A Plea from An Overworked Graduate Student

 Posted by on 8 January 2005 at 9:16 pm  Uncategorized
Jan 082005

Back in early December, I posted Meat is Yummy, my presentation for the second “TA Debate” of Robert Hanna’s “Introduction to Ethics” class. In my introduction, I mentioned that the purpose of the presentation was to provide the students material upon which to comment in their short “critical response papers.” I also mentioned that my presentation was “very short and hastily written.”

Given the stated purpose of the presentation, not to mention my caveat about it being hastily written, I was rather annoyed by this comment from David Rehm:

“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.”

The issue is not ‘amount’ of “cognitive powers” as some quantitative measurement. There is a distinct objective difference between the type of consciousness held by animals and of humans – and in that distinction lies the reason we have the moral right to use (but not abuse) animals, while they do not have the right to life at the expense of our not being able to benefit from their use. The concept of rights is anticedent on specifically human rational consciousness which conceived of it.

The rest of that paragraph is completely bogus. Psychology is of no importance to anyone but you (and perhaps your psychotherapist as Rand said) — it is not your psychology or greater capacity to experience pleasure that could grant you any rights. See above.

I responded:

Oh, and thanks to David for disregarding the purpose of the presentation, erecting strawmen from my claims, and misunderstanding simple terminology. It was lovely.

Since that was rather cryptic, let me indicate the particular reasons for my annoyance.

First, I never said that the morally relevant issue was a mere quantitative difference in cognitive powers between humans and animals. I was even careful not to imply such, as I am certainly well aware that that very falsehood is critical to Singer’s arguments for animal liberation. David’s attribution of such a view to me, even by omission or implication, was unwarranted.

Second, David misunderstood my use of the term “psychology.” At least in philosophy, the term is often used to refer to our basic cognitive capacities, including the faculty of reason found only among humans. That ought to have been clear from the context — or at least it ought to have been clear that I was not referring to the personal psychology relevant to a psychotherapist. In addition, labeling some bit of prose “completely bogus” is neither illuminating nor helpful.

More generally, the primary purpose of the presentation was to offer the students comprehensible material upon which to write. As one would expect from an “Introduction to Ethics” course, the students were mostly freshman with a rather small understanding of the ideas and methods of philosophy. Moreover, the course largely focused on so-called “impartial” arguments from expected benefits (i.e. utilitarianism) and from intrinsic value (i.e. Kantian ethics) — via appeal to intuitions. Obviously, that focus was neither my choice nor my preference, but it was the overall structure of the course within which I had to work in writing my presentation. I was thus extremely limited in the ideas on this very derivative subject that I could expect my audience to understand in the course of a ten minute presentation — much to my frustration. Since my fellow TAs presented factory farming as obviously immoral, I simply hoped to sketch a few decent and comprehensible reasons for rejecting that view for the students.

Now, I am certainly open to the suggestion that I did that badly — or at least that I could have done better. Unfortunately, David’s criticisms were not helpful in this regard, although I’m sure he meant well. In contrast, I was quickly convinced by Don Watkins’ thoughtful, detailed, and friendly criticism of my last paragraph. Frankly, I’m not surprised that that paragraph had some seriously wrong implications. I wrote it in a crazy rush mere moments before a frantic drive up to Boulder to give the presentation. However, even with more time to prepare, I could not have offered a full proof of the morality of using animals as means to our human ends, as Don suggests. The presentation was severely constrained by the time limit of ten minutes, not to mention the background knowledge of the audience. Perhaps I might have been able to briefly sketch some better reasons than those I offered. But honestly, in those frantic moments of finishing up the presentation, I just couldn’t think of them. In any case, it’s worth keeping in mind that any extra time spent improving this relatively unimportant presentation would have meant less time spent working on my papers for my own classes.

In general, I worry that some Objectivists, particularly those who have not endured the pleasures of graduate school in philosophy, might hold my work at Boulder to an inappropriately Objectivist standard. Granted, my interest in Ayn Rand is fairly well-known at Boulder, and my papers written for class are informed by Objectivist ideas. However, I do not strive to write Objectivist papers for class, either implicitly or explicitly. To attempt to do so would be cognitively paralyzing given the confusions and complexities of contemporary philosophy and my present limited understanding of Objectivism. It would also be impossible given the time pressures of full-time graduate work, not to mention often inappropriate in the context of the class. Instead, I focus on thoroughly understanding the material at hand and on developing reasonable arguments either in favor or against the standard views. I do strive to understand the issues in relation to the principles of Objectivism, but generally such ideas are omitted from the paper itself as irrelevant. (Of course, all of that applies only to papers written for my graduate classes. I hold myself to a very different standard for papers written for print publication.)

Of the papers I wrote this past semester, I’m not too worried about reactions to my paper on Aristotle’s action theory, Desire, Reason, and Action, since that mostly concerns the interpretive task of reconciling his views in De Anima with those of De Motu Animalium. However, I’m a bit more concerned about misplaced criticism of my three papers on Kant: Kant on Time, Kant on Unity in Experience, and Hume the Cause, Kant the Effect. Although those papers were written from an empiricist perspective, they are certainly not Objectivist critiques of Kant’s metaphysics and epistemology by any stretch of the imagination.

Of course, if my arguments in those papers go wrong in some noteworthy fashion, I’m happy to hear why and how. But please be kind to this overworked Objectivist graduate student by keeping in mind the basic purpose and context of my graduate school papers.

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