20 March 2008

A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes

In 1792, Englishman Thomas Taylor (1758-1835), a prominent translator of Plato and other Greek philosophers, published a satirical pamphlet entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes. His aim in this anonymous work was to mock Mary Wollstonecraft's books A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), as well as Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (1791). Taylor's argument may be reconstructed as follows:

1. If women have rights, then animals have rights.
2. Animals do not have rights.
3. Women do not have rights.
In effect, Taylor is claiming (correctly) that the following three propositions are inconsistent:

A. If women have rights, then animals have rights.
B. Animals do not have rights.
C. Women have rights.
To say that these propositions are inconsistent is to say that not all of them can be true. At least one, therefore, is false. Taylor thinks C is the false proposition. I think B is the false proposition. What do you think?

Addendum: Here's another way to look at it. As between B and C, Taylor thinks B more likely to be true. Indeed, he thinks B is obviously true and that its denial is laughable. I think C more likely to be true. Indeed, I think C is obviously true and that its denial is laughable. One person's modus ponens is another's modus tollens.

Addendum 2: To give you a taste of Taylor's wicked prose, I quote the final paragraph:

And thus much may suffice, for an historical proof, that brutes are equal to men. It only now remains (and this must be the province of some abler hand) to demonstrate the same great truth in a similar manner, of vegetables, minerals, and even the most apparently contemptible clod of earth; that thus this sublime theory being copiously and accurately discussed, and its truth established by an indisputable series of facts, government may be entirely subverted, subordination abolished, and all things every where, and in every respect, be common to all.
It's a good thing Taylor didn't live to see Paul W. Taylor's book Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), in which his namesake defends biocentrism (a life-centered, as opposed to human-centered, ethic). Four beliefs form "the core of the biocentric outlook" (99):

(a) The belief that humans are members of the Earth's Community of Life in the same sense and on the same terms in which other living things are members of that Community.

(b) The belief that the human species, along with all other species, are integral elements in a system of interdependence such that the survival of each living thing, as well as its chances of faring well or poorly, is determined not only by the physical conditions of its environment but also by its relations to other living things.

(c) The belief that all organisms are teleological centers of life in the sense that each is a unique individual pursuing its own good in its own way.

(d) The belief that humans are not inherently superior to other living things.
Ibid., 99-100. Sadly, most of what is being published in environmental ethics (in periodicals such as Environmental Ethics) is rubbish. Some of it is obscure to the point of incomprehensibility. Much of it is progressive politics masquerading as philosophy. I highly recommend Paul Taylor's book.

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