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Ethical Episodes

‘A’ is for ‘Assumption’

Joel Marks on why the world needs philosophy.

Socrates famously averred that the unexamined life is not worth living. This was part of his ‘apology’ when, on trial for his life, he tried to explain what it means to be a philosopher. I myself have taken this definition to heart: that philosophy is the examination of fundamental assumptions. I have been examining with a vengeance of late – not intending to do so as a philosophical exercise, mind you, but quite spontaneously. So perhaps it will help you to understand what I have been about in these columns if I review my recent philosophical hobbyhorses in this light. As it happens, like ‘assumption’ (and, for that matter, ‘apology’), all of them begin with ‘a’: animals (Issues 62, 66, 67, 72, and 85), asteroids (Issues 79 and 86), and amorality (Issues 80, 81, 82, 84, and 87). I’ll now explain the common thread that links my discourses on the lot.

Animals. Human beings treat other animals abominably. (‘A’ is for ‘abominably’!) There are some exceptions, such as, in some cultures, pets; but even pets represent an offense against free-living animals in their natural habitats, who have been deliberately bred into dependency and as a result dumbed-down as well. Almost all pets are denied the freedom to roam, whether by foot, feather, or fin; instead they are confined to a building or the end of a leash, or kept on display in a cage or a bowl. The condition of the vast majority of nonhuman animals, however, is without even the compensations that may attach to being a pet. Animals in the wild are trapped for their skins or hunted down for pure sport. Animals in captivity (other than pets) are turned into egg or milk machines, or fattened for direct human consumption, or consigned to laboratories for testing and vivisection. All in all, it is not good to be a nonhuman animal in a world controlled by human animals.

However, many human beings are sensitive to one or another aspect of our ‘inhumanity’ to other animals and therefore strive to better their lot. Thus have arisen numerous societies for the prevention of cruelty to other animals and, more generally, for the promotion of their welfare. One would think, then, that all animal advocates would be ‘welfarists.’ But this is not the case. Why not? Because welfarism is based on an assumption which, if examined, proves untenable … or at least questionable. The assumption is that it is all right to use other animals so long as we do so with an eye to their welfare. Or to put it epigrammatically: It is okay to use animals so long as we do not abuse them.

But this assumption may be unwarranted. The reason is that use and abuse, while indeed distinct concepts, may only differ in reality under certain conditions, and those conditions may not obtain for other animals. One argument goes like this: So long as x is at an extreme power disadvantage to y, any use of x by y will inevitably deteriorate into abuse. Well, clearly, under present circumstances all other animals are virtually powerless relative to human beings; therefore just about any use we make of them leads inexorably to their abuse. And is this not precisely the situation we observe?

This is why among animal advocates there has arisen in opposition to welfarism the movement known as (‘a’ is for) abolitionism, which seeks to abolish all institutions of animal use. Thus, there would be no animal agriculture, no hunting (other than for real need), no animal circuses, no zoos, no pets. The breeding of domestic animals would end, and the preservation of wild habitats be maximized. Abolitionists further maintain that the emphasis on animal welfare actually serves to encourage animal use, since if people believe that the animals they use are being well taken care of, they will lose their main incentive for discontinuing that use; and hence, by the argument above, animal welfarism further entrenches animal abuse, and so is counterproductive even to welfare in the long run. Here again the evidence seems to be in plain sight: For all the growth of animal welfare organizations – and just about every major animal protection organization is a welfare, as opposed to an abolition, organization – the abuse of animals has only increased and shows no sign even of decelerating. For reasons such as these I have allied myself with abolitionists like Lee Hall and Gary Francione.

Asteroids. Here I have cheated a little bit because (‘c’ is for) comets are also a major concern, not only asteroids. But due to their overwhelming numbers in our vicinity at present, asteroids have taken the lead in the public imagination as a threat to humanity. The more one learns about their potential to do us grave harm should we ever again collide with one the size of Manhattan or larger, the more one finds oneself tossing and turning in bed at night. These rocks number in the thousands up to the trillions, depending on size and distance considered; and the inevitability of another big one eventually striking our planet – unless we prevent it – is denied by no one. Indeed, no one denies that an object the size of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, and that would wipe out human civilization, will one day bear down upon us. Furthermore, it is now a common occurrence to discover asteroids that are large enough to wreak havoc if they hit us and that do in fact make a close approach to our planet, such as 2005 YU55, which came closer than the Moon last November 8 (2011), and 99942 Apophis, which will come even closer on April 13, 2029.

Thus have arisen Spaceguard and other programs, whose mission is to detect such hazards and devise and implement mitigating strategies. It is not easy, however, to deflect an incoming object of human-extinction size, which would be 10km in diameter or larger. Fortunately, as one regularly hears from the scientists who inform the public on this matter, objects of that size likely to come into Earth’s immediate vicinity are exceedingly rare. In fact there is a power law of size relative to quantity, such that the larger the object, the fewer there are. Therefore, given limited resources, the present de facto policy is to focus on detecting medium-sized NEOs (Near-Earth Objects) – ones that could, say, wipe out a city – and designing and testing means of deflecting them.

Alas, this seemingly sensible and rational policy is based on an assumption that will not withstand critical scrutiny. The assumption is that the relatively small number of the relatively large objects makes it unlikely that we will be hit by one any time soon. But this is fallacious. The reason is that these events occur at totally random intervals. Therefore an extinction-sized object could appear on the horizon at any time. The statistics only tell us that this will occur sooner or later, but they do not tell us when. One takes false comfort in their relative rarity in the recent historical record.

Indeed, this way leads to absurdity. For suppose there were insufficient reason to begin to prepare to prevent (‘a’ is for) Armageddon by asteroid or comet this year because of the exceedingly low statistical probability of such an occurrence. Therefore there would never be a time when there is sufficient reason to prepare for it, since the statistical probability remains constant (at least until Armageddon occurs … but possibly even then!). But Armageddon will occur unless we prevent it. Therefore it is rational to allow Armageddon to occur. But it is not rational to allow Armageddon to occur. Therefore it is false that there is insufficient reason to begin to prepare to prevent Armageddon by asteroid or comet this year just because of its exceedingly low statistical probability.

Thus, just as animal protection based on the fallacious policy of welfarism serves to the detriment of animal protection, so planetary defense based on the fallacious policy of mid-sized impact mitigation serves to the detriment of planetary defense.

Amorality. It was only after I had finished writing the culminating monograph of my career as a so-called normative ethicist that I realized that both the monograph and my career had been based on an assumption that could be seriously questioned, namely, that morality exists. The case against morality is known in the specialist literature as the argument to the best explanation. Simply stated it is the claim that all moral phenomena, including our occasional tendency to altruism and our beliefs in moral obligation, moral guilt, moral desert, and the like, can plausibly be accounted for by our evolutionary and cultural history, without the need to postulate any actual moral obligation, moral guilt, moral desert, and the like. So morality turns out to be like religion, or theism in particular, in that the more plausible explanation of our belief in God, etc., is that such a belief has served to help us survive rather than that there actually is a God.

Now this may seem to lead to the conclusion that we are therefore in the peculiar position of needing to cling to a delusion. However, some few of us (including most explicitly at present Richard Garner and myself) maintain that the time is now ripe to expose morality for what it is – an illusion – and thence to eliminate it from our lives. The argument is an empirical one: in a nutshell, that a world without the felt-absolutism and felt-certainty of moral convictions would be less violent, less hypocritical, less egotistical, less fanatical and so forth than our present, moralistic world is, and therefore we would prefer it. Garner makes the case at length in his Beyond Morality (now online in a revised version), and I in my Ethics without Morals (forthcoming from Routledge). (Note: My personal story of ‘counter-conversion’ to amorality is told in Bad Faith: A Philosophical Memoir, which I shall perhaps one day post on the Internet.)

And observe that this claim is analogous to the two other claims discussed above. For just as animal protection based on the fallacious policy of welfarism acts to the detriment of animal protection, and planetary defense based on the fallacious policy of mid-sized impact mitigation acts to the detriment of planetary defense, so, moral abolitionists (not to be confused with animal-use abolitionists, although I happen to be both) argue, an ethics based on morality is both fallacious and self-defeating. The fallacy of morality is that the strength of our moral convictions (or ‘intuitions’) warrants our belief in their truth. The self-defeatingness of morality is that a moralist world is (today if not heretofore) more likely to be discordant with our considered desires than an amoralist world.

Assumptions. So this is my catalogue of dangerous assumptions that license (1) the ever-increasing exploitation and slaughter of nonhuman animals by the tens and hundreds of billions, (2) the exposure of humanity to extinction by asteroidal or cometary impact (maybe not a bad deal for some of the animals, though), and (3) the excessively judgmental and even lethal imposition of our preferences on one another. My aim has been to illustrate the utility of philosophy as the critical examiner of our most fundamental and pervasive – and hence, most likely to be mischievous – assumptions. By a curious but inevitable logic, the foundations of our beliefs are the shakiest part of the whole edifice of our knowledge, precisely because they are the most taken for granted – positively buried in the underground of our psyche. Philosophy brings them into the light of day for inspection and possible repair or, if they prove too rotted out, condemnation of the whole structure that has rested upon them.

I must admit, (‘a’ is for) alas, that my own philosophical efforts to date have little to show by way of liberating animals, saving humanity, or making society less violent and antagonistic. But perhaps I can at least be given an ‘A’ for effort.

© Prof. Joel Marks 2012

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. Don’t assume that you may prudently ignore his website TheEasyVegan.com.

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