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.