Depraved Indifference and Animal Cruelty

Chris Bertram has made two excellent and seemingly unrelated posts on Crooked Timber over the past few days. Allow me to connect the two.

In "Responsibility, crime and terrorism," Chris states the following:

[C]onsider the case of the drowning child whom ten swimmers ? of which you are one ? are well-placed to save. If the child drowns through your inaction are you only 1/10th responsible? If there had been 10 more would-be rescuers, would your responsibility have decreased proportionately? Clearly not: you are, in each case, completely responsible for the child?s death (and so is each of your fellow bystanders).

Now, this statement of Chris' is only tangential to his argument, but it does establish that Chris supports "depraved indifference" type rules, either legally or morally. In rights based lingo, Chris believes that humans have a positive right to life and that everyone has an obligation to respect this right, not just by refraining from actively killing other people, but by not remaining passive in cases where one could save the life of another.

Put this argument aside for a moment and consider Chris' more recent post, "Cruelty to animals." Now, in this post, Chris doesn't explicitly give us a justification for his position; he merely states his support for legislation banning animal cruelty.

In the comments section, people list a number of possible justifications, such as the Peter Singer argument of "we should try to minimize suffering as much as possible," the rights based argument of "Trees and other natural objects should be 'granted some basic property rights over themselves,'" and of course, my personal favorite, the "cruelty to animals is a slippery slope making us more likely to be cruel to people," which just so happens to justify bans on pornography and violent video games as well.

My question for Chris is, shouldn't we combine these two arguments? If humans have a moral responsibility to save the life of a drowning child, don't humans also have a moral responsibility to not only refrain from inflicting cruelty upon animals, but to actively prevent animal suffering, even if that means going out into wildlife preserves and protecting zebras from the hungry mouths of lions? (And if you are worried about what the lions will eat, in the words of Marie Antoinette, let them eat Tofu)

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Another problem with a

Another problem with a positive right to life where people are considered responsibile for death and suffering if they don't act to prevent is, is that it implicitly demands preventative action of those who believe in it. Why allow that death and suffering to occur when you have the power to prevent it in the first place? Tie this in with the Precautionary Principle and you have the setting for almost unlimited state intervention.

There is a rather monumental

There is a rather monumental difference between animals and humans, in that humans are sentient and animals are not (notwithstanding arguments about either chimps or dolphins). I'm neither a philosopher nor schooled in philosophical thought, so I fear I am coming to a gunfight with a pen-knife, but I feel confident enough to say that self-awareness puts one in a different plane.

Ethical considerations toward a lion's prey animal and a drowning human would thus be different (apples and oranges), so I don't think Chris' position can be knocked about so easily.

Also, I believe it is possible to make 'moral' arguments without necessarily justifying 'bans' or interventions by the state, etc. I can say that I prefer X, Y, and Z as a moral code and that everyone should follow it, and those that do not are immoral and Naughty in My Sight. Further, I can say that my preference for X, Y, and Z may support action A, or imply that if A were done then X, Y, and Z would be maintained/satisfied/secured. But if, say, principle W rules out action A, that doesn't therefore mean my preference for X, Y, and Z and my calls for adhering to that code is wrong. It just means Action A is Right Out.

Bringing it home, I'd say that I can agree that we have a positive obligation to save human life when possible (i.e., the straightforward example of swimmers who could easily save a life with trivial risk to themselves, but choose not to) as an ethical stance, but still reject state compulsion to bring about such a code/belief system.

Comment also in the CT

Comment also in the CT thread:

Micha, the earlier post was about moral responsibility and not about legal obligations or duties. The fact that I think they are morally culpable doesn't commit me to the view that they should be liable to prosecution for their indifference.

That said, I guess I am, actually, quite friendly to the idea of there being some legally enforceable positive duties. But I still don't see why I'm in danger of conceding some unrestricted duty to prevent or minimize all animal suffering. The duty we have to save a drowning child has a lot to do with recognizing that child as actually or potentially a rational and moral agent like ourselves, and very little to do with the prevention of suffering as such. (We'd be under just as much of a duty to save a child who suffers from chronic pain as one who doesn't.) Not that the alleviation of suffering doesn't have moral importance and generate reasons for action - I just don't take it to be basic.

I don't actually have a neat and tidy answer to why it is wrong to torture my cat. But I'd certainly want to say that in torturing it I fail utterly to respond to it appropriately as an object of value. It isn't, though, that the act of torturing is bad because it is bad for me (say in virtue of its effects on my character), it is a really bad thing in itself. The cat doesn't possess the same morally relevant characteristics as this child does, but it does possess its own (including the capacity for certain types of experience, pain etc).

I'm certainly not committed to the view that killing animals for food is wrong (though it may be), even if it causes them some suffering. Torturing them for fun certainly is, though, and I'm inclined to think that it is only a species like our own, possessed of self-consciousness, that has the ability to torture anyway. There's nothing wrong, morally speaking, with lions killing antelopes.

Charles, The problem with

Charles,

The problem with positive rights is even greater than you suggest. If every human has a positive right to life, then almost everyone one of us is already a murderer (or the equivalent term if you are not comfortable with equating positive and negative rights violations) because we all have the ability to donate some of our time and money to save the lives of starving children in third world countries. Peter Singer makes this same argument in this article. If you believe that it is morally wrong to let another human die in the case of the drowning child, what is the important distinction between this case and the case of the starving third world child?

Brian and Chris,

It is not at all clear why sentience, self-awareness, rationality, or moral agency is the necessary prerequisite for rights and similar claims deserving of moral treatment. Is a severely retarded person who lacks these attributes undeserving of the same protections we would grant healthy people? Aren't we simply trying to justify our prejudice against animals by focusing on what separates "us from them" rather than focusing on what we have in common? For the record, Peter Singer is also guilty of arbitrary line drawing when he claims that the important distinction is the ability to suffer, ignoring the possible claims of other living beings like plants and trees, or perhaps even non-living things like rocks and viruses.

But Singer does make a good argument against the rationality distinction by pointing to our intuitions regarding racism. His argument is as follows:

* If racism is clearly wrong, then either it's factually clear that all races have equal abilities or it's morally clear that similar interests of all beings ought to be given equal consideration.

* It's not factually clear that all races have equal abilities.

* If it's morally clear that similar interests of all beings ought to be given equal consideration, then it's clear that similar interests of animals and humans ought to be given equal consideration.

* Therefore, if racism is clearly wrong, then it's clear that similar interests of animals and humans ought to be given equal consideration.

I don't feel like getting in to the distinctions between moral and legal obligations; I'm just trying to focus on the moral issues and whether the theories justifying them are consistent with our other moral beliefs.

As for my own opinion, I place animal torture in the same category as other "Yuk Factors" such as adult incest, eating one's own placenta, and animal necrophilia, among others. Not immoral, but gross enough that I would disassociate myself from those who engage in such activities.

Micha, when did you abandon

Micha, when did you abandon the "animal cruelty makes us more likely to be cruel to humans" argument? You actually used that one in argument with me a little while back.

I still use it as a reason

I still use it as a reason for me not to do it, but I've never used it as an explanation for why I believe animal cruelty is immoral, because I don't. I'm worried about the effects it might have on my own personality, but I am not worried that if animal cruelty were legal, everyone would go out and do it and vicariously become crueler to humans as well.

It isn't clear that there

It isn't clear that there should be a distinction between humans and animals? Why not? The fact that we're human at all is because we are subjective, subjects not objects. Humans are because humans act (action here being defined in the Misesian manner of purposeful action toward a conscious end). This is a quality not present in animals.

Since animals do not have the ability to conceive of rights, they can't defend them, nor can they notice when they're abridged. No animal can ever do this, by definition (if one could, it would no longer be an animal). Thus it is not an arbitrary distinction between sentience and non-sentience, but a profound one that is a priori understandable.

As far as whether to grant rights to the severely retarded or otherwise mentally incompetent, I would say that human-ness is categorical and not a functional definition. A retarded or comatose human is still a human, which puts them in a different category than a dog. A human being (in general) is sentient and can act with self awareness. This fact is true no matter what the particular circumstances of a human may be (low or non-functioning mental faculties).

Singer's argument is facile and assumes too much. What an amazing jump for racism to "all beings". It begs the question "why all beings?" Why go there when talking about a matter of human relations? Perhaps because the particular axe that Singer's grinding is radical animal rights, hence the sleight-of-hand assumption to set up the punchline.

There is no reason to equate animals and humans, and I reject 'arguments' that simply assume the equality.

It may seem clear that there

It may seem clear that there is a strong distinction between humans and animals, and that this distinction justifies granting rights to one group and not the other, but how can we be sure? If we only rely on intuition without a theory explaining why this it the way things should be, we are in danger of committing the same mistakes made by racists, sexists, and other bigots.

I find the contractarian argument somewhat persuasive (which is more or less the argument you are making), but it's not as strong as I would like it to be. I also don't buy the categorical argument. Much more persuasive is the pragmatic argument that it is just too difficult to separate out the wheat from the chaff in difficult, borderline cases; therefore, we should protect all humans as a group.

But even this argument has holes. What about cases when we clearly do know that a human lacks the abilities necessary for enjoyment of rights?

Re: positive rights. I

Re: positive rights. I cannot imagine a logical framework in which only positive rights exist. The possibilities that remain are the either only negative rights exist, or that both positive and negative rights exist. If the latter is true, to enforce any positive right, a negative right must be violated. For example, if I someone else has a positive right to an education, and I am unwilling to voluntarily provide him one, then he is justified in using violence to extract it from me; after all, he has a positive right to an education. However, by using violence on me, he is violating my negative rights to life, liberty, and property.

Any system that espouses both positive rights and negative rights is inherently contradictory. Any system that espouses only positive rights is unfathomable. The only logically consistent framework of rights is that of negative rights.

I agree with Chris about the Responsibility, Crime, and Terrorism post if he is merely pointing out moral responsibility rather than punishable crimes. Advancement of human civilization often requires breaking free of the status quo and majority norms. No matter how much peer pressure exists, free will gives man the ability to decide for himself the best course of action. He has the power.

I think that rights are obligations to not aggress upon others that arise from the ability to make choices. Nobody blamed the tiger for maiming Roy; that is what tigers do. It would be different if Seigfried had maimed Roy. Seigfried has the ability to use reason to evaluate reality. He can choose among alternative courses of action. Since Roy is a similar free-willed individual with his own ends and the ability to use means to attain them, Seigfried ought to choose not to maim Roy. No such expectation holds for the tiger. Similarly, a retarded person or a baby who cannot reason to make choices would in my mind be absolved from the responsbility of not hurting others.

Of course, this is a different issue from whether tigers, babies, and retarded people are owed freedom from violence, i.e., whether or not they have negative rights. I intuitively "feel" that they do, but I cannot logically justify a good reason for it.

Jonathan, I'm not sure that

Jonathan,

I'm not sure that a system that includes positive rights is inherently contradictory, as long as one is willing to rank rights on a scale of importance, rather than have them all exist at the same time.

Also, if you believe that one is morally responsible in the case of the drowning child, do you also believe that one is morally responsible in the case of the starving child living half-way across the world?

Also, if you believe that

Also, if you believe that one is morally responsible in the case of the drowning child, do you also believe that one is morally responsible in the case of the starving child living half-way across the world?

Just to clear things up - I don't think that indifference should be sanctionable. I do think however, that letting a child drown is morally reprehensible.

I don't fully know the answer to your question. Perhaps the degree of immediacy/remoteness to be able to make moral choices plays some role?

actually Micha, you used it

actually Micha, you used it to respond to "would you have no objections to a man bashing a kitten's head in with a brick," if I remember correctly. Still, the only objection that you have to you doing such a thing is that it could plausibly make you likely to kill humans. Interesting: for 5 bucks, would you be just as willing to kill a kitten as to play a boring video game?

I dropped my ethics major because I think these discussion are so silly. They tend to just be games, with the winner the person who espouses a theory most consistant with morality as it already exists.

Just so I can play too: there is the ever present "mentally handicapped person" slippery slope argument that all who espouse the "Reciprical ethics" theory must face. i.e. Is the only objection to killing mentally handicapped people that it might make you more likely to kill regular ones? Where is the "bright line" between a retarded man and a chimp?

I dropped my ethics major

I dropped my ethics major because I think these discussion are so silly. They tend to just be games, with the winner the person who espouses a theory most consistant with morality as it already exists.

Do you think ethics itself is silly? If so, how do judge what actions are just and which are not?

actually Micha, you used it

actually Micha, you used it to respond to "would you have no objections to a man bashing a kitten's head in with a brick," if I remember correctly.

No, you asked me if I would be willing to bash a kitten's head in with a brick in exchange for $5. I said that I would not agree to such a trade, partly because I believe that it might have an effect on my personality, and partly because I find it "yucky," in the same way that I find eating one's own placenta yucky. But if someone offered me $50,000 to do either, I would probably change my mind, and have no moral qualms about doing so (assuming that I had a placenta of my own to eat).

Still, the only objection that you have to you doing such a thing is that it could plausibly make you likely to kill humans.

That's not the only objection; it is one of several. However, none of my objections are on moral grounds.

Interesting: for 5 bucks, would you be just as willing to kill a kitten as to play a boring video game?

I don't believe violent video games effect me as much as animal torture would. If the video game was violent and realistic enough, my position might change.

Just so I can play too: there is the ever present "mentally handicapped person" slippery slope argument that all who espouse the "Reciprical ethics" theory must face. i.e. Is the only objection to killing mentally handicapped people that it might make you more likely to kill regular ones? Where is the "bright line" between a retarded man and a chimp?

This is a good point and I agree; Contractarian ethics does not have a good answer to this question. Then again, neither does any other ethical theory of which I am aware. Contractarianism comes the closest, in my opinion, or at least closest to the results I want to justify. ;)