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The Paradox of Paternalism: A Dilemma for Naturalism

(Note: Since a thorough defense of this thesis would require expanding my discussion in several directions, this essay is presented only as an abstract or outline.)

Several contemporary philosophers (including Alvin Plantinga,1 atheist Thomas Nagel,2 and former atheist Antony Flew3) have argued that ‘scientific naturalism’ is an inadequate view of our universe—which is to say, it fails to explain important phenomena (such as the emergence of organic life, consciousness, qualia, intrinsic value and “rights,” the fine-tuning of physical constants, etc.). 

Metaphysical naturalism—or “scientific naturalism,” as it is sometimes called—is roughly the view that the spatio-temporal universe of entities studied by the physical sciences is all there is. Variously formulated, it often entails three philosophical components: (1) an epistemic attitude that rejects so-called first philosophy or metaphysics; (2) an etiological account of how all entities whatsoever have come to be, constituted by an event-causal story (especially the atomic theory of matter and evolutionary biology) described in natural scientific terms; and (3) a general ontology in which the only entities (things, events, processes, properties, relations) allowed are those that bear a relevant similarity to those thought to characterize a completed form of physics.4 

Macroevolutionism, as extrapolated by its modern neoDarwinian proponents, presupposes atheistic naturalism, whereas theism admits the “supernatural.”5 Another way of stating this is to say that neoDarwinism imagines (the improbability) that mind and consciousness can be a surprising result of an undirected generative process that entails the universal common descent of all organic life, whereas theism believes that mind is the cause of a generative process that entails certain “built-in” reproductive limits that correspond to the major phyla.6 

There is a long history of philosophers who have argued (successfully, I believe) that the phenomenon of ‘mind’ is not reducible to the ‘brain’ or brain-states, starting perhaps with Gilbert Ryle’s classic work, The Concept of Mind (1949). Subsequent literature on the philosophy of mind has debated whether such a materialist or physicalist reduction is tenable—a debate in which the work of Jerry Fodor is especially noteworthy. I will certainly not attempt to solve that enigma here.

1.  Value is Subjective (mind-dependent)

However, it is at least arguable (in a Berkeleyan way) that the concept of value is “subjective” in the sense that the attribution or predication of value is dependent on the presence of a finite mind to whom the object “matters.” 

If nothing in one’s universe of discourse has intrinsic value, then everything has only instrumental value—including human beings. And if that is the case, then what can possibly justify (or “ground”) the kind of unconditional respect that Tom Regan and other deontologists believe is due to “subjects of a life”? In a solely instrumental world, to be valuable as an object is to be valued by a subject. In other words, 

An entity is valuable if and only if some (other) subject values that entity. That is to say, the object (whether living or nonliving) to which value is predicated cannot generate its own value; a subject or mind must actively value the object. 

The analogy of a coin may help. If nobody uses it in exchange for goods or services, does the coin have any value? It is something akin to the paradox of sound raised by the question, “If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there, does it make a noise?” A falling tree may generate air turbulence, but ‘noise’ is a function of hearing, which requires a listener. (Note: the coin and sound analogies do not prove the presence of a conscious mind—only that value cannot obtain in the absence of a conscious mind—that is, they illustrate the dependence of the former on the latter.)

So a dilemma ensues: If one believes that all things are valued instrumentally, he is obliged to admit that value is mind-dependent. But if one insists that some entities are valuable intrinsically (that is, even in the absence of a finite valuer), he must show why that is the case. The theist can appeal to a notion of ‘God’ as the absolute Mind who values created entities; the naturalist has no such recourse—and is therefore meta-ethically bankrupt.

2.  Inadequate Sources of Normativity

A.  Biosocial Theory

To maintain (as the naturalist must) that all moral behavior can only be justified consequentially is to forfeit any ground for arguing that humans ought to act in a way that disregards their own interest (that is, in a manner that differs from how predatory creatures treat each other). Merely to counter by noting that “we have a broader range of options than do other species” might be factually true, but that will not get us to a full-blown reason for obligation to another species or why we ought to be altruistic. It is easy, on utilitarian or consequentialist reasons, to argue that humans and/or animals would be “better off” if we treated the latter respectfully and accorded them “rights.” It is easy to argue, as Darwin did, that “herd cooperation” enhanced the survival odds of particular communities and therefore caused morality to “evolve.” However, even if the emergence of human morality can be plausibly explained by the survival advantages of social cooperation (that is, duties to our own species), the naturalistic evolutionary account of ethics provides no normative ground for obligations toward nonhuman species (or ‘species altruism’, as I call it).

The problem with basing an ethic on the assumption of naturalistic evolution is that it provides no ultimate ground for moral obligation. A “biophilia hypothesis”, in which one imagines some measure of ‘evolutionary kinship’ with other creatures, may motivate some people to care for animals; but regardless to what degree kinship may move us toward empathy and compassion, sentiments do not obligate

For instance, Callicott’s biosocial theory bases moral consideration exclusively upon social and ecological relationships, or biotic communities. However, his model of concentric circles representing various communities, with diminishing obligations as we move from inner to outer regions, is too simplistic to capture the complexity of relationships that we encounter. Furthermore, it is not clear, on the biosocial theory, how the obligation to respect the rights of strangers can override conflicting obligations generated within the inner circles. If murdering a stranger will help me feed my family, why shouldn’t I do so? How is one to settle disputes about whether the existing structure of the community is fundamentally unjust? Presumably, slaves have no moral duty to obey their owners, even if the structure of the community requires their obedience.

B.  The Ethics of Care

Like Callicott, Nel Noddings uses the metaphor of concentric circles, but in her account, the circles represent caring relationships, rather than social or biological communities. Those near the center are based upon love and generally give rise to the strongest obligations. For Noddings, the motivation to care is emotional and instinctive rather than rational. Persons who form affectionate relationships with animals come to have species-specific moral obligations towards them, based not upon the utilitarian principle, but upon the human capacity for empathic response. According to Noddings, caring acts are motivated “not by a fixed rule, but by affection and regard.”7 Persons who form no such relationship are not thereby morally remiss; but all are obliged not to inflict pain upon any animal without good reason. 

However, by making moral obligations contingent upon the agent’s empathic capacities, Noddings appears to excuse persons who lack such capacities from all moral obligations. Such persons would be regarded as incapable of moral agency. The rejection of moral rules and principles leaves us without moral guidance in cases where our empathy fails us, or has no opportunity to be actively expressed. If we are obligated only to beings for whom we are capable of caring, this undermines the common-sense conviction that we ought to have some obligations to every human being whom we meet. And if there exist any pure egoists or incurable bigots (those incapable of being good parents, friends, or lovers), they will in fact be exempt from moral obligations on this view. In theory, if an abnormal person lacks sympathetic motives, she or he can do no wrong. 

In short, the implicit argument of this view is that victimization of the helpless or animals is wrong because we empathize and sympathize with them. With regard to causal priority, this seems to put the cart before the horse. Caring and kinship may be persuasive indicators of common moral intuitions or sensibilities, but they provide a tenuous justification (or reason-giving force) for moral prohibitions, because sentiments “come and go” with time and vary with cultural values and attitudes. Hence, to make moral considerability depend on sympathetic motives alone will not give us necessary conditions (i.e., principles) by which to assess moral obligations.

Tom Regan explains the problem this way:

“What, then, becomes of the animals toward whom people are indifferent, given the ethic of care? Notice that we cannot say… that we ought to care for these animals, that we have a duty to care for them, and, indeed, that they have a right to our protection. To speak in these natural ways—in the language of individual rights and duties—is out of bounds, given the ethic of care, and it is out of bounds because it is supposed to be a veiled expression of patriarchy.”8

Thus, in spite of the merits of relational approaches, an ethic that relies on partiality alone is subject to two criticisms: (1) If obligations depend on the proximity of agent to patient, then as the “distance” increases, any prima facie duties and corresponding rights decrease. This requirement doesn’t seem strong enough to satisfy either human rights advocates or animal rights advocates. (2) It undermines the notion of inherent value to suggest that kinship or caring is a necessary condition for moral considerability. Caring for my pet may be a sufficient condition for treating it respectfully and wanting to save its life, but it provides no grounds for prohibiting my neighbor from killing it cruelly should I happen to pass away tomorrow. Some other principles, such as “do no harm” (sentience) and “respect individual lives” (teleology), must be added to the mix of criteria that determine the treatment of animals under given circumstances.

3.  The Dilemma for Naturalistic Ethics

Lacking an adequate justificatory ground of ethical normativity and obligation (not to mention the lack of a sufficient account for the emergence of consciousness), the evolutionary model of emergence as a competitive struggle of the fit to survive supports little more than a “might-is-right” ethic, expressed by the sentence, “Those who can dominate other creatures, may do so.” (Actually, this is not an ethic at all, since it neither prescribes nor proscribes action.)

An important point should be noted here. Naturalistic accounts of ethics are essentially utilitarian or consequentialist—not deontological. In the context of experimentation on animals, the standard defensive argument is that “the end justifies the means.” In a little-known speech given before the British Antivivisection Society in 1947, C. S. Lewis implicitly appealed to the Argument from Marginal Cases when giving a stern warning about this sort of utilitarian defense: 

Once the old Christian idea of a total difference in kind between man and beast has been abandoned, then no argument for experiments on animals can be found which is not also an argument for experiments on inferior men. If we cut up beasts simply because they cannot prevent us and because we are backing up our own side in the struggle for existence, it is only logical to cut up imbeciles, criminals, enemies or capitalists for the same reason. Indeed, experiments on men have already begun. We all hear that Nazi scientists have done them. We all suspect that our own scientists may begin to do so, in secret, at any moment.9

On the one hand, Lewis was suggesting that the naturalistic reduction of humans to the status of “mere beasts” makes them vulnerable to the same utilitarian abuse that humans practice on animals (for reasons of our superior power or survival advantage). On the other hand, Lewis affirms elsewhere that our moral agency is precisely the “total difference in kind between man and beast” that enables and obliges us to be merciful to them.10 Lewis wrote, “We ought to prove ourselves better than the beasts precisely by the fact of acknowledging duties to them which they do not acknowledge to us.”11 It should be noted, in passing, that when Lewis refers to a “total difference in kind between man and beast”, he is not denying the sentience we obviously have in common with them.

In brief, naturalism faces a dilemma: Either humans in some sense “transcend” nature by their moral sensibility and agency, or they are mere by-products of evolution, in which case there is no ontological ground for saying they ‘ought’ to behave any less aggressively than other predatory creatures in the food chain who are looking out for their own good. In other words, why should we expect ourselves to act any more responsibly (or less harmfully) than other predatory creatures? If we are plain members of the biotic community, on a par with other creatures, then we have no moral obligations to our fellow members or to the community per se, because nature and natural phenomena are amoral. Wolves eat deer, alligators eat wildebeests, and lions kill cubs from another alpha male—yet are not condemned for wrongdoing. If human beings are only ‘natural’ beings, then human behavior, however destructive or vicious, is ‘natural’ behavior and is as blameless as the behavior of any other animal. It appears that if ethical obligations are to have a foundation at all, we shall have to admit that humans are (paradoxically) both ‘natural’ and ‘meta-natural’ beings.

The other basic problem with naturalistic accounts of ethics is that the move from ‘is’ to ‘ought’, or indicative to imperative, or description to obligation seems unwarranted. Even though the acquisition of ethical standards may be “explained” in terms of our learning them through socialization, they are normative. As Christine Korsgaard says, 

They do not merely describe a way in which we in fact regulate our conduct. They makes claims on us; they command, oblige, recommend, or guide. Or at least, when we invoke them, we make claims on one another. When I say that an action is right I am saying that you ought to do it; when I say that something is good I am recommending it as worthy of your choice. . . . When we seek a philosophical foundation for morality we are not looking merely for an explanation of moral practices. We are asking what justifies the claims that morality makes on us.12

She further points out the general problem of any attempt to derive normativity from a natural source of power. 

“Suppose the authority of obligation derives from the power of our sympathetic motives. Then if you lack sympathetic motives, you lack obligations. Your obligations vary along with your motives, and so you can do no wrong.”13  

4.  Conclusion

If moral rights and duties are owed to sentient ‘souls’ (whether human or nonhuman), then either such souls possess intrinsic value that is conferred from a source outside of ‘nature’, or the very attitude of ‘paternalism’ that motivates those rights and duties (including animal welfare or liberation) lacks any rational foundation. That is why I believe a “religious” view of the cosmos (one in which ‘God’ is the source of intrinsic value, or the supreme Valuer) is in theory more promising to animal rights causes than an atheistic/naturalistic view, whose ontology is limited to “matter”—even if religion in practice has been remiss or at fault.14 Hence, the discontent zoophile who abhors animal abuse—who harbors what William James called our “judgments of regret”—should either embrace a metaphysical (supra-natural) worldview, or give up his paternalism on behalf of animals. 




  1. Alvin Plantinga, Where The Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, & Naturalism (Oxford University Press, 2011).

  2. Thomas Nagel, MIND & COSMOS: Why The Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012).

  3. Antony Flew, There Is A God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind,  (Harper Collins, 2007).

  4. This definition of scientific naturalism is borrowed from J.P. Moreland, “Searle’s Biological Naturalism and The Argument from Consciousness,” in Faith and Philosophy, vol. 15 no.1 (January 1998), pp. 68–69.

  5. If anyone doubts that evolutionary naturalism is incompatible with, if not hostile to, theism in general, she need only listen to its leading proponents. For instance, Douglas Futuyma, author of the most widely used college textbook on evolution, writes, “If the world and its creatures developed purely by material, physical forces, it could not have been designed and has no purpose or goal.… Nowhere does this contrast apply with more force than to the human species. Some shrink from the conclusion that the human species was not designed, has no purpose, and is the product of mere mechanical mechanisms, but this seems to be the message of evolution.” See Douglas Futuyma, Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution (1983), pp. 12–13.

  6. In Wonderful Life, Stephen J. Gould speculates that evolution could not be expected to produce the same outcome (i.e., humans) a second time, because it proceeds by fortuitous factors rather than by deterministic laws. The picture of evolution as progress leading inevitably to “higher” forms of life like ourselves has been attractive to many Darwinists, but its leading defenders deny that the process entails any inherent direction. Some even suggest that the emergence of order and complexity is contrary to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but the claim is controversial. As Mary Midgley points out, those Darwinists who persist in talking as if evolution were a “ladder” that entailed development from “lower” forms are presupposing (without clear justification) such problematic concepts as growth, progress, advantage, higher, primitive, and advance, as well as the future to which the entire process allegedly “leads.” See Chapter 7, “Up and Down: Is There an Evolutionary Ladder?” in Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (Great Britain: The Harvester Press Ltd., 1979; Revised edition by Routledge, 1995).

  7. Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), p. 24.

  8. Tom Regan, The Thee Generation: Reflections on the Coming Revolution (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), p. 96.

  9. C. S. Lewis, “Vivisection” in Undeceptions: Essays in Theology and Ethics, edited by Walter Hooper (Geoffrey Bles, 1954), 183; First and Second Things (Fount, 1985), 82.

10. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Fontana Books, 1967), 66.

11. C. S. Lewis, First and Second Things (Fount, 1985), 81.

12. Christine M. Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 8–10.

13. Ibid., pp. 29–30.

14. It should be understood here that I mean a religious view is “more promising” theoretically, even if it has been remiss or complicit in practice, with respect to animal abuse. There are various reasons for its failure, both theological and cultural, which this essay does not address.

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Comment by Tim Gier on June 26, 2012 at 3:49

Hi Paul, you may find this quote from an interview published today interesting (link below):

3:AM: The normativity of self-constitution is a key idea in your philosophy isn’t it? What do you take this to be and why is it so important to you and to what you take philosophizing to be?

Christine M Korsgaard: It’s not the normativity of self-constitution. It’s that a particular form of self-constitution is the source of normativity.

All living things are self-constituting, in the sense that they are engaged in a constant process of making themselves into themselves. Living things are made of fragile materials which are always decaying or being used up, and they constantly take in new materials and transform those materials into themselves – that is, into their own parts and organs and energy. In fact, a living thing just is such a process.

Human life is a form of life, and I believe that the things that make human life so different from that of the other animals can be traced to a special feature of the way we carry on this process of self-constitution. There is an aspect of our identity – I call it practical identity – which we construct self-consciously. By that I don’t mean that we go around thinking “okay, now I am constructing my identity.” I mean that when we decide what to count as reasons for our actions and what principles of action to commit ourselves to, we are also deciding who to be. What makes this possible is the fact that human beings have a particular form of self-consciousness, which makes us aware of the grounds of our beliefs and actions – in the case of actions, the motives that prompt them, in the case of beliefs, the perceptions, the evidence, the arguments that make them seem compelling. The other animals believe and act as their nature prompts them, but they lack the kind of control over their nature which our awareness of the grounds of our beliefs and actions gives us. Being aware of their grounds, we cannot commit ourselves to belief or action unless we can endorse those grounds. To endorse them is to treat them as reasons. That’s why human beings need to have reasons for what we believe and what we do.

In the practical case, the case of action, we get these reasons from the roles and relationships that life makes available, and perhaps some we carve out for ourselves. That you are someone’s mother or friend, that you have a certain occupation, that you have enrolled yourself to fight for some cause, are all sources of reasons and obligations for you. There are two things interesting about this kind of identity. One is that we carve it out for ourselves and are responsible for it, and the other is that it is normative, or value laden. That is, having a certain practical identity is something that we try to live up to, that we succeed or fail at, that makes us good or bad.

That’s something I think is special about being human – having a normative self-conception, wanting, as we say, to respect yourself, thinking of yourself as worthy or unworthy, rating yourself. It’s a condition that gives a strange extra dimension to human life, both a special source of pride and interest and a profound cause of suffering. Some of the other animals seem to have moments of pride, but they don’t seem in general to think of themselves as worthy or unworthy beings. Some of them certainly want to be loved, but I don’t think they worry about being lovable. So having a normative form of identity that you carve out for yourself is one of the most distinctive features of being human. It is because we are self-constituting in this way, I believe, that human beings are governed by rules and laws and norms.

Comment by Paul Hansen on June 23, 2012 at 3:18

Tim, your rebuttal to the Randian view makes sense to me. It also sounds very close to what the Kantians have been arguing: that we ought to act in a manner that can be universalized without contradiction or self-defeat. This was an essential plank in Kant’s theory. So Gewirth appears to be a Kantian of sorts (?). I will try to read something by him. Kant’s “system” has been criticized by the contextualists for being solely dispassionate, impartial, and universal and—allegedly—therefore unable to accommodate the particular circumstances and preferences of the individual players in ethical situations. There is even a school of thought called “moral particularism.” The work of Val Plumwood on ethics is interesting. There is so much to read and so little time!!  Thanks for your input.

Comment by Tim Gier on June 23, 2012 at 0:20

Oh, I forgot to say, Thank you again for this interesting and thought-provoking discussion. I am enjoying it and learning something as well!

Comment by Tim Gier on June 23, 2012 at 0:19

Hi Paul,

Not all living human organisms are also persons and most other animals are not persons.  Only persons can have moral rights (and I don't understand what "natural rights" are supposed to be; absent conscious rational minds that conceive of them, rights, moral or otherwise, cannot and would not exist). Non-persons ("marginal cases" and most other animals) ought to be respected according to their relevant interests, and no one should be unjustly disadvantaged based on any perceived but arbitrary differences between or among them and others.  So, at first glance, I seem to agree with Bernstein as you've quoted him.  

What Gewirth contends, if I understand him correctly, is that the normative force of his argument hinges on the contradictions that would ensue were people to ignore his argument.  I will offer a rough sketch of a possible argument against one of the questions you've raised.  For example, if a person really believed that “walking over others to get to the top” was the way that people ought to act, then she must be committed to being walked over by others who are on their way to the top. That is, she must accept the contradiction that she ought to both walk over others and be walked over by them, otherwise she would have to say that others are not as radically free as she claims herself to be.  Now, certain libertarians may claim to hold the belief that a world in which people walked over each other to get to the top would be desirable, but to actually believe such a thing would necessarily entail an endorsement of a raw and uncontrolled state of nature, not a society worth getting to the top of.  Perhaps those Randians would say "so what?" but the rest of us would be correct to judge them irrational: they ought not to hold such beliefs.

Comment by Paul Hansen on June 22, 2012 at 19:39

Madeleine, you can be an atheist and still both empathize with the suffering of (people and) animals, and recognize that class oppression is wrong wherever we find it (sexism, racism, speciesism, etc.). It’s true that biblical religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have subjugated animals in the service of humans, but many contemporary religious activists have a “green” reading of scripture, realizing that ALL nature is valued by God, who declared it “good”, and that human stewardship means “tending the garden”—the land—he has entrusted to us, who have the freedom to manipulate it for good or for ill. (Only humans are “ecologists.”) Other religious traditions (Daoist, Buddhist, Hindu, Jainist) support “earth care”, although some are rather fatalistic and encourage stoic acceptance of worldly conditions “the way they are.” Gandhi’s India had the concept of ahisma or non-violence.

I think the recent effort to demonstrate “sameness” among all animals is both futile and needless. It is futile, because every species is unique and will excel in some respects. It is needless, because animals or ‘non-rational agents’ don’t need to be “persons” in order to deserve respect and “humane” treatment. I agree with Bentham and Rouseau, that sentience (“Can they suffer?”) is a sufficient criterion for moral patienthood, and that one need not be a “rational moral agent” in order to be a moral patient. I think a lot of confusion in animal ethics results from a failure to appreciate the agent-patient distinction—that is, demanding that moral patients have all the capacities that moral agents do.

Yes, there are some jerks in this country who think that big cats (lions, tigers, leopards) can be horded in enclosures or back yards like domestic animals (or exhibited for tourists as truck stops). Such animals belong in the wild. The use of animals for entertainment (circuses) also has its down side.

Comment by Paul Hansen on June 22, 2012 at 18:47

Tim, in answer to your earlier question (and to reiterate my original conclusion), I think that “religious” views in general (not just Christian theism) “are more promising for animal rights causes than a naturalistic one when it comes to grounding what I call ‘creature value’ or, more broadly, intrinsic value in general. Many secular activists—in both environmental and animal issues—are simply unaware of the positive organizations and movements that are afoot among faith-based groups, and would be surprised to hear what they are doing. (I could list a dozen, but will save the space here.) And that is in addition to the religiously-motivated activists (like myself) who support many environmental organizations that are not overtly religious. 

Regarding your most recent comment, you are certainly free to assert yourself as a “free, autonomous and rational agent” entitled to be unmolestsed. But claiming—or denying—the same for others is not so simple. I haven’t read Alan Gewirth and so can’t comment on him, but his views sound interesting—something like those who interpret Kant’s moral imperative as ‘rational agents being a law unto themselves.’ However, two questions arise for me: (1) What room does Gewirth (or you) leave for virtues like beneficence or altruism? Suppose someone else decided she wanted to embrace an Ayan Rand philosophy/attitude, or a kind of social Darwinism that entailed “walking over others to get to the top”? Would Gewirth criticize that view merely by calling it ‘inconsistent’? Statutory laws tend to be predominantly negative or prohibitive, whereas virtues are positive behavior that governments cannot legislate or compel (e.g., good samaritan laws). (2) How does Gewirth treat “marginal cases”? Your final paragraph claims that if animals and other “marginal cases” are to have rights, then persons must grant them, “but those who are not free, autonomous and rational agents are not persons and only persons can have moral rights.” The requirements for rationality and agency would disqualify “marginal humans” (such as mental incompetents, the senile, and the comatose) from personhood. Are you alluding to the distinction some make between ‘natural rights’ (for some animals) and ‘moral rights’ (for humans), where the adjective ‘moral’ is by definition restricted to human relations?

Anti-speciesists may be inclined to deny a natural hierarchy of sentience or consciousness in the animal kingdom, but I don’t think they are willing (or able) to affirm that insects, mollusks, echinoderms, crustaceans, or microbes are “rational agents” (or “subjects of a life” as Regan puts it). And if such are therefore deemed “non-persons” having no moral status (in the restrictive sense), do they therefore deserve NO respect whatsoever? As I argue elsewhere (and in my forthcoming book), “The error of anthropocentric thinking is not that of favoritism or partiality toward our own species, but that of exclusivity. The tendency to value humanity exclusively is an error that many ‘right-to-life’ advocates make.”

Personally, if I were seeking a non-theological premise for ‘moral considerability’ (or ‘creature value’), I would prefer something like Mark Bernstein’s metatheoretical (normative) principle. He writes: 

(M) If an individual can be morally considered or treated, then she ought to be morally considered or treated. I suggest that this statement is extremely plausible, especially where “ought” is understood defeasibly. That is, I am minimally claiming that, all else being equal, or “special circumstances” aside, if an individual has the capacity for being morally considered, she warrants (deserves, merits) moral consideration. Moreover, I believe that all parties interested in providing an account of moral considerability at least implicitly subscribe to (M).”

Comment by Tim Gier on June 21, 2012 at 10:48

Paul, it seems to me that I value myself, for myself. My life - as I conceive of it in this instant, with respect to its history, and to my projections of myself into the future - is intrinsically valuable to me.  I have experiences that matter, and they matter in ways that are meaningful to me, for me.  Given that I value these experiences (past, present and future) then I claim for myself the right to have them - I state to the world that I am free, autonomous and rational and that all persons are obliged to leave me unmolested.  As a rational actor who cares about his own well-being across time, I must make such a claim; to do otherwise would be irrational.  Since I claim that, as a free, autonomous and rational being I have the right to be unmolested, then I must will for the world to be the sort of place wherein any free, autonomous and rational being has the right to be unmolested; to do otherwise would create a contradiction.  Therefore, I must also claim the right to be unmolested for every free, autonomous and rational being in order to be consistent (and since I am rational, I must be consistent).  Therefore, I also claim that all free, autonomous and rational beings have intrinsic value just as I do.  I don't need a theology to ground these claims.  (I owe this line of reasoning to Alan Gewirth.)  

Now, the problem seems to me to be how to extend this claim of a moral right to be unmolested to those who are not free, autonomous and rational, such as most other animals and some humans.  Rather than suppose a theology to ground such I claim I prefer not to make the claim in the first place.  If the "marginal cases" of humans and most other animals will have rights, they will have them because free, autonomous and rational moral agents grant them - those rights will be social constructions designed to protect the interests of those we decide have interests that ought to be protected.  Those rights will be legal rights, but those who are not free, autonomous and rational agents are not persons and only persons can have moral rights, the way I see it.  

Comment by Madeleine Longhurst on June 19, 2012 at 9:49

Hi Paul - thanks for taking the time to reply to all my questions (and, yes, it would be better in the pub!). Picking up on what Tim just said, do you think atheism might promote welfare, but not promote abolition (as it would not see intrinsic value in animals)?  Also, might Christianity (with it's view of 'man' as the pinnacle of creation) be a hindrance to any attempt to gain a position of  value (or respect) for animals? Buddhism has a similar hierarchy of beings, but at least contains an implicit 'sameness' between us and animals, given that we can reincarnate as one. Also Buddhism (as Gary F's Jainism) has non-violence towards all beings at its core (though that doesn't stop the Dalai Lama eating meat!). Indeed I've known Buddhists who (like Gary F) wouldn't walk on the grass for fear of killing insects.  On the subject of pet 'ownership' - yes I think that's harder to categorise as 'animal abuse', though we have taken wild animals and selectively bred them in the same way we have for animals that we eat - domestication of wild animals is, I think, hard to justify theoretically.

Comment by Tim Gier on June 19, 2012 at 7:11

Hi Paul, thanks for your clarification.  I have another question.  Are you saying that without a theistic worldview we have less than adequate grounds for claiming that humans and other beings have intrinsic value or are you restricting your claim to how we might ground the notion of the intrinsic value of only other-than-human animals?

Comment by Paul Hansen on June 18, 2012 at 18:42

Madeleine, I think you are right: If John Doe were abusing his wife, we’d still have the same problem (that of justifying our condemnation of it). 

Most of the conservative Christians I meet are indirectly influenced by the theology of Augustine, Aquinas, and Kant—none of whom had a very high regard for animals. e.g., Pro-lifers are always touting “human dignity” or “the sanctity of human life” and the Lockean idea of “inalienable human rights” to “life, liberty, and property” (or “the pursuit of happiness” as Jefferson put it), but they fail to extend that sanctity or those rights to other animals. I think their view of nature is condescending, arrogant, and myopic (perhaps with hangovers of Platonic dualism). They should read Albert Schweitzer or Mahatma Gandhi, or their own biblical scriptures through a “green” filter.

But I think it is problematic to speak of “rights” as if they existed metaphysically—that is, prior to positive statutory law. In my view (and that of Stephen R.L. Clark), humans and animals are not valuable because they have (metaphysical) “rights”; rather, we should accord them (legal) rights because they are valuable. What is needed is an attitude of respect toward their lives and places on the planet—not a notion of “equality” that is hard to explicate. (Equal in what sense? Moral status? But morality is not static and must consider priorities. Equality as ‘sameness’? But all animals are neither the same, nor equally sentient. Singer urges ‘equal consideration of their interests.’)

What Gary Francione has in mind are primarily other mammals—animals that are most “like us.” I fully agree with his view that the property status of animals under the law, which is instrumental in principle, has led to the systematic exploitation and commoditization of them, and that humans ought to intervene and advocate on their behalf. Francione greatly influenced the work of professor Bob Torres, who wrote a marvelous book called MAKING A KILLING: The Political Economy of Animal Rights (AK Press, 2007), in which Torres explains how animals were reduced to material widgets in the production of capital and how we ought to fight against class oppression wherever it is found.

However, I am unsettled by the suggestion that animal ownership is always (by definition) a pejorative term—that it always represents an oppressive relationship between ‘master and servant.’ It seems obvious to me that, in fact, sometimes this is not the case. Two examples come to mind: Many pet owners love and care for their animal(s) like a member of the family and are committed to their well-being, and the companionship they provide is enjoyed by the animal as well. Australian sheep dogs are uniquely “equipped” for herding sheep, and (whether you condone the wool industry or not) the dogs seem to “enjoy having a job” (as Roger Yates has put it). Such relationships are best described as “mutually beneficial” rather than “oppressive” or “cruel.”

So I think our activism should focus on institutions that are systemically oppressive or harmful, such as puppy mills, poaching, “exotic” animal trading, selling of hides and animals parts (for profit or medicinal use), medical research & experimentation, slavery (such as on Asian tiger farms or bear bile farms), trophy hunting, trapping, factory farming, and the like.


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