Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Comparing Lives Again

Here's a revision of my paper on how Rush Rhees' remarks about animals point to a kind of animal ethic which is neither speciesist nor--in the typical ways--anti-speciesist. (Indeed, I suggest Rhees' ideas can help bring out the confusion of both speciesism and the theoretical assumptions of typical anti-speciesist frameworks.) Quite a bit has changed, for the better I hope! Comments always appreciated.

UPDATE (7.29.10): I added a reference (on p. 19) to Elizabeth Anderson's excellent article, "Animal Rights and the Value of Nonhuman Life," in Sunstein and Nussbaum's (2004) collection, Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions. (I highly recommend this essay.)

Update 6/9/11: A more recent draft is here; the paper is now forthcoming in Philosophical Investigations (and I will have to take down this draft when the paper is published).

(previous draft removed)


  1. (I want to comment, but I'm not sure I should since I'm being distracted by kids while I read and type. I will go ahead, but if I seem to have missed even an obvious point, this might be why.)

    Is Rhees pointing out that it is possible to commit the naturalistic fallacy by noting that humans have some feature that other species lack and then concluding that humans are better? If so, that sounds right. If we can't justify our sense that human life is more important than that of other species, though, then we do seem to leave ourselves open to charges of speciesism. I'm not sure how much this matters.

    Speciesists and anti-speciesists seem both to suffer from a simplistic view of ethics: not only are ethical judgments supposed to be supported by metaphysical facts (that in fact are either irrelevant or else embody value judgments themselves) but also only one kind of thing matters for ethics--either pain/pleasure or moral agency. Why can't we recognize that pain is bad while also valuing other things, such as moral agency?

    It seems to me that most human beings can take part in practices that most animals cannot, such as entering into contracts, and that this means we can do wrong to each other in ways that we cannot to animals. This is a moral difference between humans and animals, but it doesn't apply to all human beings. And not every practice is as neatly defined as that of entering into a contract. So some species, or individual animals, might be able to engage in these practices or something relevantly like them. Hearne gives examples of this kind of thing.

    In addition to concerns about pain and about playing by the rules of various language games, there is also love and the responsibilities or obligations (or whatever the word is) that go with it.

    And then there is the fact that some things can seem to have value in themselves, so that we should not harm them even if a) they will feel no pain, b) they are not capable of engaging in any practice that dictates that we should not harm them, and c) we do not love them and they do not love us.

    In short, asking whether animals are our moral equals or not seems very crude. Which I guess is (at least part of) your point.

  2. Yes, I think what you say about the naturalistic fallacy would be one way of reading Rhees' remark that (paraphrasing?) "these are not differences in reality, or degree, or amount." Or that that would be one kind of mistake that one could make.

    Elizabeth Anderson makes a very similar (and perhaps clearer) case for several points suggested in my essay--though I only finally read her paper today--in "Animal Rights and the Value of Nonhuman Life," in Sunstein & Nussbaum (eds.), Animal Rights (Oxford, 2004), pp. 277-298. I highly recommend it.

    The point about equality is tricky, (even) as Singer acknowledges. The question--he says--isn't about whether animals are have some "factual" equality, but rather whether we ought to extend the ideal of equal moral consideration to them. That isn't wrong, if it means we should give them consideration. But of course, Singer then goes on to look for a common (equally possessed?) capacity in which to ground talk of interests. And that's the mistake (that Rhees, Diamond, and Anderson all want to bring out).

  3. Yes, I remember Singer saying that he isn't talking about factual equality. We aren't all equal in the sense of being able to do the same things, but he does think we should care just as much about a pig's pain as we should about a man's pain, doesn't he? We should alleviate whichever pain is greater, other things being equal, because in fact pig-pain and man-pain are equal considered just as kinds of thing. Human intelligence might make men capable of more pain, e.g. fear when they see instruments that mean nothing to a pig, but apart from this kind of consideration human pain is equal to pig pain, both in fact and in moral importance. At least I think that's Singer's position.

    There is some similarity here with the abortion debate, with both sides tending to argue in ways that push towards extreme positions. Seemingly harmless simplifications or unquestioned assumptions can lead to strikingly unrealistic conclusions.