Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Reflection, Language, and Animals

“As we cannot distinguish between motives, we rank all actions of a certain class as moral, if performed by a moral being. A moral being is one who is capable of comparing his past and future actions or motives, and of approving or disapproving of them. We have no reason to suppose that any of the lower animals have this capacity; therefore, when a Newfoundland dog drags a child out of the water, or a monkey faces danger to rescue its comrade, or takes charge of an orphan monkey, we do not call its conduct moral.” - Darwin, The Descent of Man, Ch. 4
As far as I can tell, this remark of Darwin's still represents something like the standard view of what distinguishes human moral agency from animal agency. Korsgaard captures this in her notion of "normative self-government." MacIntyre regards this reflective ability as the mark of being an "independent practical reasoner" (in Dependent Rational Animals). De Waal, too, accepts that there seems to be a difference here; however, during the Q&A after his talk at the Beastly Morality Conference at Emory last month, he recommended that I look at the work of Michael J. Beran, who studies delay gratification and self-regulation in primates.

I've read about half of MacIntyre's Dependent Rational Animals, and find his project refreshing. But it seems to me that there is a lacuna, when he makes the transition from considering what we share with animals to the question (in the second half of the book) about the nature of practical reasoning and how it develops. He accepts--as far as I can tell, without specific argument--that language is necessary for normative reflection, for "the ability to evaluate our reasons for action and the ability to distance ourselves from our present desires" (74). Not only is language itself necessary but so, too, is "the ability to put language to a wide range of different uses" (ibid.), and "This transition [from a non-reflective life to a reflective life] is one that dolphins have not made, so far as we know" (57). MacIntyre focuses on dolphins because of their sociality and their ability to understand symbolic communications with humans, an ability that suggests to him that we should describe their natural state as "prelinguistic" rather than "non-linguistic."

But does reflection (or, particularly, normative reflection on one's own reasons or motives) require language? (Here, I'm taking for granted that MacIntyre is right that we can talk about some animals as having beliefs, reasons for action, etc.; if you aren't sure about this, see his book.) It's easy enough to see why the connection between reflection and language is tempting: we can easily think of reflection as a matter of talking to oneself.

Of course, it could be that other animals do reflect, and that it's just not clear how to uncover that through commonly accepted, non-anecdotal empirical methods. (This question came up more than once at Emory.) But if one assumes that language is necessary--and pretty refined linguistic abilities and conceptual abilities, according to MacIntyre--then this thought will seem unmotivated and unlikely to be true.

But is it so clear that reflection on one's own desires or motives requires language? Suppose I find myself presented with two alternative courses of action. One of them is initially more appealing, but not so much that I simply pursue it; I hesitate. I try to imagine how things will go on each of these two alternatives; I don't talk through the alternative possibilities, but just try to picture them. I discover that there is some feature of the second alternative that is more desirable than the first one, and so instead of acting on my initial attraction toward the first alternative, I pursue the second one. It seems to me like this is reflection, and if the monkeys and chimps in Beran's various studies are doing something like this (and not simply acting in a conditioned way, that is, not just delaying gratification because they've been trained to do so), then it seems like there is something like reflection occurring.

The skeptic will say, "But that's still not evidence of normative self-government. We would need evidence that animals can recognize their own desires as such, and then evaluate those desires in light of normative principles that themselves contain general, or abstract, concepts. Thus, animals would need an ability to abstract away from the present, to conceive of multiple possible futures, and be able to rank those different futures in evaluative terms. The ranking could be consequentialist but it could also take other forms, such as reflecting on the value or disvalue of the means required to achieve the various possible future states. But how can this be done without some kind of language, that is, without some kind of internal discourse?"

But it seems that we could ask what exactly is going on when we reflect. We might say that we are bringing some principle or rule (or some other consideration) to bear on the evaluation of a desire or motive, in order to see whether the latter conforms with the prior. But one might ask: is this not essentially a matter of holding up two pictures in one's mind, and looking to see whether they fit together? Importantly, when they do not fit, we aren't bound to reject the desire; we might decide that the principle or rule just needs to be broken (or modified) in this case. We've still reflected (whether we've done so well or poorly is a different question). If we thus see language as a means of picturing things to ourselves (things that we wish to evaluate), then we have to ask whether it is the only way of picturing the things that are relevant to engaging in normative self-government. But if reflection is ultimately just a matter of hesitating before acting, and of assessing the situation while holding in mind possible futures and other things that we regard as important, and coming to a final decision after we have allowed some kind of interplay to occur between these considerations in our mind (which is not just a passive process since at least imagination and the decision to hesitate are involved), then it seems that we can reflect without language. And if we can, then it seems that some other animals, although lacking language, can reflect, too, unless one wants to argue that we can't think in pictures until we can first think in words.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Against Fleetwood Mac (and "The Future")

"Don't stop thinkin' about tomorrow." Is that good advice? In thinking and writing about patience and hope, I've (finally) had to start thinking more explicitly about time and in particular the idea of "the future." I was struck the other evening by the thought that perhaps it is bad to think too much about the future. Perhaps that much is obvious. But then it occurred to me that this (obvious?) point might be used to diagnose a certain backwards-ness in our thinking about how we (the collective, cultural we) have come to face various crises of an environmental and economic sort (these are no doubt interconnected): we think too much, not too little, about the future. The usual story is that we make trouble for ourselves and the environment by not thinking enough about the future (the down-the-road consequences of our actions), or by thinking badly about the future. But perhaps it's too much anticipation and anxiety about the future that's the problem: thus, we hoard goods, buy things we don't need (expecting future pleasures that evidence suggests will wane anyhow), and are generally preoccupied trying to get to somewhere else because our present lot is intolerable.

Of course, we can't (or perhaps shouldn't) do away with all planning and striving, in part because sometimes our present lot is, in one way or another, in need of change. But perhaps part of what we should plan and strive to do (paradoxically?) is to think less about the future and pay more attention to today. In part this is simply because we can't solve tomorrow's problems, since we don't know what they will be. My thinking is that none of this will serve as an excuse for ignoring or downplaying various environmental concerns, but perhaps rather serve as a better way of thinking about them. (Would we be more likely to share and to be content with the present and simpler goods in life if we thought less about the (or our) future?) But this is all pretty vague at this point. Thoughts?

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Lions & Bats

I do not understand why it is that Wittgenstein's remark, "If a lion could talk, we could not understand him" (from Philosophical Investigations) is so often quoted with ire (by writers on animal minds)*, and yet people gush forth with approval over Nagel's claim that it is impossible for us to know what it is like to be a bat. Often, both are cited without much, if any, understanding of the context of the respective remarks (which in both cases is not about animals). In Wittgenstein's case, I imagine that what has happened is that he has been associated (mistakenly) with some kind of behaviorism by whomever is quoting him; thus, whatever he says about animals must ipso facto be wrong, and cruel. Perhaps also: people don't understand how conditionals work.

* Apologies for not supplying particular examples here. This is something I've encountered several times, and perhaps if I try to work these thoughts into something, I'll go back and do the excavating...

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Nietzsche on "Animals and Morality" (in Daybreak)

Consider this as an appendix to the previous post. At first glance, Nietzsche's remarks below will seem to vindicate Bekoff (and similar thinkers), and in an important way, it does. But note also the hints at Nietzsche's critique of morality in order to see the point of my complaint: that what can--but perhaps isn't often--different about moral reflection in humans (as far as the empirical evidence indicates) has its precise roots in the kind of reflective criticism of "social morality" and its norms that is represented by Nietzsche's passage. Thanks to Sean Meighoo (Emory) for bringing my attention to this wonderful passage (in his presentation at the Beastly Morality Conference):

"§26 Animals and morality. – The practices demanded in polite society: careful avoidance of the ridiculous, the offensive, the presumptuous, the suppression of one’s virtues as well as of one’s strongest inclinations, self-adaptation, self-deprecation, submission to orders of rank—all this is to be found as social morality in crude form everywhere, even in the depths of the animal world—and only at this depth do we see the purpose of all these amiable precautions: one wishes to elude one’s pursuers and be favoured in the pursuit of one’s prey. For this reason the animals learn to master themselves and alter their form, so that many, for example, adapt their colouring to the colouring of their surroundings (by virtue of the so-called ‘chromatic function’), pretend to be dead or assume the forms and colours of another animal or of sand, leaves, lichen, fungus (what English researchers designate ‘mimicry’). Thus the individual hides himself in the general concept ‘man’, or in society, or adapts himself to princes, classes, parties, opinions of his time and place: and all the subtle ways we have of appearing fortunate, grateful, powerful, enamoured have their easily discoverable parallels in the animal world. Even the sense for truth, which is really the sense for security, man has in common with the animals: one does not want to let oneself be deceived, does not want to mislead oneself, one hearkens mistrustfully to the promptings of one’s own passions, one constrains oneself and lies in wait for oneself; the animal understands all this just as man does, with it too self-control springs from the sense for what is real (from prudence). It likewise assesses the effect it produces upon the perceptions of other animals and from this learns to look back upon itself, to take itself ‘objectively’, it too has its degree of self-knowledge. The animal assesses the movements of its friends and foes, it learns their peculiarities by heart, it prepares itself for them: it renounces war once and for all against individuals of a certain species, and can likewise divine from the way they approach that certain kinds of animals have peaceful and conciliatory intentions. The beginnings of justice, as of prudence, moderation, bravery—in short, of all we designate as the Socratic virtues, are animal: a consequence of that drive which teaches us to seek food and elude enemies. Now if we consider that even the highest human being has only become more elevated and subtle in the nature of his food and in his conception of what is inimical to him, it is not improper to describe the entire phenomenon of morality as animal."

Why Can't We Be Different?

"It is self-serving, anthropocentric speciesism to claim that we are the only moral beings in the animal kingdom." - Marc Bekoff, "Wild Justice, Cooperation, and Fair Play," in Sussman and Chapman (eds), The Origins and Nature of Sociality (2004), p. 75
I just came across this remark tonight, in an earlier Bekoff piece on "Wild Justice" that I've assigned to my animal minds class.

But the question is: why is it "self-serving, anthropocentric speciesism" to make that claim? It might be an uninformed or incorrect claim, but before we can even decide that, don't we need to define "moral" and "morality" and "moral agent"--definitions not offered in Bekoff's paper?

Bekoff puts a premium on what seems like moral (fair, cooperative, etc.) behavior. This makes a certain amount of sense, although we might also want to know about the motivations, intentions, and reasoning that are behind the behavior. Because he focuses on what he calls "social morality," one might complain that he is really only dressing up the obvious in moral language: that canids (wolves, coyotes, and dogs) are social animals, and social animals play--literally, for Bekoff--by various rules. Following rules runs deep in social life (whether this rule-following is more or less conscious, propositional or non-propositional in the mind of the agent, self-articulated or not, etc.). Of course, this is true of humans, too--they follow social rules, and often derive their sense of right and wrong from social norms--and so Bekoff's suggestion has plenty of merit when "morality" is under discussion in a purely descriptive sense--and in which the rules are by and large given to one by one's society/group.

The problem is that this is not all that morality--or to use the broader term, ethics--turns out to be for humans. Sometimes it is not moral--in the normative, ideal sense--to follow the group rule. Are there moral critics in animal societies? Reformers? There are, surely, very good animals (by our own standards, and by their own--and these may of course be different: we could recognize that an animal is a virtuous one by the apparent standards of her species but not think that we should read off a human ethic from her virtue! And we could also see behavior in animals that reflects our own virtues and be inspired and moved by that).

Bekoff says (after the above) that, "Humans also aren't necessarily morally superior to other animals." But this is just another ambiguous claim. It hints at why he makes the frantic remark above: because too often (a) people claim that we are better behaved than other animals (which seems false) and (b) people claim that our ability to be moral gives our lives some kind of superior worth in comparison to animal lives. But as I noted in a previous post, (b) is problematic even if animals are not "moral" or "moral agents." (I just discovered an essay on this point that I need to read.)

I just don't see how it can be "self-serving, anthropocentric speciesism" to claim that only humans are moral beings (or moral agents, etc.) unless that claim is itself part of a self-serving, anthropocentric, and speciesist agenda. If we were to agree that abilities x, y, and z were the criteria for moral agency, and it turned out that other animals had those abilities, then I would better understand Bekoff's point. But the implicit conception of morality that he works with is so pared down that one can respond to him, "Of course other animals have those abilities, but the sense of morality (or ethics, or virtue, etc.) with which I am concerned requires more than those abilities and covers more ground. The morality (or ethics) I am interested in amounts to more than 'herd morality.'"

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Dreaded Comparisons

Duncan Richter has recently raised an eyebrow at the factory-farming/Holocaust analogy, understandably. However, I just today started reading Marjorie Spiegel's The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, which makes a different, possibly offensive comparison, and just got to this paragraph, which seems worth serious consideration:
Comparing the suffering of animals to that of blacks (or any other oppressed group) is offensive only to the speciesist: one who has embraced false notions of what animals are like. Those who are offended by comparison to a fellow sufferer have unquestioningly accepted the biased worldview presented by the masters. To deny our similarities to animals is to deny and undermine our own power. It is to continue actively struggling to prove to our masters, past or present, that we are similar to those who have abused us, rather than to our fellow victims, those whom our masters have also victimized. (30)
I think that last sentence packs a gut-wrenching punch. But then I think, for example, of "the Elephant Man" (Joseph Merrick) (ignore the end of the clip; punch line of sorts below):

But perhaps even if Spiegel is right, we know well enough what Merrick means.

Giving Credit

Per my last post, I feel I should mention that the full title of my talk is, "Animals and Moral Agency: which theory? whose values?" The form of the subtitle was inspired by the title of a paper by Duncan Richter that I read long ago (and which I should probably read again), entitled, "Whose Ethics? Which Wittgenstein?" FWIW.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Beastly Morality

I'm off tomorrow for Emory University in Atlanta for the Beastly Morality Conference. My paper is not quite finished (a draft, that is), but I have a presentation ready to go. I'll be talking--as indicated in this previous post--about what I see as a host of confusions that arise in the asking and answering of the question whether animals can be moral (or are moral agents). My concerns are diagnostic (how Wittgensteinian, I suppose), insofar as the philosophical terms of art ("moral agent," "moral patient," etc.), and different ways of defining morality, are often playing different purposes in the works of different authors. Are we answering the question? Or just arguing over the "right" definition of philosophical terms of art? What is the question?

In part, the question sometimes arises because some people claim that animals don't warrant direct moral consideration because they are not moral beings. (Or other claims of that nature.) The critic can then either: (a) show animals do in fact have the requisite capacities, or (b) show that this criterion for moral considerability is wrong-headed. Going in for option (a) is, I think, largely wrong-headed, though there is much to wonder at and admire in animal lives. (We can call this "natural virtue," without the further confusion of the other terms.)

I favor Rhees' approach on the bigger questions here (about what the differences between humans and animals entail about our comparative worth), with which I will end my presentation. Note the voice of an interlocutor at the beginning:
"But what about Will and moral struggles and so forth? – you do not have this in animals." You do not. But I do not see how this gives reason for saying that human beings have an importance which animals have not; in fact I do not see how it can give any meaning to that statement. I do not know what ‘importance’ would mean there. I do know what is meant by comparing traits and activities of human beings, and saying that generosity is more important than cleverness, for instance. But when it comes to comparing human beings and animals, I do not.” - Rush Rhees [1961], in Moral Questions (1999), 191
More on Rhees in my paper, "Comparing Lives: Rush Rhees on Humans and Animals." (Email me if you'd like a copy.)