29 September 2008

Eco-Compass Blog

Here is a blog for your consideration. I will add it to the blogroll.

25 September 2008

John Passmore (1914-2004) on Bentham's Treatment of Animals

As so often, the Benthamites could join hands with the evangelicals. "The French have already discovered," Bentham wrote, "that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognised that the number of legs . . . or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same plight." Observe the transition from slave to animal. Bentham's Utilitarianism looks not to the rationality of the agent or the patient, in the Stoic manner, but to the effect of the agent's actions on all sentient beings, who are from this point of view to be accounted equal. If all pain is evil, as Bentham thought, then the pain of animals—assuming only that they can feel pain—ought not to be ignored in man's moral decisions. The pains of animals might be less, as not including the pains of anticipation, than the pains felt by man, but that is no reason for not taking them into account. "The question is not," so Bentham argues, "Can they reason?" nor "Can they talk?" but "Can they suffer?" So whereas Plutarch and Porphyry thought it necessary to begin their case against treating animals merely as chattels by arguing that animals have a share in reason, for Bentham it is irrelevant whether or not they are rational and to what degree. It is enough that they are capable of suffering.

In his later writings, however, Bentham reverted to something more like the Aquinas-Kant position. The Trait├ęs edited by Dumont condemn cruelty to animals only—if Dumont can be trusted—on the ground that it can give rise to indifference to human suffering. In his Constitutional Code, Bentham's emphasis is not on suffering but on the alleged fact, made secondary in the Principles, that mature quadrupeds are more moral and more intelligent than young bipeds. I do not know why Bentham changed his mind. But perhaps he boggled, and not unnaturally, at the conclusion that to determine whether an act is right we ought to take into consideration its consequences for every sentient being.

(John Passmore, "The Treatment of Animals," Journal of the History of Ideas 36 [April-June 1975]: 195-218, at 211 [italics in original; footnotes omitted])

22 September 2008

Henry S. Salt (1851-1939) on Consistency

It is certain, then, that the practice of flesh-eating involves a vast amount of cruelty, a fact which cannot be lessened or evaded by any quibbling subterfuges. But, before we pass on to another phase of the food-question, we must deal more fully with that very common method of argument (alluded to in Chapter III.) which may be called the Consistency Trick—akin to that known in common parlance as the tu quoque or "you're another"—the device of setting up an arbitrary standard of "consistency," and then demonstrating that the Vegetarian himself, judged by that standard, is as "inconsistent" as other persons. Whether we plead guilty or not guilty to this ingenious indictment, depends altogether on the meaning assigned to the term "consistency."

For, as anyone who tries to do practical work in the world will rapidly discover, there is a true and there is a false ideal of consistency. To pretend that in our complex modern society, where responsibilities are so closely interwoven, it is possible for any individual to cultivate "a perfect character," and stand like a Sir Galahad above his fellows—this is the false ideal of consistency which it is the first business of a genuine reformer to put aside; for no human being can do any solid work without frequently convicting himself of inconsistencies when consistency is stereotyped into a formula. On the other hand there is a true duty of consistency, which regards the spirit rather than the letter, and prompts us not to grasp foolishly at the ideal, like a child crying for the moon, but to push steadily towards the ideal by a faithful adherence to the right line of reform, and by ever keeping in view the just proportion and relative value of all moral actions. Let it be remembered that it is this latter consistency alone that has any interest for the Vegetarian. His purpose is not to exhibit himself as a spotless Sir Galahad of food-reformers, but to take certain practical steps towards the humanising of our barbarous diet system.

(Henry S. Salt, The Logic of Vegetarianism: Essays and Dialogues [London: The Ideal Publishing Union, 1899], 53-4 [italics in original])

Note from KBJ: Salt, bless his heart, is running together some things that ought to be kept separate. First is the question of whether one is living up to one's ideals. I, for example, am a demi-vegetarian. I eat chicken, fish, and eggs. I have had no other animal products (no beef, pork, lamb, or turkey, for example) since 1982. Am I a hypocrite? That depends on whether there are morally relevant differences between chickens and fish on the one hand and cows, pigs, and sheep on the other. (I believe there are.) But my diet is far closer than most people's to what I take to be the ideal. Surely that counts for something, morally. Salt seems to be saying that there are degrees of rightness. The ideal, even if one never achieves it, guides and inspires.

Second is the question of whether those who are not perfect have any business lecturing others. Think here of Thomas Jefferson, who, in 1776, wrote the following stirring words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Jefferson owned slaves at the time he wrote these words. Does that mean he was not expressing profound moral truths? Does that mean nobody should take heed of what he said? Human beings are, and always will be, imperfect, morally and otherwise. If our standard is perfection, then everyone falls short of it and no distinctions can be made. Jefferson, an imperfect man like you, me, and everyone else, expressed profound and inspirational truths, leaving it to others to bring the world into conformity to them.

Note 2 from KBJ: There is a saying that captures Salt's point, if I understand him correctly. It is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. If nothing but perfection is acceptable, then, given human imperfection, nothing is acceptable. Turn it around: That something is acceptable implies that perfection is not the appropriate standard. We should strive for perfection, and each of us should encourage others to do better, but it would be foolish to expect anyone to achieve it.

15 September 2008

From Today's New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “In-Flight Plight of a Famished Vegan” (“Frequent Flier” column, Business Day, Sept. 9):

As a dietitian who travels often, I know how challenging finding a healthful vegetarian meal in an airport can be.

Unhealthy airport food is a nuisance for vegetarians and vegans, but it affects all exhausted travelers seeking nutritious meals to help them make it to their destinations.

Many scientific studies have demonstrated the wide-ranging health benefits of a plant-based diet—lower blood pressure and cholesterol and less risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and several cancers.

As a growing number of Americans are discovering the advantages of a meatless diet, the demand for vegetarian and vegan food in airports is on the rise.

The benefits of providing healthy, meatless meals are clear for both frequent fliers and for airports.

Some airports have already discovered that as they increase nutritious vegetarian meal options, their customers are thanking them—and coming back for more.

Susan Levin
Washington, Sept. 9, 2008
The writer is a staff dietitian at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington.

05 September 2008

Joel Feinberg (1926-2004) on the Logic of Animal Rights

According to a great many philosophers and jurisprudents, animals do not have rights for the simple reason that they are not the kinds of beings who can have rights. We can have duties concerning animals, these writers are often quick to add, but those duties are not owed to the animals as their due, and thus cannot be claimed against us as rights. Animals in this respect are like trees and rocks, automobiles and buildings, which are not the sorts of things of which it even makes sense to say they could have rights of their own. In respect to having rights, animals are more like pebbles and sunbeams than they are like full-fledged human beings. I believe that this view of the moral status of animals is radically mistaken, not because its distinguished proponents are somehow misinformed about the facts or insensitive in their attitudes, but rather because they misunderstand the basic terms of their own moral vocabulary even as applied to human beings.

(Joel Feinberg, "Human Duties and Animal Rights," chap. 9 in his Rights, Justice, and the Bounds of Liberty: Essays in Social Philosophy [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980], 185-206, at 186-7 [italics in original; endnotes omitted] [essay first published in 1978])

Note from KBJ: It may surprise you to learn that much of the debate about animal rights among philosophers has been about whether animals can have rights. If they do have rights, then obviously they can have rights; but it doesn't follow from the fact that they can have rights that they do have rights. Philosophers, as such, are equipped to answer logical or conceptual questions about animal rights, but not factual or normative questions. This is not to say that philosophers cannot answer factual and normative questions. It is to say that when they do answer such questions, they do so in a nonphilosophical capacity. Why does this matter? Because philosophical expertise, like any sort of expertise, is limited. Being expert in logic or conceptual analysis does not make one an expert on factual or normative matters.