Friday, August 12, 2005

Contra - Singer.

This is part of an assignment I did last year for Dr Mintoff's course on Ethics in Social Work. (Just for the record, don't be a dill and copy it, Turnitin will detect the plagarism, and besides it's my work, not yours.)

I'm posting it in light of the recent discussions about Peter Singer's work with regard to the ethics of our treatment of animals.

The “Contra Singer"Argument

I do eat meat, and do not think it is morally wrong to do so. From this, it becomes obvious that I think that Singer is wrong.
If we are the same as animals, and animals have no moral obligation, then we have no moral obligation.
For example, if an animal does something we consider to be immoral, like my cat eating a pigeon even though I feed him ample pet biscuits, we do not judge them by our standards.
But, we can be moral. That is to say, we have the option, to be moral, or not moral, as we choose, (unlike my cat).

This is not sufficient justification however, as will be seen. Consider the two following statements:
1.We should be moral because we can.
2.We should eat meat because we can.
Statement number 2 is clearly one that Singer would not agree with. And with good reason, as statements of the form: We should X because we can (X), are highly problematic from an ethical viewpoint, and by themselves, do not form a valid argument.
Thus it is possible to say:
I. We should follow the principle of Equal Consideration of Interests, because we can.
II. But: If we should X, if we have the option of X or not X, is false.
So: We should not feel compelled to take other species interests into consideration, or indeed fulfil any moral obligations whatsoever, simply in virtue of us having the capability to choose to be moral or not.

Now: the objection may be made that I have not shown anything, except that the capacity or ability to be moral is a necessary but insufficient condition of actually being moral. But consider this: Singer himself says that we should not base our concern for others on what abilities they possess . That is to say, that we should not discriminate against animals, for example, because of how their mental capacities differ from ours. This seems agreeable enough, but discrimination cuts both ways. So I would suggest that to place a moral expectation on humans, because of our ability to be moral, is a form of discrimination directed against humans (or indeed any being judged capable of making these distinctions). Since discrimination on the basis of species, or on the basis of abilities, is specifically prohibited by Singer’s account there are only two options. One is to remove the moral obligation on humans, thus removing the discrimination, (allowing me to eat meat) which does render the account somewhat useless as a guide for behaviour. The other is to admit that Singer’s account is self contradictory, and thus invalid (this option allows me to eat meat also).
This response to Singer has very little to do with the ‘forceful reply’ as it does not deny that animals, or severely intellectually disabled humans for that matter, have interests. What I have attempted to show is that Singer’s argument does not give a coherent account of why we should take them into consideration.

In response to this Joe said something along the lines of this: that it is not discriminatory for someone who can't actually do a job to be passed over for someone who can do it. Similarly it is not discriminatory for us to be expected to take animal's interests into consideration, even if they can't do the same for us. This is a good point, and could shoot down my claims of discrimination somewhat. But I can't help but feel that the analogy is not quite right. A better analogy would be expecting or even forcing someone of sufficient intellect to go to university and study theoretical physics or medicine, rather than letting them choose a vocation that made no use of their mental skills whatsoever. If this is a more accurate way of characterising the argument, then the outcome is less clear cut. We may want to say that it is a person's right to choose how they use what they have, even if there are distinct advantages, for them and for the rest of us if they do, for example, become a doctor and cure some terrible disease. Thus in both cases (meat eater and non-doctor) they could be willfully contributing to more a situation with more suffering (animals and patients), but there is a difference somewhere as Singer would condemm the meat-eater but not the person who could become a doctor but doesn't.

On the other hand, it could be that due to the ethical/moral aspect of this topic, the above might not be the right way to characterise the debate. I can't decide right now. Maybe someone out there can clarify this position for me.

20 comments:

MH said...

At last; The Contra-Singer! I can not recall it taking this form when we were discussing it ... Did you ever get around it running it past Singer, as you were going to?

Pete said...

Ok, nicely constructed argument by the way...

I'm not too sure if I agree with Singer's arguments or not. Have to confess that I haven't read a great deal of his work as I'm not a great fan. However if I were to take a stab at your comments it would be something like the following:

The analogy that you make with the intellectual being expected or forced to become a doctor simply because they can is not something I'd agree with. Being intellectual and thinking about medicine is not like being moral in the following way, a human being can choose not to exercise thier intellect in regards to medicine but they cannot choose not to exercise thier morality. The fact is that we are moral creatures, like it or not. In much the same way that we are political creatures. This is simply an ontological point about us. A sociology tutor that I had years ago once said "I used to say that I was apolitical untill I realised it was a political statement" (thanks Steve). I think we can say the same for morality. So in this view the decision not to eat meat is a moral one. The decision to eat meat is also a moral one. Being a meat-eater does not necessarily make one amoral, it just means that you'd be following a different set of morals than the vegetarian. (And for those of you who are paying attention, I make this point about human beings as it is something I know about us. I am not sure if the same applies to animals or not.)

Now from this it follows that your argument that concludes by telling us that we should not feel compelled to take other species interests into consideration holds only in so far as we should not feel compelled to ignore the interests of other species either. It is true as you say that we should not do X simply because we can. But this principle could be used to uphold or deny any obligations you may care to name. Even the contradictory positions of eating meat and being a vegetarian. Whichever we may choose to do (and we must do something, even if it is to sit on our arses and watch the world turn) we will be making an ethical decision.

Thus I don't feel that this argument advances the debate in any direction, since the question still remains, "Is it morally acceptable for me to eat my cat?"

Jon (a visitor) said...

Regarding the cat eating - it might be morally acceptable (subject to debate), but is it socially acceptable? That's another crucial element in the animal ethics argument. Why is it ok to be immensely cruel and pour salt on slugs, but wrong to kick a cat?
Plus is it morally acceptable to domesticate an animal so that you can have a pet. Surely this is using an animal for your own personal need, just as eating it would be?
It's fair to say that we can't choose not to make moral choices, but equally we need to recognise that most 'ingrained morality' (the natural choices we make)is probably the result of societal conditioning, rather than active choices made through reasoned consideration of the situation. We eat certain animals because we've been raised to believe that it's morally acceptable to do so, because back in the day people had to in order to survive. And therein lies another point - it's easy to have the moral debate within a comfortable Western society of met wants. But if it was a question of eat 'your' cat or starve, would Tiddles last that long?

michael said...

I have a question: "why is any descission we make a 'moral' descission?" Are we unable in these days of political correctness to make a plain old descission? and if so what is the difference between a 'moral descission' and a 'descission'?

I thinks we're agreed that Singer's, or at least Sam's version of Singer's, argument boils down to 'if you can you ought', which ends up being entirely contradictory, as it implies free choice, but then claims you should do both option. the link between this and my questions is to do with the choice to be moral or not. this implies that we can choose to be 'not moral', but according to the ongoing discussion this is a moral stance. tricky.

So I want to know, regardless of morality, "Is it acceptable for me to eat my cat?"

MH said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cooly McCool said...

All decisions are moral because a decision is an act of autonomy and morality pertains to acts of autonomy. It could be described as meta-'acts of autonomy' or meta-decisions. And this, since Socrates presumably, has been the underpinning of the discipline we call philosophy.

Is it acceptable for you to eat your cat? Avoiding some bad humour pertaining to synonyms of cat, I think that really depends on what you think of your cat. If you could eat it and sleep, then fine. If not, eat somebody else's.

It is illegal to eat your cat. The law isn't always moral, and what is moral isn't always the law. If it were legal to eat your cat, then it would be 'acceptible' legally to do so. If it were moral , then it would be 'acceptible' morally. What then are you really asking?

I personally think you shouldn't eat cats. Why? Because I like them and they like me.

michael said...

if all descisions are moral desciossions, then how can I act immorally? or is it just that others thrust their morality upon me? if this is the case then morality is a fairly weak concept, and really doesn't seem to warrent much thought. becaue any discussion of morality would just be people saying my descission is better than yours, or I'm bigger than you. It's just a glorified way of saying I like this. I'm going to eat my cat. because I am bigger and better than you. where's the moral problem?

Cooly McCool said...

Immorality still falls under the category 'moral' as it pertains to something that is not deemed morally good. An amoral decision however is what would not be 'moral' being by definition not subject to moral valuation - i.e. presumably most vegetiative action and most instictive animal behaviour. A notion of autonomy and therfore responsibility is required to posit something in the moral spectrum. If you qualify, as I believe you do, then outside of involuntary actions such as breathing, then all your actions, as having intentions, are moral decisions. What moral framework you use might be up in the air. Eating of cats, sadly, is still a moral decision, regardless of the framework and whether you conform to or go against it.

Samuel Douglas said...

But under a strictly deterministic worldview, nothing s "voluntary", so all decisions are ammoral. Not that I really believe that, but if autonomy and responsibility turn out to be chimera, then no amount of appealing to them makes the decissions moral, other than in a shallow kind of pretend sense.

michael said...

I will point out that on this view (not Sam's deterministic, but the general view being espoused here) that immorallity is a chimera. This is so because, presumabley to act 'immorally' I have to posit a position as 'moral' and then act against it. But in doing so I would be creating a deeper morallity in exactly the same manner as one generally creates the shallower. So even when an action is posited as immoral it is actually of exactly the same form as a moral action, and it is only a confusion of terms that differentiates them. This is what I was trying to get at when I declared the immanent eating of my cat (which, for all those in fear of the life of my cat, is not actually a real cat, but only an imaginary one).

It would seem to me that this veiw of morallity has some definate flaws.

Cooly McCool said...

Sam, this is why determinism poses problems for morality as it erodes responsibility which is the very heart of ethics. I think there is a level of determinism in play in all moral actions, but this makes any moral theory highly difficult. It is a conundrum of sorts, but doesn't refute my past posts (though relevence might).

Samuel Douglas said...

What do you mean it doesn't refute them? If we could not 'have chosen otherwise' when making a moral decision, if 'free will' is nothing more than the quale of a deterministic mechanism of judgment (as proposed by Mr McCool's most hated popular author, Terry Pratchet), then the whole idea of 'responsibility' goes up in smoke. Your rejection of determinism mirrors Foucalt's. Neither of you liked the answer, so you both claim that it is not true. If everything you didn'y like was not true then the world would be very different.
In all fairness the fact that determinism presents a problem for morality is just as likely to mean that there is something wrong morality as your suggestion that there is something wrong with determinism.

Correction from yesterday. You are actually Descartes in Foucult's clothing.

MH said...

Michael - are you claiming that immorality is some form of part-man/part-animal genetic 'freak' (since 'chimera' is acutally the better term in these circumstances) of a type that most ethicists don't support creating (at the present)?

(Simply because I don't think that your statement holds if you are - there is no logical equivilency.)

Samuel Douglas said...

Michael are you pushing some sort of presuppositionalist line? I think all that is needed to sort out your confusion is a more precise use of language by the participants of this discussion.

So even when an action is posited as immoral it is actually of exactly the same form as a moral action, and it is only a confusion of terms that differentiates them. Exactly!

Both immoral (morally bad) and moral (morally good) choices are moral decisions insomuch as they are decisions of a moral type, about the choice between being moral and immoral. I don't see what is so confusing about that.

Cooly McCool said...

If determinism was the case (and I accept that it is in some capacity), then it would refute all of moral theory. I accept that. Suggesting that there could be determinism of this kind doesn't erode moral theory, but makes it questionable, which it certainly is.

Despite the obviousness of the fact that we are not purely autonomous, autonomy is very hard to establish at all. We still require it to establish moral theory however, being a theory of responsibility, a concept that requires autonomy. Not my fault. Take it up with society, who bastardly feels that I should be held responsible for my actions.

P.s. my very existence is premised on finding ways to pass responsibility from myself to the ether (well anything that isn't me), so I'm actually quite happy with a soft form of determinism.

Pete said...

What an outstanding discussion this has turned into.
Sam should be awarded a medal for his description of Cooly as Descartes in drag!!!
And this is probably the first and last time I'll ever hear the 'part-man/part-animal genetic freak' analogy!!!
Bring more of this on, but I'll be stuffed if I know how any of it helps clarify the original line of discussion.

MH said...

A chimera - in genetics (both scientific and ethical) - is a combination of two different animals (hence the infamous 'geep', or goat-sheep is a chimera); the creation of human chimeras (as opposed to naturally occurring ones - i.e. individuals with two distinct cell types) is frowned upon by Ethics Committees, though I did recently come across a researcher in the United States who is on the cusp of such research with his process of replacing all the cells in a mouse’s brain with human cells …

Michael simply claimed that immorality is an entity along these lines, and I think that there is an error in Michael’s premise – though a chimera may be immoral, I don’t think that immorality is a chimera.

Samuel Douglas said...

On 'The Story of DNA' a few weeks back on the ABC a researcher was proosing adding an extra chromasome to the human germ line to carry enhancements. Can't remember his name, some student of Watson's.

Cooly wants to be popular like post-modernists, but not matter how continental his talk is, he is still a good old-fasioned seeker of objective Truth. You can tell by his walk.

Cooly McCool said...

I'll give you objective truth

Samuel Douglas said...

Well, lets hear it then!