You Are What You Eat

Days 23 & 24 Blog Post (Just in time for Thanksgiving!)

We are starting to become aware of the injustices inflicted on people through environmentally degrading forms of exploitation and how our economy perpetuates deep-seated roots of racism and the institutionalization of second-class citizens. But so far there has been another biotic group that has gotten less attention, and this group contains far more numbers than humans. The dependance of our and other economies on the severe injustice toward animals – fellow beings that feel pleasure and pain – is probably more atrocious than the economic injustices toward most people.

The traditional view that most cultures and societies of human existence is often called the “anthropocentric paradigm,” and we have used this to determine which things have moral standing. So, since human historical memories can trace, the appropriate criterion for moral standing has been mere membership to the group of homo sapiens. This is speciesism; and it’s the most historical and basic determining factor for moral standing, and thus not a sufficient condition of formulating an adequate ethical theory. I will try to make these points with as many helpful pictures of my dog, Noble, as I can.

Following this factor for moral standing is what and how we assign value to something. We have assumed that only the lives of human beings have intrinsic moral value. There is a difference between intrinsic and extrinsic moral value. When we say something has intrinsic value, its existence comes with being valuable. But when something has extrinsic moral value, it means that it only has value in its use toward something else. This is also known as instrumental value. Things with intrinsic value are ends in themselves, but things with extrinsic value are means to an end. For much of “civilized” human history, animals have had merely extrinsic value.

A number of criteria for moral standing have been proposed that should allow something to have moral standing. Throughout time, value has been given to: 1) personhood 2) potential personhood 3) rationality 4) linguistic capacity 5) sentience 6) being alive 7) being an integral part of an ecosystem 8) being an ecosystem. This is the historical anthropocentrically assigned rubric of value throughout time. It also stands to mention that at some point around the 17th and 18th centuries during the time of René Descartes and Isaac Newton there was a shift in the concept of the earth as being alive, of being a generous parent, to the concept of it being an object, or a wound-up clock to be tinkered with, by us. Unfortunately, Descartes believed that non-human animals lacked linguistic capacity and therefore “lacked a mental-psychological life,” a vestigial view of the moral standing of animals that lasts today.

(I know for a fact that my dog has intense dreams. He often flails his legs like he’s chasing something or makes chewing motions with his mouth, all while he’s sleeping. How can something dream and not have a mind?)

Today we have instated the existence of animal rights, which is based on the “the idea that some or all nonhuman animals are entitled to the possession of their own lives, and that their most basic interests – such as an interest in not suffering – should be afforded the same consideration as the similar interests of human beings.” This idea was heralded by Peter Singer, and it opposes making decisions on speciesist claims and advocates that animals should no longer be viewed as property or be used for clothing, food, research subjects, or entertainment, taking into consideration the welfare of the animals. Animal welfare, or the physical and psychological well-being of animals, is measured by indicators like behaviors, physiology, longevity, and reproduction. The term can also mean people’s consideration of the best interest of animals. Historically, different cultures have viewed the importance of animals differently. One famous example is the Egyptian reverence for their various local animals, and their love of cats – whom they believed embodied the spirit and intelligence of the god Bastet. The Greek historian Heroditus observed that if a domesticated cat died, the entire house would go into mourning “as if it were a human relative,” and that if someone killed a cat, even accidentally, the punishment was swift death. Cats were even mummified to ensure that they lived on in the after life.

Noble asserting himself as a part of the family

Many people and organizations today have argued on behalf of the animals in order to pivot our view of animals as things to be consumed, in the harsh ways we consume them, to a more humane position, and thereby bringing them into our moral community. One of these people is Joaquin Phoenix, who made the documentary ‘Earthlings” to show just how wickedly we treat animals whom we, by our actions, ascribe only consumptive value. The film opens with saying that there are three chronological levels to the truth: ridicule, violent opposition, and finally acceptance. There’s nothing I can say here that can possibly come close to substituting the message of seeing the film and the powerful images and footage it employs to make us understand the horrors of the institutions that exploit animals and the lowly, if not negligent, moral status we give them. What goes on behind the systems that give us animals for pets, animals to consume as food and clothing, animals for entertainment, and using animals for science research is truly comparable to a never-ending holocaust. It is becoming more mainstream knowledge the practices that give us our abundance of food – birds with food hoses shoved down their throat, cows pumped with hormones. One image I will never shake is seeing a dog (who looks a lot like my husky) getting its skin ripped from its body, alive, and then watching the dog panting, bloody, skinless, and in unimaginable pain. One more widely disputed topic is brought up in the film that was also discussed in another class of mine – vivisection. Some scientists argue in favor of testing on live animals for its benefit to people. Vivisection is subjecting living animals without anesthetic to torturous trials of experiments, such as injections, dissections, exposure to nuclear radiation, and even forcing blunt G-force trauma, usually to the heads of monkeys multiple times. I fail to see even the utilitarian benefit of inflicting terrible pain on countless bodies for the sake of a more comfortable consumer. And what kind of people deserve anything that comes from torturing fellow sentient beings? Joaquin Phoenix perfectly sums up our placement of animals in “our” world in one sentence: “The fate of animals is to be unwanted by man, or wanted too much;” and suggests that what we need is a stronger, more mystical view of animals, rather than the one our culture promotes now that instates complacency for commercial bliss. Our moral community needs to be extended to all the earthlings.

I recently watched another film for another class called “The Cove” by Louie Psihoyos. This truly heart-breaking documentary is an exposé about the atrocious abuse and exploitation of dolphins by the town of Taiji, Japan, for the lucrative business of dolphin use in aquariums, exhibitions, and food. The film was not only extremely informative and saddening, but also very intense due to the crew’s having to spy around the cove in Taiji at night and watch out for the constant surveillance that the Japanese government/fishing industry put in place. “The Cove” perfectly sums up our exploitation – our harvesting – of defenseless animals in our endless pursuit of commodification (“a dolphin in the right spot can make millions a year”). This industry is capitalization of nature at its worst. It has been noticed that dolphins are very human-like in their socialization and recognize each other in familial units, just like us. They also won’t leave a fellow dolphin being attacked or in trouble, which makes it easy for the fishermen to massacre most of the catch. They scare the dolphins by banging on the hull of their boats which disorients the dolphins due to their keen perception to sound (their main sense) and then assault entire groups with spears and harpoons once they’ve trapped the dolphins into the cove. It’s worth noting that dolphins are one of the many animals studied that we know engage in purely playful interaction, again, just like us. They’re also famous for being known to save human lives. In moral terms, is there no more innocent creature on the planet, and perhaps even more capable of morality and moral standing than us?

The fact that many humans take animal rights/welfare as a joke might say that we’re in the ridicule part of ultimately accepting the truth about the moral standing of animals. There’s probably still a ways to go before we release our grip on a constant supply of animals to fuel our society’s creature comforts. Logically, there really is no way around justifying it, and the strongest argument against giving moral standing to animals is that it is unappetizing. That’s just not good enough. Clearly I’m obsessed with my dog and personally think that some members of my own species deserve the same violent end they bring upon such gentle creatures for superficial and economic gain. But if we can’t treat simple – and not so simple – animals with the respect they deserve, how are we ever going to get that with people?

p.s. adopt from shelters!

Everything Comes with a Price

Day 16 Blog Post

We have seen what a non-anthropocentric approach to environmental policy looks like with Leopold’s land ethic. His polar opposite comes in the form of William Baxter’s “anthropocentric libertarian free-market environmentalism,” which is a long way of saying that we humans should do what we want as long as we’re fulfilling what we want. If protecting the planet is what we desire, then we should pursue it, but only because it is what we, as members of the species of homo sapiens, want. He starkly claims that his “criteria are oriented to people, not penguins,” and that, “Damage to penguins, or sugar pines, or geological marvels is, without more, simply irrelevant.” At least he’s honest.

Baxter is very blunt about his argument. He says that nature cannot communicate its wants and needs to us, it is “ammoral,” and it has no moral consciousness; thus the principles of his libertarian free-market approach is basically the whim of the selfish needs of the human race, and maximizing our consumer demands as efficiently as possible. In this view, moral standing can only be given to conscious, rational humans; whom are also the only inhabiters of the moral community in his view. An environmental policy based solely on economic grounds requires well-defined property rights that allow decisions to be made about the use of property as well as evaluation of trade-offs with competing ends. Other than his placement of selfishness on a pedestal, Baxter’s lunacy also takes form in his belief that “ought” questions are meaningless when applied to nature because of its said lack of moral standing. Seeing as how all life is intertwined, this poses a problem.

Economic reasoning is extremely influential on policy making due to its practical, realistic, and precise formal approach. But the main defense of the market mechanism as a major player in policy making is its appeal to efficiency. Before the first thoughts of regulation, this typically anthropocentric view has lead people and governments to wreak havoc on the natural environment. If an industrial waste killed off an entire species in a forest, is it a pollutant? Traditional anthropocentric policy would have said no, as no humans would be in concern. Many economists often insist that they’re impotent to say whether the rules are “good” or “right,” and that to put a value judgement on the chips as they fall is a purely emotional response. However, the whole implicit commitment to the value of aggregate human happiness and want satisfaction suggests that evaluative assumptions are integral to economics. So what do we do when economic machines churn out negative externalities like water and air pollution? We can either persuade the people, corporations, and nations to voluntarily stop polluting, coerce them by attaching criminal penalties and/or public standards to polluting, or use a different form of coercion by placing taxes or charges to units of pollution, or require the possession of legal rights to pollute in a cap-and-trade system. The first is usually denied to have much or any effectivity in our society dominated by, ironically, Baxterian selfish corporate forces. The second and third propose a coercion to get people to do the right thing, and imply the cooperative efforts of realizing property rights. However, the talk of property rights is something that needs to be clearly laid out.

What is a property right? The concept of having property in something may be understood to mean having some combination of rights with respect to the thing owned. For example, to have a property right on something can mean having the right to use it, the right to exclude others from using it, the right to transfer the property to someone else (including the right to own it as property), the right to be compensated for its use by others, and even the right to destroy it. Now to claim that something has moral standing is to suggest that it is not subject to be owned in any full-blown sense. What does this imply when we think about how we as a species are depleting the natural resources that we technically share? Garrett Hardin’s famous essay Tragedy of the Commons challenges our treatment of the commons along these lines.

The Tragedy of the Commons claims that valuable natural resources are held in common, and that unrestrained access to the commons often leads to overuse and exploitation, proving destructive to all of us as a people. Privatization is discouraged because it allows for the use, consumption, and ultimate destruction of the natural resources that happen to be arbitrarily located within a company or nation’s political borders. John Locke saw property as something that you acquire through mixing your labor with the object, allowing it to become yours. But doesn’t the infringement on property rights caused by misuse of the commons deserve rectification? For example, acid rain is a violation of many property rights (private owners do not directly consent to having their foliage poisoned), and has caused a loss of $5 billion a year to Germany’s timber industry.

Hardin even explains why Bentham’s utilitarian principle of the “greatest good for the greatest amount” cannot be realized. Mathematically it’s impossible to maximize for two variables at once, and in maximizing population you must minimize the work calories required to sustain that population. This actually becomes his thesis: the “‘population problem,’ as conventionally conceived, is a member of the class of problems that have no technical solution.” “Population naturally tends to grow exponentially,” and in a finite world this means “the per capita share of the world’s goods must steadily decrease.” It’s pretty simple. A finite world can support only a finite population, so population growth must eventually even off at zero to accommodate for all the energy that goes into supporting the optimum population size. Ecologically this is understood as the carrying capacity, and right now our global population is way above the carrying capacity. When this happens to non-human species, it becomes a game of survival of the fittest in competition for food; however, our society is constructed in a way that would never allow for such hunger games (at least in ours).

Without getting too esoteric, we are nothing more than energy materialized in matter. Unfortunately we don’t produce our own energy like plants, so we need to eat. We derive our energy from other means in the form of work calories obtained from the metabolism of food. This is the amount of energy essential for doing anything above just sustaining life. Currently not all people have access to work calories (enough food to get up and move), which means they get by at the bare minimum. But this isn’t just the case with feeding people. The umbrella problem is the acquisition of energy in general. Our pursuit of coal is not only pollutive, but finite as well. Since the dawn of industrial acquisition of goods from the common, the oceans of the world have suffered under the credence that its “inexhaustible” resources will be there to supply us, and this is simply not true. We’re “fouling our own nest” with sewage, chemicals, and radioactive wastes in our grounds and waters, and noxious and dangerous fumes in the air. We’re adding to the problem without limit, as we’re taking away the common resources needed by everyone. We’re burning the candle of the earth at both ends.

As stated above, Hardin’s central concern is that the freedom to breed is intolerable. In calling attention to the damage that innocent actions by individuals can inflict on the environment, he says that “to couple the concept of the freedom to breed with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the common is to lock the world into a tragic course of action.” Tragic, he means, in the sense that we are unintentionally causing the problems that will lead to our destruction. Hardin proposed a “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon,” as no perfect system of policy will be tolerable by all. This goes along with our recognition of the necessity of reform. He points out that restrictions on disposal of domestic sewage have widely been accepted in western civilization, but we’re still struggling to close the commons to pollution by automobiles, factories, insecticide, fertilizers, etc. Perhaps because these other pollution methods don’t directly appear as a burden to us as sewage management does (think of which you’d give priority to), and only until the pollution becomes so bad will we make as strong infrastructural commitments to their maintenance.

The way I see it, isn’t the fact that we have gotten to a point in civilization where we need to divide shares of the commons mean that we’re running the planet too fast? We’ve actually gotten to the point where as a species that has evolved with the earth we can now count and predict that we’re in danger of collapse. It would seem so unfathomable, but the reality is that our culture of consumption of resources is being adopted by other people. It would appear that a real golden age of modern humanity can only happen when the growth rate drops to zero – the perfect balance of constant birth and constant death. We need to start thinking with the common good in mind. We biologically cannot afford to deal with any company or nation’s selfishness as Baxter would have. We’ve enjoyed living beyond our means, but now that the rest of the world wants in on our lifestyle, plus the same for their kids, something’s gotta give. The cruise was fun, but now we’re stranded in the middle of the ocean, and there aren’t enough snacks for everyone. The truth here goes beyond one of inconvenience, it’s just scary.

Structuring Ethical Reasoning Analysis

Day 11 Blog Post

In evaluating whether the question of ethics or morality is really relevant for dealing with environmental problems, policy solutions, and motivating the public to act, the three-step method for analyzing ethical reasoning is applied. The method deals with not only ethical “ought” or “value” statements about the environment, but also incorporates “is” or “fact” statements from the natural sciences, social, political, and economic “policy” statements, from the social sciences, and “design policies” from design disciplines like architecture and urban planning. It is the combination of the empirical and ethical statements and evaluations that makes decision making more whole and beneficial.

Step 1: Figuring out what the author or theory is saying

Step 2: Applying the author or theory to a case study

Step 3: Critically evaluating the author or theory

Terms for Step 1

The “criterion of moral standing” is a characteristic or standard that the theory in question thinks beings have to have or meet if we are to acknowledge “moral standing” or “intrinsic moral value” in them, regard them as members of the “moral community,” and see them as  directly owed the ethical protections and duties of respect that are entailed in the theory’s ethical principle, values, and rules/policies. A common criterion of moral standing is sentience – the ability to use the senses, feel happiness/pleasure. The criterion of moral standing is defined by what the theory’s ethical principle focuses on as important. For example, in the utilitarian ethical theory, the principle is “greatest happiness/pleasure for the greatest number of people,” and in Kantian ethical theory the principle is “the furthering of humanity.”

Moral standing is the status of a being whose existence, well-being, and interests are something to which we have duties of respect. A form of moral standing is saying the being is “an end in itself” or to say the being “has intrinsic moral value,” which would be the Kantian version.

The moral community is the community of those beings with moral standing. Examples of plausible moral communities are all human beings, all rational beings, all sentient beings, or all living beings.

Moral agents are beings with moral standing, in the moral community, and are capable of being conscious or moral duties to others, reflecting on them, and consciously carrying out moral actions. People are the most obvious moral agents.

Moral patients are beings with moral standing, in the moral community, and are owed ethical duties; however, they don’t need to be capable of carrying out moral actions themselves. Infants are obvious moral patients because they are owed ethical duties to be cared for, but don’t carry out moral actions. Other possible moral patients could be, depending on who’s giving them moral standing, plants, mountains, or entire ecosystems.

Resources are entities without moral standing and thus not in the moral community. They are used as an instrumental means for the ends of those beings with moral standing.

“Duties to” something are direct duties owed to members of the moral community. “Duties regarding” something are indirect duties to the resources that others own. Since resources don’t have moral standing, we only have indirect duties regarding them. This distinction is primarily employed by anthropocentric theories. The concept of duties is central to Kantian theory. His principle was to further the ends of humanity (anthropocentric), but he proposed that although we don’t have any direct duties toward the environment or animals, we should refrain from doing whatever we want to them because our indifference to seeing suffering on the part of the environment or animals could spill over to our feelings toward people, so our respect toward anything non-human is indirectly respecting humanity in the end.

Moral relevancy is any consideration used to determine what our particular duties to another might be.

Moral irrelevancy is any basic moral consideration that does not correspond to what the ethical principle should focus on as “relevant.”

Discrimination is denying a being of moral standing and basic forms of ethical respect like life, freedom, equality of treatment, on the basis of a morally irrelevant and thus arbitrary consideration like race, gender, religion, nationality, etc.

The “-isms” are pervasive forms of such discrimination, such as racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, ageism, etc.

Anthropocentrism, or humanism, is the view that only human beings have moral standing, and that all nonhuman nature is in one way or another simply a resource or ‘means” for human beings. Most common view in traditional ethical theories (utilitarianism, natural law, etc).

Speciesism is the non-anthropocentric denial of the acknowledgement of moral standing and respect to the nonhuman on the basis of the morally irrelevant criterion and principle of species membership (being a rational homo sapien).

Moral extentionism refers to the progressive historical extension of the acknowledged principle of ethics, criterion of moral standing, and boundaries of the moral community so as to include those who have traditionally been excluded with the status of means/resources/slaves/marginalized second-class citizens. Non-anthropocentric ethical theories want to push this extentionism so that the moral community includes more than just human beings in varying degrees. For example, increase the boundary of the moral community to nonhuman animals (animal rights), all living things (biocentrism), everything including the inanimate (holism). For the most part, moral extentionism wants to eliminate the criterion of reason as a means of entry to the moral community.

Moral egalitarianism is the view that human members and non-human members of the moral community have equal moral standing and equal moral rights, like the right to life. The right to life of a human is not of less or more value than that of a nonhuman.

Moral hierarchy is the opposite of moral egalitarianism in that it sees nonhuman members of the moral community as having less moral standing than humans and their rights are less weighty than those of humans. Traditionally is has been easier to see human interests overriding nonhuman interests.

Step 2

Ethical conflicts over goods, values, rules, policies, stakeholder groups, and judgements have “trade offs,” “opportunity costs,” and “cost/benefit analysis.” The principle of the applied theory is used as a weighing mechanism to rank the conflicting set of goods and duties on each side.

Step 3

Just like in critically evaluating the best scientific theory, the best ethical theory is the one that is superior to all its competitors in a number of relevant respects. Any ethical theory consists of a set of claims thought to be belief-worthy. One criterion of assessment for an ethical theory is simply whether its empirical assumptions are plausible. If a normative theory presupposes empirically false assumptions, that seems sufficient treason to reject it.   Then, a set of claims is said to be logically consistent if and only if they can all be true. The comprehensiveness of scope is also important; you want an ethical theory that provides guidance over a greater range of decision making without being too vague. Another criterion is the compatibility of the combined moral theory with suitable empirical assumptions to our deepest, pretheoretical moral convictions – unless the moral conviction is rooted in cultural indoctrination and rationally suspect. Overall, the most acceptable moral outlook will be one that is clear, sufficiently precise, comprehensive, logically consistent, compatible with the best scientific theories and results, and compatible with our deepest and most prejudice-free moral convictions.