Monday, January 21, 2013

The Delusion Of Moral Progress

       Kenneth Goodpaster makes it clear in his article, On Being Morally Considerable, that in order for we rational beings to offer moral consideration toward other beings, it need not be necessary that the beneficiary of our generosity be rational or sentient. This notion may come as great shock to some given that much of the theoretical progress made on environmental ethics concerns moral obligations toward non-human animals on the grounds that animals are sentient. For the animal liberation movement, this has been a good theoretical framework in which to advance their politics. However, Goodpaster feels that even this is too restrictive, and there are more participants in our world other than human and animal. Our ethical scope must come to include more entities than previously considered, and he believes that the primary component to being the beneficiary of moral considerability is life. While I do not disagree that life in itself can make any entity who has it worthy of consideration, cannot the scope be stretched to include the non-living as well? I aim to show that while Goodpaster makes light of an arbitrary mapping at the hands of other theorists in the ethical field, he himself does not step out from the shadow of such arbitrary prose.
       It's important to note that his reasons for criticizing prior theories involve the view that such theories are not as rational as they could be if their framework were to include all those who live under the eyes of moral consideration, which is why they are deemed arbitrary; they abruptly stop when there is more ground to be covered. It is this sudden halt that Goodpaster finds irrational. What I wish to impose is that he is no more or less irrational than those he criticizes, and in doing so suggest that the use of reason is one of the most popular means to disguise arbitrariness as progress. This is not to be a slight against Goodpaster, I actually find his text quite likeable. If anything, he assists me in the notion that moral consideration is less dependent on reason, and more so on care and effort.
       To start, I will give an overview of Goodpaster's view, including his response to some objections. Afterward I will present my own criticism and response. As mentioned from the start, Goodpaster is challenging the notion that either rationality, and/or sentience, be the necessary requirements for any entity to be the beneficiary of moral consideration; being alive is the plausible non-arbitrary criterion (while he italicized “being alive”, I chose otherwise for the purposes of my thesis). He immediately follows this claim up with a distinction between moral rights and moral considerability. The former is something he defines indefinitely but perceives it as something that is narrow in scope as it applies only to humans. While he does not consent to this view of rights, he shifts his focus on moral consideration, the view that while non-human entities may not have rights, this still does not prevent them from being considered in matters of moral treatment. An additional dichotomy he quickly mentions is between consideration and moral significance. The latter is thought to pertain to comparative judgments that mean to express a moral priority between competing cases of consideration. The simple example used is whether one should offer more consideration toward a dog than a tree.
       Moral rights and significance are both important concerns, but they are not what Goodpaster wants to focus on. He seems to express an epistemological doubt towards rights and significance, an important factor for his responses to objections later. While he implies that non-human entities should fit into both categories, he finds it best to establish that they do in fact fall into the jurisdiction of consideration, perhaps the only category that eludes the above mentioned doubt. This is so because an entity that is alive in any way falls into such jurisdiction. It should be obvious that there are many types of life-forms other than animal and human. Plants and insects are to name a few. Our planet is heavily coated with living entities, and Goodpaster observes two views that mean to limit our scope of consideration. The first is a Kantian view that restricts consideration to rational human persons. This is quickly dismissed in that children and the mentally disabled are not included in such a view. Next is Warnock's notion of potentiality, granting consideration to those humans who posses the potential for rationality. From this we should note that the mentally disabled may still not make the cut, and that it should take more than potentiality to give reason for consideration. Goodpaster proceeds to indicate the move toward sentience as the attribute that determines the scope of consideration and makes mention of a crucial aspect in the theoretical framework of this (and possibly all) rational discourse: the object of moral enterprise. The notion of this object is key to my criticisms later on, but what's important to note at the moment is that each age of rational thought to have found the object: first it was rational human persons, but rational culture came to see this as an arbitrary halt, and that sentience covered more ground. Goodpaster now sees the same mistake from previous culture in the current one.
       The face of sentience as the object of moral enterprise seems to have the best reasons as its support. Singer is one of the forerunners for said object, as he thinks there to be nothing to consider in the absence of sentience. It may even be said that it has come to be common sense to consider the well-being of those who have the capacity to suffer, especially when juxtaposed against non-sentient entities. Comfort in regards to cases of significance appear to be growing in relation to an expanding map of consideration. Infants, animals, and mentally disabled all make the cut this time round, so it would seem that we have included all possible parties under the roof of moral considerability. Not quite yet, thinks Goodpaster, as plants, as well as a whole host of natural life, are still the outsiders looking in. Referring back to the previous culture in which rational humans were the sole object (and for some today still are), it was thought crazy to extend the fence to include non-human entities. Without going into details, times changed, and now its thought as lunacy to extend the fence to all life. Too much ground to cover! This is a fascinating objection, one that Goodpaster deals with later, in that one recognizes that there is indeed further ground. This is not the case for all, as Singer indicates there is no more ground beyond sentience, but this objection is to include those who believe there to be more beyond the current fencing limits, but that our ethical plates our full enough with sentience. Good thing for Goodpaster, and all outcast life-forms, there are those of us who are still hungry.
       To continue with the hunger metaphor, those that perceive that there could be more ground to cover, and yet rather us remain content with the object we have offer reasons as to if we're not full why we should be. Goodpaster discusses Feinberg's idea of the “interest principle”, and how it aims at assisting the object of sentience. Although Feinberg speaks in terms of rights, Goodpaster chooses to interpret the conditions of interest in terms of consideration. The interest principle has two factors, the first of which is that only beings who can be represented can receive moral consideration, and in order to be represented one must have interests. The second is to be a beneficiary of moral consideration one must be capable of being benefited, and for that one must have interests. To examine interest in regards to representation, “mere things” do not qualify: a chair cannot be represented as being concerned over whether I sit on it or not. However, it is in human interest that a chair be in good condition for one to sit on. Mere things are purely instrumental to us, nothing more, and it is not difficult to observe interests in animals when they seem to use things to achieve ends, as a monkey that climbs a ladder at a zoo. Examples including infants and mentally disabled can be found just as easy, but what of plant life? Feinberg admits that plants are not mere things in that conditions of the environment can be good or bad for them, so he swaps terms to save his hypothesis and substitutes “mere things” for “mindless creatures”. This substitution implies that interests now comes in degrees, and that only higher forms of interests ought to receive consideration: desire, wants, aims, and other forms of more complex consciousness.
       While interests do not seem to expand the fencing, it does appear to make it taller. Sentience alone seems to make most content with how we position ourselves against outsiders, but with interest adding to its muscle, the satisfaction of rational ethical conquest is all the more apparent to everyone. Goodpaster attempts to disrupt this comfort by giving thought to the possibility that plants have interests, and that it should not matter what degree they come in. Given Feinberg's shift in terms, rational humans are conveniently placed at the highest end of the significance spectrum (we haven't left Kant that far behind us), but Goodpaster sees no reason why we should accept this shift, and we can easily imagine a representation of the needs of a tree not to be bulldozed for the sake of a parking lot. If this is so, then why resort to the life requirement? Interests appear to do the trick if we are to examine the ways in which, as Goodpaster observes, plants and trees maintain and heal themselves. However, if interests did the trick, then this discussion would be superfluous. The interests of non-sentients would already be contained in common sense much like the well-being of sentient entities.
       Despite expressing some hesitation to link the two, Goodpaster proceeds to discuss how our cultural dependence on the simplest type of hedonism that has come to determine the object of moral enterprise. He clarifies that neither the notion of sentience as the object, nor our type of cultural hedonism, entail each other. His claim is simply that they support each other. Given this, we are more irrationally inclined to deny interests toward plants and trees, and far more willing to take up Feinberg's idea of mindless creatures. This is to be heading dangerously in the wrong direction for Goodpaster. As mentioned before, the combined work of both sentience and interests give support to society's sense of rational progress, and because of which we might feel that to step out beyond this progress would be excessive. This can be thought similar to how we may have rejoiced at our “progress” as a society to develop certain technologies and an ever expanding string of laws, all while certain people were being restricted from voting (Africans and women). While Goodpaster thinks that the prior generation was blindly irrational, and that further progress of reason is needed, I'm more inclined to indicate that reason might support his cause to turn the focus on the “life principle”, but it is simultaneously reason that keeps it from getting off the ground.
       One last step before confronting my criticisms is to observe Goodpaster's responses to possible objections. I will not include them all, but only the ones that assist my thesis as well. The first objection alludes back to the idea that we have not left the Kantian concept of moral considerability entirely behind just yet. Some suggest that to make life the object of moral enterprise is to belittle the human status by implying that humans are no more considerable than plants. This can viewed as connected to the Kantian perspective because it is humans only that are belittled by this. We are still given priority, most likely due to our propensity for reason, or higher consciousness. After all, we're not the mindless creatures. Overall, this is to overlook Goodpaster's aims in that this objection is more an appeal to moral significance. He does imply that he thinks non-human entities should have a higher status on the significance scale, but this is too big a leap given our present cultural disposition. He leaves significance be, and simply seeks to include non-humans within the scope of consideration. As long as we are able to tell the difference, then including non-humans in consideration is not belittling.
       Next is more toward my criticisms as he entertains the objection that extending interests to non-sentient living beings lacks any sort of strong epistemic status. His response is simple: the same goes for you. The notion of sentience is aided by the interest principle, but Goodpaster is claiming that we are no more reasonably inclined to grant interests to animals than we are to plant life. It is hardly certain that the mentally disabled have interests as well, and yet we are hesitant to restrict them from being morally considerable. What is interesting about this response is that he is not claiming to have a sound epistemological grounding, but rather that his opponents are in the same boat. This may suggest tu quoque, which indeed it does, but this objection/response shines the spotlight onto the dilemma that both sides fail to see: the each think themselves to be the last step on the path of moral progress. Each age can be said to have thought itself the last. As I will soon discuss, Goodpaster is not tearing down the fence, but expanding it like those before him.
       The final objection, which is just as helpful to me, is referring back to the “too much” problem. Opponents to Goodpaster think that if the life principle is taken seriously, then it is absurd to think that anyone can actually live by it. There's hardly a moment that passes in which we are not doing harm to some form of life. The vegan, or vegetarian, who we can consider to be walking on a moral carpet by following the object of sentience will have the rug pulled out from underneath them. Goodpaster thinks this misinterpretation of his disposition is similar to the problem of the first objection, and that this is more an appeal to moral significance. Taking the life principle seriously may be a predicament for significance, as it should be, but not for consideration. The character of moral consideration is more an appeal toward “sensitivity and awareness, not for suicide”. Some may interpret this to water down his entire position up to this point. Are we ultimately being asked to simply have plants and trees in mind while they actively get the short end of the stick of moral significance? Kant still has presence in the form of his imperative!
       If this passivity is interpreted as a slight against Goodpaster, he defends it best by claiming that a shift toward such an awareness might help to cause a cultural reaction in the direction of better life-respecting practices. Many Native American tribes prior to English settlement practiced something similar to what he has in mind. The tribes people were well aware that life came at the hands of death, but a respect was shown towards those whom the tribe took from. An open field might have given way to tons of buffalo, but a hunter from the tribe saw it in himself to kill only one, or as few as possible. Ceremonies were conducted in form of forgiveness and apologies toward the environment used and the animals killed. This kind of belief made the degradation of the land and its non-human inhabitants quite difficult. However, it is this same kind of belief that the English saw as “savage”; there was little reason in holding prayer circles for deer, plants, and all other non-rational bodies. The Kantian perspective would offer very little to have prevented the buffalo massacre of the 1870s.
       What is it then to establish a moral boundary, or fence as I've come to refer to it as? Goodpaster's initial problem with the current state is that our current fencing arrangement is too exclusive. When we take his life principle into account this appears to cover all possible ground does it not? Those that object with “too much” can also recognize the arena beyond sentience, which ironically is the inspiration behind their objection. The life principle then seems as a truth they don't want to admit to. Then we truly are the last! Reason has finally achieved an all encompassing conquest with the possible acceptance of the life principle. Humans are a creative sort though (or at least they can be), and something else can always be thought to be the object of moral enterprise. Goodpaster criticizes Singer concerning his idea that there is nothing beyond sentience, but how is Goodpaster any different in saying there is nothing beyond life (as the object)? Both considered themselves to be the last in the age of reason. This is not to say that we cannot agree with either Singer or Goodpaster, in various aspects I agree with both of them. The consideration of sentience is what led me to be vegetarian, but the life principle is what troubles me about it.
       What I desire to shed light on is the notion that Goodpaster is doing nothing different than his contemporaries and predecessor in that he's erecting another fence. What are we barricading? Life covers all ground does it not? No. What about non-living entities? These can be “mere things”, as certain cultures come to place certain values on material, man-made objects. Some Christians will tell you that the cross around their neck is more than mere jewelry, as with one's wedding ring. A coworker of mine once lost his wedding ring while stocking items, came clean off. He was a manger, and while his immediate duties called for him to attend to both product and customers, he placed greater significance on finding his ring (which he failed). One could respond by calling his search unfortunate, yet irrational. Is this not similar to the settler's description of the “savage”? The term suits them best coming from a perspective that attributes moral considerability to rational humans alone, not trees or wedding rings (as though no settler ever lamented over the loss of a material item). As we discussed, this arbitrary halt has its problems, and so we expand the field to include sentient beings, but this excludes plants and trees. We can speak of the latter two in terms of interest, but seeing as interest is in allegiance with sentience, a good portion of our current culture is hesitant to include plants and trees in matters of consideration. The life principle oversteps this, however, and notices that neither sentience, nor rationality, is required of entities to receive consideration. The wedding ring, then, is just one requirement short of making the fence.
       The question then is why should the boundary stop where Goodpaster proposes? Boundaries and fences serve two purposes: to keep things in, and to keep things out. The dilemma is that each rational age looks to bring new things in, but in doing so continue to leave things out. In the process, each age believes that only the former is occurring, but why construct a boundary if not to exclude? As mentioned above, some believe there to be more beyond the set object of moral enterprise, but think it best to leave things out because it is neither possible, nor practical, to consider all. Each expansion imposes more obligations on those who are capable of providing benefits, and so each fence allows for some comfort. If we are to consider the objection Goodpaster addresses concerning the epistemic status of the object of moral enterprise, he is willing to plead a degree of ignorance insofar as his critics are as well. What Goodpaster shows is that each prior fence is grounded in just as much ignorance as his is, and that our desire for comfort in rational progress leads to an arbitrary establishment of the object. There does not seem to be any reason to stop the fence short of non-living entities apart from comfort.
       My coworker's wedding ring does not seem to have interests, but neither is it certain that trees and plants do as well in light of the criticism over epistemic status. In discarding the necessity for sentience, we do so for interests as well seeing as the latter was meant to provide support for sentience, especially in regards to moral significance. If trees and plants do not need interests in order to be considered, then why exclude the ring? Let us not overlook other non-living entities, such as the dead. There is much that can be said about this, and the idea of how the living honor the dead. I see nothing absurd in translating such honor in terms of moral considerability. Many religious dispositions ascribe certain rites to the deceased, as do the non-religious in the form of funerals. We can definitely imagine instances of disrespect in regards to disrupting the considerability of the dead, such as grave robbing, interrupting funeral processions, or not holding a funeral at all.