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!