Monday, March 16, 2009

My Moral Philosophy

I was asked if my veganism comes out of my overall philosophy. It does, and this is that philosophy. Obviously, when I say "my" philosophy, I mean only that I ascribe to it -- few, if any, of the ideas are original to me.


Humans are animals. Several million years ago our cognitive abilities expanded rapidly in response to changing conditions. Along the way what were simple, effective rules for group dynamics in ape societies such as tit-for-tat reciprocal altruism took on new forms and were fraught with new significance to handle the more complex forms of interpersonal relationships that our oversized brains made possible. Humans are animals, and we have moral instincts.

But instincts cannot tell us what is right. It is a fallacy to derive ought from is. Our moral instincts -- expressed in myriad different ways through the lenses of different cultures -- only give us brute urges toward ideas like desert and purity. They can be misapplied to circumstances beyond their native purview. They can be magnified and distorted, consciously and unconsciously. More importantly, they conflict. Murder for revenge is a perfectly natural impulse, but so is the belief that one ought not kill.

It is the job of moral philosophy to use reason to analyze, clarify, and make consistent our disparate and conflicting instincts, more often here called intuitions. But this is not my goal here. Fully deriving and explaining schemes of moral philosophy takes book length to do properly so this post is more like the concluding chapter of such a work that has been written and rewritten in my mind over the last decade; this post is the part where I share the result, not where I find it. Reading Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Tom Regan, Alan Gewirth, Peter Singer, Amartya Sen, and John Rawls will give you most of the raw material my philosophy is molded from. Animal rightists will note a particular affinity with Regan's respect principle, though I do not derive my similar version from any postulate of inherent value.

The Golden Rule

Virtually every moral system has found some way to systemize the moral outgrowth of our instinct to reciprocal altruism known as the Golden Rule, most commonly expressed as "do unto others what you would have others do unto you." Indeed, most moral philosophy could be seen as determining who counts as an other and just what we ought to want them to do unto us. The major exception is ethical egoism, which, frankly, doesn't strike me as being properly ethics at all.

So the place to start is with what we want others to do unto us. An easy first reaction is to say "leave us alone," but few of us really want this. What if we are in need of aid? What we want is for others to treat us fairly and with respect. We want them to recognize us as individuals, not automatons and not just one part of a mass. We want them not to use us, and not to do things to us, but with us and for us. At the core of this inescapable demand for fair treatment is the fact that we have interests of our own that we wish to fulfill, alone or in concert with others.

And this demand for respect is indeed a demand, even if it is never uttered. We see attempts to restrict our capability to fulfill our interests as an affront to our dignity. When we are imprisoned, we try to escape. When we feel we are wronged, we seek revenge -- even if only in our minds before squelching the notion. Respectful treatment from others is vital to our own self-respect. We cannot fulfill our interests, and therefore find contentment, without it.

But if we demand respect from others, we must recognize that others are making exactly the same demand of us. More importantly, their demands are just as valid as we believe ours to be. Everyone with interests is making a valid claim against every person who can respond: recognize my interests; indeed, aid me in fulfilling them if doing so will not prevent you from fulfilling your own. This is the basis of respectful treatment.

Disability, the Unborn, and Animals

While the details may vary among readers, I do not think the above will be a controversial position as it relates to typical adult humans. Most people, when asked, can simply tell you they want to be treated with respect. If you try to use them merely as means to your ends, they will resist. But what of non-typical and non-adult humans?

Remember that the valid claim, which we can properly call a right, to respectful treatment does not have to be spoken. It doesn't even have to be consciously made. It stems directly from the existence of interests. But what qualifies as an interest, and who has them? If I lose important parts of my brain, and am no longer capable of typical adult functioning but I still feel pain, I can be rightfully said to have an interest in avoiding pain. If I do not even have the ability to feel pain or anything else, I cannot be said to have interests at all. Interests require the ability to feel in the experiential sense. Interests require sentience.

There are always marginal cases, but drawing the line for respectful consideration of interests at sentience is fairly easy to do in the majority of cases, even those that many people find controversial. People with severe mental disabilities are entitled to the right to respectful treatment. People with no cognitive function at all -- such as those in a persistent vegetative state -- have no interests and have no rights. Very late term fetuses with functioning brains are entitled to the right to respectful treatment, though it doesn't follow that they cannot be aborted in self-defense if the mother is endangered. Second- and first-trimester fetuses with no cognitive function at all have no interests and no rights.

And in the case of animals, the argument is equally clear. Those animals who are obviously sentient, such as mammals, have a right to respectful treatment -- which means they cannot be used merely as means to our ends. This has logical but dramatic consequences: animals ought not be used for food, clothing, entertainment, experimentation, or any other purpose. Given the complex and ill-understood nature of ecosystems, the best way to treat most animals with respect is to leave them to their natural lives, free from our interference. In the case of domesticated animals that we have spent millennia adapting to live with us, respectful treatment entails taking care of them to the best of our ability.

There is evidence that many other types of animals beyond mammals are sentient, quite probably including all vertebrates. For invertebrates, the line begins to blur in direct proportion to the simplicity of their nervous systems. Unfortunately, experience is not something that can be easily ascertained without experiencing. So, morally, I only suggest we give those who may be suffering the benefit of the doubt; at the very least, doing so will ensure we are in the habit with those for whom there is no doubt.


All sentient beings share an interest in avoiding suffering. All humans share other, more complex interests, but there are also a wide variety of interests that individuals pursue which may not be of any concern to anyone else. Politics (and by extension, economics) ought to be seen as the means for allowing people to pursue their interests, and for resolving conflicts between those interests.

Recall that we all demand respectful treatment. By this we meant that we all demand that others act in our interests where their choices affect us. Since there are many interests that all people share -- food, water, health, education, security, political participation, economic participation, etc. -- any society ought to protect all people's access to these basic goods and the capabilities they enable as unalienable rights.

But what of those interests not shared by all? We must not act to frustrate the pursuit of those interests except where they would prevent others from their own pursuits. Intelligence, ambition, strength, and all other factors that determine the occupation one is suited for are the result of variables almost entirely outside our control at the time we are pursuing work -- genetics, early childhood, quality of education, and others. It is therefore unfair, and disrespectful, to reward or punish us materially on the basis of the work that we do or which work we are capable of doing. There may be need for inequalities in material reward for incentives, but these should be as small as possible and only obtain if not offering them would make everyone worse off.

Moreover, because we ought not use others merely as means to our ends, democracy must extend beyond politics into economics. The economy is a machine for the benefit of all, and we must all have a say in how it is used. At a minimum, this requires public control of investment and regulation, and more significantly it requires the end of wage labor -- no person ought to work for another, only with another. Employees must become partners.


I have not by any means exhausted the depths of my moral philosophy but only provided an overview. This post should lay out the basis for and make clear the reasoning behind all of my other opinions.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Why Gary Francione Is Right

Since my last post is getting some modest traction from people who tend to agree with Gary Francione, I wanted to clarify two significant places where we agree.

First, and most importantly, nonhuman animals have an unequivocal right not to be property -- that is, not to be used merely as a means to human ends. Abolition and veganism are the only moral positions consistent with that right. Anyone who favors even the most so-called "humane" use of animals, be it for experimentation or for food, is not acting in accordance with animal rights.

Second, and perhaps more surprisingly, to the extent that they exist I actually think Francione is correct in his critique of what he calls "new welfarists." However, it is important to distinguish those that meet the criteria of Francione's "new welfarists" from the broader category that, borrowing from David Sztybel, I am calling animal rights pragmatists. Francione lists five distinguishing features of "new welfarists," which he uses to contrast with classical welfarists but work equally well in comparison with pragmatists.
  1. They generally support abolitionism, or at least oppose speciesism
  2. They think animal rights theory doesn't provide any practical gradual path to abolition
  3. They pursue welfare campaigns identical to those of classical welfarists, and consider them "rights"
  4. They see welfare reforms as necessary as steps to abolition
  5. They believe there is nothing inconsistent about animal advocates reinforcing the use of animals
I should hope it would be clear from reading my previous post that I do not meet the last four of these criteria, with the arguable exception of number 3, and I come out on the right side of number 1. I may be, in Francione's estimation, some form of welfarist since I support some "welfare" reforms, but I would seem to fail the "new welfarist" test. I do think animal rights theory (and by extension, vegan activism and the incremental quasi-rights Francione endorses) is enough to achieve abolition; in fact, I think it is the only way to do it. I do not support all "welfare" campaigns a classical welfarist might, but I might support some. I do not see "welfare" reforms as necessary steps to abolition -- I think "welfare" reforms and abolition are essentially unrelated, except in that they both deal with the treatment of animals. Finally, I absolutely think there is something inconsistent about animal advocates reinforcing the use of animals; where I disagree with Francione here is that all "welfare" reforms do so.

But there are people who do meet these criteria. You especially find a lot of PETA supporters who think every "welfare" reform is a "victory" on the road to liberation, as if there is some sort of causal link between exploiting gently and not exploiting at all. So I think that Francione's critique of "new welfarists" is accurate -- but I don't think everyone who supports some form of "welfare" campaign is a "new welfarist" according to these criteria by a long shot.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Why Gary Francione Is Wrong

Some time ago I wrote a post explaining why I felt that animal rights advocates ought to support some animal "welfare" reforms, despite the fact that these reforms won't bring us any closer to animal rights. This isn't a particularly controversial position in the movement as a whole; in fact, it is the default position of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals as well as most smaller or regional animal rights groups.

However, among a vocal but growing segment of the animal rights movement, any concession to animal "welfare" is seen as complicity with violating animal rights, or even as collaboration. In fact, this segment considers those who do not agree with the specific plan of action they endorse to be opponents in the struggle for animal rights. They call themselves abolitionists, and the rest of the movement new welfarists, two terms that are fraught with problems that will be examined later.

The most prominent proponent of this brand of abolitionism is Gary Francione. It was Francione's book Rain Without Thunder that essentially launched the so-called "abolitionist movement" upon its publication in 1996. In the book, Francione describes the many failures of the animal rights movement, which he attributes primarily to a willingness on the part of many advocates to compromise their position by seeking short-term "welfare" reforms.

The problem is that Francione is wrong.

I was once a Francione acolyte myself. You can find posts to my various blogs, comments on others, and messages on forums defending that position. But times change, opinions grow. I posted a rather basic reason to support some "welfare" reforms in my post referenced above, and David Sztybel essentially demolishes the so-called "abolitionist approach" in a paper called "Animal Rights Law: Fundamentalism versus Pragmatism" (PDF link). I don't necessarily agree with the specific moral formulation of animal rights that Sztybel works from, called "best caring ethics," but I agree with most of his conclusions.

First a note on terminology: Francione and his supporters have self-styled themselves as the abolitionists, the implication being that all other animal rights advocates do not support abolition. This is, of course, patently false. Virtually everyone who supports animal rights supports abolition, they merely disagree on the efficacy of certain tactics in bringing abolition about. Because most animal rights advocates support at least some "welfare" reforms, Francione pejoratively labels them new welfarists. I am going to follow Sztybel in referring to the majority as animal rights pragmatists and those who agree with Francione as animal rights fundamentalists. This is not meant to be insulting, but clarifying -- they believe that the right not to be property is so fundamental as to outweigh all other advocacy concerns.

The problem, to me, seems to be that Francione treats the right not to be property as the end to seek, rather than seeking the actual welfare (in the broadest sense) of actual animals. But rights are abstractions. As Francione correctly states, rights are protections of interests. A right is a tool to protect an interest of an actual sentient being. That is, rights only exist to promote the welfare of rights holders. Promoting the right not to be property is absolutely in the interests of beings currently held as property. But it is not the only thing in their interests, and it is not necessary to ignore all of these other interests in the single-minded pursuit of that one.

In addition to the interest in not being property, animals have an interest in not suffering. And animals continue to suffer now. Francione accuses pragmatists of sacrificing animal rights for short-term "welfare" gains. But there is no sacrifice if the thing allegedly sacrificed is impossible at the time in question. One can actively and loudly promote a full suite of animal rights while always striving for the best of what is actually possible now. If what is actually possible is less than full animal rights it is the fault of those who oppose them, not those who support them.

Let me reiterate: seeking to reduce suffering in exploitation is not the same as exploiting, no matter how many times you say it. If exploitation continues, that is the fault of the exploiters.

Of course, Francione's argument is also that "welfare" reforms do not actually help animals, and that they increase animal exploitation. The former is fairly easy to determine on a case by case basis, and I would certainly never support a welfare reform that was purely cosmetic. The second, however, is really difficult to determine. I have never seen Francione or any other fundamentalist provide any statistical data to support that conclusion (though perhaps I haven't looked hard enough), except for the general observation that despite three decades of animal "welfare" and pragmatist animal rights advocacy, meat eating has increased in that period.

There are two problems with using this as evidence. First, and most obviously, there is no way of knowing if the increase would have been lesser or greater in the absence of that advocacy, or had fundamentalist-style activism been in full swing. Second, the use of that trend as evidence seems to operates under the faulty assumption that "welfare" reform should be sought as a means of reducing the number of animals exploited, rather than as a means of reducing the suffering of them. Pragmatists agree with the fundamentalists that vegan outreach is the way to reduce the numbers of animals suffering, and if meat eating has increased, it is a demonstration of the failure of vegan outreach thus far, not of "welfare" reforms.

Fundamentalists say that by negotiating improvements in animal welfare without abolishing animal exploitation, pragmatists are complicit in that exploitation and even endorsing it. But if improving welfare by 20% is being complicit in exploitation by "accepting" the 80% of suffering still remaining, how complicit is improving welfare by 0% and therefore "accepting" 100% suffering, as the fundamentalists advocate? The word for not seeking improvements that are actually possible is complacency. Pragmatists at their best are actively engaged in doing what is best for actual animals now and in the future, while fundamentalists are the ones truly sacrificing animal interests today in the hope of one day satisfying those of other, luckier animals.

The best example of this thinking in action is Francione's one-time support of the Great Ape Project. The Great Ape Project would recognize the right of great apes to be free from exploitation, but Francione has since rejected it because it is based on these apes' cognitive similarities to humans rather than their ability to suffer as he founds his rights theory upon. In other words, it is more important to Francione that a specific human concept (basing rights on sentience) be realized than actually granting substantive benefits to a whole class of largely endangered animals. Francione would sacrifice all living great apes for a specific language of rights that may or may not be ever realized.

This becomes simple to understand when viewed through the lens I described above: fundamentalists see rights (or even a single right) as the end itself, and therefore anything other than those rights is an obstacle. In their hopefully subconscious refusal to consider the animals themselves as the end to be promoted, they overlook ways of doing the best thing actually possible for actually existing animals. They want only to do the best thing possible for an abstraction that may or may not ever become a reality, and the actually possible is nothing more than a distraction from that presently impossible goal. There are valid ends other than a right not to be property, but Francione and fundamentalists ignore them.

Animal rights fundamentalists fall into the same trap as the radical core of most social and political movements: they mistake the present impossibility of their full program as license to opt-out of achieving the achievable. They would rather remain "pure," and purity is a compelling siren in activism. In the case of animal rights, they mistake grabbing the low-hanging fruit first for refusing to climb the tree.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Justice and Sustainability

I just mentioned Kim Stanley Robinson a few weeks ago, and now Bruce Sterling points us to a Robinson post up at What Matters about climate chance and social justice. Here's his simple list of suggestions for a better future:
Believe in science.

Believe in government, remembering always that it is of the people, by the people, and for the people, and crucial in the current situation.

Support a really strong follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol.

Institute carbon cap-and-trade systems.

Impose a carbon tax designed to charge for the real costs of burning carbon.

Follow the full “Green New Deal” program now coming together in discussions by the Obama administration.

Structure global economic policy to reward rapid transitions from carbon-burning to carbon-neutral technologies.

Support the full slate of human rights everywhere, even in countries that claim such justice is not part of their tradition.

Support global universal education as part of human-rights advocacy.

Dispense with all magical, talismanic phrases such as “free markets” and promote a larger systems analysis that is more empirical, without fundamentalist biases.

Encourage all business schools to include foundational classes in ecology, environmental economics, biology, and history.

Start programs at these same schools in postcapitalist studies.
Read the whole thing, it's short and nice.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Has Anything Changed?

Who would have thought that Rush Limbaugh would still be the biggest name in conservative politics after all these years? Among the choice gems from his "first national address" at the sagging heap of batshittery known as the Conservative Political Action Conference:
He wants people in fear, angst and crisis, fearing the worst each and every day, because that clears the decks for President Obama and his pals to come in with the answers, which are abject failures, historically shown and demonstrated.
That a conservative could possibly imply that their opponents are the ones that want people instilled with fear, after the previous administration's reign of—I'm sorry, war on terror is mind-numbingly vacuous. And then to ignore the utter demolition of our economy through the last thirty years of conservative policies and imply that the meager assistance that the Obama administration might provide to those suffering from Republican success will be an abject failure makes one's already-rotted brain seep out one's ears. If the Democratic recovery plans fail, it will be for being too meek.

Rush continued:
They see these inequalities, these inequities that capitalism produces. How do they try to fix it? Do they try to elevate those at the bottom? No, they try to tear down the people at the top.
Let me see if I understand this logic. Capitalism produces inequalities that need to be fixed... so naturally conservatives are all about the invisible hand of the free market magically making everything right. Those at the bottom need to be elevated... so naturally conservatives want to keep magnifying these inequalities and let the rich get richer while pretending to elevate those at the bottom without spending any money through, I don't know, moral support.

Rush, let me fill you in on a little secret: those at the top are at the top because those at the bottom did all of the real, actual work that put them there, but those at the top took the profit. It takes more than gumption and moxie to "elevate" those at the bottom. It also takes their, you know, continued survival and health. Those at the bottom will never be elevated as long as we rely on the magic market fairies to give everyone a fair and livable wage (because it never, ever has), and to provide access to affordable health care (because it never, ever has).

I will only oppose the welfare state if we are no longer relying on capitalism to do our economic work for us. In a sane and liberal socialist society, there would be no need for all of the Democratic proposals that Rush and his simple, sad, backward-looking, race-baiting, money-grubbing, gay-bashing, woman-hating, war-mongering, jeebus-loving, jingoistic, gun-toting, downward-spiraling ilk so vociferously oppose. But we do not live in a sane and liberal socialist society, we live in a deeply flawed capitalist one, and capitalism skews the rules of the game to favor incumbent interests. Until such time that we address those flaws directly and restructure our systems, there will be a need for the only force powerful enough to check capitalism—government—to compensate for its insufficiencies.

And so naturally I am more than pleased to have Rush Limbaugh spout off as the public face of conservatism and the Republican Party at this precise moment when their credibility plummets. Maybe he can put the last nail in the coffin for them.