t one of the main reasons why I’m an atheist, but it’s an issue I’ve been giving some thought lately.

God’s queerness

Consider some of the attributes of God, traditionally conceived:

  • He is an immaterial, disembodied mind.
  • He is omniscient, omnipotent and and omni-benevolent (theistic).
  • He exists, or at some point existed, outside of space and time.
  • He interacts, or at some point, has interacted with the world in different ways.

Let’s start with the concept of an immaterial, disembodied mind. I find it hard to make sense of this. What would such a mind be like? Everything we know about all the minds we have observed suggest that they are dependent upon highly complex physical systems. I’m not making any explicit claim about how body and mind are related – only that they are, or seem to be, in every case we’ve observed. So an immaterial mind that exists completely independent of any physical substrate is certainly strange, and doesn’t cohere well with our background knowledge.

Let’s consider omniscience and timelessness next (I’ll leave out omnipotence, omni-benevolence and timelessness for now, but I think they’re also quite mysterious). This is where things get really weird. Whenever we think of a mind, we think of an entity with beliefs, desires and intentions – all of which seem to be psychological states that have temporal duration. They are also the kinds of things that usually change with time. An omniscient and timeless mind couldn’t have anything like these kinds of mental states. An omniscient mind wouldn’t observe, infer or learn – it would have “timeless” thoughts that are vastly different from what we typically think of as thoughts. But what sense does it make to call such an entity a conscious mind? This is how one of the characters in David Hume’s excellent Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion put it:

For though it be allowed, that the Deity possesses attributes of which we have no comprehension, yet ought we never to ascribe to him any attributes which are absolutely incompatible with that intelligent nature essential to him. A mind, whose acts and sentiments and ideas are not distinct and successive; one, that is wholly simple, and totally immutable, is a mind which has no thought, no reason, no will, no sentiment, no love, no hatred; or, in a word, is no mind at all.

I want to make it very clear that I’m not trying to point out an explicit logical contradiction here (though I think that can be done with some effort). Philosophers and theologians have written whole books defending the coherence of these concepts. But logical coherence is one thing, metaphysical plausibility is another. I’m merely trying point out just how alien and mysterious a divine mind is.

Next, the problem of interaction. How exactly would an immaterial mind causally interact with the physical universe? How would it make a conscious decision to “act” in such a way as to affect the universe from outside space and time? Again, I’m not arguing that there’s an explicit contradiction of some sort here. I’m just saying it’s all very strange.

Hopefully, I’ve convinced you (or at least got you to see why I think) that God would be an extremely queer sort of entity. He would definitely be as queer as the kind of objective moral values Mackie had in mind. It’s very hard to see imagine what sort of being he would be like. He also seems to violate everything we know about the nature of things like causality, agency, and minds. So why isn’t the atheist justified in his belief that no such being exists on this basis alone?

One possible response available to the theist goes something like this:

Yes, God might seem like a strange sort of entity, but that’s no problem at all. Quantum mechanics is extremely queer and spooky as well, but surely it’s rational to believe that quantum mechanics is true, in some sense, because of its amazing explanatory power? Well, it’s the same with God. God provides the best explanation for a range of things, including (but not limited to) the fine-tuning of the fundamental constants of nature and the origin of the universe.

On the face of it, this is true – at least the bit about quantum mechanics is. Quantum mechanics is extremely weird. It defies all our intuitions, and applies where familiar classical physics breaks down. But despite all that, because of its amazing explanatory and predictive power, it is rational to believe that it accurately describes the universe at some level. Richard Dawkins has pointed out that the physicist Richard Feynman “compared the accuracy of quantum theories – experimental predictions – to specifying the width of North America to within one hair’s breadth of accuracy.” If theism, despite its queerness, has similar explanatory/predictive powers, we would have to believe it. But does it? I don’t think so. I’ll take a look at cosmological and fine-tuning arguments as examples to explain why.

The problem with theistic explanations

I’m not going to make any claims about whether I think the origin of the universe or the issue of fine-tuning poses any special threat to naturalism. I’m asking whether theism explains either of these phenomena better than naturalism does. Just what does it mean to say that God is the explanation of either of these things?

The actual content of all theistic “explanations” remains entirely opaque to me. Consider the origin of the universe. The theistic explanation is that God created the universe. OK, but how how did he do that? What kind of causal interaction took place for creation to happen? Some sort of description of the process of creation would help. The claim that God designed the universe by fine-tuning the fundamental constants of nature is equally mysterious. What we’re being told is that some sort of designer worked with unknown materials (or presumably no materials at all, in this case) to design the fundamental constants of the universe (from outside of time?) for some purpose we don’t fully grasp. Not a very satisfying explanation, if you ask me.

Theistic “explanations” don’t really tell us anything new. To put it crudely, they don’t help us move from a state of not understanding to one of understanding. We’re still completely in the dark. Theistic explanations, it seems to me, are non-explanations. I suppose a theist might assert that God is omnipotent and can do anything, but that doesn’t change the fact that the so-called explanations remain entirely mysterious to us. Now, although quantum mechanics is also mysterious and has several competing interpretations, it gives a robust mathematical description of what’s going on at the fundamental level. Theistic explanations do nothing of the sort.

But it’s not just that. Theistic explanations raise at least as many questions as they try to answer. Consider the creation of the universe. Theists often claim that it is “metaphysically absurd” for the universe to just pop into existence out of nothing. But wait, what about the thought of God creating the universe? What we have here is a disembodied mind that exists outside of space(?), timelessly willing(?!) the universe into existence out of absolute nothingness. Sorry, but that’s about as metaphysically absurd as anything can get, as far as I’m concerned. The issue of fine-tuning might also have some troubling implications for the theist.

I hope you can see that the so-called explanatory powers of theism are extremely exaggerated, if not completely non-existent. To merely assert that God did something or the other doesn’t qualify as an explanation at all.

We’ve looked at the content of theistic explanations. Let’s move on to predictions.

Does theism make testable predictions?

We already discussed the accuracy of the predictions of quantum mechanics. What about theism, does it make good predictions? I don’t think it does.

Let me explain why. Consider the evidential problem of evil, which in its simplest form states that there exist many instances of gratuitous suffering in the world, i.e., instances of suffering that God seems to have no good reason to allow. Just look at the world: plagues, natural disasters, millions of years of animal suffering… Surely God couldn’t have any reason for allowing them?

One of the most popular responses to the evidential problem of evil is called skeptical theism. According to skeptical theism, we are not in a position to make any claims about whether a given instance of suffering is gratuitous or not. God, being omniscient, has exhaustive knowledge of all goods, evils and the connections between them. We limited beings don’t. We are in no position to make any claims about what God would or would not do, because of the vast epistemic chasm that exists between us and Him. But if this is the case, how can we make any predictions at all based on theism? We wouldn’t ever be in a position to say that we should expect X, whatever X might be, if theism is true. And even if we could make some predictions, they would have to be extremely general and limited in scope. So when it comes to predictions, it seems like theism has nothing to offer.

Where does all this leave us?

I’ve tried to establish the following:

  • God, his attributes and his modes of interaction with the world are extremely queer.
  • God doesn’t really explain anything or make any testable predictions.

So given that God is extremely queer and doesn’t cohere with most our background knowledge, and given that the God hypothesis doesn’t play any role in explaining what we observe in the universe, my original question still stands: why isn’t the atheist justified in believing that God doesn’t exist on these grounds alone?

And that is a very rough sketch of an argument from queerness against theism. I now leave it open to you for criticism. Take it apart. Where have I gone wrong? What am I missing? Is the comparison with quantum mechanics unfair? Is God not all that queer after all? Does naturalism face similar problems with queerness? Let me know what you think. 

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The Error Theorist’s Dilemma

I mentioned in my previous post that I was once a full-blown error theorist. I remember going through JL Mackie’s arguments in his book Ethics: Inventing Right And Wrong and thinking “Yes… Yes, that’s exactly right!”

errortheory

I’ve moved on from there, especially since reading Philippa Foot’s Natural Goodness (to which I had pretty much the exact same reaction). I’m a moral realist of sorts now. But I still have a soft corner for error theory, so I want to briefly examine it and some of its implications in this post.

To recap, moral error theory claims that our first-order moral statements are objective claims about the world. These claims presuppose the existence of certain moral properties, but none of these properties actually exist, so most of our first-order moral statements are false. The error theorist claims that moral talk is like talk about witchcraft, phlogiston or unicorns: systematically mistaken.

More specifically, I was attracted to a projectivist form of error theory, which can arguably be traced back to David Hume. Hume wrote in A Treatise of Human Nature that…

…taste has a productive faculty, and gliding and staining all natural objects with the colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises in a manner a new creation.

What exactly is Hume saying here? Here’s how the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains it:

Consider a straightforward, observation-based moral judgment: Jane sees two youths hurting a cat and thinks “That is impermissible.” The causal story begins with a real event in the world: two youth performing actions, a suffering cat, etc. Then there is Jane’s sensory perception of this event (she sees the youths, hears the cat’s howls, etc.). Jane may form certain inferential beliefs concerning, say, the youths’ intentions, the cats’ pain, etc. All this prompts in Jane an emotion: She disapproves (say). She then “projects” this emotion onto her experience of the world, which results in her judging the action to be impermissible.

This is one way the error theorist can explain why moral propositions and moral disagreement have all the features of propositions and disagreements about factual matters. We mistakenly assume that there are certain moral properties such as impermissibility and permissibility that exist in the real world, whereas they’re actually only projections of our own emotions. This is why our moral discourse resembles witchcraft-related discourse: it is entirely about non-existent entities.

Eliminativism or fictionalism?

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s move on to the really hard question: what exactly is the error theorist supposed to do at this point? Moral deliberation, moral language and moral debate are an integral part of our everyday life. We can’t help but think in terms of rightness and wrongness, permissibility and impermissibility. Whether we’re contemplating the nature of an action ourselves or trying to persuade someone else to change his/her mind, we inevitably end up making moral judgements. Even when I was a staunch error theorist, I couldn’t help but think “That’s just wrong!” when reading about things like FGM. Ethicist Daniel Fincke has a nice post here about the difficulty with moral skepticism that I recommend looking up.

So the error theorist faces a dilemma here. If he wants to be rationally consistent, he will have to stop using words like “right,” “wrong,” “immoral,” “permissible” and “obligatory.” To keep using them or thinking in those terms is like having long debates on whether someone is a witch or not when you don’t believe in witches in the first place. The position I have just described is called moral eliminativism. Moral eliminativism is the view that in order to be rationally consistent, we must eliminate moral talk altogether – we must give up on moral discourse.

An alternate view is called moral fictionalism. Moral fictionalists argue that it might be more rational and practical to keep using moral language even when we know our statements are false. So moral claims become useful fictions of a sort. I don’t know how convincing people are going to find this, but it’s certainly got something going for it.

Richard Joyce asks us in a short but well-written article on moral fictionalism to put ourselves in the position of an error theorist, David. Says Joyce:

David doesn’t believe that punching babies is morally wrong, but we can imagine various situations in which he’ll have good reason to utter the sentence “Punching babies is morally wrong.” Imagine that David is surrounded by a population who do believe in moral wrongness and believe that baby-punching has it. We should remind ourselves that David is no fan of baby-punching. In fact, the thought of it sickens him. He believes that baby-punching ought to be prevented and perpetrators severely dealt with. He thinks all this on non-moral grounds. So when a moral believer asks him his opinion of baby-punching, David could embark on a long and likely-to-be-horribly-misunderstood explanation of his non-moral grounds for opposing the action. But would we really accuse him of any great transgression if he simply says “Baby-punching?! Oh, that’s just morally wrong!”

By “great transgression,” Joyce doesn’t mean moral transgression, of course. He’s just pointing out that there may not be anything necessarily irrational about David’s behavior. Joyce spends some time describing how fictions and narratives play a very important role in human lives, and how we often find stories powerfully moving. The error theorist, he concludes:

takes advantage of these quirky aspects of his psychology. He cultivates a habit of bringing moral concepts to bear on practical problems; he allows moral emotions like disgust, anger, and guilt to wash through him; he is acutely familiar with classifying his social environment in moral terms. All going according to plan, this moral fiction doesn’t encourage him to do anything that he wouldn’t upon reflection choose to do anyhow on non-moral grounds.

I hope you’re beginning to feel the pull of both these positions. On a straightforward analysis, moral eliminativism seems the most rational option. But it’s just too bloody hard. Moral fictionalism might be the only way for creatures like us to adapt to a situation in which we’ve recognized that our moral discourse is systematically mistaken. So should the error theorist be a fictionalist?

A third way?

I’m going to try and propose something that’s halfway between fictionalism and eliminativism here. Echoing the sentiments of my previous post, I recommend that the error theorist stop using words like “immoral” or “impermissible.” So he cleans up most of his moral vocabulary. However, I suggest that he keep using terminology that involves virtues and vices.

What we commonly think of as virtues (compassion, generosity, temperance, prudence) and vices (cruelty, callousness, greed) are called “morally thick” concepts. This is because although they can be defined in a straightforwardly factual manner, it’s not entirely clear that they are purely descriptive terms. For example, “compassion” can be described descriptively as “a concern for the suffering of others,” but it seems to have (like all the other virtue and vice words) an evaluative component as well. These are morally loaded terms. If you think about the way they’re used, you’ll see that they sort of have a normative element built into them. When someone says “That’s a cruel thing to do,” we almost instinctively conclude “I shouldn’t do that.” Similarly, we usually hear “That’s very compassionate” as “That is the right thing to do” or at least “That’s a very good thing to do.”

I also want to point out how virtue and vice terms can be used to describe both people and actions in interesting ways. Consider a man living in an ancient tribal society plagued by droughts. He believes that the best way to rid his village of its troubles and bring the rains is to sacrifice his daughter to the gods. Now, this man may be an extremely compassionate person. But he believes that sacrificing his daughter will send her to a better place. He believes it will eventually bring prosperity and joy to his village. It’s not immediately obvious that we should label him a cruel person even if he does sacrifice his daughter. There is a clear, morally relevant difference between him and a psychopath who kills a child for the satisfaction of watching her suffer. But we also have a very strong intuition that human sacrifice is a terrible thing. It’s a cruel thing. So here we can say that the father’s act of sacrificing is cruel without being committed to the view that the father himself is cruel. Killing an innocent child has all the characteristics of an act that a cruel person would engage in.

I think that most of the time, when we engage in moral debate, we are trying to persuade our opponent to change his or her beliefs. But how is an error theorist supposed to do this? Being a complete eliminativist about moral discourse and merely reporting his preferences won’t help. And you might think there’s something dodgy about being a fictionalist. This is where speaking in terms of virtues and vices might be useful. By adopting this mode of discourse, the error theorist can engage in robust moral/factual debate without being a complete eliminativist or fictionalist. He can try and reason about whether a certain act is compassionate or cruel. He can argue about whether XYZ is the kind of behavior we would expect from a courageous person or a cowardly one. So if, for example, he’s debating the ethics of meat-eating and convinces his opponent that eating meat is not the compassionate thing to do, he’s almost certain to make his opponent revise his moral beliefs.

This error theorist is a partial eliminativist because he has given up on a lot of moral discourse. He’s a partial fictionalist because as I said earlier, the words he’s using are probably not purely descriptive in the minds of most people who use them (including himself). But this seems to me to be the best he can do. What can I say, error theory is disturbing that way.

I actually think the kind of moral discourse I’ve outlined may be a good thing generally, regardless of the metaethical positions of those involved. Issues of subjectivity and objectivity, error and success theories, all become beside the point. Do you value compassion? Then the rational choice for you would be to behave in such and such way. Do you want to be courageous? Then it is in your interest to take my argument that XYZ is a cowardly thing to do seriously.

So where does all of this leave us? I’m not too sure. I’ll leave that for the error theorists among you to discuss. As I said earlier, I’m not an error theorist anymore – I’m a moral realist of sorts. But mostly I just think our moral language is far too messy to parcel neatly into different categories like this. In closing, I recommend reading this very thoughtful piece by Russell Blackford on error theory and the complexity of moral language. He seems to lean towards fictionalism.

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