Thursday, December 16, 2010


The other day I told my four-year-old daughter that I am a doctor, and she thought that sounded fishy. So of course I clarified that I'm a doctor of philosophy. She immediately replied, "There's no such thing as a doctor of philosophy."

Kids say the darndest--and truest--things.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

James, "On a Certain Blindness In Human Beings"

I came across this essay by William James thanks to one of Cary Wolfe's pieces in The Death of the Animal. There are too many good lines even to know where to start. (Notice that I'm having a hard time knowing where to start with things today?) But here's one, that might be of especial interest to readers:
"To miss the joy is to miss all." [R.L. Stevenson] Indeed, it is. Yet we are but finite, and each one of us has some single specialized vocation of his own. And it seems as if energy in the service of its particular duties might be got only by hardening the heart toward everything unlike them. Our deadness toward all but one particular kind of joy would thus be the price we inevitably have to pay for being practical creatures. Only in some pitiful dreamer, some philosopher, poet, or romancer, or when the common practical man becomes a lover, does the hard externality give way, and a gleam of insight into the ejective world, as Clifford called it, the vast world of inner life beyond us, so different from that of outer seeming, illuminate our mind. Then the whole scheme of our customary values gets confounded, then our self is riven and its narrow interests fly to pieces, then a new centre and a new perspective must be found.
Right after this he pulls out a great line from Royce on who (or what) is our neighbor. It's good.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A Bible Quote for Everything

I came across this article on mountaintop removal (MTR) and was absolutely stupefied by this tidbit, as reported:
What could possibly justify mountaintop removal? In this region of Bible-believing Christians, some mining company representatives quote Scripture in their own defense: “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; the rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley” (Is 40:4).
I don't know where to start. I did read the rest of Isaiah 40, and I'm pretty sure it isn't about MTR.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Stuff for Undergrads

I've started putting together a blog-based resource for undergrad students, Undergrad Philosophy & Religion CFPs. If you know what CFP is, this should be self-explanatory. I'm always getting these for undergrad events, and always forget to tell any students about them, but maybe I can remember to tell them there's this one place where they can look for themselves (and you can tell your students, too, if you have students).

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Deep Down

In my draft essay "Ethics Beyond Sentience," I discuss mountaintop removal in Appalachia. The new film Deep Down does a very nice job getting into the complexities of the issue for the people who live in Appalachia, and the film actually has a happy ending, insofar as the people in the town/holler targeted for mining got a legal decision that de facto made mining there economically unfeasible. I also just caught wind of an article in Science highly critical of MTR. Another good piece is here. In a way, it's too bad that we need the article in Science magazine to make the practical case against MTR, since although the ecological impact surely matters to the people in those hollers, too, that doesn't seem to be the deeper (or deepest) reason to leave the mountains alone.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Ethics Beyond Sentience

I've mentioned EKU's Chautauqua Lecture Series before. The new director of the series, my colleague Minh Nguyen, is launching a journal, to appear annually, that will complement the theme of each year's series, and contain articles by many or most of the (often big name) speakers and other invited essays, fiction, photography and art on the theme. This year's theme is "Nature's Humans," and I was asked to contribute a piece. With that preface, and with some trepidation, I post here a draft of my essay, "Ethics Beyond Sentience." I've worked through this a few times, enough to have hidden all its most unacceptable flaws from my own view.

In it, I work out, mainly by example, rather than systematically, a critique of the idea that sentience is the foundation of ethics--a claim most obviously associated with Peter Singer (one of this fall's speakers) and reiterated (multiple times) by another speaker in this year's series (science writer Jonathan Balcombe). I focus on two cases where respect and consideration often already are, and where it makes good sense that they are (or should be), extended beyond the limits of sentience: the dead and the mountains.

Part of my trepidation is the concern that my inner hippie gets too much free rein at the end. (And is the distance between the beginning and the end insufferable?) Thoughts about that or other aspects of the essay are much appreciated.

Ethics Beyond Sentience

Monday, November 22, 2010

Wittgenstein, Understanding, and Autism

The new piece on The Stone, "Beyond Understanding," would have been much better if the author had just used the point about "mind-blindness" associated with autism to open up the more general problem of understanding others in everyday life, rather than trying to use autism to explain those various misunderstandings (or the particular idiosyncrasies of Wittgenstein and other philosophers).

"Everyone is mad" is just too cliched for me. It seems like every mental disorder goes through a period of interpretation during which people try to suggest that everyone has the disorder to some degree. This leads to silly-sounding claims, but I can see how this kind of idea, done properly (and I'm not sure the author, Andy Martin, completely succeeds here) would help generate an appropriate kind of empathy for those who are more seriously afflicted.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Hey Hey, My My...

...Rock and Roll can never die.

Or, how to philosophize with an axe. (I think you can figure out the appropriate volume for viewing this one. The audience shots are awesome.)

(I've been on the road, and thinking about what it might possibly be to do philosophy the way Neil Young plays.)

Friday, November 05, 2010

A Gustatory Corollary of the Golden Rule

On an assignment, a student offered the sensible suggestion that one might navigate the ethical mysteries of our proper relations to animals by extending the golden rule to them. This seems fine, but then I wondered about eating them (yet again). It occurred to me that perhaps one should follow the rule: eat others the way you want to be eaten.

One of my colleagues (not a vegetarian) remarked: right, and I don't want to be eaten. But (it occurs to me now): all of us will be eaten at some point, by bugs if not bears. I don't know what follows from this.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Eating Stupid Things

Jonathan Balcombe, a popular science writer and animal activist, author of Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals, gave a Chautauqua Lecture at EKU this evening. He gave a very nice, accessible presentation of the various ways in which animals can perceive, recall, communicate, and enjoy things in ways that rival and often exceed human capacity. The aim of this was to demonstrate that animals have inner lives that are meaningful and that matter--points well made. But the framing of the talk seemed off. In the beginning, he warned us of our tendency toward "intellicentrism": the moral favoring of more intelligent beings. He clarified in the Q&A that he really meant this as a bad sort of "ism" like racism and (presumably) speciesism. But I pointed out to him that if intellicentrism is bad, then his very effort to convince us that animals deserve moral consideration in their own right by showing us that animals really are smarter than we often think simply plays into the very intellicentrism that seems morally problematic.

His response: guilty as charged. But people respond well to this information; it makes them think more carefully about animals. I don't disagree that that's a good thing.

I'm just not convinced his response is acceptable. That is, it seems a bit intellectually dishonest. I do think what he's doing in the main part--educating the public about animals--is important and good. And it may be right that it is psychologically easier to identify with a being when there's some kind of graspable common ground. Interestingly, when I asked him this question, I gave him an easy way out: I asked whether he meant that people are intellicentric simply in thinking that humans are more intelligent than animals, or if it involved the moral bias mentioned above. He opted for the latter. But his talk really only addresses the former. And that's really enough, given the general ignorance about animals.

He also claimed over and over again that sentience is the foundation of all ethics. Argh. If that's right, then we should all go dancing atop human corpses for Halloween...and eat a few innocently killed cadavers, too. And if you happen to come across any anencephalic infants, you should crush them beneath your utilitarian boot. No pain, no foul.

(Interesting side-note: J.M. Coetzee wrote the preface to Balcombe's book. There's a nice paragraph where Coetzee notes the general hesitation of scientists to attribute complex mental states or traits to animals, or to trust anecdotes ascribing such traits, but that the one place where scientists fail to apply their usual skepticism is to their own "ethos" of skepticism.)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Source of Morality

There have been several conversations in the blogosphere (sorry, I'm too lazy to link) about the source and foundation of morality, and specifically about whether morality has a divine or a naturalistic source. I just can't get interested in this (despite this post), perhaps because this strikes me as a false dichotomy. Certainly, evolutionary biology may offer interesting accounts about the natural history of our social norms and gut reactions, but this does not justify those norms or reactions. (It may help us in thinking about how to overcome or modify normative behavior and inclinations that we judge to be no longer trustworthy or, indeed, ethical. It may help us understand why, psychologically, we often judge as we do.) On the other hand, I guess Plato's Euthyphro pretty well convinced me that it's implausible to hold that X is good (or right) because the gods love (or command) it. I can understand the idea of God as an "ideal observer," who has a perfect understanding of the good and the right (and the virtuous), but such a conception doesn't help us justify any particular moral claim because we are not the ideal observer (and can't know how the ideal observer would judge).

Of course, some hold that there is no reason to "be moral" if there is no God, and thus that the basic reason to be motivated to act morally is divine in nature. But I think there are cases where the idea that we "need" a reason seems strange. Do I need a reason to love and care for my children? Indeed, would warning me that God will punish me if I do not make me love and care for them more? If the question then becomes, "But what is the point of doing one thing rather than another, if there is no eternal reward or justice in the universe?" I would be inclined to respond that some of the "rewards" are internal to the relationship itself, and some arrive when you see your child becoming a marvelous person. I would also suggest that anyone who's worried about "what's in it for them" probably shouldn't have children in the first place. For the most part, it isn't about you. Christian ethics generalizes this point in certain ways (as does the Buddhist ethic of universal compassion). "It" is about no one and everything. I guess I might say that "it" is about being in sustained (and sustainable) harmony with the universe. (That's a bit abstract, and a bit hippie-ish.) There are surely different ways of doing that, but there are also surely many ways of being out of tune. Seeking a reason to live a decent, dignified, and beautiful life ultimately doesn't seem much different from looking for a reason to get out of bed every day. But I'm sympathetic with the thought that things can matter now even if they don't matter "forever" (or, "in the grand scheme of things"). The person in search of a reason to "care" shouldn't be given a reason; there may be no ultimate reason. Rather, they should be shown how to care for something, or given something to care for, in a way that may restore their sanity and, with that, their capacity to understand and imagine the possibility of a basic (and in some ways unreasoned, unintellectualized) love, care, and respect for other things.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bobby Knight Is Better at Theology than Color Commentary

And presumably better at coaching basketball than the other two. But here's something he said at Southern Methodist University the other day, in response to remarks suggesting that God helped the Texas Rangers beat the Tampa Bay Rays. As reported in the Dallas Morning News:
Knight jumped in before his speech officially started - heck, before lunch was even served - after the Rangers' series win over Tampa Bay was mentioned in the invocation.

"I think Cliff Lee had a hell of a lot more to do with it than the Almighty," Knight said, after grabbing the microphone at the podium unexpectedly. "If in fact the Almighty was involved in the game, what he ended up doing was screwing the other team. And I don't think he works that way.

"You've got to get up there and throw the ball over the plate and swing at good pitches. You know, He doesn't give a damn about that."
In case you don't keep up, Cliff Lee pitches for the Rangers, pitched twice in this five game series against the Rays, and was transcendent in his dominance. At any rate, good for Bobby, setting those Methodists straight.

Thursday, October 07, 2010


I'm not sure this news article really captures what I had in mind by reading Blake's "The Tyger," but I'll let it go. On the other hand, how dare they give Matt Winslow the last word. (Though perhaps it's most appropriate to end this discussion with a joke, even though I'm not entirely sure Matt was joking...)

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Course of One's Life

I ambitiously asked my students to read and respond to a couple of the sections in Rush Rhees' Moral Questions where he discusses the differences between human life and animal life, and stresses the ways in which concepts that are essential to talking about the meaning and shape of human life generally get no traction if we try to apply them to animal lives. (I discuss this in my paper on Rhees.) In general he tries to make this distinction through several examples where the attempt to transfer concepts of "human life" to animal lives doesn't work:
"'He was faced with a difficult choice.' That is something you never would say of an animal. Neither would you say that the animal showed weakness or strength in making a choice." (p. 167)

"We might say that an animal's life does not go one way rather than another. It just goes on." (p. 168)

"An otter cannot lead one kind of life rather than another." (p. 169)

" could not talk about the cat as having its life to live in the sense in which you can speak of achievement or failure. You could not speak of the cat as having made a mess of its life, and so forth." (p 183)
I understand the general sort of distinction that Rhees is trying to make. But then in class, we found some interesting specific cases in which one might put pressure on this. I initially thought that the remark about the cat--and that we cannot say that it made a mess of its life--was perhaps the clearest example of the distinction he wants to make. But then I thought of cases where an animal--I think gorillas do this--might try to usurp "silverback" status too soon. That, in this sense, the gorilla made a miscalculation, and was, say, severely beaten down and ostracized. Could we say, "He tried to soon, and has made a mess of his life"?

I don't think that's obviously nonsense, but I have a harder time imagining that in the case of the cat. I would also want to know more about gorillas. And even though Rhees sometimes uses absolute language ("cannot say"), maybe it doesn't count against the spirit of his remarks that in certain, specific, and perhaps exceptional cases, we find that we can extend certain of these concepts to some aspects of some animal lives. At any rate, such extensions have to be earned in a way that we don't have to earn them when talking about human lives. Indeed, they are an integral part of we think of our lives as have a potential course, such that they can go one way rather than another, can turn out well or become a wreck.

And perhaps that we can, with caution and attention, extend some of these concepts to some animals helps makes sense of Rhees' advice to M. O'C Drury to look on animals as companions (or adversaries, etc.) rather than as experimental subjects (in psychology). That is, just as we learn what human life is amongst human companions--rather than in a laboratory--the same will be true of animals and animal life.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Tigers Are Not Vicious

So, I led a little discussion about McMahan's notorious article about the desirability of the controlled extinction (or genetic modification) of carnivores last Friday. One of the more interesting suggestions--that I've seen bandied about elsewhere--was the possibility of genetically engineering herbivores with a strong desire to be eaten, and who took pleasure in their own being eaten. That would solve the hedonic problem just about as well. So, sci-fi is a double-edged sword. Touché. Some people from the student newspaper were there, so we'll see whether they can misquote my impassioned claim that I don't give a rat's ass about the precise theory of value at work, so long as a certain psychologist in the room would grant me that some things have aesthetic value.

Which brings me to the title of this post. This psychologist at one point described the predatory acts of a tiger (or some other carnivore) as "vicious." I questioned whether it made sense to describe a tiger as vicious in, say, the way we would describe Ted Bundy as vicious. As soon as I said that, I knew this wouldn't work with a psychologist (of a certain sort). And the point fell apart. But Tigers aren't vicious in the way Ted Bundy--or the good-looking maniac to the left--was. This has nothing to do with whether Bundy believed that he was vicious. The point is that Bundy is a person, and persons can be vicious. They can also act in soulless, and savage ways (just to throw a couple similar ideas out there). But Tigers aren't savages. They are tigers. It does not make obvious sense to take a term of human evaluation and then apply it to the life of a tiger.

I suppose a hard determinist might say that if there's any sense to be made of the concept "vicious," it can't be a matter of human choice, because on their view, the human will is just as determined by nature as the tiger's will (if a tiger has a will). Here, I might just grant that for the sake of discussion, but point out that nevertheless, the way we talk about human lives as having this shape or that, this character or some other, involve a range of concepts which, as soon as we start applying them to animals, will tend to look anthropomorphic. Now, I agree with thinkers like Vicki Hearne who point out that some of our categories of character and evaluation can be applied to some human-animal relationships. So, it's not that I'm charging that psychologist with anthropomorphism. Rather, I'm charging him with being uncritically anthropomorphic. Does the tiger desire the suffering of its prey? Does it relish it? If it doesn't do those things, I'm not quite ready to call it vicious, or to pretend as if tigers are vicious in just the same way a human serial killer is.

I would also suggest that the way in which a tiger needs prey is different from the way in which Ted needed prey. But that's a different story, and I'm not in the mood to justify today, only to mark out differences. You get the idea.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Face of God

I'm about to start discussing philosophy of religion in my introductory philosophy classes. I'm tempted to start with the following passage from the Sufi mystic Ruzbihan Baqli's The Unveiling of Secrets:
The face of God most high, transcending the indication of thought, was unveiled to me. I hid [from] the faces of the Living, the Substantial One, who is most high and holy. He manifested himself within me, and from the vision of his face came the sweetness of longing, the melting of the spirit, the agitation of the inner consciousness, the shattering of the heart, and the annihilation of intellect. If an atom of this befell the mountains of the earth, they would melt from sweetness. I was sighing, weeping, turning, and sobbing. God took me into the angelic realm, and he placed me at the door of eternity. Then he manifested himself to me as greatness and magnificence. I saw light upon light, glory upon glory, power upon power, and I cannot describe it. I was unable to proceed a step closer because of his majesty and power. If I looked at it forever, I would be unable to understand an atom in the likeness of any of his pre-eternal qualities. But God is beyond anyone's description. (Sec. 124, "The Face of God")
I read this book years ago as an undergraduate, and recently remembered it. The line, "If an atom of this befell the mountains of the earth, they would melt from sweetness," was one of my working epigrams for "The Difficulty of Experience," and I think it is an amazing sentence (which may, since I don't read Arabic, owe as much to the translation as to the original). But I have to figure out how to get from Baqli to Aquinas without being droll, or saying something too much in the positivist tenor of, "This is fine poetry, but does it express any true propositions?" (Or better, I have to figure out how to ask that question without sounding like an ass.)

At the same time, students often like to asks questions like, "What was he smoking?" in response to thinkers like Descartes and Derek Parfit. And so maybe that points to an angle into the question: "Look, (many) people have powerful, overwhelming experiences of something beyond themselves. But it's fair to ask whether that points to something deep within us or something that's actually beyond us. And one way of doing that is to ask whether, putting poetic expression (and appeals to authority) aside, we can establish that there is (or must be) a particular sort of being, God, which answers more or less to our poetic descriptions." I find that if I just launch into the "proofs," many students think the exercise is pointless, since "it's all about faith." Not that using Baqli will help with that. I wonder--and have no predictions--what percentage of my students have had something they might recognize as a religious experience. Perhaps I'll find out when I see either yawns or looks of recognition when I show them the Baqli passage.

Friday, September 24, 2010


I've been sitting on my paper "The Difficulty of Experience" for a few months, and have made a few minor changes. (I don't know whether it's good or bad that after four months I made only minor changes.) Perhaps the largest change (so that you don't have to re-read the whole thing) is the first sentence.
First draft: "Experience is our connection to the world, to reality."
(DR thought this sounded overly early modernish, and I can't disagree.)
Revised: "Experience reflects, and thereby reveals, even though it can also sometimes distort, reality."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Carnivores: Can't Live With 'Em, Can't Annihilate Them

I wish (or do I?) that I had time to enter my own considered comments on this. I've said a few things here, and Duncan has lots more worth thinking about on this. I appreciate what Jean Kazez says about humility. The responses at On the Human might be better than the oodles of comments on the NYT blog (haven't checked since #29). For better or worse, I'll be moderating a discussion of McMahan's essay next Friday at the EKU Library at 3:30 p.m. (Room 204G, if you'd like to come interfere non-violently, or take me out for a stiff drink afterwards.)

McMahan gets high marks for being provocative, and many of the issues he raises are philosophically significant, but I think that the incorrectness of his position stems from the hubris of an implicit anthropocentrism (or perhaps, ratio-centrism) hiding under the cover of a humane concern for the suffering herbivores. If that's too much assertion and not enough argument, I think for now I'll just have to fall back on something Jean Améry said: "I'd rather be a witness than be convincing." I suppose this sort of response will just confirm the suspicions of people like McMahan that Wittgensteinians are too morally conservative. (I await a comment from DR...)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Right to Hunt Update

Some more information came out this week about the language of the proposed amendment to the Kentucky State Constitution to guarantee the right to hunt and fish. Here is the language of the proposed amendment:
The citizens of Kentucky have the right to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife, including the use of traditional methods, subject only to statutes enacted by the Legislature and administrative regulations adopted by the designated state agency to promote wildlife conservation and management and to preserve the future of hunting and fishing. Public hunting and fishing shall be a preferred means of managing and controlling wildlife. This section shall not be construed to modify any provision of law relating to trespass or property rights.
And here is what State Rep. Tom McKee has to say about the proposal:
“This amendment has no bearing on such things as licenses, seasons or trespassing laws...It simply ensures that hunting and fishing have the protections they deserve, because they are such a crucial part of our heritage and play an important role in our economy. None of us sponsoring this amendment wants to see them curtailed if the only reason is because of those who oppose the sports altogether.”
The last sentence strikes me as interesting, and its plausibility as a good reason for the proposal presumably depends upon more than the status of hunting and fishing as "a crucial part of our heritage" and its "play[ing] an important role in our economy." The difficulty is that some will see this as a moral issue, and some who see it that way, and who oppose hunting altogether will find it outrageous that hunting and fishing might become, subject to regulation, rights.

Consider a couple different analogies. An animal liberationist might try to explode the plausibility of this proposal by suggesting that it would be absurd to propose a similarly worded right to own and use slaves, and that even if slave-owning were a crucial part of the state's heritage and an important part of the economy, that simply wouldn't matter, morally speaking. Of course, those who see a significant disanalogy between humans and animals won't find such analogies compelling.

On the other hand, suppose one proposed a right to mine and burn coal, on the grounds that coal-mining and use is an important part of the Appalachian heritage and an important part of the state's economy, and see various environmental goals and proposals as directly or indirectly threatening the vitality of the coal industry. (Indeed, one might draw the analogy as far as imagining a proposal that named coal as the preferred method of producing energy in the Commonwealth.) A disanalogy here is that while such a proposal, given what we know about the dirtiness of coal energy (and that the notion of "clean coal" is really pie in the sky), is that this would probably not, in the real world, get us to an ecologically better (and sustainable) situation; whereas, public hunting and fishing might really be--from an ecological point of view--a perfectly workable way of sustaining and managing wildlife populations (and generating money for other conservation projects).

While neither the slavery nor the coal-mining proposals seem workable at all, or wise, or ethical, the ways in which the hunting and fishing proposal might be thought to resemble them helps clarify the nature of the moral dispute here as one between those who think the proper (ethical) view of our relations to animals is an "individualist" point of view--particularly one on which individual wild animals are morally considerable individuals who shouldn't be hunted--and an "ecological" point of view on which our relations to wild animals should be focused on practically workable means of preserving and managing these species. Of course, those who endorse this proposal also have a vested interest in preserving and managing these species in ways that continue to make public hunting and fishing an important part of the process (and so it's not all about the animals). So, one might ask why it is important from the ecological point of view that hunting and fishing be treated as "preferred means of controlling and managing wildlife." This is where heritage and money figure in. Of course, neither of those seems to point toward a necessary (and indefinite) ecological need for hunting and fishing. But that starts to make the proposed right seem possibly misguided in the way that a right to mine and burn coal would be misguided.

But perhaps I shouldn't downplay the significance of the concern to protect a part of the culture's heritage. It's hard to know what to make of this at an abstract level, since a heritage might include morally problematic practices. (Imagine a proposed right to protect gun duels, etc.) The hunter and the animal liberationist, to a significant extent, live in different moral worlds. The right to hunt and fish, however, certainly would seem to normalize these practices, and in that respect involves taking a position on the moral issues some have about hunting and fishing, or at least certain forms of them (such as trophy hunting). And that seems problematic. Suppose someone proposed a constitutional right to abortions. (Are there such rights? I don't mean the indirect right to do whatever is legal, but an explicit, documented right.)

I'll leave the rest of the thinking to you. I've gone on too long about this. I'll leave you with this short (two page) essay by Bertrand Russell, "If Animals Could Talk":

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Pufendorf, Animals, and Necessity

Reading Pufendorf for my class on "The Philosophers & The Animals" has led me to wonder what even thinkers who, in the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas, argue that we have dominion over the animals would think of contemporary industrial farming and so on (things like bacon double-cheeseburgers, which I used to thoroughly enjoy).

Pufendorf makes the usual claims that our dominion over animals is a function of our reason, our special place in God's order of things, and also follows Hobbes in pointing out that we are in a "state of nature" with animals since we cannot make covenants with them (i.e. we are in a state of war with them). He mentions that some thinkers have worried about the suffering of animals, and the inevitability of suffering during slaughter, but suggests that since the consumption of animals is not explicitly forbidden by God, it must, generally speaking, be permissible. But at the end of all of this (in The Law of Nature and Nations (1688), Book IV, Chapter III), he writes:
Yet that the abuse of this power [of human dominion over animals], and especially such as is attended with foolish cruelty and barbarity, deserves to come under censure is beyond dispute. For, as it is the interest of particular states, that no person squander away, or waste and spoil his possessions; so it turns to the prejudice of the universal society of mankind, and to the dishonour of God, the giver of so great gifts, to consume them idly and wantonly, without promoting any benefit or advantage of life.
This is a bit more expansive than similar passages (of which I'm aware) in Aquinas or, say, Kant, where the basic claim is the well-worn, "be kind to animals, since cruelty to animals might lead to cruelty to humans" (with the reminder that cruelty to the animals doesn't harm them, but harms ourselves). The judgment that one should not waste animals does seem implicit in a few things Aquinas says, so perhaps Pufendorf isn't saying anything essentially new. But he is quite a bit more explicit in his emphasis that the use of animals is limited only to those which promote a clear "benefit or advantage of life." What we know about diet and nutrition now certainly suggests that one doesn't need much (or any) meat to have a good diet, and it certainly--as I suggested to my students--makes bacon seem pretty unnecessary. (Though perhaps Pufendorf would suggest that it would be wasteful not to cure the bacon if we're going to slaughter the pig for its much more nutritious loins?) For some reason, I find myself thinking back to Epicurus' reminder that many, perhaps most, of our desires are vain.

One more fascinating tidbit from Pufendorf, for your consideration. He reports that a writer named Rochefort wrote of a people in Peru who abstained from meat, "and that if desired only to taste any, their answer is, they are not dogs."

I also learned this evening that traditional cheeses are made with rennet, which coagulates the milk, and rennet is traditionally obtained by extracting the enzyme from the salt-cured stomachs of ruminants, often veal calves. First, yuck. Second, who the hell figured that out?

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Farewell, Ethical Hedonism

A few readers may recall that I once had a blog entitled “Happiness & Philosophy.” Among other things, I spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what is wrong with ethical hedonism. Well, the one publishable result of all that writing and thinking turned out to be my rather short paper, “Against the Intrinsic Value of Pleasure.” (Published version here.) I was pleased to see that Timothy E. Taylor has raised some questions about my arguments in a new paper in the same journal, but as for me, my spade is turned and, to put it plainly, I’m done. No more trying to show hedonists the error of their ways. I mean, Monroe Beardsley made a much more damaging case against the coherence of the whole notion of intrinsic value than I did, and any one who can’t see the blinding obviousness of the fact that “x has intrinsic value” is just a trumped-up way of saying “I think this is super-duper important but I’m not saying why” is simply trapped by a picture. Similarly, anyone who thinks all value can be reduced to pleasure simply values intellectual “simplicity” over confronting the messiness and plurality of the real world.

Personally, I get a bit light-headed when I try to re-read Fred Feldman’s Pleasure and the Good Life. Not because the arguments overwhelm me, but rather because I feel like Feldman is ramming both his head and mine against a wall. And it isn’t the right wall, either. How about not defining an 83rd version of hedonism to solve the problems of the other 82 and considering the possibility that hedonism is hopeless! Prof. Feldman is a sincere, pleasant (not surprising) person, and so I do not mean to denigrate his character or intellectual integrity, or that of other ethical hedonists.

I used to like discussing Nozick’s experience machine in my classes. But now I feel a sense of dread when that topic comes up: not this again. I find it absolutely incredible, and depressing, that it needs saying that plugging into the experience machine would be a bad idea. Indeed, when I see a new paper in print discussing the experience machine, I feel certain that there is absolutely nothing else to be said about ethical hedonism.

At this point in my career, I guess I feel that I shouldn’t get locked into this dead-horse beating cottage industry. The only problem is that the horse isn’t dead. But that’s going to have to be someone else’s problem, because I’d rather continue my work on integrity, read some more J.M. Coetzee novels, and learn more about animal philosophy and issues in animal ethics. I simply no longer take pleasure in combating the follies of ethical hedonism. And although I think they are all grossly confused, I presume that hedonists can at least understand that sort of reason.

(In case you’re wondering what this is all about, read this, in my view, silly post and figure it out. Mike Austin has joined in on the quitters choir, too. So, what are you “done with”?)

Monday, September 06, 2010

Trophy-Hunting vs. Food-Hunting

The proposal of a “right to hunt, fish, and harvest non-threatened species using traditional methods” in Kentucky—and in several other states—is aimed primarily at ensuring that hunting and fishing can never be completely outlawed (e.g. by incremental steps). To declare that hunting and fishing are rights seems to imply that these activities constitute basic goods which, for that reason, should not be deprived from those who wish to partake in the activities. (Thus, this seems to be a negative right, a right not to be impinged upon, rather than a positive right, such that everyone should be provided with proper gear and licenses.)

A right to hunt, fish, and harvest non-threatened species using traditional methods would—depending upon the meaning and scope of “traditional methods”—provide a blanket protection for all current forms of legal hunting. At any rate, that seems to be the aim: not to make more hunting and fishing legal, but to protect the forms that are currently legal from future prohibition. As I understand it, that means that pure sport hunting, i.e. trophy hunting, would be fully protected as long as the species is non-threatened.

There’s a big issue here. Even many hunters oppose trophy-hunting, and will only hunt animals they intend to eat and use in other ways. If there is any kind of hunting that can be legitimately and fairly characterized as “killing for fun,” trophy-hunting is the best candidate. (Enjoying the hunt is not sufficient to make the whole business a matter of killing for fun, in my view, and contra the naïve sort of stuff you might see elsewhere on animal rights websites. Jean Kazez has recently discussed this.)

Practical defenses of trophy-hunting take (at least) two forms: ecological and economic. Taking the latter first: hunting and fishing are big money (I’ll let you hunt down the numbers, [Addition: though try here for a hunting-sympathetic overview]). Indeed, I have it on a hunter friend’s testimony that the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife receives exactly zero government dollars: all of its operating revenue is generated from hunting and fishing licenses, etc. This is important since it’s these departments which are out there in the wild monitoring wildlife populations, assisting in their study, providing public education, and so on. And this isn’t to mention the money generated in the private sector.

The ecological argument is that hunting and fishing are obvious ways of managing wildlife populations and (pardon the expression) killing two birds with one stone: animal populations are controlled, and hunters get their sport. Thus, even trophy-hunters can offer some justification for what they do. Many, however, question whether this or the economic argument can be a justification rather than merely an excuse for trophy-hunting. For many sport hunters (I’m guessing), it’s just fun.

Now, there’s another possible justification here, which is that hunters, to be good hunters, generally have to learn a lot about nature and animals in order to hunt well, so there’s a sense in which hunting can foster greater understanding and appreciation of nature. Of course, an obvious objection is that this is a red herring: you can become an educated naturalist without needing to hunt. One might suggest that there is a certain set of skills cultivated, and perhaps even a primal instinct satisfied, by hunting, even just for sport. But should all instincts be satisfied? Does the value of a skillset justify any means of cultivating it? (One could shoot skeet, targets, etc.) Does trophy-hunting (and fishing) deserve the legal protection these general rights to hunt and fish would seem to afford it?

Friday, September 03, 2010

More on the proposed right to hunt and fish

[Instant Update: just saw this article in the Miami Herald with a little more on the alleged threat, which is that there are animal rights groups who have money.]

Here's the prefiled bill to go before the 2011 Kentucky General Assembly:
BR 71 - Representative Leslie Combs, Representative Greg Stumbo (09/02/10)

AN ACT proposing to amend the Constitution of Kentucky relating to hunting, fishing, and harvesting wildlife.

Propose to amend the Constitution of Kentucky to create a right to hunt, fish, and harvest nonthreatened species using traditional methods; submit to the voters for approval or disapproval.
And here's the query I sent to Reps. Combs and Stumbo:

Dear [Reps. Combs and Stumbo],

I am a professor of philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University with active interests in animal and environmental ethics. I am writing to request further information about the proposed amendment to guarantee (in short) a right to hunt and fish in the Commonwealth. I find myself uncertain about the legal necessity of such a right, though there may be clear and present dangers to the livelihood of well-regulated and well-managed hunting and fishing of which I am unaware. That aside, I am sure you are aware that the language of such an amendment must receive careful attention. It would be ecologically imprudent to enact an amendment which made revising current management practices and regulation illegal, since protecting the welfare of wild game species in a dynamic ecosystem might require changes in current practices. To that end, the insertion of the term "nonthreatened species" is especially important and appreciated.

One might, however, bear in mind that humans are a nonthreatened species! That (silly?) point raises more serious questions about the relation this amendment would have to other elements in the state constitution. Would the right to hunt entail that convicted felons have a right to purchase and own firearms? (I ask this as a hypothetical example, since I do not know the current laws about this in KY.) Would the right to hunt make regulations such as restricted hunting seasons or catch limits illegal until the particular species was threatened at some very particular point? And what exactly are "traditional" methods? Why not employ the less ambiguous language of "methods that are not explicitly illegal"?

While traditions are an important part of individual and social identity, appeals to tradition for justification are slippery. Slave-owning was once an institution and tradition, but that alone does not confer legal (or moral) justification upon it.[Clarification: I'm not saying that the hunting and fishing tradition is just as bad as slavery, just pointing out that you can't justify a tradition by pointing out that it's a tradition, even if it's a good one. (Note sent to Stumbo and Combs)]

Again, I reiterate my concern about the necessity of this amendment, in proportion to the various complications and legal questions it might raise if enacted. Do our traditions--such as eating Thanksgiving dinner, attending college sporting events, and drinking mint juleps at the Derby--require explicit constitutional protection in the form of a stated legal right? And since this amendment could be later voted down by the will of the people, why do we now need the will of the people--in the form of our General Assembly--to protect its traditions against the will of the people? From that point of view, I can't quite see how this proposed amendment promises anything of substance.

[Yours Truly]

Thursday, September 02, 2010

A Right to Hunt and Fish?

I heard in the news today that two Kentucky state representatives have pre-filed a bill proposing an amendment to the state constitution "to guarantee hunting and fishing could never be outlawed without a statewide vote first." A bit of searching revealed that some of our neighbors to the south (Tennessee) are engaged in a similar campaign. The claims in both states are that hunting and fishing are a part of the heritage and tradition of the people, a "way of life," as Rep. Greg Stumbo of Kentucky puts it. Hunting and fishing also generate state revenues (which support, it is claimed, wildlife conservation and maintenance of natural spaces: see here for example), and the Tennessee Wildlife Federation claims that the "hunting and fishing traditions are a critically important part of wildlife conservation in Tennessee."

Stumbo (Kentucky House Speaker) says, "The rights of our current sportsmen and the rights of those sportsmen in future generations ought to be protected and make it clear that the people of Kentucky want our game management practices to remain as they are today." And WEKU reports, "Stumbo claims a real threat to hunting and fishing could surface in the Commonwealth."

So far, I have not been able to identify an actual, specific threat to hunting and fishing in Kentucky or Tennessee, except for the general disdain for PETA expressed on hunting discussion boards. Thus, I sympathize with with Tennessee Rep. Johnnie Turner's doubts about whether such amendments are necessary. Also like Turner, I don't have any general objection to hunting and fishing when done as humanely as possible and in accordance with wildlife management practices that promote the sustainability of the relevant species. (But that's also a reason to be suspicious of Stumbo's claim that the game management practices should "remain as they are today." Nature is dynamic, as is society; and so trying to keep things as they are, depending on the details, could be ecologically stupid.)

At the same time, I find something about all of this--pardon the expression--fishy. I'm not much of an expert on rights, but I have reservations about a mere appeal to "tradition," "heritage," or "way of life" as a defense of an activity or practice which, it seems, is rightly subject to ethical scrutiny and regulation. Again, in saying that, I don't think ethical scrutiny implies that hunting and fishing "lose." I'm willing to be charitable and to recognize that the hunters who operate with a "shoot it if it moves" mentality are not representative of the best possibilities here. I know hunters I respect, and some I think are idiots. And while there are some interesting points made here about the possible undesirable complications of a "right to hunt," I find the characterization of hunting at the end of that article, as "killing for fun," to be somewhat naive. (See this interview with Lawrence Cahoone, who's recently published "Hunting as a Moral Good"--which I still need to read carefully. Cahoone's claim is that hunting is not best understood as a sport.)

But are hunting and fishing plausibly understood as practices that deserve the status of constitutionally protected rights? I'm just not sure, and at the end of the day, I suspect that this is all just an effort to curry favor with voters.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Eating Things That Annoy Us

I've been working my way (too slowly) through Mary Midgley's Animals and Why They Matter. Overall, it is an excellent book, very accessible, very sensible, as is to be expected from what I've read by Midgley.

The following passage, however, must have slipped past the sensibility monitors. A little context: Midgley is making the point that common experience shows us that sympathy and understanding generally extend beyond the species barrier--we have relationships with pets and other animals, and attribute various states to them--such as pain and interests--without much ado (until behaviorists come along and trip us up with theory). Even people who use animals as beasts of burden and treat them more or less as property generally do not treat them the way they do inanimate tools; indeed, such treatment would not work. Thus, Midgley writes:
[W]e should notice a similar arbitrariness often appearing in the treatment of human dependants, so that we can scarcely argue that there is no real capacity for sympathy towards animals. In the treatment of other people, of course, our natural caprice is constantly disciplined by the deliberate interference of morality. We know that we must not eat our grandmothers or our children merely because they annoy us. Over animals this restraint is usually much less active; caprice has much freer play. (p. 114)
Of course, I think it would be silly to read Midgley as suggesting that we eat animals because they annoy us. But what a strange example and transition! In fact, I would suggest that I know no such thing as what she suggests. What I "know" is that grandmothers and children are not to be eaten. Perhaps then, by addition, I know that grandmothers and children are not to be eaten merely on the grounds that they annoy us. But if it is not ok to eat grandmothers and children merely because they annoy us, perhaps there are stronger reasons that would justify eating grandmothers and children? (Have you seen The Road yet, or read it?) At any rate, I have trouble understanding what the relationship is between being annoyed by something and thinking that I can or ought to eat it...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control

An anonymous reader writes to ask what I think of the recent egg recall. I think I'm glad my family has been buying eggs at the local farmer's market, which at $2.50 a dozen are cheaper than the various admixtures of cage free, free range, and organic eggs on offer at the local supermarkets--and I really know where they came from. I also think the circumstances leading up to the recall are an object lesson in what happens when you take animals--as well as the workers in these large operations--and treat them as mere resources. (See here for related discussion.)

I've sometimes heard representatives of industrial food producers play the "safety" card, claiming that industrial food chains are safer than small operations because they are regulated. I guess not! However, in other related (and encouraging) news, the New York Times has a piece on recent changes in California and Ohio to start phasing out various forms of "factory farming."

P.S. Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control is an excellent documentary by Errol Morris which has nothing but its title in common with this post.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

My Daughter Needs Sensitivity Training

A few weeks ago, we discovered a mushroom growing in the backyard, and went for a mushroom hunt around the house to see what else we could find. A colony of fungi were thriving around a drain pipe in our flower bed. When we discovered these mushrooms, my daughter expressed her intention to smush them. I said, "Why would you want to do that? Just let them be. How would you like to be smushed?"

Then yesterday we saw a remarkable butterfly, and she ordered me to "kill it." What the heck? We've got some work to do.

I've been thinking a lot about animals and the environment and the scope of respect. (I've also been on vacation and preparing for class; hence the slowdown here.) I'm attracted to the view that there is no outward limit on the extension of respect, in one form or another. Like Holmes Rolston III, I think we can, basically, get all the way to something like respecting dirt. Obviously, this will have a different (you might say) grammar than respect for persons, but the basic point would be: don't destroy things (where "destroy" means something like removing something of value without replacing it with something of equal or greater value). Respect--and similarly, love--are relevant here insofar as we come to see the point of such a principle when it is seen through the eyes of respect (and love): we don't destroy the things we love.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Integrity and Struggle

UPDATE 6/9/11: The latest draft of this paper is now available here.

Here's one last wrinkle (for now) to my work on integrity. Many accounts of integrity emphasize the importance of having an "undivided" self. But this raises questions about whether it makes sense to say that a person of integrity sometimes experiences significant inner struggles. It would seem not, to the extent that inner struggles are evidence of a divided self. Here, I argue that persistent inner struggles which are the result of persistent temptations and afflictions are not inconsistent with the thought that a person who must deal with such afflictions can be thought to have (or manifest) integrity. Indeed, some people are paradigms of integrity in the way in which they deal with temptations and affliction. Comments appreciated.

(previous draft removed)

Sunday, August 01, 2010

What if they cannot suffer?

Jeremy Bentham argued that animals deserve moral consideration on the grounds that the ability to experience pain and pleasure was the proper basis for moral consideration rather than the ability to reason. As he put it, in an oft-cited line: "the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?"

But what if a being cannot suffer? Given Bentham's utilitarianism, the ability to experience pleasure and pain (sentience) was not simply a sufficient condition for moral considerability, but also a necessary condition.

This would mean that butterflies, corpses, and individuals in persistent vegetative states (who lack all traces of sentience)--just to give a few examples--are not owed any direct moral consideration. To put it another way, such beings can't be wronged. Is that right? Some will suggest that even if we can't "wrong" a butterfly, it's still wrong to pull the wings off a butterfly for our own delight because this shows a callous character. Similarly, we should not degrade corpses because doing so would offend others (and we might also be under an obligation to respect the implicit or explicit wishes of the deceased, though this justification probably falls outside the scope of a utilitarian position). The utilitarian might offer a similar line about people in persistent vegetative states.

But in the case of the butterfly, the justification for why one shouldn't pull off its wings is purely contingent on such behavior tending to produce a bad character. Robert Nozick has wondered why we should expect such behavior to do so, if we are able to maintain a clear understanding of the differences between insects and, say, humans. Furthermore, if a person did take great delight in dismembering butterflies and did not allow this to affect his behavior toward humans and other beings that are morally considerable, then the butterfly dismemberment would have positive hedonic value on the whole, since the person doing it enjoys the activity.

In the case of corpses, what becomes clear is that utilitarians can't make any room for the notion of "respecting the dead." This is because we can't wrong the dead; corpses can't suffer. Perhaps we must respect those who care about the dead by treating those corpses in ways that don't increase the suffering of the living, but that isn't the same as respecting the dead. In principle, we may do whatever we please with corpses on a utilitarian view. While it's true that the conventions and treatments by which we pay respect to the dead vary amongst cultures, it doesn't strike me as plausible that the moral reason why violating the relevant traditions is wrong is because such violations upset other people. That is, the wrongness would seem more plausibly to have something to do with the failure to show respect for the dead.

If this is right, then other things matter besides welfare, and while sentience is surely a sufficient reason for seeing a being as warranting moral consideration, the fact that something cannot suffer does not mean that it counts for nothing, or that what we do to it can only matter, morally speaking, in some indirect way.

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)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Animal Lovers Beware

"Tigers do not care about your love. They do not crave your approval. They also do not fear your disapproval. What matters to a tiger is the way a tiger walks, and if you don't know everything about how a tiger walks, you will find yourself getting in the way and you will get hurt. Of course, you're probably going to get hurt anyhow, but you will not survive if you think that your love is to the point of anything you will ever see in a tiger's eyes. You have to understand your cat." - Mark Harden, animal trainer, quoted by Vicki Hearne in "Job's Animals" (in Animal Happiness)

And here's Hearne (in the same essay): "...I did have to leave off teaching a writing class one day at the University of California to help round up some frightened macaques. The situation was urgent enough for me to abandon a classroom because the macaques would have died on the loose in one or more of a number of horrible ways. They had been 'freed' by people who pitied them, but pity is another uprightness the unicorn, the ostrich, and the macaque do not find compelling as we do. In a lifetime of work with animals I have never known moral outrage to help a single animal. Ever."

(The unicorn is mentioned in the Book of Job; there are various speculations about this, usually either that it refers to a rhino or wild ox, but it could be some other wild animal. Wildness is the point: Job cannot control all of the animals; their powers are beyond him. In this sense, animals are a reflection of God. Hearne insists, contra Heidegger, that such animals do have World, just not ours. And the point of this is to remind us that the world is far greater than our categories and concerns, or as Hamlet said, "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." It's interesting to consider that in this respect, the Book of Job seems to subvert the "dominion" granted to Noah and his people over all the animals.)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Tolerance and Intolerance (and Violence)

I just finished revising my paper "Moral Conviction and Disagreement: Getting Beyond Negative Toleration." There, I suggest that tolerance construed as merely "putting up with" is not a sufficient ideal for cultivating a genuine community. I also point out that seeking to engage tolerantly with those with whom one has strong moral disagreements is not a threat to one's integrity. (This might seem to be a threat, insofar as one might feel that the request to be tolerant asks one to put up with things that one finds intolerable.)

As always, this is only part of the story. In my recent Philosophy Now essay, "In Defense of Intolerance," I focus on something I discuss briefly at the end of the revised paper above, which is that sometimes intolerance is the right attitude. Sometimes one will find it impossible to tolerantly engage with those with whom one disagrees. What then? There, I focus on pointing out that "what then?" is an entirely separate issue from whether one can or cannot tolerate something (or someone).

A great deal of my interest in this topic was driven forward by reflecting on Scott Roeder's murder of George Tiller. I'm still not quite happy with something I say in the Philosophy Now essay, which is that I am not happy allowing that violent intolerance is ever justifiable in the face of moral disagreement. I say, "I must ask what right I have to...risk someone else's life on the chance that I'm not mistaken - especially when that person has not consented to the risk." The obvious instantiation of this point is that I have no right to go around killing members of the so-called Tea Party. But this gets to the difficulty with my comment in Roeder's case. I'm not so much worried about the actual case, because Roeder shot Tiller dead in the lobby of a church. Utterly awful. But someone might spit my words back at me and ask, "What right does Tiller have to 'risk the life' of the fetus [viz. abort it] on the strength of his convictions?" I think, however, that the right answer here is that one could only ask that question by failing to pay attention to the details of the situations in which Tiller was involved. This isn't to say that such attention to details would lead one to accept or endorse Tiller's choices. But would I really be begging any obviously answerable questions if I said that any sane, judicious person would realize that the abortions Tiller performed were surrounded by complicated, unfortunate, and often tragic circumstances? (See here.) The difference between Tiller's decision to save and help those women (and girls) and Roeder's self-described choice to save unborn babies from Tiller is that Roeder acted from an abstract principle and Tiller acted in response to complex, concrete, and often tragic circumstances. Thus, Roeder's act shows what can happen when we put principles above individuals. We can convince ourselves that our principles make the murder of others ok. But maybe I'm making a mountain out of a molehill, since Roeder, a Christian in name, simply failed to love even his enemies.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Can't Animals Be Moral Agents?

A common quip--even one that I have used in teaching--is that animals aren't moral agents. Squirrels and tigers aren't responsible for their actions in the way that we regard humans as responsible (and as we hold ourselves responsible). I generally say something like this in ethics classes when talking about the significance of morality for humans--it's part of what we take ourselves to be. (Sometimes the claim comes out in discussions of animal ethics, though I haven't done but small bits on it so far. That all will change soon, as I'm teaching classes on animal ethics next fall and spring!)

But is it true that no animals are moral agents? In Adam's Task, Vicki Hearne insists that the relationship between a dog and a trainer is a moral relationship, in which the dog must be held responsible for its actions (and in a much more structured way than the typical, "No, Fifi! Bad dog!"). For Hearne, the idea is that training only occurs by holding the dog responsible (she is no behaviorist), and the dog can learn what is expected of it. The result of this, on Hearne's view, is that the well-trained dog earns a kind of freedom. When Hearne tells Salty, "Salty, Ok!" that means Salty can hang loose, and do what she likes. But Salty knows that she is not free to dig holes in the yard or terrorize the kitty.

Now, one might say, but Salty isn't a "full-fledged" moral agent; she isn't responsible for the course of her life in the way we might say that of a person. And perhaps that's right. But if Hearne's description of the relationship between dog and trainer is right, we can't say there is nothing of moral agency in Salty's being either. (Hearne also has intriguing things to say about the problematic nature of authority which necessarily structures this relationship, but I'll leave that for another time.)

(Thanks to one of my mentors, Ed Minar, for bringing my attention to Hearne's work. If you're looking for a primer, she has a nice article in Harper's entitled, "What's Wrong With Animal Rights?" (September 1991). Preview here, but you have to pay.)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Language Goes on Holiday

Duncan Richter, a regular visitor here, has recently started blogging under the banner "language goes on holiday". But be advised that if you don't like fun, you're in for trouble.

"Nevertheless, My Sympathies Are With The Karamazovs"

The current issue of Salmagundi, which I happened upon by pure luck one day in the library's periodicals room, has a fascinating e-mail correspondence between J.M. Coetzee and a psychologist named Arabella Kurtz. I've been on a Coetzee kick for awhile, and the correspondence is particularly interesting because it's a rare moment where Coetzee speaks, at some length, in his own voice. (He tends to be guarded in this respect and, as he points out in the correspondence, doesn't like to discuss or attempt to interpret his own books.)

In the beginning of this correspondence, after Kurtz has invited Coetzee to engage in some kind of interview, Coetzee says something fairly striking: "I suspect I am not the right person for the job [an interview]. I am not a fluent speaker and don't easily see the point of questions. I am also dubious of the worth of opinions that are expressed by my public persona." I've been thinking about how those comments might bear on a reading of the last chapter of Elizabeth Costello, in which Costello must submit a "statement of belief" in order to gain entry into the land beyond a very Kafkaesque gate. Costello takes issue with this request, insists that as a writer, she has to treat her own beliefs with suspicion, and to take on beliefs only provisionally. Her judges criticize her, basically, for having no center.

Upon first reading that chapter, I figured that the chapter was more or less an indictment of Costello and her lack of center. A clerk in this mysterious world, at the very end of the book (spoiler alert), comments dully that he sees people like Costello--who don't know how to give a statement of belief--"all the time." And this sounds like a bad thing for Costello.

But given the strangeness of some of the philosophical responses to that book, and particularly the chapters comprising "The Lives of Animals" which Coetzee gave as Tanner Lectures, and now given Coetzee's comment to Kurtz, I'm inclined to reassess my initial, superficial reading. Many of the philosophical commentators--Peter Singer stands out here; see also some of the essays in the new book edited by Singer and Anton Leist J. M. Coetzee and Ethics--really wanted to know whether Costello's statements reflected Coetzee's views. The (too) short response to this is, that's just a bad way to read a work of fiction, especially one as rich as what Coetzee has created. Singer and others thus seem to be demanding from Coetzee a "statement of belief." And because Costello's situation in that last chapter of the book is so obviously an absurd Kafkaesque situation, I'm now quite disinclined to trust what her "judges" expose about her lack of center. Rather, perhaps there is, or can be, something absurd in the request for a "statement of belief." Certainly, the issues Coetzee raises in his stories would not be settled if only we knew what he really thought.

Nevertheless, Coetzee does say quite a bit in the correspondence with Kurtz about his view that the methods of reason are not the only or best ways to probe and make sense of reality. So, check it out!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Must We Always Stand By Our Convictions?

Just a short note: I've made some substantive revisions, particularly to the end, of Must We Always Stand by Our Convictions? (The revised document is on Scribd, too, and should show up on the original post below.)

Integrity and Virtue(s)

Here's a draft of another bit of my summer research project, this one dealing with the nature of integrity. (A pretty schematic account of integrity as a substantive virtue, though I hope to add helpfully to the literature on integrity with the notion of integrity as an "umbrella virtue.")

Comments appreciated!

This should be it for the onslaught of short papers. The project now will be to weave all of it back together.) I've posted these three papers roughly in reverse order (sorry for any confusion--though this paper stands a bit more apart from the other two, which are more of a unit).

Friday, June 25, 2010

New Issue of Philosophy Now...

...on Law, Tolerance and Society includes my essay, "In Defense of Intolerance." You need a subscription to access the article (sorry, and I have permission to put a copy of it up in the future), but you can get a nice intro to the article (and the issue) in Rick Lewis' introduction to the issue:
Matthew Pianalto argues that although intolerance gets a bad press, in some situations it is actually our duty to be intolerant. He describes an interesting distinction between toleration, which has to do with actions, and tolerance, which has to do with attitudes. He points out that Gandhi and Martin Luther King refused to tolerate unjust laws, but that their actions opposing those laws were non-violent. This for Pianalto is a crucial distinction between good and bad actions in the face of something we would find it wrong to tolerate. Above all though, the impressive thing about Gandhi’s and King’s intolerance was that it was always directed at laws rather than at people.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Is Small-Scale Slaughter Better?

In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer documents the decline of small-scale slaughterhouses, focusing (if I recall correctly) on a facility in Missouri. I was surprised, then, to find a not insignificant listing of slaughterhouses and processing facilities in Kentucky, most of which look small scale. (Caveats: the directory is a bit old, and I'm guessing some of the facilities that don't list their "weekly capacity" are big.) Eat Wild lists several Kentucky farms which use local processing facilities. Of course, this isn't what you get in the store, and it turns out that even "Kentucky Proud" meats aren't necessarily processed locally. However, the Lone Tree Cattle Co., which supplies the Better Beef store in Berea, does claim to use local slaughterhouses. Of course, "smaller operation" does not entail "more humane slaughter," but if it's true that industrial processing facilities are slaughtering up to 400 cows per hour (how is that possible?!), I'm willing to bet that the animals who take their last steps into the small-scale slaughterhouse get a bit more undivided attention (before being divided).

I haven't eaten a terrestrial animal in about a year--that is, I still eat fish and shrimp once or twice about every (roughly) two weeks, but no beef, pork, chicken, etc. I know that the seafood we get is probably unsustainable, and so I've been thinking that if I am going to eat some meat, I'd be better off with better beef. (There's also a local fruit and vegetable vendor in Richmond which, I've been told, sells local chickens, but I'm not a big fan of chicken anyways.) I've been thinking, however, about why I don't get off my duff and head down to Berea. Eating meat just isn't a priority anymore. (I guess in the back of my head I'm worried about setting myself on a slippery slope: if I eat a grass-fed better beef burger, will I be more inclined to get a cheeseburger at McDonald's one night on the road?)

Perhaps equally pressing--from something like the perspective of consistency--is the amount of milk my family consumes, and the ugly truth about "industrial" milk (even if the cows are hormone-free). I just found some information about Real Milk, so I guess I'd better go explore.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Standing by One's Convictions

Here's a draft of another part of my summer project on conviction and integrity. This piece actually precedes, "Must We Always Stand by Our Convictions?"

Again, comments appreciated!

(I anticipate working one last part of the overall project into a smaller paper, concerning something I've already discussed here about what kind of virtue integrity is.)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Must We Always Stand By Our Convictions?

Here is a draft of a paper excerpted from my larger summer project on conviction and integrity.
Comments appreciated!

NOTE: Revised version posted 6/29/10.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Online Wittgenstein Resource

I just discovered that the website of the North American Wittgenstein Society has an incredible listing of links to online texts by Wittgenstein, as well as a good deal of secondary literature. Check it out!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Lawncare Interventions

Scotts 2000-20 20-Inch Classic Push Reel Lawn MowerAs you know if you stop by the HEP Spot regularly, I recently bought a house. We finally moved in over the weekend (after an exhausting week of improvements--if you ever want to lay laminate flooring, ask me for advice!). I haven't been responsible for a lawn since I was a kid--though I did some mowing with a push mower as a grad student. I grew up in the country on about an acre, and we had a riding lawnmower. (However, my dad did push mow the acre for some time before he could afford the tractor.) Since the good ol' days, apparently riding lawnmowers have become the status quo even in residential neighborhoods. My house is somewhat in the country, but we live in a small single-loop division of houses just outside of the city limits. Our backyard meets up with a pasture with a nice line of trees along the fence. The lot is just under a half-acre. We have two beautiful mature trees in the backyard (perhaps I'll post pictures soon) and thus tons of shade.

Anyhow, a riding lawnmower was just out of the question for me, both because of the cost, and because my country frame of reference led me to conclude that a riding mower simply wasn't necessary. I assumed I'd buy a gas-powered push mower. Then I started looking into reel mowers (which is what the Scotts Classic 20" pictured above is called). I was concerned about whether this gadget would do the job, but after reading many  reviews and watching some videos of it in action, I decided to go for it. It weighs thirty pounds (much less than a push mower, and much less than your grandpa's old school reel mower), makes a delightful, comparatively quiet sound when cutting, and if you overlap your rows appropriately does a fine job cutting--unless you aspire to practice putting on your lawn. The Scotts Classic has a 20" cutting width, which is just an inch less than standard gas-powered push mowers--it's the widest one you can get, which was important for me given the size of our lot. It's also the best for thicker grass because it's heavier than some of the smaller reel mowers. It requires minimal adjustment, and just a squirt of WD-40 to keep the blades clean and sharp. We've used it twice, and the second time, it took my wife about 30 minutes to do the front yard (which is smaller but has thicker grass), and about an hour to do the back (which is bigger, but the trees keep the grass lower). It's decent exercise, too, which is something my wife and I could both use. I bought a Black & Decker cordless electric trimmer--on sale at ACE for $50--which has just enough life to do all the trimming  (and again, no gas, oil, etc.).

Anyhow, here's the funny part. In just shy of a week, we've already had two "interventions." The day we pulled out the reel mower to give it a first spin, one of our next door neighbors offered (to my wife--poor woman, I guess) to mow our lawn, on the grounds that it would "take forever" to do it with the reel mower. That was last week. Yesterday, a different neighbor, a few houses down, rode his mower to our house, parked it in the driveway, and said (I paraphrase), "have at it." I thanked him many times over, and said I'd just bought the reel mower and wanted to figure it out, give it a shot. When I finished mowing (with the reel mower), I rode his back over to his house. (Noting to myself that I could push the reel mower about as fast as the rider could go.) I'm sure it looked bizarre to have the rider parked in the driveway while I buzzed along with the reel mower.

What I'm trying to figure out is whether our neighbors think we're terribly foolish, or if they feel threatened by the reel mower. Perhaps they can't figure out how to square the sound of the table saw that blared from my garage for two days with the sight of the reel mower? Do I contradict myself? Very well then.

(Another aspect of the impetus to try the reel mower was reading an excellent paper by one of my environmental ethics students on just how much CO2 pollution is caused by lawncare. Gas mowers and trimmers emit something like 8-10 times as much CO2 per gallon of gas than cars, and there's also the nitrogen fertilizer and other chemicals used to create that "perfect" lawn to take into consideration.)

So if you have a push mower and it breaks, buy a reel mower. Or just buy a reel mower, and save the gas mower for the times when you go on vacation and the grass goes out of control while you're gone. You'll love it, I promise.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Purpose of Morality?

I recently came across a book called Morality and Purpose by an interesting British moral philosopher, J.L. Stocks (1889-1937), via a reference to his work in Peter Winch's "Moral Integrity" (in his (1972) Ethics and Action). I was re-reading Winch as I plan to incorporate some of his ideas into a paper I'm now working on on moral conviction and integrity.

Stocks is an interesting figure for me because the general drift of his ideas resembles what some would now call "anti-theory" in ethics--often (though not exclusively) associated with "Wittgensteinian" moral philosophers, such as Winch (and also including Rush Rhees, D.Z. Phillips, and Cora Diamond). The value of Stocks' thought is that it predates the Wittgensteinian turn, as it were, and Stocks has some striking arguments to the effect that morality is not properly conceived as "purposive." Reading his essays "The Limits of Purpose" and "Is There a Moral End?" have helped me better understand what Winch is after in claiming that morality is not properly conceived of as a guide to action (in "Moral Integrity"). Winch does not deny that morality provides guidance, but what he does deny--which is expressed quite lucidly by Stocks--is the thought that morality has some grand, unified purpose, such as the greatest happiness for the greatest number, self-realization (human flourishing), or even the achievement of moral purity or perfection (to the extent that we might distinguish these from flourishing, as a Kantian might).

For Stocks, the problem with conceiving of morality as aiming at a purpose is that this divides action into means and end. That is, there is the goal of action, and if the goal is the purpose of morality, then the most efficient means to that end will be thereby justified. Most students of ethics will be familiar with the objections to the utilitarian conception of morality as purposive: if the only thing that matters is the greatest happiness, then we would be justified in doing terrible things to individuals if that turned out to produce the greatest overall happiness. Slightly more opaque is the objection to the Kantian conception of morality as guiding the production of a good will. The problem here is that overmuch concern for "doing one's duty" can itself lead to moral corruption; the person who visits a sick friend for the sake of duty itself is a less good friend than the person who visits because he cares about the welfare of his friend and wants to cheer him up! In that case, the proper end of the action (the visit) is the friend's welfare, not one's own moral perfection (by upholding one's duty). What about self-realization, or human flourishing? Same sort of problem. If the moral purpose of all action is the ultimate realization of one's "true self" (say), this end can pervert the nature of specific actions. Consider again the visit to the sick friend. It seems silly to say that the moral goodness of this action ultimately reduces to how it conduces to one's own flourishing.

There is no one purpose of morality. But what's interesting is that Stocks does not say there are many purposes. Rather, morality, like art, subjects purposive action to a different sort of evaluation, and seeks to assess the whole particular action--both its means and its end--to determine whether the whole thing is "in all its stages a fit expression of the human will" ("Is There a Moral End?" p. 80). So, the particular purpose of a particular action is an important part of moral evaluation, but moral evaluation is not a matter of determining whether the action properly serves some (or the) moral end because there is no moral end.

In "The Limits of Purpose" Stocks draws a careful comparison between art and morality and argues that the distinctive concerns of both involve something beyond mere concern with purpose. Art is not simply representation; the manner of style, intention, process, and so on are integral to an artistic evaluation of a work. Similarly, morality is not simply a matter of achieving some end. It is tempting to gloss Stocks' ideas by suggesting that morality is a concern with the human decency of one's actions. But either "human decency" is just a synonym for "morality" or human decency is set up as yet another end of human action, and one could provide a counterexample which shows that someone's obsessive concern with acting decently led them into a form of moral corruption. At the same time, I don't think this synonym is completely unhelpful, because it draws attention to the kind of concern Stocks thinks is distinctive of the moral attitude. A person refuses to take some profitable course of action on the perhaps hard to articulate grounds that it just seems indecent (or worse) to go down that road. (Think of the Father and Son in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, or the recent film adaptation. No pun intended.) The point of such a judgment, however, wouldn't be that taking that route would taint one's moral purity, or make one less happy, or conduce to less overall happiness, but rather, and simply, that it would be wrong to do it. This isn't to make morality out to be merely prohibitive, insofar as we might also judge that certain things ought to be done simply because it's the right thing to do (say, helping another person).

Stocks seems to be something of an intuitionist about moral judgments, insofar as he argues that there can be no arguing about the judgments themselves. But Stocks also acknowledges the essential role of our conceptions of ideal interpersonal relations and "spiritual" ideals in our conceptions of right action (in addition to our views about productive action and social development). (So, I don't see him as suggesting that our intuitive judgments necessarily reflect universal ideals or truths.) Any particular one of those conceptions and ideals may of course be subjected to philosophical scrutiny, but taken as a whole, the balance of our moral conceptions and ideals comprise our moral field and are (as the Wittgensteinians would say) our bedrock. What all of this comes to is an interesting response to the question, "Why be moral?" which is often interpreted as a demand that morality have a purpose. For Stocks, morality (like art) has no purpose; it is rather a texture embroidered into the many purposes we set out with in life, and to reject the significance of that texture is simply to reject (again, to put it in a Wittgensteinian idiom) our form of life. If that seems opaque, consider again the comparison to art: why care about art? Does anyone challenge art by asking, why be artistic (or, why seek to imbue one's activities with a certain artfulness)? Perhaps, but so much the worse for them!