October 01, 2008

The Overall Balance of Well-Being and Human Life

The FAZ reports today that a new Swiss law spells out in 226 paragraphs on about 100 pages how animals are to be treated. For example, pets such as budgerigars or guinea pigs can no longer be kept by themselves, but only with a companion. Farm animals like sheep and goats must have at least visual contact with their fellow creatures and every owner of a dog (not just those of breeds that are listed as dangerous) will be obliged to take special classes to get some expertise, to name just a few items.

While searching for more information on the controversial ethicist Peter Singer mentioned in the article, who, to cut a long matter short, wouldn't have let his Alzheimer-suffering mother live had the decision about her life or death been his, I came across an entry in the blog Get Religion. While the entry itself was, as the entire blog is, about the missing religious angle when we are looking at cases of misanthropy and the love of animals, the really interesting points were made in the comments section.
  1. Dave2 says:

    Mike Perry wrote:

    And to the previous post by Dave2, I’d suggest that the relativism lies in equating animal life to human life, or in the case of Peter Singer, of valuing some animal life more than some human life. Singer is, of course, careful to put Princeton professors high on his scale of value and that of happy children with Downs low. Relativists invariably tilt the scales in their favor.

    From what you’ve written, it looks like you do not understand what relativism is. Peter Singer, for example, is simply not a relativist. He is a utilitarian.

    Moral relativism is the view that the moral status of things is determined by and relative to human moral attitudes, either individually or as embedded in cultural norms. Thus, according to moral relativism, exterminating the Jews is morally right for an individual Nazi or for the German-speaking culture of the Third Reich, even though it is of course morally wrong for you or I or for mainstream American culture.

    Utilitarianism, on the other hand, is the view that the moral status of an action (or a practice or a social institution) is determined by the overall balance of well-being that is brought about by that action. So, if the Holocaust brought about an enormous amount of suffering, far greater than any happiness produced (as seems plausible), then utilitarianism will say that those who participated in the Holocaust were behaving wrongly. Note that utilitarianism gives an objective answer to questions of moral right and wrong, independent of human moral attitudes. Like most any ethical theory, utilitarianism has no time for relativism. I’m no utilitarian, but to assimilate utilitarianism to relativism is an egregious error.

    Moreover, there is zero relativism in the view that some animal life is more valuable than some human life. Indeed, such a view is flatly incompatible with relativism. For example, if I really think that a normal adult gorilla is far more valuable than a human zygote (a view I do in fact hold), I am not treating questions of value as a mere matter of opinion or of culture. No, I’m treating such questions as corresponding to actual moral truths: on my view, those who think human zygotes are more valuable than a normal adult gorilla are mistaken. In contrast, a relativist would say that I have my values and they have their values and that’s all there is to it.

    All this can be verified by consulting any Ethics 101 textbook.

    Finally, I believe you are wrong about Peter Singer’s views on children with Down’s syndrome. Here is a quote from his Practical Ethics: “Thus, though many would disagree with Baby Doe’s parents about allowing a Down’s syndrome infant to die (because people with Down’s syndrome can live enjoyable lives and be warm and loving individuals), virtually everyone recognises that in more severe conditions, allowing an infant to die is the only humane and ethically acceptable course to take.” As a utilitarian, Singer has no problem with genetic abnormalities as such. The question is whether they impair quality of life.

  2. Imprimartin says:

    Relativism and Utilitarianism are both the same because the source of the values of both are decided by humans:

    Moral relativism is the view that the moral status of things is determined by and relative to human moral attitudes, either individually or as embedded in cultural norms.

    Notice how “human moral attitudes” and “cultural norms” are decided by humans.

    Utilitarianism, on the other hand, is the view that the moral status of an action (or a practice or a social institution) is determined by the overall balance of well-being that is brought about by that action.

    Here, the “overall balance of well-being” is also decided by humans.

    These theories are the same because of the source of “the rules” is the same. Disagreement among the parties does not determine difference.

    . . .those who think human zygotes are more valuable than a normal adult gorilla are mistaken. In contrast, a relativist would say that I have my values and they have their values and that’s all there is to it.

    Just because a person thinks someone is mistaken, doesn’t disqualify him as a relativist. A relativist says, “I have my values and they have theirs and mine are right because of the angle that I’m viewing from and his are right because of the angle he is viewing from. Consequently, we are both right and wrong at the same time. But make no, mistake, He is wrong because of where I’m standing and I choose to stand here.”

    In contrast, the natural rights arguments go something like this:

    -The source of natural rights are the observable, measureable, and verifiable laws that govern nature.
    -Humans are given some natural rights and animals are given others
    -If humans disagree with each other, someone is mistaken and investigation into the matter will discover who it is.

    A relativist will not acknowledge this governing law. An absolutist will.

    Ethics teacher,
    Martin

  3. Mark Stricherz says:

    Imprimartin and Dave2,

    Your replies about relativism, utilitarianism, and the natural law are interesting but also tangential to my post. Please stop writing about those topics or your comments will be deleted.

    Mark

  4. Dave2 says:

    Mark,

    Did you not write, “While America has long been an individualistic country, it has not considered some animals to be humans deserving of legal rights. Is the individualism carried to iconography related to the dictatorship of relativism that Pope Benedict XVI decried?”

  5. Mark Stricherz says:

    Yes.

    Your replies, as well as those of others, deal with my question only glancingly.

  6. Dave2 says:

    Well, I guess I’d still like to see any real connection between animal rights and moral relativism—i.e., something other than the fact that they’re both associated with the political left in American popular imagination.

  7. The Editrix says:

    I came here via a search engine looking for information on Peter Singer and found one of the most interesting, intelligent, informative and inspiring discussions I have ever come across in the comment section of a blog during the ten plus years I am online now. And what does the blog owner do? Instead of thanking the contributors for their time and effort, he threatens to delete their comments because they are ***screech*** “tangential” to his (mediocre) post.

    To misquote the Header of this blog: Get A Clue!


But however arrogant the attitude of the author of the entry (I take it that, different from my angry comment, he is not the blog owner) or how interesting the above discussion may be, when all is said and done, we can both, utilitarianism and relativism, safely file under Evil with a capital "E".

We have discussed matters "tangential" to the topic of "animal rights" here, here and here already.

1 comment:

Captain Hoek said...

hey Roncesvalles. I'm trying to write a non-relativist exposition on animals... I'll be do some more work on my theory over the next week or so. Anyway, I wrote an article arguing against preference utilitarianism today. You might like to check it out. Regards

http://captainhoek.blogspot.com/