Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Archive for August, 2011

Resolved: Justice requires the recognition of animal rights.

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 28, 2011

This is the September/October 2011 LD resolution. I can see many arguments to be made for the affirmative and a few arguments for the negative, which I will outline here. Assume that “animal” refers to “non-human animal”, because defining “animal” ambiguously would lead to serious arguments over semantics.

I will begin by talking about my favorite system of ethics, Utilitarianism. Under this system, it is clear that failing to recognize the importance of animals is to miss out on a huge source of happiness and suffering. Any ethical theory that grants rights to beings capable of suffering must acknowledge non-human animals.

Some ethical theories only give moral worth to beings capable of reason. Some animals, such as chimpanzees and dolphins, are capable of self-awareness in the same way that we are and are in some sense capable of reason. But this is not always enough: consider Kant’s formulation of the categorical imperative. He wrote that “every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.” In effect, for an animal to have moral worth it must be capable of comprehending the maxims of ethics, which I do not think a chimpanzee or dolphin is capable of doing. Therefore, according to Kant, animals do not have rights.

Whether animals deserve rights depends on how rights are derived. If the capacity to suffer is the source of rights, many species of animal would be granted rights. If rights instead stem from self-awareness, only a few animals would have rights.

There are very few properties that humans have that no other animals have, so it would be difficult to make an argument against animal rights without resorting to speciesism. The only way I can see to do it is to argue that rights in some way stem from the capacity for sophisticated abstract thought, e.g. Kant or contractualism. Contractualism, the belief that rights stem from an implicit contract made between the members of society, does not necessarily grant rights to animals since even the smartest animals are probably unable to comprehend the concept of the social contract.

Returning to Utilitarianism, it may be possible for the negative to argue that exploitation of animals increases utility overall. However, making such an argument would require assuming that humans are capable of far more happiness than animals, which is almost certainly not true and should be pretty easy to refute.

For a more thorough review of this resolution, see Decorabilia.

Posted in Debate | 3 Comments »

Tyranny of the Majority

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 24, 2011

Can the idea of “the greatest good for the greatest number” be used to justify tyranny of the majority? Can the majority taking advantage of the minority ever be a good thing?

Yes, but only in rare circumstances. In most real-world cases of many people oppressing a few, the suffering of the minority greatly outweighs the benefits to the majority.

Take slavery in the United States. African Americans were enslaved to make life easier for the European colonists, inflicting significant pain on the slaves. But the benefits the white Europeans received were marginal: they were not significantly happier for having slaves. Maybe their lives were somewhat easier, but they were not significantly happier. It is hard to conceive of a circumstance in which oppressing the minority could bring about sufficient happiness for the majority so as to outweigh the suffering created. However, such circumstances may exist.

There is one minority that is oppressed in virtually every society, has been oppressed since the dawn of civilization (and maybe even before), and no one seems to care: criminals. Criminals (and felons in particular) are forced to live in captivity and their rights are limited. This is a case where most people actually support tyranny of the majority (I happen to disagree).

An oppressive majority is only a problem where the suffering of the few exceeds the happiness of the many, and such circumstances are rare–if they even exist at all.

Posted in Ethics, Utilitarianism | 4 Comments »

Thought Experiment

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 17, 2011

This is a thought experiment on philosophical Libertarianism: the position that people own themselves and no one has a right to violate anyone else’s self-ownership.

Say there is some action the government can take that will universally reduce everyone’s liberty, but will also universally increase everyone’s happiness. The happiness will not go away over time: the government’s action will continue to make people happy for as long as there are people. In addition, the happiness is not mere short-term pleasure: it is a true sense of enlightenment and connection with the universe.

Should people be willing to give up a little freedom in order to become happier, more enlightened, and more connected to the universe? Or, going the other direction, should people refuse to accept a little more liberty at the cost of becoming unsatisfied with their lives? If you think they should (as I believe any sensible person would think), you are not a philosophical Libertarian.

Some may protest that there is no universal restriction of liberty that could make everyone happier. However, such a thing need not exist for this thought experiment to work. If it did exist, and you would be willing to make the trade-off, it means that you support self-ownership not for its own sake, but because you think it will lead to the greatest possible happiness. Therefore, your ultimate end is not self-ownership but happiness, and Libertarianism is purely your means of maximizing society’s well-being.

It is arguable that the concept of self-ownership does increase people’s happiness and make society work better, but it is important to recognize that self-ownership is not an end in itself. If everyone were free and miserable, that would be a far worse world than if everyone were restricted and happy.

Posted in Ethics, Libertarianism, Utilitarianism | 4 Comments »

On the Moral Obligation to Prevent Suffering

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 9, 2011

There is a distinction to be made between an obligation not to cause suffering and an obligation to prevent suffering. The former is almost universally accepted; the latter, to put it simply, is not. People agree that murder is seriously wrong, and insults are at least somewhat wrong. On the other hand, most feel that, while protecting others’ lives and reputations is a nice thing to do, it is not morally obligatory. Is this latter perspective defensible?

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ethics, Utilitarianism | 7 Comments »

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