Number 9, Number 9, Number 9

Here's a curious and amusing sentence from Jeff McMahan's book The Ethics of Killing.
A rough guide to what we owe to animals is this: we owe to them whatever kind of treatment we believe the severely retarded would be owed in virtue of their intrinsic natures by morally sensitive Martians. (p. 227)
Okay. If I want to know what I owe to cats and dogs, I just have to consult my convictions about those morally sensitive Martians, and what they owe to the severely retarded.

It sounds absurd, but on second thought, maybe this is not simply a case of "ignotum per ignotius"--trying to figure out the unknown by pondering the even more unknown.

We have a complex set of predispositions when it comes to the treatment of animals. Some animals are elite, and not to be tampered with. Some can be killed for food or even just for fun. All that is so deeply entrenched that it's hard to think clearly about what's really ethical or unethical.

Enter, the aliens. What would they owe to us? Another fresh start on the animals problem: What would we owe to aliens? It was with that honorable question in mind that I went to the movie District 9 a couple of days ago. I'm happy to say that about 15 minutes of the movie did touch on deep matters of ethics. The rest was ultra-gross-out mayhem of the first order, with a very light helping of another philosophical issue--the problem of personal identity. (Think Jeff Goldblum and The Fly.)

The aliens in the movie are treated in a way that's a little odd. They're not dismissed as "just animals," even though they look a lot like large (humanoid) insects. Rather, they're treated like a second-class human minority group--like black South Africans under apartheid.

The difficult question lurking in the background: what would we owe to an alien species that landed on earth? What criteria would we use to decide what their status was? I suspect if we thought these things through, we really would be in a better position to know what we owe to animals.

NB: There's more to the McMahan's quote. He asks us to think about what morally sensitive Martians would owe to severely retarded humans. Is that really the right question to ask, if we're worried about what we owe to animals? I very much doubt it, but that's another story.


s. wallerstein said...

Maybe the problem is that the issue is framed in terms of what "we" (wouldn't it be better to talk about "I"?) "owe"
to animals. I don't owe animals any thing: I'm not in their debt. I am concerned about their welfare and their not being exploited. The central fact is concern, not debt.

s. wallerstein said...


Jean Kazez said...

Just wobbly because I was editing, I think.

s. wallerstein said...

Ok now, as the test shows. Thanks.

Wayne said...

I've been doing a lot of thinking about the animal versus severely retarded child analogy that has been so popular in animal rights arguments. I think there is a good analogy there, but there also are relevant differences and moral differences between comparing something that is "broken" (for the lack of a better word) to something that is normal.

Take district 9 again. It seems like the vast majority of the aliens were "broken" in that they were pretty stupid, trading away powerful technologies for cat food. Only one alien seemed to be rather intelligent, and he is the star of the movie. So what should we choose as representative for the aliens? The dumb ones? Why?

We treat disabled people morally differently, than abled people precisely because of their disability. So to say that we need to compare how we would want aliens to treat disabled human beings to determine how we should treat animals, is to treat all animals as disabled, and most animals simply aren't disabled. They lack powers that we have, thats not a disability, thats evolution. And the powers that they lack are morally relevant powers (like reasoning to a certain degree and such).

This isn't to say I don't support more humane treatment of animals, I just think that the marginal cases argument might not work as well as most people think it does.

Faust said...

"Broken" is an interesting way to put it. But I think it's bizzare to try to suggest that we need to cary the disability argument all the way down to the animals...thinking of them as "disabled."

The retardation is a red herring. It still boils down to a capacity issue. What "retarded" means in this context is simply "an entitiy that is biologically human but has a mental capacity similar to that of an X, e.g. the average dog."

The argument to extend the rights enjoyed by humans with reduced mental capacities to animals is nothing more than trying to trade in on the deep intutions triggered by a common morphology over to entities with similarly reduced mental capacities but with a different morphology.

So the "martian" argument really says something like:

We should treat animals with the same respect that we would expect some sentient species to treat us with even though they might have substantially superior mental capacities and a different morphology.

We think we are sussing out deep moral principles. But most people are reponding to nothing more than the shapes of bodies. That's why we love the babies...even though at birth they are nothing but lumps of flesh.

Jean Kazez said...

The marginal cases argument can work in many ways (in McMahan, it gets complicated), but commonly it goes like this--

We are supposed to start off with a solicitous attitude toward the severely retarded (rather than a dismissive attitude). We are then asked why we won't extend that solicitude to comparable animals. QED

But I agree with Wayne's (hi Wayne--nice to "see" you) point about brokenness. The extra solicitude comes from lots of sources (lots and lots), but partly from the sense that the severely retarded human is "broken" or unlucky, compared to normal humans. It's not inconsistent or simply biased of us to refuse to transfer that attitude to all animals, because they're not broken.

Personally, I wouldn't make that the whole case for thinking the severely retarded are owed more than animals, but it's part of it...

If it makes sense to be extra solicitous to "the broken" members of a species, then morally sensitive Martians will be extra careful with severely retarded humans. Morally sensitive earthlings would do just the opposite of what we see in District 9--they'd be really nice to the stupid cat-food eaters that come off the space ship at first.

(But does that make sense? Does it really make sense to expect the same concern over "brokenness" across species as is felt within a species?)

Faust said...

I still think the "brokeness" is just a another name for "same morphology different capacity."

Look at Kowala bears. SOOOOOOOOOOO cute! SUUUUUCH big eyes! SOOOOOOOOOO freakin dumb. They just happen to have a form that triggers empathy...unlike pigs which are far more intelligent, and yet slaughtered by the millions, often in horrific conditions.

It's just about how things LOOK. And then there is convention. Eat dogs? Mistreat dogs? Heck NO! We wouldn't want to do that. Dogs are our friends.

I think this idea of retarded people as broken people that we feel sympathy for is a convenient gloss, but it just comes down to the fact that we share morphology. People who are responsive to suffering no matter what the shape of the creature experiencing it become animal rights activists, people who require particular morphologies or gentic codes for admission to quality treatment don't.

Conversely, it is worth noting that some people not only require basic human morphology but a whole extra layer of identity criteria be met namely people who require that one be an "American," "Christian," "Jew," "White," or what have you, prior to qualifying for treatment as a "human."

Unknown said...

McMahan has a lot more to say on this question, and out of context his statement appears strange.

His question is framed in terms of what we owe to others (a classic Scanlonian framing of the question), but to put it in a way that might have more appeal to Amos - it is about how much concern we should have for another individual, or how we ought to behave towards them.

The problem put simply is that species membership seems a fairly problematic basis for distinguishing our moral obligations between humans and non-human animals. Many who have recognised this have pointed to the different capacities of non-human animals - for example their lack of language, reason, self-consciousness etc. But the problem for this view is that there are some members of our species who also lack these capacities. There are some non-human animals who have greater capacities to reason, communicate etc than some humans.

At present we treat those humans with very severe cognitive deficits (the term McMahan uses now is 'radically cognitively limited') far better than we treat animals. If capacities are morally relevant McMahan points out that there are three possibilities - we could improve our treatment of animals to the level that we treat RCL members of our own species; we could revise our treatment of those with RCL to the level that we treat animals currently; or there is a third possibility - that we perhaps bring our treatment of animals and RCL humans closer (what he calls convergent assimilation) Perhaps we should treat animals better and at the same time reconsider whether all humans should be treated equally.

But even if you accept that capacities matter morally, it doesn't necessarily follow that we should treat entities with identical
capacities equally. For example we may treat some individuals *better* than the minimum that we owe to them - perhaps because of a partiality for shared membership of a species. What is more there may be other things than capacities that are relevant - for example, the relationships that others in the community have with humans with severe cognitive impairment - they are after all someone's child, sibling etc.

This might mean that a visiting alien should treat a severely cognitively impaired human differently from how they should treat a non-human animal with identical capacities. But this answer, too, has its problems. It suggests that our obligations to severely impaired individuals within our species may be contingent upon their relationship to others in the community. Most people would find it highly disturbing that in the absence of such relationships (for example if that person had no family) our moral obligations towards them might be identical to our moral obligations to non-human animals.


Jean Kazez said...

Faust, I think people do respond to a certain sort of tragedy they see when an individual can't do what it was "meant" to do. So they might think it's fine to hunt and eat birds, but still respond compassionately to an injured bird. I don't see how that can be unless they're making a distinction between the normal and the "broken." This means they would have some basis for favoring the severely retarded over comparable normal animals besides just sheer speciesism.

Dom--Thanks for that summary. The intricacies of McMahan are not easy to encapsulate quickly. Yes, he's not doing what many do--simply trying to elevate animals to the usual status of the mentally retarded. He's also demoting the latter. And then saying there are some legitimate reasons to make minor adjustments to this equation.

s. wallerstein said...

In general, I agree with Faust. It's a question of responding to suffering, not of anything that I (not "we") owe animals. I have implicit or contractual obligations towards people whom I know and perhaps have obligations towards strangers as a part of an implicit social contract. I have no obligations towards humanity as a whole nor towards animals: where would those obligations come from, from a non-existent Deity? On the other hand, I respond to and am concerned about the suffering of animals and other humans whom I don't know, because that's the way I am. As Faust points out, cuteness and beauty have something to do with it: I respond to the sufferings of a bird more readily than I do to the sufferings of a snake. I respond to the suffering of stray dogs (there are many where I live) much less the days when stray dogs have harassed me, as they do, or when I've stepped in dog shit.

Jean Kazez said...

As Dom points out, McMahan is using "what we owe to animals" in a loose sense. I use the phrase in the same loose sense as the subtitle of my book. He's trying to get at how we we should treat them, not what they're owed in some more strict sense. I think, and he thinks, there are things we should and shouldn't do, whatever set of feelings we happen to have about animals. There are things we should and shouldn't do even to the uncute ones. Where would these obligations come from? Well, where do any obligations come from? That's the $64,000 question of ethics.

s. wallerstein said...

Where some obligations come from is clear. Legal obligations: no problem. Professional obligations: no problem either.
Contractual obligations: no problem. Family obligations: perhaps part of the game of being a family member. Social obligations: I'd say part of the game of participating in society. There are also obligations that I willingly assume for myself: I decide that I have an obligation to speak out on a certain controversial topic, because that topic matters to me. I create that obligation. So obligations are either collective creations (of society, that is, contracts of sorts) or individual creations (thus, I define myself). There is no reason why there couldn't be a social or an individual obligation to respond to animal suffering and exploitation. We'd have to create it, hopefully in collective form, since collective obligations are more effective. My only point is that obligations aren't "out there", aren't part of the structure of the universe, aren't facts.

s. wallerstein said...

One correction. I had said that obligations aren't fact. Obligations are facts, in the same sense as any rules are facts. The rules of chess are facts. If you want to play chess, you are obliged to follow the rules.

Faust said...

Several things:

Dom said:
"It suggests that our obligations to severely impaired individuals within our species may be contingent upon their relationship to others in the community."


I'm pretty sure that Amos and I agree on this point: The so called 64,000 dollar question is only worth that much to moral realists who insist that sufficiently rigorous analysis will be able peer past the veil of tears and discern, however dimly, a set of Platonic Forms that can undergird our moral intuitions.

The conclusion that our moral intuitions are simply historically contingent beliefs that have no grounding in anything other than a human community is not a conclusion that is palatable to many. I understand the revulsion that many have to such a conclusion, but I find difficulty finding grounds for it on the same "rational" level that is supposed to undergird all the advanced thinking that gets us out of our moral conundrums.

As for the subject of "brokeness." People are going to respond compassionately to an injured bird because it is suffering. No additional information is required and the brokeness is superfluous. "Brokeness" is just another name for suffering, I don't think it adds much as a category unless, and here can see substantial weight to it, there is "suffering that can be fixed" (brokeness) and "suffering that is endemic to a condition and cannot be fixed." Here is the difference beween a horse that is injured but can be fixed and one that must be put down. Not to mention humans that would like to be cured and humans suffering so badly from an incurable disease they would like release.

I suppose we can view (some) retarded people as "broken" but I don't. I don't think it's useful when considering retarded people, and may even be bad form. I worked with a mildly retarded fellow at one of my jobs and he was one of the sweetest, most earnest people I have ever met. He was incredibly annoying at times, because he had trouble with social cues, but outside of his inability to judge his immediate social situations in ways that were sometimes awkward, he was far less "broken" than more "complete" adults capable of much more cruelty and deception than he ever could be.

Perhaps it is different with the severely retarded. Perhaps they really are "broken." Or maybe they are just (like us) animals with a particular set of cognitive capacities on a continuum--and that happen to share our morphology.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, I think your interpretation of that sentence is not quite right. McMahan is assuming there's a fact of the matter about how the Martians ought to treat the severely retarded. He's not taking any stand here about the nature of moral facts, and certainly not saying they depend on a community's beliefs. What he is saying is that what the Martian owes the severely retarded is mostly determined by their intrinsic properties, but also (a bit) a function of existing relationships. It's morally important to take into account the feelings of family members, for example.

As to moral facts, and what they depend on. I take it that there are such facts. It's wrong (really, truly wrong) to leave babies to drown in puddles, etc. With that assumption in place, there are lots and lots of interesting questions about what our obligations are. I'm more interested in issues downstream of that assumption.

But things are very interesting upstream too, and there things get very complicated. I haven't read any metaethics for a while (having read quite a bit way back when) but I'm thinking it's high time I read Russ Shafer-Landau's book "Moral Realism." After I read it, I will probably just say "what Russ said" whenever these kinds of issues come up. I should say, though, this is one of those wonderful areas of philosophy that allow for endless reflection. There is absolutely nothing you can say about the nature of moral truth that isn't weird in some respect or other.

Re: brokenness. I don't think it can just be about compassion. People will simultaneously aim guns at birds, causing suffering, and act solicitously toward "broken" birds. They will support whale hunting, yet get all upset about a poor, beached whale. What underlies these distinctions seems to be a sense of what's normal (killing animals, causing them pain), and what's tragic (poor whale got stuck!).

s. wallerstein said...

"It's wrong, truly wrong, to leave babies to drown in puddles".
Most people would agree with that, except that in specific cases, they'd have no problem with leaving Bosnian or Palestinian or Israeli or Japanese (Hiroshima) or Afghan babies to die in puddles (I take "puddles" to be a metaphor). For example, your country, our country, in its war against terror in Afghanistan, kills a goodly number of Afghan or Pakistani babies with its drones, directed against suspected terrorists, who happen to be in the company of babies. Is that truly wrong?

Faust said...

Re: the martian. There are two factors at issue here as I see it:

Cognitive capacity.
Morphology (biology).

We share morphology with retarded people, but not congitive capacity.

We do not share either morphology or cognitive capacity with animals.

Thus Martians are to our retarded people as we are to animals, as the Martians will have a different morphology/biology, as well as a different congnitive capacity.

Now, if you are a realist then you think that this is calling attention to the FACTS of how the martian should treat our retarded people, and that by analogy this also gives us facts about how we should treat animals.

I do not think this tells us facts of any kind. I think it is merey as helpful way to expand our imaginations, increasing our capacity for empathy, to increase our awareness of how insensitive we might be being merely because of what kinds of shapes life manifests itself in. But this increase in empathy is an increase in our capacity to percieve suffering, not an increase in our understanding in the metaethical substrate that undergirds reality.

I am not on board the moral realism bus. It makes no sense to me. I do think it presents a very interesting picture of what humans are up to though. As I see it, if you are a moral realist you replace "God" and his divine commands with "Moral Reality" a framework that supervenes on non-moral facts in such a way that it has objective validity independant of human communities. Thus we replace priests who through "spiritual perceptions" dicern the divine the will of God, with high priests of ethics who, through the use of their advanced congnitive abilities, uncover moral facts the way archeologists unocver ancient civilizations, through a process of careful and painstaking dicovery.

Over time then, on the moral realist view, we will eventually discover the final framework of morality, or at least we can view ourselves as asymptotically approaching it. This is a facinating way to think about what humanity is doing, or should I say, that tiny little group of applied moral philosophers are doing.

Unknown said...

Actually although I suspect Jeff is a moral realist the thought experiment that he describes doesn't require such a meta-ethical commitment.
It simply requires that you give some credence to the golden rule, probably the most widely accepted ethical norm: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

It is difficult to ask people to imagine themselves as animals and decide how they would like to be treated - without this being contaminated by our current attitude to animals.
But perhaps by asking McMahan's question - how would we want another species to treat humans (with low cognitive capacities) - we might expand our moral imagination (as Faust suggests)


Faust said...

I agree that no additional meta-ethical commitment is required to make sense of the martian analogy. Moral realism is, to me, a superfluous project. What we need is more education of sentiments, not more shaky foundation building. Some people may require the latter before they feel they can indulge in the former. But I remain steadfastly unconvinced that this is the case.

Jean Kazez said...

"Do unto animals as you would have Martians do unto severely retarded humans." That doesn't seem like an application of the golden rule.

Isn't McMahan just making a straightforward argument from analogy? As in: "Martians using severely retarded humans for food are in every respect exactly like us using animals for food. You can't point to any difference, whether intrinsic to the individuals or in the way they are related to each other. Thus, whatever moral evaluation you make of the Martians you must make of your self, if you use animals for food." (But then he softens this a bit.)

The golden rule is something else--it tries to construct what I owe to others out of what I want for myself. No?

Re: moral truth. Surely we can have moral arguments (about animals, about health care, about terrorism, e.g.) without sinking into the quick sand of metaethics. I distrust skepticism that just happens to pop up when people don't like the conclusion of a particular argument! For purposes of McMahan's argument, we just have to approach moral issues in the way we do on an every day basis. Like we always do, we have to think that some views are right and some are wrong. That's all I was pushing, not any particular view on moral truth.

Unknown said...

OK. You are right that it isn't a straightforward application of the Golden Rule. Though an argument from analogy is just another way of seeking consistency in moral judgement.

One of the interesting meta-ethical questions about 'The Ethics of Killing' is the way in which McMahan relies on intuitive responses to some extremely unusual case examples (brain transplants, animals with superhuman capacities, morally sensitive martians). I think that cases like the ones that he gives are fascinating but dangerous in two ways. Firstly, our intuitive responses to extremely odd thought experiments just may not be reliable. (In the same way that some philosophers have argued that our intuitions to cases involving extremely large numbers (such as the repugnant conclusion) are unreliable.)
But secondly, it is always possible that someone's intuitions may diverge from McMahan's. What if the moral irrealist, when faced with the question about martians and the radically cognitively limited, answers that it is completely OK for the Martian to use them for food if they want to? They may then reject the conclusion that McMahan, and you and I would take from the thought experiment - that we (humans) should not eat non-human animals.


s. wallerstein said...

"I distrust skepticism that happens to pop up when people don't like the conclusions of a particular argument". I think that you're being a bit unfair here, Jean. I've been skeptical of moral realism for a long time, and on the other hand, I generally agree with your conclusions about animal rights. I just come to very similar conclusions by a very different path, closer to the one Faust calls moral sentiments. Now, as to the particular argument here about Martians, I don't understand it at all, but I'm allergic to all science-fiction, space-travel talk. I didn't even watch the first man land on the moon.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, Sorry, I really didn't mean you in particular. It's just a common phenomenon. Everyone has strong views about what's really right and really wrong in some contexts, and will happily make and rebut arguments, and then (poof!) they become skeptics about morality in others.

s. wallerstein said...

Jean: That's so considerate of you to apologize. People never do that on internet. Eric MacDonald also apologized to me once. I can't recall other cases. Hit and run bashing seems to be the style on the web.

Faust said...

Heh, well who were you refering to? Is there anyone here who is debating the conclusion that we should treat animals better than we do and that the martian analogy is of some interest? I see quibbling about details, but not about the main conclusions.

Also, being skeptical about moral realism does not entail skepticism about a moral position. While I'm sure some moral irrealists are full blown nihilists, plenty are constructivists, and believe that there are moral points of view, but that they always are grounded in communities and not in some metaphysical reality that transcends communities.

In any case, while I find the quicksand of metaethics utterly facinating, I don't think they are necessary to talk about morality. To talk about morality all you need is the presuppositions of a given community and an exploration of how consistent that community is in applying its supposed principles.

Jean Kazez said...

Agh! I guess I better change my tune. OK, THANK YOU for bringing up these metaethical isues, everyone.

(Actually, I pretty much mean it. It made me go to the library and get Russ Shafer-Landau's book "Moral Realism." I'm looking forward to being enlightened.)

Morality grounded in communities...hmm. But what about the gruesome communities that ground utter rubbish? I just can't see ethics that way.

Faust said...

Utter rubbish according to whom? Your community of course, the community of western liberal x y and z (of which I am a proud member).

Besides which, if ought implies can then we have to assume that any given community that engages in an immoral practice (e.g. the ancient greeks practicing slavery) has the "knowledge" of "moral facts" sufficient to be doing those bad things (slavery) against the fabric of the universe (or however it is supposed to work). If they didn't have the facts they needed to make the right decision then they can't be regarded as immoral because they couldn't have done otherwise.

I guess since I'll be hearing from that book soon I better get myself a copy!

Jean Kazez said...

Hmm. If you tell someone they ought to do differently, you must believe they could do differently. That sounds right.

But to simply categorize an act as wrong, must you believe the individual could have done differently? I wouldn't think so.

On the other hand--I think if you look closely, you do often see seeds of doubts about bad behavior even in communities where they are deeply entrenched. The Greeks did worry about slavery...or Aristotle (eg) wouldn't have thought it necessary to defend it.

s. wallerstein said...

From a very interesting discussion on Greek slavery by Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity (p.117): "Slavery, in most people's eyes, was not just, but necessary. Because it was necessary, it was not, as an institution, seen as unjust either: to say that it was unjust would imply that ideally, at least, it should cease to exists, and few, if any, could see how that might be. If as an institution it was not seen as either just or unjust, there was not much to be said about its justice, and indeed it has often been noticed that in extant Greek literature there are very few discussions at all of the justice of slavery. The Greek world recognized the simple truth that slavery rested on coercion. Aristotle's attempt to justify the institution, in the literal sense of conferring justice on it rather than accepting that it was necessary, required him to deny this simple truth."

Jean Kazez said...

Interesting that you should quote that, because I know the book and the passage--and also thought it was deep and interesting. What is perceived as "necessary" is almost impossible to question. (Much relevance to animal issues...) Yet not impossible. Aristotle's defense of slavery does show that there must have been at least some question about it.

s. wallerstein said...

Skimping to page 124, I see that Williams suggests that Aristotle himself felt the need to justify slavery, although almost no one saw the problem, the idea being (I think) that Aristotle, being a genius, saw what others didn't. Williams also describes Plato as a utopian and Euripides as a misfit for perceiving that women are not inferior to men.

Faust said...

Interesting! I agree that if Aristotle mounted a defense of slavery then must have had some doubts about it, whether they came from his own mind, or an undercurrent in society that required tending to.

Some assertions:

1. To view an act as wrong, you don't have to believe the person committing the act could behave differently.

2. If people don't have the capacity to behave differently then it is not reasonable to ask them to behave differently because ought implies can.

In my view 1. is actually a bit odd judged independantly of 2. You can judge the actions of some individual as bad or wrong, but if you determine they could not have acted differently, then while you might be able to say "that was an immoral act" it's harder to say "they acted immorally."

You can see this kind of difficulty when Christians try to deal with what happens to people who have never heard the word of God. Do they go to hell? If they don't know about God then they can't come to him, they can't be guiltly of the sin of turnning from God. So they do some pretzel acrobatics and talk about how God is revealed through creation itself and that this is sufficient ground to condemn them for failing to come to God. The point being: in order to get people into a position where you can condemn them for being immoral, you need to get to a state where you think they could have done differently.

This is why we don't judge animals for "being cruel," or "doing bad things." Or do we? That would be new on me. I have always assumed animals were free of the moral sphere because they have no free will, not even the facimile of it that we pretend to. So it makes no sense to say "that cat is immoral as it plays with the mouse" because you can't reasonbaly expect the cat to do otherwise. Why would this be any different with people?

So maybe Aristotle can be condemed for defending something that he knew full well he should have been condemning, but what about the people less educated? What about the people less educated or brilliant who were simply doing what their cultural programming directed them to do? In what way do they not escape the freedom animals have from moral judgement?

s. wallerstein said...

Not being an expert on Greek culture, I have no idea to what extent the ordinary Greek sensed that slavery could be wrong. It's clear that they understood that slavery was no fun. However, if ordinary Greeks had no way of seeing that slavery is wrong, then I would not hold them to be morally responsible for slavery just as I would not hold my great-grandfather responsible for his sexist attitudes, since he had no way of understanding that they were sexist. It's a complicated question, isn't it?
It has to do with our judgements about Islamic culture and their treatment of women. Are the Talibans morally responsible for oppressing women? Probably not, I would say. However, I would say that their oppression of women is still wrong, even though they are not morally responsible. You (Faust) make the same distinction above between behaving immorally and immoral acts.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, For lots of reasons, it seems useful to separate the question whether an action is right or wrong, and the question whether the agent is blameworthy. Otherwise, how are you going to say everything you want to say about children who torture each other, etc. etc? I don't even mind talking about animal behaviors as right or wrong, though it doesn't make sense to blame them for what they do. Dog bites baby: wrong act, but he's not a bad dog. That sounds perfectly coherent to me!

s. wallerstein said...

More on Aristotle: "But to some people, holding slaves is against nature (for it is by convention that man is slave and another is free, and in nature there is no difference); therefore, it is not just, either; since it is imposed by force". Politics 1253b. That is, some Greeks perceived that slavery is not just.

Faust said...

I don't even mind talking about animal behaviors as right or wrong, though it doesn't make sense to blame them for what they do. Dog bites baby: wrong act, but he's not a bad dog. That sounds perfectly coherent to me!

Well I think this is a good place to start then, because I'm not sure I would frame "dog bites baby" as wrong in a moral sense. Unacceptable? Absolutely. True story: friends of mine just had a baby. They also had a dog they rescued. It was a pitbull. They loved that dog, but it had serious behavior problems. They took it to one of the best training programs in the region. Couldn't be sure it would be safe with the baby (or the neighbors for that matter). So they put it down before the baby was born. Now I just can't see applying a moral framework onto that dog. It was determined that there was a chance the dog would behave in a totally unacceptable way. Once can certainly use the word "wrong" in this context. But it's not the same kind of "wrong" that you would apply to say...me cheating on my wife and lying about it. Or is it?

s. wallerstein said...

People generally don't use thin ethical terms to describe animal behavior: they don't say that the behavior of a pit bull is wrong, but they do use thick ethical terms, like cruel or vicious.