Monday, August 01, 2005

Spiked-Science on Peter Singer's New Book.

Singer on 'speciesism': a specious argument by Helene Guldberg.

Peter Singer is recognised as the driving force behind the modern animal rights movement, and is widely credited with making 'speciesism' an international issue - speciesism being the idea that a human-centered morality is as abhorrent as racism or sexism. His new book In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave, of which he is editor, brings together 'the best current ethical thinking about animals', according to the cover blurb. Read the full article Here.

This article is worth reading, but not because it is necessarily good. Guldburg disagrees with Singer on many points, but ultimately fails to give a coherent reply. On top of this she falls into the trap that many who read Singer are tempted into by their finely honed pseudo-humanist conservative outrage: Singer's move to draw the comparison between animals and humans (who for what ever reason) that have similar mental abilities is not intended to be a justification for treating these humans as we would animals. It is rather to encourage us to treat these animals as we would humans; to raise them up to our level, rather than to bring us down to theirs.

Now I am not saying that there is nothing wrong with Singer's arguments. Those who know me in the real world have seen me eat meat, wear leather shoes etc, clear evidence that I'm not really convinced by them. But Peter Singer is a clever person. You don't end up as being Professor of Bioethics at Princeton by being a daft bugger. To critique his work requires a certain amount of emotional restraint. Stop getting upset by his seemingly outrageous analogies and focus on the actual content and structure of his arguments. Guldberg fails utterly to do this and therefore misses the point.


nyrhtak said...

so is my science education worth the life of a toad? What about 10 toads? A dog, a horse, a cow, a human?
If i kill one person and the knowledge i gain saves many others surely it's ok....

michael said...

if I kill thousands to preserve me, then there is also justification. Because I was more important than each one of those thousands. And I killed them only one at a time. So their combined value is not relevant. so that's ok too.

Pete said...

Michael, you are such a knob

and nyrhtak, what makes you so sure that the person you are going to kill wont discover something more important than you do?

Michael, you are such a knob

Sam is right though, Singer may be hellishly challenging but facing the challenge is always a worthwhile exercise. I don't know about anyone else but I find it difficult to find a really compelling reason to justify speciesism....

nyrhtak said...

hey i don't believe my argument i was just pot stirring, seeing if that was Singers point without actually reading anything.
Ok so now that I have read the article
‘Setting aside the fact that there is no convincing evidence that animals have any capacity for insight - not even the great apes --Singer is wrong to conclude that infants and neurologically impaired individuals are somehow less than human (Helene Guldberg)’
What about beings with the potential to possess the characteristics that make us human? What category do dolphins, infants, apes and many others fall into?

MH said...

On Dolphins - There is that article by Mary Midgley where she claims that dolphins are actually persons. I dare say that someone reading this post will be able to call the title to mind, meanwhile I will have a look for my copy.

On Peter's Comment - I agree with two points; Singer is a nearly insummountable intellectual challenge, and I am yet to find a compelling argument or counter-argument to justify my meat consumption. This said, I often have no problem with his more controversial conclusions.

Samuel Douglas said...

Note: If you are afraid of being infected by the Wittgenstein or even the nefarious Kripke bug, do not read this comment.

Maybe we are looking at this the wrong way entirely. Two possible formulations spring to mind:

1. What ever we agree is a 'person' (or is close enough that we give them the same rights) is simply what we agree is a 'person' ie, what ever fits the assertability conditions at the time.


2. Being admitted into the community as a 'person' is intimately linked in some way with being admitted to the community as a 'speaker'. Since we have only indirect evidence of the private sensations of others, the extent to which someone or something can be admitted as a person is contingent on their being able to communicate. Not that 'communicate' is really the right word. It is more being able to respond to certain stimuli in the appropriate way. Hence a severely injured person that shows no responses (feedback) whatsoever to neurological tests (stimuli) is said to not be a person. This is something that rule-deontologists in our midst would quibble, but it's an interesting idea at least.

Problem/Permutation: If we accept the sceptical solution at all, (2) is completely subservient to (1), meaning that no matter the explanitory power of 2 we could never use it as a hard and fast rule. which is a pity, because if 2 could be at all developed, it could help us at least feel better about our meat eating; We don't admit cows as persons (in the moral sens at least) not because we don't want to, but because we can't.

Rosie said...

I think alot of this would be made simpler and easier to justify if we didn't insist on the idea of 'human' and 'persons' being such high and mighty things, and instead of raising specific animals based on intelligence and what not to human status, it should be a process of accepting our selves as simply animals. remarkable animals granted, but nevertheless animals who are not above the workings of the world and its inhabitants, but part of it. The sooner we realise the world is not automatically ours to dictate the better. From here, I agree with singer and his speciesm (for the record, I am a vegetarian, although one who has begun to eat fish---even though I cannot justify it well enough) but i think we've raised ourselves up so high that its a bit easier to lower ourselves a little in our own view rather than elevating certain others.

MH said...

While your suggestion has merit, Rose, there might be a small problem: sans 'person' there is no means of drawing a barrier between those who are enabled to participate within society and those who are not. To restate [hopefully Ming the (grammatically) Merciless will not attempt a semantic deconstruction of my statement], if we reduce the status of humans qua persons to that of animals, we shall be forced to accord animals the same democratic and legal status that we presently afford only members of our own species (for examples, horses will be able to sit on juries and dogs will be able to vote), or we shall have to abolish the institutions of society. Now there are probably Readers who will agree with either course of action, but I am inclined (possibly to be read as ‘conservative’, in the Burkean sense) to think such a situation ‘absurd’ enough to be rejected. Hence, it is of considerable importance to maintain the distinction betwixt ‘person’ and ‘non-person’.

Rosie said...

I don't know whether that's really as much of a problem as you suggest Martin. While I believe we are part of the big picture and not above it, I do think we are at the top.
you said- "sans 'person' there is no means of drawing a barrier between those who are enabled to participate within society and those who are not. " -Within the structures we have created, a pig for instance is not able to actively participate, because it cannot communicate with us, blah blah blah all the obvious reasons. Not because we have labelled it a pig and not a person, but becuase it does not have the abilities required to function in our world.
In terms of us being animals, and functioning as a collective species who work for our own survival (hard to see that sometimes isn't it?) it therefore is not to be expected that we should be completely altruistic to all others. Primarily, our evolutionary purpose is to survive and reproduce, and in a normal situation where we hadn't gone and got such big heads, that would involve eating meat. It is completly possible for us to be top dog but still have a bit of respect for the world and creatures which sustain us. It is possibly not fair just to say that we are the most intelligent creatures on the planet. We are the ones who seem to be functioning in the most progresive way, but thats in a world where we have made it to the top and so its on our terms now. Maybe dolphins have some other kinds of intelligence. You just need to look at the world today and wonder whether intelligence should be judged on our abilty to manufacture toasters, or how well we get on (or don't as the case may be) with other countries. A species who accepts they are animal need not be altruistic- that does not make evolutionary sense, but if we are as clever as we think, we need not destroy the world that keeps us alive, and treat the animals with no respect. That is why I don't eat meat. I have no problem with us being at the top of the food chain, but I do have a problem with the meat industry being conducted with no respect for life, its animals treated purely as commodities. No matter what their intelligence is, they feel fear and pain, and disrespecting that does us no credit.

Rosie said...

The crux of the matter which I didn't articulate very well is that there is no need to destroy the concept of 'person' in order to line ourselves up with the rest of the world. We are a species unto ourselves, and should functions as such, looking out for ourselves first. With that in mind, there aren't problems in not allowing pigs to vote. I guess its a case of being a benevolent dictator in a way, but also not, because we actually need a planet and animals to go on existing, but because we haven't put ourselves as part of the big picture and instead above it, we haven't realised that its in our best interests not to fuck everything over. That sounded angrier than I really am. I just think we're not nearly as clever as we like to think, becuase we still go in cycles of progress and collapse, still live on a planet where the living conditions of more than half are decling, and for the rest of us, we're getting more things, but that means bullocks really. We are still fighting, when fighting is just so ridiculous- "I disagree, so I will kill you", cycles of retribution yada yada yada. I hate how all these things sound like cliched hippy crap, but if you try and think of them independantly of the context they've been branded in, they are simple, logical ideas.

Pete said...

A commendable effort Rosie. Certainly a position that I would be more agreeable to than Martin's (once again) pissant little statement.

Yes Martin we would be forced (forced by who? or what?) to allow horses to become high court judges. Just as soon as they meet whatever relevant selection criterea one must meet in order to become a high court judge these days. Can a pig cast a vote Martin? Last time I checked a trotter print on the ballot paper.....I'm sure this is the type of debate that Singer had in mind, don't you Martin?

Anyway back to Rosie's post. I'd be a little cautious when using concepts such as "progressive" and "evolutionary purposes" in this debate but I think the real point of the argument is something that you have hit upon very clearly. That would be this division between us and the rest of the world that you speak of. The idea that us humans are at the top. I think it is this division that people like Singer are trying to get us to question. What is it that makes us think that we are any better than any other species on the planet? Why should we be considering ourselves to be, in your words, "a species unto ourselves", and be "looking out for ourselves first"? I think that the question of whether this type of conception of humanity can be justified is the real question at stake here.

The following is a quote from T.H. Huxley's (yes the bulldog himself) lectures of 1860, published in 1863 as a series of essays entitled Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature
"It is not I who seek to base Man's dignity upon his great toe, or insinuate that we are lost if an Ape has a hippocampus minor. On the contrary, I have done my best to sweep away this vanity. I have endeavoured to show that no absolute structural line of demarcation, wider than that between the animals which immediatley succeed us in the scale, can be drawn between the animal world and ourselves; and I may add the expression of my belief that the attempt to draw a psychical distinction is equally futile, and that even the highest faculties of feeling and of intellect begin to germinate in lower forms of life. At the same time, no one is more convinced than I of the vastness of the gulf between civilised man and the brute; or is more certain that whether from them or not, he is assuredly not of them."

Samuel Douglas said...

I think there is a fair bit of merit t what you are saying Rose. But I am such a cynic. For the most part, we fail to treat other humans as 'persons',so what hope do the animals have?

I was simply trying to show that in exploring how and why we treat other species differntly, we might just be looking at things in the wrong way and that there might be strong reasons that we sturggle to treat animals the way we treat each other. Having said this, the fact that there might be some biological dis-inclination to treat animals as persons or accord them the same rights (sounds plausible,eh?) I am not sure that this would by itself defeat or even really effect Singer's arguments. Unless it could be shown that how we react to animals is radically less dicatated by choice than he asserts, the bulk of his arguments stand.

Martin: I think it is time I dusted off the dreaded 'Contra-Singer' argument from Joe's class last year.