June 8, 2012

Philosophical Quibbles

Philosophy Now

Howard Darmstadter:
For the general public, [Singer] may be the most influential philosopher of the last half century. …

[Singer] is an excellent critic of prevailing moral orthodoxies. …
[When viewed] not as a philosopher dispensing theoretical arguments, but as a campaigner for the cause of animals and against suffering humanity … he can be quite convincing.
His arguments can make us see the errors in much moral posturing.
In questioning our assumptions, we may come to appreciate issues we would rather not confront.

[His] writings are full of touching examples of human and animal suffering that may move us to act, regardless of philosophical quibbles. …

We naturally feel compassion without needing a philosophical argument …

Arguments Against an Obligation to Assist

Howard Darmstadter:
Suppose you see a child drowning in a pool.
You can rescue the child at no danger to yourself, but at the cost of ruining your new suit …
Clearly, you are morally obliged to wade in, suit be damned.
But … if you are a moderately well-off citizen of a first world nation, donating 10% of your income to CARE or Oxfam will similarly relieve much suffering, with only a modest impingement on your lifestyle.
As with the drowning child [you] have to grab your chequebook and wade on in. …

Moral rules can’t generally be applied in an unlimited accumulation …
[They] can be overwhelmed by numbers and by questions about the obligations of other people. …

Would your obligation be different if
  • there were hundreds of people observing the child [or]
  • you encountered a hundred such children every day? …
Perhaps [you'd] think
  • ‘Why does this all fall on me?’ and walk on by, pretending you don’t hear the child’s screams …
  • [Why] shouldn’t it be someone
    who knows the child, or
    who can get to the child fastest, or
    who’s wearing cheaper clothing? …
Alternatively you could] just spend more time away from pools. …

Peter Singer (1946):
How we deal with complete strangers on the other side of the world has become one of the most important moral issues of our times and we don't have the right evolved responses to it. …
[The drowning child scenario demonstrates that] our evolved responses are not good enough and we have to think about the situation intellectually …
(Religion and Science)

[We] have moral instincts.
[We] often make judgments … without reflection or reason, but I don't think they're very reliable …
[When] we try and do serious moral philosophy or ethics, we should try and move beyond those judgments.


Agents versus Actions

Ethics as Abnegation

Massively Overdemanding

A Zero Tolerance for Lions

Inconvenient Truths

The Ethical Perspective: Ethics as Geometry

Proximity Bias

Description versus Prescription

The Boundaries of Compassion

An Argument from Ignorance

The Enslavement of Non-Human Animals

Philosophy Now

  • Peter Singer Says You Are a Bad Person, Issue 89, March-April 2012.
    Howard Darmstadter: Adjunct Professor of Philosophy (Barnard College) and Law (Cardozo Law School), New York.

    Agents and Actions

    Howard Darmstadter:
    Peter Singer says you are a bad person. …
    Peter Singer [argues] that you are morally deficient if you eat meat. …
    [There’s] nothing in Singer’s arguments that can … prove that you are a bad person.

    Peter Singer (1946):
    The appropriateness of praise and blame is … a separate issue from the rightness or wrongness of actions.
    The former evaluates the agent; the latter evaluates the action.
    (Practical Ethics, p 198)
    The distinction between actors and actions.
    Consequentialism is about the assessment of the rightness or wrongness of actions based on their anticipated outcomes.
    It says nothing about the moral status of intentional agents who cause harm or refrain from doing good.

    It is Darmstadter who is saying "Peter Singer says you are a bad person", not Peter Singer.

    Altruism versus Eogism

    Howard Darmstadter:
    Howard Darmstadter shows us why the Australian abnegator is wrong.

    It’s getting harder to have a good time.
    Peter Singer has argued … that you are morally deficient if you eat meat, or if you fail to give a good bit of your income — 5% if you earn more than $100,000, and at least 10% of income over $150,000 — to help the world’s most destitute. …

    To deny (oneself something); to renounce or give up (a right, a power, a claim, a privilege, a convenience).
    This argument places ethics in opposition to self interest.
    It is only true the narrowest conception of self-interest.

    As Darmstadter says, Singer is making if "harder to have a good time" by advocating that people give a proportion of discretionary income to those in life-threatening need and to eat less meat.

    This implies a "zero sum" view of charity.
    That the giver is diminished by giving for which she gains nothing in return.

    It privileges particular goods such as hedonism, competitive advantage, and status competition over other goods such as addressing inequality or injustice, promoting ecological sustainability, seeking to mitigate unnecessary suffering, the expression of care and concern for others.

    The taste of cooked meat is a great good, but it is not the only good.

    How much self-denial, self-sacrifice or renunciation is involved in not buying the most expensive consumer goods (or vacation) one can afford, as distinct from settling for products or services at the 95% price point and using that 5% to save lives?

    Ethics is about transcending the personal.
    Of at least entertaining the possibility of meanings and purposes that extend beyond the purely individual.
    The choice between living narrowly, or living widely.

    Altruism is not only compatible with, but may be essential to, a broad conception of self-interest.
    Matthieu Ricard (1946):
    There is psychological research that shows] that the most altruistic members of a population are also those who enjoy the highest sense of satisfaction in life.
    (The Art of Happiness)

    Angie Hobbs (1961) [Associate Professor in Philosophy, University of Warwick]:
    [Aristotle argues in the Nicomachean Ethics that] we cannot flourish unless we actualize all our faculties, including our moral and intellectual ones.
    (Aristotle's Politics, In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, 6 November 2006)

    Howard Darmstadter:
    If you take Singer’s arguments seriously, you should be giving nearly everything you have to charity.
    (Singer himself doesn’t go that far, giving away only 20% of his income.
    Nobody’s perfect.) …
    Darmstadter caricature's Singer's position then criticizes him for not living up to the caricature.
    20% is nothing to sneer at.
    I only give 10%.
    Howard Darmstadter:
    Singer’s basic argument [relies on] two main principles:
    • [Maximize] pleasure and minimize suffering; and
    • [All] pleasure or suffering counts equally. …

    [Animal] suffering should weigh as heavily … as human suffering …

    [Your] suffering doesn’t count more than anyone else’s. …

    Peter Singer (1946):
    [There are] many important interests that humans have, like the interest
    • in avoiding pain,
    • in satisfying basic needs for food and shelter,
    • to love and care for any children one may have,
    • to enjoy friendly and loving relations with others and
    • to be free to pursue one’s projects without unnecessary interference from others.
    (Practical Ethics, p 21)

    Some people interpret as me saying [that] the life of a mouse is just as important as the life of any human being.
    I'm not saying that because there are different preferences that beings with different cognitive capacities may have.
    But I do think that where you have equal interests, if the mouse has an interest in not feeling acute physical pain, and the human has an interest in not feeling acute physical pain, we should give equal right to those interests.

    Massively Overdemanding

    Howard Darmstadter:
    Since there are … many people in the world who suffer more than you … you should give a substantial part of your wealth to alleviate that suffering.
    This conclusion supported is by the [economic principle of] diminishing marginal utility [- that] the same amount of extra money will increase your happiness less, the more wealthy you are. …
    A dollar means more to a beggar than to a millionaire. …

    [The] pleasure or suffering of your own children should have no special place in your calculations.

    Miranda Fricker (1966) [Reader in Philosophy, Birkbeck, University of London]:
    John Stuart Mill [and] Jeremy Bentham [embraced] the 'greatest happiness principle' [which] requires us to acknowledge that actions are right in so far as they tend to promote human happiness, and wrong in so far as they tend to detract from it.
    So it obliges us to think always about the consequences of our actions [and, in particular,] their impact [on] the general happiness.
    [Built] into that greatest happiness principle … is a very strong commitment to altruism.
    You have to think about everybody's interests … as counting equally.
    [Now Mill] being a humane liberal [probably] didn't intend his view to be interpreted in terms of a permanent obligation to maximize general happiness no matter what you're doing. …
    [He] conceived of it as, we go about our everyday business, in the projects that make our lives meaningful, and when we're faced with [critical] questions as to whether to do 'A' or 'B' we [think in terms of] consequences.
    [When stated simply this view is] vulnerable to the interpretation that it's massively over-demanding.
    This is a reprise of the standard argument against maximizing consequentialism.
    However if maximizing consequentialism does not result in the best outcome in practice, it should be abandoned on consequentialist grounds.
    The form of consequentialism that one should adopt in practice is the one that actually produces (or is most likely to produce) the best outcome.

    There is a trade off between the ambitiousness of the standard set proposed and the proportion of people who might be willing to accept it.

    Maximizing the individual contribution leads to minimal compliance and thus minimal impact.
    Too modest a standard might be popular but ineffective ie tokenism.
    This is the rationale behind the sliding scale benchmarked at 5% at $100,000.
    Peter Singer (1946):
    [If we] were to set a more realistic standard, people might make a genuine effort to reach it.
    [A] lower standard might actually result in more aid being given."
    (p 213)

    I do not really know if the scale I propose is the one that will, if widely advocated, achieve the greatest total amount donated, but I calculated that if everyone in the affluent world gave according to that scale, it would raise $1.5t each year — which is eight times what the United Nations task force headed by the economist Jeffrey Sachs calculated would be needed to meet the Millennium Development Goals set by the leaders of all the world’s nations when they met at the UN Millennium Development Summit in 2000.
    (p 214)

    We do not need to transfer half or a quarter or even a tenth of the wealth of the rich to the poor. …
    If we all, or even most of us, gave according to the much more modest scale I have suggested, none of us would have to give up much."
    (p 215)

    [If] it is in our power to prevent something very bad happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it. …
    [Because this injunction] applies only when nothing comparably significant is at stake … the principle cannot lead to the kinds of actions of which nonconsequentialists strongly disapprove — serious violations of individual rights, injustice, broken promises and so on.
    (p 199)

    We put the interests of our loved ones, our family and our friends ahead of those of strangers.
    [To] give them up would be to sacrifice something of great moral significance. …
    Hence, no such sacrifice is required by the principle for which I am here arguing.
    (Practical Ethics, p 213)

    I think that ethics is demanding.
    I think that our responsibilities are very extensive, because wherever we can have an impact for the better I think that's what we ought to be doing.
    But we don't have to … flagellate ourselves if we put a foot wrong.
    I think it's a matter of being reasonable and practical about everyday life …

    The Trouble With Principles

    Howard Darmstadter:
    So if you live in Ohio and are deciding whether to spend $200,000 to send your daughter east to Princeton for four years, or instead spend $80,000 to send her down the road to Ohio State, while giving the other $120,000 to save the lives of hundreds of African children …
    It’s more important that those children live than that your daughter go to an exclusive private college.
    … Singer holds that moral people shouldn’t give their children extraordinary advantages.
    [Indeed,] his arguments that you [should give your children even ordinary advantages] seem half-hearted.
    Singer relates the story of a family who elected to buy a less expensive house than they could afford and donating the money saved to "the world's most destitute" ie "$800,000 to help rural villagers in Ghana lift themselves out of poverty".
    Strikingly, the seed from which that project grew was planted by a junior member of the family.
    Peter Singer (1946):
    [In Atlanta,] Georgia, in 2006 [Kevin Salwen and] his fourteen-year-old daughter Hannah [were stopped at] a stoplight.
    On one side Hannah saw a gleaming Mercedes coupe, and on the other she saw a homeless man.
    You know, Dad … if that man had a less nice car, that man there could have a meal.
    (Practical Ethics, p 211-212)
    Purchasing the most expensive education one can afford for one's children is one expression of parental love but not the only one.
    Imbuing them with virtues like generosity, compassion, social connection, reciprocity and concern for community by personal example may be at least as valuable in furnishing them with the basis for a flourishing life.
    What would a world, in which competitive advantage did not trump all other virtues, look like?

    A Zero Tolerance for Lions

    Howard Darmstadter:
    [A] zero tolerance policy for lions. …
    (We could perhaps keep a few representatives of each carnivore species alive in protected habitats, where we would feed them veggie burgers.)

    Singer [argues] that we shouldn’t eliminate carnivores because
    our record of interfering in ecological systems is not good.
    [This] is disingenuous.
    Messing with nature — especially our natures — is what Singer is all about.
    Ignoring the suffering of the zebra and the wildebeest is akin, in Singerland, to ignoring the drowning child.
    We know we can do something, and if we fail to do it, the suffering of the beasts that are preyed upon … will be upon our heads.

    Anna Krien:
    A lot of … studies are coming out [about apex predators.]
    [For example,] Yellowstone National Park: once the wolves were exterminated the entire ecology unravelled.
    [The] elk were no longer afraid [so] that they grazed everywhere [—] not just in places where they could keep out a scout to keep an eye out for an apex predator. …
    And they ate everything.
    [They] ate the stream [verges, so] the beavers suffered and then their dams broke.
    [The] birds disappeared.
    [The] entire place was … denuded because there was no apex predator.
    A couple of smaller predators moved in … but they didn't do the job.
    Instead they just drove one creature to extinction. …
    [The apex predator] doesn't just keep the ecology balanced because it hunts and kills.
    [It] keeps it balanced because it has a presence [— the behavior of] every other creature is controlled by fear …
    [They've] started to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone and the entire park has come back to life.
    (The Importance of Animals)
    • Darmstadter is equating "Mother Nature" with "Human Nature".
      In this case our evolved propensity to be omnivores.
      This confuses the descriptive with the prescriptive.
      Humans can and do live entirely healthy lives without meat.
      (Whether as a matter of circumstance or a matter of choice.)
      This is not applicable to exclusive carnivores.

    • Eliminating natural predation in stable ecologies may not reduce the overall level of animal suffering.
      Natural herbivore populations are stabilized by their natural enemies.
      Population explosions alternating with crashes due to starvation might not result in net reductions in animal suffering.

    • We have a clear responsibility to minimize the suffering of domestic animals ie those animals born, confined and slaughtered for the sole purpose of meeting human needs.
      For this class of sentient beings, we are directly responsible for bringing them into existence.
      We control their living conditions.
      We determine the circumstances of their deaths.
    • The feeding grain fit for humans to livestock to service the taste for meat of those who can afford it; contributes, unnecessarily, to the burden of human hunger in the world.

    Inconvenient Truths

    Howard Darmstadter:
    When an argument reaches an unpalatable conclusion,
    • we can reject some of the premises,
    • we can look for some misstep in our reasoning, or
    • we can decide that the conclusion is correct after all.
    Singer often takes that third path, denying that seemingly unacceptable consequences are really unacceptable.
    [He] really believes that you shouldn’t give your own children extraordinary advantages.
    (He doesn’t seem to take seriously the argument that we should eliminate carnivores, but his counterargument is weak.)
    Yet … Singer’s acceptance of uncomfortable ethical results, or the feebleness of his attempts to escape them, must make us cautious. …
    If one were to exclude from philosophy all that was "awkward", "uncomfortable" or "unpalatable" there wouldn't be much left.

    The reason ethically questionable practices persist is only partly due to cultural inertia and force of habit. It is because sections of society benefits from and thus has a vested interest in maintaining such practices.
    The institution of slavery has been fiercely defended by those whose wealth, convenience and comfort depended on it (from Ancient Greeks to pre-civil war America).
    The subjection of women continues to be staunchly defended in many places.

    Radical Positions, Conservative Methodology

    Howard Darmstadter:
    Singer argues that once we decide to be ethical — that is, to seek principles to justify our actions — then reason forces us to conclude that those principles must be universalizable: that is, they have to work not just as your principles or my principles, but as everyone’s principles. …

    Peter Singer (1946):
    Thinking about [ethical issues] philosophically should enable us to reach better-justified conclusions. …
    (p viii)

    What is ‘the ethical point of view’? …
    [It is] to go beyond our own personal point of view to a standpoint like that of the impartial spectator.
    (Practical Ethics, p 279)

    The Ethical Perspective

    Howard Darmstadter:
    What Singer calls the ‘ethical perspective’ involves establishing a few principles and then deducing conclusions about how we must act.

    [For Singer] practical ethics is much like geometry: conclusions necessarily follow from a few inescapable principles.

    Peter Singer (1946):
    The ‘Golden Rule’ attributed to Moses … and subsequently reiterated by Jesus, tells us to go beyond our own personal interests and ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ [ie] give the same weight to the interests of others as you give to your own interests. …
    The Stoics held that ethics derives from a universal natural law, an idea that Kant developed into his famous formula:
    Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. …
    … R. M. Hare, who saw ‘universalizability’ as a logical feature of moral judgments.
    … Hutcheson, Hume and Adam Smith appealed to an imaginary ‘impartial spectator’ as the test of a moral judgment.
    … John Rawls [‘veil of ignorance’] incorporated essentially the same axiom into his own theory …
    (p 10)

    [Most major philosophical traditions] agree that the justification of an ethical principle cannot be in terms of any partial or sectional group.
    Ethics takes a universal point of view.
    This does not mean that a particular ethical judgment must be universally applicable.
    Circumstances alter cases, as we have seen.
    What it does mean is that in making ethical judgments, we go beyond our own likes and dislikes.
    From an ethical perspective, it is irrelevant that it is I who benefit from cheating you and you who lose by it.
    Ethics goes beyond ‘I’ and ‘you’ to the universal law, the universalizable judgment, the standpoint of the impartial spectator or ideal observer, or whatever we choose to call it.
    (Practical Ethics, p 11)

    I'm not either a pure act utilitarian nor a pure rule utilitarian.
    I think that rules are important and I think we should have them to avoid falling into distortions of our position when we're called upon to judge in everyday circumstances, and we're not always in a good position to judge.
    But … there may be rare circumstances in which we're right to break the rules, even though the rule in general has the best consequences.

    Singer is not an axiomatic system builder in the Kantian sense.
    It does not necessarily follow that because he applies the tools of analytic philosophy to the cognitive dimension of ethics that he denies its emotional and intentional dimensions.
    He is not seeking to reduce ethics to a set of deductive proofs founded upon self-evident axioms.

    The principle of the equal consideration of the interest of sentient beings to avoid suffering is clearly relevant to issues of global poverty and the treatment of animals.
    How much weight you assign to it, as opposed to any competing non-consequentialist considerations remains a matter of choice and inclination for each individual agent.

    Intellectual creativity, rigor and clarity, a commitment to consistency and coherence, the willingness to explore a lines of reasoning dispassionately, and the courage to face whatever inconvenient, unpopular or disturbing conclusions they might lead to without shying away and taking shelter in the comfort of one's preconceptions.
    Exercising such philosophical (and scientific) virtues is not a rejection of all other domains of human experience.
    Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970):
    [A] philosopher who uses his professional competence for anything except a disinterested search for truth is guilty of a kind of treachery.
    And when he assumes, in advance of inquiry, that certain beliefs, whether true or false, are such as to promote good behaviour, he is so limiting the scope of philosophical speculation as to make philosophy trivial …

    Miranda Fricker (1966) [Reader in Philosophy, Birkbeck, University of London]:
    Kant was himself a theist. …
    Kant thought that he'd observed in popular moral thinking, two things.
    One … that moral worth is in the motive, the motive of duty.
    And secondly, that moral obligations, if there are any moral obligations, are absolutely binding.
    [That] nothing about the subject, his sentiments, his interests, his inclinations, his habits of thought, could possibility release him from a moral obligation.
    Now the trouble about belief in God, is that … if you don't believe, or you don't care that you're going to burn in Hell for all eternity, then the "Thou shalt not!" won't really apply to you. …
    So he constructs, this absolutely [supposedly] authoritative moral system … without any reference to God whatever …
    [Instead, he places] the authority of moral obligation … in something no human being could possibly escape, namely their capacity for practical reason.
    [That] when we act, we must always ask ourselves whether we're acting on a reason that anyone else could accept, a universalizable reason.
    And if not, we must refrain, and we've discovered we have a duty to refrain.
    That's how he gets duties out of, what he calls the categorical imperative, this requirement to act only on universalizable reasons.
    Singer is not seeking to substitute logical necessity for moral choice.
    Howard Darmstadter:
    … David Hume [viewed] ethical rules as having been established by communities to promote human interests.
    Each person’s primary interest is in increasing his or her pleasure and minimizing his or her pain and suffering. …
    [Our drives] are in themselves neither good nor bad, rational nor irrational. …
    Ethical principles are rational to the extent [that they] further our interests in the social world in which we live.

    Ethical principles are rational to the extent they generally further our interests in the social world in which we live.
    Since we want to live in communities, our ethical principles must work for most members of the community.
    Each of us might prefer a rule like ‘all property to me’ (small children seem to start with a similar rule).
    However, rational people realize that others are unlikely to agree to such rules, so we accept that we must work with rules that treat us all equally, furthering our major interests by suppressing some of our impulses. …

    Miranda Fricker (1966) [Reader in Philosophy, Birkbeck, University of London]:
    The explanation for why we have the moral motivations we do is given … in terms of what human beings naturally admire or what's socially useful. …
    Hume's story is, that in the beginning human beings found, that they would all better off if they respected each other's property.
    But he's not saying, when we look at the virtue of justice now, and we look at what motivates people to respect other people's property, we'll find they've got self-interest in mind …
    A genuine moral motive has pulled itself up by it's own bootstraps and by this mechanism of caring about other's respect for oneself and wanting to avoid blame, into a full blown moral motive.
    [The] story he tells of how morality began … is different from what's in our minds in terms of our motives for action.
    Hume, of course, did not have access to the body of evolutionary theory and observational and experimental data on animal and primate behavior that is providing tangible clues as how ethical behavior actually developed.
    This sort of historical fantasy, along with Rousseau's 'noble savage' and Hobbes' 'state of nature', about how modern social phenomena arose may generate plausible explanatory hypotheses but they don't constitute evidence about what, in fact, happened.

    Proximity Bias

    Miranda Fricker (1966) [Reader in Philosophy, Birkbeck, University of London]:
    [Hume believed that] most basic impulse [was sympathy -] our capacity to feel someone else's pain.
    It's from that basic emotional capacity that other moral responses come.
    He thought moral responses were … sentimental responses, they weren't a matter of rationality.

    However [for an] emotional response to a wrong [to count] as a genuine moral response [it] needs to corrected for two biases of proximity …
    [For] instance, [if] I observe a wrong done to my brother, I will naturally have a much stronger natural response of abhorrence to that act than the same act done to a perfect stranger.
    [To] convert my immediate spontaneous response of sympathy into a genuine moral response I need to correct for that proximity …
    Similarly wrongs that we observe right here, right now, as opposed to wrongs we hear of in some distant place.
    [Which is precisely Singer's point about the drowning child.]
    [Both of these] forms of proximity need to be corrected for.

    A modern philosopher might [say that it is] reason doing that, creating that disinterested point of view, but Hume wouldn't want to put it that way.
    He just wants to say moral responses are … natural, sentimental responses to other people's pain, and they count as moral responses so long as [they] achieve a certain disinterestedness. …

    John Dupré [Professor of Philosophy of Science, Exeter University]:
    Kant's project was to try and understand morality as something rationally compelling.
    Kant is … accused of holding that if somebody had a benevolent feeling towards somebody that detracted from the virtue of the action, because Kant thought that the truly virtuous thing was to act out of one's rational perception of duty …
    Ultimately … it's an absurdity.
    Kant's rationalist ethics is widely perceived as a brilliant failure. …
    That it just doesn't take account of the importance of human nature, the Humian considerations which ultimately much more powerful in addressing these issues. …

    The Role of Context

    Howard Darmstadter:
    In real societies [there are a profusion of] ethical principles … in competition with each other, guiding any single person’s actions.
    All those principles can’t all be true all the time.
    We harmonize them, to the extent we can, by adjusting the contexts in which we see them as applicable. …
    It’s not a criticism of a rule to admit that it’s not always clear where it applies.
    This corresponds to Singer's principle of "comparable moral significance".
    The question may not be one of whether a given principle is "true" but whether, in a given circumstance, it carries greater weight, or has greater utility, the other relevant principles in terms of guiding action in a particular circumstance.
    It may be true that, in general, it is better to tell the truth rather than lie.
    However, if you were harboring Jews, and a Nazi asks whether you are or not, the positive consequences of lying would (presumably) override the principle of truth telling.
    Howard Darmstadter:
    [Ethical] rules arise out … of harmonizing our own interests, including our social impulses, with the interests of others …
    [The] rules we come up with are … partial rules for the here and now, not universal rules which will work in all situations, especially those far from our experience; and there are likely to be a large number of rules, each applicable in a small if ill-defined context. …
    Issues such as global warming, overpopulation and poverty are precisely those sorts of types of issues that fall beyond the scope of natural empathy.
    They are issues that extend far beyond personal experience and the here and now.
    Rationality is the only way to overcome the biases of natural empathy toward the local and immediate, and to deal with the problems presented and solutions offered by accelerating technology.
    Peter Singer (1946):
    [If] we are guided by a set of well-chosen intuitive principles, we may do better if we do not attempt to calculate the consequences of each significant moral decision we must make, but instead consider what principles apply to our decisions and act accordingly.
    Perhaps very occasionally we will find ourselves in circumstances in which it is absolutely plain that departing from the principles will produce a much better result than we will obtain by sticking to them, and then we may be justified in making the departure.
    For most of us most of the time, however, such circumstances will not arise and can be excluded from our thinking.
    (Practical Ethics, p 79)

    Howard Darmstadter:
    The US Code currently encompasses 362 volumes. …
    You can’t deduce any substantial part of these rules from a couple of basic principles.

    Applied Ethics:
    [The] philosophical examination, from a moral standpoint, of particular issues in private and public life that are matters of moral judgment.
    That you cannot "deduce any substantial part of these rules" from the principles of "minimizing suffering" and "all suffering counts equally" does not mean they are not useful in considering the ethical treatment of animals and the poor.

    Ethics and the Law are separate but overlapping domains.
    There are acts that are unethical without being illegal and duly constituted laws which are ethically dubious.
    The Law is not a principle free zone.
    The concept of a Bill of Rights is that of a statement of principles with which statutory rules must be consistent.
    Procedural fairness, equality before the law, presumption of innocence, protection against self-incrimination …
    Human rights instruments like the U.N. declaration are attempts to globalize such principles.

    Description versus Prescription

    Howard Darmstadter:
    This view is consonant with how we actually approach ethical problems; but … it is descriptive rather than prescriptive.
    [Most] moral philosophers [seek] to discover what we morally ought to do.
    [According to Hume, this is impossible] you can’t deduce ought from is [–] factual premises alone cannot imply moral obligation. …

    David Hume (1711 – 76):
    Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions.
    Reason itself is utterly impotent in this particular.
    The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason. …
    (A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739)

    Howard Darmstadter:
    If ethics is purely descriptive — a matter for social psychologists, policy analysts, and legislators — what role is left for moral philosophy?
    One remaining role is criticism …
    [Philosophers] have the training to [reveal] the problems with {moral instruction based on universal principles}. Singer … is an excellent critic of prevailing moral orthodoxies.

    So, What Should We Do For the Drowning Child?

    Howard Darmstadter:
    [You] may want to make charitable contributions to alleviate suffering [yet, legitimately] feel that you can stop at the point when you feel it’s time that others pitch in. …

    The upshot is that you can grant Singer his basic principle about an obligation to alleviate suffering, yet still reject his limitless conclusions.

    The Boundaries of Compassion

    Howard Darmstadter:
    [Singer] argues that not to give equal consideration to the interests of animals is speciesism — as objectionable as racism or sexism.
    But that is just an argument from pejoratives.
    This is backwards.
    Discrimination is differential treatment based on irrelevant characteristics.
    Enslaving or exterminating people on the basis of skin color, tribal membership or IQ for example.
    It is the arbitrary nature of racial or sexual discrimination which makes such attitudes objectionable.
    The central issue is whether species is a relevant distinction with respect to the interest to avoid suffering of sentient beings.
    [A] group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring.
    Does the moral significance of the suffering of a sentient being depend on the species to which it belongs?
    Does the moral significance of the suffering of a human being depend on such characteristics such as intelligence, race or gender?
    Does the distinction between a food animal and a companion animal justify the differences in the ways they are treated?

    Singer suggests that using species as a boundary criteria as to which sentient creatures can legitimately be tortured or killed is as arbitrary as justifying slavery on the basis of race, gender or conquest, or using an IQ score as threshold for the exterminating the "unfit".

    If species is an arbitrary basis for making such moral distinctions, what alternative criteria might be ethically relevant?
    Singer has developed the concept of "personhood" as one possibility.
    The continuity of consciousness of an entity over time, remembering the past and anticipating the future.

    He proposes this as a more defensible foundation for giving greater weight to the interests of persons to avoid suffering (whether human or non-human) relative to sentient beings who are not persons.
    This not to say we have no responsibilities to sentient non-persons, only that that they differ.
    The interests of sentient beings to avoid suffering confers a basic set of ethical rights or privileges.
    All persons are sentient but not all sentient beings are persons.
    Being a person attracts additional interests by merit of the properties that confer personhood.

    Beings who have never had, or have lost, the capabilities of personhood, such as human embryos and fetuses or severely neurologically compromised humans, have different rights and privileges to those who do.
    The concept of personhood creates a human and non-human persons.
    And there are sentient (capable of suffering) and non-sentient creatures.
    A human who is in a permanent unconscious, vegetative state, is technically speaking, neither sentient nor a person.

    There is a extensive ethological research demonstrating mirror self-recognition (elephants, dolphins), targeted helping, consolation, reconciliation, altruism, fairness, reciprocity, emotional contagion, tool making and using, sign language acquisition and cooperative problem solving.
    Frans de Waal (1948) [Professor of Primate Behaviour, Department of Psychology, Emory University, Atlanta]: [We] got a lot of comments [about this fairness study], especially anthropologists, economists, philosophers.
    [They] had decided … that fairness is a very complex issue and that animals cannot have it.
    And so one philosopher even wrote us that it was impossible that monkeys had a sense of fairness because fairness was invented during the French Revolution.

    Now another one wrote a whole chapter saying that he would believe it had something to do with fairness if the one who got grapes would refuse the grapes.
    Now … Sarah Brosnan, who's been doing this with chimpanzees, had a couple of combinations of chimpanzees where, indeed, the one who would get the grape would refuse the grape until the other guy also got a grape.
    So we're getting very close to the human sense of fairness.
    And I think philosophers need to rethink their philosophy for awhile.
    (Moral behavior in animals)

    Howard Darmstadter:
    Failure to consider the interests of animals is like racism or sexism only if animal interests are as valid as human interests.

    Peter Singer (1946):
    Equal consideration of interests is a minimal principle of equality in the sense that it does not dictate equal treatment.
    (Practical Ethics, p 21)

    Howard Darmstadter:
    Sending your son to college but not your daughter may be sexism, but sending your son to college but not your schnauzer is not speciesism.
    It's not discriminatory if there are relevant differences between your dog and your son e.g. in terms of cognitive capacity.
    As an infant your son's cognitive capacities were more comparable to that of your adult dog.
    Neither would gain much from college.
    A less frivolous analogy might be, the the moral difference (if any) between the mistreating or neglecting your companion animal as distinct from mistreating or neglecting your companion person.
    Howard Darmstadter:
    Animals aren’t people.
    [Perhaps some are.]

    An Argument from Ignorance

    Howard Darmstadter:
    Then there’s the nearly intractable problem of what it is like for an animal to suffer.
    Animals … can’t describe their suffering.
    [Neither can babies nor severely disabled humans.]

    But animals do react to events that would cause pain to us, often in ways that seem familiar from our own experiences.
    To the extent that animals are like us (especially neurologically), we can project that they can suffer like us. …
    Much is known about behavioral analogs of suffering in animals.
    Indeed the enormous body of medical research based on animal models depends on the premise of the fundamental similarities between humans and animals.
    "Boredom" can be translated as "understimulation" ie observations of behavioral responses to varying degrees of impoverishment or richness in the environment.
    The more we learn about animal behavior, the less sure we become that the many qualities we presumed made humans special and unique, are shared in some form by our evolutionary breathren.
    From an evolutionary perspective, this is entirely unsurprising, since our capacities did not appear in a vacuum.

    The Argument from Anthropomorphization

    Howard Darmstadter:
    … Peter Singer refuses to admit any morally relevant distinctions between the sufferings of humans, pigs, rats, chickens, and fish [and] tends to credit animals with all sorts of humanlike feelings.

    [He] speaks of [animals in factory farms] being stressed or bored …
    Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly; but that doesn’t mean they get stressed or bored when they can’t.
    Certain aspects of suffering may be influenced by cognitive capacity — memory, foresight, the ability to consider the hypothetical.
    However, we do not completely discount the distress of toddlers on the basis of their limited cognitive and language capacity.
    Some adult non-human animals have cognitive capacities comparable to infant human animals.

    The Enslavement of Non-Human Animals

    Howard Darmstadter:
    [In] nature animals presumably endure ‘stress’ every time they have to run for their lives, defend their progeny, battle for mates, or scratch out a meal in an uncertain world. …
    An animal without a rich inner life might … be willing to trade the uncertain freedom of the great outdoors for a confined life with three square meals a day.
    A lot depends on which animals we’re talking about.
    Pigs might suffer more in factory farms than in nature, chickens less.
    At present, we can only guess.

    Peter Singer (1946):
    I can conceive of circumstances in which animals led good lives, in natural circumstances, with others of their species, and then were painlessly killed.
    [Such] a life would seem to be a reasonable deal from the animal’s point of view.
    But it would be very hard to do at a reasonable price, and I think it could only be done on a small scale.
    (Philosophy Now, Issue 31, March-April 2001)
    Darmstadter argues simultaneously that
    • animal suffering is not morally significant because we can't know whether animals suffer or not (because they can't verbalize their distress) and
    • that they are better off under human dominion because they suffer less than than they would in the wild.

    Aristotle self-servingly believed in natural slaves.
    Annabel Brett [Senior Lecturer in History, University of Cambridge]:
    The natural slave cannot find happiness in the sense the master can, because the natural slave does not have this reason, in the realization of which human happiness and human flourishing consists.
    So to the extent that the slave has a good, it's realized by aiding and assisting in realizing the master's good.
    This is why the slave is a tool or a part of the master, he doesn't have an independent good.
    In so far as the slave can flourish, he flourishes in the sense of being directed by a master. …
    If these natural conditions between a master and slave obtain, then there is a kind of friendship and mutual advantage …
    (Aristotle's Politics, In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, 6 November 2006)
    There is substantial evidence that horses, chickens and wolves have have complex social lives.
    There is unequivocal evidence that cetaceans fail to thrive in captivity.

    Companion animals form a significant part of the "rich inner life" of humans.
    One sees almost as many people on the streets accompanied by their companion animals and their companion people.
    The social value that people place in the interactions they have with their companion animals is reflected in the difference in treatment (including legal recognition) such animals receive compared to food animals.
    Howard Darmstadter:
    [Humans] find pleasure in completing challenging tasks, engaging in cooperative work, and a host of other activities only distantly related to sensual pleasure.
    It is easy to discount the instinctual gratification that animals likely obtain from the opportunity to exercise their full behavioral repertoires in the natural physical and social environments for which they have been painstakingly adapted.

    It is evident that a flourishing human life is not necessarily one from which all risk has been removed.
    In pretechnological times human's also suffered greatly in the face of natural forces beyond their control.
    Perhaps, a god-like alien species might have been justified in removing them to a zoo where they could be fed, sheltered and had their other physical needs attended to.

    It’s Your Choice

    Howard Darmstadter:
    If you find factory farming repellent … there’s nothing wrong with becoming a vegetarian and trying to convince others to do likewise. …

    Peter Rabbit is a story, not a model of how to think about animals. …
    Animal fables are not about stories about animals.
    They are stories about people.
    They are not exercises in anthropomorphization.

    Neither is the consequentialist argument that animal suffering is comparable to human suffering based on anthropomorphization.
    It is based on a shared evolutionary history and common neurological structures that underly the experience of suffering with many other higher creatures.

    Sentient beings certainly empathize more readily with others of the same species. Nevertheless empathy clearly occurs across species boundaries, from human to non-human animals and vice versa.
    Howard Darmstadter:
    If you want to eat meat, and you decline to give even 1% of your income to charity, then there’s nothing in Singer’s arguments that can as a matter of pure reason convince you to do otherwise, or prove that you are a bad person. …

    Meanwhile, you can subscribe to Singer’s general principles without being a hypocrite.
    On the other hand, if you feel called on to forego meat, and to give a substantial portion of your income to Oxfam, then you’re not being hoodwinked. …
    Peter Singer is not trying to prove anyone is a bad person.
    Howard Darmstadter:
    There remains a system of other socially-agreed moral rules, and we can with good conscience punish murderers, fraudsters, and other miscreants who break them.

    [In] the shadows, where there are no generally-accepted rules and the facts are not clearly established, we remain free — and doomed — to choose.
    So where there are 'generally-accepted rules' ie those enshrined in law we simply comply.
    Where no such consensus exists we fall back on
    • natural compassion
    • self-interest:
      "Each person’s primary interest is in increasing his or her pleasure and minimizing his or her pain and suffering", and
    • social utility ie partial rules necessary to permit community living.
    This places undue emphasis on legality as as a criterion as to what is ethical.
    There are obviously circumstances where acts of civil disobedience may be unlawful without being unethical.

    Would you like to know more?

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