Friday, May 7, 2010

Crisis # 5b: Failing to Object Decisively to Other Theories

It is a great problem not only when philosophers lack a sufficient justification of their own views. My earlier remarks on intuitionism in ethics, among others, suffice to illuminate this problem. It is also problematic when philosophers deal in unconvincing objections to other theories. Here I will use Tom Regan as an example. Many consider him to be the greatest animal rights philosopher, and admire The Case for Animal Rights (1983) not least of all since it considers views that compete with animal rights and tries to refute them.

Ethical Egoism

Regan objects specifically to ethical egoism, in The Case for Animal Rights, p. 190, in that such self-orientation involves no direct duty to mentally disabled humans. However, it merely describes ethical egoism to note that that it does not involve a direct duty to animals or mentally disabled humans. Someone who agrees with the theory would have no problem with this feature. Regan, then, is surreptitiously relying on the fact that many people would find such a result to be counterintuitive, and so his criticism is based on intuitions after all, with all of the problems that such an approach entails. Instead of showing that ethical egoism is mistaken, he is merely assuming as much.


Consider now Regan’s objections to what he calls “perfectionism.” Perfectionism values above all those with talents or excellences. Regan notes, p. 234, that perfectionism may result in a caste-like system based on talents. However, that would not be offensive to perfectionists such as Nietzsche. Or, Ibid., Regan argues that favoring more perfect people means giving people credit for a “natural lottery”—no one has control over what talents they have. However, perfectionists might not care where talents come from, but admire them anyway, much as we favor certain kinds of weather regardless of its origin. He objects, Ibid., p. 262, that perfectionism does not treat others as if they have a welfare, and thus inherent value. However, a perfectionist such as Aristotle would acknowledge that “natural [human] slaves” have a welfare. Slaves are just entitled to less welfare, according to Aristotle, and on that view these slaves would have either no inherent value or else a lesser degree of it.

Regan gives two reasons for shifting gears and now favoring egalitarianism: (1) people with less virtue (or overall good as superiorism would have it) would be treated with “injustice” and would not be able to complain about it because they “deserve” it, and (2) it would be hard to judge degrees of inherent value. (pp. 236-237) He simply declares dogmatically, with no other justification offered: “Such an interpretation of justice is unacceptable.” (p. 237) However, (1) begs the question. The perfectionist would insist that yes, people with less virtue do deserve less moral consideration. As for (2), it may be true so far as it goes, but if it is the truth (and Regan is again begging the question assuming that perfectionism is not right) then the best we can do is to estimate degrees of inherent value and thus prefer to save humans over squirrels in dilemmas for example, without being able to pin any absolute numbers to such a preference.


Regan objects to Peter Singer’s utilitarianism, his greatest theoretical rival, and also his greatest competition for intellectual leadership of the animal liberation movement. However, Singer can easily reply to most of these criticisms. Regan objects that utilitarianism can justify racism, sexism, or speciesism (Case, pp. 227, 313). Singer can reply that these practices are ruled out because of the suffering and unequal consideration of interests that these forms of oppression cause. Regan objects that economic interests in exploiting animals are irrelevant, but this begs the question against utilitarianism’s consideration of this factor, and Singer can add that if meat-eating were banned, the overall stress of career changes would be outweighed by the immense suffering that is inflicted upon animals raised for flesh-eating. My own ethic’s ruling out of aggression—not based on intuitions as is Regan’s approach—does however suggest that certain professions are indeed unethical.

Regan takes exception to utilitarianism’s viewing of individuals as mere receptacles of value (p. 205), but Singer plausibly maintains that individuals are inseparable from their experiences, unlike wine in relation to a cup (Peter Singer, ‘Animal Liberation or Animal Rights?’ Monist 70 (January 1987): 8). Singer also concedes Regan’s key points in The Case for Animal Rights that animals are subjects-of-a-life with inherent value, are not mere things, have preferences and a welfare, and are not to be used as mere means. (Ibid., p. 6) A utilitarian can state that someone used in invasive experiments is not being used as a mere means because their interests are fully considered—they are simply outweighed. Sumner indicates that “utilitarians are committed to believing that it is a good thing (a gain) when an individual life goes well and a bad thing (a loss) when one goes badly.” (L. W. Sumner, review of The Case for Animal Rights, by Tom Regan, Nous 20 (September 1986): 431-32) However, Sumner also warns: “It is not obvious on the face of it that respect for the inherent value of individuals is entirely insensitive to global cost/benefit considerations. Regan simply makes this so by stipulation.” (L. W. Sumner, ‘Animal Welfare and Animal Rights’, Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 13 (May 1988): 167) Obviously I am not the only one to notice that Regan misfires objections at other theories. There are still more objections to utilitarianism that just don’t fly.

Regan alleges that Singer faces a dilemma: that the principle of equal consideration of interests is either a basic principle, or else is derived from the principle of utility. He claims that making the equality principle basic undermines the idea that the principle of utility is basic. Yet Regan’s contention overlooks the fact that the equal consideration of interests is part of what is constitutive of Singer’s utilitarianism, so, after all, the equality principle is perfectly consistent with utility as a basic principle. The other supposed horn of “Singer’s dilemma,” that it may not maximize utility to consider interests equally, is unintelligible, since given that the equality principle of Singer’s helps to constitute utilitarianism, one cannot even calculate maximal utility without presupposing an equal consideration of interests. If some interests are to be favored more than others in a given action according to utilitarian reckoning, that is a result that still depends on treating equivalent interests equally (for example, someone who really is interested in a course of study may be granted a seat in a course that is refused to someone who is known to have a much lesser preference for studying the given subject). Here Regan is confusing the equal consideration of interests in calculating which act maximizes utility (which is what the utilitarians assert and is untouched by Regan’s remarks), and whether it is most utile to equally promote all interests in the final analysis (inequality can be equitable, Singer would no doubt agree). Regan tediously elaborates this misguided criticism in pp. 211-218 of The Case for Animal Rights. Regan resists the idea that the equality principle could be a “formal principle” because it is possible to have moral principles, such as Kant’s, which do not include Singer’s equality principle. However, the formality requirement must be that Singer’s utilitarianism presupposes his equality principle (which it does), not that all moral theories presuppose it. Why must all ethical theories agree with Singer’s? This is never made clear because it cannot be: it is way off-base.

Regan’s main objection to rule utilitarianism in The Case for Animal Rights, p. 252-55, is that moral agent A might be envious if moral agent B is favored by rules against harming, but cognitively disadvantaged humans who are barely aware may not envy others because they would not know what they are missing. But rule utilitarianism is not based on envy. It seeks to maximize the welfare of everybody, including cognitively disadvantaged humans. So this objection is entirely beside the point.

In my blog entry for July 7, 2009, we have already seen that Regan has unsuccessful objections against medical vivisection, and that his theory actually seems unwillingly to conduce towards such a kind of practice.

Animal ethics does not just require justifying one’s own theory of animal ethics (although that in itself is a mighty task), but also ruling out the competition (another formidable challenge). This Regan and other philosophers fail to do in my opinion. I use Regan as an example, but could easily expand this study to look at the work of other thinkers. By contrast, good criticisms will show that the premises do not entail the conclusions drawn, or logically entail absurdities, or are essentially arbitrary or even unintelligible. Those are the sorts of criticisms that I mount in my forthcoming book on animal rights ethics.

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