Monday, January 26, 2009

Crisis #1: The Poverty of Justification in (Animal) Ethics: Intuitionism

I am sorry I was not able to keep up my blog in the months since my last entry. I was unavoidably detained by a time-sensitive project of (for me) overwhelming magnitude. Therefore, my last blogging was in the fall, and I now write in the bitter cold of the Canadian winter.

Last time I indicated that animal ethics is in crisis, which is no small claim. The first indicator of crisis status was my observation that most of the ethical theories are intuitionist. What does intuitionism mean? Intuitions are rock-bottom beliefs in ethics, and intuitionists claim that it is neither possible nor necessary to justify intuitions. Because they are rock-bottom or foundational, no reason can be given to justify intuitive beliefs. If another belief is introduced to justify an intuition, then the intuition itself is no longer basic to the system. (Note for specialists: “foundational” here does not necessarily mean that someone is committed to what is called a foundationalist epistemology, only that no more basic belief is given to justify the intuition.)

What are some examples of intuitions? First, let it be noted that thinkers can be either explicit or implicit intuitionists. An explicit intuitionist will discuss their intuitions quite openly. We can interpret someone to be a covert intuitionist, though, if they offer beliefs that are seemingly basic to their system, and no attempt is made to justify the belief, or even to indicate that a justification is needed. We can analyze the leading ethical theories, which have been extended to animal ethics, in terms of intuitions. These theories are: utilitarianism, the feminist ethics of care, ethical egoism, and virtue ethics, and right theories.

Utilitarianism is based on the intuitions that: (1) the good can be analyzed into good = pleasure and bad = pain (or else good = preference-satisfaction and bad = preference-frustration); (2) we ought to maximize the good and minimize the bad overall. (This rough-and-ready sketch does not account for the intuitions of rule utilitarianism and indirect utilitarianism, though.) In “The Rights of Animal Persons” I document how utilitarian “animal liberationists” can and do defend medical vivisection, even though that is an affront to animal rights. The feminist ethics of care is based on the intuitions that ethics is based on sympathy, empathy, and/or compassion. However, not only is this ideal intuited, but the way caring is applied is intuited as well. Traditional animal welfarists who still use animals for food, clothing, entertainment, etc. consider themselves compassionate, as do utilitarians who think they “maximize” compassion, whereas those who would abolish all animal exploitation think none could be more compassionate than strong rights advocates. Different intuitive notions of “caring” or compassion therefore compete. Ethical egoism holds that everyone should agree to rules such as not killing, stealing, breaking promises, etc. since it is in everyone’s self-interest to forge such an agreement. It is based on the intuition that people only ought to pursue their own self-interest in the end. Virtue ethics is organized around promoting virtues such as courage, honesty, etc., and avoiding vices such as cruelty, laziness, etc. This last view is based on the intuition that these are the most important or fundamental aspects of ethics. However, every ethical theory also has its own idea as to what is virtuous or vicious: an ethical egoist sees altruism as weak, whereas a utilitarianism sees altruism as noble, for example. So diverse intuitions come to bear against virtue ethics too.

It might be thought odd to claim that the leading rights theories are intuitionist, since only some of them claim to be intuitionist. However, I will illustrate how these other theories are in fact based covertly on intuitions even when they do not claim to be. (Best caring, my own view, is an animal rights theory, but the intention at least is that it not be based on intuitions.) The leading rights views are those based on intuitions, compassion, tradition, Immanuel Kant’s theory, John Rawls’ theory, and Alan Gewirth’s theory. Intutionist rights theories include Tom Regan’s account, elaborated in The Case for Animal Rights (1983), which holds that animals are subjects of a life who have “inherent value,” which means in part that they are not to be treated as a mere means to the ends of others (in contrast to utilitarianism). Martha Nussbaum’s “capabilities approach” is also based on intuitions that individuals have a dignity which (as Rawls says) even the good of society as a whole cannot override. These are self-evidently intuitionist views, but the others evidently are too.

Compassion-based rights (Joan Dunayer bases rights on compassion and justice) are ambiguous, since we have seen, in considering the ethics of care, that people have very different ideas about what caring entails.

Tradition (S. F. Sapontzis and Bernard Rollin rely on this for their version of animal rights) is also amorphous, since traditions exist for virtually every kind of ethical view. So rights based in tradition are intuitively selected among other traditions that do not necessarily involve rights.

Kant posits the ethical principle that forms of action are acceptable if they can be universalized for all moral agents. For example, Kant indicates that we cannot consistently universalize lying, since that would mean that others would lie to us, which we would not find acceptable. Yet we can universalize any ethical principle in theory, so we must find ourselves intuitively favoring some principles over others once again. Julian Franklin extends Kant’s theory to animal rights.

John Rawls asks us to imagine a thought experiment in which we are spirits not yet born, and to frame principles of justice based on the assumption that we do not know if we will be born more or less intelligent, “white” or “black,” rich or poor, etc. He calls this state “the original position.” Therefore, our principles of justice will presumably rule out racism, sexism, classism, and so forth. However, we can frame almost any rules of justice in the original position, so these must be intuitively favored. Also, the original position is rigged so that we will favor strong consideration of individuals. Rawls’ view is based on individualist intuitions rather than utilitarian ones, then. Note that Mark Rowlands and Mark Bernstein use Rawls’ theory of rights to articulate animal rights.

What about the last rights framework, Alan Gewirth’s? He states that we all need freedom and well-being to do anything, so we should claim rights to freedom and well-being. However, this only seems intuitively right to Gewirth, we can surmise, since we can need freedom and well-being without claiming any such rights. Gewirth suggests that we should extend rights to others as well because of the principle of generic consistency. That is, we should treat the same kinds of things in the same ways. However, such a formal principle is compatible with any ethical theory whatsoever, and we are left once again with intuiting which view seems right to us.

Now that we have seen that the ethical scene is apparently intuitionist altogether, what is wrong with relying on intuitions?

First, they free thinkers from the fundamental obligation of justifying one’s views. They are therefore arbitrary, prejudicial, and not fully accountable.

Second, the diversity of intuitions makes ethics totally indeterminate. One cannot truly defend a theory using intuitionism, since it does not fend off any number of other intuited ethical views.

Third, intuitionists cannot resolve conflicts between intuitions without again relying on intuitions, but each will resolve these conflicts differently and along the same lines as what is initially asserted.

There are other problems with intuitionism, but these are certainly a ground-rocking start. Ironically, intuitionism is meant to be used to defend ethical theories. Yet resorting to intuitionism seems to justify skepticism in ethics, or the view that no single view of morality is correct, and people simply offer different assumptions concerning what we ought to do, believe, etc. This is indeed a crisis. The purpose of ethical theory is to justify a view of ethics as correct, and we cannot do this with intuitionism. Animal ethicists are keen to convince others to accept their views, e.g., that we should be vegetarian or vegan in some cases. But we cannot effectively convince others if it is just a case of pitting one set of intuitions against others.

Can we escape the inuition-ridden crisis of justification in ethics? I try to do so with best caring, and how I do so is sketched in “The Rights of Animal Persons,” although I need a forthcoming book to account for this theory in richer detail.

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