Sunday, August 28, 2011

Given a new dignity… 

At Mass today the priest said how Jesus giving a new name to Simon indicates how God wants to "give us a new dignity." He referred to the last chapter of St. John's Gospel where Jesus calls His disciples "friends". He also noted how Confucian society is comprised of five levels, the only one of which that was not "vertical" being friendship. (Cf. these data on "The Five Bonds".) In the midst of all this, he made the point that, while we belong in the animal realm (e.g. we can get medical transplants from animals, etc.), we are more than animals, and God intends to give each of us a greater dignity.

Then I got to codgitating.

It is increasingly common nowadays to deride any suggestion of human specialness or uniqueness as "speciesist" snobbery. We are all animals, and human morality is based on minimizing undue suffering, the argument runs, so we are morally obliged to minimize the undue suffering of our fellow animals, even if they are not "human" like us.

Here was my worry, however: If granting moral immunity to non-human animals is a moral imperative, why don't non-human animals themselves grant such moral immunity to each other? More to the point, if non-human animals are "effectively" like us (which is just the way moderns say "essentially" the same, without having to say dirty words), why don't they assert their moral demands for themselves?

If non-humans need us to prop up their equally intrinsic moral worth, then we are different from non-human animals in a crucial way, namely, in that we can recognize and institute moral worth. Precisely by arguing that we must protect animals' moral dignity, anti-speciesists undermine their own core thesis, since the intrinsic moral duty of protecting non-human dignity is a special prerogative of humans.

Further reflection leads me to see that not even humans can "give themselves" intrinsic moral worth, since giving implies taking, and nothing intrinsic can be given or taken at will. Therefore, the intrinsic moral dimension in being-a-human cannot be something humans make for themselves, and therefore must come from another source. Plainly, it does not come from non-human animals, since they are precisely the creatures whose need of moral amnesty started this whole codgitation. Will a naturalist say that Nature bestows "intrinsic moral dignity" on humans? I doubt it. For according to Naturalism, humanness is no more intrinsic to the natural order than barnacleness, and so the only intrinsic traits natural entities may have are those which are common to Nature as a whole (i.e. mass, size, charge, etc.).

So it seems arguments against speciesism are arguments for a kind of theism, but theism inevitably implies a special status for humans as those in contact with God.


djr said...

I don't want to defend "anti-speciesism" by any means, but your arguments here and elsewhere do seem to veer toward knocking down strawmen. I say 'veer toward' because you're certainly right that many people, including some otherwise intelligent and capable philosophers, hold more or less the view you describe. But you ignore all the more moderate and thus more reasonable versions of the view you oppose. Thus, why only consider views that treat "morality" as fundamentally a matter of minimizing suffering when there are eudaimonists who argue that we have moral duties toward non-human animals? Why focus only on crude naturalist views when many -- perhaps even most? -- defenders of the moral claims of animals are opposed to reductive naturalism? Why consider only the silly claim that there are no important differences between humans and other animals when there are people who freely acknowledge the obvious differences you mention? It is, after all, a standard argument in the discussion of these matters that moral agency is not necessary for moral patienthood; whatever you think of those arguments, there are arguments, not mere assumptions or blind assertions.

Perhaps you would benefit from reading Stephen Clark's work on non-human animals, since Clark is not guilty of buying into secular humanism, reductive naturalism, consequentialism, or any of the other stuff you're associating with the defense of the moral claims of animals. He's a rather outspoken Christian of a slightly weird but nonetheless rather orthodox variety. Among the most relevant of his works are Biology and Christian Ethics, The Moral Claims of Animals, and The Political Animal.

If you'd prefer more historical auctoritas, it might be worth remembering that Platonists in antiquity were pretty standardly opposed to killing animals or eating meat. That includes saints like Clement of Alexandria. My point isn't that we should be vegetarians, it's just that one doesn't need to be a debased 'modern' in order to think that we should.

One Brow said...

djr makes the counter-point in one direction (religious people occasionally ascribe an unusual level of moral status to animals), I'll be happy to make it in the other direction. Most atheists have not issue at all with treating humans as different from other animals simply because we are human. For example, Myers runs experiments on zebrafish; Gorski experiements on mice; Penn had publically proclaimed he'd kill thousands of monkeys to save a human. For such people, there is no point in inflicting unnecessary pain, but they accept causinganimals pain and/or death is the price of keeping more humans alive.

Of course, my view is that humans are rationalizers, and will draw upon whatever beliefs they have to justify the positions that feel right to them.

djr said...

Well, I don't think it helps in this discussion to divide the world up into 'religious people' and 'non-religious people,' since too many of those who meet one of those descriptions will turn out to more closely resemble members of the other category when it comes to the questions of metaphysics and morality that are relevant here. It's less helpful, I think, to remind us that some non-religious people who are also the kind of naturalists that Elliot is discussing are just fine with treating humans and non-human animals very differently; it is, after all, just Elliot's point that a naturalist does not have any very good reasons not to do so and that naturalists are being inconsistent in showing humans certain kinds of preference. My objection to Elliot is much deeper: it's that if we leave silly views like reductive naturalism out of the picture, there are plenty of views which are not obviously inconsistent and which maintain both that humans differ profoundly from non-human animals and that we still owe it to animals to treat them in certain ways and not in others.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Well, I'm glad I'm not the only one who sees reductive naturalism as silly!

I'm all for animal compassion. But I think the most plausible way for Christians to do so is to see animal compassion as compassion to the animal nature God has given us. In caring for animals, we are making homage to our ancestors. This is almost literally true in an evolutionary reading, but even on a great-chain-of-being reading, paying homage to the animal substratum of the soul's operations makes sense. Cue animal-loving Platonists.

A lot of what goes on my blog are reflections or insights I have on the fly. My notes usually end up inside the books I read. I think part of what hit me, and which I tried to convey in this post, is that it is precisely our human uniqueness which grounds our obligation to non-human animals. After all, we don't rightly scold other animals for being a**holes. The rub for me is that granting THAT kind of moral/spiritual stature to humans, qua stewards of a kinder Natural harmony, already imports a heap of theism.

One Brow said...

Whenever djr posts, I learn somethi8ng interesting (of course, Codgitator (Cadgertator) often has the same quality).

In my understanding of reductive naturalism, I am doubtful of the usefulness of the model. Order and pattern are clearly (to me) things that change the behavior in objects, and can't be intelligibly reduced without incorporating them in another form.

djr said...

I'm not sure I understand that, but to hear you say that anything "cannot be intelligibly reduced" warms my icy cold heart.

Indeed, it is icy cold.

I don't know how much theism or any sort of strong distinction between rational and non-rational animals really matters to the basic issues, to be honest. I have difficulties with the sort of hard and fast difference between the rational and non-rational that some Thomists defend, but it's clear as day to anybody who pays attention that human beings are extremely different from even the most cognitively sophisticated non-human animals. I just don't see how it matters whether that difference is of a deep metaphysical variety. Even granting the strong Thomist view, it still seems essential to my flourishing as a rational animal that I not treat my fellow animals cruelly. Whether or not that means I should never eat them, I haven't decided (I do regularly enjoy bacon, so I guess in that sense I've decided). My aim here is not so much to convince anybody of anything as to insist that one doesn't need to be a reductive naturalist or a consequentialist to think that we have some serious duties to non-rational animals.


I am not quite in an ordinary frame of mind. I apologize. Not really; I semi-apologize, how's that?