Confabulating. That's what we're doing, says psychologist Jonathan Haidt, when we have a strong intuition and try to make up reasons to support it. You have a strong intuition that gay male twins shouldn't have sex with each other (ack! I read about a case like this in a book about twins), so you make up a reason why that's the case. The reason is not in fact the source of the intuition, and doesn't sustain it. The whole exercise of trying to defend your view creates an illusion that your view is a conclusion arrived at rationally when it really isn't.
How often is philosophical reasoning really confabulating -- i.e. making up stuff to give a veneer of rationality to some pre-determined conclusion? And why, on a perfectly lovely Sunday morning, am I worried about this question? I'm worried about it because I've been reading a recent article by Peter Carruthers, he of the view that animals have no moral standing.
Carruthers has been arguing for 20 years now that animals don't count. OK, he's a contractualist, and on the social contract theory, animals are left out. But perhaps not completely left out--"Responding appropriately to the value of other creatures is part of morality in the broad sense." That's from Scanlon, another contractualist. Carruthers wants animals to be completely left out, to not count whatever, for their own sake.
I say he "wants it to be the case" because he's worked so mightily and for so long to make this conclusion seem reasonable. You really get the impression of confabulation when you look at his latest effort. Back in 1989, he published an article that said animals don't count because they feel no pain. The basis of concern was completely absent in all our furry and feathered and scaly cousins. (His articles can be accessed here.) Now, amazingly enough, he's mounting just the opposite argument (see the 2010 article). The basis of concern is no longer missing in animals, but present in practically all of them, even in insects.
Well, if that's what he thinks, aren't we stuck simply having to be concerned with practically all animals? No, no, no. "That would be absurd." It simply can't be that spiders are proper objects of concern. Just can't. That rock bottom insight sends Carruthers back to square one. The basis of concern that's so ubiquitous can't really be the basis of concern after all.
So what's the basis of concern that can't really be the basis of concern? It's the awfulness of pain. Right, it seems like we ought to be concerned about someone suffering the awfulness of pain. That's common sense. But not so fast! The awfulness of pain is diagnosed by Carruthers as being something a little different than we might have thought. The awfulness is the sheer wanting to get rid of it we feel when we're in pain, but not being able to; it's the caring about it. Boiled down to the essence, the awfulness of pain is really just "goal frustration."
But dogs have goal frustration, and birds do, and fish do, and bees do, and spiders do...and that's a hell of a lot of goal frustration. And there's no possible way it can be true that spiders count. So it's not true after all that the awfulness of pain is the basis of obligatory moral concern. Q. E. D.
This argument strikes me as terrible, through and through...with all due respect to Professor Carruthers, who is probably a very nice guy who never kicks his dog. Let me count the ways.
(1) I don't think he's got the right story about the awfulness of pain. Let's say someone desperately wants to be rich. He's desperate to get rid of his non-richness, and just can't do it. That's an instance of goal frustration, but it isn't pain. The awfulness of pain may have goal frustration as a component, but it involves a specific type of goal frustration. Pain is more intense the more that we want to get rid of IT.....i.e. pain.
(2) Animal species vary in the degree to which basic pain generates thoughts about wanting to get rid of it. The brains of different species are wired differently. Human beings have more of those "wanting to get rid of it" thoughts than dogs do, for example. Thus, it's reasonable to think that human pain is compounded, compared to dog pain--which is not to say that dogs feel no pain. For evidence and argumentation, see this interesting article by Temple Grandin. Even if insects have goals and goal frustration, we don't know if they suffer basic pain sensations, compounded with "wanting to get rid of it" thoughts.
(3) It's no good arguing that the awfulness of pain can't be a basis of obligatory moral concern if insects have awful pain. Obviously, this plays into cultural prejudices about insects that can't be taken as unassailable truths.
(4) It's no good arguing that the awfulness of pain can't be a basis of obligatory moral concern on grounds that too many animals would thus be objects of concern. Really, this is silly. Wander around the streets of Manhattan, and you'll get the feeling that nothing makes all humans objects of concern. There are just too many of them to be concerned about. Or wander around any big city in India and you'll have that feeling cubed. Whether we have to be concerned with this X doesn't turn on how many other X's there are.
(5) And yet....and yet. Sure. What we have to do for this X might turn on how many other X's there are. It might be a good excuse for not running around helping all the Xs that there are a million of them just in your own backyard. But we can't say they don't matter at all on sheer grounds that there are so many.
Why does Professor Carruthers so badly want to argue for animals not counting at all? Since he's been doing so for 20 years, I think it's only fair that he spend a couple of hours watching PETA and Humane Society videos of animals being tormented in slaughter houses, fur farms, and animals labs. When he is all done, I'd like to know if he still thinks what he thinks he thinks. Can it possibly be true that the animals in those videos, in virtue of their suffering, deserve nothing better from us? I recommend this Humane Society video for starters.