Thursday, March 31, 2011

More Animals That Are Not (Legally) Animals

This is the definition of animal in the U.S. Animal Welfare Act (revised 1970, with further exceptions added in 2002).
The term 'animal' means any live or dead dog, cat, monkey (nonhuman primate mammal), guinea pig, hamster, rabbit, or such other warm-blooded animal, as the Secretary may determine is being used, or is intended for use, for research, testing, experimentation, or exhibition purposes, or as a pet; but such term excludes (1) birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research, (2) horses not used for research purposes, and (3) other farm animals, such as but not limited to livestock or poultry used or intended for use for improving animal nutrition, breeding, management, or production efficiency, or for improving the quality of food or fiber
That is: lab rats, lab mice, and lab birds, race horses (e.g.), and farm animals--not to mention all cold-blooded animals--are not (legally) animals. The reasons why should be obvious. (The 2002 revision added the specific exclusion of animals reared specifically for lab use.) But that does not make any of this any less bizarre, and in many ways, devious, and dishonest. At least, it seems the act should be called the U.S. Act on Animals Whose Welfare We Don't Have a Vested Interest in Not Protecting. (I wish I had something else to say, but that will have to wait.)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Vegetarianism & Hypothetical Imperatives

Tomorrow I'm examining in class an argument by Kathryn Paxton George (KPG) which suggests that "Singer-Regan" style arguments for (ideally, strict) vegetarianism may not apply to the vast majority of the world's population. Furthermore, treating veganism as a moral ideal is discriminatory. Here's the abstract:
The vegan ideal is entailed by arguments for ethical veganism based on traditional moral theory (rights and/or utilitarianism) extended to animals. The most ideal lifestyle would abjure the use of animals or their products for food since animals suffer and have rights not to be killed. The ideal is discriminatory because the arguments presuppose a male physiological norm that gives a privileged position to adult, middle-class males living in industrialized countries. Women, children, the aged, and others have substantially different nutritional requirements and would bear a greater burden on vegetarian and vegan diets with respect to health and economic risks, than do these males. The poor and many persons in Third World nations live in circumstances that make the obligatory adoption of such diets, where they are not already a matter of sheer necessity, even more risky.Traditional moral theorists (such as Evelyn Pluhar and Gary Varner whose essays appear in this issue) argue that those who are at risk would be excused from a duty to attain the virtue associated with ethical vegan lifestyles. The routine excuse of nearly everyone in the world besides adult, middle-class males in industrialized countries suggests bias in the perspective from which traditional arguments for animal rights and (utilitarian) animal welfare are formulated.
There are features of this argument that are interesting and important. In a sense, those who argue for "moral vegetarianism" are, as KPG notes, willing to allow for exceptions--people who cannot, or would be unduly burdened in attempting to, obtain vital nutrition from non-animal sources. However, KPG points out the strangeness of treating strict vegetarianism as a moral ideal if the feasability of meeting it is limited to a minority of the world's population--and limited not because of their special moral strength, but because of their particular nutritional needs and socioeconomic place in the world. I've thought of something like this puzzle, too: in some places in the world, a diet that includes meat makes sense (and in certain conditions may be more sustainable, I believe); how are those people to feel about "Singer-Regan" arguments? Are they a moral underclass? That seems wrong.

However, in the excerpt I'm discussing with my class, KPG moves from the claim that many people likely do not have an obligation to abstain from animal products to the claim that no one has such a duty, and that we should not view vegans as going "above and beyond the call of duty." She does acknowledge that, for many reasons, a semivegetarian diet is probably ideal. (Part of the implied point here is, I take it, that people in the U.S. tend to overconsume meat. For the record, I currently find myself a semivegetarian, or pescatarian, though I'd settle for lacto-ovo-shrimpatarian.) Something seems too quick here, though, and I think it's this:

KPG reads the "Singer-Regan" arguments as positing strict vegetarianism as the moral ideal. This is probably truer of Regan than Singer (because Regan views killing itself as a harm in a way that Singer doesn't), so I want to drop Regan for the time being. I think KPG's argument depends on construing the argument for vegetarianism as positing a moral ideal, rather than generating a conditional duty (or, as my title suggests, a hypothetical imperative). As I see it, a Singer-style argument does generate a conditional duty (if the argument is sound) of the form:
If one meets such-and-such conditions, then one has an obligation to abstain from animal products.
We could even qualify this with "as much as possible." Of course, doing so re-inserts the notion of an "imperfect duty" which can be fulfilled to a greater or a lesser degree, but there is some point at which we needn't feel guilty about "not doing more." (E.g. the less privileged cannot sensibly feel guilty for not giving away as much gross income to charity as Bill Gates does.)

KPG acknowledges that in industrialized countries like the U.S. a vegetarian diet is available and safe. She suggests even then that groups with "special" (i.e. non-healthy-young-to-middle-age-white-male) dietary needs, such as growing children, women, and the elderly, will incur a greater burden in giving up animal products. This is probably right. But as alternatives become more available (and free information more readily available), there's a legitimate question about where the variation in burdens becomes negligible. And certainly, the more affluent a person is, the more the varying burdens are arguably negligible when compared to animal suffering. Given that, there might still be a case to be made, which takes KPG's concerns into considerations, that most (and not just male) people in a country like the U.S. do have a conditional duty to abstain as much as possible from animal products in exchange for alternative foods.

One problem with this is that internalizing such a view may tend to make people neurotic about what they eat. But perhaps there's a line to be discovered between neuroticism (and the undue feelings of guilt mentioned above) and simply being more conscientious. This argument assumes that meat-eating cannot be justified on grounds of pleasure alone; the primary considerations should be nutritional needs and probably also ecological sustainability. Importantly, those who do not satisfy the antecedent of the conditional principle cannot be viewed as a "moral underclass" or as doing something morally bad. And so accepting this kind of position would entail that one could not go around universally condemning animal agriculture and slaughter. This is compatible with being troubled by the violence inherent in animal slaughter, and advocating for the most humane methods, and even seeking ways to make transitions when appropriate. But the "duty" to make such a transition at any point would depend upon changing features of the person's social and economic circumstances, so not of the form, "I can now afford to eat ethically," but rather, "The new conditions of my life make a different pattern of food consumption ethically preferable." This would preserve (I think) KPG's view that, at least as things stand, a vegan diet is not "higher" on a moral scale that most people can't reasonably ascend due to factors beyond their control.

But I'm not sure any of this is right. Thoughts? (Maybe my hedge "as much as possible" just means that I basically agree with KPG.)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Natural Concepts and Cultural Concepts

Kenji Yoshino, law professor at NYU, and author of Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights gave a Chautauqua Lecture at EKU. He discussed this idea of "covering" as a kind of discriminatory demand made against many people (in the workplace, the culture, etc.), not to be "too X," where the X is some feature of the person's own identity (such as, in Yoshino's case, his homosexuality). He did a nice job of taking the audience from his X to seeing how there are all sorts of features (from race, to one's identity as a mother, to one's love of, say, poetry) which can elicit unreasonable covering demands--sensibly stressing as well that not all discrimination is equal, and also speculating that we are nearing the point where challenges to fine-grained forms of discrimination will have to be "cultural" rather than legal (because the law is a meat cleaver and not a scalpel).

Enough introduction. Yoshino spoke at EKU in part as a balancing-act which brought Robert George to campus a couple weeks earlier. George is one of the more well-known opponents and voices of the anti-same-sex marriage camp, rooting his position in natural law. (I was unable to attend his talk, but apparently he did not address same-sex marriage, but talked more generally about natural law--apparently to the disappointment of many members of the audience.) However, the question of same-sex marriage, and of Yoshino's own critiques of George, did come up at the Q&A at Yoshino's talk. In particular, a professor at EKU who has been outspoken in his own opposition to same-sex marriage as well as to EKU's newly adopted policy which provides domestic partner benefits, challenged Yoshino to provide a definition of marriage.

Yoshino offered his sense of what marriage has come to mean in the culture, while criticizing (what he takes to be) George's idea that there is an essence of marriage, an ontology, which simply makes same-sex marriages not real marriages by definition. [Update: Rob suggests below that Yoshino mischaracterizes George's view and offers some corrective comments and links. Thanks, Rob!] I've always found this move fishy [Update: and whether it's the move George makes or not, something like an "argument from the natural definition" seems to crop up in discussions of this issue], and think now I can offer a conceptual distinction that makes clear why. Some concepts are "natural concepts"--they pick out natural kinds, like "dog" refers to dogs. We could choose to use the word "dog" to refer to things like cats, but in this case I think the use would then deviate from the natural concept. This is very quick, but the idea is that there is something like an essence to natural concepts, something like an essence of doginess, of doghood.

But some concepts are cultural. That is, they are the products of human culture, history, and institutions. Such concepts have practical purposes, but not essences in the way natural concepts do. I'm inclined to think that person is such a concept, and we can trace the history of the concept of a person to see ways in which it has expanded and contracted in various times and places. (E.g. not all humans have counted as persons, and not all persons have been humans.) Cultural concepts do not have an essence so much as a use and a history. Because of this cultural concepts are inherently malleable. It seems to me that the concept of marriage is clearly a cultural rather than a natural concept, because it plays a cultural and institutional role in human society. Opening marriage up to same-sex couples thus cannot conflict with the essence of marriage because there is no essence. It may conflict with the historical scope of marriage, but as with person, history and tradition is not an infallible guide to what future use we can make of cultural concepts, or whether an institution should be opened up to other groups with parallel (or identical) claims for inclusion to those who already have access to the institution. And it's clear that those who support same-sex marriage are not simply using the word marriage in a sense that is completely disconnected from its history. In light of this, resistance to same-sex marriage turns out to look like an insistence that the way things are and have been is the way they ought to be eternally. But if I'm right, that's a completely wrong-headed and insupportable approach because it attempts to construe marriage as the sort of concept it isn't.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Woo Dalai Lama Sooie

May I be as excited as a schoolgirl that I just got tickets to see the Dalai Lama when I visit home in May?

Appiah's The Honour Code

Here is my review of Kwame Anthony Appiah's new book The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. The print issue came out some time ago, and I just noticed that the review had also been posted on TPM's website.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Rotating "H"

When I started blogging under the title "The HEP Spot," I was still working/thinking quite a bit about happiness. Not so much now. I like the title, but I would like to modify the acronym so that it's more accurately descriptive. (We know of course that this blog is hep, that is, hip.) So, I'll be trying out other things for the "H" on a rotating basis. For now, it's Hooey, since a certain amount of that is discussed or inspires things discussed here. If you have ideas, please share.


Part of me wants to believe in revenge, just enough to vindicate the natural rage a parent feels even at the thought of harm coming to their children. But read this piece on the potential release of Michael Woodmansee and the statements by the father of his victim that if Woodmansee is released the father will seek out and kill him. And then definitely read the comments on the article.

I feel the gut-level urge to violent retribution as much as any parent. But I also can't see revenge as having any point here. And it doesn't strike me as helpful to dress it up as "justice." (Or as a matter of preventing the "monster" from striking again.)

The comments well-illustrate Socrates' remark in the Crito that the disagreement between those who believe that wrongs should be repaid in kind and those who reject this (as does Socrates) is fundamental and that both parties can do little more than despise each other.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Human/Animal Similarity & Unwarranted Doom

In Animals and Why They Matter--which I'm finishing up tomorrow in my Animal Ethics class--Midgley discusses the familiar and now generally rejected behaviorist skepticism about animal consciousness. While discussing Donald Griffin as one of the first contemporary psychologists to reject and argue against behaviorism, and to write extensively about animal minds, she reproduces the following quotation from one of Griffin's early books which concerns the perceived moral doom that would result from seeing animals as similar to us--or more specifically, as not categorically different. The quote is from Mortimer J. Adler's (1967) The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes:
If it were to be established by some future investigations that animals differ from men only in degree and not radically in kind, we would then no longer have any moral basis for treating them differently from men, and, conversely, this knowledge would destroy our moral basis for holding that all men have basic rights and an individual dignity.
This seems a nice expression of an idea I've heard and read by others as well. But it doesn't obviously make any sense. Let's consider the two claims it makes separately:

(a) If animals differ from humans only in degree and not radically in kind, then we have no moral basis for treating them differently from humans.

I think there is one sense in which this is true, and while that is presumably terrifying to Adler, it's not a new point. If animals are like humans in ways which, when thinking just about humans, we regard as morally important, then animal lives have similar moral importance. At minimum, that just means we can't treat them as if they are "mere things." And given the social and emotional complexity of many animals, it may mean quite a bit more, morally.

But there's also a sense in which this needn't be true. It certainly doesn't follow that we should treat animals in exactly the same ways we treat humans, and for roughly the same sorts of reasons that we shouldn't treat children in exactly the same ways as we treat adults, or pupils in exactly the same way we treat intellectual peers, and so on. (Edit: I didn't mean to imply anything about paternalism by choosing those examples, but rather that different cases often require different treatment without the difference being inappropriate or unfair.) Another point to be made here is that we may well have some reasons to think that our responsibilities to humans are stronger, in general, than our responsibilities to animals, on the model of the special responsibilities parents have to their own children. But this wouldn't imply that other animals (or other children) make no demands, or that special interests imply that anything goes in the cases which don't involve them (or that special interests always trump other interests, etc.).

(b) If animals differ from humans only in degree and not radically in kind, then there is no moral basis for holding that all humans have basic rights and an individual dignity.

I simply can't see why the consequent of this has any connection to the antecedent. It would follow just as well from the antecedent that animals will have some share of moral rights (depending perhaps on the degree of relevant similarity) and of individual dignity. To state my point formally, I think this is alarmist bullshit, and that the alarm gets sounded because it's so obvious that many animals are treated terribly by systems and institutions from which we derive great comfort and convenience. Because of this, acknowledging the idea of animal dignity would force (rationally speaking) a re-examination of, and in many cases the rejection of, those systems and institutions. (And here, claims about rights need be only pragmatic, not metaphysical.)

I have NO IDEA why the existence of "animal dignity" would impugn the existence of "human dignity." Of course, if animals differ from us only in degree rather than kind, then that means a certain creationist story about the specialness of humans is false. (It also means that a Cartesian story about our specialness as reasoners and language-users is false, or at least misleading.) "Dignity" just means something like having an inherent worth, and comes with overtones of being an end rather than a means, of being an irreplaceable individual, of being an individual which, as Rhees might say, is "something that can be loved." Why should the possession of that by animals mean that humans can't still have their own dignity, too? In short, it doesn't. What it does mean is that we have to be suspicious of the business--which we can roughly blame on Kant--of suggesting that only human beings warrant respect in themselves.