Ethics and human-animal relationships

Philosopher Clare Palmer provides a summary of her new book Animal Ethics in Context (via Scu). The intent of her book, according to Prof. Palmer, is to

argue that animals’ capacities, while important, are not all that’s morally relevant. We need to take context and relation into account as well—just as we do in the human case.

It’s often argued in ethical theory that particular relations can underpin special moral obligations—relations such as creating a dependent child, or being causally implicated in harming others. If we create someone who needs us to thrive, or if we set back the interests of someone who would otherwise have flourished, we owe them something special that we don’t owe to people in general. I argue that some human-animal relations have a similar structure.

I think there’s something plausible about this. We often do ascribe moral weight to particular relations (of family, friendship, etc.), and it also makes sense that this would hold in animal-human relations (I have special obligations to my pets/companion animals, for instance). In fact, Mary Midgley’s Animals and Why They Matter explored some of this territory with her notion of the “mixed” human-animal community. Stephen R.L. Clark has made similar points.

What I’m less sure of is whether relationships can do as much ethical work as Palmer seems to be suggesting, at least based on her summary. Consider our dealings with our fellow human beings: just because I don’t have a prior relationship with someone, it doesn’t follow that they fall into the moral outer darkness where I have no obligations to assist them. I may well have an obligation to help people on the other side of the planet simply because their need is great, not because we share some special relationship. Might the same not be true, other things being equal, of our duties to animals? I certainly agree that as a general rule, we shouldn’t go mucking around in otherwise healthy ecosystems in order to protect the well-being of individual animals. But that may be because in the long run such interference would actually harm the well-being of a greater number of living creatures, not because we don’t have obligations to help those animals. In fact, it seems plausible that we have an obligation to foster the well-being of ecosystems because we have duties among other things, to foster the well-being of individual creatures.

This is somewhat speculative of course; I’d like to read the book to see where she goes with this.

EDIT: See also this post.

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6 thoughts on “Ethics and human-animal relationships

  1. I am remaining agnostic until I read her book. But I share most of Eric’s initial responses. Relationships are important, but they certainly cannot justify the difference is ethical responsibility between spending lots of money on our pets to condemning billions of animals to the factory farm. There is some much ethical room between those two stances. Which also is to say, I am agreement with you.

  2. My intuition is that a relational conception of obligations can go much further than you seem to think — and indeed, I’m inclined as well to think that it had better, because I don’t think the prospects for impersonally universalistic theories of ethics are very good. But here’s a thought for you: perhaps one reason why you are not so optimistic about what can be grounded in relations is that you focus your attention on (1) special relationships; (2) prior relationships.

    So, for instance, you worry that the relational view might entail that if we don’t have a prior relationship to someone, that we have absolutely no obligations to them whatsoever. But where does the exclusive focus on already formed relationships come from? Supposing it’s true that the Samaritan has no prior relationship with the desperate man that he passes in the street, it’s certainly not the case that he bears no relation to him at all; in fact, he bears the relation of someone who can, without detriment to himself, help to someone who needs help. So, if you think that the Samaritan has an obligation to help, ask yourself: does he simply have the self-same obligation that everyone else in the world does, or does his relation to the man in need — being there, being able to help him — give him an obligation that people living three towns over, or even just drinking tea on the other side of town, don’t have? Taking a relational view does not commit us to limiting our obligations to those with whom we have prior relationships.

    Similarly, you worry that a focus on special relationships will leave us without any obligation to help people on the other side of the world simply because they are in great need. But I would, first of all, question whether we really have such obligations in quite the way you put it. Consider the world before the advent of modern technologies of travel and communications. Did the tribes of sub-Saharan Africa have obligations to help those who were starving in north-west Europe? Of course, one might think that this is a simple matter of ‘ought-implies-can’; these people could not have obligations to needy others on the other side of the planet, because there was nothing that they could have done to help them. But it is worth asking whether this was a case of a prima facie obligation dissolved by inability, or a case in which the obligation simply never arose because the two peoples were not and could not have been in any sort of relation at all. We tend to think of ourselves as having no relation to needy people on the other side of the world, but depending on who we are, that seems false; I do have a relationship to children working halfway across the world in sweatshops, because I sometimes buy products that they produce, or I otherwise contribute to the economic system that supports those labor practices. It is not a special relationship, of course, but hardly anyone supposes that what I owe to children laboring in sweat-shops is the same as what I owe to my own children. Yet it hardly seems that a relationship needs to be particularly special in order to generate a need for me not to treat other people unjustly.

    Now, perhaps the works about special relationships that you’re mentioning here don’t take up anything like my view of what relations are. But it does seem to me that we can — and, I’m inclined to think, should — conceive of our obligations to others as generated by our relationships to them without ending up in the sorts of problems you worry about. Of course, I haven’t even begun to spell these ideas out sufficiently, but with any luck I’ve said enough to see whether you think I’m saying anything much.

  3. Hi djr,

    Thanks for your great comment. I’m intrigued by the position you’ve sketched here; it definitely sounds like an improvement on some “relational” views I’ve seen espoused.

    My main point here, though, was to question whether it follows from the fact that we have no prior relationship with wild animals that we have no obligation to assist them. (That’s how I read Palmer’s claim, at least based on the article.) It seems that your view wouldn’t necessarily rule out such an obligation to assist since it may be that we do have a certain relationship with wild animals under your expanded definition.

  4. I’ve also had some skepticism about how much work relational ethics can do in the more-than-human realm and will be interested to read this book. What djr describes reminds me of what I see in H Richard Niebuhrs ethics – which have also been called “relational,” but seem to have the kind of reach djr is talking about. BUT I haven’t read enough of him (HR Niebuhr), yet, to stay out of trouble if I say much more. So my comment is a bit “speculative,” as well!

  5. Apologies for the long delay in response. Your clarification of your original point leads me to wonder whether some more distinctions might not be in order. I’ll take some liberties in trying to reformulate your thought in my own terms; if I make any false steps, just nudge me back in the right direction.

    One sort of ‘relation-based’ view would maintain that our obligations to others, whether human or non-human, are grounded in our prior relationships to those others. Let’s call this the prior relation view. This is the view that you wanted to reject, or at least question. My initial response agreed in rejecting this view as offering us the whole story, but suggested that a relation-based view can do what we need to do so long as we don’t restrict our attention to prior relationships. With this we seem to be agreed.

    Your clarification, though, suggests that we might have an obligation to assist animals to which we have no prior relationship. Insofar as I would maintain that, at least in some cases, we should assist animals to whom we have no prior relationship, I would agree. I do, however, wonder how much difference we should see between obligations to assist and obligations to respect. Though I may merely be pumping unexamined intuitions here, it seems at least quite sensible to think that, while we have no general obligation to assist non-human animals to which we are in no direct relationship — whether prior or not — we may nonetheless have quite general obligations to respect them by not inflicting certain sorts of harm on them. In keeping with the generally relation-based character of my thought, we might want to say that we have strong reasons — if not unconditionally decisive ones — not to enter into certain sorts of relation with non-human animals, or at least with non-human animals within a certain range of capacities. But if we are grounding our obligations to others in the sorts of relations that each of us ought to have with them, then it will not follow straightforwardly that we have some general duty to assist. In other words, it may be perfectly reasonable and blameless for me to fail to assist some animal that is suffering, simply because I am engaged in other worthwhile activities, and yet unreasonable for me to harm that animal or, within the limits of my ability, to contribute to activities that harm it. This is not to say, of course, that a relation-based view of the sort I am entertaining could not encourage assistance or even make it unreasonable to fail to assist in certain circumstances; only that it would not make it generally unreasonable to fail to assist quite generally.

    Perhaps even this sort of view would not go so far as you would like. I offer this as a further development of the sort of idea that I find attractive. I should admit, however, that it is quite generally at variance with the dominant ways of thinking about action and ethics in our culture — insofar as we tend to bifurcate reasoning into the self-interested or egoistic and the moral or impersonal, my view is bound to seem to many to be trying too hard to ground obligations to others in self-interest. In a very paradoxical and unconventional sense, that would be true; but it would be more misleading than enlightening to put it in those terms. Generally speaking, I think the sort of view I have in mind is the only way we can make sense of our obligations to others, whether human or not, without yielding a more or less transparently feeble and indefensible sort of moral thought, such as I associate with Peter Singer and most defenders of ‘animal rights.’ In short, I doubt whether we will be able to arrive at a sensible and defensible ethics until we understand why there are no such things as ‘rights’ despite the fact that there are ways in which all people and some non-persons ought never to be treated.

  6. Thanks for continuing the conversation. Overall, I think what you describe as the practical implications of your view would align pretty closely with my own (e.g., we do not in general have a duty to assist wild animals, though there may be specific cases where we do).

    I guess what I’d like to see laid out is what the criteria are for the “sorts of relations that each of us ought to have with [others].” In other words, if obligations are grounded in relationships, what makes a relationship appropriate (or not)? I get the feeling that there might be some more basic principles doing some of the work here.

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