06 December 2003

Theory and Practice

I have often heard it said (or implied) that theorists should submerge their differences (i.e., disagreements) for the good of the animal-liberation movement. For example, Peter Singer and Tom Regan are equally committed to changing the way humans think about and treat animals. Should they or anyone else even care that they bring different theoretical approaches (utilitarianism and deontology, respectively) to bear in reaching these conclusions? Isn't it divisive, distracting, and counterproductive? Doesn't it send the wrong message to those who view (and treat) animals as objects? Doesn't it suggest that the animal liberationists can't get their story straight? If animal liberationists can't figure out why it's wrong to hunt, eat animal flesh, or experiment on animals, why should anyone care what they say? "Get it straightened out," someone might say; "then come talk to us."

This, with all due respect, is confused. First of all, whatever else they are, Singer and Regan are philosophers. As such, they are interested in the grounds (if any), structure, and implications of belief, not just its content. Not everything Singer or Regan says is said in his capacity as a philosopher. I'm a conservative, for example. It has nothing whatsoever to do with my being a philosopher. Do I use my philosophical skills to argue in behalf of conservative causes? Yes, but in doing so, I am not doing philosophy. I am exploiting my philosophical skills for a nonphilosophical (but noble!) purpose. Let us be clear about this. Not everything a philosopher does is philosophy. Not everything a lawyer does is law. (I'm one of those, too.) Not everything a doctor does is medicine.

Philosophers, as such, are interested in the grounds, and not just the fact, of belief or action. Two people can believe in God for different reasons. One believes because the evidence supports it, the other because it maximizes expected value. Two people can refrain from eating meat for different reasons. One refrains because it is unhealthy, the other because it is wrong. Even two people who refrain from eating meat for moral reasons can cite different reasons. This is what divides Singer and Regan. Singer thinks the salient fact about animals is that they are sentient (i.e., capable of suffering). Regan thinks the salient fact about animals is that they are subjects of a life, with inherent value.

These theories about the nature and moral importance of animals give the same result in many or most cases, but this doesn't make them the same theory. All it takes is one case of divergence to show that they are different theories, and there are many such cases, real as well as hypothetical. (I'll do another post soon on the importance of hypothetical cases, or thought experiments.) When Singer and Regan discuss theory, as they did in their 1980 exchange in Philosophy & Public Affairs, they are acting as philosophers. (Let me know if you want PDF files of these wonderful essays. I'll be happy to send them.) They are investigating the grounds of their shared beliefs and judgments. This is good. Philosophical investigation, like scientific investigation, is always good, whatever the consequences. Do you agree?

What philosophers should do is not hide the (ugly) reality of theoretical disagreement from the public, much less try to stifle it, but explain to the public why it is taking place and why it is important that it take place. Incidentally, what I say here about animal liberation is true of feminism, environmentalism, and other -isms. Theory should never be stifled or discouraged for the sake of a social movement or cause, however important it may be. If you ask Singer or Regan to stop criticizing each other, as they have been doing so civilly and brilliantly for a quarter of a century, you are asking them to stop doing philosophy. I'm sorry, but I want them to do philosophy. And when they are done doing philosophy for the day, I, qua animal liberationist, am glad that they join hands, literally or figuratively, to protest the latest outrage against animals.

Addendum: All errors and infelicities in this post are attributable to Foghat, which has been blasting into my ears as I write.