Advanced Search

Hi- I got this question from Harvard Econ. Prof. Greg Mankiw's blog. He got it

Hi- I got this question from Harvard Econ. Prof. Greg Mankiw's blog. He got it from Richard Rorty. Here it is: "Aliens from another planet, with vastly superior intelligence to humans, land on earth in order to consume humans as food. What argument could you make to convince the aliens not to eat us that would not also apply to our consumption of beef?" What's the answer!?!?! Thanks!

It's a fine question, isn't it. Short, sweet, and deeply provocative. In the interests of full disclosure, however, I should, at the outset, let you know that I don't think we should eat beef--in part because of the sort of reasons this question elicits. That being said, I don't think that the claim the question seems to advance is by itself decisive--namely that it's human's superior intelligence that provides grounds for eating beef. After all, if minimal intelligence itself justified eating an organism, then humans with minimal intelligence (including the aged, those with brain injuries, infants and fetuses, the mentallly retarded, public officials, etc.) would be candidates for consumption, and various computers would have moral standing. But establishing moral standing isn't simply a matter of determining intelligence. Rather, I'd say that what principally (not exclusively) marks an entity as one not to be consumed is its sharing or its capacity to share (or have shared) in certain projects and forms of life, especially individual projects and forms of life, we find both valuable and respectable.

The projects and forms of life I refer to commonly depend upon a certain standard of intelligence, but they also depend upon certain emotional and sentimental capacities. So, the very fact that we could present or attempt to present arguments on our behalf to the aliens (that is, to engage in the forms of life that include crafting arguments, making moral defenses, arguing for the value and standing of something) might do it. The aliens might also be made to understand and appreciate our the projects that we develop across time like our sciences, industries, and nations. But we might also succeed in getting the aliens to value and respect and understand of those human forms of life that compose our arts, literatures, friendships, love affairs, and families, etc. In addition, and perhaps crucially, we should also show the aliens that these projects and forms of life matter to us, that we care about them, that we value them, that it's a matter of profound importance to us whether they continue to exist or not, that we have an interest in their existence and therefore our own. The 'replicants' in Blade Runner establish their own moral claim to existence, I think, in much this way. (A typical computer, by contrast, might be able to argue and even produce art; but since it wouldn't matter to the computer whether or not we switched it off and recycled its parts, doing so wouldn't be much of a moral issue.)

If, however, the aliens have no capacity to sympathize with us, to feel for themselves that those projects and forms of life are valuable, to care that we care about such things, then even if our lives can be adequately explained to the aliens and even if our intelligence were on par with theirs, we're done for. For myself, with regard to beef, I have found that the discoveries of animal behaviorists, anatomists, etc., expose certain forms of life among cattle with which I can sympathize and about which I have come to care--in particular, their social relationships, their ways of fearing, suffering, desiring, and enjoying, as well as these things mattering to them. And so, for the most part, I refuse beef as I would hope the aliens would refuse us.

Can a non-human animal be cruel? Is it cruel of a hawk to kill a squirrel? Or of

Can a non-human animal be cruel? Is it cruel of a hawk to kill a squirrel? Or of a cat to bat around a mouse before killing it?

I think it is reasonable to suppose that in order to have the character defect of being cruel (and thus, in order to act not just as a cruel thing would act, but actually to act cruelly) the being in question has to be able to do something like deliberate about the moral or ethical value of different courses of action. A hawk might be able to do something like deciding whether to attack this squirrel, but I strongly doubt that hawks can consider whether or not attacking squirrels is for the best.

Now, if you tortured a mouse, I would fault you as cruel, because I regard you as capable of deliberating about whether torturing mice is for the best. But when your cat does it, the cat acts in the way a cruel thing acts--you, for example, if you did that--but the cat does not act cruelly and is not cruel, in my view.

I am thoroughly confused by the ethics of vegetarianism, which to my mind seems

I am thoroughly confused by the ethics of vegetarianism, which to my mind seems more of a religious objection towards eating meat than a scientific point of view. Recently I attended a lecture by Peter Singer ( Animal Liberation ) on the ethics of eating meat. One thing he did not address was differentiating between the 'killing' of the (sentient) animal and the 'eating' of it. OK- so here is my question: is it ethical to eat roadkill, or animals that have died of "natural" causes or of "old age"? Further to this, is being killed by a human primate not a "natural" cause of death of a cow? If humans shouldn't kill cows to eat (because we know better), perhaps we could let lions kill the cows, then we can eat them afterwards? Isn't it unethical to tell people in the developing world they shouldn't eat meat? - especially when a huge percentage of women in the developing world are iron deficient? Thanks, Grant M.

There are at least three different kinds of argument in favor of vegetarianism, and each of the arguments have slightly different implications for what is OK.

One argument is concerned with human health (so is more prudential than moral). The idea is that eating dead animals is not healthy for humans, or at least a balanced vegetarian diet is more healthy. This view is not really compatible with eating roadkill, but would be compatible with eating meat if there was insufficient vegetarian food to keep one healthy.

Another argument is concerned with the environment. The idea is that factory farming wastes precious resources (like water) and is inefficient in producing the nutrients humans need. (For details, see "Environmental vegetarianism" in Wikipedia.) This argument also doesn't preclude killing or eating animals where the practices used to raise them are environmentally sound (but it can be developed into a case for a qualified veganism, given the parallel concerns about the environmental impact of the dairy industry).

The "animal rights" argument is concerned with the morality of killing, or causing unnecessary pain to, an animal. Singer, as Prof. Lipton has mentioned, is primarily concerned with pain and suffering. But many vegetarians are opposed even to painless killing of animals for food, sport, or fashion. One need not be religious to believe that if something is sentient then it is something of value and/or it has interests that we ought to respect. To destroy something of value unnecessarily is wrong. To act in a way that unnecessarily violates the interests of another is wrong. These are familiar enough ideas, and some vegetarians just make the added assumption that animals are sentient. As you point out, these ideas don't yield absolute prohibitions against ever eating meat, but they do suggest that routine meat-eating (hunting and leather-wearing) is wrong.

Why shouldn't we test drugs and cosmetics on mentally challenged or severely

Why shouldn't we test drugs and cosmetics on mentally challenged or severely disabled human beings, rather than animals?

Other things being equal, perhaps we might. But of course they're not equal. Our social morality -- the morality we live by -- is 'speciesist' in the sense that human beings -- whatever their mental or physical capacities -- are considered to be due special protection. If we were to seek to remove that protection, chances are that it would probably degrade our ethical sensitivities to the point that things went overall worse for non-human animals than they do at present. What we should be asking, rather than your question, is: Why should we continue testing drugs and cosmetics on non-humans to the extent we do, when we wouldn't dream of carrying out such testing on human beings with similar capacities?

Isn't it more morally acceptable that we use consenting, informed adults in

Isn't it more morally acceptable that we use consenting, informed adults in scientific tests rather than animals? The adults would at least know what they were being tested for and the possible benefits. Added to which the tests are likely to be safer as scientists would be more likely to value a human life rather than that of an animal. Plus this way would fulfil the moral criterion for both utilitarianism as it decreases suffering for the reasons aforementioned and Kantianism but using no one as a mere means, human or animal (although Kant himself argued that an animal cannot be used as a mere means I will ignore this as it is arguable and that if we can avoid using them as a mere means then we should). Could it also be argued that testing on animals is even worse when no consenting, informed adult volunteered? And that such tests shouldn't be done under any circumstances? Many thanks :)

I think the PETA people will think I have a very blind moral eye, but I am inclined to think that your question makes the issue far more simple than it is. For one thing, I think there are morally significant differences between different species of non-human animals. I wouldn't think of causing gratuitous suffering or death to a wild primate, for example, but gladly crush mosquitoes to death whenever given the chance. For another (and related to the first, in fact) I think the very idea of whether animals do or do not consent and how this notion may apply to them is hardly obvious, and perhaps simply otiose. If animals (or some species) do not and cannot give consent or refuse it, then it seems to me this is not a useful more indicator for them.

How can speciesism, be immoral for people, but moral for the animals that

How can speciesism, be immoral for people, but moral for the animals that clearly prefer their own species? If animals are morally culpable for speciesism, can animals be held morally responsible for other things like murder?

I agree with John Moore's response. I'd add these two additional considerations.

First, it might be a bit strained to say that non-human animals are guilty of "speciesism" insofar as it may not really make sense to say that those animals possess the concept of "species," much less act upon it. To be a speciesist, I'd say, requires something like this: that "one use the concept of species to justify excluding certain beings from moral consideration" (one might add, I suppose, "in an indefensible way"). Other animals might in practice discriminate among prey and non-prey in ways that we can articulate through the ideology of species; but I don't think they themselves use that ideology to make their discriminations.

Secondly, I think it an interesting question as to the extent to which non-human animals might be initiated in meaningful ways into the moral world we humans inhabit. Vicki Hearne, I think, has some interesting thoughts along these lines. In my own work, I've used Hume's theoretical framework to address the issue. My sense is that the extent to which non-humans can be moral agents is rather limited but perhaps not entirely non-existent.

Is it possible to establish that dogs dream? If not, are there any possible

Is it possible to establish that dogs dream? If not, are there any possible future developments that could?

I think it probably has been reasonably well established. There is a plausible article about this by Susan Daffon at www.pet-tails.com/LPMArticle.asp?ID=234

Sleeping dogs exhibit a lot of behavioural signs of dreaming: they make running motions, lick their lips and so on. They exhibit rapid-eye movement sleep. And some tests have been done that tend to indicate that what goes in their brains when they sleep is pretty similar to what goes on in ours.

The best explanation for all this is that they do indeed dream. As Richard says, this doesn't constitute 'proof'. But it does give us reason to believe.

Why aren't more contemporary ethicists doing work informed by the broader social

Why aren't more contemporary ethicists doing work informed by the broader social-biological scope of animal behavior?

I may not be best positioned to address this question, since my own work in ethical theory is mostly not deeply informed by broader social-biological perspectives on animal behavior, but I'll have a try. The question seems to assume (a) that ethicists are not influenced by social-biological perspectives on animal behavior and (b) that they should be. But both assumptions may be open to question. Here, much may depend on what the questioner has in mind by social-biological perspectives and the way in which they might inform ethics. If this is a catch-all for any good work done in the natural and social sciences, then (a) might be doubted. At least, it would be overstated. While some ethicists pursue primarily internal questions about ethics conceived of as articulating principles that both subsume and explain common moral judgments and also provide reflectively acceptable guidance and criticism, others do work that is interdisciplinary in some way or other. For instance, there has been recent work (e.g. Doris, Harman, and Vranas) about how the precepts of virtue theory are affected by the situationist paradigm in social and personality psychology. Many moral philosophers and decision theorists are interested by ways in which conceptions of rationality are affected by the discovery of so-called framing effects. Current work on altruism is often situated in part in relation to discussions in game theory and evolutionary biology. Jurisprudential discussions of responsibility and culpability are often shaped by work done in developmental psychology and neuroscience (a subject in which I have written myself). Now there may be more truth in (a) if "social-biological" is taken to refer to the narrower field of socio-biology. Even here there are some philosophers (e.g. Kitcher, Sober, Ruse, Midgely, Gibbard, and Flanagan) who see potential bearing of socio-biological ideas on some issues within ethics. For instance, Flanagan thinks that socio-biology might place some feasibility/realism constraints on what a moral theory could reasonably demand of agents. But in general caution is needed here. This is issue (b). Socio-biological accounts of the evolution of particular traits and dispositions purport to explain where and why these traits arose. What traits contributed to survival in very different circumstances may provide a poor guide to how we should behave now or what traits we should try to cultivate or reform. Traits that were selectively advantageous relative to a particular environment need not have been selectively optimal for that environment. What was advanatageous/optimal for one environment may not be for another, different environment. And there may be a lot we should care about besides reproductive fitness.

The bottom-line is that ethics, as practiced by most contemporary ethicists, is a normative science (or art), whereas sociobiology is a descriptive or explanatory science. That doesn't mean there can be nothing that one can learn from the other, but it does mean that they are very different enterprises. On this view, which recognizes the autonomy of the two disciplines, it makes no more sense to ask the ethicist why he isn't talking a lot about sociobiology than it does to ask the sociobiologist why she isn't talking about whether we have duties to future generations.

I often find myself thinking what really distinguishes Humans apart from other

I often find myself thinking what really distinguishes Humans apart from other animals. If it is intelligence (high or low is irrelevant, it is still an inelegance) then this statement isn't true since we know that there are numbers of highly intelligent species including birds (non-mammal). So I came to conclusion that the only thing that does separate us is art, or perhaps understanding the value of art. But to contradict myself I keep flashing back on various images and video clips of cats or other animals "painting" on the canvas. Do you think in your philosophical opinion do these animals go through similar (high or low is irrelevant) process of appreciating art.

A fascinating question. I suspect that art appreciation might well be important, although perhaps only as a symptom of an underlying difference.

Let's look at the question more generally. It is important for us to know what are the essential differences between humans and other animals for two reasons. First, because it is an important part of understanding who we are. Second, because we eat animals, wear their skins, keep them in zoos, experiment on them and so forth -- all things that we tend to feel are morally wrong with respect to human beings.

Philosophers, then, tend to be divided into three very general camps. 1. Those who believe that there are morally significant differences between human beings and animals. 2. Those who believe that there are not such differences, and thus tend to argue for animal rights. 3. Those who feel this is the wrong question to be asking. Here, we'll ignore the third group, for simplicity.

The most common distinctions given by philosophers in the first group are: reasoning, especially abstract reasoning; language use; moral reasoning and action. The 18th Century philosophy Kant argued that the third of these was the most important, because only this difference could itself be a morally relevant difference. We have obligations to humans, partly because humans are capable of having obligations. The fact that a cow (say) cannot speak would have to be supplemented by an argument that this lack is morally significant, and I am permitted to eat it.

Art appreciation, as a capacity, is much less commonly proposed. It is also very difficult to determine whether a cat, for example, appreciates or even makes art. The capacity for abstract thought seems much easier to decide.

One final point: you say that the difference between low and high intelligence is irrelevant. However, significant differences in intelligence may not be simply a question of quantity, but rather of type. Let us say, for argument’s sake, that a human brain is structured pretty much the same as a cat’s, but has 20 times the number of neurons. Now, does this mean the human is 20 times as intelligent, or rather that the increase in neurons yields a different kind of intelligence, which is not on the same scale? The smartest cat ever could not take an IQ test; not because it is not smart enough quantitatively, but because its intelligence is of a different qualitative type. This different type of intelligence might also be what is manifesting itself in the capacity to make and appreciate art. However, even if we accept this, again another argument would be required to show that it was morally significant.

Do chimpanzees really enjoy eating bananas?

Do chimpanzees really enjoy eating bananas?

Perhaps you mistyped the URL for the "Ask Chimpanzees" website?

Chimps do have brains very similar to ours, and it's likely that when they eat the food that they pursue, they are in states that are physiologically like ours when we eat what we enjoy. Plus their brain states play similar roles to our enjoyments: they lead the chimps to keep eating (and not to discard the food and look elsewhere), they reinforce the chimps' preference for the food item, and so on. I think most people familiar with chimps would say, obviously they enjoy bananas.

Ah, you say, so they have pleasure analogues when they eat bananas, but do they literally experience pleasure? And how could we ever answer this? What is pleasure--what constitutes feeling pleasure? Is it a physiological sort of state that requires having brains like ours? Maybe so--maybe what we're confronted with when we notice our pleasure is in fact some physiological state, and it's this that we call "pleasure". Or is pleasure a more abstract state that requires only structural and functional commonalities with human brains? Maybe so--maybe, for instance, our understanding of the role that pleasure plays in us serves to define "pleasure", so that to feel pleasure is to have a state playing that sort of role. There are other possibilities for how the concept of "pleasure" might have acquired a meaning in a way that sets a standard for what chimps, say, have to be like if they're to count as feeling pleasure. On some of these standards, chimps are enough like us to count; on others, not.

Are we even confident that our use and understanding of the word "pleasure" has established some one standard for what it would take for non-humans to count as literally "feeling pleasure"--or could it rather be a concept that, not having been designed to adjudicate such cases, meets them with only an uneasy shrug? Then it might be a refinement in use--a natural one, to be sure--to apply the term to chimps. Would that be troubling? It would if there were some good reason to be especially concerned about the question whether the word "pleasure", as we have traditionally used it, literally applies to chimps. But is there such a reason? Some philosophers would insist that there is: after all, the question of the literal applicability of the word "pleasure" as traditionally used is just a reformulation of the question whether the chimps experience pleasure. Still, we might wonder whether the particular boundary between confident verdicts and shrugs reflects a naturally important divide (say, between the chimps' states and our own), or whether it reflects only arbitrary historical pressures on the use of the term "pleasure" (for instance, not having the question whether to count animals as feeling "pleasure" assume any great importance). Maybe, then, it's not so interesting whether chimpanzees enjoy bananas.

Pages