Thursday, March 17, 2011

Animals and Fetuses in a High-Tech Future

Are Peter Singer and other leading animal-rights ethicists not being progressive and forward-thinking enough about human fetuses? The main gist a casual observer gets from Singer & Co. is that animals deserve strong moral consideration in virtue of being sentient, but that human fetuses, not being sentient or advanced in development, are not and needn't be accorded strong moral consideration as against "a woman's right to choose." The first position (about animals) is pretty radical by today's standards (and I'm highly sympathetic to say the least, despite not being an ethical utilitarian), but the latter position (about fetuses) is pretty mainstream today.

The course of Western history has included, over extended periods of time, progressive "reading-in" of classes of morally-significant beings to more full-fledged consideration or membership in the moral community. We have seen in America, by progressive stages, the abolition of legal slavery, then suffrage for women, then the Civil Rights movement of the '60s, the transformation of the traditional family model starting in the '60s toward greater independence for women (hence the current not-very-fetus-friendly laws), and, most recently, the eminently sensible push for marriage equality regardless of one's choice of consenting adult partner.

Animals currently have some protections under the law against behavior we might vaguely (in moral terms, independent of whatever non-vague language of the law) refer to as "needlessly cruel." Fetuses begin seeing legal protections only after the first trimester of pregnancy. Both of these represent about the most effective pragmatic compromise we might expect under present law given prevailing widespread moral attitudes. We are well short of the expectations of the radicals who seek a greater measure of equality under the law for animals and fetuses, respectively.

The opposition raised between the pragmatic mainstream and the radicals is an opposition between a supposedly "considered and wise" course and a supposedly "morally enlightened" one. The "morally enlightened" argument is that, in history, previously marginalized or discriminated-against classes of morally-relevant human beings ended up winning equal respect under the law, and certain already-existing morally-relevant features is the reason their equality was eventually recognized. It takes a progressive, forward-looking, enlightened mindset to identify these morally-relevant features and then to work to knock down the unreasonable, retrograde mindsets that keep these features from being recognized. At least that's a take on it that the radicals would endorse.

The pragmatic mindset, meanwhile, notices how upsetting to a stable order radical change can be, and so resists these overnight pushes toward an ideal. The current system works well enough; it is not so obviously broken that it needs to be overthrown in one fell swoop. Just look at what happened to Soviet Russia when that was tried.

This pragmatic-idealist opposition (a false dichotomy a Perfectivist doesn't accept) is well-presented and explained in Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions. Sowell's distinction, which essentially lines up with this one, is between the "constrained" and the "unconstrained" vision of human beings.

Anyway, what leads me to this is posting is my thinking about what a technologically-advanced future would look like in regard to the legal protections of animals and fetuses. I do this because I think that the current resistance to radicalism on these subjects is borne not of willful moral blindness necessarily, but definitely a certain moral blind spot engendered by the pragmatic mindset. Both sides ("pragmatic" and "idealist") fall into faulty diagnoses and rationale. But focusing on the problem with pragmatism for a moment: it inhibits visionary thinking, the ability to even creatively explore and challenge the structural weaknesses of the present paradigm. It also results in a tendency toward skepticism, subjectivism, and relativism.

One thing pragmatism is noted for is the skepticism about universal and eternal "categories" that might somehow impress themselves upon us if only we just look and see. That attitude is actually a reaction in the opposite direction from Platonism and "metaphysics" (the investigation of "ultimate reality" as logically prior to the fleeting and ephemeral experience). This notion hardly seems new in the history of philosophy - it comes up in various sects of lesser philosophers in ancient Greece, e.g., the Skeptics and the Cynics - but it is the prevailing, dominant "sense of life" and mindset in America, or at least was half a century ago.

(How many effing times did Rand quote a weak, wishy-washy, or villainous character in Atlas saying, "We've got to be practical--" and stopping, like it needs no further explanation, other than that one shouldn't stand on principle? She was reporting on the state of reality at the time. Rand wasn't alone in this, by the way; Mises once got up at a meeting of the Mont Pelerin society and informed the appeasers and compromisers there that they were all socialists. How impractical! Trump card: By what standard do we regard something as practical? What was Roark's standard of the practical? Would selling out his principles be practical according to his sense of self and standard of value? Notice who the Pragmatist in The Fountainhead is. Actually, there are two of them. One is a mediocrity, the other a slave to the whims of the mob.)

Since half a century ago, Randism has become a cultural force and Aristotelianism has been (slowly but surely) emerging triumphant in the academy. One thing about Aristotelianism (in the broad sense, not Aristotle's own conclusions per se) is that it doesn't succumb to criticism. It just doesn't. Just as the sophists, skeptics, and cynics couldn't hold a candle to Aristotle back then, so American-style pragmatism can't hold a candle to Aristotelianism 2,300 years later. The opposition to Plato-style eternal categories doesn't apply to Aristotelianism, and also falls apart in the face of Aristotelianism. An Aristotelian framework does speak in terms of natural laws within the context of a realist systematizing empiricism.

Here's the different ways pragmatism and Aristotelian respond, respectively, to the present gaps between human knowledge and natural laws in their entirety: Pragmatism dispenses with the notion of "natural law," because, all said and done, there is no "cash value" to be had in the idea of natural law over and above observed regularity. The Aristotelian response is to simply ascribe the gap to the limitations of our knowledge at any given time, and that present ignorance about natural laws does not mean there aren't any or that we can't speak meaningfully about them. Rand takes this analysis to its extreme: denying natural law is effectively tantamount to committing the fallacy of the stolen concept, or perhaps even more strongly, to denying that existence has primacy over consciousness (i.e., to denying that consciousness is identification of already-existing facts, regularities, etc.). Or, perhaps even stronger yet, we could invoke the principle of Affirmation through Denial: inasmuch as we do philosophy well, we're thinking as perfectively, i.e., as comprehensively as to subject matter as Aristotle did, like Rand did.

Now, as to animals and fetuses. I anticipate changes in the law in the future regarding the treatment of animals and fetuses because of changes in technology. In regard to animals, for instance, we will eventually be able to synthesize meat without having to use animals in the process. Food would be assembled in large labs or factories, etc. Likewise, technology will exist in the future that would enable embryos to be removed from the mother's body and stored safely. And the law would mandate that because of the unique potentialities for self-actualized personhood that exist in principle within each embryo. It would be a crime, morally, to dispense of that potentiality it can be saved safely and with little cost. (A technological trump card here would be more completely effective contraceptive practices, so that the inconveniences of unwanted pregnancy don't even become an issue.)

Now, to envision this kind of futuristic scenario requires some thinking-outside-the-box that pragmatism doesn't deal in and doesn't regard as practical. To the pragmatist, we have to deal with the here-and-now, and here and now people get significant enjoyment from eating animals. Hey, it seems to work well enough (despite the tendencies toward bad health that the recently-emerging eating habits have been creating). What's more, the pragmatist doesn't really get into the business of challenging the base and ignoble rationalizations people will offer for eating factory-farmed meat. To call those rationalizations "base and ignoble" is to presuppose a standard that the pragmatist won't endorse. But they are rationalizations born of a blindness or ignorance (whether it's willful blindness or ignorance depends on the individual case). The self-serving rationalizations one is likely to hear are creepily similar to the self-serving rationalizations people would offer at various times for slavery, the subjugation of women, racial discrimination, marriage discrimination, etc. And the pragmatist has no answer to them, because "We have to be practical--"

Let's not mistake something here: the present situation of cruelty to animals and relative indifference to fetuses ("zygotes aren't people/citizens/etc.") is the result of a pragmatic mentality, just like slavery, subjugation, etc. in previous eras were. The Founding Fathers did espouse natural rights, but to get a new country going, they had to pragmatically compromise on slavery. This is not to say that this didn't constitute an improvement over things prior to the founding of the United States. But it is to say that they were willing to "go along and get along" with an evil (under natural law) because that's the best they could do at the time. It would seem that the history of legal rights is a history of the greatest deal of human and/or animal dignity consistent with economic feasibility.

But to deny that there are natural rights is, while the cashing-in (if you will) of Pragmatism, it is opposed to the ideals upon which this country was founded. And when the last century in America was dominated by Pragmatism rather than Aristotelianism, that provides a very compelling explanation for a widespread resistance to Ayn Rand's idealism. (An explanation with much . . . cash value, wouldn't you say?) But if Americans do have a good understanding of their country's founding roots, and if they do understand therefore the value and practicality of idealism, then they're quite ripe and ready for an Aristotelian-Jeffersonian-Randian-Perfectivist program of idealistic education and therefore of a revolution for the better.

With that period of a new Enlightenment, a Second Renaissance, people just wouldn't get away with peddling the open irrationalities we see all over the place; they would be called out and refuted way more resoundingly and effectively than they are now. (This includes capitalism-bashing Comprachicos with top-flight professorships.) This also means that self-serving rationalizations, pragmatic compromises, and the like, would be discredited and rejected that much more quickly. Then, just like with slavery, women's subjugation, etc., people will look back on the treatment of animals and realize just how ignorant, self-serving, and economic-feasibility-based the previous generations' "moral" reasoning was, given the absolute facts of the matter.

. . . and that's why I've adopted Perfectivism. :-)

[ADDENDUM: I've mentioned it before, but it bears mentioning again: Pragmatism encourages dis-integration. How do you best judge the merit of a philosopher? By how extremely, how radically, how emphatically, how heroically the philosopher stresses the systematic integration of knowledge in accordance with the absolute requirements of our conceptual mode of consciousness. Pragmatism is disqualified from the get-go. And that's why America is floundering at the moment. What America needs is a realist philosophy to support its "common sense" ethos - realist metaphysics, systematizing-empirical epistemology, eudaemonist ethics, benevolent individualist social ethics, capitalist political economy, Romantic aesthetics. "Let your mind and your love of existence decide."]

[ADDENDUM #2: By "self-serving rationalization" above I mean, of course, rationalization which serves a current self that is not a fully-actualized self, i.e., the self as it might be and ought to be.]


  1. Chris,

    At times you make brilliant points. Other times you lose me. As in this post. How do animals have "rights"? This goes against the entire Objectivist ethics.

    Rights for Objectivism are moral principles applicable to conceptual beings. Animals are not conceptual beings. They may possess a low level volition (I think they do). But they are not conceptual. How would rights apply to them? I find it entirely plausible that a futuristic society that could create synthetic meat would extend to animals a far greater benevolence then our current society. But that doesn't mean that animals could ever have rights.

    As for abortion, it sounds like you are writing in defense of fetal rights. Again, that is not consistent with Objectivism. The best argument that I have seen from an Objectivist for rights applying in the 3rd trimester was from Greg Perkins of the NoodleFood blog. Here is the link:

    But even here, the argument is that personhood starts with certain biological developments in the 3rd trimester. Again, a future society that is vastly superior to us in technology and wealth may do as you say - preserve the fetus externally with advanced technology and procedures. Or it may make unwanted pregnancies obsolete with advanced methods of birth control (my guess). But I don't see how the fetus can ever have rights if we accept Objectivism.

    So as you have seemingly stated it, it looks like you have rejected Objectivism' view of rights. That's the way it seems to me.

  2. I didn't use the phrase "animal rights," and there are currently protections for animals in the law that don't have to do with their having rights. Humans do have certain rights (needing appropriate definition of course) to act to protect animals against gratuitous harm; the rights here are vested in people to exercise on their behalf. Also, I don't have a problem with the idea - whether you want to call it "rights" or not - that fetuses merit legal protections compatible with the rights of the women carrying them. What I'm creatively suggesting is that in the future, better technology would make for more advanced protections for fetal life without compromising the rights of women. As the case of babies shows, you don't need actualized personhood to qualify for rights-based legal protections, and the arguments from mere-potentiality as a basis for denying any moral significance to the fetus just aren't going to work. A number of conditions have to be met to determine what rights-claims hold (or yield) and when. Rand was essentially right-on about the rationale for a woman's right to abortion (given the available technology), but her arguments from mere-potentiality don't speak to the issue. The issue is about a woman's right to make important reproductive decisions given also the fetus's potentiality for full personhood (given that other potential-persons do enjoy legal rights-protections, given the moral significance of potential personhood). The appropriate conclusion to draw given present reproductive technology is that a woman's rights-claims - properly defined - trump those made on behalf of the fetus, not that there can't be any rights claims that can't be made on their behalf regardless of context. I do think that potentiality does carry moral significance (in virtue of being potentiality), but not enough to deny a woman control over her reproductive decisions. Futuristic fetal-storage possibilities would not hinder those decisions in the slightest, either; they would, though, preserve the possibility of personhood for potential persons. I find the current Rand-inspired insensitivity to potential personhood to be quite unfortunate, but readily correctable.

  3. Hi Chris,

    What is your view on cryonics?

    The pro-cryonicists believe (correctly) that the brain pattern is the one that stores everything that is about the person. They hope that maintaining the cell structure by cooling and injecting anti-freeze immediately after death can preserve the personality. Someday, in the future, they hope that humanity would have the capability of changing back this stored glass-like brain into its original state or scan it at a high resolution enough to reconstruct it.

    So, like abortion, is allowing people to proceed to irreversible death also immoral?