Philosophy as Confabulation

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.


rtk said...

There is a pathetic lack of scientific research about animal's brains, no solid evidence of what every animal owner knows very well. Research these days is sponsored so much by industry that only the potentially profitable proposals get the grants. Who gets rich when it is proven that if you cry, your dog cries and when you laugh, your kind hearted pup wags his tail. So Carruthers has a free rein to bark all he wants and no one can authoratatively meow back at him.

faust said...


Question: do you consider yourself a cognitivist or a non-cognitivist (or moral realist vs moral anti-realist, or any other way to locate these general types of dividing moral theory).

Just curious.

Jean Kazez said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jean Kazez said...

A moral realist...though it's not like I can explain how there can really be moral properties and objective moral truths. Once upon a time I worried about such things a whole lot, and maybe some day I will again.

Faust, I've always been curious about your background. Might I ask?

Faust said...

Background hmm? That’s pretty broad!

I assume you mean my philosophical background? Or my education?

I guess I’ll touch the high points and try to be brief.

Married, have a 4 year old daughter, live in Seattle.

I had a fairly general humanities undergraduate education at The Evergreen State College in Olympia WA. The two professors who influenced me most were 1) A fellow who was really into Foucault and Illich and 2) an analytic philosopher. So you put those together and what do you get? Someone who is fond of Rorty! Which is not to say I want to classify myself as a Rortian necessarily (I just started reading him seriously again so I’m reserving judgment).

Entirely independent of my actual coursework I discovered and became very enamored of Kierkegaard. Even though I wouldn’t say that I “use” Kierkegaard in the same way I “use” other philosophical theorists , there is no question that he hangs in the background of my thinking, and has influenced me more than any thinker (regardless of category). Of course one then would want to ask….well what about Christianity? How does that figure in? The answer would be that I think Kierkegaard, regardless of how he viewed himself, is a herald of the death of Christianity as a clerical or priestly enterprise. His extreme focus on the individual and the extraordinary difficulties that attend the development of conscience in the face of historicism mounts a vigorous attack on Christianity as it generally functions as cultural institution. So I think that one can get enormous use out of Kierkegaard purely by using his religious apparatus as a set of edifying or therapeutic metaphors, and still get substantial use out of it. The pseudonymous authorship seems to me deliberately developed to allow for this kind of use (and is also a reason I am interested in pseudonyms). This is not of course the only possible reading of Kierkegaard. But it is mine.

After graduating from college I thought about pursuing philosophy as a career, but ran away from it for a number of reasons, e.g. “family business” reasons (my father and his father were professors/university administrators) as well as doubts about analytic philosophy in general. I went on to become a jack of all trades both literally and figuratively as I went into framing, painting, tiling, information technology, and high school education. Despite my best efforts though philosophy is something I’ve found utterly impossible to shake (I tried!) and I recently started pursing it again in a fairly deliberate fashion (as opposed to reading it in fits and starts) and I think this time around I’m probably back for good. What that means professionally I have no idea, but the stacks of books lying around the house are back and I don’t think they are going away any time soon.

s. wallerstein said...

Faust: I hope that you don't shake it, because you're very good at it. I suppose that the name "Faust" is a Kierkegaardian pseudonym of sorts.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, You talk about philosophy like a pro...so I'd often wondered over in TP-land whether you in some way or other do it for a living.

OK, if I have to read just one book by Kierkegaard, what should it be? I find myself talking about Christian existentialism in a class I teach, but just making it up as I go along. It might be a good idea if I actually learn something about it. :-)

Rorty. Hmm. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was awfully interesting stuff. Have not opened any Rorty since then, I must confess.

I have lots of continental background, but escaped a long time ago. I only recently find myself creeping back in that direction now and then.

Faust said...

Well thank you both for the kind words. It means a lot. TP has been a useful venue for me to stretch my legs after a long period of silence and I have enjoyed talking (writing?) with both of you.

In my opinion the single best book to get started on Kierkegaard with is "A Kierkegaard Anthology" edited by Robert Bretall. When people ask me what Kierkegaard book to read first there is a sense in which this question is almost impossible to answer. Why? Because the bulk of SK's authorship is what he called "indirect communication." Think of it as taking a picture of a single object from different perspectives. So you can't just take one of the perspectives and say "now I've got a good grasp of SK" because he's not trying to communicate things directly, he's making multiple ironic passes at the topic. So by reading an anthology you get to skip rapidly through the perspectives and you can get a sense of how it all might hang together. And of course the commentary by Bretall can flesh things out with snipets from journals or bits of biography or whatever. So that book by itself is probably enough to get a solid sense of SK and then if a given piece really grabs you you can always go buy the full text.

As for Rorty...yeah. PMN is great fun. Other than that I think ORT (philosophical papers volume 1) is probably the next most important. Currently I'm working my way through Rorty and his Critics and that's been good fun. The back and forth is really a good way to hone in on some vital distinctions. In particular the essay by Bjorn Ramberg is great because he gets Rorty to accept an argument he'd been disputing with Davidson for decades!

Jean Kazez said...

It sounds like you aren't going to give us any short cuts. I need to know just a smidgen about Kierkegaard so I can understand how there can be Christian existentialists. I've made up my own explanation, but it wouldn't hurt to actually read a Christian existentialist. Come on--one book! Where are all the goodies? Isn't there a best book for Kierkegaard beginners?

Faust said...

I'm curious to hear your explanation! Since he is sometimes called the "father of existentialism" a better question might be how can you be a existentialist and NOT be a Christian. Of course I jest. I've heard Heidegger refered to as "Kierkegaard without God" so just take Heidegger add a dash of God and there you go!

OK short short version:

McDowells summation isn't bad here:


though its pretty bare bones and entirely too dry. It's like someone describing Shakespeare by saying: He was this guy who wrote plays and they were really interesting...and stuff.

Since you are putting a gun to my head I will tell you the one book that you can read that will give you what you want. The Sickness Unto Death. You can skip the first part where he gives his definition of the self. It's hopelessly convoluted and is meant as a satire of Hegel.

Sickness covers his view of Sin and how it relates to becomming a self.

s. wallerstein said...

Faust: 2 questions.

1. When you ask how can one be an existentialist and not be a Christian, where do you place Sartre and even Nietzsche, often considered to be an existentialist?

2. When you say that you studied Illich, do you refer to Ivan Illich, a thinker who lived in Mexico and wrote very critically about schools and medicine? I met him once, without knowing who he was, a true gentleman, the epitome of courtesy, graceful courtesy. That unknown gentleman so impressed me that I remembered his face and one day I saw it on a book jacket.

Faust said...

Well in answer to question 1. The key phrase in my first paragraph was "of course I jest." My bad joke was was just my attempt to say in an inept way that as much as Jean (it would seem) finds being a Christian Existentialist a little odd and requiring some further explication, I had (because I read Kierkegaard before I read Nietzche or Sarte) a reverse experience.

But I definitely don't think that Christianity is required for existentialism, indeed my reading of Kierkegaard views SKs work as the beginning of the end of Christianity as a literal enterprise...a conversion of Christianity into "merely" metaphors. Having said that, it should be noted that I am sympathetic to the Rortian view that we only EVER have access to metaphors and thus that there is a sense in which God is as "real" as any other intentional object. But of course here I thrust forward an assertion which would require all sorts of defense.

In any case as to 2. Yes I am refering to Ivan Illich. My professor in college (William Ray Arney) counted Illich as a personal friend. He was quite influenced by him and some of that trickled down (as often happens when one is influcenced by particular mentors) to me. Illich of course is yet another thinker who has Christianity figuring strongly in his background so obviously there is a pattern here. By all accounts Illich was a remarkable man to be in coversation with so your personal experience sounds like other reports I have heard.

s. wallerstein said...

Faust: Whether you want to hear it or not, the Ivan Illich incident. I was working in the textbook department of Barnes and Noble in New York City, maybe in 1969. Customers arrive, hand you a list of books, required reading, and you go look for them in the shelves. No one is polite; sometimes the customers don't even say anything to you. "Thank you" doesn't exist. You could be selling subway tokens, which no longer exist, of course. By the way, Barnes and Noble is more gentrified and up-market now than it was 40 years ago. In walks this guy, speaking perfect English with an accent that isn't American, but on the other hand, isn't identifiable as being from anywhere, neutral English. He is elegant, without being especially well-dressed and every gesture, every word, every muscle of his face communicates courtesy and dignity. Ivan Illich. I liked his books when I discovered them some years later.

Strange that you're an existentialist. I've never read Kierkegaard besides Fear and Trembling, which I found difficult, but I guess that when all is said and done, I'm an existentialist of the Sartre-Nietzsche school, more Sartre than Nietzsche in more younger days, more Nietzsche than Sartre as I get oldish.