Thursday, December 27, 2018

Naming the trait: Part 1

I take it as a given that it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering to sentient beings, regardless of species. It is wrong to stab puppies in the eyes, wrong to yank off a cat’s tail, and wrong to slice off a chicken’s beak. And it’s wrong to do these things all for the same reason: it causes animals to undergo immense suffering. I don’t think it takes an argument to understand why this is true, but rather, I believe the wrongness of harming sentient beings for trivial reasons is self-evident. A non-obvious ethical question is whether it is morally permissible to end a sentient creature’s life for human consumption, provided the creature did not suffer or feel pain in the process of dying 

There are some philosophers that take issue with factory farms but not with the act of humanely killing animals. Philosopher Peter Singer has stated that if an animal has lived a good natural life and does not undergo any substantial suffering, it imorally permissible to kill the animal for food. One could imagine a farm where the animals live good lives. Suppose that the animals get to engage in natural behaviors, keep their offspring, are not systematically mutilated, and are slaughtered on site through a process that results in instantaneous destruction of their brain. Let’s also stipulate that the animals wouldn’t know that their death was near and that they would miss or worry about their slaughtered relatives. Given that there is no substantial suffering for the animals, Singer would say that we have an instance of ethical animal farming.
While the hypothetical case for ethical animal farming may sound very plausible, there is a powerful objection that may cause you to reconsider your views. Put simply, what if we changed the species of the animal being farmed from, say, cows to humans? If the humans get to live good lives, get to engage in natural behaviors, and are painlessly killed without any foreknowledge, would it be okay to kill humans for food? And if not, what is the morally relevant difference between humans and cows that renders the action wrong in one case and permissible in the other? 

Vegan youtuber Ask Yourself (Isaac) poses the question as a challenge to “name the trait”. If there is a morally relevant difference, then there is some trait (or set of traits) that explains why it’s wrong to kill humans but not cows. While there are many attempts to name the trait (e.g. species, intelligence, rationality, reciprocation) I will focus on the answer that seems most plausible. In short, I don’t think it is a single trait that makes the moral difference, but rather, a set of traits. 

The personhood response

Humans are morally superior to farm animals because they are persons. That is to say, humans are self-aware, have a strong desire to go on living, and have long-term life projects (e.g. raising a family, saving the rainforests). They are also involved in complex social relationships, which mean that their deaths can affect and harm lots of other persons. Cows do not have these psychological traits. They may have short term desires to eat and procreate, but it is unlikely that they have the cognitive capacities to understand their own existence or the nature of death. Therefore, because humans are persons, they have a higher moral status than cows, which in turn makes it wrong to kill humans, but permissible to kill cows.  

The personhood reductio 

While I do think personhood is the strongest response to the name-the-trait challenge, it has some (potentially) disturbing implications. Not all humans possess the psychological traits required for personhood (e.g. infants and humans with severe cognitive disabilities). Thus, the explanation I’m offering would not work in the case of painlessly killing marginal cases for food. So, if it’s morally permissible to kill creatures lacking personhood for food, then it would be morally permissible to kill babies or the cognitively disabled for food.  

Isaac observes that many of the responses to name-the-trait have this implication (e.g. intelligence, rationality), and he believes that this renders all such responses absurd or unacceptable. If we are to deny any human the right the life, we have rejected a widely held moral principle: all humans have an equal right to life. Isaac implies that since the personhood response is inconsistent with widely held moral intuitions, we should reject or dismiss it. Put another way, if one concedes that some humans don’t have a right to life, they have lost the moral debate. I don’t find Isaac’s response compelling for several reasons. Assuming for the sake of argument that Isaac’s empirical claim is true, the popularity of a moral view is not a deciding factor in resolving difficult questions in ethics. If it were, then we would already have strong reasons to reject ethical veganism. 

There seems to be an inconsistency in Isaac’s approach to ethics. To defend ethical veganism, Isaac appeals to rational arguments that explain why eating meat is immoral. But in responding to critics, he appeals to irrelevant considerations, like popularity. It could be that Isaac is just a pragmatist, using reason when it’s useful for moral persuasion. But given his strong emphasis on being logically consistent, I will continue to interpret his objections as substantive philosophical claims. In the next post of this series, I will further analyze the personhood reductio and the implications for ethical veganism. Specifically, I will address the following questions: 

Firstly, if one concedes that it is morally permissible to breed and kill babies for food, does one really lose the debate? Secondly, if one cannot name-the-trait, is veganism the only rationally defensible position? 

Thursday, December 20, 2018


In the free will debate, there is a distinction to be made between the metaphysical views of determinism and fatalism. Determinism is a view about the nature of causation, that every event was necessarily caused by some prior events evolving in accord with the laws of nature. This thesis has direct implications for human agency, in that, if we are determined to act based on the past, we could not have done otherwise. Fatalism states that the unfolding of all events happens necessarily, neutral on questions of causation. On fatalism, the world—at any point in time— could not have been otherwise.

Most philosophers probably reject fatalism, but, as far as I know, there isn’t a name for the position. So, from here on out, I will refer to the negation of fatalism as anti-fatalism. To accept anti-fatalism, one would just have to demonstrate a possible difference in the evolution of the universe. I will argue that the only way to refute fatalism would be to demonstrate that the universe had an absolute beginning that was indeterministic. If the eternal universe model, or any alternative model of the universe is correct, then the world is, was, and always will be, necessarily the way that things are.

We can imagine that the past could have been different. Someone other than Benjamin Franklin could have invented the bifocals, Hillary Clinton could have won the 2016 election, and I could have majored in neuroscience rather than philosophy. Nothing (logically) impossible when it comes to the past being different. However, when we ask whether these things are metaphysically possible, it is going to depend upon on whether fatalism is correct. If fatalism is true, then all of these imagined events would be metaphysically impossible (though, still logically possible). Determinists regularly claim that it is possible that the past could have been different, and in those hypothetical alternative worlds, that we could have done otherwise. What sense of possibility does the determinist have in mind: logical or metaphysical? If logical possibility, then the claim is uncontroversial. There are no contradictions involved in supposing Benjamin Franklin’s cousin could have invented the bifocals or that Hillary Clinton could have won the 2016 election. If metaphysical possibility, the truth of the claim is not as obvious.

For the sake of argument, suppose that both 1) determinism is true, and 2) it was metaphysically possible for Hillary Clinton to have won the 2016 election (HC). For HC to be true, there must be a metaphysically possible world where either the past (e.g. No Russians) and/or laws of nature were different. But how could we explain the possibility of a difference if our universe is deterministic? On determinism, the possibility of a different present requires the possibility of a different past. But any change in the past requires either a subsequent change in the past, ad infinitum. Given that changing the past seems hopeless, one might be tempted to go back to the Big Bang to posit a change in the laws of nature. If the initial conditions of the universe were different, then Hillary could have won. But notice that we wind up in the same exact position as before. How could we explain the possibility of a difference in the initial state, if the universe is deterministic?

To make room for alternative possibilities, one has to introduce some randomness or indeterminacy for the laws of nature or initial conditions of the universe.* Assuming that the laws of nature arose at the moment of the Big Bang, and that there was no such thing as a past that preceded the singularity, one could hold that you can have indeterminism at the very beginning but that everything else afterwards was determined. Here, we have a possible world where determinism is true, but fatalism is not. However, one must assume that the universe had an absolute beginning and that it could have been otherwise. In making these assumptions, one must also rule out two other theses. Namely, 1) that the universe is eternal, and 2) That the initial state of the universe was necessary (fatalism). Given that ruling out 2 is the very thesis is question, it would be question-begging for the anti-fatalist to assume it is false (without argument). 

Thus, for both anti-fatalism and determinism to be true, the universe must have had a beginning. On an eternal universe model, there is no beginning or point in which indeterministic elements could enter, for this would falsify determinism.