Practical ethics should be all about really having an impact on the world. This requires, among other things, working on the topic regarding which we are expected to produce the most good. Plausibly, these are topics that have been traditionally neglected or at least that remain under-researched. These are also moral issues that may seriously affect a great number of individuals.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Animal Liberation, in 1975. With it Australian philosopher Peter Singer initiated one of the highest impact careers in philosophy of the last century. It is not surprising that in 2005, Time magazine included him among the list of the 100 most influential people. It is remarkable, though, that the growing respect for Peter Singer has not been accompanied by a similar change of attitude regarding animal ethics —precisely the field in which he is recognised to have made a greater difference.
Animal Liberation boosted the contemporary academic debate on animal ethics and inspired the work of many other philosophers. This book contributed significantly to the growth of the movement for the equal consideration of nonhuman animals. It has influenced countless individuals to adopt veganism and to become activists in defence of animals. Even though the end of speciesist attitudes lies in the far future, very few other moral aims can produce a similar or greater good. Given the importance of the book, it is worth reviewing, on occasion of its anniversary, the position that Singer defended in it as well as some of the controversies it raises and issues it leaves open.
Animal Liberation is a non-academic book targeted at the general public. It is written by a philosopher with a particular moral outlook —utilitarianism— and with particular views about specific moral problems. Its aim is clear: denouncing speciesism and abandoning the consumption of animals, especially for food. Its method is effective: using arguments that most people already accept without having to commit to some of the author’s most controversial views.
The book’s main thesis is that the interests of all those who can suffer and enjoy should be equally considered. This is derived from the combination of two premises many of us find uncontroversial. Firstly, the widely shared and robust intuition about the equal consideration of all human beings and, secondly, the need for consistency in moral reasoning. The acceptance of the first idea is what leads us to reject assigning different weight to the interests of some individuals based, for example, in certain biological attributes such as sex or skin colour. Analogously, inasmuch as species membership does not condition the weight of an individual’s interests, it should also be rejected as a morally relevant attribute. The unequal consideration of similar interests based on the species of individuals should thus, for the sake of consistency, be abandoned as another form of discrimination (speciesism).
Furthermore, the argument from ‘species overlap’ shows us that any attempt to draw a moral line between human and nonhuman animals will ultimately fail. No matter what attribute one may appeal to, some human beings will lack it and/or some nonhumans will possess it. Of course, it is implausible to derive from this that those humans who lack the selected attribute should be denied moral consideration. Instead, Singer claims, equality in the consideration of interests should be extended beyond the human species to cover all sentient individuals. Since suffering has negative value, we have reasons to prevent it or alleviate it whenever we can, no matter the species of the individual who experiences it.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect in Singer’s view has been the one related to the ethics of killing animals. As it is suggested in Animal Liberation, and later clearly stated in Practical Ethics (2011), Singer believed at the time that only those individuals with a capacity to see themselves as extended over time can have an interest in continuing to live and thus be harmed by dying. Singer took this to follow from his version of preference utilitarianism, according to which death can only be bad if it frustrates a desire in being alive. Given that most nonhuman animals lack the necessary psychological capacities to harbour the relevant desire, this would entail that death cannot harm them. Thus, their interests would give us no reasons against killing them. If those reasons exist they will be given by other considerations, such as the maximisation of net positive experiences.
However, recently, Singer changed his view about the badness of death, prompted by his transition from preference utilitarianism to hedonistic utilitarianism. In The Point of View of the Universe (Lazari-Radek & Singer 2014), he acknowledges that all sentient beings with a life worth living (understood in hedonistic terms as containing a surplus of positive experiences) are harmed by death, since they are thereby deprived of the benefits they would have otherwise enjoyed.
Nevertheless, Peter Singer has not yet completely fleshed out his new account of the badness of death and the wrongness of killing animals. In fact, in a recent talk, he identified this topic as one of three most important open questions in animal ethics. The other two are, according to Singer, (a) the problem of performing interspecies comparisons of well-being and (b) whether we have reasons to intervene in nature to prevent or alleviate wild animal suffering.
Even if we disagree with Singer’s general utilitarian approach (e.g., if one believes, as I do, that equality matters as such) we must concede that very few philosophers can be said to have had an equally high impact. Forty years ago, Peter Singer realised that working on animal ethics was one of the most effective ways of doing good. Given the work that needs to be done and the billions that can benefit from it (considering both animals under human control and those living in the wild), that is still true today.
Singer, P. (2004). Animal Liberation, 4th Edition. New York: HarperCollins.
Singer, P. (2011). Practical Ethics, 3rd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lazari-Radek, K. & Singer, P. (2014). The Point of View of the Universe. Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
If an offender is genuinely remorseful about the crime she committed, should she receive some small-but-non-trivial mitigation of her sentence? – i.e. should she be punished a little bit less than she would have been had she not been remorseful? In many jurisdictions, including England and Wales, this practice is written into the sentencing guidelines that judges have to follow. However, it is difficult to see how this practice can be justified, and intuitions about the relevance of remorse to criminal sentencing seem to vary wildly.
One first obvious concern is that it can be difficult to know whether an offender’s remorse is genuine: is she just pretending in the hope that her sentence will consequently be somewhat lighter than it would otherwise have been? Whilst the possibility of simulation indeed presents a practical challenge, the prior question is whether an offender’s genuine remorse should matter at all. Should judges try to determine whether an offender is remorseful and, if so, with what consequences? Continue reading
There is wide agreement that embryonic stem cell research holds unique promise for developing therapies for currently incurable diseases and conditions, and for important biomedical research. However, as it is currently done, the isolation of embryonic stem cells involves a process in which an early embryo is destroyed, which many find highly problematic.
This has resulted in what I refer to in my book as
The Problem. Either one supports embryonic stem cell research and accepts resulting embryo destruction, or one opposes embryonic stem cell research and accepts that the potential benefits of this research will be foregone. Continue reading
I was recently lucky enough to receive an advance copy of Charles Camosy’s forthcoming book to review – ‘Beyond the abortion wars: a way forward for a new generation’. In this book, Camosy masterfully traverses the ‘battleground’ between the ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’1 camps in order to show that this battleground is in fact no such thing. In fact, as Camosy notes, the majority of the American public actually agree on a middle-ground position on abortion. Despite what one might think from reading certain media outlets and Twitter wars, there is actually a large consensus in the public regarding abortion. This insight is deceptively powerful. By demonstrating the areas of agreement, Camosy is able to help guide us beyond the abortion wars to allow a way forward for a new generation.
I highly recommend Leif Wenar’s essay “Poverty Is No Pond” – especially to those not yet familiar with, but interested in, the empirical complexities involved in giving to overseas poverty-fighting charities. Wenar’s main aim in his essay is to criticize Peter Singer’s 2009 book The Life You Can Save for (i) being overly optimistic about the quality of information available on the effects of giving to various charities, and (ii) failing to emphasize that every charitable donation also comes with some risk of harming people living in extreme poverty. I’ll only briefly address (i), and then turn to and focus primarily on (ii).
Tomorrow it is C.S. Lewis’s birthday. He’d have been 116. He died 51 years ago, his death pushed out of the headlines by the deaths of JFK and Aldous Huxley. He’s had far more influence than either.
He’s remembered mainly as a children’s writer (the most dogmatic atheists, terrified or disgusted by the roar of Aslan, nonetheless bring their children to stroke the lion’s mane), and as a Christian apologist. He, irony upon irony, a beer-quaffing, chain-smoking, divorcee-marrying intellectual, living and breathing high pagan culture along with his pipe-smoke, is the darling of American evangelicals. And that’s why he’s neglected by serious philosophers.1 It’s understandable. We tend to judge people by the company they keep. But in the case of Lewis it’s unfair. Evangelicals might queue up at his door, but he’d never let them in. Apart from their membership of the species, he’d have loathed everything about them; their chauvinism, their ludicrous literalism, their self-righteousness, their belligerence, their metaphor-phobia, their elastic-waisted trousers, their historical blindness, their pant-soiling fear of scholarship, their teetotalism, their humourlessness. He had a fastidious nose for inconsistency: imagine how that nose would have twitched when it sniffed a Louisianan zealot who was keen on topping adults but outraged by abortion. In a different context (he was lambasting liberal intellectuals who say that that they can read nuances between the lines, but fail to see the huge themes rampaging through the Christian story) he denounced those who ‘claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.’)2 He’d have similarly scourged those who have the KJV with their MSG for breakfast, and yet scream for judicial execution in the name of a man who was himself judicially executed, and who, in the name of a man who urged the turning of a cheek and the loving of enemies, say that every (white) citizen should have a gun and that every inconveniently non-compliant nation should have its ass whipped reeeeeeeel good. Continue reading
It is Halloween, the day when the dead walk and the devil rides.
We’re plagued by children who are risking diabetes, if not their immortal souls, by demanding the sort of sweets you only give to kids you hate. The Christians down the road, not realizing, as Luther did, that the devil can’t bear to be mocked, are holding a ‘light party’ in protest against the trick-and- treaters.
And, between door-bell rings and dispensings of deadly substances to skeletons, I’m reflecting on a talk I recently heard by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. It was on her wonderful book, Plato in the Googleplex. In the book, Plato wanders through modern America, watching, talking, bemused, amused, dismayed, misunderstood. It’s an audit of Platonism. How has it weathered? Continue reading
The dictator Joseph Stalin reputedly once said that “The death of one person is a tragedy; the death of one million is a statistic.” Behind this chilling remark lies an important insight into human moral psychology. Our moral intuitions are myopic. For instance, we are repelled by the idea of causing others direct physical harm, while it is psychologically much easier to inflict the same, or greater, amounts of harm in non-direct ways. (Think of controlling a drone, as opposed to stabbing someone at close range.) Continue reading
Recently in Portsmouth, a statue of Charles Dickens has been unveiled. While not terribly notable in itself this event is of some interest as it ignores the last wishes of the author it is meant to honour .
The problem, in my view, is that this is just one of many cases in which a public figure—authors appear especially vulnerable—has been denied the fulfilment of his or her express wishes regarding post-mortem handling of his or her estate or image. Continue reading
My book of the year, by a very wide margin, is Jay Griffiths’ splendid ‘Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape’ (Hamish Hamilton, 2013). Amongst her many virtues is a loathing of Plato’s Republic. Here she is, in typically swashbuckling style:
‘Excessive laughter is banned and so is the liquid superfluity of metaphor. Plato would rid his ideal state of anything that could arouse emotion, mischief, wildness or fun….so ghastly is his Republic that it could be interpreted as satire. But, generally, its ambition has been taken with deadly seriousness as a founding text on the education of boys. The purpose of The Republic is to school its youth to be good soldiers engaged in unending war to take the resources of neighbouring lands. It is a handbook for the education of imperialists.
Brick by brick, Plato builds the walls of his citadel of control, hierarchy and obedience. His ideal republic is obsessed with rule – not only the rule of command, but the rule of measurement… the heart of his vision [is] that Apollo, god of measure, metre, civilisation and, surely, god of metronomes, should keep Dionysus, god of the Romantic movement, god of wildness and nature, firmly under his thumb.’ 1
Familiar? It should be – at least to UK readers. It’s the policy of Michael Gove and his rightly vilified Department. They want to produce a generation of nerdish measurers – people who wield rulers rather than wands, and who write in Excel rather than blank verse.