Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Naked Ape.

Despite unusual levels of harassment I was finally able to complete this brief comment on an article in the media arguing for animal rights. I will be returning to New Jersey issues in my next essay.

Nathan Heller, "Not Our Kind: What moral claims do animals -- and robots -- make on us?," The New Yorker, November 28, 2016, p. 87. ("Ape and Essence" and "Primates and Personhood.") 

As attacks on Donald J. Trump escalate there are more accusations every day that the president lies (or is "disdainful of the truth") when criticizing opponents. 

The term "alternative facts" has become a part of our common political discourse in America. 

One thinks of Plato's "pious myths" for the rabble that were to be used by political leaders, ruthlessly -- a suggestion that was later echoed by Machiavelli -- to say nothing of Adolf Hitler whose ideology of "power-makes-truth" is not without covert admirers among White Nationalists supporting Mr. Trump along with many others. ("Why I am not an ethical relativist" and "John Finnis and Ethical Cognitivism.") 

I am far from a Donald J. Trump supporter. ("'This is totally amazing!' -- Donald J. Trump.")

I detest the nihilism found both on the far-Right and in trendy Leftist circles that denies the reality of truth. 

I am highly sympathetic to recent "reservations" expressed by U.S. intellectuals and legal authorities about the president's Executive Orders on immigration and other matters because they may exceed Mr. Trump's authority under the Constitution. 

I am confident that there is a truthful answer on this legal issue one way or the other. Eventually, I expect the U.S. Supreme Court to provide that answer to us.  

It must be said, however, that no party in the current American political climate has a monopoly on virtue nor does any politician seem terribly concerned to avoid lying when necessary about complex issues in order to gain advantage in the media. 

Worse, the media is also not without sin: MSNBC is a festival of political correctness that can only be described as "stomach-churning" even as indulgence in hypocritical self-righteousness is not exactly unheard of on "AM Joy" or "The Rachel Maddow Show" which have become mutual admiration societies for persons opposed to the Trump administration. 

Fox News makes Breitbart and The New York Post seem like liberal publications. 

"Rachel Maddow" may, in fact, be a fictitious name and, despite the statements on the dust-jacket to Ms. Maddow's book Drift, I seriously doubt the person known to us as "Rachel Maddow" holds a doctorate in politics from Oxford University. For one thing such a doctorate would be more likely to be awarded in "political theory."

It appears (to me) that such claims by "Ms. Maddow" or her publishers on behalf of their author -- if the claims are indeed false -- could well be considered lies. ("On Bullshit.")

Somehow there is very little outrage at such lies on the Left, including LYING about the authentic names of persons writing articles appearing in the so-called "elite New York media" that we all know and love to say nothing about blatant fabrications and falsehoods or indefensible statements within those articles and publications. ("Ought Implies Can" and "Is the universe only a numbers game?")

"Nathan Heller" is recognizable to me as a person(s) also writing under various pseudonyms in multiple media outlets despite drastic limitations of skills and ethically questionable practices on the part of the "faction" using these fictitious names. "Manohla Dargis"? ("Good Will Humping" and "Genius and Lust.")

Political affiliations to the LGBT "movement" and its friends on the part of whoever is responsible for this regrettable article listed above are obvious. ("Nice Babies and Bad Psychologists.")  

Among the names associated with this group are "Larissa McFarquhar" and "Emily Nussbaum" as well as "Jim Holt" and "Jennifer Shuessler." 

I wonder whether "Maureen Dowd" (real name?) is one of these writers? Should journalists assist in censorship efforts against anyone, Ms. Dowd? David Brooks? 

The use of fictitious names -- or multiple authors under a single valid byline -- insulates "authors" from responsibility if they fabricate facts, or slander unsuspecting persons, since there is no real person to hold accountable for lies or inaccuracies appearing in the so-called "elite" media. Public retractions or apologies from journalists are quite rare. In fact, these persons often review their own books in the same publications they write for and borrow freely without acknowledgement from the copyright-protected works of Internet writers. ("What is it like to be plagiarized?" and "'Brideshead Revisited': A Movie Review.") 

The latest essay from these "journalists" or political operatives ostensibly seeks to examine the animal rights debate by attributing preposterous views to a well-known Kant scholar -- whose name is misspelled ("Christine Korsgaard") -- also by suggesting that the issue of what animals are entitled to depends on whether we are "rightful peers or masters among other entities with brains." (p. 87.) 

There are many "entities with brains." It is difficult to take seriously the suggestion that, say, a worm or porcupine merits serious consideration as a rival to human "supremacy" or ontological status. 

Mr. Heller reasons that "until we can pinpoint animals [ on us we won't be able to be clear about what we owe robots -- or what they owe us." (p. 88.)

It is not at all obvious nor does it follow that animals make "claims of any kind on us" independently of human recognized or created "moral claims" upon ourselves. In fact, I doubt that they do. 

As for robots or other inanimate objects there can be no moral duties owed to them on any traditional understanding of ethics as opposed to the PERSONS whose interests are affected by what we may do to an object associated with such other persons. 

There is and can be at this time no other entity with a brain or intelligence beyond human beings who is or can be our "peers" since the discussion of this very issue can only take place among humans. 

Robots, so far, are non-sentient objects that are not and cannot be subjects of moral awareness so as to make "claims" of a moral sort in order to be owed something by us or owe something to us. 

No one has been clearer in explaining why these statements are true than Professor Christine Korsgaard developing the insights of Immanuel Kant: 

"Kant says that the principle [that a] 'rational nature exists as an end in itself' is a subjective principle of human actions, but that since every rational being knows it, it must be taken to be objective as well. Because each of us holds his/her own humanity as a source of value. [emphasis in original] In consistency, we must attribute the same kind of value to the HUMANITY of others. These considerations establish humanity" -- and only humans as "persons" -- "as the objective and needed basis for the determination of the will by a categorical imperative. It is a negative end, one that is not to be acted against, rather than a purpose to be achieved. This leads Kant to a new formulation of the imperative, The Formula For Humanity: 'Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as means only.' ..."

"Kant," in Rober J. Cavalier, James Guinlock, & James P. Sterba, Eds., Ethics in the History of Western Philosophy (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989), pp. 201-244, pp. 214-215. 

Professor Korsgaard goes on to explain the status of "moral persons" as the basis for the necessary recognition and universalization of rights as zones of entitlement against others to ensure respect for the autonomy and dignity of subjects.

"Human beings are persons." 

Roger Scruton writes in agreement with Kant and Professor Korsgaard: 

"The concept of the person, which we derive from the Roman Law, is fundamental to all our legal and moral thinking. It bears the meaning of Christian civilization and of the ethic that has governed it, as well as the seeds of the Enlightenment vision which put Christianity in doubt. The masterly way in which this concept was lifted by Kant from the stream of social life and set upon a metaphysical pedestal should not distract us from its everyday employment, as the concept through which human relations are brokered. Our relations to one another are not animal but personal [emphasis added] and our rights and duties are those which only a person could ever have."

"Persons," in An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy (London: Penguin, 1996), p. 66.  

Mr. Heller's statements of the issue are confused since if animals and/or robots are not moral subjects (or persons) they cannot have "rights" nor do they impose moral demands on us. 

The concern to protect animals which I share with Kant and Professor Korsgaard as well as Roger Scruton, I am sure, results from human compassion and the recognition of our responsibility for creatures capable of experiencing suffering or pain and unable to care for themselves or protect themselves from human cruelty. 

This capacity for suffering does not make a being a "person." It also does not make a creature a moral subject deliberating about rights and responsibilities, claims and duties of the self towards others.

Equating animals with humans on a moral scale cheapens human dignity and diminishes legal rights.

Empirical studies of the capacities of fish and apes or centipedes happen to be irrelevant to this metaphysical, ethical, and jurisprudential discussion of our human responsibilities for fellow creatures and concerning how we use our devices, robots, airplanes, weapons and/or automobiles. 

The misuse of a motor vehicle may result in criminal charges against its owner, but not against the vehicle. This would be true even if the motor vehicle were capable of some robotic features as most cars are today.  

Taking the life of a gorilla whose actions endanger a child is not deemed appropriate because the "gorilla is guilty of doing something wrong." The animal in such a situation is not blameworthy. The child's parents may bear responsibility for failing to supervise the infant appropriately, but the gorilla is nevertheless properly destroyed in order to end the risk to the child's life (where there is no alternative) -- since the child's life is more valuable than that of the ape because the child is capable of rationality and, hence, of being a person or moral subject necessarily endowed with infinitely greater ontological and legal value than any non-human animal.  

Neither Kant nor Professor Korsgaard to my knowledge has asserted anywhere in their writings that non-human animals have a right to our moral or legal protection. 

To suggest otherwise without providing the exact language and citation to a source in which we find such a claim by either of these philosophers is irresponsible or unethical journalism and incompetent scholarship that is unworthy of The New Yorker. 

It is also unfair to readers to lie about what philosophers, like Professor Korsgaard, have written on these difficult issues making misrepresented scholars appear foolish especially when they are alleged to hold opinions that are the exact opposite of what they have actually written on these questions. Mr. Heller states: 

"In the flow of modern life, Kant's insistence that rights obtain only in human-on-human action seems unhelpfully restrictive." (p. 90.)

I am sure that Kant is helpfully restrictive with regard to the application of the concept of rights that are attached to the human dignity of "persons" who, as far as we know at this time, are the only fully conscious moral subjects not because they are "rational all the time" (p. 90) or "exclusively rational" (p. 90), but because persons alone have the capacity for rationality and self-awareness that is made possible by language and, hence, are disposed to make UNIVERSAL moral judgments based on moral values that apply equally to everyone. 

It is "fashionable" these days to speak of the post-posthumanist phase of Western thought about these matters. There are even "postmodernist theologians" (Paul Ricoeur among them) and new concepts of freedom as well as neo-humanism emerging early in the twenty-first century, after the events in Rwanda and Eastern Europe that undermined the glib "End of Man" diagnosis of the early post-structuralists, such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. 

Both of these French philosophers ended their academic lives returning ("with a twitch upon the thread") to Western humanism along with our ethical and religious traditions: for Foucault this meant an interest in ethical stoicism and the virtues; for Derrida humanism was found in Judaism's long history of reflection on the dignity of ALL human lives. ("Michel Foucault on the Authorship Question" and "Jacques Derrida's Philosophy as Jazz.")  

We are told that Professor Korsgaard "agreed" (p. 90) that "hanging everything on rational choice was a red herring." (p. 90.) 

Where did Professor Korsgaard make this claim or say anything like this? 

The ability to "experience stuff as good or bad" (p. 90) attributed to animals fails to appreciate that "good" and "bad" are moral categories that are distinct from "pleasure" and "pain" which are potentially experienced by animals to different degrees and in quite different ways. 

"Good" and "bad" are concepts only for language-using beings who are then able to apply the concepts to their actions.

Autonomy (or freedom) is only possible for deliberative animals in possession of the past, present, and future tenses made possible by sophisticated languages that allow them to reason before they act in the world. 

Animals without abstract categories (or a future tense in language) cannot "choose freely" in the full meaning of the term. 

To suggest that rather than eating fish or other living creatures persons eat "tofu" or many other things assumes an American supermarket visitor's options in a world where a child dies of hunger every three minutes because of a lack of precisely such options and abundance. 

It is cruel if not evil to say to the world's starving billions "let them eat cake." (pp. 89-90.) 

To protect creatures who cannot protect themselves is the opposite of acting "arbitrarily," or wielding "arbitrary power," but it is precisely what those who advocate "animal rights" wish us to do.

Humane societies seek to protect animal resources for persons while preventing cruelty to defenseless creatures relying on humans for their welfare or survival.  

The crux of the philosophical debate over animal rights that has a legal analogue has to do with the metaphysical concept of the person which we should be very wary of extending beyond humanity (as things stand today) in the absence of non-human entities that are fully conscious. 

Discriminating on the basis of rational capacity and consciousness may be entirely appropriate even if some prefer call such a distinction "speciesism." 

"I fully acknowledge that, in my view, humans have moral priority over other animals. I would think it morally outrageous if someone preferred, faced with a choice, to save their dog rather than their severely handicapped baby. It is humans and they alone who can form a civil society within which [exclusively] the concept of rights and duties arise. That some people cannot, and may never be able to, recognize these rights and duties (like perhaps the severely handicapped baby) does not entail that this baby is not part of human society. What I would deny is that this is an irrational prejudice, like racism or sexism. It is, instead, the function of all morality."

Mary Warnock, "Rights," in An Intelligent Person's Guide to Ethics (London: Duckworth, 1998), pp. 68-69.    

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