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.)


  1. Thanks, stranger. Hope your talks go well, too.

  2. a: not really. I think a few people thought I was being too skeptical. ("Give me a theory!") Ending with that Rhees quote was probably too jarring, or at least I should have explained it. But I said at the beginning that people too often look for a difference between humans and animals only in the service of providing a justification for human superiority (in worth) claims, and Rhees is responding to that. I say it was a tie, but perhaps we were all just worn out; I presented second-to-last, in an all-day affair. Good conference overall though. Everything from Frans de Waal in the morning, to a talk meditating on Nietzsche's passage on animals and morality in Daybreak in the afternoon. And some ants teaching Rabbinic lessons about morality in the middle.

    Then we got to screen this new film, Maximum Tolerated Dose, and interact with the director, Karol Orzechowski (who also came to the conference and was very cool, informed and conversant, and realistic about the practical complexities about animal experimentation while maintaining his own staunch opposition).