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.

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