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.