What Happened to the Frogs?

Apparently many species of frogs are dying out, not only in the wild, but in zoos. What's causing the problem? Elizabeth Kolbert talks about an astonishing theory in the May 25th issue of The New Yorker.

The African clawed frog was collected in the 1930s and discovered to have a medical use. Apparently the hormones of a pregnant woman will cause this frog to lay eggs. So they were kept in tanks in European and American obstetrician's offices in the 50s and 60s, for use as live pregnancy tests. The theory is that these frogs got infected with a fungus common in doctors' offices, and then spread the fungus when they were released locally. (As in: "Whoa, we've got too many frogs. Let's let 'em go.") This doctor-office fungus is found on the bodies of frogs in Central America and in other places where frogs are becoming scarce.

If this is the truth about why frogs are disappearing, it ought to be a warning against seeing endangered species as worth protecting so they can serve our purposes. It seems that when we use a species, we can be unwittingly triggering its demise.


The Taste of a Place

Here's the bad thing about being a vegetarian: if you don't consume animal products, you miss out on some of the experience of "place." If you are in Alaska and won't eat the salmon, you miss out on a certain amount of Alaska-ness. In fact, I think seafood is the hardest type of meat to give up, because there are so many varieties, and they are so powerfully evocative. Lobster takes you back to Bar Harbor, Maine. Raw oysters make you feel like you're out in the middle of the ocean. Eating a hamburger takes you exactly nowhere, but eating things from the sea can take you to the sea. (Well, a hotdog will take you to a ballpark--but a tofu dog smothered in onions and mustard works pretty well.)

When I'm in Hawaii this summer, there's going to be all sorts of seafood to resist. Of course, all kinds of food evokes place. We will be staying at an organic vegetable and fruit farm on Kauai for a couple of days, a place that brags about growing pinapple and banana trees, avocados, kale, seven kinds of lettuce, etc. etc. But the more taste, the more place. I still remember a salmon plus lychee concoction I had in Kauai 15 years ago, back when I first gave up meat, but hadn't started worrying about fish yet. Now I'm worried. In fact, I'm particularly worried about salmon.

Wait, is salmon actually local to Hawaii? Hmm.

I wish animal authors wouldn't trivialize taste issues so much. They make themselves look like puritans, or like they suffer from some sensory deprivation syndrome. Of course there's something significant lost if you give up whole categories of food, and of course you can't fabricate perfect duplicates out of soy products. I like a veggie burger now and again, but what a veggie burger evokes is a food laboratory. Alaskan salmon really grabs you and takes you somewhere.

Of course, if the seafood experience is really great, there's still the question of costs. If very bad things have to happen to salmon for me to get that food high, then I might have to give it up. But why pretend there's nothing to be given up? It's not "mere taste" that's at stake, but taste in a big sense--the taste of a place.


Respecting Animals

Postcard from the deep, deep interior of Jeff McMahan's book, The Ethics of Killing ...

I'm surprised he's so uncritical of Kantian notions about respect. I can't bring myself to believe even for a minute that respect is owed to others solely on the basis of moral autonomy.

Say we discover there are aliens somewhere else in the universe. At first, all that we know is that they've also discovered us. In fact, they're about to embark on a journey to Earth. We're a little worried about whether this is going to be a joyful encounter, or they're coming to enslave us or use us for food. Gradually, we gain more information about them, and on that basis we must decide how to proceed.

The Kantian thinks that if we discover the aliens have the ability to make their own choices in light of their own sense of good and bad, right and wrong, then we must respect them. In fact, discovering this about them will reveal them to be our equals. If we found out they were both morally autonomous and superb artists, they wouldn't be worthy of any more respect than if we found out they were just morally autonomous. Plus, their moral autonomy would have to earn our respect, no matter how it played out. They would deserve the same respect whether their civilization resembled contemporary Sweden or Germany during the third Reich.

I don't think respect, thus keyed just to moral autonomy, has any psychological reality. In other words, this isn't how respect really works. In reality, respect is a response to many different assets, and it allows of "less" and "more." The Kantian notion of respect shows all signs of being a contrivance. It's not inherently credible, but an attempt to solve a problem--the problem of explaining why humans are equal and special, and why animals completely lack moral status.

Starting with a more psychologically realistic and reasonable understanding of respect, I'm afraid we don't get the results that Kant wants. Animals are not completely lacking in moral status because there are many things about them that elicit respect. If you read books about animals and watch nature videos, you can even observe your own respect for a species increasing (or decreasing) as you learn more about the animal's capacities. Unless you've been to a Kantian reeducation camp, you'll agree that it's respect that you're feeling when you find out about the intelligence of crows, the creativity of bower birds, the emotional complexity of chimpanzees. Respect is a response to a multitude of merits, and comes in degrees.

McMahan says the "morality of respect" applies only to human beings, and a "morality of interests" applies to animals ("Kant for people, Utilitarianism for animals," in the words of Robert Nozick) but I think that's wishful thinking. Respect, as we really feel and understand it, isn't limited to humans.


Where the Boys Are

The good people at Feminist Philosophers have lately been keeping track of "men's conferences"--philosophy conferences that happen to feature an all-male line up of featured speakers. This public shaming, in combination with email to conference organizers, is intended to increase female representation at these events. All of which gets me thinking...

The pool of possible speakers for conferences varies by topic. An ethics conference without any women would be disgraceful, because there are plenty of women to choose from. One of the all-male conferences recently shamed at FP is called "The New Ontology of the Mental Causation Debate." The pool of possible speakers consists of philosophers who work in philosophy of mind, on mental causation, with a focus on ontology. And there might be some geographical requirements as well, depending on the way the event is being funded. It's not so obvious there are lots of women to choose from.

If there aren't, it may be just a tiny, tiny, tiny bit the fault of people like me. Which means--people who used to work in that area, but switched to an area of philosophy that already had good female representation. I see this all the time. Women start in fields that are more abstract, technical, and male-dominated, and later move into fields with more "human" content, and more women.

That's the pattern when women stop concentrating entirely on...whatever they were doing, and start doing feminist philosophy. Or they get out of metaphysics and into ethics. I see this also in other academic fields. A relative of mine started out in a male-dominated hard science, and later moved into female-dominated science-ed. Every time a woman makes this sort of move, somewhere down the line someone's going to have a harder time putting together a conference with gender parity.

Why don't women choose to be "where the boys are"? That's ultimately what really needs to be asked, not (for the most part) why specific conferences today feature a lot of men. Does it have anything to do with inhospitability to women in the more abstract areas of research? In the cases I know best (my own and my relative's), I think not. But that's two people. I'd love to know more about the thought and emotion behind these shifts.


The Passage of Time

The semester's over, it's grey and rainy out. I'm reading a long book about death and killing. It's the perfect time for an existential crisis!

Having just taught my course on the meaning of life, I've been reading good writing on life and death by the best philosophers around, past and present, people like Peter Singer, Thomas Nagel, Robert Nozick, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Sartre, Richard Taylor, Victor Frankl, and my favorite despairing novelist, Leo Tolstoy. Oh yes, and I wrote a book that grapples with such things. With all that to draw on, I really ought to have contempt for a one sentence lyric from singer/songwriter James Taylor, he of the pretty songs, right? But here it is--the cure for what ails us, all in one sentence:

The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.

Many of the above heavyweight thinkers worry a great deal about things coming to an end, like a semester, a holiday, a stage of life, the whole of a life. The problem is really time and it's awful tendency to ship things off to the past. Can't we just stop the whole thing for a moment? Sorry, but no. Or latch on to things that last for an eternity, like God and heaven? A nice thought, but I suspect there isn't anything like that. The solution is surely enjoying the passage of time.

What exactly would that be like? What is it to enjoy not just moments, or a bunch of moments (an hour, a weekend), but the passage of time? Whether James Taylor said it or a philosophical luminary, I'm going to have to think about it!


Truth in posting. This is a slightly revised rebroadcast, but I was thinking about that sentence again. As my kids get ready to graduate from elementary school in a few weeks, it keeps coming to mind. Funny--I first ran into it in the front office of their school, where it was attractively inscribed on a bench. Maybe the people in charge over there know a thing or two about parental emotions.


Mother's Day

Thought for the day--

" Dr. Laura's" new book In Praise of Mothers has been rattling around in my head for a couple of weeks--the title, that is. No, I'm not going to read her ravings about how everyone ought to be a stay-at-home mother. The title gets me thinking about how tricky it is to praise a person who does X without implictly insulting a person who doesn't do X.

With all the paeans to mothers we'll be hearing this weekend, I imagine there have to be some non-mothers who think "what about me?" There's that cliche that says being a mother is the hardest job in the world. There must be a few non-mothers out there--brain surgeons, district attorneys, members of the armed forces--who are thinking mothers are getting more than their fair share of the credit. I mean really: the hardest job in the world?

Saying that mothers do the hardest job in the world is not the way to go, if you want to praise mothers without insulting anyone. It's overtly comparative--and so not good. First rule of non-invidious praising: make no comparisons. Note that mothers work hard, not that they work harder than anyone else.

Once you've mastered the art of praising mothers, then you can get into truly delicate territory: praising stay-at-home mothers without insulting working mothers, and vice versa. That really is tricky. Somehow you have to get yourself to recognize opposing virtues. It really is a virtue to stay dedicated to a career and maintain "work-family balance," as the expression goes. It's an opposite and incompatible virtue--but still a virtue--to give 100% to children, especially when they're young and can benefit from that much attention.

Praising mothers is a delicate business. Today I'm frankly not looking for any praise (um, the laundry is in pretty bad shape). I'll settle for blind adoration...cards from both kids and my daughter's carrot cake. And now I must go call my mother.


Animal Projects

There's a picture of an animal's life that's just about standard, and even favored by many animal advocates: an animal's life is all choppy. Your dog lives moment to moment, without the moments being connected together into "wholes." By contrast, there is lots of connection in the life of a human being. This diffierence (people assume) has relevance to the value of animal lives, the badness of animal deaths, and the ethics of killing.

To wit: this sort of contrast is made especially starkly in Jeff McMahan's book The Ethics of Killing. He has a rich notion of the "wholes" that matter in the lives of people. For one, there's the whole formed when you anticipate a later time and wish it to be a certain way--you want to lie on the beach in Hawaii in three months. All signs are that animals don't have thoughts like that. But that's not the only sort of continuity that counts.

McMahan attaches importance to the "complex narrative unity" of a life (or parts of a life). That can be tragically ruined by death. The bride dies right before the wedding, the student is killed in a car accident on the way to graduation, the author doesn't get to see her book posthumously published. He writes--
As an animal continues to live, goods may continue to accumulate in sequence, but the effect is merely additive. There is no scope for tragedy--for hopes passing unrealized, projects unwillingly aborted, mistakes or misunderstandings left uncorrected, or apologies left unmade.
But surely the lives of animals are full of premature endings. For example, a year ago Eight Belles collapsed moments after coming in second at the Kentucky Derby, because of two broken ankles. That broke off a story before it was over. Are we really to think that a horse that races madly to a finish line is not engaged in a "project," that no project has been "aborted" if the horse falls to the ground?

I have the feeling we spend too much time around denatured pets and farm animals to realize that animal lives don't just consist of a series of moments. Beavers work for months to build dams. Rutting season doesn't end as it's supposed to if the animals are shot by hunters before there's any mating. Emperor penguins spend weeks trudging back from the sea to feed their young--an effort that ends badly if the chicks have died in the meantime.

I know what some people are going to say. The animals don't think about the future--Eight Belles wasn't looking forward to her victory lap; the deer aren't thinking about copulating; the penguins don't desire a reunion with their young. But narrative unity is supposed to be a further factor affecting the significance of a death, one that goes beyond the issue whether death prevents desires from being fulfilled. In the human case, it does not seem true that an incomplete project is only tragic to the extent that the agent had a particular set of desires and thoughts. All that adds to the tragedy, but isn't all there is to it.

Thinking of an animal's life as a series of discrete moments makes its death matter less, and so makes it easier for us to kill with a clear conscience. We need to think about the lives of animals without so much eagerness to find the sharpest possible differences.


How Am I Doing?

Through the wonders of technology, I'm able to see what search terms bring people to this blog, and here's a pattern I've noticed lately. People seem to be coming here for assistance in writing end-of-semester essays. What other explanation could there be for search terms like "essay on existentialism is a humanism" and "never let me go essay"?

I can only say that I think there's a special place in hell for people who take credit for other people's writing. I can only say it, because unfortunately I don't believe it. The most I can really hope is that plagiarists will find their guilt gnawing away at them for years, and at the most inopportune moments.

Hey, you would-be copyists, stop now, before it's too late! You know it's wrong. Just don't do it. But if you do, despite my admonitions and the academic honesty policies at your academic institutions, do let me know how I'm doing when you get back "your" papers. Am I getting As, Bs, Cs....? My pride and ego notwithstanding, I have to say: I hope not well.


Death Penalty for Pregnant Woman

Horrific story...and a challenge to anyone who thinks that a fetus, early on, has no moral importance whatever.

A pregnant British woman who faces death by firing squad if she is convicted of drug smuggling could go on trial in Laos as early as Monday, a human rights group said Sunday.

Samantha Orobator, 23, has been in jail in Laos since August, when she was accused of trying to smuggle just over half a kilogram (1.1 pounds) of heroin in her luggage.

It seems to me there's an awfulness here, beyond the basic awfulness of the death penalty. But it's tricky. How can it be wrong for a third-party to kill a fetus, as a side effect of killing the mother, yet permissible for the mother to kill it herself? I do think it's permissible; I'm adamantly pro-choice. However the explanation might go, I have the strongest intuition that executing a pregnant woman is appalling.


Pigs, Converts, Buddhists

This post is also here.

All 300,000 pigs in Egypt are in the process of being slaughtered today—an awfully peculiar strategy for preventing swine flu. Apart from the sheer irrationality of it all, it makes you think about killing animals. Is each and every pig being wronged—to be precise, having its (his, her) interest in going on living violated? Do animals have an interest in going on living?

I write about this in my forthcoming book, but there’s never time to read everything, and now that I’m done, I’m doing some remedial reading—to wit, I’m reading Jeff McMahan’s very thick and detailed book The Ethics of Killing. I’m only part way through, so can’t say yet how the story is going to turn out, but here are some gleanings from part one.

The interest in going on living that you have at a particular point in your life (your “time relative interest” in going on living) depends—says McMahan—on the “prudential unity relations” between you at that time of your life and you* or you** at later times. He says it’s a question of degree—the more continuities (of the right sort) between you and you* (etc) the stronger your interest in going on living. But animals, he says, are connected to their later selves by only a fraction of these required continuities.

The continuities that make you (now) have a stake in the welfare of you* (later) are all “mental," says McMahan. You have certain beliefs, and they persist in you*. You have certain desires about your future, and they get satisfied by you*. You are searching for something, and you* completes the search. The more continuities there would have been between you, you*, you** etc., the worse it is for you if something bad happens, and you die before you get to be you* or you**. The argument about animals, then, is that their past and future selves are united more loosely; there are fewer of these continuities. So they have a weaker stake in going on living.

I’m going to save the issue of animals for a later post, but there’s something puzzling about this view of the interest in living. It implies that certain kinds of people have a weaker interest in going on living than the rest of us. To wit--

The convert. If you lose your religion, going from belief to disbelief, or the other way around, then there’s less continuity between your present self and your future selves.

The Buddhist. You’ve taken heed of Buddhist wisdom that desire is the root of all suffering, so you “live in the present” and limit your desires about the future as much as possible. Again, this is going to make for weaker "prudential unity relations."

The "flow"er (to use the language of the psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi). This is someone who frequently loses herself in intense activity, losing awareness of the past and the future. Bear in mind--this is supposed to be a desirable psychological state. Once again, this person's past and future selves are going to more weakly united, compared to a person who constantly obsesses about the future.

It would be awfully odd to think these three types of people had a weaker stake in going on living, considering that there's nothing undesirable about the states of mind they're in (perhaps just the opposite). Should we really take it on board that mental continuities are the basis for having a stake in going on living?


A few footnotes: (1) There’s a lot of hairy stuff in this book about identity. For you (now) to have an interest in the welfare of you* (later), must you (now) be identical to you* (later)? Let’s ignore that question. I’m not taking a stand on it by multiplying names (“you”, “you*” etc.) ike this—they’re just a convenient shorthand. (2) Don't jump to the conclusion that McMahan thinks it's not so bad to kill these three types of people. The issue (so far) is just about the level of their interest in going on living, not about the ethics of killing them. (3) McMahan does have things to say about some of these cases--pages 81-82--but in the interest of spurring discussion, I'm not revealing his "solution."