In the spring of 1999 I did my first classroom work with issues of philosophy and animals. It was a general course, introduction to moral philosophy and the question of our relationship with animals was only one of four issues we looked at in that semester. However, there was no question that the students and I all got "into" this issue more vigorously than any of the other issues we studied that semester.
The text book for the course was: MORALITY AND MORAL CONTROVERSIES: 5TH EDITION, by John Arthur. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999. ISBN # 0-13-914128-6.
The essays from that book which I mention below and which we read for this discussion were:
- "All Animals Are Equal" by Peter Singer. (From: ANIMAL LIBERATION (New York: Avon Boos. 1977.)
- "Speciesism and the Idea of Equality" by Bonnie Steinbock. (From: "Speciesism and the Idea of Equality," Philosophy 53, no 204 (April 1978))
- "People or Penguins" by William F. Baxter. (From: PEOPLE AND PENGUINS: THE CASE FOR OPTIMAL POLLUTION. Copyright 1974 by Columbia University Press.)
Corbett comments on Bonnie Steinbock with a few comments on William Baxter, and comparing them with Peter Singer
I want to address a general question that has come up repeatedly in our discussion of our relationship with animals. This is both an issue in understanding our relationship with animals, and the larger issue of what is moral philosophy and how does one "do" it.
In our readings we are presented with three philosophically sophisticated "stances" (Peter Singer, Bonnie Steinbock and William Baxter). Additionally I will use for purposes of contrast the much more na´ve position that Bob Corbett has taken. I could just as well have used the positions of some of you, but since I know my own and it's utter naivete (philosophically), I can do it better to make the philosophical hay I want to make.
I'll start with my own, since it is in such rank contrast with the others and you will be able to see how quickly and hopelessly my positions gets into trouble. (The next post after this will be a tiny piece of my own position coming, I think, to a more sophisticated place.)
I start with my own experiences, habits (much influenced by the practices I've grown up with) and my personal intuitions. I tend to have views that are sort of practice by practice in relation to me and animals. However, because some of these practices have come to trouble me [more about this issue will be posted in later] I have begun to move from this "na´ve" stance to a more philosophical one. However, what I am discovering is that my na´ve stance is nearly hopeless. What seems to be the "principle" behind one set of actions (general sympathy toward animals as seen in my relationship with pets and other animals "close to me") as opposed to my blithe habit of delighting in eating animals, and not being much troubled by the mode of their preparation for slaughter nor the mode of their slaughter, there is hopeless confusion and inconsistency.
This sort of na´ve MESS is not to be seen in the much more sophisticated positions of Singer, Steinbock and Baxter. Each of them has developed a dominant single principle which is used to measure and weigh ALL cases, and the resulting "systems" can be looked at as more useful and coherent a tool, and, when there is moral disagreement, it is easier to identify what is at stake.
Singer's dominant principle is sort of three fold:
- the key moral issue is PAIN. There is no good reason to accept that the pain of animals has moral weight that is less than the pain of humans.
- but, the pains are not necessarily exactly alike, since pain is related to relevant "interests" and the interests of animals and humans are not the same.
- it is especially important to note that arguments that single out humans as special on the grounds of reasoning ability, or levels of autonomy and so on, are arbitrary and have no rational moral weight.
Steinbock's shares a piece of Singer's view, but has dramatically different views.
- the pain of animals IS a morally relevant consideration, but not morally decisive.
- rather, she argues that there are MORALLY good reasons to take our own species as morally special, and thus the interests of animals in relation to pain are not as morally weighty as the general interests of human beings.
- more bluntly: she affirms speciesism. Humans are more important that animals, though animals, IN THEIR OWN RIGHT, have moral worth.
Baxter is the hard liner in relation to animals.
- animals have no moral consideration at all on their own. Any moral consideration of animals is in relation to humans. Moral consideration is a uniquely HUMAN affair.
- nonetheless, things that are in the interests of animals (and the larger environment for that matter) are in fact also in the best interests of humans as well, at least in a large number of cases. In this sense we have obligations to how we treat animals, but the grounds is because of the impact on humans.
- the way to measure these humans interests are in terms of a cost benefit analysis, where cost doesn't mean uniquely monetary costs.
Now if we were to go issue by issue and assume the position of the FOUR positions (Corbett's na´ve position is the odd-one out) we would find that Corbett's view is going to lead us to a chaos of simple intuition by intuition with contradictions all over the place and nothing but intuition to appeal to in order to solve the puzzles.
Each of the other three provide us with GROUNDS to make some decisions. It will not always be clear exactly what to do, but we will have an idea of what sorts of facts and consequences will be relevant to put on that weighing scale that Corbett envisioned at the outset.
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