Wednesday, September 16, 2015

What Trophy Hunting Is Forcing Me to Ask

A sportsman and his trophy.


In the last few weeks, we've seen global outrage at the trophy hunting dentist from Minneapolis who wounded and then, 40 hours later, finally killed Cecil the Lion. More recently, we've seen similar outrage over trophy hunting by a child in our own Canadian backyard. This past week, the Wildlife Defence League posted a graphic video on its Facebook page of some hunters playing with the horrible death of a majestic grizzly bear in British Columbia. That video went viral before Facebook pulled it, citing copyright issues. But Gary Mason, National Affairs Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, brought the video back in a piece critical of trophy hunting:

"It seems bizarre that we can be so rightly outraged by the trophy hunting we witness in Africa, but allow the same thing to happen in our own country. Grizzlies in B.C. are being killed for no other reason than for pure pleasure and enjoyment; to provide some testosterone-fuelled “sports hunter” the thrill of killing a defenceless animal that is doing nothing more than innocently ambling about in its home environment." - Mason

I think that Mason captures the reason for the widespread public disgust over trophy hunting, and it has nothing to do with whether the animal in particular is endangered, or in a research study, or a beloved part of a community. On a visceral level, seeming to care so little about the lives and suffering of obviously sentient animals with as strong a will to live as any seems psychopathic. On an intellectual level, the pleasure of the hunter is clearly an insufficient justification for taking the life of an innocent animal.

"What about conservation?" say hunters like Texas millionaire, Corey Knowlton. The problem isn't just that the available evidence supporting conservation is weak and mixed: ecotourism, where the only shots fired are camera shutters snapping away, can bring in many more dollars and place much more value on the lives of wild animals. And besides, if hunters really cared about the lives of their beloved animals, they'd just donate their money to the cause without having to kill any of them. As Ricky Gervais has pointed out, then they'd be heroes.

Non-hunters are quick to come up with a different response. While they frequently condemn trophy hunting, hunting to eat and make use of the carcass is widely considered unproblematic. Mason again:

"And most people accept that grizzlies can and will continue to be hunted by First Nations, but only as a form of sustenance. [But] The notion that some bozo can pay a guide to point him in the direction of a poor defenceless animal and be allowed to brutalize it to death is infuriating. And it has to end." -Mason

Fuelled by celebrity and even New York Times Sunday Review endorsements (albeit based upon arguments with false premises), the eat-what-you-kill movement seems to be growing in popularity. Nevertheless, I'm willing to bet the farm that most of the people who've expressed outrage over trophy hunting think that killing pigs, cows, and chickens for our consumption is just fine, even if you pick them out of a freezer at the grocery store.

But is it?

Let's face it: we don't have to eat meat to survive. We don't even have to eat meat to thriveHere's a website celebrating elite athletes who are vegans. They don't consume dairy products or eggs, let alone any meat.

Whether we kill animals because we enjoy hunting and stuffing them onto our walls or because we enjoy eating them, the bottom line is that we're killing animals for our enjoyment. An expert hunter who only kills and eats mature animals with a single shot surely causes much less suffering than our food industry does, but that hunter is still killing sentient animals without adequate justification.

And so it seems to me that if we are to express outrage over trophy hunting, we must ask ourselves a question that's been bothering me lately, and that seems certain to bother future generations, too: where's the outrage over killing animals for the mere pleasure of the meal?

28 comments:

  1. Yorgo,
    This is an interesting discussion which can ultimately lead into several ethical questions but I wanted to get your take on two in particular:
    1) Your argument infers a value assignment of "all sentient life > all human desires other than survival". Is this an accurate assessment, and what is the basis for this value assignment (or whatever equivalent value assignment you think is appropriate)?
    2) On a related note, I've come to appreciate the application of game theory in discussions of morality and wonder how an animal's capacity (or incapacity) to participate as "players" in the game of morality should influence our moral perspective on how animals are included in our moral framework. In other words, if lions and grizzly bears will not discriminate between humans and other food sources when they are hungry, why do we have an obligation to discriminate between them and other food sources when we are hungry?

    Good article. Makes me think, but I'm still an omnivore. Ultimately I think it comes down to the fact that the shaping of our moral sense is predominantly not a rational process and we just feel worse about sport killing than we do about killing for food.

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  2. Hi Travis,

    Thanks for your interest.

    I agree that our intuitions, moral and otherwise, are frequently irrational, but this seems to me to be a bug, not a feature.

    You seem to want an explanation for how I might ground the idea that human pleasure is an inadequate justification for killing sentient life. The short answer is that if human pleasure is an inadequate justification for killing sentient *human* life, then it must be an inadequate justification for killing sentient non-human life, lest one risk being guilty of speciesism.

    I assume that you believe that human pleasure is an inadequate justification for murder. I could ask about the basis for your apparent inference of the value assignment “human life > human desires other than survival”. How would you answer that?

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  3. I eat meat, too, by the way, but I'm trying to cut down. I'm a "reducetarian". I think of myself as a slaveholder in the deep South who is gradually reducing the number of slaves I own, aiming to one day free them all.

    There is no doubt that we feel worse about sport killing than killing for food, but I think that that's because we've been socialized from birth to think that killing for food is ok, while most of us haven't been socialized as sport hunters. Imagine two people who both kill babies. One does it for the pleasure of the kill. The second does it for the pleasure of eating fresh baby flesh. Should we really feel worse about the first?

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  4. Yorgo,
    As I see it, the problem with treating our moral intuitions as "buggy" is that this implies that there is some other external standard which represents the correct mode of moral reasoning even though our moral intuitions are the exclusive means by which we arrive at moral judgements. They themselves are the gold standard. If those intuitions are frequently irrational then perhaps morality itself isn't ultimately accountable to rationality. That said, I agree that our moral intuitions can be altered through rational reflection and that this often seems correct - for example, when reflection exposes inconsistencies or falsehoods in the beliefs which inform those intuitions. I'm just questioning whether that is the case here.

    By identifying speciesism as the moral fault, I take it that you are proposing that non-human animal life is as equally valuable as human life. Here I would suggest that speciesism is not inconsistent with the gold standard - our moral intuitions. We tend to favor our kin, then relatable humans, then humans as a whole, then relatable animals (apes, dogs, etc...), and this goes on until we don't think twice about slaughtering thousands of insects. If this intuition is faulty, can you explain why? If speciesism is the problem, why did you originally draw the line at sentience? Isn't C. elegans a type of animal life? Heck, why draw the line at the animal kingdom?

    You said "I could ask about the basis for your apparent inference of the value assignment 'human life > human desires other than survival'. How would you answer that?"

    I would answer by simply appealing to my intuitions, and for that particular example it is an intuition which is fortunately shared with nearly everybody. I don't see evidence which compels me to ground that valuation on anything else.

    You said "Imagine two people who both kill babies. One does it for the pleasure of the kill. The second does it for the pleasure of eating fresh baby flesh. Should we really feel worse about the first?"

    I'm not the one trying to derive a rational moral framework from my intuitions. This isn't a problem for me. The problem for me is justifying the imposition of my will when examination of a conflict with other people's intuitions does not reveal any inconsistencies or faulty beliefs on either side and compromise cannot be reached. Fortunately a shared human nature makes this a rare occurrence.

    Finally, you didn't offer any response to question #2 in the original comment. I'd be interested in hearing whether you have any thoughts on that.

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  5. Travis,

    Sorry for the late reply.

    I emphatically disagree that our moral intuitions are the *exclusive* means by which we arrive at moral judgments, and I think that you actually do, too. As you have indicated, we subject our moral intuitions to reason, and indeed, much important moral progress has been made by those who have done so and fought against the prevailing (im)moral intuitions.

    What could morality be about but changes in the wellbeing and suffering of others? We have good reason to believe that C.elegans doesn’t experience well-being and suffering, explaining why our moral calculations don’t extend to members of that species. But blacks, women, gays, Jews, and even animals do, and so their well being and suffering must factor in, so I would absolutely endorse considerations of animal suffering and well-being in game theory scenarios aiming for moral outcomes. To care less about the suffering of animals because they are not human is as indefensible as caring less about the suffering of Blacks, Jews, women, gays, etc. because they are not Caucasian, Christian, men, straight, etc.

    Moral reasoning in this way does not require us to make the sweeping value statements you suggested earlier. I’ll let Peter Singer explain:

    “The animal liberation movement, therefore, is not saying that all lives are of equal worth or that all interests of humans and other animals are to be given equal weight, no matter what those interests may be. It is saying that where animals and humans have similar interests - we might take the interest in avoiding physical pain as an example, for it is an interest that humans clearly share with other animals — those interests are to be counted equally, with no automatic discount just because one of the beings is not human. A simple point, no doubt, but nevertheless part of a far-reaching ethical revolution.”

    In fact, I would encourage you to read more of Singer’s work. There is more to be said, much more than I have time to say here and now. Here are some good links:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equal_consideration_of_interests

    http://www.animal-rights-library.com/texts-m/singer01.htm

    http://emilkirkegaard.dk/en/wp-content/uploads/Peter-Singer-Practical-Ethics-2nd-edition.pdf

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    1. Yorgo,
      I agree that we subject our intuitions to scrutiny and reason and that this feeds back into the system to update our judgments, but the core valuation ultimately relies on intuition. Moral reasoning is just an upper-level process for comparing different intuitions against each other to look for inconsistencies. I don't see how we can escape ultimately founding our moral framework on intuition. This is a very relevant point for the remainder of the discussion.

      You said "What could morality be about but changes in the wellbeing and suffering of others?" Well, lot's of stuff. In particular, there's a long and widespread tradition of attaching moral significance to purity. Philosophers have focused on utilitarian models but anthropologists are quick to point out that moral concerns are diverse in practice and often betray utilitarian reasoning. You could say that those moralities represent flawed intuitions, but I would suggest that we should instead follow the data where it points and define morality accordingly. Otherwise we're offering what amounts to a "no true Scotsman" fallacy by presuming a particular moral standard and suggesting that everything else isn't true morality. So when our intuitions about the relative value of non-human animals conflicts with reasoning on the topic, I'm more inclined to ask what this tells us about morality itself rather than to assume a particular moral standard and then suggest that our moral intuitions are flawed.

      I'm familiar with Singer's work and while I appreciate the reasoning, I cannot help but observe a strain with my intuitions and thus question whether the assumptions within the reasoning are correct. For example, the quote you offered suggests that human and animal interests are to be assigned equal weight when they are similar - using avoidance of pain as an example. So, to propose a ludicrous philosophical hypothetical, suppose you are given a population of 50 humans and 50 dogs and then told that half will suffer pain and that you have an opportunity to choose which 50 will be spared. According to Singer's reasoning, the ethical thing to do would be to randomly select from the entire population rather than selectively spare the 50 humans. I find that absurd.

      So, to sum this up: I question the validity of moral reasoning which assumes some form of equality with animals when our intuitions clearly disagree. I understand why you think that this is a slippery slope toward a defense of devaluing humans based on race, gender or sexual orientation but I would argue that those past (and current) errors have all been supported by an in-group's faulty understanding of the out-group. That bigoted perspective often disappears once the groups intermingle and their overwhelming similarities are revealed (as has been occurring over time). The additional information we gain by interacting with other groups improves the accuracy of our understanding of them and thus corrects those particular intuitions. Likewise, our compassion for animals grows when we are engaged in caring relationships with them, but there is a clear relational discontinuity between human and non-human that does not exist within the species. No amount of intermingling and cultural assimilation is going to bridge that gap. Without an external moral standard to dictate the impact of that discontinuity on our valuations we are ultimately left with only our moral intuitions to guide us and, even when we are maximally informed, I find that those do not support an assumption of equality - though I suspect that as a whole we are in fact underinformed and that the inequality we practice is greater than is warranted. It's even possible that our fully informed intuitions would be sufficient to drive us to veganism - but equality is an enormous step beyond that and so any reasoning which rests on an assumption of equality is, in my opinion, on shaky ground.

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  6. Travis,

    I just stumbled across this debate between Peter Singer and Robert Posner that addresses some of the issues you've raised here (for which I am thankful, btw). I think you'll really enjoy it.

    http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/interviews-debates/200106--.htm

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    1. Thanks for the link. I'll take a look.

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    2. Wow. That was very similar to the positions we have offered here, though I don't fully agree with Posner's low view of philosophical moral discourse and that is where the discussion ended up focusing. Regardless, there wasn't anything in Singer's argumentation that persuaded me that I should be wary of my intuitions about the relative value of human life and that a more appropriate standard is available as an alternative.

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  7. I think that we can agree that the apparent conflict on which Posner focuses between philosophical argumentation and tenacious intuitions is semantic. At some level of abstraction, we aren’t able to give logical arguments for our beliefs. At some level, philosophical argumentation (reasoning) ultimately appeals to intuitions regarding logic, consistency, fairness, etc. The question is not whether we should follow moral *reasoning* or moral *intuitions* when they appear to clash; it’s whether we should follow *intuitions* of fairness, consistency, logic, etc. as applied to moral questions when doing so causes dissonance with our so-called moral *intuitions*. It’s intuitions all the way down.

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  8. (cont'd)
    Which set of intuitions should we accept? I would argue that we should accept the appeals of our rational intuitions since they are the more highly evolved. For example, you and Posner are correct to point out that less intellectually sophisticated animals share your intuition to favor the well being of their own group. It takes more sophisticated intellectual capabilities to step back and reason - that is, to appeal to rational intuitions - about that intuition.

    Moreover, history has shown us how our erroneous so-called moral intuitions have had to be corrected by appeal to our more highly evolved and intellectually sophisticated rational intuitions time and again leading to real moral progress. Since racist intuitions favor the racist, sexist intuitions favor the sexist, etc., it seems to me that these intuitions are less moral than they are *prudential*, and so I would urge you to beware of the possibility that the strain you observe in considering Singer’s reasoning is, in fact, with your prudential intuitions, not your moral ones. It also seems to me that making moral progress and overcoming these prudential intuitions requires appeal to more evolved intuitions of fairness, consistency, logic, etc.

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  9. (cont'd)
    In the thought experiment you proposed, if the dogs and the humans would experience exactly the same pain (the same duration, intensity and characteristics of physical pain, the same worry about how long it will last over time, the same psychological harm from having pain indiscriminately and unpredictably inflicted, etc), I don’t find it absurd in the least to randomly select the 50 victims. I’ve posed the scenario to numerous colleagues over the past few days and every single one said they’d do just that. In fact, I find the selection of 50 dogs to be speciesist and as abhorrent as a Nazi who would select 50 Jews.

    You could object by arguing that it is impossible to ensure that every human and every canine experience the same physical and psychological pain, and that the canine might experience less overall pain for some evidence based reason (less psychological harm, for instance). But notice that this line of argumentation would not be speciesist because it would be identifying a relevant inequality between the species (just as it’s not sexist to say that women tend to be shorter and physically weaker than men), and I would have no objection to it if the evidence was reasonable.

    What, I wonder, would you say to the aliens who come to Earth and decide that we are so very fun to hunt and so very tasty to eat, telling us about that clear relational discontinuity between our species and theirs, and how that discontinuity prevents their tenacious intuition from losing out to a rational consideration of our similar interest in avoiding pain, suffering and death?

    Your last few sentences (and your opening questions at the beginning of the comments) seem to suggest that equality simpliciter is the enormous step that bothers you. But Singer’s reasoning doesn’t require equality simpliciter – only rough equality with respect to a limited domain of suffering. I feel that that is worth repeating given your concluding remarks, but perhaps I’m misinterpreting them.

    I’m encouraged by your admission that the inequality we practice is greater than is warranted. I agree that there is an impactful relational discontinuity between human and non-human animals. We should probably give the nonhuman animals some of the benefit of the doubt given our historical exaggerations of that divide. Nevertheless, it seems very clear to me that at least the one between us an the large sentient animals and birds that we eat need not be completely and perfectly bridged before concluding that it is immoral for the mere and transient pleasure of the human palate to be given more value by humans than the unnecessary immense suffering and deprivation of life brought about by wide scale human carnivorism.

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    1. Yorgo,
      First, let me say that this has been a pleasant and thought provoking dialogue. It's helpful that we can agree that "it's intuitions all the way down" and I also agree that reasoning which exposes faults and inconsistencies in our moral intuitions will change those intuitions and that this is an improvement (as best I can tell). Furthermore, when you say that "history has shown us how our erroneous so-called moral intuitions have had to be corrected by appeal to our more highly evolved and intellectually sophisticated rational intuitions time and again leading to real moral progress" I am inclined to agree again, while cautioning against overstating the role of rational argument. I suspect that the dissolution of group boundaries has more to do with the reshaping of those intuitions than does rational argument - though rational argument is certainly a factor in convincing us to question those boundaries in the first place. So there is much we agree on regarding the relationship between our moral intuitions and moral reasoning.

      However, when you say that "Since racist intuitions favor the racist, sexist intuitions favor the sexist, etc., it seems to me that these intuitions are less moral than they are prudential" it appears to me that you are, to an extent, assuming a particular endpoint and denying the malleability of our moral intuitions. In other words, it seems that you are only identifying "moral intuition" as that which ends up being correct after rational inspection. This is where I instead drew the distinction between misinformed \ uninformed moral intuitions and fully informed moral intuitions. From this perspective, it is still unclear to me what the rational argument is which suggests that our moral intuitions are misinformed or uninformed with respect to the relative value of non-human animals. Is Singer's claim that "where animals and humans have similar interests ... those interests are to be counted equally" equivalent to saying that, when viewed in isolation, biologically similar desires warrant similar moral judgments? I think I would agree with this, but then my question is why I should only evaluate one aspect of the situation in isolation and ignore the context?
      (continued in next comment)

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    2. (cont'd)

      I think this might be best explored by a couple examples. If I want to rationalize with a racist to show them that their racist intuitions are faulty, I would seek to demonstrate the personal equivalency of the out-group with the people in their in-group. Once it is established that skin color is the only difference of note, then I might ask them if they would value their spouse differently depending on whether they are wearing makeup that alters the color of their skin. If they even then insisted that they would value their spouse differently, I might point out that our skin color changes between summer and winter depending on exposure to the sun and ask why they haven't actually changed their valuations accordingly. Ultimately, I'm trying to pull them toward the realization that their intuitions about the value of people in their out-group are flawed because they are being applied inconsistently. If they eventually see the problem, and they're not a sociopath, then they will prefer to resolve the conflict by applying their in-group intuitions to both groups (rather than changing their valuation of their in-group to match their valuation of the out-group).

      Singer, it seems, wants to make the exact same type of argument except he wants to drastically narrow the scope of evaluation so that all the context is ignored and we focus only on the similarities and ignore all the differences - differences which are a significant contributor to informing our intuitions. Contrast this approach with my example, where I aimed to point out that the differences are not actually relevant. So, what is the equivalent argument in this case? What is the justification for ignoring the impact that the differences bear on our intuitions?

      As a second example I would like to bring this question of context to an updated hypothetical and further test your commitment to your conclusions. Suppose your are sitting in front of an opaque wall and are told that behind it there are two groups of five sentients beings who wish to avoid pain. In front of you are four buttons labeled "Group A", "Group B", "Random" and "All". You are told that every few minutes you have to press one of these buttons and that when you press the button, the selected group is subjected to immense pain. If you don't press any button then somebody else will press the "All" button for you. I think that in this situation we would agree to press the "Random" button. This is consistent with Singer's argument.

      Now suppose the wall becomes transparent and you see that the sentient beings are five of your closest friends and family and five dogs off the street. They can see you and you can see them. If you are going to be consistent with Singer's argument, you would continue to press the "Random" button. Will you? Will you watch your closest friends and family writhe in pain while a mutt sits next to them licking itself? This is the question of context. We've added the context to more fully inform our intuitions and it has changed the situation. Please explain to me why this context should be ignored. What is the rational argument that will elucidate the problems with my intuition to stop pressing the "Random" button?

      Finally, you ask "What, I wonder, would you say to the aliens who come to Earth and decide that we are so very fun to hunt and so very tasty to eat, telling us about that clear relational discontinuity between our species and theirs, and how that discontinuity prevents their tenacious intuition from losing out to a rational consideration of our similar interest in avoiding pain, suffering and death?"
      I would probably try to appeal to the prospect that their relational discontinuity is in error - especially since they were able to communicate their reasoning to me and I was able to understand it. How would you explain to them why they ought to ignore all the contextual differences which inform their intuition?

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  10. I'm enjoying our dialogue, too, Travis. Before I can respond to your last post, here's a great article and story that touches upon questions we are dealing with here. I loved reading it this morning.

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/22/extreme-altruism-should-you-care-for-strangers-as-much-as-family

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    1. Good article. One thing that I think is relevant to our discussion is that the reasoning presented often says "Why should I favor X over Y...", operating on the assumption that the options are equal in the absence of any rational argument. I must then ask - why ignore the answers provided by your intuitions in the absence of competing answers? There seems to be an assumption that anything other than a rational argument is invalid. It's possible that some peoples intuitions are such that they don't actually present themselves as an answer to those questions, but that does not mean that their intuitions are correct and everybody else's are incorrect. That argument has not been made.

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  11. Travis,

    I know you put a lot of effort into your last post, but unfortunately, I can’t say that I really understand the points you are trying to make. For example, this seems confused to me:

    “If they eventually see the problem, and they're not a sociopath, then they will prefer to resolve the conflict by applying their in-group intuitions to both groups (rather than changing their valuation of their in-group to match their valuation of the out-group).”

    You said that you would seek to demonstrate the *equivalency* of the out-group and, facing resistance, would “ask why they haven't actually changed their *valuations* accordingly”. Surely “equivalency” here can only mean matching valuations of both groups once it’s demonstrated that skin color is not a relevant difference. Isn’t the reason to apply in-group intuitions to the out group precisely because both groups become equally valued (or share the same valued characteristic(s) to roughly the same extent), and all of this happens because of appeal to rational intuitions of fairness, logic, consistency, etc.

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    1. Yorgo,
      Despite the fact that you think those statements are confusing you seem to have understood. I fear you are assuming, however, that I am defending Posner's dismissal of rational argument and that is not the case at all. I do see moral discourse as a capable tool for shaping our moral intuitions, though less powerful than personal experience.

      The point of the racism example was to show what I would consider to be a valid argument against a certain type of tenacious intuition. The key point is that the argument does not start with an assumption of equality and argue that there is no reason to reject it. Instead it aims to identify points of factual error and logical inconsistencies in the person's intuitions. This was then followed by asking how the argument for non-human animal equality does the same thing. As far as I can tell it simply tells us that we should somehow ignore the differences which inform our intuitions and I don't see the rational for that.

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  12. You wrote: “Singer, it seems, wants to make the exact same type of argument except he wants to drastically narrow the scope of evaluation so that all the context is ignored and we focus only on the similarities and ignore all the differences - differences which are a significant contributor to informing our intuitions. Contrast this approach with my example, where I aimed to point out that the differences are not actually relevant.”

    I doubt that there’s any meaningful difference in how you and Singer would approach the problem of racism. Singer would say that “where blacks and whites have similar interests ... those interests are to be counted equally”, and he would argue, just like you, that skin color is irrelevant as far as the interests of whites and blacks are concerned.

    Does this help at all?

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    1. That is not the approach I offered. The approach to moral discourse that I was endorsing has two key functions:
      (a) point out any objectively faulty beliefs which inform the intuitions, and
      (b) point out any logical inconsistencies in the application of intuitions.

      Conversely, the approach I see being suggested is:
      (1) point out the objectively similar interests and give them equal value, and
      (2) ignore everything else.

      I have no problem with #1. It's #2 that I question.

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  13. I’m going to just copy and paste Mark Vuletic’s explanation from his blog, Philosophy Notes, because I think he does a good job unpacking Singer’s position.

    “[Singer claims that] using sentience as a criterion of moral importance entails that we extend to other sentient creatures the same basic moral consideration (i.e. "basic principle of equality") that we extend to (typical, sentient) human beings.

    I need to unpack all of this carefully for you, because what Singer means by it often is misunderstood, and he doesn't explain it in enough detail in this article to prevent misunderstandings. Let's be clear: Singer is not saying that we are required, in practice, to treat humans and (nonhuman) animals the same. Extending to animals the same moral consideration we extend to humans means that we give the interests of animals the same weight as comparable interests of humans. However, not all interests necessarily are comparable. In other words, we cannot give the interests of animals less weight just because the beings that have them are animals, but it may be that the interests animals happen to have are the kinds of interests that do have less weight.

    To clarify, let me introduce a distinction Singer makes outside of this article: that between persons and sentient non-persons. Singer defines a person (or a creature with personhood) as a creature that is aware of its own persistence over time. Personhood is not, incidentally, coextensive with humanity: Singer contends that adult chimpanzees are persons, but human infants are not. Because they are aware of their own existence over time, persons are vulnerable to special forms of suffering that sentient non-persons cannot experience. A sentient non-person, for instance, can feel fear while dying, but only a person can experience the extra dread that comes from awareness of its own mortality. A sentient non-person can experience pain, but only a person can feel the hopelessness brought by awareness that his or her pain will last for weeks, months, or years into the future. In other words, persons have some important interests that sentient non-persons do not. So, taking into equal consideration the comparable interests of all sentient beings does not necessarily force us to treat all sentient beings equally. If, for instance, one can save either a dog or a human adult from a burning building, Singer would say you must save the human adult, because the balance of interests satisfied will be greater if you save the adult, than if you save the dog.

    However, Singer argues, situations where one is faced with that kind of choice are unusual. There are indeed difficult cases, such as animal experimentation, where we need to sit down and weigh carefully how much suffering each of our possible courses of action will cause; all Singer asks is that we do the calculation in those cases, instead of dismissing the suffering of non-humans as unimportant from the very start. Most of our practices toward animals, however, are very easy cases to Singer: in the vast majority of our practices toward animals, we sacrifice important animal interests (such as life and freedom) for the sake of absolutely trivial human interests (such as satisfying a taste for meat). In these cases, the interests in question still are noncomparable, but in the other direction: the suffering inflicted, for instance, on factory farm animals vastly outweighs our enjoyment of cheap and convenient meat. All such practices, Singer concludes, quite clearly lack any moral justification, and must be eliminated as quickly as possible."

    - See more at: http://www.vuletic.com/hume/ph/singer.html#sthash.M2mcTSyD.dpuf

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    1. OK, so then revisit the wall example and give your friends and family a drug that prevents them from remembering the episode, so that their interests are equivalent to those of the dogs.

      Also keep in mind that I'm quite open to the possibility that our intuitions about the relative value of animals are misinformed or underinformed and would otherwise drive us away from our current practices. What I am primarily questioning is the suggestion that we can objectively show that those valuations are in error.

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  14. Travis: maybe we can Skype and hash it out in person?

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    1. Perhaps. Let's see whether the recent comments have helped to clarify my position. While I understand the value of instant feedback to clear up confusion, I also consider myself a "slow thinker" who often fails to properly present my position when forced to do so in the moment.

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  15. Sorry, Travis. I've been travelling and busy. I have to admit to feeling like I might have lost track of the direction our conversation was taking, so apologies if this post seems to be a little off.

    In the thought experiments you have proposed, two groups will experience the same pain (mechanism, characteristics, duration) and resulting harm (physical and psychological). I think that we agree that to the extent that the pain and harm can be similar between human animals and non-human animals, species membership is irrelevant when considering who experiences the pain.

    In all but the last thought experiment you have provided, the person to whom the thought experiment is posed has no interest in which group experiences the pain, and so that choice is best if random. However, in your last scenario, the person with the power to choose which group experiences the pain does have an interest in which group experiences the pain because one group is loved family members. (It doesn’t matter whether the other group is dogs or unfamiliar humans. Species, we have agreed, is irrelevant). I must admit that I’m inclined to ask : why shouldn’t the chooser’s important interests be taken into account?

    Interpersonal and family relationships are important interests of ours. As I believe Singer has pointed out, in general, it’s probably true that nobody loves and cares for children better than their own parents. What does it mean to love someone if not to help them when you can? So the person choosing in your latest thought experiment is given an interest in seeing the group that doesn’t contain her loved family members experience the pain. Since all else is equal, I don’t see any moral problem with her choosing the other group to experience the pain. Similarly, I don’t see a moral problem with Jane Goodall sparing 5 chimps with whom she has a close relationship instead of 5 unfamiliar humans.

    Another way of looking at this is that in addition to the pain and harm that will be experienced by the members of group A, there would be the additional pain of the chooser having to watch 5 loved ones suffer, plus the additional harm to those important interpersonal relationships. That additional pain and harm can be avoided by choosing Group B to experience the pain. Group B seems to be the choice that minimizes pain and harm by taking into account the interests of all of the involved parties.

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    1. Yorgo,
      There is some misunderstanding here so I'll see if I can clear it up. I do not technically "agree that to the extent that the pain and harm can be similar between human animals and non-human animals, species membership is irrelevant when considering who experiences the pain." If species membership was nothing but an abstract property which was independent of everything else then I would agree that it does not warrant different treatment. But that isn't how species membership applies to our moral judgments. Instead, it is a shorthand for a vast array of information that cumulatively informs our intuitive valuations. A major point of my prior posts was to ask why we should ignore that information - the "context", as I called it.

      When you ask "why shouldn’t the chooser’s important interests be taken into account?" I am in agreement. I do not, however, think that there is a clear distinction between this and our preferential intuitions across species. For example, you accept the rationalization for preferential treatment that "nobody loves and cares for children better than their own parents" but appear to reject the corollary rationalization that "no animal loves and cares for humans better than other humans". Furthermore, what is the determinant for valuing loving and caring? It is those same preferential intuitions, unless you want to say that loving and caring aids in the evolutionary measure of value - survival - in which case we should prefer a Terminator send back in time to protect us, or a confused mama bear who thinks we are its cub.

      We do agree on some things, though. When you say "I don’t see a moral problem with Jane Goodall sparing 5 chimps with whom she has a close relationship instead of 5 unfamiliar humans." I am inclined to agree, but I'm not the one who is defending a rejection of our intuition that non-human animals are less valuable than human animals. I lean heavily toward a relativist account of morality and see that our moral intuitions in the social domain are largely informed by our ability to relate to the objects of our moral judgments. So it makes complete sense to me that Goodall might prefer chimps with whom she has developed a relationship, and in the same way it makes complete sense that for the majority of us our intuitions tell us to prefer our own species, in large part due to the relational capacity we have within the species.

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  16. I suppose that you could once again pit a parent’s personal interest in sparing her children against the application of the principle of equality in a different thought experiment. So if I had to run into a burning school and could only save my child or another’s, I’d certainly choose mine (and would anybody fault me for it?). But what if I could save my child or 2 others, or 100 others? It may be that the morally right thing to do is to save the 2 children at the cost of my child’s life. I may not be able to do the morally right thing, even when it means that 100 other children would die. One of our defining characteristics is our inability to live up to our moral obligations. No doubt, tenacious prudential instincts and intuitions explain part of that predicament.

    The Trolley Problem poses an interesting conflict between our rational intuitions and our so-called moral intuitions. Why do 90% of people agree to flip the switch, while 90% agree to not push the big guy in front of the train? fMRI investigations seem to suggest that the conflict in scenario 2 really is one between more advanced rational brain centers and more primitive ones (see the work of Joshua Greene). Provided that you aren’t in any danger in scenario 2 (either because your mass is insufficient to affect the train by jumping in front of it yourself, or because the big guy can’t harm you) the morally right answer has to be to push the big guy despite the intuition not to. I’d be open to arguments that pushing people in front of trains would have consequences on the pusher that have to be taken into account, but ultimately, the morally right thing to do has to be determined by a rational consideration of the benefits and harms of the action.

    https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20827821-800-morality-beyond-intuition/

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    1. When you say that "It may be that the morally right thing to do is to save the 2 children at the cost of my child’s life" and "the morally right thing to do has to be determined by a rational consideration of the benefits and harms of the action" you are assuming a utilitarian ethic that I am not willing to grant. That contention underlies much of our discussion.

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