Should we care about our children's gender?

Next in my book/manuscript on parenthood comes a chapter on gender.  I'm at the thinking and reading stage here, not writing yet.  The question so far is "what is the question?"  At this point it's a bit hazy and clunky.  Roughly: (a) is there a difference between boys and girls that runs deep (what does that mean?) and (b) does that difference (if it exists) make it reasonable to prefer having a boy or prefer having a girl and (c) is it good for children for parents to prefer a sex and then teach and cultivate sex/gender differences? 

"Running deep" could mean so many things. It's not necessarily a matter of innateness.  Eye color is innate, but being brown-eyed is not a deep or central fact about a person. Nobody has a major hankering for a brown-eyed child.  We're not going to guide children through life with acute consciousness of who has which eye color.  Sex/gender could be partly innate, and not terribly deep or central. 

To say sex/gender is deep and central is to say it's an important part of identity--but identity in a certain juicy sense.  Gender does clearly pertain to identity in a dry and minimal sense.  Or at least sex does.  If I'd been born genetically male, I would have been a different person--since I would have had to have come from a different sperm. But that's true of eye color too.  If I'd been born blue-eyed, I'd have had to come from a different sperm or egg or both.  The important question is whether your sex/gender is a big part of "who you are" (as people like to say). 

As things stand in all societies, yes, but is that an imposition as opposed to a reality?  We used to have this idea that anyone over 30 is no longer young--surely an imposition!  There are still a lot of imposed age-roles and they can be quite confining.  Is the male vs. female distinction just as much of an imposition? Or is it more basic.  Interestingly, it wouldn't have to be innate at all to be basic.  It's pretty basic to me that I'm an American, but obviously not innate.  It's basic that I'm a citizen of the US, not a foreign visitor, but not innate.  Gender could be like that--totally a matter of history and happenstance, but nevertheless important. Before figuring out what parents should think and do about gender, I have to make up my mind about the "metaphysics" of gender. 

As you can see, I have no Views yet, which is a lovely position to be in.  There are two worse positions to be in:  (a)  Having Views and knowing how you want to defend them, so repeating yourself over and over again.  Ugh!  (b)  Having Views and trying to defend them, possibly to the point of confabulating (making up reasons that are not really your reasons for holding your Views).  To have a clear question in mind, but no View!  That is fun.

Next on my reading list--After Identity: Rethinking Race, Sex, and Gender, by Georgia Warnke. Coming in a UPS truck very soon, and hopefully enlightening.


Molding, Beholding, Procreating

More on controlling the traits of children, before they're born.  Michael Sandel disapproves of enhancing children prenatally on grounds that he believes this manifests an attitude that's pernicious--constantly seeking mastery instead of being "open to the unbidden."  Selective parents mold their children instead of beholding them, he says.  I wonder about these contrasts.  How much "openness to the unbidden" does the natural, non-selective parent really have? It is not as if we get awarded just any child, through a lottery. If we willingly received newborns by some random method of distribution, you could say parents were truly open to the unbidden.  But no, the low-tech parent accepts the child who comes from her own and her spouse's body.  She is willing to "behold" her offspring not out of an attitude of openness, but because that child is actually half hers and half her partner's.  Parents take the step to adoption very reluctantly, and only after years of "trying" and intervention, because (I suspect) "ours" has such enormous significance to them.  That doesn't sound like "openness to the unbidden" to me!

It's also questionable whether people who pursue enhancement generally do so in order to have "mastery" or for the sake of "molding" their children.  These are typically people who were not able to conceive naturally.   Some are using donor eggs or donor sperm, so cannot have the usual control over who their offspring will be.  It's under those conditions that prospective parents start to care about getting sperm from tall guys with high SAT scores and eggs from beautiful women (yes, the gendered stuff is a reality--look at sperm and egg donation websites!).  I suspect the feeling is "If we couldn't have the most perfect baby, ours, then we'll accept second best--a baby with stellar traits!"  People using their own sperm and eggs at an infertility clinic may be tempted to enhance as well, but I think, again, the psychology of this needs to be examined. These are people who have far less power over the future than usual--they're plopping down vast sums of money with no guarantee of winding up with any child at all, let alone a perfect child.  All sorts of things are out of their control. If they want to tinker with embryonic DNA, it probably isn't because they have any special desire to mold or master their children, but because of the precarious position they're in.

So--people who procreate naturally aren't so terribly open to the unbidden--they're just prepared to see any offspring of theirs as good enough. In fact, as perfect--which is what people say all the time about their newborn children.  "She's perfect!  He's perfect!"   And people who procreate with technical assistance are contending with special uncertainties and pressures, so aren't unusually desirous of mastery and control.  So much for Sandel's character analysis, at least in the real world!

But now we need a thought experiment.  Suppose there were someone who could reproduce naturally, but chose IVF in order to enhance embryos?  Imagine for their second child, Kim and Kanye decide to go that route, just to be sure little South West (get it?) will have every possible advantage in life.  Suppose, for example, they implant the new Gratitude Gene (sold for a million dollars a pop by a Cambridge biotech business in the year 2016), because positive psychologists say grateful people are happier.  Is there anything at all bad about giving up the thought "Any child of ours has got to be perfect!" and taking technical steps to make a child a little better off?

In my opinion, there is something bad about it.  The thought that our child is bound to be perfect, and not in need of improvement, is a salutary thought.  It's a strengthener of love and commitment.  It's not worth weakening that sentiment for small gains. It's a different matter if Kim and Kanye have been to a genetic counselor and have discovered their offspring stand a 50% of having some serious, life-limiting abnormality.  In that case, it makes sense to screen embryos.  But no, in the situation I'm imagining, little South's parents will have an attitudinal problem that probably won't be offset by South's extra gratitude.  Enhancing messes with salutary parental prejudice--the thought that our child, just by virtue of being ours, is perfect, or at least perfectly loveable.  In a world where people standardly made kids in laboratories, using all the latest ingredients, that sentiment would be lost.  Our kids wouldn't simply come from us, so feel like second selves (as Aristotle describes children).  They'd be our products, creating a different set of feelings and expectations.  So:  ugh, but not for Sandel's reasons.  I don't see that natural parents are "open to the unbidden" or that high tech parents are guilty of "molding, not beholding."


Prenatal Control over Sexual Orientation

Two signs that I am a masochist: I regularly listen to Mike Huckabee on the radio, just to see what those folks are up to.  And I'm currently reading the book Ethics, Sexual Orientation, and Choices about Children, by Timothy F. Murphy.  The book comes to the defense of people who would want to control their children's sexual orientation before birth, if that became possible.  Murphy doesn't just accept this as a choice that shouldn't be interfered with, he thinks the choice would make quite a lot of sense; and he doesn't just think it would make sense, but he's actively championing this choice. Not because he's anti-gay, he says (in fact, quite possibly he's gay himself) but because ... I don't know why!

In the first chapter, Murphy embraces what Joel Feinberg calls a "right to an open future."  The idea is that we are entitled to have many options in the future, and parents shouldn't foreclose their adult children being able to make autonomous choices among them upon majority.  That could be a problem for prenatally controlling sexual orientation, but no, says Murphy it isn't.  Prenatally controlling sexual orientation is no more a problem than postnatally influencing a child's religion by taking her to church or synagogue.  Both narrow the future possibilities.  If you take your kid to a synagogue, you can be pretty sure she won't be a Hindu as an adult, and if you ingest a "must be straight" elixer before your baby's born, you can be sure she won't be a lesbian. He thinks there's no difference.

Well, I do think there's a difference. The difference is not in the amount of narrowing of future possibilities but in the role the parents are playing.   When you have children, they share the life you're already living.  You don't have to remodel your life to give your child either the ideal upbringing or the maximum number of future possibilities.  As long as your life is not overly restrictive and you let your child head for the exits on various matters, the sharing of your life is not pernicious.  It's another thing to transmit desired traits in a manufacturing mode, specifying X, Y, and Z as the features of your future child.  Living a certain life together is one thing, but being the implanter of your child's choices and beliefs is another.  Nobody wants to feel that their core choices and beliefs were fixed in advance, especially by parents -- folks who are going to seem pretty omnipotent for some years to come. 

Does it make it better if parents screen embryos pre-implantation, instead of modifying a fetus mid-gestation?  Murphy seems to think it's especially benign to screen embryos for homosexuality, professing to see no downside for the child who winds up being born with a "straight" guarantee (or your money back!). But no--the child selected for his sexual orientation is stuck having to think:  "But for being heterosexual, I would never have been born!" It sounds to me like a burden to think your sex orientation is so existentially pivotal, and so important in your parents' eyes. 

Why does Murphy think it makes pretty good sense for parents to want to avoid having gay children? I haven't read enough of the book yet to say, but it appears he has respect for wanting grandchildren, wanting kids who aren't discriminated against, and the like.  The thing is, thoughts like that tend to be camouflage for less seemly emotions.  People (especially of a certain generation) have deep seated angst about homosexuality.  Someone taking prenatal drugs and selecting embryos to avoid having a gay or lesbian child is most likely in the grip of such angst--it's not really about the grandchildren and discrimination.  It's odd (really odd) that Murphy has gone to so much effort (he's written a lot about this topic) to be their champions. 


Religious Exemptions

I had no idea there were so many religious exemptions permitting parents to withhold legally required healthcare from their children.  Must read-- here and here.



One of the topics in my book on parenthood (well, manuscript, so far) is circumcision--should we or shouldn't we?   To my mind, people circumcise for the same sort of reason they clip the tails off of some breeds of dogs.  Says a Jack Russell breeder: "Every Jack Russell Terrier must have its tail docked and dew claws removed at an early age. Three to five days of age seems to be the best time-frame depending on size and vigor of the pups."  A docked tail is an aesthetic norm associated with that breed.  Likewise (I submit!), foreskin-docking became part of the aesthetic norm for the male human.  How that came about is a long story, involving many different factors, but no matter:  by the middle of the 20th century a boy with a foreskin was like a Jack Russell with a tail.  You had to circumcise as quickly as possible to make the boy look like boys are supposed to look.

Over time, this started to seem pretty weird to people. The aesthetic norm didn't change, but they started to think it was cruel to treat baby boys this way.  So people wanted to supplement the aesthetic norm with defenses of circumcision that point to benefits to the child.  We thus get social defenses: circumcision will make a boy feel more comfortable in a society where most boys are circumcised.  More recently, there's the rationale that circumcision reduces the risk of HIV-AIDS in certain populations (very unlike our own). So--we are to believe that circumcision is actually good for the child, like later vaccinations are good for the child.

The problem with the analogy with vaccination is that vaccinations take nothing away from a child, but circumcision does.  It takes away the foreskin, which is densely packed with nerve endings (and plays other sexual roles as well).  This loss is discounted by defenders of circumcision, because there aren't scientific studies proving that circumcised men are worse off than uncircumcised men.  But the Jack Russell analogy gives us something to think about in that regard.

Dogs have tails--so I have read--because tails improve balance and allow a dog to communicate his or her emotions to other dogs or humans.  With that in mind, it stands to reason that a dog loses a little bit of well-being as a result of tail-docking.  Surely nobody would become skeptical of that just because no study has corroborated it.  No study has corroborated it, and probably none could corroborate it, because the difference is too subtle and there are too many confounding variables.  People who want to dock dog tails are surely fooling themselves if say "no study has shown any cost to dogs." Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence (at least in this case).

I submit we can know without a corroborating study that foreskin removal very probably does slightly reduce male well-being. "Less nerve endings, less sensation." It just makes sense!  Removing a baby's foreskin to slightly lower the risk of later disease is like giving a baby burning eye-drops to slightly lower the risk of later glaucoma, at the cost of permanently reducing the vividness of colors by -- who knows? -- 1%.  Or giving the baby a painful tongue injection that slightly lowers the risk of tongue cancer, at the cost of reducing taste vividness by some small amount.  I can't imagine parents accepting those trade-offs.  

So why do parents accept the circumcision trade-off?  Jack Russells.  Aesthetic norms.  That sort of thing, I think, plus a great worry parents have about boys fitting in.  After all, Jack Russells don't care if they look like Jack Russells, but boys do want to look like normal boys.  I wonder, though, whether parents are overly anxious about that.  Parents have a lot of worries about boys conforming or not conforming--possibly to the detriment of boys and the adult men they turn into.

Bottom line: I'm against both docking tails and docking foreskins, but it's a curious issue.  All wrongs are not, of course, equal. Some are big, some are small, and these strike me as small wrongs.  It's curious when we are adamantly opposed to a small wrong.  It forces you to wonder where the depth of opposition comes from.  In the case of circumcision I think it's fairly clear.  We are super-protective toward newborn infants.  It's an affront to that protectiveness to imagine a helpless baby boy being strapped down and "docked"--making him just a tad less perfect than he was to begin with, but more consistent with social norms.  The affront is one thing, but the cost to the boy (surely small, in the long run) is another.  I know some very happy docked Jack Russell terriers.


Dear Student

This Daily Campus editorial is getting attention all over the place. I suspect what's really going on is not so much misogyny and victim-blaming (as a change.org petition says) but sloppy thinking and bad writing.  Comments below.

"At the beginning of this school year, SMU students noticed a large number of alleged sexual assaults on campus, but is the blame being placed in the right place? Of course the perpetrators are the ones responsible for the crimes, but to solve the problem they can’t be the only ones taking blame."
Blame. Is that really the word you're looking for?  "Blame" connotes fault, responsibility, moral error.  Do rape victims really share moral responsibility with rapists?  I bet what you really have in mind is prevention and risk reduction.   Is your point really about blame or about people taking unnecessary risks? If so, say so!
"What is the common theme in the majority of sexual assault or rape cases on college campuses? Alcohol abuse.

According to a research study conducted by the Sarah Lawrence College, 50 percent of sexual assaults on and around college campuses are associated with alcohol use."
"Theme"?  No, real events in the world don't have themes.  "Factor"--that's the word you're looking for!
"Although it sounds harsh to place any blame on the victims of these incidents, if the media continues to place all the blame on the perpetrator, young college women will never learn that there is a way to help prevent these kinds of acts."
Is "blame" the word you're look for? I bet it isn't.  You wouldn't really want to see rape victims confess to any responsibility, would you? Then don't use the word "blame."
"The best way for women to prevent these assaults from happening to them is to never drink so much that they cannot control themselves or remember what happened the next day. If women quit putting themselves in situations where they appear vulnerable, it will be much less likely for men to try and take advantage of them.

But, it seems trying to tell college students not to drink too much is a very difficult message to get across when there isn’t a concrete reason why they should."
You tell women not to drink too much to avoid being victims.  Why don't you also tell men not to drink too much to avoid being perpetrators? 
"If the media would focus more attention on the fact that the majority of the women who are sexually assaulted are intoxicated, as opposed to stating and restating how horrible the perpetrator is, then maybe young women would start to listen."
Where'd you get this statistic?  It certainly doesn't follow from the Sarah Lawrence statistic you cited above.
"Over the summer, four Vanderbilt University football stars were accused of rape. The four men went to jail and were all over the news for months. The victim of the crime informed police and her friends that she was too intoxicated to remember the incident, so all of the details were found through a video camera in a Vanderbilt dorm where the incident occurred.

The news has not reported once that the victim was too intoxicated, but solely concentrates on the details of the perpetrators.

The details on the offenders should not be omitted, but how are young women supposed to learn from the incident when they don’t know the details?"
If the news never once reported that the victim was intoxicated, then how do you know it?
"Obviously the media doesn’t want to come off as insensitive by revealing details of the case that would make it seem they were placing any blame on the victim. But, in order to prevent future victims, viewers need to know the other side of things.
There's that word again.  The victim is not to blame.  Imagine you're robbed and didn't notice the perpetrator because you were plugged into your Ipod. Are you to blame for the fact that you were robbed? Surely you wouldn't think so.  You might have been able to avoid being robbed by taking more precautions, but it's not a question of blame.
"If the media begins to draw attention to the details of the sexual assault or rape victim it is hoped that young women will learn from the case, and there will be less sexual assault cases to report.

If college women decide they still don’t want to give up over drinking, hopefully they will at least come up with a game plan with their friends to prevent getting themselves into a vulnerable situation.

I am not promoting less sympathy for victims of these incidents or less media coverage of the perpetrators, because the victims are deserving of sympathy and the offenders deserve to have their faces on the news. But I think everyone, especially victims of these crimes, can agree that preventing future victims of sexual assault and rape is of upmost importance.

So media, please help prevent future victims of sexual assault and rape by reporting the other side of these cases, and young women, please wake up and realize that the majority of these incidents happen when the victims are intoxicated."
Not only are their critical thinking problems throughout this essay, but there are also writing problems.  "Preventing future victims of sexual assault and rape is of upmost importance."  You prevent crimes, not victims.  Not "upmost," "utmost"!


Having an Identity

Reading around in the philosophical literature about self and identity, it strikes me that one topic is very often left out.  The literature deals with quantitative identity, as in the relation between teenage me and adult me that makes "us" one and the same.  There's plenty of literature about the self--in the sense of my mind, in totality.  There's also literature about the self in the sense of personality--clusters of traits like introversion, openness to new things, etc..   But what about identity in the sense of a relatively small set of core characteristics that go into "who I am" (as the folk are wont to say)?

This is the sense of "identity" relevant to the subtitle of Andrew Solomon's book Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.  What are we searching for?  Knowing who we are -- in some sense.  The idea seems to be that healthy, normal people can give an answer to the question  "Who am I?"   Beyond just having whole personalities, which is inevitable, it's thought to be important and wholesome to be able to say "This is who I am--I'm X, Y, and Z."  Solomon says the people discussed in his book have "horizontal" identities.  Being Irish, because your parents are Irish, would be a vertical identity.  Being deaf or autistic (for example) is having a horizontal identity, because you don't derive that identity from your parents. 

What are my X, Y, and Z?  Let's see--maybe this is a reasonable test.  You have a randomly selected pen pal or e-pal, and know nothing about each other. What information do you need to share so that you know who you're talking to?  The folk theory about identity is that for each person, there is an answer to that question.  Our  identities are built up out of things like our gender, occupation, or even where we live.  (Some Texans are identity-Texans!) Inspired by the chapter of Solomon's book on transgender, I've been reading around about that topic (I very much enjoyed She's Not There, by Jennifer Finney Boylan).  Gender, to me, seems like part of the background. I'm female, but don't think much about being female.  I wouldn't really have thought it was part of my identity, but maybe it is--it's just a part of my identity that I don't focus on much. Does my invisible interlocutor need to know my gender, so we know each other?  Maybe so.  I'm a vegetarian, but not an identity-vegetarian.  My interlocutor doesn't need to know that about me, to know who I am.  Being Jewish--maybe.  Being an atheist--maybe not.  Being a mother of two children--probably.  Being a philosopher--very probably.

A Buddhist-Stoic element of the folk theory about identity is that we shouldn't put too many features  on such a list, since doing so would make us vulnerable to the proverbial "identity crisis"--if I lose my job, and that's part of my identity, I shall have to run into the night screaming, because I no longer can say who I am. We need to put the right kinds of things on the list--not my job, but my love of the subject I teach, for example.  Some disability activists offer another type of advice--we actually shouldn't think of a disability or difference as identity-making, contrary to Solomon's subtitle. Why regard yourself or someone else as a deeply different kind of person, solely on the basis of a disability?  Turning disabilities into identities is at the root of some kinds of segregation and discrimination. 

Being more tough-minded about all this, you have to wonder:  why should any of my characteristics define who I am?  Maybe--in fact, probably-- there's no definition of who I am, in this sense, no traits, attitudes, beliefs, and so on, that make me who I am.  Maybe "identity" and "who I am" talk is folk psychology at its least salvageable.  At the risk of using the word "maybe" too many times in one post, I have to say: maybe.


Victim Blaming?

The New York Times has a "Room for Debate" feature today on whether young women should be advised against binge drinking at college parties, to reduce their risk of being raped.  In the introduction it says "studies have repeatedly found an association between binge drinking and rape on college campuses."  So of course women should be advised against binge drinking....?  No, half the debaters say such advice is pernicious because it blames women for being raped.  Louise Anthony offers this analogy: advising people not to chew ice is fine, since it's in the nature of chewing ice that it damages teeth. But advising black men not to walk around in white neighborhoods is problematic, since it's not natural that they run the risk of being harassed and assaulted.  The focus should be on reducing the harassment and assault.  Likewise with advising young women.
The special risk that drunkenness poses to women – that’s due to a social climate that tolerates sexual predation. When we tell young women to stay sober in order to avoid getting raped, we send the message that we do not intend to change that social climate, that we have chosen to regard misogyny as inevitable.

I can't imagine caring parents and parental figures thinking this way.  How would it go?  Let's see.  Our daughter Maria is going rock climbing and likes to drink.  May we tell her to stay sober, to avoid plunging to her death?  Yes we may, because it's in the nature of safe rock climbing to require sobriety. If she did fall while drinking, it wouldn't be the fault of any second party, so we can warn her without committing the sin of blaming the victim.  Our other daughter, Laura, is going to a car dealership to buy a car. May we tell her to go there sober, to avoid being taken advantage of by the sales person?  No, because it's not in the nature of drinking to cause people to be swindled.  If we tell her to stay sober, we'll be sending the message that we don't intend to change the behavior of car dealers, that we have chosen to regard swindling as inevitable.

If Maria and Laura are my daughters, I'm not going to think this way. I'm going to tell them both to stay sober to protect themselves.  I don't think I'm going to care about "messages"-- I'm just going to want to protect my daughters.  But supposed I did care.  There's still be no problem with warning both Maria and Laura.   Cause is one thing, blame is another.  Laura's drunkenness may be one cause of her winding up being swindled, but only the swindler has the mens rea that is crucial for moral and legal responsibility.  We can actually point out drunkenness as a cause and not blame the drinker for the things others do to her.

Now, you might say binge drinking at a party is different from drinking at a car dealership, because nobody regards drinking while buying car as a valuable liberty.  Advising women against drinking at parties is more like advising black men against walking in white neighborhoods.  But why talk about that, and not something more pertinent to women and rape? As a young woman in Boston, I resented having to take so many precautions when walking home late at night.  All that vigilance, checking behind me, walking fast, looking for streetlights, avoiding the wee hours--my liberty to walk home at all times and while day-dreaming was definitely curtailed.  But would any parent not advise daughters about where, when, and how they get about in a city, for fear of victim blaming?  If so, I'm speechless!

Yes, of course, the real problem when it comes to rape, assault, harassment, shady salesman, etc., is the agent who perpetrates these things.  So if you're going to advise your daughters against binge drinking at college, you should be shot (not to put too fine a point on it) if you don't also advise your sons against binge drinking at college parties. No doubt studies also show that more rapes happen when men are drinking a lot. We should be trying to reduce the incidence of rape as well as helping our daughters avoid becoming victims of rape.  Of course.


Speciesism, Malignant and Benign

There's a certain sort of bias against animals that seems clearly pernicious and bears a strong resemblance to racism and sexism.  This is the sort where animals are immediately dismissed because of surface characteristics--"They're just animals".  In contrast, there's the idea that humans should have some sort of priority in our decision-making, most of the time.  This sort of prioritizing is widely assumed, even by advocates for animals.  It's the sort of prioritizing you do when, after a natural disaster, you worry first about the people affected, and only later (if at all) about squirrels and rats.  It's the prioritizing that would allow you to survive in the wilderness by killing animals if your vegetarian provisions got lost. I don't think this sort of prioritizing has any connection to nasty, groundless attitudes like sexism and racism.  But ... how to defend it?  What's it based on, such that it's not just another nasty prejudice?

There are two approaches.  One is say that animals are different from humans in such a way that they deserve less in some specific circumstances.  This is what Peter Singer says when he admits that animals have a weaker interest in going on living than humans do--since they have far fewer preferences about their futures.  So even if we do owe equal consideration to their equal interests, their interests are often not equal to ours. On the more traditional, less animal-concerned end of the ethics spectrum, there are those (like Kant) who think animals can't be owed anything at all, because they are missing the preconditions for moral considerability.  Animals are on the outside of the moral community, for lack of this or that special characteristic.

The other approach is to say "It's not about the animals" (in so many words).  Rather, there's something about co-membership in one community, partly defined by species, that makes conspecifics have special duties to each other, and weaker duties to outsiders.  On this approach, even super-smart aliens would be second priority, if they happened to land just before a natural disaster or we needed them for some type of resource. And even not-so-smart conspecifics would be first priority, like anyone else.

In my book Animalkind I take both approaches (in chapters 5 and 6), but start with the first.  Maybe, though, that was a mistake.  Perhaps it's more fundamental to understand what's morally important about two individuals being conspecifics, such that some degree of prioritizing each other, at least in some situations, is perfectly appropriate, and unlike mutual support among racists or sexists. The challenge is to explain why prioritizing conspecifics is not like prioritizing members of your own race or sex. 

Surely (my intuitions tell me) it's not. Roll back to primormordial folks living in harsh conditions. It's OK when a tribe decides to save itself in a harsh winter and doesn't expend equal energy checking on the welfare of rabbits and wolves in their burrows and dens. In fact, for the sake of survival, you can even kill rabbits and wolves, and this is a much better idea than conspecifics killing each other.  If I look at a rabbit as potential food, but not my neighbor, that can't, just can't, put me in the same category as a racist or sexist!  So my intuitions tell me, but why?  Why is it morally respectable for humans at least in situations of scarcity and hardship to see other humans as "in-group" and wild animals as "out-group"?  (Leave aside pets, who are honorary family members, and can only confuse our thinking about these issues.)  What would be a respectable way to explain yourself, if you would never eat a baby to survive, but you would eat a rabbit?

Well, there are the facts of life.  I can reproduce with other humans, but not with animals.  I can enjoy certain kinds of friendship with humans, but not with animals.  The survival of my species in the future feels to me like my survival, but not so, the survival of rabbits and wolves.  The problems of conspecifics seem like my problems, but less so the problems of others. These seem like unchangeable and innocent parts of human psychology--nothing at all like the various insidious attitudes that lurk in sexists and racists.  If this be speciesism, then we've got to distinguish between malignant speciesism and benign speciesism. 

To put it another way, I'm skeptical that "the expanding circle" should expand in such a way that animals are not just members of the moral community (they count, we have duties to them), but there are no longer any respectable boundaries between groups. It's respectable (I think) that caribou in a herd care about each other in a way they don't care about wolves; and it's respectable that the humans in a community care about each other in a way they don't care about caribou or wolves.

Animal advocates sometimes erect more powerful moral principles than needed, to argue against the worst, most flagrantly speciesist abuse of animals.  To counter extreme cruelty, they ask us to pretend there is exactly one moral community, with no lines at all between groups.  But nobody really thinks this--we believe in lines even between different families and different nationalities, let alone different species. We need to allow for certain kinds of groupishness, but without descending to the level of the virulent speciesist.  We can see the human community as "one nation" in some ways, with animals on the outside, without descending to the cruelty of the animal abuser or factory farmer.

Groupishness.  What is it, what's good about it, when is it bad....?  Discuss.


Negotiation vs. Blackmail

If you read liberal editorials about the government shutdown, you're bound to run into words like "blackmail" and "extortion" and "hostage taking."  So many commentators (like Paul Krugman in today's New York Times) are saying that Boehner & Co. aren't just engaging in politics as usual by tying the budget to postponement of the mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act, they're being manipulative in a nefarious, immoral way.  But why...why are they guilty of the bad kind of negotiating that blackmailers and hostage-takers do, and not the good kind of negotiating that legislators do?

Backing up a step, what is so terrible about blackmailers and hostage-takers, and why are the Republicans at all like them?  Saul Smilansky has an interesting discussion of blackmail in his book 10 Moral Paradoxes, which I wrote about several years ago at Talking Philosophy.  He asks why blackmail-style manipulation is wrong, but a boycott or strike is not wrong, and finds a good answer elusive.  Without rereading that (I really should!) it seems like at least a reasonable starting point to say that A can't demand payment for something that B is already entitled to.  The more important the "something" to B, the more nefarious the demand.  For example, A can't demand payment from B for keeping a secret of B's extra-marital affair.  B is already entitled to privacy about his personal affairs.  A can't demand payment from B before releasing B's child from captivity, since B's child was already entitled to her liberty.  At least prior entitlement to the contested thing seems like a sufficient condition for it to be unethical for A to make demands on B.

If that's right, then it's true, and not just rhetoric, that Boehner & Co. are doing something akin to blackmail and hostage-taking, not engaging in ordinary political negotiating.  Obama and his Democratic allies are entitled to a budget that funds all the government programs that have already been democratically chosen.  It's an unethical manipulation, in the same category as blackmail or hostage-taking, to say "we'll let you have them if you capitulate to our demands."  No, Obama, the Democrats in Congress, and in fact all citizens, are entitled to an up-and-running government, consisting of all democratically anointed programs, unconditionally.

It's different when legislators are hammering out legislation.  "I'll support building your bridge if you support building my hospital" is ordinary deal-making, because nobody's yet entitled to the bridge or the hospital.  But we are entitled to a government consisting of all the programs already signed into law and approved of by all three branches of government.  And yes indeed, that does include the entire Affordable Care Act, not some fraction of it.

Sigh. I'd sure like to stop watching the Shutdown Show, because it's loathsome and disillusioning.


A Puzzle about Parenthood

Here's something I'm mulling over and finding pretty perplexing.  To see the puzzle, you have to go along with me on some claims about the rights of biological parents.  To wit:  biological parents have very strong rights to take on the parenting role with respect to their children. If I give birth to Sally, I get to raise Sally, even if her prospects would be much better with someone else.  For example, if I am a very poor mother, perhaps in Haiti or Ethiopia, and social workers present me with the option of giving up Sally, so she can be raised by affluent parents in America, I am entitled to keep Sally, even if it would be in her best interests to come to America.  Right? Surely yes:  the poor third of the world aren't obligated to give up their children to more affluent people.  The puzzle, then, is this:  assuming I'm entitled, in every sense, to keep baby Sally, possibly contrary to what's in her best interests, why is it that once I'm playing the parental role, I should continually do, to the best of my ability, whatever is in her best interests?  The answer can't be that I must always maximize well being for Sally, because that would mean I should let someone else raise her.  So what's the basis for my obligation to be a good parent--to take care of Sally in the way that best advances her interests? 

Speaking of whether destitute parents are entitled to raise their own children, a fabulously interesting book is The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, by Kathryn Joyce.  If you think the destitute have parental rights (as I do), it's a shock to discover that international adoption agencies don't just find orphans and find homes for them, but sometimes create orphans... or rather, "orphans".  How does that work? The book explains in very rich detail. Topic for a future post!


Killing to Survive

I've watched far too many episodes of "Breaking Bad" in the last few weeks, and just about my only defense is that the show does provide lots of food for thought about ethics.  Spoiler alert!  If you're trying to catch up before the season finale on Sunday, don't read this post.

Lots of people get killed in the show, and many of the killings are done for purposes of self-preservation.  The killings make it clear that self-preservation is one thing, self-defense another.  You might plausibly say killing in self-defense is always justifiable, but clearly killing to preserve yourself is very often wrong. Take for example Todd killing the boy on the bike. It was a matter of self-preservation, because the boy had witnessed the train heist, but not self-defense (the boy was not on the attack), and the killing was obviously very wrong.  When Walt poisons Brock, nearly killing him, that was self-preservation (he did it to get Jesse to help him find the evil, murderous Gus), not self-defense (the boy was not on the attack).  When Walt watches Jane die, his rationale had to do with self preservation, but she was not attacking him--it was not self-defense.  We may have some degree of sympathy for a person who kills for purposes of self-preservation, but we certainly don't excuse them in the way we do when people kill in self-defense.

OK, strange segue:  when it comes to killing animals, we don't make this sharp distinction between self-preservation and self-defense.  I can kill an animal in self-defense: if a bear attacks me, I can attack the bear to protect myself.  But it's also true, we think, that a perfectly innocent rabbit could be killed, if I were lost in the woods and had to kill to survive.   We can't kill innocent, non-attacking humans for purposes of self-preservation, but we can kill innocent, non-attacking animals for purposes of self-preservation. Surely we can.  That means that if animals have rights at all, they are not as robust as human rights.  They are overridden in cases of self-defense and self-preservation, whereas human rights are overridden only in cases of self-defense (focusing just on those two circumstances).

The interesting thing is that even staunch defenders of animal rights often grant the self-preservation exception, and I'm sure they don't grant it across the board, excusing every killing for self-preservation in a drama like "Breaking Bad."  Without putting it this way, they actually agree that animal rights are less robust than human rights. Case in point:  in the book Zoopolis, Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka say it is permissible for us to kill animals when it is necessary for survival, though they think all animals have basic rights.  They don't explain this in terms of animal rights being particularly overridable, but instead say people struggling to survive aren't in the "circumstances of justice" where rights must govern our decisions.  But I very much doubt they think the struggle to survive always puts us outside the "circumstances of justice".  They believe starving Eskimos are not in the "circumstances of justice" with respect to seals, but I doubt they'd say Walter White wasn't in the "circumstances of justice" with respect to Brock and Jane.  Survival motives give us a prerogative to dispatch animals for self-preservation, and less of a prerogative to dispatch humans for self-preservation -- in fact no prerogative at all.

So--why are animal rights more overridable? What's that really all about?  I offer an answer in my book Animalkind, but truth is, I'm still thinking about.  I find it a very hard question.


Mini-problems: The case of the lost notebook

I am fond of using mini-problems in ethics classes--tiny little every day questions of not very great significance.  The point of discussing them is that they don't arouse any distracting emotionality, and people don't "identify" with particular solutions (like they do when it comes to matters like abortion and gay marriage).  So you can have a dispassionate, exploratory discussion.  What's more, I think it's actually good for us to take such problems seriously, when they come up in real life. After all, it's not every day that a really serious, earth-shattering moral problem lands in our laps.  We need to prepare for the day when doing the right thing is going to matter a lot. 

So much for the preamble.  Here's a mini-problem I ran into recently--  My daughter desperately needed a sketchbook to do a quick assignment for her art class.  She'd been counting on using last year's sketchbook, but couldn't find it.  It was 9:30 pm, and we thought Target was our best bet, but it closed at 10.  We raced to Target and found one sketchbook in the art supplies section, but it looked a bit damaged.  We could find no other, so took it to the cash register. The cashier could find no price-tag, so sold it to us for a dollar.  When we got home, my daughter discovered the notebook had notes on the first few pages. It was actually someone's lost notebook, not Target merchandise.   If she returned it the next day, she'd have nothing to bring to art class, and she was sure she'd be penalized. If she kept it, the student would never recover his lost notebook. There was no phone number in the book, but there was a name.  What would have been the right thing to do?


Parenthood's End

What's the job description of a parent?  I've been pondering an answer defended by William Irvine in the book Doing Right by ChildrenThe idea is that adults own themselves, but are essentially incapacitated during the years of childhood, so need parents to serve as their stewards.  In the future adult child's absence, the parent has to make various decisions, just as a land steward would, in the absence of a property owner.  A land steward will try to figure out what the landowner would want, and similarly we should parent as the future adult child would want.  (You have to picture a property owner who's lost in the Himalayas or traveling in space, to make the analogy even begin to work, because stewards can normally talk to landowners, and parents can't communicate with their future children.) 

Now, there's an obvious problem here. While the steward is substituting for a landowner out there somewhere, an owner with fully formed preferences with respect to his land, the adult child lies in the future, and what that individual prefers depends on how the immature child is raised.  If you raise your child with a lot of focus on education, then your future adult child might very well be trying to get into law school, and she will certainly prefer that you make her 8-year-old self do her homework.  Parental stewardship is self-validating in this funny, circular sort of a way. 

To get around that problem, Irvine says steward-parents "must rely on a 'reasonable-man standard' in their parenting: They should raise their child in such a way that he would, if he were a reasonable man with fairly typical values, be satisfied with their efforts. They should raise him 'conservatively' ..." Why is this any better than raising a child with atypical values?  The idea seems to be that children raised with typical values will wind up with more freedom as adults.  Parents should operate so that when a child "'comes back' at age eighteen, he will find not that all the important decisions about his future have been made for him, but that he has before him a nice range of choices about what he can do with the rest of his life."  The adult child who is raised conservatively, with typical values, will be, as it were, a blank slate, all ready to write on himself.  And that's what your future adult child would want ....

Upshot (I guess):  vegans ought to feed their children an omnivore's diet.  Political activists ought to leave their children at home, instead of taking them to rallies. Hardcore backpackers shouldn't bring their kids on trips.  If you care about consummate skill in classical music, fine, but you shouldn't demand musical excellence from your children.

Irvine seems to think adults will be able to choose these extremes for themselves, upon majority, if they're raised to be middle-of-the-road 18 year olds, but kids raised with atypical values will become adults with less freedom.  I doubt this.  However you are raised, by age 18 various roads will be closed.  In fact, the atypical roads will be especially closed, as it takes planning to be able to go down them.  You cannot choose a classical music career, for example, if your parents didn't impose musical discipline on you, as a child.  You won't have a choice among the best colleges, if you weren't raised with unusual emphasis on education.  You're at least less likely to care a lot about political activism or philanthropy, if you didn't grow up focusing on political activism or philanthropy.   A child raised with typical values isn't going to have more freedom as an adult.

So, typical values, bah!  Is there any better way to raise children according to the preferences of their future adult selves?  The whole idea strikes me as hopeless, because of the circularity problem.  Granted, all adults do want certain things, and we should strive to raise children who have access to them (health, love, self-respect, etc.), but we're kidding ourselves if we think we're the servants of future adults.  No--we're forming those adults, so we can't possibly be their servants.


Rock is Dead?

So says Jerry Coyne, but I think he's listening to the wrong stuff.  Using the word "rock" loosely (he seems to be using it loosely too), I think there's plenty of awesome music out there.  Our house playlist (by which I mean, what all four of us enjoy) includes:  Arcade Fire, Animal Collective, Kanye West, Bjork, Sigur Ros, Wilco, PJ Harvey, Joanna Newsom, Grizzly Bear, Alabama Shakes, The Decemberists, Fleet Foxes, The Shins, Daft Punk, The Antlers.  And that's not including the vast amount of music my kids play and that I can't keep track of because I'm soooo old and too obsessive (I tend to listen to the same stuff over and over again).  I don't think I enjoy this music less than I enjoyed Joni Mitchell, The Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, Neil Young, etc., etc., way back when.  In honor of rock, let's have a song. I do truly love this (as well as the entire album):

Is it Speciesist to Support Animal Welfare Regulations? (part 2)

As he promised to do a while back, Gary Francione has put an essay on his website about why (he thinks) it's speciesist to support animal welfare regulations.  In a nutshell, he says those who support animal welfare regulations must, to be consistent, also support campaigns for humane rape, humane child molestation, and humane chattel slavery.  If you support animal welfare regulations but not the latter three, there's no other plausible explanation but speciesism.


Philosophy and Social Norm Violation

Philosophers enjoy being weird.  My logic professor in graduate school taught in his bare feet.  I know faculty members who swear in class, ask students what they're listening to on their iPods, throw candy to students who make good points, indulge in frequent political diatribes, and wear converse sneakers despite being over the age of 50.  I personally don't act too too weird, though I'm probably weirder (in my students' eyes) than I think.

Now, this all seems pretty so-what-ish, but Rebecca Kukla, guest blogging for Brian Leiter, says it's a problem.  Social norm violation has some connection to sexual norm violation, she says.  But even apart from that, she seems to think there's a problem:
The problem with all of this (or one of the many problems) is, again, that it comes at the cost of the most vulnerable members of the profession - those likely to be the targets of the boundary-violations and judgmental expectations rather than their instigators. Likewise it leaves us with no recourse when we feel violated. If we complain, we are just not understanding how to be a cool philosopher, or we are not intellectual enough to get the joke. It also generally puts women, people of color, and other disciplinary minorities in a different kind of impossible position: we can’t get away with the hobo look without repercussions, but we also get dismissed if we look like we care about social conventions...
I'm puzzled how it is that anyone is the "target" of non-sexual "boundary-violations" -- the ones that come to my mind, anyway -- and how it is that anyone is "violated."  But yes, I agree that "we can't get away with the hobo look" or whatever it might be -- candy-throwing, bare feet.    Eccentricity seems to be associated with brilliance in men, but not in women.  So women have fewer tools in their "how to impress" toolbox. 

Yeah, it's true and it's irritating, but I can't imagine expecting men to cut back on the eccentricity, just because it's not as much of an option for women.  And as for there being any connection to sexual norm violation, I'm just not seeing it. All the barefoot candy-throwing faculty members I know are not sexual norm violators in the slightest.  It's an intriguing possibility, but to believe there's any correlation between one type of norm violation and another, I'd need to see some evidence.



Last week's unveiling of the world's first cultured beef burger got everyone talking about "Frankenburgers".  The "Franken--" prefix is often used when scientists start concocting things that were once more or less natural.  Articles about genetically modified foods are always about "frankenfood".  People even talk about "frankenbabies", in connection with IVF.

This summer I decided it was about time I read the eponymous novel, the original Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley.  Surely I've seen a Frankenstein movie or two, but honestly, I remembered very little from them.  In fact, I didn't even remember that Frankenstein is the scientist, not the monster (blush!).  So Frankenburgers are Frankenburgers because of their Frankenstein-like designers.  The monster actually has no name.

Speaking of the monster, his travails are the book's biggest surprise.  I always assumed he was innately monstrous, and the scientist was supposed to be fully to blame for the terrible outcome--the monster's murderous rampage.  When we tinker with nature, there's hell to pay--that was (I assumed) the message.  But no, no, no!  The monster is actually born innocent!  He seems dangerous when he first opens his eyes.  Frankenstein recounts--
It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs ... Oh! no mortal could support the horror of that countenance.  A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch.  I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then; but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.
OK, so the monster is hideous.  But we later find out that he's completely innocent, and in fact kind, sensitive, and a lover of virtue.  Frankenstein cleverly runs out of his apartment in horror, not bothering to lock the door. The monster leaves and makes his way to the country, hiding in a hovel from which he observes a family who live in a small hut. He becomes their secret angel, bringing them firewood and food. He loves the good he sees in them, and longs for their society. Knowing he's a horror to look at, he first introduces himself to the blind old father of the family, but sadly, others come home before he's secured the old man's friendship, and they all turn on him.  The same thing happens when he makes a second attempt to bond with human beings--his kindness is repaid with cruelty because he's so hideous.  This is what makes him seek revenge against Frankenstein, not any innate monstrosity. And we even learn, at the end of the book, that he never enjoyed killing off Frankenstein's loved ones.

The moral of the story is not just that Frankenstein got carried away in his laboratory. Yes, he did, but the message is not "scientific over-reaching makes monstrosity"; the message is "scientific over-reaching PLUS human prejudice makes monstrosity."  Without the prejudice, there wouldn't have been any monstrosity.  The world would have just had one more citizen, a humanoid fashioned out of dead parts, and not nice to look at, but sociable, and good, and virtuous. 

The real message of Frankenstein, then, is "watch out for unbounded science" and  "watch out for prejudice."  If the new cultured beef burgers are "Frankenfood" that doesn't mean they're inherently problematic (if you appreciate the prefix in the context of the novel). They could be all to the good, and we could just be prejudiced against them.

Now, it would be nice to end this little foray into 19th century horror fiction with a "hip hip hooray!" for cultured beef burgers.  A nice, clear conclusion would be "We should drop our prejudices against lab meat and welcome the cultured beef burger.  After all, they certainly have many advantages--they can fulfill the human desire for meat while causing no animal suffering and using up far fewer resources.  Yay!"  Unfortunately, I'm about to take a hair-pin turn here.  Prejudice is bad, and maybe we do feel prejudiced against lab meat.  But is our negative reaction to lab meat mere prejudice?


Another book I've been reading this summer is Cooked, by Michael Pollan.  This is a wonderful book on many levels--especially for people who love to cook.  Pollan is a great writer on what you might call the "meaning" of food.  He writes about what we want from food, what we value about it.  Reading Pollan, you start to realize that we want certain sensations from food, certain tastes, but we want much more.  When we eat, we want to have various thoughts and associations.  Some desirable thoughts (not all consistent with each other) are--
  • This is homemade.
  • We made this together.
  • The ingredients grew from the soil, under the sun.
  • I am eating what my friends and family are eating.
  • I am eating what they eat, so finding out about their culture.
  • This reminds me of the sea.
  • People have been eating this way for thousands of years.
  • The way I eat is like the way wild animals eat.
  • This is artistic.
  • etc
Frankenburgers wouldn't allow us to have a food experience with the right penumbra of thoughts, feelings, and associations. If we care about all these other dimensions of food experience -- we want food that's from the garden, homemade, rooted in long-standing culture, artistic, shared by family and friends -- is that prejudiced in the nefarious, Frankenstein-the book sense?   I think not.  I'm not drawn to Frankenburgers,  like I am to the lentil salad I'm about to eat for lunch, and I think that's for respectable reasons.  So yes, prejudiced be damned ... and that's one of the messages of Frankenstein.  And yes, we shouldn't reject Frankenfood for reasons of mere prejudice.  But people's doubts about it are not entirely a matter of prejudice.


Puzzle:  how is it that food can have good Pollanesque associations if you know it comes from the bodies of formerly living animals, who were killed so you could eat?  Pollan's book is quite unapologetically meaty.  Joy of eating, for him, doesn't preclude killing.  That, in itself, is food for thought.


Some we love, some we eat, some we love and eat*

Update 8/13:  More buffalo pictures, sent by a reader.  This is what you get when you have a powerful camera and talent at photography!  These are calves in Custer State Park and/or Yellowstone.


I'm finally back from a long road trip through 8 states--Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Colorado.

Starting at Badlands National Park in South Dakota, we started to get pretty obsessed with buffalo.  You can find yourself in the middle of a large herd, as you drive along the main ridge.


Later on in Yellowstone National Park, my daughter and I took a wonderful hike along buffalo trails.  With a few in the distance (we'd figured out by that point it wasn't smart to get too close), we walked along their dust-bathing spots, through their mud/crap, and even beside their bones.

It was interesting learning about the history of the buffalo, at various visitor's centers.  Plus, we got to visit two buffalo jumps--well, "push" would be a better word.  Native Americans hunted buffalo by scaring them into stampeding off a cliff.  Here's a buffalo "jump" in Badlands, plus two shots of the Vore buffalo jump excavation in Wyoming. (For an account of what went on at these places, there's a great deal of eye-opening information in The Ecological Indian, by Shepard Krech. The book's message in a nutshell:  "not so ecological as you might have thought")

Buffalophilia is much in evidence, all over the plains states.  For example, the "buffs" are the football team at Western Texas A&M.  "Buffs" even worship Jesus Christ!

A fascinating and puzzling thing is that all this buffalo-love doesn't preclude killing  Here's a stuffed buffalo at the highly perplexing "Wall Drugs" tourist attraction in Wall, South Dakota.

And then there's all the buffalo burgers. At the very same national park, you can admire buffalo in the afternoon and then eat them for dinner.  Here's a menu at Yellowstone:

The three categories (loved, hated, eaten) are not separate, except at the extremes.  We've come to love dogs and cats as family members, so don't eat them.  But there's love for buffalo too--or perhaps awe, respect, reverence, admiration.  Those more distant, less cuddly, emotions seem to be combinable with killing and eating, for many people.  There are both religious and naturalistic ways for people to think about this:  God made buffalo for us to use and eat. Or: it's the way of nature for life to come from death -- we would be showing contempt for animals if we refused to participate. Something like that.

Now that we are home, I have my very own buffalo who's going to buffalo me into getting a lot done before the semester begins at the end of the month.  This is Flo (yes, a boy named "Flo").

Finally, a wonderful song--"Now that the buffalo's gone" by one of my favorite singers, Buffy St. Marie. (The version on this album is more powerful--the whole album is great.)

And let's not fail to savor the fact that "buffalo" can be used 8 times in a row in a meaningful, grammatical English sentence.

*Title inspired by the book Some we love, some we hate, some we eat, by Hal Herzog


It's a Matter of Respect

I'm home from one trip and about to embark on another, so obviously I'm too busy for blogging--there's cleaning and packing to do, right?  Right, but that would be so boring....

Some long drives in the past week gave me time to think about animal welfare regulation just a little more.  In my past posts, I attempted to think about the ethics of welfare regulation "ad hominem" -- in the technical sense (see sense #2, here).  That is, starting from my opponent's premises.  My opponent draws a very sharp line between rights and welfare. Being raised as food violates a pig's rights, and then there is the separate question of the pig's welfare--how miserable or happy is the pig, hour to hour? My opponent is bothered by over-attention to welfare issues, because the rights violation is the underlying problem. 

Now, I think even with this sharp dichotomy, there's a good case for welfare regulations, as I initially argued here (before I saw the Francione-Friedrich debate), but that post was, as I say, "ad hominem" (in the technical sense!) -- I was going along with an approach to animal ethics that isn't actually my own, and thinking about where it leads (and doesn't lead).  But what about how these issues look from my own standpoint?

The primary thing we owe to animals (I argue, in my book Animalkind: What We Owe to Animals), is respect. Animals in extreme captivity are disrespected because they can't be themselves--pigs can't be pigs, fish can't be fish.  A calf who can't so much as turn around is treated not as an animal but as a meat machine (to use Ruth Harrison's excellent phrase).   We may need to supplement respect-talk with compassion-talk, but I think respect is primary.  And it's appropriate even when we are uncertain what an animal is feeling.  Do animals habituate to horrible environments and stop feeling or caring?  Even if they did, that wouldn't make those environments OK -- they're still disrespectful. 

Suppose a zoo gives the animals more space, or an animal farm releases a pig to a group pen or pasture.  On my view, this isn't a superficial change-- a change to mere welfare, as opposed to rights -- it's a change to what really matters.  It's more respectful.  The animal is now at least more able to exercise his or her natural capacities.  Now, very small changes aren't worth huge amounts of effort or money, so on this respect account, we can still debate how to focus animal advocacy.  But an increase in liberty is a meaningful change, not a surface change.

Now, imagine we gradually make life better for a pig. We respectfully increase the size of the pen, then we respectfully allow the pig out doors, and we respectfully allow herd behavior, etc.  We don't clip ears or dock tails, and so on.  Nevertheless, the day comes when the animal is slaughtered and turned into barbecue (aside: Dear Michael Pollan, I am not enjoying the description of a pig barbecue in part I of your new book Cooked).  How can any of the previous improvements be respectful if the last stage is so disrespectful?

You could try to make a case that killing animals doesn't harm them, but I think that's false (see Animalkind, p. 128-31).  No, it's clearly harmful and disrespectful to kill an animal for the pleasure of a good barbecue (even assuming this pleasure runs pretty deep -- and we should allow that it does).  But respect comes in degrees--you have done far more of what you should, if you allow an animal to exercise his or her natural capacities prior to death.  I don't think the purpose of the whole system (using animals for our benefit) annuls all the apparent progress.  And in any case, the whole system doesn't have to be completely brought down, in the name of respect.   I'm prepared to countenance situations in which respectful people will pursue their own good at the expense of animals--i.e. situations in which harming or killing is a necessary evil. (Animalkind embraces this "necessity" standard and gives examples of justifiable use.)

Anyhow, the point is that on some views in animal ethics, we can help animals in two radically different, incommensurable ways--by securing their rights and by improving their welfare -- with one way running deeper than the other. But on other views, there's just one basic parameter--such as respect.  So we do better by animals on the very same parameter, whether we give them more liberty or go much further and save them from all exploitation. This sort of "one parameter not two" approach can take many forms.  The respect approach in my book is one; the capacities approach in Martha Nussbaum's book Frontiers of Justice also eschews any sharp rights/welfare distinction; and of course utilitarians take a one parameter approach, with that one parameter being well-being (rights, they say, are "nonsense upon stilts").

Because I think in terms of respect, I don't really feel at home with the whole welfare vs. rights debate -- it's not really my debate.  For that reason, this could very well be my last post on the subject.  Time to get back to ... well, all sorts of philosophy-stuff on my desk, but mostly packing.


Watch and Enjoy!

Fabulous take down of the Texas legislature. I love this woman!

Is it speciesist to support animal welfare regulations?

Over at this blog (see end of comments) Gary Francione has said he's writing an essay tentatively called "The Welfare/Regulationist Approach is Deeply Speciesist."  He says he will be done in a few days or next week, by which time I'm not going to be around to read or respond (real life responsibilities are going to get in the way).

The tentative title got me thinking though.  It's certainly true that some who pursue a welfare/regulationist approach are speciesist.  Suppose you watch video footage of factory farms and slaughterhouses, and you think "Got it!  We'll just make the stalls a little bigger and then this will all be OK." If you think that's a sufficient response, you've pretty much got to think "They're just animals" or something a little more sophisticated, but along those lines. Certainly, footage of people being treated in some comparably cruel way  would make us feel total horror, and we'd instantly commit ourselves to getting them released.  Slow, small welfare changes would seem petty, like a waste of time.

But now, consider all the animal activists who support regulations.  They are not in that speciesist state of mind.  They are not attending to factory farms and slaughter houses, and thinking "A few changes will make this just fine."  They are attending to a much bigger picture.  The picture consists of the factory farms and slaughter houses and a wider society where the above speciesist response is very deeply entrenched and nearly universal.  "We have to regulate this while also pursuing liberation" isn't a first order response to animal farming, it's a second order response to the way others regard animal farming.  Where the first order response is speciest, the second order response is (in my view) just plain realistic.

Ah well, back to other things. I look forward to reading Prof. Francione's essay -- when it's out, and when I'm back at my desk.


Dueling Analogies

Alright, one more post on animal welfare regulations (like Prop. 2 in California, which requires animal housing large enough so the animal can turn around).  In my last post I talked about five cases in which progressives have supported both "revolution" for victims of an injustice and reform.  I argued that victims want both and are entitled to both.  Animals are entitled to both too, if they matter as individuals (and yes, they do).  The analogies were these--
  1. Amnesty International works for better conditions for prisoners on death row (reform), while also working to abolish the death penalty (basic change).  
  2. Feminists work for driving rights for women in Saudia Arabia (reform), while also aiming to change the underlying sexist social structures (basic change).
  3. There used to be packed orphanages in the UK (and elsewhere) because adoption wasn't legal -- children were consigned to these places with no exit.  Children's advocates worked to make orphanages kinder places (reform) while also working to legalize adoption (basic change).
  4. While waiting for child labor to be outright abolished (basic change), you could of course work for shorter working hours (reform).
  5. It's perfectly reasonable that anti-slavery abolitionists worked to stop parents and children being separated in auctions (reform), while at the same time working to abolish the whole institution of slavery (basic change).
Elsewhere (see the comments on this post), I see a completely different set of analogies being used to argue against animal welfare regulations.  Some of the anti-regulation analogies are these (roughly--I've paraphrased)--
  1. A law against sow crates is like an anti-bellum law limiting lashes to 40 instead of 42.
  2. Persuading people to buy more humane products (e.g. pork produced without sow crates) is like persuading a rapist to rape less violently.
  3. Advocating more humane treatment of farm animals is like advocating more humane treatment of people in death camps during the Holocaust.
My analogies are better for these reasons--
  • In all of my cases, the reform is significant.  The prisoners clearly do want more time outside their cells, more phone calls, etc; women care about being able to drive; orphans want fewer beatings; child laborers want shorter hours; slave families don't want to be broken up.  This is important because I think animal can tell the difference between being able to turn around and not being able to turn around -- it matters to them. Anti-regulation analogy #1 is flawed because I very much doubt you can even tell the difference between being lashed 40 times rather than 42. 
  • In my scenarios, the reformers want reform and more.   Everyone knows AI wants an end to the death penalty; everyone knows feminists want full equality for women, not just driving rights; etc. etc. We need this in a good analogy, because the pro-reform animal organizations and advocates are just as clear that they want reform and more.  In the anti-regulation analogies, we seem to be invited to imagine advocacy groups who want reform but nothing more.  I think that's why we recoil.  We think "How appalling to just want to make slavery, rape, and death camps more humane!"  Fill in the details so that the reform groups want reform and more, and now these reformers don't seem so bad -- in fact not bad at all.  Think about a covert German anti-Nazi group with influence on gas chamber designers. They shouldn't exert influence to make death easier for millions?  No--that just can't be right.
  • In my analogies there's no implied approval.  That's important, because supporting reforms of the animal industry doesn't imply approval.  Some who support reform are adamantly opposed to animal consumption. In the anti-regulation analogies, implied approval is at least hinted at.  What's the idea in case #2? Will  rape counselors sit down with rapists and just ask them to tone it down a bit?  With more realistic details, the implied approval and absurdity disappears.  Suppose we try to deter violence by imposing harsher punishments for aggravated rape instead of punishing all rapists alike.  Now separately targeting the "how" and "that" of rape doesn't seem so absurd! In fact, this is exactly what the criminal justice system does.  And (surely) rightly so.
So--I'm not impressed with the anti-regulation analogies. I think they're flawed.  But perhaps "enough with the analogies". I support Prop. 2 for the sake of pigs, and not because pigs are analogous to death row prisoners, orphans, slaves, or anyone else. I think I can grasp the critical considerations without the aid of comparisons, which inevitably both illuminate and obfuscate.  If we must have analogies, though, let's have the right ones.