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July 10, 2007


Seth Baum

A brief side note: When I started blogging here, my intention was to help us solidify our own ethical views. However, as the above post may indicate, I've been straying from this and towards trying to persuade us to adopt my views. I generally try to avoid prostelytizing, but, perhaps inspired by the sophistication of the discussion here, I may be doing precicesly so. I should be more careful, especially as we discuss non-human animals, which is among the most delicate ethical topics out there given the heated passions it can draw on all sides.

On that note, let me add something that should have been included in the above. I've seen elsewhere (I'll post the reference later when I can track it down) a good characterization of the spectrum of views on NHA treatment. At one extreme, there's the view that we should be allowed to do whatever we want to them. This may (or may not, I can't say for sure) correspond with certain agricultural interests or enthusiastic omnivores. At the other end of the spectrum, there's the view that we should not be allowed to do anything to them. This is the 'religious vegan' view. Then there's the middle ground, which says that it's OK to do some things to NHAs, perhaps even raise them for food, but that there are certain things that we should not do.

Utilitarianism, which is my expertise, falls in the middle ground. This view is not strictly against the act of raising a NHA and killing it for food. Under this view, we may even be right in causing some suffering to the animal, as long as we benefit more than it suffers. That utilitarians are often associated with veganism and the NHA welfare movement is a circumstantial coincidence given contemporary NHA treatment. (For what it's worth, I am not vegan, but I frequently do try to minimize my consumption of animal products.)

There is no shortage of other middle ground views. Posner is middle ground. You may be too. Perhaps most of us are. The exact details of how we would treat NHAs is a worthy discussion topic, very much in the Dewey-an spirit. I'll be curious to hear your thoughts.

Dave Iverson

Ethical and other Dilemmas

Tedium alert: This response 'drones on', but I have not the time to make it shorter, better.

Seth asks: "I am curious as to whether the ethics Dewey represents and utilitarianism actually reach different conclusions in practice. I suspect the treatment of NHAs will serve as a worthy example topic because it is one which utilitarians harshly criticize widespread contemporary practice. If Dewey's ethic sides with the popular practice, I will harshly reject it. However, if it sides with utilitarianism, then perhaps we're all arguing over nothing."

I'm not sure we are, indeed, arguing. Nor do I want to attempt an answer re: Dewey's pragmatism v. Singer's animal rights ethics/activism, since I think them incommensurable, i.e. non-comparable constructs. And there are problems in trying to cross-compare Pragmatism and Utilitarianism, but that is not going to be the focus of this response either, rather we will let it be the outcome of our larger ongoing conversation.

Many Philosophers attempt to point us toward a better-lived life, i.e. well-being (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on well-being: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/well-being/ ). I believe Peter Singer to be one of these.

Many economists, on the other hand, take societal ends as given, or pretend to do so, then spend all their energy on means/ends relationships, in part to try to escape the impossibilities of once and for all ordering up the ends, so they can get on with their calculations. Sorry, I am being a bit petty.

Who Decides?, when it comes to "ends" and "ends hierarchies." I believe the answer is "we the people": collectively in society/culture forming, and as individuals guided by praxis ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Praxis_(process) ), the realm that sits between theory and action. One problem for those economists who claim to take ends as given is that some ends are also means to other ends. When this is the case, how can they maintain their air of "professional isolation" from politics, philosophy, etc.? Enter pragmatism as means to order up societal institutions, enter ethics to guide both individual choice and institutional framing.

Since we humans construct the rules of our society/culture, and since we humans are by default given (by ourselves) dominion over other life forms, why not just admit that we are doing it and attempt to make it better. In the "pragmatic" process we allow voices like Singer, and many other Philosophers with better known names, to prompt us toward better rules, better actions, even better desires. Voices likes Singer's help us both better our institutional framing, and our individual thoughts/choices/actions.

So I'll stick to "Pragmatism", for now, and continue to read philosophy as well as critiques of both Pragmatism and Philosophy.

Pragmatism fits well with these lines from Aldo Leopold's 'The Land Ethic":

"The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals; or collectively: the land. ... In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. Obligations have no meaning without reference to conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of social conscience from people to land."

The transformation of humans (as communal animals) from conquerors of the land-community to plain members and citizens is key. This is a pragmatic transformation, via long-suffering, education, politics, activism, etc.

Pragmatism also fits well with words from Peter Singer ( http://www.animal-rights-library.com/authors-m/singer.htm ), "Ethics and the New Animal Liberation Movement" ( http://www.animal-rights-library.com/texts-m/singer01.htm ):

"This revolution is the culmination of a long line of ethical development. I cannot do better than quote the words of that splendid nineteenth century historian of ideas, W. E. H. Lecky. In his History of European Morals Lecky wrote: 'At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity, and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world.' Lecky anticipated what the animal liberationists are now saying. In an earlier stage of our development most human groups held to a tribal ethic. Members of the tribe were protected, but people of other tribes could be robbed or killed as one pleased. Gradually the circle of protection expanded, but as recently as 150 years ago we did not include blacks. So African human beings could be captured, shipped to America and sold. In Australia white settlers regarded Aborigines as a pest and hunted them down, much as kangaroos are hunted down today. Just as we have progressed beyond the blatantly racist ethic of the era of slavery and colonialism, so we must now progress beyond the speciesist ethic of the era of factory farming, of the use of animals as mere research tools, of whaling, seal hunting, kangaroo slaughter and the destruction of wilderness. We must take the final step in expanding the circle of ethics."

With Pragmatism as my method, I don’t' have to figure out how to add everything up, order everything up, which I don't believe is possible anyway. Instead we, collectively, have to figure out how to construct (and improve) institutions, on the fly but with reflection and deliberation and an open prospect to revisit our decisions frequently. Then each of us, individually, have to figure out how to live our lives within and/or against the rules.

Ethical Dilemmas

Real-world ethics deals with difficult choices, that are often more the case of bad v. less bad, good v. better, rather than right v. wrong. Consider this from Singer, from Salon's The Practical Ethicist, ( http://www.salon.com/books/int/2006/05/08/singer/index.html ) if only to struggle (or not) with:

"When confronted with the question of whether it's justifiable to save the life of one's daughter at the expense of the lives of two strangers, Singer's response is even more matter of fact. The choice, he would say, is a foregone conclusion: Two lives are better than one."

Says who? Does Singer really cast up this dilemma so categorically, so trivially? Not that I would say, categorically, one life is better than two. My response: Paradox.. "Sophie's Choice" as a moral dilemma ( http://www.friesian.com/valley/dilemmas.htm ), or ethical dilemma ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethical_dilemma ).

Let's consider a specific ethical dilemma, one close to home. Like most people (arguably), I am an animal rights activist, or perchance more appropriately I should call myslef an activist for 'better treatment of animals.' I'm still grappling with the 'rights' question. I am also a hunter, and a huge fan of Aldo Leopold's like and work. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aldo_Leopold )

A friend of mine, along with hundreds of others who work in conservation efforts, calls himself a rabid hunter. He loves to hunt and kill ducks. On the other hand he, and others lke him have done more to restore and preserve wetlands than most of the rest of us put together. Hence, his efforts have allowed for more ducks by far than the efforts/actions of all others whose very existence (food, shelter, entertainment) simply denies an ever-increasing number of animals livable habits. Moral dilemma? Sure. My friend, by the way, is aso an activist for better treatment of animials in another sense – having been a key player in US government Threatened and Endangered Species preservation.

Ethical dilemmas abound, and help to sharpen our thinking. Life is a tough slog. Let's leave the last words to Aldo Leopold:

"One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise."

Further reading:

Some may also be interested in Peter Singer's "Animal Liberation at 30", New York Review of Books, 4/15/2003
( http://www.nybooks.com/articles/16276 )

Seth Baum

"We must take the final step in expanding the circle of ethics"
And this might actually be the final step if we can decide that non-sentient beings do not belong within the circle. For example, I don't ever expect any substantial 'plant welfare' movement.

Re "an activist for 'better treatment of animals.'" - I'd say "animal welfare activist" or even "non-human animal welfare activist" because this avoids the matter of rights, which is tricky here even for those who do place some weight in rights. (Utilitarians do not.) Continuous emphasis on the "non-human" part is to emphasize that the other animals are not too different from us, which in turn helps us overcome speciesism.

Regarding hunting, do you have any sense for how much the hunted animal suffers in the process? I would guess not much. In general, I am not particularly anti-hunting, and I respect the connection between animal and food that hunting offers, as well as the preservationism it motivates, as you mentioned.


I also find Leopold's land ethic to be a useful guide:

> "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

As I've said before, I would include humans in the "biotic community." So now, it becomes a matter of where to draw the system boundaries, which is always a thorny and naturally political problem. It also leads to some ethical questions: does an industrial animal farm count as a biotic community, and what would it mean to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of -that- system? I haven't read Leopold's "A Sand County Almanac," so I don't know if this is talked about there. Any thoughts?

Dave Iverson


My guess, only a guess, is that in Leopold's day there were no "industrial animal farms." I watched today on TV as folks in CA were grappling with what to do with the remains of 50,000 turkeys killed by intense heat. I agree with the Europeans (and some here in the US) that we need some (more) regulatory bounds on "industrial animal farms" when it comes to humane treatment of animals.

My preference would be for the kind and gentle (mostly) treatment of farm animals I learned from my grandparents on both sides in their small, rural farms. Sure they ate the animals, and even sold some to market, but there was an element of personal connection to the animals, and a palpable sense of personal tragedy and loss (along with utilitarian gain) when it came time to slaughter the animals. Too bad my children never got a chance to see such.

Get (at any used book store) a copy of Leopold's book. Read it for enlightenment and sheer reading pleasure. Here is a link to my rendition of "favorite Leopold quotes": http://www.fs.fed.us/eco/eco-watch/ew950111.htm

Note that the quote you drew up is included in my favorites (most everyone's favorites), and is preceeded by "quit thinking of land as solely an economic problem", a notion that Leopold reiterated throughout his writing.

PS.. If any follow the link above, don't try to add commments there, since the US Forest Service failed to live up to its promise to keep the "Eco-Watch Forums" viable. Note to myself: I need to copy all my stuff from the Eco-Watch forums and bring it into my blogs. Just haven't "made" the time to do so.

Seth Baum

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."
Would this be to say that almost all human development has been wrong because it has been detrimental to biotic communities? If so, then should we return to our former hunting/gathering ways (and population levels)? Also, how is the "integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community" defined? How do I know when I am preserving it?

Regarding well-treated livestock, there is the "logic of the larder", that we are actually benefiting the animals by killing and eating them because otherwise, they would not have lived in the first place. However, this ignores the "wild animals" who would have otherwise existed- see

If raising standards for livestock animal treatment to decent levels dramatically increased the price of meat, making it much more of a luxury, would you still support raising the standards?

Lastly, what do you think of "lab-grown meat"?

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