The Limits of Humanism

Mary Midgley

  • The Case for Animal Rights by Tom Regan
    Routledge, 425 pp, £17.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 7102 0150 8
  • Rights, Killing and Suffering: Moral Vegetarianism and Applied Ethics by R.G. Frey
    Blackwell, 256 pp, £17.50, September 1983, ISBN 0 631 12684 8

Out of the ivory tower troop the English-speaking moral philosophers, blinking a little, but certainly invigorated by their new freedom. Their imprisonment was a stiff one. The notion that it was rather unprofessional for them to mention the real world, and doubly so to take sides about it, became obligatory more than fifty years ago, and has only gradually loosened its grip. Rawlsian discussions of justice made the first large breach in the walls; medical ethics widened it, and many other important topics have now followed. The move is admirable. But there are still serious problems of method. Like a lot of other academic problems, they seem to centre on the matter of contentiousness. Scholars tend to be occupied with attacking each other and dividing into factions, crying sic et non. In ivory towers, this does not particularly matter; it is simply a ground rule of the game. Out in the world, however, it matters a lot. Where real moral questions are involved, attacking people sharply is usually not the best way of persuading them. And a real moral question is necessarily one where there is something to be said on both sides. It was these awkward facts which produced the tower-dwelling policy of neutrality in the first place. Philosophers saw their abstention from moral judgment as a contribution to public freedom, a laudable refusal to ‘distort a relatively neutral study into a plea for some special code of morals’, as C. L. Stevenson put it. Yet this justification is itself merely a moral judgment like any other, and, when you come to think about it, a very odd one. In a confused world crying out for explanations, discreet silence cannot really be the best possible use for high-class talents and intellectual training. The mighty dead, from Socrates to Mill, did not mind taking sides about the hard problems of their day, and on the whole what they said has been useful. Is there something about the status of a modern academic which makes it impossible to follow their example?

There is not, yet the difficulties are real. We must say something positive, or we waste our readers’ time. But we need to avoid two distinct sorts of arrogance – not only that of the academic expert, trading on his standing to silence opposition, but also that of the mindless prophet, handing out moral precepts to unquestioning followers from the mountain. Attitudes to those who disagree with one are crucial. Because morality is a personal as well as an intellectual matter, hasty denunciation and even the ill-considered, quarrelsome taking of sides are deadly here. (This is also true in many other disciplines, such as literary criticism and many branches of psychology, but ethics is the central case.) Seeing this, English-speaking philosophers withdrew to the tower – that is, to extremely general and abstract controversies about the nature of morality. But life is hard, and here they got the worst of both worlds. Even on these apparently remote and icy slopes the taking of positions involves moral considerations. When these are forgotten, total pointlessness descends. When they surface, moral indignation and the bitterness of controversy tend to accompany them. And since the general positions arise out of decisions made on more immediate and specific matters, it seems best to come back to the plains and attempt the necessary marriage of commitment with responsible criticism there, where the meaning of one’s view can be seen more easily. Neutrality cannot then possibly be the first requirement. A real neutral, a genuinely detached, uncommitted bystander, could not understand the issues in a moral conflict at all, any more than someone who had no views about the truth of any scientific theory could be a philosopher of science. Heart and head have to work together responsibly, and the critical eye must observe both equally. Is this so surprising? If we find it so, that seems to be a mark of the strange way in which our civilisation divides up our faculties and disintegrates our powers of judgment.

Fortunately, in recent years a number of books have been appearing which do succeed in applying moral philosophy fairly to the world. Their conclusions are real, and not necessarily especially ‘moderate’, if that is taken to mean weak. For instance, John Passmore’s Man’s Responsibility for Nature puts forward a spread of alternatives, all of which call for quite drastic action. But it is moderate in that it always gives its reasons, treats opponents honestly and respectfully, strongly objects to irresponsible rhetoric, and does justice to the fearful conflicts of interest which surround our ecological predicament. Another such book was Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. Singer, like Passmore, devoted much of his time to clearing the ground – marshalling the relevant facts, surveying the range of existing attitudes, pointing out their confusions, and tracing the sources of trouble in the tradition. This sort of work is an absolutely necessary part of philosophical business on topics which have been badly neglected, as this one had been, by previous thinkers. From it, Singer’s own strong conclusions emerge clearly, but not in isolation. They are part of a web of reasoning which contains a whole range of other alternatives, and their statement is notably free from the self-righteousness which so easily afflicts reformers. The catch about Animal Liberation, however, is that, from the theoretical angle, it is one-legged. Singer is a Utilitarian, grounding the claims of animals on a general human duty to relieve suffering and promote happiness or enjoyment. And Utilitarianism, though strong today, is only one side of our current morality. Alongside it, not clearly connected to it but no less influential, exists the idea that there are rights – direct claims which individuals or groups can have on others quite independently of any expected effect on happiness, suffering or anything else. Justice, it sometimes seems, ought to be done even if the heavens fall.

This is where Tom Regan comes in. He sees that, because of the importance currently attached to the idea of rights, a purely Utilitarian case for considering non-human animals has a grave weakness, on which indeed argument has often fastened. Morality can be seen, and in some contexts habitually is seen, as essentially a rational system linking only intelligent, articulate agents – indeed, as with Rawls, perhaps linking them only by a kind of contract. From Socrates on, there has run through the European tradition the notion of a sharp division, amounting often to a conflict, between reason and emotion, in which reason must prevail as the core of our being and the prime seat of value. It has often been dramatised with the rebellious emotions figuring as animals. Kant made fully explicit the idea of morality as essentially an exchange of mutual respect between rational beings recognising each other’s rationality, and of rights as depending wholly on that recognition. On its positive side this has been a very useful doctrine, especially for pressing the claims of unfamiliar groups of human beings. But its negative, exclusive side is far more dubious. Ought it really to be used – as it still very often is – to exclude animals from serious consideration?

This is Regan’s question and he deals with it soundly. He does not find it hard to show that the notion of humanity which this Kantian view encapsulates is far too narrow, hard to defend at any time, and increasingly so today. What Kant meant by reason was in fact something very mysterious. People certainly are not just their intellects, nor is morality just a private, optional arrangement between rational agents. We have duties already to many who are not fully rational – babies, defective people, the senile – and it is quite natural to express these by saying that they have rights. Regan coins the term ‘moral patients’ for these cases, and asks if there is any reason why it should not apply to animals too. Rationalists, who do not like to fall back on mere kinship, usually account for this exclusion by some cognitive weakness. Explanations range from Descartes’s bold claim that animals are actually unconscious through the middle area of language to sophisticated points about self-awareness. Regan argues effectively that the first part of this battery is factually unconvincing, while the latter part is largely irrelevant. As Bentham said, the question is not ‘can they talk?’ but ‘can they suffer?’ At least some animals, says Regan, including many of those who most concern us, are ‘subjects of a life’. They have their own point of view, however simple.

Are they, however, autonomous – that is, are they free beings in the sense of being able to direct their lives in accordance with their thought, and so qualify for Kantian respect? Regan admits that they probably are not, but asks why this kind of autonomy should be needed to make respect appropriate. I think that he might have done well at this point to drop the Kantian term ‘autonomy’ altogether as suited only to moral agents, leaving moral patients to be differently described. His strategy, however, is to open up the whole rationalist tool-bag of concepts so far as possible for non-human purposes. Accordingly, he says that animals have ‘preference-autonomy’: that is, they mind what happens to them and show this by their conduct. This is indeed an element in being an independent being, and it may be worth while to have a word to mark it.

The core of Regan’s argument is, then, this concept of an independent, conscious being. Reversing the traditional approach, he puts the burden of proof on those who claim that some such beings do not matter – that mice, say, exist only as instruments or as scenery for their grander and more articulate neighbours. There is, says Regan, no non-arbitrary way of ruling off such a class of pure instruments. All subjects of a life, equally, have ‘inherent value’. He rams home this point by bringing out the artificiality of the ‘indirect duty’ approach to animals. This is the view that we ought indeed to refrain from ill-treating non-humans, but only as a kind of mental hygiene – a precaution to prevent our becoming brutal in our behaviour to humans, where it would matter. This device for reconciling humane practice with rationalist theory is certainly unconvincing. People who feel called on to treat an animal decently (or who tell their children to do so) do not conceive themselves to be engaged on a piece of self-improvement, or moral insurance against lapsing into crime, but to be responding directly to a particular creature. If asked for an explanation, they are likely to give the direct one, ‘you wouldn’t care to have that done to you,’ or some such, and most unlikely to say: ‘I am training my humane responses.’ This does indeed mean acknowledging a direct claim from the animal.

Will it do, however, to call that claim a right? Many people are uneasy about this. I am inclined, myself, to say that the obscurity of the word ‘right’ is already bad enough, and getting constantly worse with conflicting uses, so that I wish Regan had not centred his book on a single-minded campaign to conquer the word for animals. He does deal with some of the more obvious problems, but always with an eye on his takeover project. The most-discussed difficulty about using the word for animals is the feeling that to have a right involves being able to assert it. Yet, as Regan says, this difficulty arises with non-rational humans too, and it is easily dealt with there by allowing others to do the asserting for them. And that can be done with animals as well. Overruling all further objections as irrational, Regan in his last chapter starkly presents the bill. All meat-eating, hunting and other abuse of animals is simply wrong and must stop. No half-measures will do. We need ‘nothing less than a revolution in our culture’s thought and action’ – a revolution properly described as political. We should set about it at once.

Essentially I think he is right, yet he may well not convince. That political revolution presupposes a psychological one, which has to be differently approached. Since the 18th century, our culture has had built into it a bold, contemptuous rejection of the non-human world. Because this rejection has been linked with some very important values, it will not yield directly to polemical argument conducted in terms of simple alternatives. The meaning of humanism itself has to change. This is certainly happening, and among the factors which can help it, lawyer-like attacks such as Regan’s can play a part. But it is a limited one. Partisanship easily becomes counter-productive. Persuasion is needed, not in the sense of illicit emotional pressure, but of imaginative restatement. From this angle, the strategy of Regan’s book is faulty. It is too abstract and too contentious. As tends to happen with American academic books in the Rawlsian tradition, the relation between theory and practice is oversimplified. There is too much attention paid to the winning of arguments and too little to the complexities of the world. The central argument – which is itself strong and well-stated – keeps being interrupted, fraying out into a series of theoretical debates with other philosophers, rather than either being supported by facts or directly meeting the practical concerns of the reader. Some of these opposing arguments are themselves quite trifling and confused. They do not deserve an answer, and seem to get one merely because they are there in print in the philosophical journals. Others are much more serious, and it is then disturbing to find them dealt with in the same unvaried academic monotone. A particularly awkward case is Singer. Regan does not just want to supplement Singer’s Utilitarianism and point out where it needs help, but to defeat it. He therefore devotes quite a lot of his time to the empty exercise with which moral philosophers used to occupy themselves in their tower – namely, setting one ‘fundamental theory of ethics’ against another, as though they were competing alternatives. Since all these ‘theories’ deal with different aspects of morality and need to be seen as parts of an extremely complex whole, this habit is useless and can only perpetuate an empty controversy. Those who are not interested in controversy for its own sake, but in changing the world, need to get rid of it as fast as possible.

We come back, then, to the rather central question: how far is the assertion of ‘animal rights’ a direct attempt to change the world, and how far is it just an intellectual move to straighten out a confused conceptual scheme? Regan always makes it plain that he intends the first, yet his methods are sometimes more suited to the second. Others engaged in the debate vacillate wildly. This is only one more indication of a general problem built into American political thought by the ambitious rationalism of its founding fathers. The hope that an abstract system of rights, discovered by impartial reasoning, could directly generate a just society was a noble one. It is constantly being frustrated by the difficulty of making these rights specific enough to arbitrate conflicts of interest. Its working has been injured far more gravely by increasing insistence on freedom of competition, a competition which multiplies and sharpens those conflicts. It has produced a society where competition and litigation are heavily relied on to produce justice, and frequently fail. In this situation, it is no surprise if the appearance of yet one more enormous group of competing, right-bearing, potential litigants causes alarm. It might be a better strategy to start by asking as Stephen Clark has done: ‘can we possibly have a right to treat them as we do?’ It would certainly be better to relate ‘rights’ more clearly to a background of other moral concepts, with much more attention to the priority systems by which we deal with conflicts. And – to consider the future – we urgently need now to move the controversy in the direction of asking what we mean by rights and by equality, rather than continuing with any more simple yes-or-no battles about whether animals have them. Regan’s book is certainly important and in many ways admirable – a serious, substantial contribution to giving animals their proper place on the philosophical map. But the next move ought to take a rather different direction.

Conveniently, those who want to study some ways in which it had better not go can find them by glancing at R.G. Frey’s book, which seems to have been kindly written as a warning, in order to display the full range of mistakes to which analytic philosophers are liable when they are let loose on the real world. Despite its ambitious main title (which alone appears on the cover), it is simply a single-minded, obsessive, non-constructive attack on ‘moral vegetarianism’. Now there are real questions about vegetarianism. But each of them, to be deployed effectively, would need its own distinct, positive background. For instance, there is a general difficulty about all absolute prohibitions, because conflicts can usually confront them with some plausible exceptions. But to study this, one would need to use a whole range of other examples, from ‘never lie’ to ‘never torture’, and to do some hard thinking about the place of universality in morals. Again, there is a problem of a quite different kind about the usefulness of boycotts as a weapon of reform. How effective are they? What are they meant to do? Are they, as a test of sincerity, a necessary part of reforming campaigns? Here one would again need to look at a wide sweep of examples, from South African sport to opting out of trade unions. Frey chooses no such positive strategy. He simply follows his quarry around, taking pot shots at it from behind any bush that offers. He does use the two lines just mentioned, and also makes some general attacks on the idea of moral rights, but in a casual, opportunistic way, without noting what they might commit him to elsewhere. And he is quite as happy to appeal to the iniquity of threatening the livelihood of butchers, or the suspicion that vegetarians are a danger to individual liberty. Certainly the book is better organised than his first one, Interests and Rights, which carried the subtitle ‘The Case Against Animals’ and constantly alternated between trying to present such a case and denying that that was its business. The present book is much clearer about disclaiming that exciting aim. This certainly makes the discussion more respectable, but also duller. Its tunnel vision contracts yet further. It becomes a pure parasite, existing only to nibble its opponents. In the philosophical tower some inhabitants used to favour the principle that every position ought to be attacked, and that mere opposition, pursued for its own sake, entitled work to be published and read. That is the platform on which this little book will have to stand, for it does not provide – what its readers perhaps may hope for – the alternative comfort of an open, rumbustious, Chestertonian celebration of the joys of carnivoracity (a real word – I have just looked it up). And with the price of paper what it is, perhaps even the ex-tower-dwellers may want to reconsider that principle.