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Animal Reflexes • The Inconceivable Truth • Beauty and Artfulness • Fear of Equality • Environmental Mistakes • Musically Minded

Animal Reflexes

DEAR EDITOR: Philosophy Now 67 carried many discussions of the ethics and politics of animal treatment, including animal ‘rights’, without much mention of contrary views. Let me therefore very briefly summarize some arguments of my book, Putting Humans First:WhyWe Are Nature’s Favorite (2004) for your readers.

Rights aren’t about not being hurt or harmed: they are about a person’s freedom of choice.When one has rights, it means others may not intrude and do violence to one, even if the intrusion might do good or benefit the victim. Some exercise their freedom of choice to do harm to themselves – but still, others may not use coercive force to ‘help out’. Rights, in short, are about sovereignty or self-government.

Yes, there are some damaged persons who can barely, rarely or even never exercise choice – they lack free will. (We all do when asleep!) But a general principle such as the right to liberty extends to all of us, even those who don’t fit the typical case of a healthy human being. It extends for example, to children, even infants who are but at the very beginning of being able to make choices. That’s because principles of human association are not like principles of geometry, but rather more biological – some exceptions or borderline cases are to be expected.

Non-human animals have no rights because in general they lack moral agency – the capacity to choose between right and wrong conduct. Of course, now and then some animals behave as if they were morally aware. That is to be expected, especially of domestic pets which have acquired many attributes from human beings in their thousands of years of association with them. Nonetheless, although dogs may appear to experience guilt, say when they pee on the rug, it’s not guilt. This is why punishing them is nonsense. Rather, one may try to train them by applying negative reinforcement. To morally blame the dog is preposterous – animal abuse, if you will. They cannot help what they do, unlike people.

Of course, trying to ascribe rights to non-human animals is a great temptation; not unlike the attempt to ascribe what are called ‘positive rights’ to people – entitlements to treatment that would benefit those people, but which really amount to enslaving those who would have to provide the entitlements. Ascribing rights to animals rests on similar eagerness: the desire to help them. But such help must be provided by those who want to care for the animals, and not conscripted or expropriated from others who have not made a commitment to them. Eagerly-wanted benefits are often proposed as rights, but they are not. The way to check is to see if respecting such rights would require people to provide services and goods to their fellows. There cannot be a right to such services and goods: that would impose involuntary servitude to the providers!

There is, of course, a good deal more to the story of how people ought to treat animals. However, how human beings ought to treat non-human animals – at least above a certain level of development – is not about rights, but about decency and empathy. These are not political concepts, as rights are. They have to do with the human moral character. Thus, just as animals are driven by their instincts to make use of one another for various purposes linked with their survival and flourishing, so in human life the choice to make use of animals can be perfectly appropriate. It is not entirely the same, though, because human beings do have the responsibility to act decently, and so how they use other animals is subject to moral evaluation. Even inanimate objects such as beautiful artifacts (eg paintings) may be treated well or badly, not because they have rights but because they are precious.

As I argued in Putting Humans First, trying to politicize our relationship to other animals is very risky for both the animals and ourselves. It shifts responsibility away from us individually, and leads to our desensitization toward animals. Instead of once again relying on politics and law to solve problems, the ethical treatment of animals ought to be promoted as a matter of human decency, not of justice.


DEAR EDITOR: Issue 67 of Philosophy Now illustrated quite well the fact that all types of ethical allegiance lead to a moral imperative to improve the lives of animals, or to at least refrain from contributing to animal suffering in one’s daily life (eg by eating their flesh, by attending the circus, by experimenting on them). The arguments offered may be different, the tactics employed may vary, but any of the historically significant ethical perspectives will condemn our current treatment of animals.

Famously, since his landmark work Animal Liberation in 1975, Peter Singer has been arguing from a consequentialist perspective for ending animal exploitation. From this perspective, a moral action is simply the action which maximizes the good when taking into account all affected parties in the moral community. The idea is that insofar as animals are capable of suffering, that suffering must be taken into account in any moral calculations. Animals are part of the moral community because they have interests; they are sentient. Thus, the interests of animals can no more be ignored in moral deliberation than the interests of women or poor people.

The Kantian position, well represented in Issue 66 by JoelMarks, differs drastically from consequentialism. It does not look at the consequences of an action in order to determine whether the action was moral. Feasibly, the action that would have the greatest benefit for all affected parties in a given situation could be morally impermissible to Kantians. They are concerned with performing actions that are universalizable: actions that conform to the correct moral rules. But the Kantian arena of consideration should include animals too.

Philosophers are quite skilled at devising scenarios to distinguish their perspectives from those of their peers, highlighting the differences and noting the nuances of their positions. But plausible moral theories tend to agree about cases more than they disagree.Whether torturing babies for one’s own amusement is morally acceptable is not seriously debated across theories.Murder itself is generally condemned, with different theories allowing different exceptions. Promise-keeping is generally praised, and disloyalty to friends is generally condemned. These ethical cornerstones are often used to evaluate our theories: they help us know which theories should even be seriously considered. Similarly, the commonplace exploitation of animals can be condemned by individuals of all reasonable ethical persuasions. It is not strong arguments that support our current practices of using animals for our own purposes without considering their interests, but rather a refusal to engage in serious scrutiny at all. The recent issue of Philosophy Now shows how philosophy can seriously engage the world and improve it by encouraging critical thinking and inviting scrutiny of what has long been taken for granted. In this way, philosophers have played a prominent role in the animal rights movement.


DEAR EDITOR: In Issue 66, James DuBois argues (with some well-crafted epistemological jujitsu) that absurdity can exist only against the background of God’s existence. Thus God is viewed as the necessary source of all ethics and values. But is meaning not fathomable independent of God?Why is it not possible to value the continuation of one’s life independent of another being’s existence or non-existence? And could not a tortured chimp be conscious of it’s own suffering and dread the next injection?

If animals can consciously experience (and attempt to avoid) suffering, then they must be in possession of at least some awareness of value in the cessation of pain. If so, then value, in chimp and human alike, would seem to derive from conscious desire rather than an awareness of the Eternal and the Divine.

On a related matter,Mary Midgley’s letter to the Editor in that issue asserts that “evidence from physical science… is not where any sensible [interesting word choice] person would look for… evidence for God.” But if one is not looking at the physical universe for evidence of God’s existence, then where is one to look? The physical universe is all that we have to observe, and all about which we may derive any knowledge.Where then does Midgley suggest we look? And what exactly is it that we should be looking for?


The Inconceivable Truth

DEAR EDITOR: Am I missing something? In ‘Zombies’ (in Issue 67), Rebecca Hanrahan tells us that analytic philosophers often rely on the principle that conceivability tells us what is possible. Yet I read about scientists of all kinds busy with shoals of inconceivable things, like the eleven dimensions of the mathematicians, and the physicists’ parallel universes. OK, so perhaps they count as examples of particular kinds of conception. Is the assertion, then, that if something cannot be described in some way – however esoteric – it cannot be? If so, Hamlet should have said: “There are no more things in heaven or earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And can we at all conceive what might count as evidence for such a conclusion?


Beauty and Artfulness

DEAR EDITOR: I agree with Roy Turner in Issue 67 that in recent years there has been a narrowing and decline in aesthetics, resulting from the replacement of its central question ‘What is beauty?’ by the less interesting question ‘What is art?’

It is worth noting that Arthur Danto, in a seminal essay initiating this shift, gave an inaccurate description of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes. Danto’s central contention was that the only difference between a Brillo box in a supermarket storeroom and one in an art gallery is the institutional context which defines the latter as ‘art’. In fact, however,Warhol’s Brillo Boxes are made of wood, not cardboard, and have no opening of any kind. In other words, they aren’t boxes! You can’t put anything inside them, and they would be of no use in a supermarket. So it is not solely the institutional context that makes the difference. By removing from them any utilitarian function,Warhol invites us to contemplate them purely aesthetically. As a trained commercial artist, he would have readily appreciated the excellence of their graphic design, which a casual shopper might barely notice.

Whenever I’ve seen the Boxes in an exhibition, they have always made me smile. Like big child’s building blocks, they occupy space with simple naïve assurance, displaying their bright brash colours. Though hardly the Venus de Milo, they have (I would contend) a pleasing aesthetic presence.


DEAR EDITOR: Roy Turner claims that Duchamp’s artistic heirs have no interest in ‘aesthetic’ qualities, and that their work does not need to be seen. This merely reflects his apparently not looking at it. He cites Carl Andre, whose work actually demonstrates the very opposite. Andre produced works assembled according to identical processes, yet each unique in terms of the very sensory, optical or aesthetic qualities which Turner says such art ignores. If Turner actually looked at (and walked upon) Andre’s work, he would run the risk of realising that sensual and aesthetic is exactly what it is. Andre’s criterion of ‘good sculpture’ is ‘what it sounds like when struck’ – not what it sounds like in a second-hand and inaccurate description.

Turner naïvely states that ‘art’ is a selfevident category of objects and actions. Yet hisManet in a toilet is ‘art’ only as long as the people seeing it are those he cites as the arbiters of what art is. They bring the same cultural precepts to a painted object wherever they see it. The members of an Amazonian tribe would no more distinguish aManet as what we call ‘art’ than any other painted object that we might show them, be it a Caro or a car. If post-Duchampian activity is not really ‘art’ it is then in addition to it, and, as Turner himself states, detracts from it nought.

Turner seems oblivious to the preoccupation of pre-Duchampian artists such asManet with the very things which he says characterises the post-Duchampian: rhetoric, a questioning of the object’s status as ‘art’, and the provocative gesture. Manet’s style was in the eyes of his contemporaries as banal as that of any ‘com-mercial’ painting. The Bar at the Folies Bergeres was a subject as offensively crass to the 19th Century gallery goer as any unmade bed. Le dejeuner sur l’herbe was considered so obviously a provocative gesture that it was excluded from the very category of ‘real’ art Turner now says it represents! Indeed, it is a painting fraught with deliberate insults and inconsistencies, in scale, perspective and thematic content. It is ‘safe’ in Turner’s eyes, merely, I would suggest, because he occupies a world a century and a continent removed; as remote from the painting’s real import as Amazonian tribesmen are from him. Denouncing the post-Duchampian as not ‘really’ art is like a physics or chemistry teacher insisting that sociology is not ‘really’ science. It’s a hollow jibe which tells us nothing about either sociology or art.


Fear of Equality

DEAR EDITOR: SteveWood, in reviewing Paul Boghassian’s Fear of Knowledge (Philosophy Now 66), concludes with the idea that the doctrine of equal validity [of all beliefs] is attractive because of the “ineradicable uncertainty” about knowledge. But he (and Boghassian) confuses equality with relativism; a confusion that seems widespread on both sides of the issue. There are more ways to be relative than equal validity.

‘Relative’ is meaningless without specifying the relationships. To say that “the way things are is entirely dependent on the way in which we describe them” would seem to be specifying that the ‘things’ are relative to our descriptions. Although this is commonly called ‘socially constructed’, I think it’s more enlightening to call it ‘lexically constructed’: it simply recognizes that we can’t talk about things without talking about them. Theories and the facts associated with them are dependent on (relative to) the words that comprise them. This is only one of many ways that theories and facts are relative.

Calling in Paul’s dog for an example confuses the matter more. ‘The dog is alive’ and ‘the dog is dead’ are not two theories (different ideas about the ways things are), but two judgments under the same theory about the state of the dog. To illustrate the relativism of theories and their associated facts, we would need a second, contrasting theory, say, microbiology. But in this theory, ‘alive’ and ‘dead’ have meanings different from their previous use. The important facts here are not fetching and rolling over, but cells, microbes, and biochemicals. ‘Dog’ has little relevance here, and ‘Paul’s’ is not even defined.

The data sets (facts) for the two theories are different, the terms are different, the goals are different. (That’s another way to be relative: theories and facts are related to goals.) How are we then to answer the question, ‘Which theory is true?’ The question doesn’t make sense, because the theories are, to use Kuhn’s term, incommensurable. But if they are incommensurable, how can they be ‘measured’ to determine whether they’re ‘equal’?

Relativity would seem to preclude equal validity [others’ views are not right for me]. The arguments over relativism then have things backwards: The ‘independent facts’ (objective reality) side should be espousing equal (or at least comparable) validity: the relativists should be describing a market-like mechanism whereby people prefer one ‘way things are’ over another.


Environmental Mistakes

DEAR EDITOR: In Issue 65 Nicholas Maxwell asks the question ‘Are Philosophers Responsible for GlobalWarming?’ At first I thought the question was absurd, but then I saw the merit in it.

Maxwell says that if philosophers had spoken up earlier about the perils of carbon dioxide, the world would not be going through climate change now. He pointed out that as early as 1859 John Tyndall discovered that carbon dioxide was a greenhouse gas, and that in 1896 Svante Arrhenus speculated that it would cause global warming. According to Maxwell, we should have acted on this information sooner.

Now, philosophers have done some great things throughout history.What philosophers do best is discuss ideas and speculate about how humankind can improve itself. They throw out ideas about how we ought to behave and how we might best govern ourselves. They ponder why things are and attempt to explain what they discover to the rest of us. Such pondering by philosophers led to the natural and social sciences. There would be no science if philosophers hadn’t first asked questions about the nature of things and the world around us. Before philosophy, and the sciences that arose from it, the world was governed by mythology and superstition. Today, one of philosophy’s jobs is to challenge its offspring, and ask ethical questions of science, to make sure that it works in the world’s best interest.

One thing Maxwell says is that philosophers in the past have not challenged science enough on subject of greenhouse gas and the technologies that spew it out. However, philosophy may have been blind-sided by science, and that’s why it didn’t speak up early. Science has an alluring, magical appeal, and for years has told us that it can cure humanity’s woes. Communism was founded on science, believing that the world could be organized on scientific principles, without having to be questioned by philosophers. It took decades to discover that fallacy.Within the democratic world we hardly did much better; but at least we let the philosophers who criticized our system live.

Maxwell thinks that if the idea of global warming had been introduced into the curriculum and was in the press years ago we would have done something about it sooner. But I don’t think it is the philosophers’ fault that they hadn’t managed to reach a consensus on global warming earlier. I think that back then, people were not ready to hear or deal with this stuff. People were too busy dealing with other things. Now that the developed world is more settled and basically thinking the same, we can truly start thinking about and dealing with global warming.

I also think many other things had to transpire before we could begin to think about global warming. For instance, seeing the world from outer space for the first time, in its solitude, gave many of us a sense of how fragile the world can be. From that episode Earth Day was born, and (thus) our more unanimous concern for the planet we live on.We also had to develop the political will to do something about it. And until recently we never had a person like Al Gore, who has been the Pied Piper of global warming.

There is one thing Maxwell neglected to address in his argument: the hurdles philosophers may have faced in trying to impress upon the rest of us the need to do something about global warming. He didn’t consider the fact that there have been skeptics and obstructionists in great numbers who have made it difficult to convince enough of us that global warming is a threat, and due to human activity, so that we could start doing something about it. Skeptics and obstructionists have probably been drowning out the voices of reason on this issue for decades.

Today though, those obstacles are not as prevalent as they used to be, because reason has succeeded in convincing most of us that human activity does cause climate change. The skepticism is being swept away by hard evidence. Now what Al Gore has been saying makes perfect sense to the majority of us, the people who count, who care and are rational; the people who want to make a difference and improve the world. And that is one thing philosophers also do: they bear reason to the world. On this score,Maxwell only wishes it could have happened sooner.


DEAR EDITOR: Tim Madigan’s piece in Philosophy Now 65, ‘The Ancient Cynics: The First Environmentalists’, fails to show how Diogenes, the main Cynic of his discussion, had concerns about the environment. Living in accordance to nature does not automatically classify Diogenes as a naturalist. Instead, Madigan’s selection of Diogenes’ anecdotal antics presents the Cynic as favouring a hedonistic and indolent lifestyle. How does masturbating in the marketplace, an act of self-sufficiency (autarkeia), help the environment? Does telling Alexander the Great to bugger off while soaking up the sun actually put one more in touch with nature? Madigan sensationalizes Diogenes’ “enjoyment of worldly pleasures (including sexual activities of all sorts)” without precisely addressing what in the world is worth enjoying, or, to say the least, preserving. Perhaps if population control is one of Diogenes’ implicit suggestions, then those activities of a restraining nature may serve some environmental purpose.

Madigan should have focused on more relevant anecdotes. For instance, when Diogenes admonishes Plato for over-indulging in figs, it is fair to conclude that the Cynic’s objection to individual consumption exceeding personal needs has an affinity to an environmental concern about the depletion of the world’s resources. Professing that good living is attainable when human wants are little, Diogenes’ thinking resembles the mentality behind the reduce, reuse, and recycle campaign.

Our use and subsequent dependence on modern conveniences and luxuries would be unpleasant for Diogenes to stomach. A Cynic of Diogenes’ stature in this day and age would definitely be appalled at the extravagances and unnecessary by-products of commercialism. It only remains to be seen, as Madigan seems to hope, whether the provocative and earthly state of a modern ‘citizen of the world’ can stress the virtues of living a simple life, while calling attention to a world in crisis.


Musically Minded

DEAR EDITOR: In his article in Issue 65, ‘A Role for Consciousness’, David Hodgson argues on evolutionary and other grounds that consciousness must have an advantageous role. He then illustrates a role and supports his views with examples, one of which involves music. I wanted to give another musical example. I will use my example to assert that one practical benefit of experiencing qualia [‘sensations’] is that it enables a superior capacity for discrimination. Perhaps David could find some way to incorporate this example into his theory.

Consider listening to a flute duet. A flute is a melodically monophonic instrument – ie, it can play only one note at a time: it cannot play chords.When two flutes play a duet, they each play an individual melody, but in audio terms they combine to produce one rich musical wave. The sound entering the ear will be essentially a composite waveform, ie, it is no longer two separate sounds. An inexperienced listener will hear a beautiful mushy fluty sound, as intended, and may have difficulties distinguishing the two flutes. An experienced listener can identify not only that there are two flutes playing, but also identify exactly what each flute is playing. How is this discrimination achieved?Where and how in the brain is the composite waveform deconstructed into its two separate parts for the listener? The physics of deconstructing sound waveforms is not trivial.

Contemporary computer software can achieve this task. One can feed a piece of polyphonic music, eg an orchestral piece, into suitable analytical software, exploiting mathematical techniques like Fourier analysis, and that software will make a valiant attempt at determining which instruments are playing which melodies. It will also produce a comedy of errors as the musical complexity increases. So far, software for music analysis is not at the level of the great chess-playing programs which thrash chess grand masters, so an experienced musician can easily outperform the best musical analysis software. An experienced musician can consciously listen to a rich orchestral piece and eventually clearly hear what the different instruments are doing. How does the musician do this? I will not try to provide a full answer to this, but I think it is illuminating to consider two very crude models, one of which I regard as absurd, and the other I regard as basically true.

First the absurd model. A composite waveform enters the ear. No problem so far. Then, prior to experiencing the qualia, ie, prior to hearing flutes in the mind, the brain somehow disassembles the composite waveform into waveforms of two separate flutes playing two separate melodies, and then somehow generates two separate mentally heard qualia. In this absurd model, the discrimination happens prior to the experience. One might call this the neurobiological equivalent of the software application.

In the second model the events are reordered. The brain processes the composite waveform and generates the quale of a single two-flute sound. Then, working with the quale of hearing these flutes, the listener is able to discriminate and deconstruct the experience into two separate qualia, ie the sounds of two separate flutes playing two separate melodies.

Of course, in this totally amateur hypothesising, I have said nothing about how any of this actually works: but the point is just to distinguish between the order of events in the two models. The first model leaves the hearing of separate flutes as just an irrelevant by-product of some pre-conscious discrimination process. The second model suggests that the brain, consciously working with qualia, can achieve a capacity for aural discrimination far superior to the analytic techniques currently available simply using mathematical algorithms and software.

To conclude, working with qualia enables a superior capacity for discrimination. How? I haven’t the foggiest idea! As a musician, I just enjoy doing it.


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