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The moral party: whom should we invite?

Notes on:
Mary Anne Warren, “Difficulties with the Strong Animal Rights Position”

Warren is mystified by Tom Regan’s notion of inherent value: “If the inherent value of a being is completely independent of the value that it or anyone else places upon its experiences, then why does the fact that it has certain sorts of experiences constitute evidence that it has inherent value.”

Regan rules out that inherent value is coextensive with sentience or any special mental capacity or that anything but an individual may have it. It is presumably some non-natural property tailored not to fall prey to problems with a utilitarian receptacle theory such as Peter Singer’s. (If pains and pleasures are what matter, not their containers, much follows that a quasi-Kantian rights theorist cannot live with.)

Warren argues that, contra Regan, it is more plausible that “‘subjecthood’ comes in degrees”.

Regan’s all-or-nothing approach, tethered to some “radical dualism,” seems practically unworkable to Warren. Regan suggests that where we can’t be sure whether there is a subject-of-a-life we should employ a “benefit of the doubt” principle, but then, Warren responds, “…we will find ourselves with moral obligations which we cannot possibly fulfill.” There can be no sharp line, she concludes.

She suggests rational capacity as a better cut off for attributing full and equal moral rights. We quote this in full because there is a certain style in her valuing of reason and its connection with moral agency that is clearly feminine and offers an interesting contrast to the much more common and insistent masculine appeals to rational autonomy as guiding principle:

Why is rationality morally relevant? It does not make us ‘better’ than other animals or more ‘perfect.’ It does not even automatically make us more intelligent. (Bad reasoning reduces our effective intelligence rather than increasing it.) [Warren rejects perfectionist theories.] But it is morally relevant insofar as it provides greater possibilities for cooperation and for non-violent resolution of problems. It also makes us more dangerous than non-rational beings can ever be. Because we are potentially more dangerous and less predictable than wolves, we need an articulated system of morality to regulate our conduct. Any human morality, to be workable in the long run, must recognize the equal moral status of all persons, whether through the postulate of equal moral rights or in some other way. The recognition of the moral equality of other persons is the price we must each pay for their recognition of our moral equality. Without this mutual recognition of moral equality, human society can exist only in a state chronic and bitter conflict. The war between the sexes will persist so long as there is sexism and male domination; racial conflict will never be eliminated so long as there are racist laws and practices. But to the extent that we achieve a mutual recognition of equality, we can hope to live together, perhaps as peacefully as wolves, achieving in part through explicit moral principles what they do not seem to need explicit moral principles to achieve.

Aristotle is partly right, says Warren:

Aristotle was not wrong in claiming that one’s capacity to alter one’s behavior on the basis of reasoned argument is relevant to the full moral status which he accorded to free men. Of course, he was wrong in his other premise, that women and slaves by their nature cannot reason well enough to function as autonomous moral agents. Had that premise been true, so would his conclusion that women and slaves are not quite the moral equals of free men. In the case of most non-human animals, the corresponding premise is true. If, on the other hand, there are animals with whom we can (learn to) reason, then we are obligated to do this and to regard them as our moral equals….

[But didn’t Aristotle, like Kant (not to mention Weininger), notice the very secondary and instrumental value reason has for women, here manifest in what Warren herself is about to say? (Paraphrasing Weininger: “When reason gets in the way of good sense we know which side a woman will likely take.”)]

But what about people who are clearly not rational? It is often argued that sophisticated mental capacities such as rationality cannot be essential for the possession of equal basic moral rights, since nearly everyone agrees that human infants and mentally incompetent persons have such rights, even though they may lack those sophisticated mental capacities. But this argument is inconclusive, because there are powerful practical and emotional reasons for protecting non-rational human beings, reasons which are absent in the case of most non-human animals. Infancy and mental incompetence are human conditions which all of us either have experienced or are likely to experience at some time. We also protect babies and mentally incompetent people because we care for them. [Warren has a larger conception of what constitutes a morally relevant motivation than those classically held by male moral theorists. “Care,” in the sense used by Warren (and many other women moral philosophers), is not even on the radar screen for the utilitarian. And for the Kantian, it may be but only as something demoted to auxiliary status, at best, and, at worst, it is treated as an actual impediment to the true moral worth of an act.] We don’t normally care for animals in the same way, and when we do—e.g., in the case of much loved pets—we may regard them as having specials rights by virtue of their relationship to us. We protect them not only for their own sakes but also for our own, lest we be hurt by harm done to them. Regan holds that such side-effects are irrelevant to moral rights, and perhaps they are. But in ordinary usage, there is no sharp line between moral rights and those [440] moral protections which are not rights. The extension of strong moral protections to infants and the mentally impaired in no way proves that non-human animals have the same basic moral rights as people.

[Regan is forced to posit something as strange as “intrinsic value,” founded on some non-natural feature of fully invested moral beings, because of the unavailability to him of what he can see only as an extra-moral appeal to sentiment and the significance of relationship—criteria that offer themselves with relative ease to Warren. (A classic example of how differently female and male theorists perceive the moral significance of feeling can be found in Urmson’s paper on saints and heroes and Susan Wolf’s reaction to it. The clash is instructive.)

Regan (like Nozick in other areas) pushes this quite hard. The extension to animals by male moral theorists of heterocosmic notions endemic to male moral self-theorizing is especially conspicuous here, its underpinnings in evidence. (Otto Weininger avoided this strain but only at the price of being thought derisive of women and other flora and fauna.)

Warren thinks that Regan’s idea of intrinsic value is, first of all, mysterious: he tells us what it is not, but does not tell us exactly what it is or where it comes from. It is not the same as rational capacity or sentience or the value an organism may place on itself or that others may place on it. He tells us only individuals may have it, not groups. (I want to say, it is striking that she finds this striking.) Secondly, she thinks that it—unexplainably—does not admit of degrees: why can’t beings have some but not as much as others. Any natural property it might be based on seems to come in degrees, so why not intrinsic value? Is it based on nothing natural? (That should be a hint.) She suggests that it is arbitrary that it doesn’t admit of degrees. It seems that this requires an explanation that Regan doesn’t give.

For an explanation we would have to appeal to unfashionable sexual distinctions. We would have to impugn both certain male presumptions of objectivity (that they are doing ethics when in fact they are doing male ethics) and a feminine over reliance on moral equality (that some mobilization of this notion would redeem us)…]

Posted by luno in animals, Heterocosmos, Moral Sentiment, sex differences, Deontology (Monday April 17, 2006 at 11:54 am)

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