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.