Paws and Think

Day 25 Blog Post

Following the previous entry’s topic of the moral standing of animals, a breath of fresh air comes with the works of Peter Singer and Tom Regan. I’m in three classes that have all talked about Peter Singer for more than a week’s worth of their curriculum, so I’ve been living and breathing animal morality and consideration (unfortunately around the holidays, when extensive meat-eating for my family is as basic as wearing pants). Peter Singer is known for his work on making people consider our treatment of animals, and Tom Regan is responsible for the developments of the animal rights movement. The cruelties toward animals at the greedy hand of man is just another example of environmental injustice.

Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation implores us to come to terms with our treatment of fellow sentient beings as morally as wrong as racism or sexism. He claims under utilitarian grounds that our justification for such horrid treatment of animals is based in nothing but speciesism, the idea that we can treat a different type of species different merely based on the fact that they are a different species than our own, or just because they’re not homo sapiens. “If we have learned anything from the liberation movements, we should have learned how different it is to be aware of the ways in which we discriminate until they are forcefully pointed out to us,” and so animal liberation is a demand that we cease to regard the exploitation of other species as naturally inevitable, and that, instead, we see it as a continuing moral outrage. Peter Singer is a utilitarian, and urges us to realize that animals do in fact feel pleasure and pain, just like us. It doesn’t take much veterinary science to know that most animals, especially mammals, have very similar physiologies and anatomical structures. And it’s even more obvious to anyone who’s seen even one dog at least once in their life that animals do in fact feel pain and happiness as well. Based on this indisputable fact, the school of utilitarianism would tell us that we must eliminate that which causes suffering and choose that which maximizes pleasure. Again, it’s not rocket science to come to the conclusion that chickens do not like being held upside-down, having their heads plunged in electrified baths, and so this behavior should be eliminated because it is morally wrong. Even more unacceptable is the fact that experimenting on animals for academic and commercial ends is a huge industry. Estimates suggest that around 80 million animals suffer at the hand of testing, mostly for non-vital, trivial experiments. I think we know not to get shampoo in our eyes, the endless blinding of animals needn’t occur for our shockingly superficial tastes. Also, experiments are often supported by public funds and can even be found in most scientific journals. All of this is evidence of our speciesist disregard for the immense and totally preventable pain and slowly induced deaths of millions of animals. However, being that Singer is a utilitarian, he is not saying that it is necessarily wrong to eat animals – just that to cause them pain (mainly under industrial conditions) is immoral. Similar to this idea is the Humane Society’s three Rs: reduce the amount of meat you consume, refine where you purchase your meat from, and replace meat with substitutes wherever possible.  Even Bentham wished to extend the pleasure-pain principle to animals, since many are sentient and therefore fall into the category of beings whose pleasure should be maximized.

Since one must live under a rock to not realize that animals suffer intensely under the institutions we’ve set up, the real evil is in our permissibility to allow these things to go on. Singer says a proposal to revamp the farming conditions was sent through the British government stating “Any animal should at least have room to turn around freely” and was rejected on the grounds that it was too idealistic. This is insane. It is even more frustrating when people understand that these animals are sentient, capable of feeling pain, and acknowledge that factory farm conditions are the way they are, but try to brush it off because “they’re going to die anyway” or “it’s not wrong if it’s done humanely” (humanity doesn’t exist in the factory farming system). There’s no comfort in any way shape or form, it’s too costly to give the animals enough room to turn around. And as for the argument that “we need to eat meat,” this is just false. We’ve known that our bodies don’t need meat, and that we can get our protein from grown sources like beans that don’t come with all the unhealthy fats and chemicals in industry raised meat. As a matter of fact, factory farming reduces the amount of farm-grown protein plants because they give such large reserves to the animals who metabolically use up 90% of the protein. So, just like most of pillars of the American economy, the food industry creates it’s own downward-spiraling system that traps us into doing exactly what’s easy and cheap, but harmful, to ourselves (and the animals).

I actually recently saw Peter Singer at a panel at school where he and other speakers discussed the morality of animal treatment, although it was most focused on the religious angle of the issue. But Singer made an important point that’s worth taking home: “I don’t live in a world that makes my existence dependent on the suffering and death of others.” There really is no solid, large-scale reason for the mistreatment of animals… other than the money we give to support it. The right answer to most problems in our society is be a wise, public citizen over being a mindless, private citizen.

In Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights, the animal rights movement has three main goals: 1) total abolition of the use of animals in science, 2) total dissolution of commercial animal agriculture, and 3) total elimination of commercial and sport hunting and trapping. It argues that the whole system is wrong, and that we can’t change unjust institutions by “tidying them up.” Like Singer, he argues that the fundamental wrong is the system that allows us to view animals as resources, that they exist to serve us. The Kantian cruelty-kindness view states under deontological grounds that we have a direct duty to be kind and not to be cruel to animals, and this is where we get organizations like PETA. Under the similar utilitarian premises as Singer states, the fact that animals are sentient beings capable of pleasure and pain puts them on the same grounds for treatment as us. You would come off as scum of the earth if you denied someone fair treatment based on the color of his or her skin, so why not the same for another fellow sentient being, who happens to be of a different species? The rights view says that to treat another in ways that disrespect the other’s inherent value is to act immorally, to violate the individual’s rights. This is what the movement is calling for, an extension of the moral community (which we’ve only recently granted to women and minorities legally) to our friends with tails and feathers.

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.

Sharing Is Caring

Day 12 Blog Post

Given the current conditions of the environment and how everything from rainforest health to economic policy is so tangled together, it is difficult to determine a course of action that is beneficial for everyone. But such is the struggle of humanity throughout the ages of our existence. How do we organize a world that’s fair for everyone? Justice for people and the environment? Is justice for the environment not a culmination of justice for all living things and the systems in which they function? How do we satisfy everyone’s livelihood? All these questions involve the application of ethics. But is ethics or morality relevant in discussing environmental policy? Why not? When the actions of one person, group of people, company, nation, or any entity affect another, the question of ethics will inevitably show up. The study of ethics can be very tricky, and there are so many different ethical theories on how to conduct ourselves. It might even be impossible to use one to satisfy all the planet’s nations and cultures. But something has to be done.

One way to start is with Aristotle’s practical syllogism. This is the use of premises and a consequent conclusion that arises soundly and validly. This is structured as so: general normative/ethical premise (ethical part) + particular factual premise (natural and social part) = conclusion about the particular thing specified in premise 2. The first premise states the ought, or what should be done and the second premise states the empirical fact, or what is known to be true. Here’s an applied example of the formula:

Premise 1: All endangered species ought to be protected.

Premise 2: The northeastern box turtle is endangered.

Conclusion: Therefore, we ought to protect the northeastern box turtle.

One ethical theory is the “two egoisms” and social darwinism. These are psychological egoism, which is the idea that every human act is motivated by self-interest, and ethical egoism, which is the idea that each person ought to act in such a manner as to promote or maximize his or her self-interest. The only difference between the two egoisms is that psychological egoism is the empirical statement that everyone does act in ways that maximize his or her self interest and ethical egoism is saying that everyone should act in his or her self-interest. Both of these egoisms see all actions as inherently selfish to some extent. Social darwinism draws on the normative conclusion of ethical egoism in that it is desirable that only the fittest survive. Social darwinism endorses the view that it is fitting to be indifferent to the interests of other human beings, and presumably the rest of the biosphere, so long as this does not adversely affect one’s own well-being.

The divine command theory considers that whether an act is right or not depends solely on whether god commands it. This theory’s approach to decision making involves the following assumptions: 1) there is a god, 2) god commands and forbids certain acts, 3) an act is right (or permissible) if and only if god commands it, and 4) humans can sometimes ascertain what it is that god commands or forbids. This theory is problematic because it removes scientific fact from reasoning and can be swayed to permit any act “if god commands it,” which can only be ascertained through human (technically rendering the decision anthropocentrically-based) means unless god comes down and says so himself.

The rights theory is one that has been employed by western culture but still a little difficult to universalize. For example, it is important to note the difference between saying “someone has a right” and “an act is right.” There’s also the notion that with rights come duties to uphold those rights. The rights theories all maintain that all beings within a certain more or less “natural” kind have the same rights. But the problem with this view is that rights are generally denied to any non-human, thus the critique of anthropocentrism is large. However, not all humans can have the same rights. Blind people don’t have rights to drive, right? Natural rights are held by human, sentient, rational beings. Also, sometimes rights are taken away in dire circumstances (like war or scenarios between life and death).

Utilitarianism is one of the most famous ethical theories. Proposed by Jeremy Bentham, it claims that we ought to do that which will bring about the greatest balance of pleasure over pain, or utility over disutility. The principle of utility states that the right thing to do is whatever maximizes the total amount of net utility; this is also called the greatest happiness principle. The rightness or wrongness of an act is entirely dependent on the consequences. Utilitarianism demands that the good and bad consequences for everyone affected by an action be taken into account and be given due weight in determining whether the action, among all the alternatives available, will maximize total net utility; implying that it’s not just the agent’s well-being that is significant. Utilitarianism is closely related to the task of cost-benefit analysis. Since the theory goes by maximizing and reducing pleasure and pain, then it applies to all sentient beings, such as people and animals. The term sentient in philosophy refers to any creature capable of experiencing suffering or satisfaction, in whatever forms they may take. Which animals and humans are sentient is an empirical question, there’s a yes or no answer (whether we know the answer is a different story). But utilitarianism isn’t fairness for all, there will always be a minority that will end up suffering for the end result of the benefit for the majority. And it says nothing about non-sentient beings (trees, rivers, natural entities), so technically the utilitarian would approve of (depending on how grand a scale of time one looks at) clearing a rainforest for the economic benefit of many.

Natural law theory goes by the “natural order of things,” and that what is good and right is a direct function of the way things are, in particular the way human beings are (this is based on their natural capacities, tendencies, and desires). That being said, certain norms are found in nature, and so it makes the assumption that the good of humans (and perhaps other creatures as well) is constituted by the realization of these natural strivings or natural tendencies; and the perfection of such capacities in humans constitutes human flourishing.  The natural law is often claimed to be an expression of the divine will and can be ascertained by reasoning. This theory is hard to use because the natural tendencies of all humans is a squishy subject. Human nature is something that’s widely disputed, and what’s “natural” for one person on one side of the earth in a nation and within a certain culture may not be so “natural” for someone on the other side, in another nation, of another culture. Its reliance on the divine will is also problematic. This theory is too reminiscent of Aristotle’s view of the natural hierarchy. Just because someone may make a good slave does not mean it is right for that person to be a slave. To say that the natural end of some species is to serve others has deep implications and has led to historically “immoral” acts and behavior. If this is true, then would the natural function of humans be to live at the top of the food chain and then feed the decomposers that take care of our remains when we die? In the end, this theory relies too much on inferring normative conclusions from empirical premises.

Kant says that one cannot determine the morality of an act solely by assessment of its consequences. Kant’s supreme principle of morality is the categorical imperative, and it has two versions. The first states that one should act only on those maxims of one’s actions that one can, as a rational being, will to be a universal law and obeyed by all moral agents. So, if the question be “is it ok to drive a car out of convenience?” The answer would be no, because allowing all rational people to drive out of mere convenience would cause further environmental disaster, which would not be willed by any rational person (hopefully). The other version is that we would never treat a person/rational autonomous creature as a mere means to an end. Kant’s reliance on the cognitive capacities to judge by fails the animal rights activists. He would see “shooting a dog when it’s no longer useful” as not morally wrong; however he suggests that we not treat animals cruelly because doing so makes a person less likely to care about people too.

The notion of environmental justice is something that has only started to make headway. It’s tricky to employ any of the above stated ethical theories in a discussion that would yield any type of environmental justice in part because environmental justice is something that strives to provide just living conditions for the widest amount of living things ever debated over in western culture (all of them). The major historical foundations we have in the social contract are tempting because it seems so basic to us that just acts arise from consent, but there are some participants who cannot consent. Young children and the severely retarded are just a small example. Many living things being affected by the contracts and consequences of human actions never agreed to such contracts. The ducks who drown in oiled waters, the polar bears who swim to their death looking for sturdy ice, the people who live near dumping grounds for toxic wastes – none of them agreed to such conditions. So, one radical and relatively new Theory of Justice suggested by John Rawls uses the imagined “veil of ignorance” to construct a bargaining situation in which we wouldn’t be aware of our economic class, race, nationality, generation, even personality in order to organize a system in which we would agree to the conditions of the lowest members on the totem pole in the chance that we were that person. This way of thinking encourages justice to future generations, or “intergenerational justice.” Even though Rawls designed this concept anthropologically – “for persons with a sense of justice” – it can easily be applied to design a social and political structure for all sentient creatures. Why not let the veil of ignorance also mask our species?

The idea of a unique environmental ethic is hard to pose, because the already difficult intrahuman conflicts are great enough, and to add non-human interests muddies the ethical waters. But simplicity must not again be bought at the price of reasonableness. Perhaps a movement from the old anthropocentrism to more of a biocentrism, in which all life is given equal moral standing. Boiling ethical theories down to their most basic trade-offs and then weighing them seems like a good idea. But sharing the limited space on a planet that comes with politically cut-up borders, standing traditions, and 6 billion new neighbors is no easy task. A revolution is in order.