Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On the Farm and In the Lab

In my animal ethics class this week, we're discussing transgenic animals and research. Transgenic animals are genetically modified animals--from the GloFish to the oncomouse (i.e. mice that "model" cancers by getting them), as well as animals, such as rabbits, that express human proteins in their milk which can be used in medical therapies. This stuff makes my head spin a bit. On the one hand, much of the research is interesting, even exciting (does a cancer-resistant mouse bespeak of cancer-resistant people in the future?).

But it's also troubling. Ian Hacking claims of over-bred animals (like turkeys) that "we have created a species that cannot have any dignity" (in Cavell et al, Philosophy & Animal Life, p. 155). Earlier in the essay he discusses oncomice, and I assume that he would say the same of them. Even for comparatively benign transgenic research, animals are killed in the process of creating the transgenic lines: embryo donors, particularly mice, are euthanized; and most viable transgene implantation methods are less than 100% successful--some animals don't exhibit the transgene, and some are born with (unintended) problems. But then millions of (ordinary, industry standard) rats and mice are killed every year in labs already.

So is there a special problem with killing in the context of transgenic research? Only if there's a special problem with transgenic research, it seems. Hacking points to one possible problem, though it perhaps doesn't apply to all transgenic animals. Considerations of dignity probably won't move the interdisciplinary conversation very far--at least, convincing biologists and chemists that rats and mice have a kind of "animal dignity" (as Nussbaum and Elizabeth Anderson use the term) might be a hard row to hoe. Even then, perhaps curing cancer trumps animal dignity--viz. human dignity trumps animal dignity. I have to confess that I'm not sure that it shouldn't. That may seem foul (or, if you're all for this, a moment of clear-headedness), but in cases like the oncomouse, it certainly doesn't seem like you can have it both ways.

I think most people would like to have it both ways. For it to be ok to eat animals as long as they've lived happy, natural lives. For medical (and transgenic) research on animals to be ok as long as they've been housed in sufficiently enriched environments, and been administered the kind of anaesthetics and analgesics we'd use to alleviate human pain in surgeries, and then euthanized painlessly. And I guess it is ok if you're comfortably utilitarian or a certain kind of theist. (It's interesting to find those two groups in the same camp.) Or if you've accepted the idea that in the animal world--of which we are and are not a part--might rules.

In a Nietzschean mood, I would say: and we have to be strong to live! This doesn't mean exercising our strength indiscriminately or foolishly, however. But that just brings us back to the start again...

[I seem to have misplaced my copy of Cora Diamond's essay on animals and experiments (in The Realistic Spirit); I need to find it; perhaps it will help...]

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Patience, Unity of the Virtues, and Ideals

[Below is an excerpt from a concluding line of thought. Up to this point, I have considered the relationship between patience and a few other virtues--such as justice, love, courage, and wisdom--in order to illustrate the implicit role of patience in the development of these other virtues. Here, I consider a few issues that arise from those explorations. NB: I realize that the unity of the virtues thesis is controversial, but I am not concerned here to deal with objections, or what to say about the place of patience amongst the non-unified virtues; perhaps some other time.]

If either version of the unity of the virtues thesis is true, then an analysis of any virtue—say, courage—might take the same form I have adopted in this chapter with regard to patience: one could show how courage is necessary for the realization of virtues such as justice, love, wisdom, and so forth. In the case of courage, we would simply need to be reminded of the circumstances in which exercising these virtues may involve overcoming and facing down dangers and fears.

This might raise some questions about the starting point of this chapter—Gregory’s claim that “patience is the root and safeguard of all the virtues.” For if the unity of the virtues thesis is true, then there will be a sense in which every virtue is a “root and safeguard” of the others: no virtue has special priority and each one bears a crucial amount of weight in supporting a virtuous life: remove one virtue, and the whole structure collapses.

It is not essential to my project that patience have special priority in this sense. But then what of my rejoinder to Aquinas at the beginning of this chapter that perhaps we should hold that patience is “the greatest of virtues”? One possible explanation is that the aspect of patience characterized as constancy or steadfastness of commitment should be understood as constancy in one’s commitment to virtue in general. On this line of thought, patience is what enables a person to maintain a clear-headed sense of the significance of striving to live virtuously, even in one’s darkest hour. This fits with Gregory’s conception of Job as a paradigm of patience.

However, it may seem peculiar, and perhaps artificial, to suggest in this way that patience is a virtuous disposition to remain committed to the virtues come what may. On the one hand, even if there is such a virtue, it seems unclear why it should be called patience. On the other hand, if we conceive of the virtues as consistent, settled dispositions to feel and act in the right way at the right time, and so forth, then one might think that these dispositions will, as it were, take care of themselves. That is, a commitment to virtue for those who possess the other virtues is unnecessary.

In response to this criticism, it may be helpful to mark a distinction between ideal virtue and (for lack of a better term) non-ideal virtue. Dispositions are not binary; they can be more or less settled, more or less consistent. Aristotle, for example, appears to allow that occasional, slight deviations from the virtuous mean do not necessarily give us a reason to withdraw our characterization of a person as possessing a particular virtue. That person might not possess the virtue in its ideal, perfected state, but in characterizing people as courageous, just, loving, and so forth, we do not only measure them against an absolute, ideal standard, but also against the degree to which that virtue is reflected in others. A person might not be perfectly courageous, but he or she may well be much more courageous than most people. If we suppose that all, or even simply most, virtuous agents are not ideally virtuous, but rather approximate the ideal to some high degree, then circumstances will remain in which acting in accord with the (ideal) virtues is immensely difficult even for the most virtuous amongst us. (Here, Christians might consider the point that even Jesus experienced temptation—and perhaps this is essential to the idea that Jesus was fully human, even while also being fully Divine.) We could then interpret Gregory’s remark as indicating that patience (as constancy) is the final line of defense in such circumstances. This also aligns with Aquinas’ conception of patience as a bulwark against those provocations that might prompt us to react in non-virtuous ways. Given the assumption that none of us achieves ideal virtue, the significance of patience would then be that it provides some protection against the degree to which we are, as it were, imperfectly excellent.

Of course, if ideal virtue is just that—an ideal—then perhaps no one is ideally patient either. But in the present context, this would only mean that no one is absolutely immune to corruption, despair, or resignation, each understood as an abandonment of a commitment to virtuous living. This may be an unsettling thought, but perhaps it is better to be unsettled, to be reminded that we are not ideal agents. To summarize the considerations above: patience enables us to abide our own (often quite normal) imperfections and limitations, and to persevere nonetheless. Some may be uncomfortable with the perfectionist tone of these considerations, on the grounds that if our imperfections and limitations are in many ways normal, then there is something misplaced about holding ourselves to an ideal standard—that it implicitly demands something of us that we cannot give. I would suggest that this is to misunderstand the purpose of an ideal.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Aeon Magazine

Via Mark Rowlands, I've learned of a new digital magazine called Aeon. One of its sections is labeled "Oceanic Feeling." Intriguing.

I'm also looking forward to reading Rowland's whole book Can Animals Be Moral? His article above provides one entry point; he's also written about the subject here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Recent Tootings

Busy busy. Reading about animal minds (teaching a class on it in the spring, and realized too late that there was a vast learning curve I needed to start climbing immediately; expect animal minds posts in the future). Finished a paper on "Humility and Environmental Virtue Ethics," which will be coming out in the future in a volume on applied virtue ethics, edited by my colleague Mike Austin. I must give a particular shout out to Tommi Uschanov for bringing my attention to Aldous Huxley's essay, "Wordsorth in the Tropics." This provided the inspiration for the above attempt to get at "ecological humility" from a slightly different direction than in my related paper by that title. Thanks, Tommi!!!

I'll also be presenting something of a prelude to my work-in-progress on patience at a couple small conferences in November. It's called, "Beyond Waiting: Patience & Moral Development." Comments welcome.

As above, I hope to have things to say here soon beyond merely tooting my horn. But if my son is any indication, there are pleasures to be had in tooting, too.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sweet on Mill

Just finished teaching Chapter 2 of Mill's Utilitarianism (in two different classes, ethics and honors humanities). I always get sweet on utilitarianism when I read Mill. Is this common? Is it contagious? Is there anything I can take for it? (Perhaps re-reading some of the dubious arguments in Chapter 4, the proofs of the principle of utility? It's been awhile since I've studied those closely.) Of course, perhaps the things that attract me to Mill's thought are the things that seem (or is it: seem) hardest to square with consequentialism.

(Pictured below: me & Mill...)

Wednesday, October 03, 2012