Today is Diana’s Birthday!

 Posted by on 13 December 2004 at 1:11 pm  Uncategorized
Dec 132004

BTW, today is Diana’s birthday!

I’m not supposed to tell you how old she is, but yesterday she was 29 and 365/366 years old (allowing for the fact that 2004 was a leap year, as pointed out by Steve D’Ippolito)…..

"Are We Puppets or Free Agents?"

 Posted by on 13 December 2004 at 11:44 am  Uncategorized
Dec 132004

This article discusses the latest developments in neuroscience, and asks if we may have to revise our notions of free will and responsibility, particular in the context of criminal law.

Now I have no problem with the idea that most people can distinguish right from wrong and are capable of acting volitionally. Nor do I have a problem with the fact that a small minority of people (for whatever biological or psychiatric reasons) are incapable of distinguishing right from wrong, and hence should be treated as legally insane.

The biggest problem I have is with the proposed category of people who purportedly can distinguish right from wrong, but who lack the ability to volitionally act upon that knowledge (and who presumably should be treated differently in the eyes of the law because of this). I’m not saying that this phenomenon is impossible, but the scientific case would have to be made much more convincingly than is currently supported by the evidence.

Nonetheless, I think this article is interesting both in its own right as well as being an example of a potentially important intellectual current worth keeping abreast of. As neuroscience continue to advance, I expect to see more discussion and (probably very heated) debate on this precise topic, both in academic journals as well as the popular press.

Neuroscientific discoveries can be used both to help work out the scientific basis behind volition (which would be terrific), as well as used to bolster arguments of those who wish to deny or attack the concept of volition (which would be bad).

For example, one of the psychologists cited in the article attempts to use neuroscience to defend a version of determinism:

Neuroscience can help us see that all behavior is mechanical, that all behavior is produced by chains of physical events that ultimately reach back to forces beyond the agent’s control… And if we can see that, then I hope we will think differently about punishment, that we’ll think of it as a practical tool and not as a way of balancing the universe’s moral books.

As always, it will be fascinating to see what the upcoming scientific and legal debates reveal about people’s underlying philosophical premises.

Vegetarianism Debate: Meat is Yummy

 Posted by on 2 December 2004 at 1:02 pm  Uncategorized
Dec 022004

Today, I presented my pro-factory-farming argument in the second “TA Debate” in Robert Hanna’s “Introduction to Ethics” class. As with the first debate on 9/11 and its aftermath, the students are now charged with the assignment of writing up short “critical response papers” on the subject. The text of my (very short and hastily written) presentation is below. Comments are welcome.

By most accounts, factory farm animals do not lead particularly pleasant lives. They suffer at the hands of their human masters, in both life and death. In considering such practices from a moral perspective, we must ask: Do we humans have the moral right to condemn those millions of pigs, cows, and chickens to a miserable existence in order to cheaply satisfy our desires for the pleasure of eating animal flesh? Sure, we’re smart enough to effectively subjugate our animal cousins, but does that mental might make right?

Moral debates about vegetarianism are often framed in terms of two stark options. Option 1 says: Animals do not merit any moral consideration. Use and abuse them as you please. If you wish, spend your vacations clubbing baby seals, drowning puppies, and throwing rocks at kittens. All that matters morally is whether you treat other humans well or not. (That’s pretty horrific. So even though we don’t yet know what Option 2 says, it’s looking better all the time.) Option 2 says: Animals are morally considerable in their own right. Like us, they feel pleasure and pain. So we should recoil at the thought of painfully ending the miserable life of a turkey merely to enjoy the insignificant pleasure of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Animals have value in their own right (i.e. independent of their usefulness to us) which we are obliged to respect. (That seems pretty reasonable in comparison to Option 1.)

The thought experiment of Robert Nozick cited by Matt Seacord on Tuesday frames the debate about vegetarianism in those stark terms. It says:

If you felt like snapping your fingers, perhaps to the beat of some music, and you knew that by some strange causal connection your snapping your fingers would cause 10,000 contented, unowned cows to die after great pain and suffering, or even painlessly and instantaneously, would it be perfectly all right to snap your fingers? (Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p 36)

Mr. Seacord then leveraged our intuitive “hell no!” response to that question to justify prima facie (or overridable) moral obligations to animals. On his view, utilitarianism cannot adequately protect animals from either death or harm, so we ought to think of our moral obligations to animals in terms of duties, duties which cannot be overridden for the sake of “trivial” or “inessential” pleasures. In his words, that will “require us to drastically alter our behavior” toward animals in both “agriculture and scientific research.” Clearly, the steak I was planning for dinner tonight is not a moral choice on that view.

However, I do not think that the rejection of Option 1 (in which gratuitous cruelty to animals is morally permissible) necessitates the acceptance of Option 2 (in which we have strong duties not to harm or kill animals for their own sake). In particular, I want to consider a number of anthropocentric (i.e. human-centered) reasons why inflicting pain upon animals generally ought to be avoided. (That’s Option 3.) Then we’ll see what that general view implies for factory farming. And finally we’ll consider whether it is “speciesist” to so privilege humanity over other animals.

So what human-centered reasons do we have to refrain from abusing animals? Let’s start by considering two easy cases. Case 1: I cause pain to my dog in the course of cleaning out an infected wound. Case 2: I cause pain to my dog either arbitrarily (for no reason at all), sadistically (for the pleasure of watching her suffer), or furiously (in an out of control rage). Even though the pain experienced is the same (let’s say), why is the first a moral course of action, whereas the second is not?

Perhaps the most obvious difference between the two cases is that the first (cleaning the wound) serves a legitimate purpose, whereas the second (arbitrary, sadistic, or furious treatment) doesn’t. I chose to adopt my dog in order to enjoy her doggy company. That’s a reasonable pursuit; she was certainly pleased to leave the shelter. Cleaning her wound serves that purpose by preserving her health. In contrast, arbitrary, sadistic, or furious treatment of my dog would serve no such legitimate purpose. By definition, arbitrary infliction of pain serves no purpose whatsoever, while also damaging my good, trusting relationship with my dog. It’s obviously better to spend that time throwing her the ball, taking her for a walk, or even ignoring her completely. Sadistic pleasure in the torture of a dog is just one small manifestation of generally twisted and dangerous psychology. People who actively enjoy inflicting pain do not limit themselves to the torture of puppies and kittens; humans are just so much more satisfying. They are a danger to everyone, not just their own pets. Whatever pleasure sadists might gain from torture is more than offset by the pleasures their twisted psychology precludes, such as close friendships, romantic relationships, and life outside prison. Similarly, the furious abuse of my dog would be a manifestation of a defective moral character. A person of good moral character understands that virtues like patience, kindness, empathy, and thoughtfulness are required for good relations with both fellow men and beasts. He recognizes that dogs that puke on the carpet or beg for food aren’t malicious or even blameworthy. Most importantly, such a person doesn’t vent his anger (whether physically or verbally) at certain creatures merely because they are easy targets, as both pets and children are. All in all, those are pretty strong reasons to condemn the arbitrary, sadistic, or furious infliction of pain upon my dog as immoral.

Some of those considerations also constitute good reason to alter some factory farming methods. Sadistic treatment of the animals by the workers ought never be tolerated, as cultivating that psychology poses a grave danger to humans. Practices which desensitize workers to the pain of animals is also likely to degrade moral character by dulling empathy. More directly, abused and frightened animals are far more likely to pose a physical danger to themselves, other animals, and their human handlers.

Yet I also think that we have good anthropocentric reasons for maintaining the institution of factory farming generally. Perhaps most importantly, the consumption of meat is a significant source of pleasure for many people, meaning that converting to vegetarianism would constitute a great sacrifice of one of the values that makes life worth living. Personally, when I am mentally and physically exhausted, beaten down from the grind of daily life, nothing recharges me like a hearty meal of well-prepared animal flesh. Tofu and veggies simply will not do. Mr. Seacord dismisses such pleasures as “trivial” and “inessential,” but that seems wrong to me. Such immediate bodily pleasures give us the psychological fuel required to carry on with the difficult tasks and long-range projects in our lives. Notably, unlike humane farming, factory farming makes such pleasures widely and cheaply available to all people, not just to the rich folks as a luxury item. And just as we ought not diminish the importance of pleasure in human life, we ought not inflate the significance of pain in animal life. Does it really matter whether the chicken roasting in the oven experienced a few minutes of pain (even if substantial) in the course of slaughter? I think not. After all, the life of animals in the wild is not necessarily better than those lived in factory farms. Since most of our interactions with animals are with our beloved pets, I fear that we tend to regard that cushy life as the standard, the norm for animals. But in fact, life in the wild is not frolicking through the fields, but rather a harsh life of oppressive heat, painful cold, biting insects, bone-chilling downpours, exhausting pursuit of food, parched droughts, slow starvation, painful injury, and gnawing disease. So while some reforms of factory farming might be good, I’m doubtful that a massive transition to humane farming is morally required of us.

As already mentioned, I’ve been arguing from an anthropocentric perspective. I’ve presumed that humans are generally more morally significant than beasts. Defenders of animal rights (like Tom Regan) and of animal liberation (like Peter Singer) condemn that viewpoint as “speciesist.” They would say that I am arbitrarily privileging humans over other animals, just like racists elevate their race over all others. But in fact, humans are substantially different from animals. We have amazing cognitive powers not found in other animals. By themselves, those powers do not give us the moral right to use and abuse animals. Nonetheless, those mental powers mean that we have a much more complex psychology–which in turn means that we are capable of experiencing delights and sufferings which other animals will never know, that our welfare depends upon more than just satisfaction of basic physical needs, and that we face moral choices inconceivable to animals. And ultimately, those kinds of differences do warrant treating animals in unsavory ways in order to promote human welfare.

Dead Computer: Light Blogging Forecasted

 Posted by on 1 December 2004 at 3:06 pm  Uncategorized
Dec 012004

Last week, my laptop (an ultralight Dell Inspiron 300m named Fibula) started behaving badly. Even when it was connected to AC power, the battery would semi-randomly increase and decrease in charge. It clearly wasn’t a problem with the battery itself, as swapping batteries had no effect. Over the course of a few days, the problem just got worse. When I realized that the computer was in real danger of dying completely, I created an image of the hard drive on Paul’s new backup drive. I also called Dell Tech Support, only to find out the worse possible combination of news: (1) that my warrantee had expired and (2) that the source of the problem is likely the motherboard.

By the next day, Fibula wasn’t running off of AC power or charging the battery at all. (He now has about 2 hours of life left in him, thanks to a halfway-full long-life battery.) So over the past few days, I’ve been writing papers and such on Paul’s laptop and the uncomfortably-situated living room desktop. (That desktop is an extra computer set up to play MP3s through the stereo, not to be worked upon.)

Today, I called a few local computer repair shops. They confirmed my fear that replacing the motherboard would be too expensive to be worthwhile: over $700 just for the part alone. So it looks like I’ll be buying a new laptop, likely another lightweight Dell.

Poor Fibula was only a year and a half old… and now I must cannibalize him for his still-functional hard drive and RAM then discard him as worthless trash. I would be heartbroken, except that the bastard had the temerity to die right at the end of the semester.

Update: I just ordered a Dell Inspiron 700m. I should get it next week. Yeah!

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha