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November 22, 2012


Abbas Raza

Hi Justin,

I probably know less about moral theory than my cat does so this will sound hopelessly naive, but anyway: what if my way of deciding what is moral or not is very selfish and I basically am willing to sign on to social contracts that insure that I won't be hurt by others. Now, if I am a white guy in the 1700s in America, I don't care if black people are mistreated as long as I am treated fine, but if I am a smart white man in 1700s America, then I can imagine that at some point in the future black people may have more power than white ones and they could then hurt me and I would be screwed. So I agree to say, okay, well, let us agree for all time that ALL men are the same (out of fear that if I claim that some men are superior, those left out might one day get the upper hand and hurt me). By the same kind of screwy logic I eventually come to see that I should include women. (They could gang up on me one day.) So I only grant any moral consideration to those I am afraid of. In this case, a sharp line probably can be drawn between humans and other animals, no? I really can't imagine elephants or dolphins mounting much of a challenge to me even in the remote future, so I see no need to refrain from any actions toward them other than those that might bring me disapproval or worse (for whatever reason) from other humans.

Does that make absolutely no sense? If so, sorry! :-)

Jack Pritchard

This is the most amazing bunch of nonsense I have seen in one place in a long time. It is both historically and technically ridiculous. Amazing! I suggest a serious study of biology or history would be enlightening. Or a simpler approach is to look at the treatment of animals by other animals to see the difference between man and the animal kingdom. If that does not reveal the obvious, then no amount of discussion of facts will interfere with your beliefs.

Justin Smith

Jack: I only respond to serious comments.

Abbas: It's true that animals are unlikely to rise up against us and break the chains of oppression anytime soon, so if that's the extent of your reasoning about whether you should treat another being decently, then you've got a pass to not treat animals decently. Maybe. Even there, though, a pretty compelling argument could be made that ecological disasters are in part a result of human domination of nature, and that they are, so to speak, nature 'rising up' in revenge. Take the pollution of water supplies with pig shit from nearby factory farms. They don't know they're doing it, but still, as with, e.g., slave revolts, we're getting our come-uppance.


All ethical choices are pick and choose; you simply cannot give all your resources to everyone equally and live. So you choose to treat your children as a special responsibility, etc.

Animals play a role in the ethical life of most societies, sure. Often they play it, though, as ritual icons rather than interest bearers (the famous paper "Why the Cassowary is not a Bird" shows this), and so they partake of human ethical concerns by proxy as role players in society. This doesn't automatically imply that all, or even some, animals have ethical considerations attached to them by all societies.

There is an inferential step one might almost call an informal fallacy in animal rights arguments: that moral weight attaches in virtue of some natural property (the capacity to plan, feel pain, etc.). We might call it the naturalistic fallacy. But if moral weight attaches in virtue of paying a role in a society that constructs moral choices and obligations (i.e., a symbolic apes society like ours) then the inference fails to project much beyond that society.

it has, in other words, almost nothing to do with ontology and everything to do with function. And that is itself a pretty good indicator of why animals should not be treated badly - it leads to socialised cruelty in humans.


I think you take the ideals of Western philosophy more seriously than the common people do. With all the talk about caring about the welfare of humankind, the decisions of the vast majority of our populace tells a different story. If we really cared the most about our own species, we would take the massive amount of money we spend pampering our pets and spend it on poor people. But for all the talk of "animals" being different, at home we ascribe human motivations to Fluffy and Fido as much as the foragers you mention do with the tapirs and the jaguars. Perhaps Robin Hanson is right- we are becoming like foragers, who according to the anthropological literature also are loath to consume their pets, the animals that share their homes with them. I think of urban chicken projects I've worked on where none of these so-called urban homesteaders are willing to eat Clucky after she hits hen menopause and no longer produces eggs. Or the upstate farm sanctuaries stocked with roosters mistakenly aquired by such people who couldn't bare to put them in the soup pot as their great grandparents, agrarians whose unique relationship with animals was so eloquently laid out by Richard Bulliet in Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers, would have.

Mistreatment of other animals and people in our culture is a product of remoteness. We are more concerned about pet Clucky in her henhouse adjacent to our building or Fluffy sleeping soundly on our pillow than the millions of factory battery hens ensconced in dark rural buildings or the rural people (who we don't personally know) millions of miles away who destroy their health mining and assembling the consumer products we thoughtlessly consume.


How many animals "invite" humans into the "moral membership of their community"?

I'm waiting....

Humans are distinct from animals. This doesn't mean humans are not related evolutionarily to animals. It doesn't mean the cow is not our cousin.

But in the way that a cow is not a tapir, a human isn't a cow.

Try doing what we do here on the farm to improve your understanding. We raise and sometimes slaughter our own meat (birds we can do here; mammals we have to send out).

We love our animals. We care for them. We eat them. This is human.

Abbas Raza

Hi Justin,

Just wondering: is there any data you know of on what percentage of people actually reason about their moral choices in any deep way (as opposed to doing what feels right, I guess)? Is there any evidence that those who do reason deeply behave better by some measure outside of their own reasoning? I know this has little to do with your piece above.

Also, do any animals act immorally (other than humans) or are all their actions morally neutral?

I hope I am not irritating you with these naive questions. Feel free to ignore.




This is the way forward...but there has to BE a way forward, away from the exploitation and killing, because, by any standards it's a) not right and b) destroying the earth


"Your belief is a prejudice, characteristic of a time and place, and not the final say about where the reach of moral community ends."
I agree with this sentence. It describes well people who only include humans in their, as you say, moral community. But would it not also accurately describe the position of people who DON'T include only humans in their moral community?
I liked the piece. It's an interesting development of a line of thought on how there's a necessary place for other disciplines to instruct us on what is moral, and why.

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