Friday links

– Many people have pointed to this omnibus post at Mother Jones that provides background, context, links, and ongoing updates on the situation in Egypt.

– Marvin writes on understanding apostolic poverty.

– At the blog Memoria Dei, a post discussing feminist theologian Mary Daly’s use of women’s experience as an analogue for the divine.

– Palgrave Macmillan and the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics have launched a new series of books on the ethical treatment of animals. So far, two titles have been published: An Introduction to Animals and Political Theory by Alasdair Cochrane and An Introduction to Animals and the Law by Joan E. Schaffner. The series is co-edited by Andrew Linzey and Priscilla Cohn.

– Crystal has a post discussing John Milbank’s and Keith Ward’s differing views on Kant (complete with a video of Ward lecturing on the subject).

– Rodney Clapp on giving yourself (and others) permission not to pray.

– The State of the Union and “semi-Niebuhrianism.”

– Kevin Drum on the virtues of a strong labor movement.

– Oasis and Radiohead: two very different British bands that defined alternative rock in the late ’90s.

Friday links

– Jim Henley on the high road and the low road

– The July issue of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics focuses on poverty and development

– How easy would it be to fix Social Security?

– The Twilight series: not just bad, but morally toxic

– Who you callin’ a pescatarian?

– Marvin writes about teaching Anselm’s ontological argument

– The AV Club on alt-country pioneer Robbie Fulks

– The New York Times‘s Nicholas Kristof reports from the West Bank

– A recently published dystopian novel about animal rights; here’s the author’s blog

Links for Friday

– Derek on the church and (in)fallibility and communing the unbaptized

– Animal advocacy and pragmatism

– This is your brain on gadgets

– BLS has been writing a fascinating series of posts on the church and A.A.

– The thought of Paul Ramsey

– The AV Club’s June round up of all things metal

– The New York Times bans the word “tweet”

– The Karate Kid remake: surprisingly good?

– The A-Team movie: not that good

UPDATE: Had to add this: Tyler Cowen points out that the Netherlands has a animal-rights-based political party, the Party for the Animals (website here, but it’s in Dutch).

The crooked path from metaphysics to morals

Guest-blogger “Aeolus” at In Living Color flags a book by Rod Preece that attempts to set the historical record straight on Christianity’s attitude toward animals. The assumption among many animal advocates has been that Christianity reinforced a hierarchical attitude that was inherently detrimental to animal well-being, and that only a more science-based approach, heavily indebted to Darwinism, has allowed us to begin to change our attitudes. The history, as is usually the case, seems to be a bit more complex:

To take one example, his close reading of the Victorian debate over vivisection turns the standard notion of Darwinism’s benign influence on attitudes toward animals, if not on its head, at least on its side. Although Darwin wrote that the subject of vivisection made him “sick with horror”, he supported it in the interests of scientific progress. Indeed, those opposed to the practice, who included Queen Victoria, Lord Shaftesbury, and many other prominent Britons, were more likely to be motivated by their Christian beliefs than by a belief in evolution, Darwinian or otherwise. John Ruskin, who passionately opposed harmful experimentation on animals as being in defiance of “the great link which binds together the whole creation from its Maker to the lowest creatures”, resigned his professorship at Oxford in 1885 because the university Senate approved funds for a physiology laboratory that would perform vivisection.

Read the rest here.

It seems to me that this is just one example of how you can draw different moral conclusions from the same metaphysical or religious premises. Many do seem to take the exalted ontological status ascribed to humanity by Christian theology as a license to exploit animals. Others–notably Andrew Linzey–argue that our special status actually imposes special obligations on us to treat animals with compassion and respect. Similarly, Darwinian naturalism has been used to justify both a dog-eat-dog ethic of ruthless competition and an ethic of respect for animals based on our kinship with them.

More on HSUS vs. big ag

Thanks to commenter Hillary, who identified herself as affiliated with the Humane Society of the United States, for pointing out another (lengthy) article on HSUS’s political strategy and the controversy it’s engendered. Definitely worth a read.

Animal rights, human wrongs

Nice article from the National Journal (via Scu) on the current political and legal landscape for the animal rights/protection movement.

What’s striking to me is the contrast between the modesty of the goals of organizations like the Humane Society and the rhetoric of their opponents. Somehow, giving farm animals enough space to stand up and turn around will lead to a wholesale devaluation of human life! You might think that human beings would try to justify our much-vaunted moral superiority by treating compassionately the animals over which we exercise virtually unlimited power. Surely it’s just a coincidence that there’s so much money at stake in preserving the current system.

What would ethical egg production look like? And how would we get there?

To make the point of the previous post a little more concrete, let’s think about what truly ethical egg production would look like from a “moral vegetarian” perspective. Remember, the moral vegetarian isn’t opposed to all forms of animal use, but opposes those uses that constitute exploitation (i.e., harm the interests of the animals involved).

It seems that, for egg production to be ethical (i.e., non-exploitative), it would have to meet at least these conditions:

– hens have access to the outdoors and the space and opportunity to engage in natural behavior;
– no debeaking;
– no forced molting;
– no routine killing of male chicks; and
– hens are allowed to live out something approximating a natural life span.

As the Humane Society points out, the most common labels that consumers might take to indicate a higher standard of treatment (“free range,” “cage free,” “organic,” etc.) permit at least some of these practices, and in only some cases do they require third-party auditing of compliance. Only eggs labeled “Animal Welfare Approved” are produced in ways that avoid most of these objectionable practices; yet, as HSUS says, “there are no participating producers that sell to supermarkets.” (Though the Animal Welfare Approved website lists participating producers from whom you can buy directly.)

So, it seems that for the moral vegetarian, the goal should be to support egg producers that meet, or are at least moving toward meeting, standards like the Animal Welfare Approved ones. The question, then, is: are they doing that by buying, say, “cage-free” eggs (as I do myself from time to time)? Does buying cage-free eggs serve to nudge producers in the direction of more stringent standards? Or does it send a signal that cage-free is enough and consumers won’t demand anything further?

In light of Tzachi Zamir’s argument, it’s a question of whether this is a case of selective consumption that supports progress or one that leads to moral complacency. I honestly don’t know what the right answer is here, but I’d feel better if I was more sure it was the former.

Vegan versus vegetarian utopia revisited

Jean Kazez and Scu of Critical Animal both have critical posts on this essay on veganism by philosopher Tzachi Zamir. The argument appears in a slightly different form in his book Ethics and the Beast, and I discussed it a bit here.

While I, as a “moral vegetarian” (to use his terms) find Zamir’s argument appealing, at least in a self-serving way, I thought he was a little too quick to assume that modest “humane” reforms of the dairy and egg industries would lead eventually to an ethically acceptable result. Even if we accept the terms of the debate as Zamir has laid them out, to demonstrate the superiority of the moral vegetarian position, we would need a viable model of non-exploitative, institutional animal use that could be sustained on a large-scale basis (as distinguished from the ad hoc procurement of animal products, for instance, eggs from backyard chickens) and a path for realizing it. My conclusion was that “[t]o make good on their commitment to non-exploitative animal use, vegetarians need to articulate more clearly what the end goal is and describe a plausible path there from the status quo. Otherwise, the vegan critique will continue to have significant bite.”

First Things still unable to grapple with animal rights arguments

I know I should stop expecting First Things to publish thoughtful pieces on animal issues, but this review of a review of Safran Foer’s Eating Animals by David Mills is particularly bad:

The reviewer seems to assume, but does not even try to argue, that food animals deserve a long and fulfilling life (whatever fulfilling means for them), and therefore to kill them for our use is wrong. But since they have no real consciousness or memory, how can they know, much less care, that their life is shorter than it might have been? (Might have been in human hands, not in the wild, but that’s another matter.) [Empahsis added]

Given that we know that animals possess both consciousness and memory, I can only assume, charitably, that what Mills means is that animals lack self-consciousness (itself a debatable proposition) and therefore can’t anticipate their own death. But does Mills really think that an animal is not harmed by having its life ended just because it (we presume) can’t anticipate it? If so, he is ironically treading close to the view of Peter Singer, who argues that beings without self-consciousness are harmed less by their deaths than those who have it (Singer, notoriously, includes human fetuses and infants in the former category). I doubt Mills wants to embrace Singer’s position, and, indeed, the paragraph above indicates an even stronger version of the view than Singer’s: that creatures without self-consciousness aren’t harmed at all by being killed. This is, by my lights, an extremely counterintuitive position, and I suspect the main reason people deploy it is because of a prior commitment to the permissibility of killing animals for food.

In my zeal, I didn’t even bother to click through to the review that Mills was critiquing, but it’s by philosopher Mark Rowlands and well worth reading in its own right. Thanks to Rick for making me aware of this.

UPDATE II: This post at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen makes a similar point, but adds some food for thought on objective goods and human dignity.

Gary Steiner on the moral status of animals and the “intellectualist” bias

Marilyn tipped me off to this very interesting-looking book by philosopher Gary Steiner: Animals and the Moral Community: Mental Life, Moral Status, and Kinship. Looks like the book came out in 2008, but I wasn’t previously aware of it. Steiner provides a summary of the book’s argument here .

Interestingly, Steiner takes a tack that is opposed to that of at least some animal advocates. These advocates have argued that, contrary to what we’ve previously thought, animals really do have capacities for complex thought, reasoning, self-awareness, etc., and that we should attribute moral status to them accordingly. Steiner maintains, however, that these capacities are morally irrelevant and it’s enough that animals have “rich inner lives”–lives of their own that are entitled to respect regardless of how closely they approximate human lives.

Steiner isn’t the first to make this sort of argument. In his contribution to the anthology The Great Ape Project, which promotes extending basic rights to the great apes, philosopher Steven Sapontzis contends that the bias toward the intellectually sophisticated is just one aspect of our species bias:

Rejecting our species bias–overcoming speciesism–requires that we also reject our bias in favor of the intellectual (at least as a criterion of the value of life or of personhood in the evaluative sense). Overcoming speciesism requires going beyond the modest extension of our moral horizons to include intellectually sophisticated, nonhuman animals, such as chimpanzees and whales. It requires recognizing not only that the origin of value does not lie in anything that is peculiarly human; it also requires recognizing that the origin of value does not lie in anything that is human-like or that humans may be assured they have the most of (because they are the most intellectually sophisticated beings around). (“Aping Persons – Pro and Con,” The Great Ape Project, p. 271)

Using intellectual sophistication as a criterion of moral worth can have uncomfortable consequences even apart from the question of animal rights. For one, wouldn’t it introduce a hierarchical ranking among human beings such that the more intellectually sophisticated, reflective, etc. people were worth more, morally speaking, than others? And wouldn’t it also imply that an extraterrestrial species far exceeding us in intellectual sophistication would be morally more valuable than us, and perhaps even justified in using us the way we use nonhuman animals?

Steiner’s book also tries to reconcile liberal rights and individualism with the apparently heavy demands that the recognition of animals’ moral status would make on us. He offers what he calls an “Ideal of Cosmic Holism” in which human beings are understood as “a special form of life—a form of life that is capable of reflecting on its own nature, and hence of taking on moral responsibilities, but whose capacities for critical reflection do not render it morally superior to non-human nature.”

Human beings are in the unique position of being able to recognize and act on moral obligations toward animals (and perhaps toward non-sentient nature as well), even though non-human beings lack the capacity for reflection and hence lack the ability to take on reciprocal obligations toward humanity. Our moral relationship to animals is one of stewardship: we have obligations to protect animals and to refrain from interfering with their efforts to flourish according to their natures, even though animals have no corresponding obligations toward us. The fact that for millennia we have exploited animals with little if any self-restraint is a sign not that we have any right to do so but simply that we have failed to acknowledge our place within a cosmic whole of which we are merely a part.

I don’t know what religious affiliation, if any, Steiner has, but this is remarkably consonant with the Christian view of humanity’s place in the cosmos (or at least the Christian view, properly understood), so I’m very interested in seeing the details of how he works this out. Unfortunately, the book is a bit on the pricey side, so unless CUP wants to send me a review copy, you may have to wait a while for my take on his argument, dear reader. 😉