Lecture 04/Prompt 04: Introduction to Animal Rights and Liberation
Take Away Points:
- Define individualist ethics
- Define speciesism
- Understand how intrinsic value is related to consequentialism and deontology
- Understand the meaning and importance of the term personhood
Today you begin the first of three readings on animal liberation. They are: Peter Singer’s A Utilitarian Defense of Animal Liberation, Tom Regan’s The Radical Egalitarian Case for Animal Rights, and Mary Anne Warren’s A Critique of Regan’s Animal Rights Theory. There is a lot going on in all three of these articles. However, I want to focus on one specific topic: individualism
It seems strange to start of talking about environmental ethics with individualism. After all, it’s a concept that is most often closely connected with political rights and human freedom. But those of you who read Palmer’s article yesterday will recall that she wrote about “Individuals” approaches to environmental ethics. And it is important that you begin to understand why the world individual is important–it is the severest difference between the two central topics of this course: Animal Rights and Ecological Ethics. Animal rights/liberation is an individualist ethics, while ecological ethics is a holistic ethics. The difference is so severe that some have argued (and you will see this in Mark Sagoff’s Animal Liberation and Environmental Ethics: Bad Marriage, Quick Divorce in the last “intermission” unit) that animal rights and liberation should not even be considered environmental ethics. We’ll take up that issue during that intermission and we’ll take up the cause of holistic ethics in the next unit. For now, let’s define the significance of individualist ethics.
Individualist Accounts of Ethics
When we think about ethics, we actually tend to think in terms of individuals. What should I do? What would it be right to do to that person there? Even ethical systems that can take a broader picture (like utilitarianism) see the individual as the primary vehicle for morality. That is, individuals are the “doers” of morality and it is for the good of individuals that morality is achieved at. Or, put another way, even if our ultimate goal is to create the greatest happiness for the greatest number, that greatest number is always just an aggregate of individuals. In other words, any whole can be reduced to its component parts. And even when we talk about the whole what we are really concerned with is the parts that make up the whole. So, when we want to improve society what an individualist is talking about is improving individuals within society.
This has two consequences: First, it is the features of individuals that are morally relevant. To use the terminology from a lecture ago: moral units are things that individuals are capable of possessing. Happiness is something that individuals can possess; respect or dignity is something directed at individuals. Second, since the features of individuals are what are morally relevant, our moral actions should be primarily towards individuals.
This comes out strongest in Singer and his charge of speciesism. Speciesism is the favoring of one’s own species over every other for no reason than that one belongs to that species. In other words, someone who acts from speciesism has no further justification for his claim of the moral superiority of humans beyond the fact of species. What is wrong about this is that individuals vary within a species. Just as racism and sexism are wrong because they point to a feature that actually isn’t morally relevant, Singer argues that what is morally relevant about any individual also has nothing to do with species. Although Singer does not explicitly argue for individuals being all that are morally relevant, his reduction of the problem of moral value to a matter of picking out features of individuals already assumes that individuals already matter.
I want to stop here and note an important piece of terminology. When a philosopher talks about the moral status of an individual, she is talking about personhood. If an individual has moral status, she is a person (which inevitably leads to the plural being the ridiculous “persons.” I say ridiculous, but I still use it ;)). Both Singer and Regan (as we will discuss in a moment) are figuring out what features an individual must have to be a person, to be worthy of moral consideration. To use an example, in the US animals would typically not be considered persons. This means they have no moral status and thus we don’t have to worry about them when we make moral decisions. Put another way: non-persons, individuals who are lacking the relevant features that give them moral status, are not morally relevant to moral decision making. So if a utilitarian, for example, is adding up the total pleasure caused by an action (yes, utilitarians do this) and if that utilitarian did not think animals were persons, then their pleasure and pain would not be added in. Non-persons are, as the term rather nicely shorthands, non-entities.
In his work, Singer settles on the ability to experience pain as what makes an individual a person, but this does not have to be the only feature. Singer is a utilitarian. Regan, on the other hand, is a deontologist. Remember that consequentialism (of which utilitarianism is an example) treats all things as instrumental to creating pleasure or decreasing pain. Thus, the only thing that has intrinsic value for consequentialism is pleasure. Regan objects to this lack of intrinsic value and attempts to formulate an alternative, duty-based account. To do this, Regan picks out what is morally relevant in the world and thus is worthy on intrinisic value. What is significant about this is how he determines what has intrinsic value: he picks out a characteristic of individuals and then talks about what this value will entail for the individuals. Put more explicitly: what is wrong about the treatment of animals is wrong because of how the individual animals are treated. In Singer’s case, certain individuals may fail to meet the criteria for personhood and thus unworthy of consideration. Regan’s criteria for intrinsic worth is so broad that no living being can fail to meet the criteria (a point that Warren points out as problematic), but even though this is the case it is only because of the broadness of the criteria, not because individuals are not judged by their characteristics.
Pause to Consider:
- Why is speciesism a problem?
- What is individualist ethics?
- Why is personhood so important to moral theorizing?
Purpose: It is appropriate that after talking so much about philosophy being a discussion and, thus, dependent on listening and understanding the other side of any problem we are going to start developing your writing skills by focusing on summarizing and reacting to what Singer has to say. In this assignment, you will practice succinctly summarizing what someone else says, with an eye towards using what they say to talk about your own point.
Word Count: The best posts will be 600-800 words long.
Read Graff/Birkenstein: Chapter 1: They Say [19-29]; Chapter 2: “Her Point Is” The Art of Summarizing [30-41]. With the tips in that chapter in mind, start the Singer text and read with a mind’s eye towards how you are reacting to his arguments.
- What does he say that you react against?
- What does he say that you agree with?
- What terms does he use that are confusing?
Perhaps more importantly,
- What arguments does he disagree with?
- Who is he responding to?
- Why does he think what he is saying matters?
Immediately after you finish reading Singer (perhaps even as you read), jot down your immediate thoughts on a piece of scrap paper (or in a plain text editor). Then look over the text again to identify where he focuses on those aspects that are most important to you. Where does he introduce a concept? Where does he set up the view he is opposing?
Pick out a paragraph in the text that focuses on a concept or argument.
At the top of your post give the paragraph you will be focusing on by citing author, page #, and paragraph #. For example (and at random), if I choose the paragraph on page 87 that begins “There are some who resist . . . ,” I would write: (Singer, 87, 1st full paragraph). If I choose the paragraph on page 86 that begins “But attempts to limit . . . ,” I would write: (Singer, 86, 6th paragraph). Start the paragraph numbering with the first full paragraph on the page.
- If you chose a paragraph because of the argument, briefly summarize the important points of the argument.
- If you chose a paragraph because of a concept, briefly summarize the importance of that concept to the rest of the text.
- If you chose a summary of an opposing view point (i.e. someone Singer disagrees with), either summarize that viewpoint or summarize what Singer disagrees with.
While summarizing, keep in mind how you reacted to this paragraph as you were reading because you are now going to agree or disagree with all or part of the summary you just wrote. Examine closely some aspect of the paragraph you chose that you think is interesting, wrong, right, or some combination. As you do so explain how you reacted and why you reacted the way you did.
Tip: Look over pages 39-40 in the Graff/Berkenstein text for some ways of connecting your reaction to your summary.
(Singer, 87, 5th paragraph)
. . . what struck me the most was the idea that animal rights is not antagonistic to human rights. In fact, quite the reverse. Animal rights is directly in conflict with human rights. If animals have rights and we must take into consideration their good, then we must sacrifice a lot of progress in terms of agriculture, lab science, and others. I think that human rights require a bare minimum of subsistence living. If you can’t survive, you can’t fulfill your rights. While it is easy for Singer, living in the developed world, to argue for animal rights, the truth is that in less developed countries the kinds of animal rights he is talking about will me the rejection of human rights . . . .
- Read: Singer: A Utilitarian Defense of Animal Liberation [71-80]
- Read: Graff/Birkenstein: Chapter 1: They Say [19-29]; Chapter 2: “Her Point Is” The Art of Summarizing [30-41]
- Post: Prompt 04 | Due 1:00 PM EST
- Comment: On Lecture 04 | Due Noon EST
- Comment: On all Group Member posts | 1st Due 8:00 PM EST | All Due Jan 14, Noon EST
- Take: Review Exam 01