2008: The year in book blogging

I’m not going to provide a best books of the year list, but here’s a sampling of those that got their hooks into me enough to generate some more or less in-depth blogging (needless to say, most of these weren’t published in 2008):

Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power

“Empire of dysfunction”

Evelyn Pluhar, Beyond Prejudice

Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4

Jay McDaniel, Of God and Pelicans

“Creation and omnipotence: a process perspective”
“More thoughts on omnipotence and creation”

Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation

Index of posts here.

John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation

“Initial thoughts on Gutierrez’s Theology of Liberation”

S.F. Sapontzis, Morals, Reason, and Animals

“What kind of equality?”

James Alison, On Being Liked

“An end to sacrifices”

John Gray, Straw Dogs

“John Gray contra humanism”

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma

“Against the globalized food chain”
“Pollan on the ethics of meat eating”
“More on Pollan and vegetarianism”

Beyond Prejudice 4

In the previous posts we saw Pluhar make a two-step argument for moral rights. First, she argued that any agent, reflecting on the nature of her own agency, must advocate for herself basic rights to freedom and well-being, simply because she is a purposive agent. Second, Pluhar contends that the principles of consistency and universalizability require that agent to affirm moral rights for other purposive agents.

But, to get to the heart of Pluhar’s project, what does this have to do with nonhuman animals? How does she make the case for extending generic rights to freedom and well-being to them?

Pluhar contends that “all preferentially autonomous agents” meet the requirement that is sufficient for possessing basic rights. Preferentially autonomous agents are simply “beings who act to satisfy preferences” (p. 249).

This class of beings is considerably larger than the subclass of reflective, rights-claiming agents. Preferentially autonomous beings need some minimal requirements in order to function, regardless of their level of intellectual sophistication. As Paul Taylor points out with regard to the sense of freedom relevant to this issue, absence from constraint is essential to nonhumans and humans alike: “[Absence of constraint] is a concept of freedom that is of central importance for every creature which has a good of its own to realize. For being free in this sense is being in a position to be able to preserve one’s existence and further one’s good, and being unfree in this sense is being unable to do these things.” Equally essential is life and the capacities that allow one to pursue that life when one is given a chance to do so: minimum “well-being.” Following Gerwith’s line of reasoning, it seems that agents as such, not just conceptually well-developed agents, should have the rights of freedom and well-being attributed to them. (p. 249, emphasis in the original, footnotes omitted)

As we saw earlier, Pluhar follows Gerwith in arguing that being a purposive agent–having things one wants to do–is by itself sufficient for claiming basic rights, and, to be consistent, attributing such rights to any being meeting that condition. Undeniably, many nonhuman animals meet this condition–they have goals and wants; they seek to pursue them; and they require minimum conditions of freedom and well-being in order to do so. Once they’ve crossed this threshold, their relative intellectual inferiority just isn’t relevant when it comes to attributing basic rights to them.

This view has the merit, lacking in views Pluhar has rejected (such as the full-personhood view), of explaining why so-called marginal humans also have basic moral rights:

All consciously conative beings are goal directed; they have preferences or purposes that they want to have satisfied. This holds for very young and mentally limited humans just as much as it holds for the most intelligent of human agents. The intelligent agent must logically recognize, Gerwith argues, that those whom he calls “marginal agents” are individuals striving to survive just as she is, seeking shelter, food, drink, and companionship. As such, they are due full moral consideration. Purposiveness is the key similarity between these others and normal human adults; it justifies the attribution of rights to the former by the latter, despite the fact that the individuals compared differ greatly in their ability to fulfill their purposes. (p. 250, emphasis in the original, footnotes omitted)

(Interestingly, this leads Pluhar to a relatively conservative view on abortion: she argues that a fetus, once it has achieved sentience and purposiveness, has a prima facie right to life “in the last half of gestation (earlier, if evidence warrants it)” (p. 253). Though, on her view, abortions prior to sentience would not be wrong (much less should they be legally prohibited), and abortions after sentience occurs might be right if “the woman is protecting her own physical or mental health by making this choice” (p. 253).)

To try and put Pluhar’s case in a somewhat more intuitive way: you could see it as a variation on the Golden Rule (a comparison she makes at one point). Reflecting on our own situation, we claim the right to pursue our own lives and seek our flourishing, which requires at least a minimum level of freedom and well-being. And recognizing in all sentient, purposive creatures a similar striving to live their own lives and seek their own goods, we should treat them as we would like to be treated if our situations were reversed. This doesn’t really seem like much to ask when you think about it. It may be that our chief resistance to accepting the basic rights of other creatures to live their own lives isn’t so much the intellectual difficulty as that it would require a radical revision to many of our current practices.

Beyond Prejudice 3

If, following Pluhar, we agree that any reflective agent has reason to affirm that she has basic rights to freedom and well-being, why should that agent extend those rights to others? In other words, must the reflective agent also be a moral agent?

To start, let’s review why Pluhar (following Gerwith) thinks that any reflective agent is warranted in asserting her right to basic rights to freedom and well-being.

The shift from the prudential to the moral point of view, according to which others’ interests count too, begins with the agent’s justification of the rights claim made in premise 5 [see previous post]. As Gerwith points out, rights claims, as opposed to bald demands, are claims that one is entitled to or due certain behavior on the part of others; hence, such claims need to be warranted. The warrant for an agent’s claim to basic (“generic”) rights is very straightforward: She has purposes she wants to fulfill; that is, she is a “prospective purposive agent.” This is the most fundamental “practical justifying reason” that can ever be given. As one who wishes to act, she must claim or advocate that she is entitled to the conditions that make action possible. Thus, she accepts:

(7) “I have rights to freedom and well-being because I am a prospective purposive agent.” (p. 243, emphasis in the original, footnotes omitted)

Once the agent has accepted premise 7, it’s a straightforward matter–one required by basic logical consistency–to universalize it:

The particular identity of the agent is not important here […] the fact that she has purposes she wants to achieve is what counts. This inevitably leads to the next step in the argumentative shift from the prudential to the moral point of view: the acceptance of the principle of universalizability.

(8) “If the having of some quality Q is a sufficient condition of some predicate P’s belonging to some individual S, then P must also belong to all other subjects that have Q.”

It follows, Gerwith argues, that the agent must hold:

(9) “All prospective purposive agents have rights to freedom and well-being.” (p. 243, footnotes omitted)

In other words, if I, as a “prospective purposive agent,” am led to claim my rights to freedom and well-being because they are necessary for me to pursue any goals–that is, my goal-seeking nature is enough to warrant the assertion of rights, then, to be consistent, I must affirm that any purposive agent likewise possesses such rights. This is because they would have the same quality (purposiveness) that warrants my own claim of rights.

We are led, according to Pluhar, to affirm what Gerwith refers to as “the supreme principle of morality”:

(10) “Act in accord with the generic rights of your recipients as well as of yourself.” (the Principle of General Consistency) (p. 244, footnotes omitted)

Astute readers will recognize this as a variation on the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If I recognize in myself basic (generic) rights to well-being simply by virtue of the fact that I have goals I want to pursue, I’m forced, on pain of inconsistency, to recognize those rights in other goal-pursuing agents. If I hold that I have rights, I have to hold that other (relevantly similar) beings have the same rights. Hence the transition from the prudential to the moral point of view.

But Pluhar wants to show that this applies not only to other human beings but to (at least some) other animals too. In the next post I’ll discuss her argument for why (some) animals count as purposive agents who fall under the scope of this version of the Golden Rule.

Beyond Prejudice 2

I want to zero in on what I think would be the most controversial steps in Evelyn Pluhar’s argument for rights (both for human and nonhuman animals).

In this post I’ll focus on the first: the move from an agent affirming her own goals and desires to affirming a right to freedom and well-being necessary to pursue her goals.

Pluhar reconstructs Alan Gerwith’s argument that any reflective agent must, logically, hold that she has the rights to freedom and well-being. The first two premises are derived from the nature of agency itself–its conative or goal-seeking aspect:

(1) “I do X for end or purpose E.”
(2) “E is good.”

Pluhar clarifies that “good” in premise two doesn’t mean morally good, but simply that the end for which an agent acts must be regarded by that agent as desirable or valuable enough to pursue.

Pluhar continues:

When the agent reflects about the nature of agency itself, she will realize that action of any kind has two necessary preconditions or “generic features”: (a) the ability to have purposes or goals and (b) the freedom required to pursue those goals. In order to have goals, one must in turn be alive, have a certain minimal quality of life, and have certain basic mental and physical capabilities. [Alan] Geriwith combines these requirements for the first generic feature of action under the heading of “well-being.” The next premise expresses the fact that the reflective agent who wants to pursue her goals must also value her well-being and freedom and hold that they are good:

(3) “My freedom and well-being are necessary goods.”

“Necessary goods” means not only that freedom and well-being are necessary conditions for successful goal pursuit: it carries the agent’s approbation. Note that Gerwith is not claiming that the agent’s freedom and well-being are good: his point is that the reflective agent must hold them, as generic features of action, to be good. Even an agent bent on being enslaved or immolating herself must value the freedom and well-being needed at that moment to carry out her purpose. (p. 241, emphasis in the original, footnotes omitted

This step in the argument is fairly noncontroversial, I think. If an agent, by definition, regards the end that she acts for as good, then she must regard as necessary goods those things that are preconditions of any action whatsoever, what Pluhar describes as freedom and well-being.

The agent’s realization that her freedom and well-being are requirements for the achievement of any of her goals leads her to the next premise:

(4) “I must have freedom and well-being.”

This premise is not just shorthand for “I must have freedom and well-being if I want to act”; it is an expression of the agent’s “advocacy” of her own freedom and well-being. She wants freedom and well-being because she wants–as does every agent, by definition–to achieve her goals. This inevitably leads her, Gerwith argues, to claim that she is entitled to freedom and well-being:

(5) “I have rights to freedom and well-being.”

Note once again that Gerwith is not arguing that the agent has these fundamental, “generic” rights: he is saying that she holds or accepts that she does, as an agent who wishes to pursue her goals. (241-2, emphasis in the original, footnotes omitted)

This is where things start to get a little tricky. On the face of it, it doesn’t seem to follow from the fact that I regard something as good that I must also regard myself as entitled to that thing, to have rights to it. Simply because I affirm the goodness of freedom and well-being as necessary for me to act, does it therefore follow that I have to affirm my rights to them?

Pluhar thinks that Gerwith’s argument shows that it does indeed follow:

Gerwith now uses an indirect proof to show that any agent logically must hold that she has these basic rights. If she were to deny 5, she would also have to deny:

(6) “All other persons ought at least to refrain from removing or interfering with my freedom and well-being.”

Premises 5 and 6 are logical correlatives: rights claims are claims against others. But if the agent denies 6, then she must accept the following substitute premise:

(6′) “Other persons may (i.e., it is permissible that other persons) remove or interfere with my freedom and well-being.”

However, 6′ contradicts [4]: “I must have freedom and well-being.” (pp. 242, footnotes omitted)

In a nutshell, the argument here is that if I deny that I have rights to freedom and well-being, then I am committed to 6′–that other persons may remove or interfere with my freedom. But this contradicts 4 above: my affirmation that I must have freedom and well-being. I can’t simultaneously affirm that I need freedom and well-being and that others can take it away from me (other things being equal).

It’s important to be clear about what Pluhar thinks this argument shows: not that I have the rights to freedom and well-being, but that I’m logically committed to affirming or claiming those rights for myself. For if I don’t, I undercut the very nature of my own agency by denying that I need what are necessary conditions for exercising that agency.

In the next post I’ll look at how Pluhar/Gerwith thinks we move to the extension of moral rights to others; after that we’ll examine Pluhar’s extension of the reasoning to animals.

Beyond Prejudice 1

I recently finished Beyond Prejudice, a book on “the moral significance of human and nonhuman animals,” by philosopher Evelyn Pluhar. Pluhar is part of a second generation of animal rights/liberation theorists who build on the pioneering work of thinkers like Peter Singer and Tom Regan. Pluhar’s main contention is that attempts to rebut the assertion of moral claims on behalf of animals fail, and that animals (at least of certain kinds) should be regarded as having basic moral rights such as a (prima facie) right to life and a right to the freedom of noninterference.

Pluhar spends the first part of her book refuting the most common views that deny full moral considerability for animals: the full-personhood view (only rational autonomous agents have rights) and the speciesist view (only members of species typified by rational autonomous agents have rights). She also critiques Peter Singer’s version of utilitarianism on the grounds that it entails that it would be morally permissible (indeed, morally obligatory in some cases) to (painlessly) kill a conscious agent so long as she is replaced by another agent who experiences a net balance of good over evil. In other words, Singer’s utilitarianism is unable to show why individual beings (rather than just their experiences) are valuable and deserving of protection.

Having, she believes, refuted the full-personhood view, the speiciesist view, and utilitarianism, Pluhar attempts to offer a compelling positive case for animal rights. After all, proponents of the views she has rejected might be willing to bite the bullets of unpalatable consequences, not to mention that people’s moral intuitions about the acceptability of some of these implications may vary.

So, Pluhar sets out to defend and extend a line of reasoning first elaborated by philosopher Alan Gerwith that, Pluhar believes, shows that animals have basic moral rights. Gerwith’s argument, as Pluhar develops it, goes something like this: any conscious agent with desires and goals who reflects on it must, logically, affirm her right to be allowed to pursue those goals. As freedom and well-being are necessary conditions for pursuing goals, she is committed to affirming her right to freedom and not to have her well-being frustrated, simply in virtue of the fact that she is a purposive, striving (Pluhar uses the term “conative”) agent.

But, to be consistent, this agent must affirm the right of all conative agents to freedom and well-being. This is because her assertion of her own rights depends on her status as a conative being:

Reflective agents (full persons) logically must advocate basic rights for themselves because, without the necessary conditions for acheiving their purposes, they cannot have what they regard as good: they cannot have what they want. Universalizability and consistency require that other beings who also could not have what they regard as good without these preconditions must also be accorded such rights. (p. 262)

It’s because I have desires and purposes that I must press my right to those conditions (freedom, well-being) that I require to pursue them. Not to affirm such rights for myself would imply that others have the moral permission to interfere with my freedom and well-being (since rights are claims against others). But this contradicts my own desires, since I want to be able to pursue my goals (by definition, or else they wouldn’t be my goals!). Reflecting on my own existence as a purposeful agent entails that I lay claim to basic rights to freedom and well-being, since these are preconditions of my pursuing any purposes whatsoever.

And, if having basic rights is a necessary condition for me to achieve my purposes, then consistency demands that I recognize such rights for any being seeking to pursue its own good and get what it wants. This is because I have affirmed my own purposive nature as a sufficient reason for claiming basic rights (e.g., the rights to life and well-being); consistency requires that I affirm those rights for any purposive agent.

The category of purposive, or conative, beings, Pluhar emphatically contends, includes animals, at least animals of a certain level of development and sophistication. Animals have desires and goals, and if–as Pluhar has argued–each of us is committed to affirming basic rights for all purposive agents, then the conclusion is inescapable that some animals (Pluhar thinks it includes at least all mammals and probably birds) have basic rights to life and freedom.

My goal in this post was to summarize Pluhar’s argument, as much for my own benefit as anything; next I’ll offer some thoughts of my own.