Tuesday, 16 September 2014
philosophy of captivity Lori Gruen interviewed by Richard Marshall. 3am mag
3:AM: A recent book of yours looks at ethics and animals. You begin by looking at the position of human exceptionalism, something that goes back to at least Aristotle. What is the position, and is it a kind of default position for those who just don’t think we should think about animals ethically?
LG: Human exceptionalism is a prejudice that not only sees humans as different from other animals but that also sees humans as better than other animals. Of course humans are unique in a variety of ways, although those differences are often articulated based on naïve views about other animals. In Ethics and Animals, I explore some of the claims that have been made to differentiate humans from other animals (that we are the only beings that use tools or that use language or that have a theory of mind) and show that they do not establish that humans are unique in the ways postulated. But I also discuss the ways that other animals are indeed different from us and different from each other. These differences are important for understanding them and for promoting, or at least not negatively impacting, their well being.
Human exceptionalism also underlies skepticism about including other animals in the sphere of moral concern. It is related to two other views that are discussed more often in the literature about moral considerability – speciesism and anthropocentrism. Speciesism is the view that I only owe moral consideration to members of my own species. Although this view is usually thought to be focused on humans, it seems consistent with the view that only Vulcans matter to members of that species, or only orangutans matter to that species. Anthopocentrism is the view that humans are at the center of everything and that everything is understood through our human interpretive lenses. Of course we humans experience everything as humans, so in some sense humans are necessarily the center of our own perceptions, but that doesn’t mean we are unable to try to understand or care about non-humans. There is a sense in which we are inevitable anthropocentrists, but we needn’t be human exceptionalists.
Human exceptionalism sees humans as the only beings worthy of moral concern. Normative exceptionalist arguments generally fail in one of two ways—they pick out a supposedly unique characteristic or property upon which moral worth is supposed to supervene but it turns out that either not all humans have that property or that humans aren’t the only ones that have it.
3:AM: Are marginal cases relevant?
LG: And this is why marginal cases are relevant. If there are some humans who do not have the morally valuable traits that the human exceptionalist prize, but they are nonetheless included in the group of those who do have the traits, then this suggests that it isn’t that trait that is morally important, but species membership. But membership in a species isn’t morally interesting and assigning moral significance to membership in a species amounts to a prejudice in favor of those thought to be in one’s group. I myself am uncomfortable with the “marginal” cases terminology, but it is a remnant of the human exceptionalist view that promotes the idea that all humans fit neatly into a category based on morally worthy properties that only humans share, when there are no such properties.
3:AM: Why is the ethical case about animals so important? If you want to stop people being nasty to animals then aren’t there things other than morals you could or should appeal to? Couldn’t taste do the job ie we ought squash bugs because it’s disgusting? Or it’s unfashionable now, so nineteenth century etc?
LG: The magnitude of the harms done to animals is almost incomprehensible — 60 billion suffer before they are slaughtered for food in global industrial agricultural production annually and that contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector, which in turn is wreaking havoc on animal habitats on land and in the sea. When we also consider the additional threats that other animals face from human activities, it becomes clearer that the problems are structural and remedies cannot solely rely on individual tastes. But there are some really hard philosophical questions about what, if anything, individuals can do to help curtail these harms.