The Limits of Humanism
- BuyThe 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.
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Vol. 6 No. 13 · 19 July 1984
SIR: The animal rights philosophers, Mary Midgley argues (LRB, 7 June), have broken free from the ivory towers of English-speaking moral philosophy. But of course they have not. If things have changed, it has been from one ivory tower to another. Evidence of this is the ignoring by animal rights philosophers of non-philosophic issues.
First, they take a narrow view of human suffering. There are at least two kinds of suffering produced by injury: one species common to the experience of humans and animals and one species specific to us as humans. There is the suffering produced by physical injury. And there is the suffering which derives from the intentional nature of the injury. Two identical physical pains can be experienced very differently. Consider an individual who has a series of painful fillings unaware that they are being done for sadistic pleasure by a bogus dentist. After this experience of physical pain the individual becomes aware he has been tricked – that the person he thought was a dentist was in fact a sadist. His pain, I think we would agree, takes on a different dimension. It has become a violation.
Pain has evolved to make sure our behaviour respects the well-being of the self. It prevents us from burning our fingers in flames. If we strain a joint, it makes sure we allow it to heal. While physical pain relates to injury to the body, the pain of intentions relates to injury to the self as a social or personal entity. The recovery from such injury involves, in part, society’s response to that injury. Whereas physical injuries require rest for their rehabilitation, this injury requires a recognition that the individual has been wronged and a response by society to that wrong. In primitive societies, that recognition and response normally take the form of some kind of retribution. In modern and civilised societies, they take the form of ethics.
But what of the existence of moral status for humans who lack the sentient capacity to be affected by intentions – such as children, the mentally ill, the senile? This brings me to my second non-philosophic issue relevant to ethics. The question of who is entitled to moral status cannot be separated from the realities of political life. Suppose we decided, on ethical grounds, to deny rights to the mentally ill or the senile. Someone would have to make the decision that an individual’s mental retardation or senility was such that they no longer need be treated as having rights. Such a person would have a position which would unavoidably entail political power. The categories of who is mentally retarded, ill or senile are fuzzy and subject to different interpretations. The medical profession until recently classified homosexuality as a minor mental illness. At present, by a classificatory sleight of hand, psychiatric hospitals in the Soviet Union are being used to imprison political dissidents. In the unphilosophic world of human affairs, we may be giving moral status to individuals simply because the administrative procedures to exclude them which would not lead to an abuse of power, or the risk of misclassification, do not exist. There can be reasons other than ethical entitlement for giving people rights. Philosophers have ignored the practical problems of exclusion.
Vol. 6 No. 16 · 6 September 1984
SIR: John Skoyles’s letter denouncing ‘animal-rights philosophers’ (Letters, 19 July) such as Tom Regan is a bit strange. In order to convict them of merely moving ‘from one ivory tower to another’, he makes two points – both obvious, well-known and much discussed in their books – which he seems to think will damn them. (You didn’t somehow lose part of his letter, did you?) Both points belong in the empirical undergrowth out of which the problems arise, a background which is known to provide essential keys to grasping the philosophical problems, and which he is quite mistaken in supposing them to neglect. Both complicate that background, the second one very severely, which is why they have had so much attention. To produce them now as a quick way out is Zen indeed.
The first point is the obvious difference which intellect makes in the nature of suffering. Creatures with human intelligence and social complexity are indeed capable of some kinds of suffering unknown to simpler ones. But since this still leaves plenty of other kinds for the outsiders, it does not affect the general point that their suffering is, as such, a possible ground for moral concern. The difference does not even always operate to the advantage of simpler creatures. Not to know what is happening to one, or be able to foresee an end to it, can often make things worse. The kind and degree of consciousness, sociality and foresight which different species have is a very complex empirical question, and one which (as can easily be discovered) philosophers like Regan well know to be relevant to particular practical problems. But its very complexity makes it impossible to use it as a means of dismissing the whole issue.
The second point concerns the traditional doctrine that rights depend on rationality, a doctrine which runs into well-known difficulties about the status of non-rational humans. How is it that they have rights if intelligent animals do not? The debates about this are vast and cannot be summarised here. Extreme confusion arises. In my own view, the use of words like ‘right’ is far too obscure and shifting to settle these problems, and the status of each kind of being must be thought about separately and directly. Regan, however, prefers the simpler view that the word ‘right’ has a clear sense, in which rights do belong to animals, and he argues this case with great skill and subtlety. Skoyles’s contribution to this difficult issue is to settle everything in a paragraph by conceding that quite likely non-rational people don’t have rights either, but are only allowed to count as right-holders because of the political difficulty of deciding at what point their rights become forfeit. No one who has been following the agonised disputes about these borderline cases within the human scene, over such points as euthanasia, abortion and mental illness, is likely to find this a convincing panacea.
Two points emerge. First, the flat exclusion of animals from all moral concern, which used to be achieved by devices like restricting the word ‘right’ to humans, is no longer acceptable to most of us, and the usage of particular words must be adjusted to reflect our fuller acceptance of responsibility. Second, even within the human scene, the link between rights and rationality is obscure, and attempts to oversimplify it have done a lot of damage to both concepts. Outside the ivory tower, these are crucial issues, and unluckily not at all of the kind which will go away without a good deal of hard thinking.
Vol. 6 No. 21 · 15 November 1984
SIR My attention has been drawn to the letters you have published under this heading, and to the contributions to the feminist cause which have recently appeared in your paper. I was pleased to think that all such questions of status may soon be determined rationally, that the tide of prejudice may be on the turn, and that my master’s voice may be about to become a three-part choir. There is one activity – more of a privilege, really, than a right – about which my friends and I have long felt wistful. Perhaps one day we will be allowed to insult, stone, shoot and blast whoever it is we don’t like. I loved, incidentally, the lively way your correspondents tackled that Michael Stewart on the subject of mineral rights.
The Kennels, Ascot
Vol. 6 No. 22 · 6 December 1984
SIR: I loved Rover’s letter in the London Review of Books (Letters, 15 November). I wish I could write like that but I can’t even read yet – my mistress thinks I’m dyslexic.
Vol. 7 No. 2 · 7 February 1985
SIR: Like Sally (Letters, 6 December 1984), I loved Rover’s letter (Letters, 15 November 1984). Sally will in time, no doubt, learn to read and write. Her mistress, who thinks Sally is dyslexic, should take lessons from my master, who, with the aid of his computers, has been able to tolatly eminilate fenile dyxlesia.
Department of Computer Science, University of British Columbia, Vancouver
Vol. 7 No. 4 · 7 March 1985
SIR: The letters of Rover, Sally and Cali (Letters, 7 February and Letters, 6 December 1984) made me purr a good deal, but I am afraid they may give your human readers an inadequate idea of feline levels of literacy here and abroad. For years my own preferred reading has been serious newspapers and journals such as your own, spread out for me on flat surfaces. My mistress used to work at a typewriter, which meant that my proof-reading skills were useless to her, and she often sent out work containing errors. Since she has bought a micro-computer (a quieter and better feline working environment) I put in long working hours on her lap and subject every word on her screen to scrutiny. I am glad to say that since she has had the benefit of a cat’s vigilance both her accuracy and her style have much improved.